Neil Marshall had already made a name for himself long before he started working on
. The self-proclaimed action addict is the writer-director behind the hit cult classic
and was well ahead of the curve when he put a shirtless Michael Fassbender in his sword-and-snow-boot epic,
. But he’s earned attention from a whole new crowd as the big-battle specialist on
. During the show’s second season, Marshall was called in at the last minute to direct what many consider the most impressively cinematic episode of television: “Blackwater.”
His work this season on “The Watchers on the Wall,” the giant, bloody clash between the Night’s Watch and the threats from the North, has earned him his first nomination for a Primetime Emmy Award (the annual ceremony takes place on Monday). We spoke to Marshall about haggling for more mammoths, trying to fire off that giant bow, and his desire to be the one to unleash those dragons.
: Did you see a big difference in what you were allowed to get away with this time, after your first episode, “Blackwater,” was so successful?
: Certainly the budget will have gone up, but they don’t tell me what it is. They only tell me when I can’t do something. The only time
came into play was early on, in that the first draft of the script involved 12 mammoths and 12 giants. At some point that got downgraded to one mammoth and two giants.
No, there was no haggling for it. But we thought, O.K., if we have one mammoth, we better make it really impressive. It certainly saved us a huge amount of time and money not having as many giants. Just because the way we have to film them, it would have been ten times as much work. Other than that, there were no limitations, really.
. You didn’t have to kill off any major characters in “Blackwater,” and in this one you had three, with Pyp, Grenn, and Ygritte. What was that like?
Yeah, I know, I got the hat trick on that one. It’s a heck of a responsibility, really. These are people the fans have grown to love and the writers are very precious about—I take it very seriously. Pyp is killed almost accidentally. He’s played for laughs up until that point, and then all of a sudden he’s got this arrow through his neck and poor old Sam is holding him. I wanted it to play like something out of
Same with Ygritte. I really wanted to get those moments, like when John turns around and sees her for the first time. His response isn’t to be afraid of her. It’s to smile, like, he’s actually pleased to see her even though the last time he saw her she was trying to kill him. He still loves her. It was tough and really emotional. I’m sure it was a lot worse for the rest of the crew than it was for me. I only worked with her on one episode, but they had worked with her for three years. It’s really tough when it’s their last day after several years of work.
Some eagle-eyed fans noticed that when Ygritte dies, she’s framed by fire on one side and ice on the other. Was that intentional or is that a case of the audience being a little overzealous?
I think it’s great that fans notice that, but I can’t say that I put it there. The fact is we were in an environment of ice and there was a big fire. So everywhere you looked there was ice and there was fire. It’s not just in those frames, for sure. But I really love that fans want to look at it that way and read that much into it. It’s interesting. I want them to care.
We spend a lot of time with Ygritte during the battle, and you even made several shots specifically from her point of view as she was shooting her bow and arrow. What was the idea behind that?
Well, I wanted to put everyone right in the action, but it’s also in the script, how accurate and fast she is as an archer. I’m an archer myself, so I can really appreciate that. I like putting it on-screen, it features in a lot of my films as well. We’ve seen that kind of thing before with snipers and rifles but not with a bow. So it felt kind of fresh.
As an archer yourself, are you sad you’ll never see a real-life giant shoot a bow and arrow?
In the episode the bow is as tall as the giant, so it’s 15 feet. In reality, it’s as tall as the guy playing the giant, so it’s eight feet. So myself and the armorer on the show did have a go with it. The arrows are like the size of javelins.
No, not with that thing. I barely grazed the target.
You’ve filmed the male-dominated big battles, so other than Rose Leslie, Lena Headey, and Sophie Turner, you haven’t worked with many of the main female characters on the show. Are there any you want to work with?
I think Arya’s journey is really fascinating and I’ve not had a chance to work with her. Or somebody like Diana Rigg, who gets some absolutely choice lines and her delivery is so deadpan and brilliant. There’s an awful lot of them, but I haven’t worked with Daenerys. She’s in the sunny climate and I never get to go to the sunny climates. They always send me to the rainy place.
