Taylor has directed seven Game of Thrones episodes total, starting with 2011’s season 1, Episode 9: "Baelor" 100%, in which Ned Stark is beheaded. He also directed the hatching of Daenerys’ children in the season 1 finale, Episode 10: "Fire and Blood" 100%, and, most recently, the death and resurrection of wight dragon Viserion in season 7, Episode 6: "Beyond the Wall" 84%.
Nominated for four Emmys, he won in 2007 for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for The Sopranos episode “Kennedy And Heidi.” His other nominations were for Game of Thrones, including one for directing “Beyond the Wall,” and one for directing Mad Men pilot “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
We caught up with him in April before season 8 of Game of Thrones began airing and just prior to the beginning of production on The Sopranos prequel film The Many Saints of Newark for HBO to talk to him about the big three: “Baelor,” “Fire and Blood,” and “Beyond the Wall.” He gave us some insights on those epic twists and provided a few tidbits about the highly-anticipated Sopranos prequel film.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: Hi, how are you?
Taylor: Good, a little bit frantic. We start shooting tomorrow, so I’m like a chicken with my head coming off.
That’s so exciting, though.
Taylor: It is, and I know I’ll feel better when we start, because prep is usually when I get most nervous and anxious, but it’s such a big moment, with Game of Thrones coming out. I’m happy to talk about that project and sort of get my head out of this one, for a second.
You’ve directed a few of the biggest twists in Game of Thrones. For one, Ned Stark’s beheading was voted by our staff as one of the top moments of the series. Could you talk a little bit about building that scene? Did you feel the importance of the moment?
Taylor: I did. First of all, as an episodic director, you never quite know what you’re going to get, what story piece you’re going to be given, so I was really happy to be given something, a big one in that episode, and a big one in the following episode. I originally was going to be part of shooting earlier in the season, and then couldn’t because my mom had a problem I had to help her with, so I dropped out, and then — sort of more or less by chance — was able to come back for 9 and 10 of that season, which turned out to be two huge plot points.
Ned Stark’s death was clearly sort of a culmination of a lot of storytelling that had been going and was taken from the novel, so anybody who had read the books knew what was coming. Much of the audience did not know, and I think maybe those who had read the books didn’t know whether we would keep him alive longer, or whether we’d actually follow through with this, and we knew it was risky in a TV format to try and do this kind of thing, but it was really exciting and sort of what made it feel like groundbreaking storytelling for us to do it. The stakes were high.
Taylor (cont.): The scale of the scene was big for me, at the time, because I hadn’t really done anything big and epic yet. That came later, and the show hadn’t gotten its big budget boost until later. So, by the terms of the time, it was a bigger deal, and we didn’t have much money, and we didn’t have enough extras, and we couldn’t afford the visual effects that we had planned, so it was all very sort of getting by by the seat of our pants. But I remember talking to my DP, Alik Sakharov, and both of us agreeing that the core, it was really a story about a father and his two daughters, and sticking to that dynamic guided us through how we handled the scene.
In fact, the most emotional moments for me were some of the stuff between the way we crosscut between Ned and his daughters and, certainly, between Ned and Arya, who sort of inherits the narrative at the end of that episode. We hand off from Ned and take it to her in a way that I was happy with, because of course, her character, like all characters, has a long road ahead of them, and we’re going to grow with them. But I remember being very conscious about saying, “OK, we’re finishing Ned, but the story continues and we’re passing the narrative, passing the consciousness, passing the subjectivity to this young girl.” So, we did that with pictures and with sound, and I was happy with how it turned out.
Can you also talk a little bit about the performances of your actors, in that moment?
Taylor: Yeah. Again, it hung mostly on the three. Ned Stark was the linchpin, the centerpiece of the whole thing, and his performance I still think is just heartbreaking and beautiful. It’s partly because I have daughters, and I sort of know what it’d be like. I can’t know, but I think I identify with him up there: a combination of anguish and shame and despair. His performance was perfect.
Our two actresses were so young and were going to develop and build and grow so much, but I think they did amazing work, both of them, in that scene. Joffrey also is great as the consummate villain, with his pettiness and naiveté on display. I did watch it recently and was impressed with everyone, and when you go to a wide shot, everyone is absolutely in character. Cersei and Sansa, and even Varys and everyone is really playing their relationship to this moment, intensely. I was very happy.
