Game of Thrones is the undeniable TV show of the moment, capturing the imagination of millions who immerse themselves in the fantastical world created by author George RR Martin and adapted for screen by David Benioff and Daniel Weiss. This is a world in parallel with late-medieval European life with Martin having drawn inspiration from the English War of the Roses fought between 1455-1487. In our reality, a world on the cusp of the Renaissance but still engaged in sword-fought battles, valiant knights and noble houses set on growing their influence. In Game of Thrones reality is interwoven with myths and
legends, magic and dragons. It is a world as vast as any 15th century inhabitant would have known; burgeoning cities and sporadic villages, mountainous regions and flat expanses, mysterious lands of cold and ice to the north and sailor’s tales of places hot and exotic to the south.
In a world of such scale and imagination, the sets become not just a backdrop, but part of the story-telling itself, from the bustling cityscape of Kings Landing, to the cold and hostile Castle Black or golden warmth of Dorne.
In our interview below, Production Designer Deborah Riley talks us through how she brings the world of Game of Thrones to life.
Congratulations on what you have achieved on Game of Thrones, incredible set design which captures the epic scale and fantastical nature of the books perfectly. How did it feel to be awarded an Emmy and Art Directors Guild Award for your work?
As you can imagine, it feels wonderful. It is too much to properly comprehend at the time. As S4 was my first year on the show, I had a lot to prove and winning the Emmy for that season allowed me to breathe a huge sigh of relief, knowing that I had done the work and survived. The win for S5 was equally as thrilling. The Art Director’s Guild Awards for both seasons mean a great deal, as these are voted on by our peers in the industry and to have them recognise our work is a great honour. We have a wonderful team and we love being a part of the creation of one of the most popular shows on television. There is no greater reward in the art department than that.
How does GoT differ to your previous projects? The Matrix was a similar stretch of the imagination!
The Matrix was the very first movie that I worked on and I barely had any idea what was going on. Game of Thrones feels like a wonderful mix of everything I have worked on before, particularly Moulin Rouge, 21 Grams and the Sydney Olympic Closing Ceremony. When I worked with Baz Luhrmann on Moulin Rouge as an assistant art director, that taught me how to think big and theatrically and how to build on stage. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is all about filming on location, which is also an important skill on GoT and finally, working on the Sydney Olympic Ceremonies was all about scale. It taught me not to be frightened by numbers.
How did you find taking over the Art Director role from Gemma (Jackson – Art Director for Seasons 1-3)? How did you ensure consistency whilst also putting your own stamp on things?
I was very nervous walking into the role, but at the same time comforted by the fact that the show already had a very specific tone. I understood how to work within the visual story-telling parameters that had been established and in that sense, was very sure of what I could offer. Also, and not to be underestimated, was the amount of support that I received from the producers, art department and construction manager. Working on GoT is unlike anything else I have worked on and the process is quite different to what I was used to. They all ensured that I made it through. As new worlds were established, I managed to put my own stamp on things and that has been hard work and great fun in equal measure.
Could you talk us through the process of creating a set, for example a bedroom or ‘solar’ in the Red Keep. What are the stages that you would go through to prepare for filming?
Whenever we start to design any set, it always begins with research. I am interested in real-world examples of what we are trying to achieve. We have read the scripts and understand what the space has do and how it can help tell the story of the scene. Everything begins with a piece of concept art that Dan Weiss and David Benioff, our show runners, have to approve. It is then that construction drawings are generated, the set is costed and construction begins. The plasterers and painters play an enormous role in bringing the set to life. I send progress photos to the producers during the build so they see how it is taking shape. The set is then decorated by the set dec team and it is lit and tested on camera by the cinematographer. On the day of filming, we hope that means that we have already tried to account for as many eventualities as possible. The on-set art director is responsible for taking care of the set while it is being shot and facilitating anything that has to be changed on the day.
Do you get to read the script before anyone else?
