By the time it wrapped up its run in June, the fifth season of Game of Thrones boasted some of the most popular — and most controversial — episodes in the show’s historic run. Ecstatically-received installments like “Sons of the Harpy” and “Hardhome” were balanced by divisive hours like “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” which depicted Sansa Stark’s wedding to Ramsay Bolton and its horrific aftermath. Jeremy Podeswa directed that particular episode, and acknowledges he’s aware of the intense reaction after it aired. “I think that’s a testament to the investment people have in the characters,” he tells Yahoo TV. “Everyone has seen Sansa and Sophie [Turner] grow up on the show; she started in Season 1 as a child and now she’s not.”
Despite the controversy that the episode engendered amongst fans and critics, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” made an obvious impression on Emmy voters. Podeswa is among the nominees in the Outstanding Direction for a Drama Series category, alongside Game of Thrones colleague David Nutter (for “Mother’s Mercy”). It’s Podeswa’s first nomination for Game of Thrones and his third career nod (he was previously nominated for Boardwalk Empire and the World War II miniseries The Pacific). Speaking on the phone from Belfast, Ireland, Podeswa shared his thoughts (some of them, anyway) on Sansa’s wedding night, why he was surprised by his nomination, and what’s in store for Season 6.
Director Jeremy Podeswa, who’s also directing GoT’s Season 6 premiere
So the fact that you’re calling from Belfast tells me that you’re likely returning for the sixth season of Game of Thrones.
Yes, I’m directing the first two episodes. I’m more than halfway through already; I’ve got 16 more days left to shoot. We’re shooting in Belfast and Spain, so I’m going back and forth a few times. It’s a very complicated schedule.
Last season, you directed the fifth and sixth episodes. Have you found that it’s an easier process to direct earlier in the season?
I think that just having done it once before makes it easier. I know the mechanics of how the show works and the dynamics of the cast, too. The first time you do the show, you have to take it on faith and other people’s experience that it will all somehow magically come together. This time, there’s more confidence going in. And doing the first two episodes is very exciting, but it’s also a little scary. Expectations are always very high at the beginning of the season, and checking in with all of the characters is a daunting prospect. But what’s great about this season is that there’s very little expository stuff. It starts off with a bang and you’re right into the excitement of the story. This is also the first season that’s not based on one of the books. So there’s an enormous fan curiosity of where we’re going to go, and that makes me equally nervous and excited. There have been so many diversions from the original story in the last couple of seasons that I think the audience is ready to go completely off-book.
Tell that to book lovers who are freaked out about not already knowing what’s going to happen next!
I know, I know! [Laughs.] But I think everyone’s going to be really happy. I don’t think fans are going to be disappointed.
Let’s talk about “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” which is easily one of the show’s most controversial episodes to date, and not just for the Sansa scenes. There were also criticisms of the sword fight between Jamie, Bronn, and the Sand Snakes in the Dorne Water Gardens. Where was that sequence filmed?
It was all shot at the Alcazar castle in Seville, which is a major tourist attraction in Spain. It’s a location that’s almost never closed for shooting, but the Spanish government really supported our show and allowed us to shoot there. It was a really fun sequence to do, but those scenes are tricky if it’s not something you do all the time. I’ve done a lot of them for shows like The Borgias and The Tudors. Everything has to be tailored very specifically to the characters. Like the Sand Snakes are very young, and Jamie only has one hand. So all of those things are parameters that dictate how you choreograph something.
Did the limitations of the location impact the choreography as well?
It was all shot in the Alcazar, and we had to find a big enough area for the amount of action we had to have happen. So when I was scouting the location, that plaza was the most obvious place. There was really no other choice of where to shoot it. In fact, the space was too big, so we put trees and stuff in there to make the characters seem more entrapped.
Moving along to Sansa, the wedding sequence itself was strikingly beautiful, framed by the snow and the weirwood tree. Was that, in part, to provide some contrast with what came after — a balance of the sacred and the profane?
It wasn’t necessarily something holy, although the weirwood tree has a mystical element that’s been established on the show. To me, it was this idea that the wedding had to be both beautiful and sinister. A wedding in the show is perceived as romantic, but because we know Sansa is walking into a situation where she’s out of her depth, there’s a sinister quality to it. There’s a creeping, building tension throughout the entire scene, which was very important to feel as Sansa feels she’s trapped and has given up the control she thought she had.
