NYCC Interview: Deborah Riley Discusses Production Design and ‘Game of Thrones’ [EXCLUSIVE]

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Image Courtesy of HBO
Image Courtesy of HBO

This past weekend, Nerds and Beyond had the chance to interview several guests in the entertainment industry at New York Comic Con. Our next interview was with Deborah Riley, the production designer on Game of Thrones from 2014 to 2018. Riley was at NYCC to celebrate her new book created by HBO and Insight Editions, The Art of Game of Thrones, which she co-authored.

Nerds caught up with her to discuss her favorite sets to create and her time on Game of Thrones.

Nerds and Beyond: What was the most difficult set to create? 

Riley: That is easily the season eight King’s Landing set, just because it needed to go through so many different phases. There was so much we had to accommodate — it had to be in pristine condition, had to be in a firestorm, and it had to go through destruction and a complete devastation, and just working all of that out with a special effects team how that would happen…and working with [director] Miguel Sapochnik on where he needed the characters to be at different points in time. And it was a complete nightmare, just the mental aerobics that it took to put that thing together.

Nerds and Beyond: Was it hard to watch it burning down? 

Riley: Well the special effects people sort of did that thing, but we did have to tear it down to make it look realistic. 

Nerds and Beyond: Was that hard for you guys after building it? 

Riley: Well the good thing was that it was also very symbolic of all of us getting ready to leave as well, because that was the end of the shoot. There were a lot of mixed feelings about it all — we can’t keep on doing this forever, but I also don’t want it to end. It was really tricky.

Nerds and Beyond: You guys built out the set of King’s Landing for the last season. Did you film in Dubrovnik before?

Riley: Historically, King’s Landing filmed in Dubrovnik. So when it came to season eight, at least we had a template for what it was. We couldn’t build quite to that scale; we are limited to two or three stories. But the template was there, and we actually went out and visited Dubrovnik and took a lot of measurements and selected particular buildings that we would recreate that would be the kind of thing that would catch your eye if you knew Dubrovnik. In terms of building the set, it gave us the rhythm of the city and the rhythm of the battle, because the battle was massive.

Nerds and Beyond: What was your favorite or most difficult part of shooting the giant fight scene in the Battle of Winterfell?

Riley: The great thing about that was we got to see more of Winterfell! We’d only seen such a small portion of it, but we were finally able to give Winterfell the big front gate that it always deserved and a decent-sized courtyard showing all different back-of-house kind of activities that we’ve never really seen in the castle before, so that was really fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed that — to be able to create the library. And originally it was written to have even more, but we kind of maxed out what we could do. But just to be able to extend Winterfell was brilliant, and to be able to turn it into the castle that we always wanted it to be…It was fantastic.

Nerds and Beyond: Did expanding the show’s scope make keeping continuity in the production design harder, or was it pretty consistent?

Riley: We tried to be as consistent as we could, and then really it came down to the requirements for each individual season. We couldn’t limit ourselves exactly, but at the same time, if we needed to expand in ways that we had not been expecting, then we still had to do that. So sometimes we were breaking our own rules from earlier seasons, and then other times we are sort of sticking to what would set out. We just had to take it case-by-case. And it was an interesting process, because Winterfell would never have even been built in the location that it was if we knew that they were going to have to have this big battle out in the front of it. So you’ve always got to advance and also reuse what you have from earlier. That was why we had to build another big set of gates, because the gates we already had didn’t have any room in front of them. I needed to constantly keep on adjusting what we had in order to suit the situation that was in front of us. Had everybody known way back in the pilot in season one how it would end at season eight, then it would have been designed differently. That’s kind of a challenge, bringing in that kind of logic and making it work for the shots that you need.

Nerds and Beyond: Was there something in the set design where you think “I wish I could fix that” or “I wish I could change that?”

Riley: On season four, it was funny. We designed Dany’s penthouse. There was a waterfall at the back of the set that Dan and David didn’t like, and somehow in the approval process, they didn’t realize it was still in the drawings, and I honestly hadn’t explained it properly. So whenever I would see that, I would always think it was such a shame, because we had to go back and redesign and fix it up for the following season, because there was a big error in the set. It meant that for season four, they could only shoot in very limited directions [to avoid the waterfall]. If I had my time over, I would make sure that was all set and ready to go!

Nerds and Beyond: How hard was it to keep secrets from your family and friends as the show got bigger? 

Riley: You know for me it was really easy, because I didn’t want to spoil it for them, and I wanted them to enjoy it in real-time. What I found really difficult, especially in season eight — just because it was so traumatic what we were doing and because I was physically exhausted — I just wanted to be able to talk about it, and I couldn’t. That was the hardest thing. I never wanted to spoil any plot but I was just so physically and emotionally drained that I would have loved to have been able to say when we pulled down King’s Landing and burnt it and did all that. But of course, I couldn’t even say that! So that’s the part that I found hard — not keeping spoilers away, but just talking about my everyday life. I couldn’t say anything for a year, so that was the part that I found hard. But I’m really glad that my friends and my parents and everybody just enjoyed it in real time with everybody else.

Nerds and Beyond: Last question — if you could be in any of the houses, which house would you be in?

Riley: I’d want to be following Brienne of Tarth to be honest. She’s got my vote! She should have her own house; that’s what I’ll lobby for! [She’s] the only one I trust. I’d follow Brienne anywhere.

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By Jules
I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.
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