Update (Friday): You can read the second part of the Alex Graves interview, including his experience directing "The West Wing" here.
Alex Graves is one of television's best directors. After his run on "The West Wing," for which he directed 34 episodes and served as the co-executive producer or executive producer for the majority of the series, he's found himself busy working on another monumental television series. While the workload is less on his current series, the pressure to live up to viewers' lofty expectations remains the same.
In "Game of Thrones" Season 4, Graves had the task of directing "The Lion and The Rose," which featured the Purple Wedding and Joffrey's death; "The Breaker of Chains," which featured the fallout from Joffrey's death; "The Mountain and the Viper," which will focus on the trial by combat between Oberyn and the Mountain; and the season 4 finale, "The Children." International Business Times spoke with Graves about working on the show, what can fans expect from the last three episodes of Season 4 of "Game of Thrones" and the future of Westeros.
Warning: Full "Game of Thrones" Season 4 spoilers and "A Song of Ice and Fire" discussion ahead.
IBTimes: What are the major differences between “Game of Thrones” and “West Wing”? Looking at your work on “Game of Thrones,” Season 3, I realized you shot the scene between Oleanna and Varys where they discuss Littlefinger's intentions to rescue Sansa from King's Landing, and that serves as the starting point for the poisoning plot in Season 4.
Graves: It's also a scene that's straight out of “West Wing.” I love that scene, and it is a hardcore, straight “Godfather”-esque political scene. Working with David (Benioff) and Dan (Weiss), is such a joy, creatively, that, if they trust you, and they trusted me, and you go, “Look, I love this scene, but what in the hell is going on?” they tell you. So, I've gone through the last two years of “Game of Thrones” asking a lot of questions and getting a lot of answers, and so I knew about Joffrey and some other stuff yet to come last year, because I had to direct the setups for it.
By the way, Season 4 will be looked back on like Season 1 in that it is filled with subtext about what's coming, and it's so brilliantly written that you'll never know it. Everyone's talking about how I did four episodes of Season 4, [but] it wasn't about doing four episodes, it was about getting it all right because it is so brilliantly written by [George R.R.] Martin, and then the adaptation is so surgically perfect at improving it and fleshing it out, that it's yours to blow, it's yours to destroy. The more I found out, the more worried I got that I was going to blow it because it was so great.
IBTimes: It's almost like a relay race, passing the baton between great writers and great directors, including Michelle MacLaren and Neil Marshall.
Graves: It's not quite that way, even though that's perfect. You would think it's like that, but the the funny thing is that Michelle talked to me about it not too long ago, the directors don't really talk much, in fact, really at all. But what they do, and I think it's why they are valued on the show so much, is that they take their responsibilities so seriously.
No director directs “Game of Thrones” without reading all the episodes and knowing what's going on. All the episodes are written in advance, so you can do that, which is an important point. But, “Game of Thrones” isn't really a television show, it's a 10-hour movie that's really a 70-hour movie, and that's very much what it's like to direct that show. You'll go in in the morning and watch David Nutter direct something from the finale and then you step in and start directing something from episode 2, and you have better mapped out what each character's arc is for where they are or you're going to end up in the editing room with a weak episode and you have to really study and ask questions.
The best thing about “Game of Thrones,” when it's really cooking, is the stuff going on you don't know but they know, and that's a great, suspenseful kind of storytelling.
IBTimes: Stylistically, “Game of Thrones” features a lot of different settings and characters, it has to be a challenge to create a seamless experience between directors and the story being told.
Graves: That's a testament to the production designers and the producers who guide everything just spectacularly well, and that's a big part of it. When you talk to David and Dan about the show, whether you are a director or producer, it's like they just got back yesterday from being there. Like, I had a scene where it's like, “Where is the army coming from because I assume they are coming from this city” and they are like “Oh no no no, they were on ships, they came up to the east coast, they came across the land from the east,” and you are just like, “Oh, okay, glad I asked that!”
Everyone is in on the detail that is there, and that can be there, because the stories are written and they kind of know what's going to happen.
IBTimes: Can you talk about your increased responsibility for “Game of Thrones” Season 4? You went from directing two episodes to directing four episodes, including the Purple Wedding, Sunday's trial by combat and the season finale. These are important episodes and storylines for the season.
Graves: It happened in a perfect way, which I realized a year or so later. I didn't really know the show well, and in Season 2, David Nutter called and said, “They had someone drop out and you should come and direct this 'Blackwater' episode,” and I was directing “Newsroom” for Aaron and I couldn't go. I said, “I can't go but thank you. I know it's looking like it's going to be a big show and everybody is talking about the second season coming up.” And David and Dan had so much faith in David Nutter that when they landed, they met with me the day after they returned from Iceland from Season 2, they hired me.
