*WARNING: CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8*
On a studio lot in Belfast, two Westerosi northerners walk across a car park, a westie terrier barks by plywood walls, and a man uses a hose to water down a severed head. Yep, that’s Game of Thrones. But this isn’t the political fantasy epic we know and (kinda) still love. Regardless of your opinions on the final season, I invite you to lay down your swords and allow documentary filmmaker Jeanie Finlay to tell you the story of making season eight, not through its celebrity actors or notorious writers, but instead through its nameless crew – made not so nameless anymore.
We begin with Executive Producer Bernie Caufield walking around her office in the painfully mundane red brick building that houses the production offices. On the wall is a framed Emmy certificate, pinned GoT posters, photos of the crew flipping off the camera, and a commendable selection of filmmaking memes. From behind the camera, Jeanie tells Bernie she wants to get some shots of her working. “Of me doing my work? Oh god. Sure,” Bernie says, and mimes rapidly typing on the keyboard with a nervous laugh.
The first glimpse we get of the actual cast is a group of people huddling by the car park, most of them with their backs turned to the camera. Even though we’re far away, it seems incredibly intimate, like walking up to a group of old friends. They’re here for the table read, and inside script secretary, Kate McLaughlin is preparing. “I don’t know who has just read their part, [or] who has read the whole thing,” she tells us. Kit is apparently notorious for not reading the scripts before the read-throughs, evidenced at his great surprise when Jon stabs Dany.
In table reads, it’s up to you whether you read along or sit and listen, and Conleth Hill (Lord Varys) is the only one who seems to do the latter, holding a single page between his hand as Cogman reads through Jorah’s brutal stabbings at the battle of Winterfell, his face devastated like he’s there himself. Jeanie lets us hover on Conleth; for his final scene he closes his script, pushes it away and leans back. The rest of the table read is spent in clasped hands with Gwen beside him. It’s with an ironic sort of melancholy when we watch Kate send the scripts through the shredder afterwards: the beginning of the end.
But this doc stands out not because of its fan service in showing the stars’ final days on set, but rather because Jeanie has a beautiful talent of choosing different characters to take us along a journey. And those personalities aren’t limited to the faces on the posters. If The Last Watch itself was an epic fantasy, its hero would be extra Andy McClay, the Stark guard who comes back every year. He’s the kind of person who jumps excitedly between costume rails with Head of Wardrobe, Rachel, grinning like a kid in his armour, and staring in awe at the Stark statues from the Winterfell crypts in an open warehouse.
The supporting heroes are just as relatable. A woman in wellies talks (and swears) through a walkie in a field of mud. She’s Naomi Liston, Location Manager, and I’m in love the second she calls her job ‘great fun’ while we see her work in the pouring rain. There’s Leigh McCrum managing the studio lot coffee van, unaware of the omnipresent narration at Winterfell explaining how “there’s no Leigh coffee truck so we’re doing our best,” while director David Nutter half chokes on his improvised coffee.
Del Reid, Head of Snow, is amused at the idea of getting real snow at Winterfell. “We’ll probably have a part,” Del laughs. ‘It’s just not going to happen, is it’. Famous last words. And I have a personal soft spot for Patrick Strapazon, David Nutter’s PA, as he fiddles with a floor plan David’s made. “He likes it on US letter paper,” he explains, which proves a challenge with the copying machine. After several attempts and many sighs, he is victorious and returns to set ready to offer almonds out like candy.
The montage transitions show these individuals doing tiny details that aren’t designed to draw your eye in episodes – or aren’t even pictured – but would make the show grind to a stop if they weren’t there. Andy acting out of frame, Patrick collecting food from Leigh’s van, Naomi leading a truck into place. It really gives you a sense of how everyone comes together. “You are being employed to cope,” production designer Deborah Riley tells Jeanie in the car. The show demands “film finishes on a TV schedule with a TV deadline.”
What I love about this documentary is that it doesn’t hide the tough bits of the industry; the long hours, the exhaustion, the moment when you really question if it is worth it. When Co-Head of Prosthetics, Sarah Gower, Facetimes her daughter from the workshop, you can feel her reluctance to hang up. When, ironically, a snowstorm hits Winterfell, you feel for Del when he says he just wants to cry. As Bernie so wonderfully puts it: “what the fuck was I thinking, which is what I’m going to put on my tombstone.”
It can be very easy to project pessimism around the production of film and TV; there’s no denying that it tests working hours, social lives and emotional tethers. But The Last Watch doesn’t feel pessimistic because Jeanie still captures those moments when you can’t even question that it’s worth it. The buzzing silence before a take, the beauty of an empty set, the excitement of everyone involved.
It’s so different from the promotional videos released on YouTube that interview the cast extensively and look at the flashy pyrotechnics of making the show. In a way, I think Jeanie was freed by that because (from a marketing perspective) all the ‘cool’ stuff was covered, so she could look at the heart of what makes these productions happen – the heart of filmmaking – which is the tiny jobs. There is no role on a film set that isn’t required. Everyone is needed and so everyone has a story worth telling to her.
And it’s not like we never get to see the cast who are named in the opening credits, we follow Emilia’s final day and observe Jon and Dany in the frozen wilds of Iceland. But most of the time we see things from afar like we’re actually there on set; Battle of Winterfell director Miguel gives direction to Sophie and Maisie on a monitor, and we watch Jorah’s death scene from behind a camera and boom mic. After ‘cut’ has been called people bundle into the frame, and in a sliver between shoulders we see Emilia tearfully smile.
We get to see the extras tent where Northerners play chess, guitar, or read in a corner. Extras are literally designed to be dismissed on screen but Jeanie draws real attention to them in her documentary. In the streets of King’s Landing there is a man on a balcony, watching the people move below. Jeanie takes us up to him and he explains how he has to safely store his precious carpets laid out on the balcony from looters when the dragon queen invades, and all hell breaks loose. But for now, he can look across the street to another balcony where a pretty maiden is people-watching too.
In a cut, we’re across the street on her balcony and are shown how her precious pots are the first thing she must protect when chaos erupts. Action is called and suddenly from below we see Arya stalk the frantic streets, but now you can’t help but notice the man taking his carpets in from the balcony. These tiny details are what paint these extras – these small parts in the massive tapestry of the show – as full-blown actors and storytellers, as should be.
And on the last day of filming, having popped up again and again throughout the film, Jeanie lets Andy the extra have the voice of that final scene. We move through the set with him, see his performance between microphones and monitors, hear him explain the scene, and watch him as Kit says goodbye to Game of Thrones. As everyone walks away, another extra says thank you to him. “You did a great job there, dude,” Kit says with a pat on Andy’s shoulder. “Also for the extras, you know that like? You gave us all a bit of direction.” These are the tiny moments that Jeanie couldn’t have predicted but knows how to capture.
The Last Watch is about Season 8 of Game of Thrones, intrinsically. We follow the eight-month build of King’s Landing that will soon be rubble, we see the table reads and the logos plastered everywhere – but it’s about showing that there are no small parts too. This could have so easily have been about the main cast and the notorious Heads of Department, but in the closing sequence of the film we see the Leigh’s coffee van crew taking a group photo, we see Bernie cutting cake and handing it out to makeup artists, PAs, sound recordists alike, and Andy taking off his sword belt and placing it down for the last time.
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Reviews, Women Film-makers
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