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Belfast Set Visit Report: Part 5 and Last

[Note: You can read Part 4 here.]

It was about a 45 minute drive to Magheramorne, with our driver taking us past Carrickfergus Castle. GRRM quite admired it, and said he needed to visit it the next time he was in Northern Ireland. We spoke along the way about the production, how it’s very nearly matching GRRM’s wildest dreams, and the like. He also mentioned to me two particular points where small changes in the production may have some significant consequences in relation to fidelity to the series, but that these were things he was working with the executive producers on so that they wouldn’t be an issue. It was pretty remarkable to hear some of the little details in early books which are seeds for things that even now have not yet come to pass, and that even back when he started the series George had plans for things that wouldn’t come to fruition before the final novels.

On the whole, George and Parris sound quite happy with what they’ve witnessed and their interactions with the production. Stephen Warbeck’s selection as the composer was briefly brought up [note: Ramin Djawadi has since replaced Warbeck], and we had a laugh about Ladyhawke‘s daring (and, in our mutual opinions, ultimately failed) attempt to use typical 80’s synth music in the film. I suppose we’re all glad Toto wasn’t hired to score Game of Thrones. In discussing the need for the show—even one with a cast of about 300—to have to trim characters on occasion, George mentioned how he was sure there’d be complaints about some minor characters (at least, characters minor in A Game of Thrones) missing, and talked about the fans who seemed to love to support obscure characters.

For example, he has had fan mail regarding Lord Tytos Blackwood, a character who barely appears in the novels and is distinguishable just because of his raven-feather cloak and yellow-and-black armor. He wondered at this whole “Boba Fett syndrome”, which he’s spoken of before. Or, he said, take the Red Viper, a character who shows up in a few chapters .... I told him that I could understand his wondering at why Tytos would resonate with anyone in particular, but I did have to tell him that Red Viper fans were entirely his own fault, since he made such a charismastic character; Parris grinned and nodded her head in agreement at that.

Speaking of characters cut, in some cases there are partses which play a big role in later seasons, but who in this first season would have nothing to do but appear and speak a line or two. George said that the solution in some cases would be not unlike the “Ralphie Cifaretto” situation. Cifaretto (played by Joe Pantoliano) was introduced in the 3rd season of The Sopranos but viewers simply had to accept had always been around in the background even if he had never been mentioned before.

One more topic we touched on was the various forums for discussing the series, and particularly how certain characters were discussed. George suspected it quite possible that some of the characters with more vociferous detractors may well find much more support in their televised form; when much of the criticism comes from the way a character presents themselves purely through internal dialog, it may be that the lack of interior dialog on the show will make the character seem rather different. This reminds me of GRRM’s response to those who characterize characters like Catelyn as a “whiner”, where he pointed out that if you were never inside her head, you’d probably see the very strong and stalwart facade she tried to maintain without fully realizing the traumas and tragedies occupying her thoughts because she did her best to keep them to herself. Readers get a privileged position inside the heads of characters, and sometimes this can bias opinion (sometimes in the favor of a character, sometimes against them) which don’t quite fit with an outside view based solely on their actions.

Oh, Parris was greatly taken with Ron Donachie (Rodrik Cassel) as well. We took to talking a bit about George’s past works, and she said she always dreamed that Fevre Dream would be adapted. She then told me that if it were to happen, she really wished Donachie would play the lead role of Abner Marsh. It seems Donachie had read Fevre Dream many years before, and as we know from the past, has been an admirer of GRRM’s work for awhile. While Donachie was modertly uncertain that he could play such a role, Parris reassured him that he had her in his corner if an adaption of George’s Antibellum horror novel ever came about. I’d certainly pay to see it, as it’s a fantastic, gripping vampire story with some truly memorable characters.

We finally got to Magheramorne. We changed cars at the unit base, to something rather more robust, since the road the rest of the way into the quarry was a muddy, potholed, winding thing. George had warned me that layering up was best, because the Magheramorne site could be very windy and cold. It certainly was drizzling, but the weather hadn’t quite gotten cold enough for it to be more than a minor inconvenience (then again, I was used to giving the dog a walk in sub-zero morning temperatures just about then). As we rode along, the great quarry wall came into sight. George took great relish in sharing what he heard from the former quarry master, who now works with the production: from the surface of the lake at the foot of the quarry (this was once the location of the management offices, which are now underwater since the quarry was abandoned as a quarry site) to the top of the Magheramorne wall was a height of 400 feet. George was stunned, and kept looking at it and muttering, “I made the Wall too tall! It’s just too tall!” He later said that he had congratulated himself on not making it 1,000 feet tall, thinking that 700 was a more realistic figure. Quite a lot of chagrin and humor there, and he’d point this detail out to a couple of other people on the set while we were there.