So then, I thought, “Oh, well, this is nice. It looks like it's a really interesting show and they are very nice people.” But I got my scripts and I read them and I thought, “God, I have no idea what's going on!” Not that, I didn't know “Game of Thrones,” it was just that it was so well written that I knew I didn't understand everything I needed to, because you could just tell it was really well done and I hadn't seen writing like that in awhile.
I'm talking about Jaime and Brienne and their storyline and Daenerys taking the city by surprise. You know you're getting them and they are very important, but what is it about? And as I started to go to work in Belfast and talked to them about it, and it's very much part of the fun of doing the show, as soon you start to dig a little bit, you start realizing you're actually telling a much larger story, much more interesting than you would have thought, and there's stuff that no one is even going to know about when they see it that you're directing that's coming later.
Graves: It's really fun if you ask the right questions. It's not like they volunteer this stuff, you have to ask the right questions, and I went down to set and we were given great freedom to do what we do. My director of photography and I really were dedicated to try and do the best work we could do, and then we walk smack dab into that cast, and it's like walking into Mozart, you know? You just walk into the greatest cast of actors who are incredibly well-placed and cast in their roles, they are lovely, and you get really into it and you try to tell the story as best you can.
I became very obsessed with the story of the show but, also, just my affection for the people on the show creatively because I was so inspired by everybody. In both seasons, David and Dan and the cast really got me through the challenge of making the show because you'd be in the middle of an incredibly difficult day and everything is going wrong and you shoot a take on the actors and you're just like, “Oh, okay! This is great, let's do another one. Whatever, hold the thunderstorms back we're going to do another take.”
[Peter] Dinklage has stuff coming up that's mind-blowing! And anyway, that's what “West Wing” was like, so it was this kind of weird, perfect fit for me [after] a few years, when I was a little bit older. Especially as a director on “West Wing,” I directed a lot of different things, in a lot of different ways, and really stretched my wings.
I was really, really stagnating and getting bored in the steady work of television and didn't really know what movies I would be making that Hollywood would be making and then I went on to “Game of Thrones,” and it was just like, everything I've been waiting to do was handed to me by really nice people.
IBTimes: So Washington to Westeros really wasn't much of a stretch.
Graves: It's like, my first thing was about the good guys, and now I'm directing “Game of Thrones” and it's like, now I'm making the show about the people who want to kill Bartlett! I have a very strong interconnection between the two shows in my mind that it's almost like it's one show.
IBTimes: Shifting to “Game of Thrones” Season 4, episode 8, “The Mountain and the Viper,” you are directing a pivotal episode. What was it like working with the Red Viper and some of these new storylines and characters?
Graves: Akin to what I was talking about earlier, I had the Red Viper and I had an important part of the storyline, so I looked into him. And, of course, when you learn the bigger picture about the Red Viper, you learn a lot about things people don't know about.
He's a very intriguing character, and he's going to have a very large footprint on the show, ultimately, and then Pedro Pascal was cast to play him and Pedro is without equal. Pedro is this very lovely man who is an extraordinary talent who would come in and play with such ease, and nuance, this hedonistic, screwed-up guy that's very much not like Pedro. Then we would go to spear practice and I've never had an actor grab a weapon and get into a stunt fight sequence that quickly with that level of ease, and he was just mind-blowing, and everybody was just crazy about him.
Of course, you have Indira Varma at his side, [and it] was just icing on the cake. Anybody who knows actors or quality is always trying to get Indira because she is just one of the best.
IBTimes: What's the day-to-day on set like for “Game of Thrones?”
Graves: It's actually very normal in that there is barely enough time and there's the desire to create a good environment for the actors, which is always hard on set, and then the task at hand is, usually, fairly specific and complex.
They are all so professional, they kind of show up wanting to nail whatever the target is, and I don't direct until I've done a take so that I'm not getting in anybody's way. Then you start to sort of hone in on and say, “Yeah, but it's a little more like this,” or “Do you realize that X, Y and Z happens and this is the subtext for that?” and then you do a few more takes and you get heaven on a stick because they are so good, but it's very polite and pleasant and fun always. And that's really saying something when you consider the levels of mud and ice and heat that you may be shooting in, in the extreme, and everyone's glad to be there and everyone's very, very passionate about telling the story properly.
IBTimes: Have you had a chance to talk with Martin about “Game of Thrones”?
I haven't spoken to him, but I'm actually going to talk to him soon since we are working on a commentary together, but I fear him every day because I'm afraid I'm going to blow it. But I've studied his work, more and more obsessively, so I have the same relationship with him that, actually, a lot of the people on the show have with him. Which is, every time you peel the onion back further, it is just hard to believe how well-thought-out the story is and how great the storytelling is, it's mind-blowing. People will see this as the series goes on, and as the books go on, and they come upon things people don't know yet and you just go, “I can't believe how beautifully that all ties in together.”
IBTimes: What has been your best experience working on “Game of Thrones”?