All anybody really wants to know is what Ned Stark was whispering when he was about to get his head chopped off, and that’s the question I get a million times. I know I spoke to him about what would be going through his head and what he would be doing, and we agreed that he’d be praying to his own gods and trying to make peace and trying to accept. So I know he came up with a prayer, probably talking to our language guy and our writers, but it was nothing scripted. It was really his invention, but it was to do with the prayers to his gods.
The series would have been so different if he had survived, and it seems obvious, but can you talk a little bit about how essential that moment is in the series overall?
Taylor: I think it’s true that it is the turning point. Some friends and I have talked about the show and one of the things we have come to believe is that it’s an epic show that has a kind of … the pilot episode is the first season. It’s not like the first episode sets you up. It’s such a scale of storytelling that really the whole first season is the pilot. It’s the turning point of Ned being destroyed and the dragons being born. The stakes rise and chaos is initiated.
The Starks and everyone is sort of scattered to the winds, and all the seasons that follow are about the slow reconnection of those people that were scattered. In that way, it really does launch the story forward and shape what’s to come. [In] the eighth season, the culmination is everyone coming back together, everyone finding their place in the battle that will finish things, and much of that comes from what happened that day.
What was your first experience watching Ned’s beheading with people who weren’t involved with the production and didn’t know what was coming?
Taylor: That was a revelation, partly because of that scene, and also because we didn’t know when we were doing it the scale of the audience response to the series as a whole, so we had no idea that we would find this audience. I was most stunned by the way that Ned connected to every demographic and to every economic level. It was such effective storytelling and such a great performance on his part and doing what fantasy can do, which sort of transposes to an environment where everybody, I think, can relate.
I was really taken aback and impressed that the people who seemed torn up by it really took Ned as their character. As I said, I was struck by [how] it cut across all categories, and frequently we’re aware of how our society and our time is fractured along any number of measurable lines, and in that moment I was struck by how much everybody had taken that character into their hearts and identified with them and felt the loss of him, which was inspiring.
I think that was the first moment that people started posting video reactions on the internet, right?
Taylor: Yeah. I remember seeing something on YouTube, and one young man was watching and he was just beside himself. It was just devastating. He was so upset with us and stuff. It was the best audience response you could find.
Going back, would you do anything differently with that moment?
Taylor: Yes. Of course. I mean, I look at it now and I see the crudeness of some of it. Some I can blame on budget and time and stuff. But also I think I’ve gotten better at handling scenes of that scale, so I think I might have done a better job with the camera. But I can’t think of anything to change in terms of the performance the actors gave, and I can’t argue with the emotional impact that it has, so in that way I’m not trying to redo it in my head.
Next is the Mother of Dragons scene. Viewers watched Daenerys walk into the fire and everyone thinks she’s sacrificing herself. She thinks she might be, too. Can you tell us about building that moment with your actors?
Taylor: A lot was going on there, obviously. It’s a tragedy, it’s a funeral, it’s the end of things, and as we discovered, it’s the beginning of everything, too. I know — I’ve heard this, and we spoke about it — that Emilia did not think her character expected to die in the flames. She didn’t know what was coming, but whatever came she felt was right. So there’s a wonderful look she gives to Iain Glen when he’s all torn up. When she’s about to walk in she looks at him, and it’s such a forgiving, letting go look from such a place of wisdom. I thought it was really beautiful, and that, for me, was the attitude that Emilia had Daenerys take into the flames — that she knew the rightness of what she was doing.
Partly it’s a culture where when the King dies, the Queen goes with him, but she’s a Targaryen. I think in her mind she knew flames were not going to be the problem, that something was going to happen, or that she was going to a place, that it wasn’t necessarily her death that she was walking to. Certainly nobody, including her, expected the birth that happened with her three sidekicks.
