As all true nerds know, one of the best parts of Game of Thrones is the weapons. If you can’t name the two Valyrian steel swords Tywin Lannister had made when he melted down Ice, do you even belong in Westeros? (The answer is no, and the swords are Widow’s Wail and Oathkeeper.) As is the case in dragon-populated fantasy realms, in real life it takes a lot of time and effort to make ancestral swords, as well as the rubber substitutes used so the actors don’t die.
Natalia Lee, a film armorer who works with the Game of Thrones weapons master Tommy Dunne, knows her swords. She’s worked on the show since the pilot, and before she got into film armory she worked in security. Though she has experience in gunsmithing and contemporary firearms, she’s stayed mostly in the world of medieval weaponry for the last eight years thanks to GoT. Here, Natalia shares some behind-the-secrets from her time on the show.
1. Heartsbane is one of the most complicated weapons she’s made for the show.
It took Natalia two weeks just to sketch out her plans for Heartsbane, the ancestral sword of House Tarly featured in season six; she researched biblical art and Renaissance painting for inspiration. “After [designing it], we incorporated 3D technology and created a bronze cast for the pommel head, and then incorporated old-school technology with hand-sculpting for the cross guard,” she says. “We sourced very rare burr elm wood to have that grainy, beautiful, cracked wooden effect. This all takes months. And then [we] make a scabbard and the filigree that goes with it. To add up all the different craftsmen and time and labor into it, it’s a very expensive and a very detailed sword.”
2. But “simple” projects are often some of the hardest ones to finish.
“Things that you think might be simple like a catapult or trebuchet, you think maybe engineering-wise that’s not that complicated or intricate, and it’s not decorative in any sense…but then logistically it might be an absolute nightmare,” says Natalia. “How do we disassemble it? How do we get it into a field? How do we get it into another country? How’s it gonna travel? Will it fit through gates? On roads?” The White Walkers’ ice blades also presented a unique challenge because they had to look like ice without shattering like real ice would; Natalia says “it came down to a lot of testing with chemicals to get a clear, Perspex-type material that would look like ice.”
3. There can be as many as 20 different versions of one weapon.
“The hero [sword], or principal one, might be steel and it might be very heavy, it might be cast in bronze…it might be encrusted with jewels and all the rest,” explains Natalia. “Then from that we might have combinations — a heavy bronze, realistic handle, but [with] an aluminum blade because it’s lighter [and] blunt, so it’s much safer. Different stunt teams have different requirements. If something’s going into the water or if someone’s riding on a horse and has to fall off, then we’ll do a rubber version. Then we might have different grades of rubber. For instance, if we have a war hammer and the stunt man’s being hit in the head maybe 50 times during the day, we might make a super-soft one for him just so he doesn’t get a headache at the end of the day. [But] the cinematographers and lighting directors are really clever at making everything look real on the screen, so we can get away with not having real swords that chop heads off.”
4. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, aka Jaime Lannister, is one of the best swordsmen in the cast.
“If one person knows that you think they’re the best then someone else is upset, but Nikolaj [is] phenomenal,” says Natalia. “He’s very competitive and he’s very sporty. He does pretty much all of his own stunts, or wants to do all of his own stunts. [Jaime’s] only got one hand and he’s still very good.” And though Khal Drogo died in season one, Natalia says Jason Momoa was great, too, despite having to learn Dothraki and arakh-wielding at the same time. “A lot of them are very good,” adds Natalia, mentioning Maisie Williams (Arya) and Kit Harington (Jon Snow) as some of the show’s other weaponry overachievers. “They practice,” she explains. “Some of them go away and do a lot of work and a spend a lot of time perfecting their craft.”
5. Weapons training for actors goes way beyond just learning how to wield a sword.
Though Natalia and her team will work with fight choreographers to show stunt men and actors how to use whatever weapons they might need in battle scenes — knives, swords, crossbows, etc. — they also have to show them the very basics. “A lot of this stuff doesn’t require choreography or stunt people, yet we still have to teach people how to walk with a sword, how to sit down with a sword, how to maneuver with different weaponry, how to stand with spears and shields and stand at attention, and just to look like they really would be from that era or would be comfortable with those weapons,” she explains. “Sometimes we bring [actors] in earlier to do some archery practice, or maybe they’re only walking in a scene and it’s the first time they’ve ever used a sword, so we try and grab them quick before the scene work with them very quickly to try and get them to look very natural.”
6. She absolutely can’t tell you anything about what happens in season eight.
“I’m so terrified that a SWAT team’s gonna bust in and arrest me even if I utter any words about [the ending],” says Natalia. “Everything’s so secret. Some things I’m not made aware of, and sometimes in the end you’re like, ‘I just don’t want to have the pressure of knowing.'” Like the HBO executive who said that everyone’s going to die in the final season, Natalia likes to joke that at least someone will bite the bullet. “I always say that. Somebody’s gonna get their head chopped off, somebody’s gonna die at the hands of my weapons. Exactly what’s happened every year! Somebody takes over the throne. Somebody chops a head off, acquires a new army. That’s definitely a given.”