The best experience for me is, definitely, working with David and Dan and the cast and the crew. Let me put it this way, to work with writers who you revere, with actors who you are rushing to the set to film, with crew who you could never thank enough for pulling off what you're asking them to pull off, with material like that. I shot 101 days almost in a row and I never had a moment where I thought the writing was weak, ever. I mean, imagine that?
Day after day, it was good or better or more interesting, and that's what's great about it, and what's bad about it is the pressure, that I think I put on myself more than anything, but the pressure of missing a moment in the layering of the narrative.
I had scary thing happen in Season 3 with Lena Heady where we had a take that was astounding, and in the middle of her key moment in the take, her microphone unfolded out of her costume on camera. As soon as I said cut, the sound guy said, “Don't print it,” and I was just like, “Sh--,” and we watched the playback and there it was. Lena, being Lena, just was like, “Oh well, you know, that's what happens.” We called the post team and they took the microphone out and that was the take because, and this goes back to “West Wing,” what goes on has to be the best work and you got to figure it out, but that was terrifying.
The hardest part of “Game of Thrones” is there is so much incredible talent bouncing off the walls that you'll actually miss some of them, and not getting it is very intimidating.
IBTimes: Can you name your favorite “Game of Thrones” storyline or character?
Graves: I don't have a favorite character, it would be impossible out of the blind, mad love that I have the actors. I don't even mean it politically, I love all of them and I love some of the small characters as much as the large characters and the actors, too.
Storylines, you know, my favorite storylines are almost all of them, because they are all one storyline, but you don't know it yet. My favorite storyline is the final storyline, you know, where it's come from and where it's going, and I obviously don't know it all.
Just as an example, Jaime and Brienne. Jaime is a sociopathic, male knight pyschopathic killer and Brienne is a loyal woman knight, and they couldn't have less in common. So, all of a sudden, I'm in a bathtub in Belfast filming a guy and a girl arguing, naked, about all these complex things and they're in love and they don't know it.
And he's expressing the most traumatizing event in his quasi-childhood and realizing, to some degree, that he is traumatized through expressing it to this person he has no interest in speaking to, but he is compelled to because they have one thing in common, and it's the most important thing to both of them that they can't share with anybody, and it's that they are knights. At the end of the day, they're both knights and they're also in love and they are not sophisticated to know it or possibly ever know it. When do you get to do a scene like that? You're suddenly working this stuff out and you go, “Wow, this is incredible.”
IBTimes: Speaking of the larger storyline being your favorite. In the “Inside the Episode” clip for “Mockingbird,” David and Dan talk about how Lysa and Littlefinger, despite having so little screen time compared to some other characters, are actually responsible for the whole show as Littlefinger convinces Lysa to poison her husband. That kind of shows the level of nuance within “Game of Thrones.”
Graves: The thing about the material, and the taste level of the writers, I mean David and Dan excel at this, they are the steak dinner or best bottle of wine you've ever had as writers. The big moments are only good on the show if they are about the smallest moments in them. The smaller scenes usually have the biggest content in them, whether you know it or not.
IBTimes: Let's talk a bit about “The Mountain and the Viper.” This is the pivotal moment for Tyrion ... what can we expect from the episode? How was the fight between the Red Viper and the Mountain shot?
Graves: Two things probably influenced me the most in that fight. Because of who Oberyn, the Red Viper, is, and as portrayed by so perfectly by Pedro, he has a real level of style and finesse that, obviously, nobody on “Game of Thrones” has in wielding weapons. I mean, it's usually, “Cut, rip, kill,” and you got the Hound, you bump into the Hound at the grocery store and it's like, “You're dead.” So, I thought it should have a very elegant, slick style, especially because of the way it ends, it would set up a contrast.
The other thing was, it's a story about Oberyn and talking to David and Dan about it, and the more I learned about Oberyn and what that scene is about. That scene is two people skimming the surface of one of the single most important events in the mythology of the show, and it is the night of the murder of Elia Martell. It was the night the Kingslayer was born, it was the night King's Landing was sacked by Tywin Lannister, and it was the night several other things happened. It serves several purposes which is: One, it is really bringing to the forefront to the audience these names and this content, and yet you're really not quite pulling it all in, and you will as the show goes on, but you'll know about it through this fight scene.
IBTimes: Two other important scenes will feature a possible Wildling attack on Mole's Town and fallout from Littlefinger's actions.
Graves: You won't see Ygritte, she is busy doing other thing, basically, the honeymoon is over, we're at the first note of the battle, and let's share a drink and try to stay alive.
One of my favorite scenes, actually, and Sophie [Turner] really came into her own and is so wonderful in it, is the scene with Littlefinger, it's the “Trial of Littlefinger” as we called it. That scene is brilliant, and she's incredible, they all are, but that's the beginning of a big storyline and especially with Sophie pulling off the shell game of the trial.