But that was the beginning of the new dawn. One detail that I was happy with and proud of was that I believe, in the book, that scene plays at night, and the dragons are born in the night. I remember pushing for the transition to be to dawn, so that when the dragons are born they’re born into the dawn of a new day. It was partly a storytelling thing, to say that this has ended and now this is beginning, but it was also because we had that amazing location. I wanted to make sure that we saw it, and that we could back off and hear the dragons voices’ scaled. If it was night we couldn’t have afforded to light it because we didn’t have any money back then. I remembering being very happy with [it]. One of my favorite moments is the transition to dawn when Iain Glen’s character walks in and we follow his feet and his sword in to discover her for the first time, and that transition to dawn meant a lot to me.
It was beautiful.
Taylor: That location was in Malta and it’s beautiful, right by the coast. It’s all ocean on the right side of frame and desert on the left, but we had to erase the ocean and replace it with desert to make it look like we were in the right setting. It was funny to take such a beautiful image with this glistening sea and erase it all and put more sand in.
I was going to ask about some of the effects in that moment, because obviously, the dragons. Can you just talk a little bit about coordinating to get the exact right baby dragon experience?
Taylor: On the day Emilia did a great job of having nothing to work with, and none of us had seen the dragons yet. [Showrunners] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] kept talking about [how] they wanted them to be absolutely biologically believable. In all the research they’d done with dragons, they threw away anything that had four feet and wings. They wanted to go off physiognomy and physiology that was real, so they looked at bats and creatures where the forelimbs are the wings. That became a big part of the design of the creatures.
Just the fact that these awesome beings would enter the story as tiny, fragile, squeaky dependent creatures was a hint, or a gesture toward the scale of where we were going — that eventually they were going to be the size of jumbo jets. But at this point they were nothing.
That relates to another question I had about when you’re building these moments to film, taking into consideration what’s to come for the character. How much of that is part of your filmmaking process?
Taylor: You always want to know, because a lot of it, the way you would weight a certain moment comes from knowing where you’re headed and playing against that, sometimes, or being true to it but playing against it. Certainly Daenerys has one of the strongest arcs in television. She was basically chattel — she’s an object being sold off at the beginning, and she rises to become the most powerful person in that world.
I think we were all guided by a dim awareness of her overall arc, but I had no grasp of the details, certainly, of where we were going. I’m sure she had had talks with David and Dan. They probably gave her a lot more insight to where her character was going than I was privy to at the time. I just knew that this was the beginning of something very, very big.
In fact, I think even when we did that scene I was naive about the scale of the storytelling. I thought that in season 2 the dragons would be something substantial to contend with, but they were not even preteen by season 2. I’ve always been impressed with how they were taking their time to build layer on layer of things, and the dragons are one case where David and Dan had a very clear idea of the long game they were playing.
Speaking of dragons, that brings me to the third big twist. We lose one of those baby dragons. Well, he gets adopted.
Taylor: He’s co-opted, appropriated. Yeah. I remember when I had been away from the show and I was coming back to do one episode, because it worked out schedule-wise. I saw that I was getting the second-to-last episode, which usually, in HBO terms, means you’re getting a big one because there’s a season structure where the second-to-last episode pulls out all the stops, and frequently the last episode is kind of a denouement.
I thought, “Oh, that’s great.” But then I started seeing the other scripts and realizing that in that season, every episode was huge. Every episode had a major huge event or battle or something, so I realized that that was just the nature of the show that had grown so much since I had been away. But then, when I read my script, I got to that moment with the dragon and I knew the power of what is was, because partly [in] killing off any longstanding character, the incredible upheaval it means for the balance of power is major.
But also the fact that you’re basically killing a puppy. You know it’s going to have a very strong resonance with the audience, so I was really grateful to be able to handle that moment. The reveal of the turn at the end, of course, was one of the yummiest episode-enders I’d ever been given — when we see the blue eye open and know what that means. Mostly it was just gratitude being able to do it. I remember designing all the sequences with the dragon, and it was great to be able to work at the scale of storytelling that so much of the show has driven you to this point.
Like, what’s true of the Ned Stark beheading, it was true of the dragon killing here: that the story is working on so many levels, and when you’re able to come in and do a turning point moment like this, you feel [as though] you’re standing on the shoulders of giants when you get to do your little scene that is empowered because of what’s come before … I worked with my favorite storyboard artist in the world, Jane Wu, in designing that action, and then the visual effects geniuses — [visual effects supervisor] Joe Bauer and [visual effects producer] Steve [Kullback], did … we were shooting all of these, plate after plate to build up the layers that were going to go into crashing Viserion into the water and stuff. It’s a tremendous team effort.