When we stopped, I could see Castle Black a short walk up towards the face of Magheramorne, but what drew my attention was a dozen or so extras in the Night’s Watch uniforms, lining up at the catering area to get some hot food into them. They looked great, with their costumes looking worn and lived-in. And muddy. Oh, yes, muddy. There’s a lot of mud on site, and in my mind Magheramorne—which has a certain stark, natural beauty—became “that miserable mud-pit”. Greeted by HBO’s representatives, I was introduced to the international reporters (representing media in Canada, France, the United States, the Republic of Ireland, the U.K., and—yes—Sweden. The Swedish reporter and I were particularly introduced to one another, and funnily enough, she turned out to be an absolute fan of the series who had read all the books. She later asked me to take a photo of her with George.)

Let me pause here and say that at this point, I was sort of a hybrid of guest of the producers and media reporter. This means that my reporting on what I saw at Magheramorne has to be a sparse, because the reporters are embargoed until much nearer the air date, and so I’m going to respect that and leave things to them (maybe when the show airs and I see their reports, I can go back and fill in on things they missed). Let me just say that cast members such as Owen Teale (Ser Alliser Thorne), with his insightful interpretation of his character (which I later shared with GRRM, as he was very curious), and James Cosmo (Lord Commander Jeor Mormont), greatly impressed me as men of real craft and talent, and that they took this project on with complete determination to do the material justice. But this is how everyone I met that day and night seemed to be. I was also there for the David Benioff interview, where he said many of the things that were just what I wanted to hear about his approach to adapting this ambitious series.

So, besides these interviews, Bryan Cogman showed us all around to get a look at the set, which I’m told is a composite set, meaning it contains several distinct locations all together, so almost all Castle Black filming can happen right on the site. Everything looked real, even though I know many of these “stone” walls aren’t really any such thing. The reporters (and I) had hoped we could get a ride up in the elevator that’s providing the winch cage up to the Wall, but unfortunately a scene was filming and that simply wasn’t possible. An actor at the Moot later told me that the cage floor was basically a steel grid and you could see straight down as you went up the face of Magheramorne.

I mentioned a scene filming, huh? Happily, I can report on that. In fact, I saw two scenes, both from Episode 7, directed by Daniel Minahan. First, we had several takes of Lord Commander Mormont’s speech to the recruits as they were being passed on to become full members of the Watch. This scene involved most all the principal Night’s Watch actors, both recruits and officers, that have been named. It was a great experience to be there, to watch a scene being acted out that really was almost word-for-word from the novels (I was pretty sure of that when I heard it, and later double-checked it against the text).

The other scene I witnessed was also very close to the text, though a bit more compressed. This featured the incredible Peter Vaughan as Maester Aemon, who provides more detailed assignments and then has to deal with Jon Snow. Despite the rain, the cold, and his age, Mr. Vaughan was fantastic, showing Aemon’s undimmed wit. Harington as Jon Snow is a very intense young actor, and I think will fill the role admirably. It truly was a privilege to watch this being filmed. There’s an additional line here, a funny one, which George wondered aloud if that was his line or if they had added it. He laughed when I told him that it was new, remarking on my memory (well, I have read these books enough times!) David had to leave part way through the takes, and asked if he’d see me the next day at Paint Hall with the reporters. Alas, I was returning home then, but he thanked me for coming and hoped we’d meet again some time. Before he left, he handed me his headset so I could hear the dialog pretty much just as it would be on screen, while we all clustered around the monitors. In the course of this scene, George made a off-hand comment to Bryan Cogman about something he has planned for the series which was ... well. Unexpected. Very unexpected. And almost certainly likely to prove revelatory when it comes to pass.

One other thing we got to do was meet the sword smith involved in making man of the weapons, to discuss a bit about the job of his team. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say, they’ve made a lot of weapons for this production. In the hundreds, in fact. Many are simply cast out of resin, and are carried by extras who’ll never be looked at too closely. others are made of aluminum, for the fight scenes. Finally, a few are “hero” weapons, forged out of real steel. In the case of Valyrian steel blades, like Ice, they’ve created them using pattern-welded steel to get the appropriate rippling effect. The same goes for the infamous dagger… and for Longclaw, which was brought out for the reporters and I to see. I was grinning like a loon, I admit, when I was asked to hold its scabbard while George was holding it for a few photo opportunities.

Besides Longclaw, there was one more weapon, an unusual one because it was made of resin… but it was a “hero” weapon, in its way. It’s amazing what they can do with resin, including having it be entirely translucent, and still able to take a beating… I only wish I could have visited the armory where the weapons were designed, created, and stored; it did not seem to be at Paint Hall, but I may simply have missed it.

And with that, it was time to return to Belfast to get ready for the Moot. But I’ll leave this last set visit report with a remark I had from one of the reporters, later that evening at the Moot. I asked if they had much experience with being on television sets, and she told me they had been on a lot of TV sets before, in fact. I then asked what she thought of what we had seen, in light of thatexperience. Her response was that—bearing in mind they were primarily a television journalist—they had never seen anything so elaborate before, and it led her to suppose that this production was more like a film production than a television drama.

That’s what I took out of it, too. The time, effort, and passion that has been sunk into this project should leave us all very excited for when April 17, 2011 comes around. Something very sepcial is coming, thanks to HBO, thanks to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, thanks to all the cast and crew… and thanks, most of all, to George R.R. Martin, for creating a world that can be brought to life so vividly.

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