Oh, I would definitely like to unleash the dragons on somebody.
A lot of book readers were disappointed that Stannis didn’t show up at the end of your episode and they had to wait until the next week. That means you also didn’t get to work with your friend Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos. What did you think of that decision?
You know that battle was so huge [that] they had to break it up over two episodes. I was definitely gutted that I didn’t get to work with Liam, though I did get to see him on set. But the trick there is not to see each individual episode, but to see each season as one big story. The next episode literally picks up where mine left off, so you can play it back to back and it’s a continuation.
Actress Maisie Williams recently spoke out against “snobby book readers.” Have you had any bad experiences with that side of the fan base?
Yeah, I mean I got plenty of grief for “Blackwater,” because in the books there’s this huge chain across the harbor that features prominently in the battle. And we simply weren’t able to do it with our budget and do it any justice, so we had to lose it. My point is that it’s detail but it’s nothing to do with the drama of the story. The drama is Tyrion trying to prove himself and that’s got nothing to do with the chain. So for book readers, the chain exists and it will always exist. But there is, has, and always will be changes made for the TV series, and in a lot of ways they’re improvements on the book. One example in “Watchers on the Wall” is the boy who ends up killing Ygritte. It’s poetic. In the book, we never find out who kills her, and dramatically, on-screen, that’s just going to be a damp squib. In our version there are repercussions to actions. If she died anonymously, then what’s it all for?
you already had a successful film career, but you’ve spoken about how, even after making a hit like
, you struggled to have creative control in the film world. Has the widespread admiration for your work on
changed your ability to get projects started or made the way you want them to be?
It’s certainly opened the door for me to work a lot more in television, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to the film world. It’s partly to do with the work, it’s partly to do with me, and it’s partly to do with how the industry’s changed over just the last four or five years. It is harder to get features made. The stuff that I want to do falls at a weird budgetary level where it isn’t super low and it isn’t mega budget, and there are a lot less of those films being made these days. Will audiences even want to see something like that in the cinema or will they want to watch it at home or download it? On the other hand, I’ve been given a large degree of creative freedom on TV. The guys on
trust me implicitly to take care of the action stuff. I don’t mess with their drama, but they allow me to come up with ideas like “Hey, what if the giant had a bow? And what if he shot some guy off the wall?” With
, too, they really trust me to scare the audience. We set out to make that a really scary TV show.
So what’s the difference between episodes like “Blackwater” and “Watchers on the Wall” and a feature film at this point?
Well, yeah, it’s a very fine line. One episode of
has a longer running time, but that’s kind of the only difference, and I think people now, if they want drama, they watch TV. If they want to see spectacle, they go to the cinema. Which is sad for cinema and great for TV.
If you were to ever go for one of those mega-budget movies, would you consider doing that female superhero movie everyone’s clamoring for? You have a great history of writing strong cinematic females.
I think I’d like to do a big movie with a strong female lead, whether or not she would be a superhero. I’m more interested in characters like Scarlett Johansson in
. I’m less interested in people with superpowers because I can’t identify with them. Very rarely do they get killed off, and when they do get killed off, chances are they’re going to be back . . . somehow. Yes, I’d love to do a big splashy movie with a great female lead, but it has to be someone I can believe in.
Since you mention Scarlett Johansson and no superpowers, what about a Black Widow movie?
to do a Black Widow movie. That’s perfect, I would love to do that. That character is really interesting, she doesn’t have any superpowers, she just has extraordinary skills, and the world that she comes from, being this ex-K.G.B. assassin, I find that really fascinating, yeah.
What else is on the horizon for you? Will we ever see a Neil Marshall rom-com?
If it somehow involved a lot of death and violence and exploding heads, then maybe! I’ve recently turned to producing. My wife just directed her first feature last year called
. That’s got a really strong female lead in it and she’s the female lead of my life.
Well, I have a wish, but I couldn’t possibly say.
No, there are only three people in the world who know and they won’t tell me. But I don’t want to wish out loud because I don’t want to hex it.
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