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EXCLUSIVE: Director Miguel Sapochnik on Channeling Kit Harington's Worst Fear into 'Game of Thrones'

by Stacy Lambe 9:35 AM PDT, August 22, 2016
Photo: HBO

"I have a 3-and-a-half-year-old I want to see grow up, and a family I need to spend some time with," director Miguel Sapochnik, 42, tells ET about why he's not helming any episodes of Game of Thrones in season seven. The news comes after earning his first Emmy nomination for "Battle of the Bastards," season six's penultimate episode, and earning critical acclaim for the finale, "The Winds of Winter."

"Battle of the Bastards," in particular, sees Jon Snow (Kit Harington, also nominated for his first Emmy) face off against Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) in a lengthy battle for control over Winterfell. Bolton's army is quick to defeat most of Snow's band of Wildlings. However, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) arrives with Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) and the Knight of the Vale, regaining power over Bolton's army and ultimately takes back the Stark castle.

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The episode was quickly considered one of the best of the series. "As directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who also oversaw last season's terrific 'Hardhome' episode," Jeremy Egner of The New York Times wrote, "the lengthy sequence was terrifying, gripping and exhilarating, sometimes all at once, a sweeping display of all the ways one can die on the battlefield." Ultimately, it earned Sapochnik an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series while the HBO series went on to earn 23 nominations total this year.

"The response to this year's episodes has been both thrilling and humbling," he says -- but it wasn't always that way.

Director Miguel Sapochnik at the Game of Thrones panel during Comic-Con International 2016. Photo: Getty Images

The director, who started as a storyboard artist -- for Danny Boyle and, later, Alan Rickman's directorial debut -- was put in what he calls "director's jail" after making his feature film, Repo Men, starring Jude Law, Liev Schreiber and Game of Thrones' Malinsandre (Carice van Houten). The poorly received thriller only made $18.4 million of its reportedly $32 million budget and was considered one of the biggest flops of 2010.

"I was in it and didn't have much of a choice for a while," Sapochnik says. "That said, it's probably the best thing that ever happened to me career-wise. I've learned more about directing from five years of television than I could have in ten years of film."

After Repo Men, Saopochnik found work directing episodes of House and Fringe before breaking into the HBO/Cinemax family with Banshee and True Detective. "I realized I loved working in television as well as film," Sapochnik says. "Besides, if I hadn't been forced to look for work in TV, I'd never have gotten to work on Game of Thrones."

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The director admittedly learned a lot during his work on the first two episodes, "The Gift" and "Hardhome," calling it a steep learning curve. But those lessons were not fully realized until a year later. "It takes completing the show to see what worked and gauge the response to understand how we could make it better," he says.

"In a nutshell, directing 'The Gift' was all about understanding how the complex machine that is Game of Thrones works," Sapochnik continues, "while 'Battle of the Bastards' was about seeing how far we could push the envelope."

And push it he did with the series' most cinematic and complex battle sequences, upping the ante previously seen in past seasons -- "Blackwater" and "Hardhome" -- or seen on TV at all.

Photo: HBO

While the penultimate episode of the season six offered a lot of cinematic moments, it was an improvised scene that delivered the series' one of the most dramatic, when Snow, after being resurrected at the beginning of the season, was nearly trampled to death by his own army.

Plagued by budgets, scheduling issues and heavy rains while trying to film in Ireland, Sapochnik was forced to go off script for the crucial moment. "I was standing there, looking at the body pile and trying to think of what we could do that would one-up the tension at this crucial moment in the story and not take as long as the thing we had originally planned to do," he says. "Then I thought, 'Being crushed by his own men is about as low as a point as you could possibly go.'"

The idea also happened to be Harington's worst fear. "It was something I found out, I think, the day before we shot the sequence," Sapochnik says. The two worked backwards through Snow’s season-long journey into "the heart of darkness," the vision of creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss.

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"I was really pleased with the way it came out and when David and Dan saw it and liked it, and then the audience saw it and responded so well, it was very gratifying."

If there was any mistake, it was when fans noticed Snow's Valyrian Steel was actually made of rubber. "To be honest I was so much more focused on Kit getting up on the horse I never even noticed the sword until everybody else did," Sapochnik says of the moment -- when the sword wobbles as Snow mounts his horse -- that went viral after the episode first aired in June.

"Sometimes you fixate on something so much that everything else fades away," he says, clarifying that he was more concerned with not killing Snow. (And no one wants to be responsible for that.) "We often use rubber swords when doing stunts to protect the actors lest something go wrong and, for example, Kit's foot doesn't make it into the stirrup and he impales himself on his prop sword."

While Snow ultimately survives the battle between the two bastards, Bolton meets his fate after he's thrown to the hounds. In the following episode, "The Winds of Winter," there are also a number of key deaths, as Margaery (Natalie Dormer), King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), Loras (Finn Jones), the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) and Pycelle (Julian Glover) all perish in the episode's shocking opening sequence.

"I think I might have the record for killing the most people on Game of Thrones at this point," Sapochnik says, admitting that occasionally some actors get a bit moody about being killed off. "When they get like that, the best thing you can do is listen, offer some advice or tell them how awesome their death is going to be and then kill 'em while they are still in a good mood!"

But the actors aren't the only ones to leave the series, as Sapochnik has now done. That said, there's always a chance he'll return for the eighth season. When asked about Game of Thrones' final episodes, he offers: "I'd love to be involved, but we'll just have to wait and see…"

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