Did you expect the following scene, where Sansa is raped by Ramsay while Reek/Theon watches, to become as controversial as it did?
It’s very difficult to see terrible things happen to characters that you’re invested in, whether it’s Ned or Catelyn or Bran getting kicked out of the window in the first episode. This is an unpredictable and often cruel world that these characters inhabit. And especially as the seasons go on and these characters become like people you know in real life, your investment continues to grow and things become even more shocking. Nobody thought that anything could top Ned being killed, and then nobody thought that anything could top the Red Wedding, and now nobody thinks anything could top this or Jon Snow being killed. The fact that people really do feel anxiety around these things is something I understand.
That scene is also a flashpoint in the ongoing debate about the show’s treatment of its female characters and the way violence against women is portrayed on the show.
It’s an important dialogue, but to be honest, I don’t really want to address that right now.
In terms of the blocking in that scene, Reek is positioned as the observer in the background, which had people bothered that we’re essentially watching Sansa’s humiliation through his eyes. Was that something that was in the script or did it emerge on the day?
It was definitely in the script. And again, it’s not something I really want to talk about, to be honest.
How did you and the actors prepare for that scene in general? What sort of things did you discuss in the moment?
With every scene, you rehearse. They’re all really great actors and you work through everything with them. Everybody really invests in the material and, to be honest, with this or any other scene, there was never a conversation about “Should this happen or not happen” or “How do I feel about this happening?.” It’s like, “OK, this is there.” And we commit to Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff]’s vision and to the material, always. We all do. The directors do and the actors do, and we just find a way to do it in the most sensitive and authentic way possible. Of course, everybody is aware when you’re doing things that are sensitive or delicate, but everyone’s 100 percent committed. We understand that everybody’s in it together, and it’s a shared vision that everyone on the show has.
Besides those controversial scenes, the episode features a lot of fan favorite moments as well, like the sequence where Tyrion and Jorah are captured by slavers and Tyrion talks his way out of execution.
Peter is so great. He brings humor and fear and wit and cunning, all of those things. And that scene is a perfect example of his multiple shadings. Last season, Jorah and Tyrion came together and later Daenerys and Tyrion came together, and we got all these new chemical reactions between people. The show has continually-shifting dynamics that really give it a lot of life, and one of the satisfactions of sticking with the show is seeing how different actors play off each other and the new colors that brings to the show.
You also have Arya off on her own in Braavos, which is a fascinating storyline.
I love that whole storyline, and I love Maisie [Williams]. She’s a real discovery. Those scenes were really fun to do. That moment where she gives the little girl the poisoned water was an amazing scene to shoot. That place is where people come to die — it’s basically a euthanasia center. There’s a great resonance to the whole thing.
It’s interesting that you’re nominated in the Directing category alongside David Nutter, who helmed the Season 5 finale, which is a more action-driven hour. Taken together, the two episodes encapsulate both sides of Game of Thrones — the epic fantasy and the character-based drama. Was it gratifying to be recognized for an episode where the latter element is in the foreground?
It’s enormously gratifying and truly surprising. “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” is a quieter episode in a way. It’s more typical that the things that are more obviously spectacular will be acknowledged. I think it’s a credit to the writing, and the actors, and storylines that really connected with people. There are so many interesting moments [in the episode], and I’d like to think it’s how all those things resonate against each other that makes the whole thing greater than the sum of its parts.
Going into Season 6, what’s been the predominant mood on set so far?
The overall feeling is that it’s an incredibly ambitious season. It’s really big and expansive; the storylines are propulsive and moving forward. Every actor is excited by the arc of his or her storyline. This season, we did something we’ve never done before: We did cast read-throughs before we started shooting, but we didn’t read the scripts chronologically. Instead, each actor read their characters’ storylines from all 10 episodes. So one day we met and did all of Arya’s scenes, and the next we did all of Cersei’s scenes. That gave us a sense of the arc of the entire season in a really interesting way. Everyone’s got a really great story. You could almost pull out any one character’s story and you’d have a great show, but we’ve got ten of them.
I don’t expect an answer, but I gotta ask: Will Jon Snow be part of the season premiere?
I have no comment other than to say that the show picks up where it left off last season. That’s all I’ll say on that subject. [Laughs.]
Game of Thrones returns in 2016. Be sure to tune into Yahoo’s 67th Emmy Awards red carpet, live on September 20th at 3:30 p.m. PT/ 6:30 p.m. ET.
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