David Nutter takes PEOPLE behind the scenes of some of the most impactful moments from the season 5 finale
Spoilers for the season 5 finale of Game of Thrones are below!
If a Game of Thrones finale happens and you don’t feel as if your heart has been wrenched bodily from your chest, did it really happen?
It’s an existential question we’ve not yet had the opportunity to consider given the unending tragedy constantly battering the denizens of Westeros and beyond. While the entire season has been dire – remember that time Stannis set his daughter alight? – it was the death of Jon Snow during Sunday’s finale that shocked even the most jaded of viewers.
The masterfully shot episode was the work of David Nutter, who has directed a number of the series’ most impactful episodes, including season 3’s Red Wedding.
In a chat with PEOPLE, the director – who has also been behind the camera of some of the most buzzy pilots on television, including Arrow and The Flash – provides some behind-the-scenes intel into the episode’s most shocking moments and confirms yet again that yes, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is dead. Sorry.
You’ve been behind the camera for two major Stark deaths – should GoT fans be afraid when they see your name in the episode credits?
[Laughs] I think that they would hopefully not be afraid, but when they get to episodes 9 and 10 of each season, they have to know that there’ll definitely be some comeuppance for certain characters. That’s normally when plots that have been boiling and building up for an entire season come to fruition.
Have you read the books?
As a director, I really have to rely on my first impression because I utilize that to best tell the story – that’s all the audience has. I let the scripts be my Bible. It’s a situation in which I want that to be the focus of my attention and I don’t want it to be clouded by a different perspective or something that may take my eye off the ball of what my assignment really is which, in my mind, is to take the amazing scripts from David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] and to visualize that and to make that a tactile thing.
The books inform a lot of the theories surrounding Jon Snow – I don’t suppose you have any of your own thoughts about what might happen to him?
I can definitely tell you that after all those stab wounds, he’s a dead man.
[Longwinded explanation for why I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Jon Snow followed by the acknowledgment that I know Nutter can’t actually confirm or deny]
[Laughs] Anything I say would be the wrong answer!
The episode left us on a number of cliffhangers – like Sansa and Theon and Brienne and Stannis, for example – and despite their circumstances being dire, the scenes felt almost optimistic, like Sansa and Theon might survive or like Stannis could find his way out of this one. Is the optimism well-founded?
Within the darkness and gloom and terrible things that happen to most of these characters … in a season finale, you want to satisfy the hunger that the audience has for certain things to happen, but you also want to surprise the audience and you want to give them something to look forward to. You want to build up and tee up the next season, so, I think David and Dan are brilliant with respect to setting up not only the circumstances for which there were some moments of optimism and hope but also the moments of powerful, heart-wrenching stuff that I think was well-executed.
Speaking of Stannis . did he die?
I can say that when Brienne pulls up her longsword and basically hikes it back as if she’s going to do a big downswing and slice him in two, I would say that [his death] is quite the inevitable event.
It did look that way, but we didn’t see it happen! Given what he has done over the season – and especially to Shireen – it might have been satisfying to see him killed on screen. If he is dead, why the choice to have him die off-screen?
I think that it’s a situation in which it felt like such a strong and inevitable part of his journey, that going to the next step would have felt gratuitous.
Finally, during that scene, I thought I saw Stannis’ eyeline shift when Brienne was delivering her long speech. It was almost like a Bond villain speech – by the time the villain finishes telling Bond how he’s going to die, the villain is foiled. Could there have been someone behind Brienne? Maybe Melisandre?
I think that Stannis was focusing on himself and what was happening to him. He was bleeding out. He knew his end was near, and I think that one’s mind tends to, in a sense, rewind back to the parts of your life that you remember most. So I think that his heart and soul was reaching out for some type of order to this madness that basically happened to him. I feel like he felt such a remorse for his actions and what he had done that he felt it was an inevitability that this would happen to him.
What were the final farewells like for Harington and the rest on set?
There was a real sadness. They’re all professionals, but after five seasons, you become a family. You work together, you live together. You’re quite tight with each other, so there’s a real sadness and lots of hugs and kisses and all that kind of stuff. You get attached – it’s quite a powerful situation and it’s a very strong bond that you are really quite saddened [to see end].
Can you say anything about the man inside the armor – the one who carried Cersei up to her chambers after her literal walk of shame? We could see he was different from the eyes, but the way he was shot also made him appear otherworldly gigantic. Is he someone we know? Can you say anything about him?
All I can say is that if you watched all the prior episodes it looked like someone who was quite a large man, probably the largest man of all of Westeros
Someone that could be who that is. I think that is probably the best guess of who the physical person is. It could be The Mountain, of course. But I have no idea with respect to it other than that. There are probably not too many people in Westeros of that size who are just hanging out.
What are the logistics of shooting an episode? How long does it take, given all the different locations?
[For season 5], I was away for six months in Europe – in Croatia, Spain and Northern Ireland. I was gone for six months for two episodes.
Wow. You took a break in season 4 due to the hectic schedule – can we expect to see you in season 6, or are there no grisly Stark deaths to film next season?
Season 6 will be one where I’ll have to take a break. I wanted to physically survive the big fighting pit scene [in “The Dance with Dragons”] and while I did physically survive, my knee didn’t quite make it. I had to get a little knee surgery that I’m recuperating from right now. But I will be back for season 7 if they want me, for sure.
To catch Nutter’s next work, check out Containment, which premieres on The CW in early 2016. “It’s really quite something,” says Nutter of the pilot. “I compare it to when Homeland came to Showtime – it’s thematically different than normally seen on CW shows but it’s smart. It’s really compelling. It’s one of those water-cooler shows where you’ll be looking forward to seeing the next episode, kind of like Game of Thrones. It’s edge-of-your-seat drama.”