After seven seasons, 68 episodes, a bunch of blood-soaked character deaths and years of internet-breaking speculation, Game of Thrones is set to return for the final time. The world’s biggest TV show has had a transformational effect on its cast, creators, crew and real-world home – Northern Ireland.
As the world gets ready to return to Westeros for the last time, and the airing of the season’s first episode in the UK on 15 April on Sky Atlantic, BBC News NI looks at the show’s impact on the film industry in Northern Ireland, as told by the people who helped bring the show to life.
not going to stop the wheel.
I’m going to break the wheel.”
The Dark Hedges is the kind of the place that screams Game of Thrones.
It’s spring but an ominously wintry wind blows through the 18th Century cluster of gnarled beech trees in the County Antrim countryside.
The scene, draped in a permanent sword metal sky, is made for cinema.
Eight years ago, the Dark Hedges – locally well-known but never a tourist hotspot – featured at the end of episode two of Game of Thrones’ second season.
The rural lane was used as a stand-in for the Kingsroad, Westeros’ famed highway. And ever since the tourists have come – not just to the Dark Hedges but to other spots in Northern Ireland made famous by featuring on the real-world map of Westeros. Ballintoy (Pyke), Castle Ward (Winterfell), Cushendun (Melisandre’s caves).
A decade of change, then, for the Dark Hedges and for many others too, like Ciaran Colton. Before Game of Thrones, he was a barman wondering what he was going to do next. Now he works full-time in the film industry as an assistant director.
Tourists stop and stare, wondering if he’s somebody (“Wasn’t he that guy in season five…?”).
Nearby, his eight-month-old son Manus sits in his pram being fussed over by American tourists while a man speaking Spanish records a video.
Back in 2008, when the Hedges went mostly unnoticed, Ciaran was pulling pints for a living. He’d dropped out of university and the 24-year-old didn’t know where he was going. But he played in a band and had the long hair and big beard to prove it. His looks were to be a catalyst for a new career – but not how he ever imagined.
“I was on the Metal Ireland forum,” he says. “There was an ad looking for people with long hair and beards to work on a Hollywood film…”
That film was Your Highness, a critically mauled fantasy-comedy that flopped at the box office, but by coming to Northern Ireland, it was essentially a dry run for the HBO epic.
From Your Highness, Ciaran moved on to the Game of Thrones pilot as Sean Bean’s stand-in and a runner, then, eventually, as a third assistant director.
Now, he’s practically a seasoned veteran, having worked directly under show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss on the upcoming series finale.
So he is standing here at the Dark Hedges packing enough explosive secrets to hold an impromptu spoiler auction among the nearby Thrones fans, who would probably pay big to find out who’ll sit on the Iron Throne when the final scene rolls.
But he didn’t get this far by blabbing television’s most guarded secrets and subtly changes the subject. “When I applied for Your Highness, I joked with Gemma [his then girlfriend] that I was only doing it so I could meet Natalie Portman.”
These days, as a 34-year-old with 10 years in the industry, Gemma is his fiancée and they have two children and a house, with a bed that was bought, indirectly, by the Queen of Dragons herself, Daenerys Targaryen, Emilia Clarke.
“Well, she gave me a gift voucher and we bought a mattress with it,” he says, laughing. “In my job, I’m the first person the actors see when they get out of the car on set. I send them where they need to go and chat with them about their family and lives – I mean, it’s completely bizarre. “I didn’t really know where I was going in life, and now all this – I guess that happens to a lot of people in the film industry.”
The show changed the game in terms of what could be accomplished in the confines of high-end broadcast drama, sustaining the epic scope of blockbuster filmmaking over more than 70 hours of storytelling.
Simultaneously broadcast in 170 countries, the show’s last season was illegally downloaded more than a billion times and it’s racked up almost 50 Emmys.
The show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, will be following up Thrones with the relatively-minor task of writing the next Star Wars movie, while cast members like Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke have gone from unknowns to superstars.
The Game of Thrones effect extends to birth certificates (the likes of Arya, Khaleesi and Daenerys are now children’s names), tax legislation (the tax break for high-end television drama in the UK is widely credited to the show) and higher education (Time Magazine reported that US universities were increasingly offering courses in medieval studies to satiate demand from Thrones devotees).
Back in 2008, Northern Ireland was in the first throes of a prolonged battering by the financial crisis.
It ended up suffering the deepest recession and slowest recovery of any UK region. Its film industry, relatively small-time, was almost entirely centered on the UK with no real global recognition. It lacked infrastructure and a skills base. For those tasked with bringing productions here, the place was a tough sell.
