'Game of Thrones' Director: Dragons Are Like 'Napalm or an Atom Bomb'

Director Matt Shakman talks "The Spoils of War" and lighting people on fire. 


Director Matt Shakman is brand-new to Game of Thrones — and he was thrown right into making the most explosive battle in the show’s history. Season 7’s “The Spoils of War” sees Daenerys Targaryen and her Dothraki forces clashing with the Lannister army in a bloody, smoke-filled massacre.

While Daenerys has fought astride her dragons before, this marks the first time she unleashes dragonfire in Westeros — and used it against other main characters.

The battle is chaotic, filled with dragon fire and desperate scrambling. It starts as suddenly as Season 5’s iconic “Hardhome,” as the Dothraki army charges the Lannister forces across an open field. It ends with Jaime Lannister jousting a dragon and plunging to an unknown fate.

Shakman spoke with Inverse about using Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan as references, lighting people on fire, and more.

The Game of Thrones showrunners said the battle scene in “The Spoils of War” marks the record for setting people on fire, right?

The most stunt performers. We definitely wouldn’t want to set extras on fire. We set 20 stunt performers on fire in a single shot — which I understand is the record. The total number of stunt performers burned in the sequence is around 63, which is also a record for total number of burns in a sequence.

Drogon rains fire in "The Spoils of War."


There’s so much going on in this battle. There’s epic sweeping shots but also intimate moments with Jaime and Bronn. How did you approach the balance?

[I began with] focusing the story and figuring out whose point of view I wanted to prioritize. I ended up picking Jaime and Bronn to describe what it was like being on the ground when the war changes forever, to see the shift from traditional fighting to what a dragon brings — introducing napalm or an atom bomb into the fighting.

We definitely need Daenerys’s point of view in the battle, but I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t the same as the battle in Meereen, where we see her burning the slavers and their ships from up above, and that’s a purely heroic moment. In this one, we wanted to see someone who saw all of her allies decimated and was finally taking action. She’s finally doing what she’s come to Westeros to do. That point of view was important, but I wanted to keep it focused more on what it was like to be on the receiving end of that fire and blood.

The Dothraki attack in "The Spoils of War"


Speaking of your description of bringing napalm or an atom bomb to the fight, so you used more modern references? Or did you also use prior Game of Thrones battles like “Hardhome,” which also begins suddenly?

The moment where Jaime takes in the horror of the battlefield, and the sound kind of drops away, is meant to be a loving homage to Saving Private Ryan, when Tom Hanks kind of takes in the beach around him – the men on fire, the people dying left and right. In this ultimate chaos Jaime finally has a second to look around and take stock of how badly things are going and the situation that he’s in. That’s right before the dragon comes and carbonizes the men near him, turning them to ash.

I love “Hardhome.” I think Miguel Sapochnik did an unbelievable job on that. I looked at that quite a few times while I was prepping. I also looked at the Battle of the Bastards from last year.

I looked a lot at Apocalypse Now, which uses smoke so brilliantly as the helicopters come in and out of the smoke clouds, and how it looks on the ground, too, the swirling smoke as people are running through it. I used that as a reference point. I knew it would define the transition from the clean ordered battlefield at the beginning to this Bosch-like horror at the end, and using smoke to increase the claustrophobia of it so that by the end, when we’re running with Bronn through the fire and the smoke, the world feels like it’s closing in on him. Smoke, fire, embers, ash were a big part of creating that battlefield.

Bronn in "The Spoils of War"


Will you be returning for Season 8?

I will not be. Before I started I went to lunch with David Nutter, who is another director who has done some incredible work on the show. He said, “You’re about to be given the keys to the best Ferrari in the world; all they want you to do is put the pedal to the metal.” I took those words to heart.

Game of Thrones Season 7 is currently airing Sunday nights on HBO. Matt Shakman is also directing “Eastwatch,” which airs on Sunday, August 13.

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