The two-part report continues on the set of ‘Dragon’: The cast opens up about their characters, the showrunners explain how the new series tackles issues of race and sexual violence, and a look at the franchise’s future. Plus, the show’s new official trailer.
After HBO spent years searching to find the ideal successor series to the king of its platform, network executives picked a story that was about … what else? A struggle for succession.
On the House of the Dragon’s set at Leavesden Studios outside London, showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal sit just steps below the iconic Iron Throne. Visitors to this 24,000-square-foot room tend to have the same awed reaction: It’s is such a vast ornamental space that it feels like you’re in a sacred temple, and your instinct is to drop your voice to a whisper. Looking closer, some details have changed from the original series: The throne room’s towering pillars have become statues of foreboding Targaryen kings, dragon eggs nest in coal-fueled “incubators” and the iconic Iron Throne itself has added rows of perilous twisted swords.
Sapochnik breaks down the prequel’s story in the simplest of terms: “The main characters are two women and two men. There’s the king (Viserys), his brother (Daemon), the king’s daughter (Rhaenyra) and her best friend (Alicent). Then the best friend becomes the king’s wife and thereby the queen. That in itself is complicated — when your best friend goes and marries your dad. But from the tiniest things, it slowly evolves this gigantic battle between two sides.”
If that setup sounds more intimate than Thrones, it is. For all its action set pieces (there is a spectacular joust tourney in the pilot), one of the clearest differences between the two shows is that House of the Dragon feels like a family drama (with a dash of incest, of course).
Explains HBO and HBO Max content chief Casey Bloys: “I liked the idea of focusing on one family, and obviously the Targaryens have a lot of drama to go around. I also liked the echo of how empires can quickly fall — those are the types of conversations we are having in our own country, which I don’t think is anything I would’ve thought we’d be talking about 20 years ago.”
Condal solved the pesky when-to-start-the-story problem of show’s source material with a rather bold move that’s roughly in line with author George R.R. Martin’s vision. The season opens with its female leads as teens (played by Emily Carey and Milly Alcock). Midway through the season, the story jumps 10 years and the roles are taken over by Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One) and Emma D’Arcy (Truth Seekers). The show’s two male leads are older and played by the same actors throughout. There are additional multiyear time jumps within the 10-episode season as well — a structure more like the way The Crown unfolds over the course of its entire run than like Thrones.
“This is how you tell this story correctly,” Condal says. “We’re telling a story of a generational war. We set everything up so by the time that first sword stroke falls, you understand all the players.”
Bloys admits being apprehensive about the high-concept structure, but not because it risks making the first season more of a slow burn than battle-hardened Thrones fans might expect. “It made me nervous because it’s hard enough to cast any role, but if you’re casting two characters of different ages, you have to be right four times,” he says. “Now that I’ve seen the result, I feel really good about it.”
The toughest role to fill was grown-up Princess Rhaenyra, the king’s dragon-riding daughter who eventually goes to war to fight for her claim to the Iron Throne.
D’Arcy (who uses “they/them” pronouns) was less known than some of the other actors in contention and looks entirely unlike the ethereal, platinum-blond Targaryens in real life. But Condal and Sapochnik were won over by their auditions and the actor was able to identify with the fantastical character on a very human level.
Rhaenyra has an ongoing battle with what it means to be a woman and is a fundamental outsider. She’s terrified of getting locked into motherhood and is aware of how her position would be different if she were male. I’m a nonbinary person. I’ve always found myself both pulled and repelled by masculine and feminine identity and I think that plays out truthfully here. She can’t attend court in a way that comes easily to other people.
Much of the show’s action plays out in The Red Keep — the seat of power in King’s Landing from which the Targaryens rule. Sapochnik gives a tour, pointing out familiar sites from Thrones, such as the staircase where the Hound and the Mountain fought their fateful last battle and the courtyard where Cersei once threatened Littlefinger. These once-separate sets have been re-created as a united playscape of interconnected rooms and staircases, where directors can stage action that seamlessly flows from one room to another.
“You could have moved in and literally lived in The Red Keep,” Considine says. “I’ve never been on a set where you just keep walking around and finding rooms and staircases.”
There was plenty of on-location filming as well — 10 weeks hopping around Spain, Portugal and Northern England. But the production also had a handy tool for transporting actors to otherworldly locations that the original series didn’t have — an LED video wall for adding real-time backgrounds to scenes (like the one Disney+ employs on its Star Wars shows).
The video wall made one of the Thrones‘ most grueling acting tasks far more enjoyable: riding the mechanical dragon rig. What used to be sitting on a mechanical bull-like device in front of a greenscreen for mind-numbing hours now allows actors to see what their characters are seeing as they “fly” through the skies.
“From everything I’ve heard, it’s radically different from what people on Thrones had to put up with,” D’Arcy says. “I loved it. It’s like going to an Ikea and trying all the kitchen taps.”
As for the dragons themselves, the show has at least 17, and considerable effort was made to give each a unique look and personality. Some are even bearded, like tropical lizards.
Written by James Hibberd
Published July 20, 2022
Edited for length