Richard Williams, head of Northern Ireland Screen, which promotes the film industry, says: “We used to go out to Los Angeles, pitching the value proposition of shooting stuff here.
“Famously, we had one meeting that we thought was great. And one of the studios, it turned out as we were leaving, had thought we were New Zealand.
We were struggling to make in-roads into the London market, so we looked further afield more, which is why we were trudging around studios in LA trying to pitch
“That’s why we were at the Cannes Film Festival year after year, trying to pretend we were more significant than we were.” But NI Screen was ambitious.
Buoyed by snagging two major studio films for Belfast, City of Ember and Your Highness, they wanted to bring something massive to Northern Ireland.
And HBO was looking for somewhere to shoot a new pilot. Somewhere with a British look and sensibility – and cheap.
Janet Graham-Borba, HBO’s executive vice president of west coast production, who has worked on Thrones since day one, says: “We sent people out to scout in Canada, Eastern Europe, the British Isles.
“We came to feel that Northern Ireland was going to be way past perfect. David and Dan [the show’s creators] were familiar with Ireland because they had spent some time at Trinity College (in Dublin), and they loved what was possible in terms of landscapes.” Jay Roewe, HBO’s senior vice-president of production, adds: “The fact that Northern Ireland had not been overly filmed also made us feel as there were things to show the rest of world, on this particular story, that would potentially be new and creatively supportive.”
Belfast also had the Paint Hall, a remnant of Belfast’s shipbuilding past where parts of the Titanic were built, that had cannily been turned into a huge studio space. And it didn’t hurt that Northern Ireland’s authorities were happy to offer cash incentives to HBO to give the place a chance.
Janet says: “On a pure number-crunching basis, Northern Ireland and one other location that shall remain nameless were the best we were going to do financially.
“But the really more profound thing was – the story looked like it belonged in Northern Ireland.” Peter Robinson, Ian McElhinney and Martin McGuinness
For Jay, the partnership of the then first and deputy first ministers of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, was also “critical” in making HBO feel comfortable bringing Thrones to Northern Ireland.
Richard Williams of NI Screen says that the government “stepped up to the plate” in a big way.
“They made a bold bet. They allowed us to invest very, very heavily in the pilot,” he says. Because it was a bet – that pilot could have tanked and we wouldn’t have got anything out of that “But, at that time, standard TV networks might get one in 10 pilots to air, but with HBO it was more like on in two or three – so we had good odds.
And how long was it going to be before another HBO pilot was going to come along wanting to shoot in Northern Ireland?”
A show as ambitious as Thrones required hundreds of crew from a place that did not have a deep pool of experienced industry workers.
Yet, after eight seasons and 10 years, hundreds of local people who, in many instances, had never worked a day in film can say they helped bring Westeros to life. HBO executive Janet said: “There’s a phrase: ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ So if you don’t know that a career is possible, or how you can access it – you can’t do it. “But once we started making the show in Belfast, people could see it and people could be it.”
Just as production was starting on Game of Thrones’ first season, Stephanie McCutcheon was finished with Manchester. She was in a city where she could “see it” – her dream career as an editor in TV and film – but she was struggling to “be it”. When she was mugged twice in the span of two weeks she decided it was time to come home.
Soon after she returned, an old work colleague asked if she wanted a job as a runner for the costumes department on this show Stephanie described as “Belfast, boobs, swords and dragons”. stayed for a month, then stayed for the season. “That turned into two seasons.”
“I was very honest and told them from the start that I didn’t want to do costumes, which was scary because I didn’t want to get sacked. But it worked.” For two seasons, Stephanie ran all over the set, all over Belfast, all over Northern Ireland, picking up fabric, material, bits and bobs, going from location to location, learning the on-set etiquette of when to speak and when to stay quiet.
One day, she was urgently asked to iron Cersei Lannister’s kimono. “I bricked myself,” she admitted. “I didn’t do a very good job but it’s one of those moments where you need to do something random. You got into those situations all the time.”
On another day, she inadvertently discovered season one’s most unexpected twist.
“I was picking up costumes from the set and Sean Bean’s Ned Stark costume was on the ‘dead rail’.
“I was thinking: ‘Oh, isn’t he the lead of the series?’ I was getting worried the show wasn’t going to do very well.”
But the cameras kept rolling. Stephanie transferred to the post-production department for season three, as a runner once again, but a step closer to the editor’s chair.
The job came with its own stresses, like picking up film rushes from the set.
