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Nottingham-Based Award-Winning Film Maker Jeanie Finlay on Her Official Game of Thrones Documentary The Last Watch

6 June 19 interview: Ashley Carter

We talk to the Notts-based documentary maker, about Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, the film she crafted after spending a year embedded during filming of the final series of the HBO hit series…

How did the opportunity to make a documentary about the final season of the biggest series in television history present itself?
About two years ago I received an email that just said, “HBO want to speak to you tomorrow. Take the call.” I Googled the name, and found out that it was about Game of Thrones. Of course I knew “Winter is coming” and “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” but I didn’t know the show inside out like I do now. So the call came, and HBO asked me how I would approach making a documentary about the final season. My answer was that I’d approach it like I would any other film - by observing, listening and thinking about what seemed interesting. It’s weird, because Seahorse and Game of Thrones are both examples of a film finding me, and they’re the only two films I’ve ever said yes to after being approached with ideas.

How did you go about making the film your own?
The challenge for me was in wondering whether I could make a film that looks like my films look, and has the intimacy that my films have. Could I find the small details in the biggest canvas in the world? I’ve made a career out of films that look at the dirt under the glitter of pop culture, so I was really interested in the smallness within all of the spectacle. That was my own personal challenge. I was then told that Bernie Caulfield, the show’s Executive Producer, wanted to meet with me that week in LA. After that, it was a case of meeting the showrunners and immersing myself in the world of Game of Thrones. I was training for a half marathon at the time, the morning of my interview I ran eight miles and watched The Battle of the Bastards on a treadmill. They were so generous and open, and I just felt that the more I was myself, the more they responded to the ideas that I had.

So, you had unlimited access to one of the biggest television productions ever made. Where did you start?
You just pick up a camera and start filming. I was filming three weeks after being told I got the gig. My first move was to call Mark Bushnell (Finlay’s regular Director of Photography), and tell him to drop everything. A lot of the process with HBO was making sure they trusted me to make the film I wanted to make. If you’re making an observational film, what you have to do is observe, and trust your gut. I went out to look at the potential filming locations with the producers, the designer Deb and Miguel (Sapochnik - director of episodes three and five of Season Eight) to Dubrovnik, Spain and all around Northern Ireland. I remember standing in the Dragon Pit in Italica, Spain and they were saying “We’re definitely not going to film here.” Cut to a year later, and we’re all there again, filming.

Game of Thrones already has an enormously successful behind-the-scenes team that generate hundreds of hours of great material – but it has a very clean, distinct style. Interviewees know what the questions are going to be ahead of time and it’s shot on big cameras with sliders and lighting. I wanted to make sure we did something different, to see if we could make a run and gun film, that was nimble and responsive. I wandered around the set and studios talking to different people, and once we’d started, it became really apparent which people were going to be the focus of my documentary.

I’ve made a career out of films that look at the dirt under the glitter of pop culture, so I was really interested in the smallness within all of the spectacle. That was my own personal challenge

What traits do you look for when you’re deciding which people to focus on?
Making documentaries is a bit like falling in love. Sometimes it’s hard to define, but you’ve got to really fall in love with people. I’m always looking for someone that has a story to tell, or someone who defies expectations. You might think they’re one thing at the beginning of the film, but at the end you feel completely different about them. The gap between those two points is where the film lies. One of the things that’s interesting about both this and Seahorse is that they’re both films without interviews, I talk to the people from behind the camera, and the audience is witnessing our relationship, but I never sit them down and make them talk to me in a structured way. They’re always doing something, they’re always working.

I’m guessing that approach to filming makes the edit a lot more difficult…
Oh yeah, it’s a total nightmare! But you get a much better film as a result, because it’s so much more intimate.

What lengths did HBO go to to ensure that no spoilers from the shoot were released?
Oh, it was ridiculous and hilarious. The existence of the film itself was secret, which meant that for almost two years, no-one outside of my family and close friends knew what I was doing. HBO sent a tech team of three people over from New York to Broadway Cinema – they photographed the office, installed cameras and installed a secure line so that all of the encrypted material could be sent from New York. I think we had about five thousand non-disclosure agreements signed throughout the production – literally everyone that was involved on any level had to sign one, and we even had to use code names when we were mapping the edit out on the office wall.

There have been quite a few stories about how punishing the night shoots for Season Eight were. What was your experience of them?
Hand warmers do not work! Yeah, it was freezing and really, really tough. Not only because of the weather, but the physicality of filmmaking; holding a camera for so long when you’re in Iceland and it’s -18०C. You’re wearing enormous snow gear, and every single step you make can be heard on camera. Obviously, I knew I was in this absolutely beautiful location, but it was pretty hard going.

Did those night shoots provide the biggest challenge?
No, I’d say the biggest challenge was just holding stamina. The shoot for the series was ten months, but we shot for fourteen, and then a further seven months of editing. The challenge comes in keeping in mind the film I wanted to make, making bold choices and being okay with them. This isn’t an indie film that I’ll put out in the cinema, and people may or may not see it. The Last Watch will have an audience, and that made me glad that we made the film in secret. It’s only now that the show has gone out and I’ve heard the volume of the audience that I would have been too scared to make it, or that I would have felt the weight of that pressure. But actually, I was just able to ignore it completely.

HBO sent a tech team of three people over from New York to Broadway Cinema – they photographed the office, installed cameras and installed a secure line so that all of the encrypted material could be sent.

Was there still a sense of pressure and expectation that you were documenting the end of one of the biggest franchises in the world?
I had to just make a film that I believe in; it’ll live or die on that. It’s the same as Seahorse: will the audience like it or not? Whether it’s pronounced dead or alive doesn’t change the film itself. When you finish a film, you have to let it go. That’s really hard to do when it just goes out on TV, so we’ve organised two public screenings, one in Belfast and one at Broadway Cinema. The film is really emotional, because it’s about saying goodbye, so I wanted to take the film home to the heart of Game of Thrones - to Belfast and to Nottingham, to be with my family, my friends and the people at Broadway who helped us keep it a secret.

How did you react when you found out that demand for tickets for the Nottingham screening crashed the Broadway Cinema website?
I was a bit worried that people wouldn’t book tickets, because people sometimes don’t view documentaries in the same way as they do fiction. Then it broke the website and I thought, oh, ‘I guess people are going to come then!’

I guess watching Season Eight when it aired was a pretty surreal experience...
It was like watching a home movie. I watched the finale in a hotel room in London with Alice Powell, my editor and Hannah Peel, who wrote the beautiful score for the film. It’s hard to watch it with fresh eyes, but I was just cheering everything, especially when I saw my daughter, who was an extra in the final scene. I went to the world premiere of the show at Radio City Music Hall in New York, which was just brilliant. I just had that feeling of, ‘Oh my God, this is magic’. And it is magic. The process has been like watching a chef preparing all of the ingredients, and then seeing the final meal. That’s how the show felt for me, it’s amazing.

Game of Thrones: The Last Watch aired on Sky Atlantic on Monday 27 May and is available On Demand now.

Jeanie Finlay website

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