Despite being hailed as “the biggest show in the world,” and covered far and wide by every sort of publication, Game of Thrones is still full of stories yet to be heard — like those of the many people who went to work everyday off-set and behind the cameras. From prosthetics to stunts to fake snow, Jeanie Finlay’s documentary Game of Thrones: The Last Watch was created to share the real behind-the-scenes stories with the fans, and say goodbye to a series that wasn’t just about dragons and direwolves, but a community of people whose commitment to storytelling was, at times, larger than life.
HBO: Before making The Last Watch what was your relationship with Game of Thrones?
Jeanie Finlay: I had sort of flit in and out [of watching it], but Game of Thrones is such a phenomenon I knew that winter was coming, and I knew Jon Snow knew nothing. But making The Last Watch I got up to speed pretty quickly — I’m in a running club and most of the women are really into Game of Thrones, so we’d do these long runs and talk about the characters and what was going to happen and who was going to sit on the throne.
HBO: There’s so much going on behind the scenes of GoT, how did you decide who and what to include in the documentary?
Jeanie Finlay: Everyone who appears in the film is someone who either I just fell in love with, or did a job that was so quintessentially Game of Thrones that I just had to put them in the film. [Executive producer] Bernie Caulfield asked me to make a film about the final season but to focus on, I think she put it, “the people at the back cutting the vegetables.” What I tried to do was show a real breadth of access: I’m at the table read with all of the actors, I’m in the office with Bernie while she’s making decisions about how they’re going to deliver everything on time, I’m with an extra who may or may not be seen.
HBO: There’s a lot of ‘making-of’ content around Thrones, how is The Last Watch different?
Jeanie Finlay: The audience is already well served on the behind-the-scenes of how the episodes came together, so I felt my job was really different. We didn’t have to explain how dragons work or dragon glass is made, so we tried not to get stuck in those traps. It was about observing and seeing what unfolded.
For example, I liked hanging out with the stuntmen, and I realized that Vlad [Furdik] was really special because he plays one of the most well-known, biggest villains in the world [the Night King]. So it becomes a question of how do we get to know Vlad through the film? What does it mean when your character dies? Is that a liberation? What are the struggles with being not really well-known? The Night King is going to die, it’s a no-brainer, you’re going to film that. However, when we were in Seville, we didn’t know Vlad was going to walk up and talk to the crowd the way he did. We just happened to be filming. So it’s partially having the confidence to see what’s the story in the moment and run with it.
HBO: How did you approach the narrative thread after shooting over a year’s worth of footage?
Jeanie Finlay: For every person you show, you’ve got to work out why working on GoT means something to them. Otherwise it’s like, who cares? I want to be moved by people. I think all of my films are populated by characters who are a bit surprising. When I met [extra] Andrew McClay, I knew, “I’ve just found the guy who’s going take us through the whole film.” And when I met [director] David Nutter, pretending to be a dragon and fake growling with Kit [Harington] and Emilia [Clarke] I just knew I had to know more about that man. Sometimes in the film, it’s not about the narrative of GoT but about challenging the expectations of the people you meet. Hopefully you get to know them and may feel differently about them at the end of the film.
HBO: Was there a moment on set that really blew you away?
Jeanie Finlay: Just the scale of all of it. They built a city on a parking lot — that’s insane. You go to work and 25 men are being set on fire, or stuntmen are casually falling off a wall. I spent the first part of it just wandering around, looking at stuff, and just thinking, “This is extraordinary.” But you do become accustomed to it very quickly! It becomes completely normal seeing a White Walker wandering around having a cigarette or queuing up for a toastie. I think that was surprising: how quickly it became just like second nature.
HBO: Is it different watching the series now that you’ve had this experience on set?
Jeanie Finlay: It’s like watching high-budget glossy home movies. A part of you is entranced by the story, but you’re also watching thinking, “I was there” or “this looks different” or “Wow, look what they’ve done with the CGI.” Everytime I see snow I think of Del [Reid], or I gave a cheer every time Andrew gets screentime. Plus, my daughter is in the final scene as an extra. So I was over the moon to see her on screen. I can’t watch the show without feeling those things now.
HBO: What are you hoping people who watch this doc take away from it?
Jeanie Finlay: I want people to feel moved. I want people to feel like they could enjoy the film even if they didn’t have a history with Game of Thrones. And I want those who are fans to feel the hundreds of easter eggs and tiny treats we’ve hidden inside the film and to get the chance to say goodbye. And fall in love with these amazing people who allowed me to spend time with them.