Swordplay, fistfights, horse charges, fiery deaths — when it comes to stunt work, HBO’s House of the Dragon runs the full gamut. Four-time Emmy winner Rowley Irlam is the show’s coordinator tasked with safely turning on-set action into fantasy mayhem. His experience stretches across nearly 30 years of films and shows — including the James Bond, Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises, plus Dragon‘s successor, Game of Thrones. In a conversation with THR, Irlam reveals the season’s biggest challenges and teases the show’s epic battles to come.
When the scripts come to you, do you get first crack at deciding whether something is practical stunt work or CG? Do you ever push for something to be done one way versus the other?
The whole world of computer-generated [filmmaking] is constantly evolving. Rather than anything replacing real life, it’s more about harnessing those technologies to enhance real life. The desire is to do as much as possible in-camera that’s safe. We’re working together in a symbiosis as opposed to being one or the other. It’s really just trying to get those Game of Thrones moments where the audience is visually stimulated by something they’re not expecting to see.
What Dragon stunt made you the most nervous on set?
I shouldn’t be nervous on a set. If I’m nervous, they probably should get someone who isn’t!
OK, what would have made you the most nervous if you weren’t as great at your job as you are?
We’ve had guys falling 25 feet while on fire. That’s always hazardous because there’s the impact of going into the big bag and you don’t want to be breathing in [while on fire]. But what got me the most excited was the jousting tournament. I started my career being in a jousting tournament when I was 19, so it was really exciting to be presented with this opportunity and to make every event in that sequence feel different so we weren’t repeating ourselves.
That has to be so tricky to pull off. There’s no unbruised version of shooting that and getting knocked around.
Totally. Everything was designed to be visually high-impact. You can’t soften those impacts, but you can make them safe. You make them so that you are not going to break your arm or land on your head. They’re all choreographed to look dynamic. We had 300 breakaway lances that got broken. I’m really proud that we flew the cameras as well — we did a camera all down the [center dividing] rail with a tension line and remote control, so we get as close as possible to the action.
With Daemon [Targaryen, played by Matt Smith], the idea is that jousting is a bit like polo to him; it’s a rich man’s sport and he’s good at it, but he finds it boring. What can we do to embarrass him but not hurt him, and that hasn’t been done before? That’s how we came up with the idea of laying him on the rail. It really pressed the right buttons for his character.
Speaking of horses, settle an online debate: Could a man really spook a horse into rearing up and throwing its rider, like Daemon seemingly did to kill his wife?
Yes. The way we did it was Matt grabs the reins of the horse and pulls hard. I promise you: If you do that to a horse, it will pull back, even when there’s an actor on them. If a horse is startled and someone grabs hold of its head, it will want to go up — not necessarily up and over backward, that’s a cinematic interpretation of what happened — but, yes, that is a real thing that could happen. The horse that went over backward was mechanical, by the way.
What was most challenging stunt of the season?
The kid night fight [when Lucerys fights with Aemond]. We had kids ranging from 9 to 13, and we couldn’t use doubles for them. The kids don’t know how to film a fight. How are we going to do this? We taught them how to throw a punch, how to change it if the camera angle was different, how to fall over. We built a set and filled it with rubber clippings about four inches deep so they couldn’t hurt themselves. We went into a blackened tunnel for three days and weren’t coming out until we’d finished. It was good fun, but hard work.
Among the actors, who’s most capable with a sword? I know Kit Harington was really adept on the first series.
On the previous show, a lot of the cast got to be proficient because they had seasons under their belt. Some of our cast have done something [with swords] before, but not a great deal. But everyone did really well. Matt Smith and Fabien Frankel did well. Ewan Mitchell [who plays Prince Aemond Targaryen] did really well — he came from a show [called] The Last Kingdom, so he’d obviously picked up a weapon. He had building blocks that we could build on. But sometimes it’s good to get people when they’re fresh and they haven’t developed any bad habits. I’m not disappointed in anything we did.
Thrones was religious about using real fire whenever possible, and I’ve noticed CG fire more often in Dragon — for example, sometimes I see it in shots where I think you could have done that practically. What’s the show’s policy toward when you use CG versus real?
Obviously, I’m not a fan of non-real fire.
You can always tell when it’s fake.
You can. And [CG] did creep into Thrones. Often [the decision will be made] on the day [of filming]. If we’re setting 20 people on fire, I don’t want to do it on a day there’s even a 50 percent chance of rain — because things don’t ignite properly and it doesn’t look good, yet it still costs you the same amount of money, and it’s a very expensive activity. So that’s when it’s augmented.
On Thrones, you famously established a record for the number of people set on fire in a single scene. Are you going to top that on Dragon?
We didn’t top it in season one. I’m not sure if my NDA will let me say whether we top it in season two. We never set it for a record. But if a scene demands it and that’s something [the producers] want, then we will accommodate.
You’re going to have some big battles. Do you expect the stunt scope of any of them will rival what Thrones put you through on “Battle of the Bastards”?
If I didn’t top those episodes, I’d still be very proud of what we’ve done. But we haven’t given up, and the desire is always to go bigger and better — but to not repeat. We don’t want “Battle of the Bastards 2” or “Hardhome 2” or “Spoils of War 2.” We’re always trying to find new sequences we can get our teeth into.
Is there anything on your Thrones stunt wish list that you haven’t gotten to yet?
It’s not a secret that in this story there’s a battle at sea [Dragon is based on George R.R. Martin’s book Fire & Blood, which describes the massive Battle of the Gullet]. I think that’s where we’re headed.
A sea battle is something that Thrones struggled to pull off. They didn’t have the budget to do the Battle of the Blackwater like it is in the book in season two, and the sea battle in season seven with Euron was cool but was mainly confined to the deck of one ship. Would it still be shot in a car park with CG water, as with Thrones? I assume doing it on water would be prohibitively expensive.
There are two words in there — “prohibitive” and “expensive” — and I don’t like the first word. The desire is to expand our repertoire to a large sea battle. You can do a sea battle in a car park, but it won’t necessarily feel the same. But there are water tanks, and there’s a tank here in Leavesden. If you’re going to do it, I think you need to do it in a tank. But let’s see what happens.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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