It’s not exactly uncommon for HBO’s Game of Thrones to break a record of some kind. Such as: The most Emmys ever awarded to a scripted series. Or: The world’s largest TV simulcast (when season 5 debuted in 173 countries at the same time). Or almost certainly: The most Funko figurines ever sold by a drama series (the Night King one glows in the dark!).
But the upcoming seventh season is claiming a very different kind of record behind the scenes: The most people ever set on fire by an entertainment production.
“In one battle scene we set more stuntmen on fire than have ever been simultaneously set on fire,” showrunner David Benioff tells Entertainment Weekly. “Our stunt coordinator really wanted to get in the Guinness Book of World Records for this.”
Sadly, Guinness doesn’t track movie and TV productions setting people on fire, according to a spokesperson for the organization. But we spoke to Thrones‘ Emmy-winning stunt coordinator, Rowley Irlam (whose credits include many James Bond, Marvel and Harry Potter films) about what went down on the set.
“One sequence has 73 fire burns and that itself is a record,” Irlam said. “No film or TV show has ever done that in a whole show, let alone in one sequence. We also set 20 people on fire at one time, which is also a record. I think in Saving Private Ryan they had 13 on a beach, and on Braveheart they had 18 partial burns. Because of the nature of our attacking animals, we had the liberty to expand on that.”
Those attacking animals are, of course, dragons. Really big dragons. As the season 7 trailer shows, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) arrives in Westeros with her trio of dragons and, at some point, unleashes them upon enemy forces.
Setting even one stuntman on fire, even with modern protective gear, is highly dangerous. The stuntman is covered with fire-resistant clothes, a cooling gel and a mask. But once they’re set ablaze they have to hold their breath until the shot is complete and the flames have been entirely extinguished. The whole process takes roughly 30 seconds. That might not sound very long, but when you’re on fire, cannot see, are wearing heavy gear and flailing around pretending to suffer, it can seem like a very long time indeed.
“It’s totally different from going underwater in your bathtub and counting the seconds in your head,” Irlam says. “If somebody bumps you and you breathe in by accident you will breathe in flame.”
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And the most dangerous part is actually after you’re extinguished. At the moment, the active part of the stunt is over and the stuntman naturally wants to breathe again. But it’s always possible the fire could unexpectedly spark back up. “The most dangerous thing is re-ignition,” Irlam says. “There’s a good minute of everybody staying down afterward as you’re still very flammable at this point.”
So filming 20 stuntmen on fire together in a single shot compounded the complexity and danger. Thankfully, across three weeks of stunt shooting, the production only suffered one stuntman burning his hand.
Overall, Irlam strove to make sure each stuntman set ablaze gave a unique performance which humanized every casualty. “We try to think about what this would actually feel like to make it real for the viewers,” he says. “We do different performances so hopefully you look through the fire and see a human being in the final throes of life. We try very hard to make it really feel like a casualty of war.”
Game of Thrones returns July 16 on HBO.