Can you talk about the circumstances of filming — work on location versus green screen?
Taylor: I really hate shooting in green-screen environments, and I was grateful that almost everything was on a 360 location. The frozen lake set was a real location that you could stand in and look almost 360 and it would hold up. In fact, it was artifice, because we were in a quarry in Ireland, but it was so well-designed and snowed-in iced and stuff that you really felt you were there.
We shot much of the action there. We shot a lot of it, the walking and talking and conversation that led up to it, and the capturing of the wight was in Iceland, so I’m always grateful when the environment makes you feel the story. There were layers and layers of stuff that had to be done in a green-screen environment — Daenerys riding on the back of her green styrofoam mechanical dragon — so that we could get the right bits to put together, but the basic storytelling elements were very much on location. I always feel more grounded, and I think the actors feel more grounded, and using the camera, I feel much happier when I see it in space and don’t have to imagine it in the virtual realm.
You wind up doing some pretty silly things. I mean, we had a lot of actors climbing onto a huge green Styrofoam blob in the middle of a fake island in a fake lake — so that was a fake snowstorm, and there’s a lot of pretend-y stuff going on, but at least it’s tangible and physical and you’re all sharing it together.
And it came together wonderfully, because that was another powerful moment: The Night King reaching back for his javelin throw, and gasps were heard ’round the world, because that’s a moment that people who read the books don’t even know about.
Is there a moment in the series that you didn’t direct that you watched and thought, I wish I’d been able to do that scene, and if so, why?
Taylor: Yeah, a bunch. At one point I was scheduled to direct the Red Wedding, and then I went off and did a movie instead, so I lost out. But I see that scene and wish I could have had that one. There are other scenes I look at and think, “Holy crap,” like “Battle of the Bastards” — Miguel [Sapochnik] did such astonishing work there. I would love to get my hands on that, but at the same time, he nailed it in a way that only he would, so I’m in awe of that one. So it’s both: There are some things that you love and wish you could have done them, other things that you love and think, you just want to sort of cheer.
Can I ask you a couple of questions about Many Saints of Newark?
Taylor: I’ll answer to the extent that I’m permitted.
I was thinking the film has got to involve some of the reasons why Tony ended up in therapy.
Taylor: Yeah. I think people will be coming to it partly because they’re curious to know what made him him, and that’s part of what we’re telling. It’s also very specific to a time and place. We begin in ’67, which was the summer of the race riots in Newark, where Tony was a young kid. We track some of the dynamics from that through the movie. There are many things going on, but it’s very much so that one of them is getting a sense of where Tony came from and maybe why he went the direction he did.
And family is so important.
Taylor: Yep. As always, it’s gangsterism, but the family is what it’s really about.
You’ve directed so many stellar TV titles. Can you pick a favorite of all your children?
Taylor: No. I have three kids too, and I can’t do that with them, either. There’s a bunch. Can I do a short list?
Taylor: OK. I mean, the pilot of Mad Men meant a lot to me. My episodes of Sopranos, like “Kennedy and Heidi” and an earlier one called “The Ride,” meant a lot to me. I learned a lot on Deadwood working with David Milch, who I think is clearly a genius and so … my first episode on Deadwood, where we killed Wild Bill Hickok, was something really meant a lot to me. Then, you know, just being part of the Game of Thrones family for a while was huge.
You’ve directed films, so do you have a preference, film or TV?
Taylor: No. I don’t have a preference between the two. I’m happy to be living in a time where the barrier between them is dissolving, and I think it has a lot of ramifications for directors. It used to be that movies were the director’s medium, supposedly, and TV was a writer’s medium, supposedly. Now, I think that’s less and less defined, and you have directors becoming more important in the television process so that you have someone like Steven Soderbergh directing all of the The Knick. Other shows are doing the same thing — one director is doing all of True Detective, or something. I think that’s wonderful for directors. At the same time, in some cases, movies are becoming more like TV and more episodic. The Marvel Universe is essentially a huge episodic undertaking. So, I think it’s sort of blurring the difference between movies and television, and I’m hoping to be able to go back and forth between them.