They don’t tell you this, but you have the negatives. If you were to get into a car crash, you would have to ask – which is more valuable, me or the rushes?
“It’s a horrible thought,” she laughs. “But I did think it.”
By season four, she began to get some hands-on experience doing the editing job she always wanted.
By season five, she was an assistant editor and since then has worked on other productions such as the Ridley Scott-produced film Morgan, iBoy and on some episodes of The Frankenstein Chronicles, which were filmed in Belfast.
“I feel a little bit guilty,” she admits. “I’m very lucky to have gotten that Frankenstein job, because I’m a very young editor. I’m sure there were people side-eyeing me, but I wasn’t going to say no.” Sam Donaghy-Bell has lived on the Game of Thrones’ set for a decade but he’s not here to talk about stars or the twists of George RR Martin’s story – he’s never even watched the show.
But ask him about cameras, the technology, “the toys”, as he says – and just watch him go. He says: “We had George Lucas visit to speak to David and Dan (Weiss) and everyone was going: ‘Oh, my God, George Lucas!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, he did Star Wars, but guys – have you seen the new camera gear over here?’
Sam worked on film sets from a young age with his TV producer parents. He grew up around live broadcasts, working as a runner, but it was always the cameras that interested him.
He started out as a “humper and lumper” on the electrical department for Your Highness, which confirmed his taste for the film set life, before starting out on Thrones as a runner and then becoming a camera trainee.
Like Stephanie, he also moved up the ladder, from trainee to a first assistant camera or “focus puller” – two steps below the director of photography (DOP) who is the person in charge of making every shot epic or beautiful or some combination of the two.
Not that Sam wants to be one.
He says: “Being a DOP has never appealed to me. They sit in a tent on a chair staring at two or three monitors, that’s their day. Whereas the camera operator is out with the crane, camera on his shoulder, going down ditches, up cliffs.
“I don’t want to tell people to go and do the things that are in my head, I want to go out and shoot it myself.”
For Sam, the good days on set were often the big days, like when 50 horses were charging in a battle scene.
It was fun but it was anything but easy.
“There were the 55 days of night shoots. I remember most of those because it got down to minus 12 degrees some nights.”
into your mind as a bad memory to a degree because those were the times the
gear stopped working and batteries died “You look back on it and remember it
was great but it wasn’t at the time – it was horrible! But it was still one of
the best experiences anyone in the industry could have.”
Ingrid Houwers is in her taxidermy studio, surrounded by all manner of creatures, each suspended in a moment in time.
When she moved to Bangor, County Down from Holland in 2006, Ingrid brought a cool box of dead birds on her flight, much to the confusion of the check-in desk.
Every other day someone calls her up to tell her about a dead animal they had found at the roadside or come to her door with a bird that met an unfortunate end after colliding with a window. Such is the life of a taxidermist and Ingrid’s been living it for almost 20 years. It’s unusual enough without throwing Game of Thrones into the mix.
But film work has become a fascinating sideline for Ingrid, who lives with her husband and her very own ‘direwolf’ Cody, a Northern Intuit related to the canine actors that appeared on the show. She had already been producing animal prop commissions before getting the call from Thrones.
I think their first request was a horse-hoof door knocker “And then they came in to have a look and said they could really work with what I was doing on a larger scale.” As an ethical taxidermist, Ingrid only works with animals that have either died of natural causes or have been killed as part of regulated pest control.
Since season one, she has supplied the production with animal skins, body parts and full taxidermied animals.
Everything from furs to make bedspreads or costumes; game birds for hanging as market displays; animal knuckle bones for dice games played by Westerosi soldiers; even a giant eagle owl which featured in season four on the shoulder of a Thenn warg.
Ingrid is one of a host of experts with specialist skills who were brought into the Thrones fold to help bring Westeros to life.
Attention to detail has always been crucial in selling George RR Martin’s fantasy epic to the audience. Janet Graham-Borba of HBO explains the philosophy: “If you believe the fire, you’ll believe the dragons. “So much of our fire is real fire and that’s true of other aspects. You will believe Kings Landing if you believe the doorway someone walks through.”
Season-after-season, the show’s popularity grew until it seemed to go supernova following the infamous Red Wedding in season three – the scene that launched a million memes.
Then prime minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha also displayed an impressive knowledge when they toured the set at Titanic Studios in 2015.
Jay Roewe of HBO said: “You have to remember that when we started the show it was nowhere near the size and scope of where we ended up. Because of the show’s success, every season we had to outdo ourselves.”