Game of Thrones is a great show with even greater individual moments.
Ned’s beheading, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding; these are all instantly iconic scenes that will inspire YouTube reaction videos for years to come. But the show’s most recent jaw-dropping, meme-inspiring moment occurred on June 1, 2014, when Oberyn Martell, better known as the Red Viper, fought Gregor Clegane, only known as The Mountain, as Tyrion’s champion.
Things did not end well.
We recently had the chance to speak to GOT showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who were kind enough to talk about the past when they’re already plotting the future, through email about all things Trial by Combat, and what it was like shooting the scene with Pedro Pascal and Hafthór Júlíus Björnsson. Y’know, the guy who broke a 1,000-year-old weightlifting record. No biggie.
All questions were answered by both Benioff and Weiss, who asked to be interviewed and quoted as a team for this.
When did you begin planning for this episode?
In a way, we started planning for it in 2006. It was one of the most indelible scenes in the books. Our hope didn’t extend that far yet. We tried not to hope beyond the Red Wedding so as not to jinx ourselves. But we’d been thinking about it for a while. The planning for the actual episode didn’t begin until we started outlining season four. And many departments got an early head start with it: from Paul and CC in stunts, to Barrie Gower in prosthetics, to Alex Graves and Anette Haellmigk on the shooting front. Not to mention Pedro [Pascal] and Hafthór [Júlíus Björnsson]. They really trained this one into the ground, until they could do it at high speed and high intensity, over and over. They were exhausting days for both men, but the work paid off.
When there’s a major scene on the horizon, how excited are you to shoot it? Is there extra pressure when you know it’s one that fans have been hyping for months?
We don’t do anything different in response to hyping. We’d hyped it up so much amongst ourselves that we’d already reached Maximum Hyposity.
How long did the Trial take to film? What was the process of shooting the head-squishing and eye-gouging?
It was a three-day shoot, in Croatia at the beginning of September. The actual head crush was a combination of Barrie Gower’s prosthetic head, Stuart Brisdon’s blood rigs, Jane Walker’s makeup, Joe Bauer and Steve Kullback’s VFX team, and the grisliest sound effect in TV history, courtesy of Tim Kimmel and the superb sound team. Before the head crush, Barrie and Jane provided a particularly nasty mouth smash. Joe and Steve digitally erased Hafthór’s thumbs to create the illusion of the thumbs drilling into Pedro’s eye sockets. And the crush itself… to be honest, you barely see any of it happen on screen. You see the aftermath, which was a joint Barrie/VFX production. But the actual horrific moment happens almost entirely in your imagination.
Did you speak to George R.R. Martin about this episode?
Before we shot it, yes. He read it in outline version.
Is it difficult killing a fan-favorite character?
We knew Oberyn was going to die from the outset, so we’d resigned ourselves to that. The tough part was killing off Pedro. We’d become (and remain) such good friends with him… it seemed like a ripoff to have a guy who is pure excellence onscreen and off, and only get to have him on the show for one season. Guess there’s always the Game of Thrones/Seventh Heaven spin-off.
Has there ever been a moment you’ve thought was too violent?
It’s too violent, it becomes unintentionally funny. We’ve had one or two of those. Not here, though, that’s for sure.
If you assume the Trial is the A-plot, how do you decide what the other plots will be? It must be tricky when you know, in this case, one story will get most of the attention.
It’s largely a question of where we’re at in each storyline in the outlining phase, and how they all fit together to create the most balanced and satisfying episodes. But we don’t think it was the only thing that got attention in 408 [“The Mountain and the Viper”], at least not from us. The Sansa/Littlefinger scenes at the Eyrie are some of our absolute favorites, for instance.
What is the pre-shooting preparation like for shooting a major fight scene?
The stunt team spent a tremendous amount of time developing the fight, with the help of wu shu master Li Yang. And they did so early, so Pedro and Hafthór could drill on it for many weeks before they actually had to shoot the scene.
Was there any extra footage that didn’t make the cut?
There’s always footage that doesn’t make the cut. Almost all of the head smash was off-screen. We had more, but we wanted it to be terrifying, and the version you imagine (with a bit of onscreen preamble and prompting) was always going to be the most terrifying.
One final question: Is being around the Mountain terrifying or TERRIFYING?
Hafthór is an extremely nice and polite man who is the second strongest man in the world (maybe first, by now), whose biceps are bigger than our waists, and who could crush our heads like circus peanuts. So, you tell us.