I receive the outline of the new season in one of the first issues, probably in the first ten or so collaborators it is shared with. David and Dan then tell me of any specific thoughts they have coming into the new season as well as anything they think did not work in the previous season. It allows us to keep trying to do things better.
Do any of the actors make suggestions on props, positioning or general aesthetics? Has anyone shown an interest in set design?!
To be honest, I don’t spend enough time on set to know, but was told that the Meereen Audience Chamber was very helpful for the actors when they first walked onto that set. The monolithic scale of it, the apparent heaviness of the space, the way the throne is above head height, all of it spoke to the new-found position that Dany found herself in. I think Game of Thrones, even more than most productions, relies on the set design to support the storytelling as there are so many worlds that need to be clearly illustrated. I am sure everyone is grateful for as much help as they can get to try to keep the story clear.
What was the most difficult scene to bring to life? Which set are you most proud of?
The most difficult scene to bring to life was probably Joffrey’s Wedding Feast, of Season 4. The location was very exposed in Dubrovnik and we experienced some terrible weather while shooting. Luckily, it is not evident in the final cut. I am very proud of the Meereen Audience Chamber as it was the biggest build of my first season on the show. For that reason, I am much more sentimental about it than I usually would be. I am also very proud of the Hall of Faces of Season 5, as I loved its haunting beauty.
When creating a set ‘on location’, to what extent do you account for the natural surroundings and the light? For example, the same colour may appear very different in Morocco to Northern Ireland. To this end, are you involved in choosing filming locations?
We have very different colour palettes from one world to another and for that reason, you tend to find that everything to do with the North will be filmed in Northern Ireland, where the sun is much less strong and nearly every exterior south of the Wall will be shot in Croatia or Spain, where the sun is bright and the water is turquoise blue. I am always involved in choosing the filming locations, as is the job of the production designer on any show. The producers and I discuss the pros and cons of shooting in each location. One location might require more work than another, or one might be more easily accessible than another and that will become a factor. It is a very organic process.
George Martin is very detailed in his descriptions of scenes. Have there been any sets where you’ve disagreed with his description and suggested something better suited to a character or scene?
Dan and David, the co-creators, writers and show-runners, know exactly what they are wanting out of every scene and I take all of my directions from them. I work to their vision. Sometimes sets finish in a very different place to where they start and sometimes they change very little, but it is always in the service of the greater story, which I would never second-guess.
At what stage do you think about the colours to be used in a set/room? What informs the colour choice?
We think about the colours very early, at the concept stage. Depending on what part of the GoT world we are working in will depend on what palette we work in. The challenge has been to keep each world separate and distinct and the colour palette has been incredibly helpful with that. House Lannister has a particular colour of Red that it is associated with, just as Dany has come to be associated with a certain shade of Blue. Braavos had a lovely bottle green.
You must do a lot of travelling with year round production and sets in different countries – which is your favourite location and why?
Yes, I do a lot of travelling from location to location, in Northern Ireland and abroad, both during the construction and set dress period, as well as trying to be present on the first day of shoot on a new set. Personally, my favourite location is Girona in Spain. We did a lot of shooting there last season and it served the show very well. It is a wonderful city, with a distinct personality and a charming old town, and only a short train ride to Barcelona. I would go back there in a heartbeat.
Is there a scene or location that is mentioned in the books but hasn’t yet been shown in the TV series, that you hope the writers will include for season 7?
Not having read the books, I have always relied entirely on the scripts and the direction of David and Dan Now that we are beyond the books, everyone is as much in the dark as the next person. That being said, I would love to explore the House of Black and White and Braavos further.
If any other book was bought to the screen, which would be your dream project?
I read ‘The Flame Alphabet’ by Ben Marcus a couple of years ago and think it would be wonderful to design. Language as poison is such a brilliant premise. ‘The Secret History’ as well as ‘What Makes Sammy Run’ would be brilliant stories to help tell. These and anything that Pixar is working on!