We're happily immersed in HBO's big budget Game of Thrones, which is being touted as the hottest fantasy to hit the screen since Peter Jackson put Middle Earth on the celluloid map. Ramona Depares gets the Maltese contingent to spill the beans.
Not getting caught in the general GoT (that's Game of Thrones, you philistines) fever that swept Malta these past months was practically impossible. Not least because it seemed like the whole of the island together with a good portion of Gozo was involved, in some way or another, in the production process of this 45-million dollar series. I have to admit that my status of committed fan girl was somewhat threatened the day I found the road adjacent to my house blocked with dozens of trailers sporting the tell-tale HBO logo. But I got over the sulk soon enough.
After all I was not about to be the only one left out in the cold while everyone else floated around in a happy Hollywood induced haze. Paparazzi hounds desperate for any scrap of gossip thrown their way were the order of the day but the Maltese team was having none of it. Keep schtum were the unspoken orders. And keep schtum they did. Until now, four weeks after the season's premier.
While cast and crew bask in the critics' adulation, I met up with some key members of the Malta team to get the scoop on behind the scenes shenanighans. Well, ok, shenanighans might be pushing it, but a couple of juicy anecdotes are sure to surface, I thought to myself on the way to meeting Rania Zouari, a very well-known name on the Maltese film and modelling scene and a former Miss Malta. Her distinctive, stunning looks leap out during the first episode, when she actually has a short speaking role as bathouse servant to Daeneris Targaryen (Emilia Clarke).
"I was on set for just one day, one very long day from six in the morning till eleven at night, with the whole morning dedicated to make-up and hair styling. Yet it was an amazing experience, especially considering that I was roped into the production relatively last minute. I did manage to talk to Emilia Clarke while we were having our hair done and I must say that she seemed very down-to-earth," Rania said.
Although that part of the story is set in Gozo, Rania's scene was actually shot in Rinella in a huge room with just a bathtub in it. With a laugh, Rania remarked how nothing is what it seems as everything in that scene – from the furniture to the outside scenery – is in reality just props.
"The beautiful scenery when Emilia is gazing out of the balcony is actually just a painting. This was a huge production and it showed, but the best thing about it is that the whole cast and crew were extremely welcoming. I never once felt like an outsider even though they only saw me for one day!"
These words are reflected in my interview with another three extras, who might not have had speaking parts but who certainly spent a good chunk of time on set. The first person I speak to, student and bar-tender Neil Tabone, was actually lucky enough to be in scenes that included A-list actor Sean Bean, who plays the role of King's Hand Lord Eddard (Ned) Starke in the series.
"The guy seemed pretty down-to-earth actually and I managed to get introduced to him. I'm a huge fan but there's a certain element of professionalism that comes into play obviously. You can hardly go round asking for photos and autographs, it seems a bit off. I think it's actually frowned upon, in fact I remember one particular occasion when the extras were collectively given a good talking to because everyone was stopping all the main actors and posing for photos with them. That kind of behaviour hardly encourages efficiency or professionalism so I can't say I blamed the bosses!"
This was Neil's fourth experience as an extra – he also worked on the set of Troy, U900 and Agora. He describes the set of Game of Thrones as being bigger and better than most – having spent two weeks, over ten hours a day, on location, he would certainly know. Of course, he does have good memories even of the past productions he's worked on:
"When I was on Agora I was impressed by how friendly actress Rachel Weisz was. You do get a bit of a community feel on set and Maltese extras tend to become friends because to a certain extent it's always the same familiar faces that end up working on the different productions."
What about the implied glamour of working on such a production? The disappointing news is that there's no such thing. Being an extra mostly involves long waiting hours and dozens of repeated takes of the same scene. All mobile phones and watches have to be removed, which means that extras very often end up not even knowing what time of day it was.
"It is fun, but it most definitely isn't glamorous! When you consider that every single camera angle is a separate take and that there are usually at least 3 to 4 takes each time...you can understand why we end up on set for about 13 hours straight. The worst is when someone else keeps fluffing up the scene. That's when you feel like yelling at them! But I have to say that we were treated extremely well on this production, they laid down a lovely spread for us everyday."
Steffi Thake, another extra who had the role of a middle-class woman in some of the King's Landing scenes, agreed that the vibe was fantastic.
"I loved being involved, even in the smallest way possible. Not to mention just staring at all the big names and having a little heart attack just being in their presence! I'm a big movie buff so it was great to be in such close proximity to my heroes. This was my first experience as an extra and I definitely will be applying for other productions."
Did Steffi manage to get up close and personal to the likes of Sean Bean and Emilia Clarke?
"I wanted to! But I was so nervous that I kept putting it off and then ended up getting sick and not being there for the last day. The work itself was challenging in ways that I didn't expect. For example, you need to stand in the same spot for hours while the same scene is being shot over and over again. In reality you're not doing anything much but it's amazing how tiring it ends up being."
There were the fun times too, of course. Both Neil and Steffi mentioned the part where Sean Bean is being dragged by guards through the crowd and the extras have to yell at him (giving more details would constitute a spoiler and those who haven't yet read the books would hate me forever).
"Most of us found it just weird to shout at this fantastically famous actor while he's being dragged literally inches away from our faces!"
The last person I speak to tells me that he'd rather not reveal his name to the readers. Secrecy is big in Hollywood, I guess! John (let's call him that) decided to apply as an extra after seeing an advert at St James Cavalier and was contacted to take part in four scenes. This was his first time working on a television production and, having already read the books on which the series is based he had a very good idea of what was likely to be expected of him as an extra.
"There was a lot more waiting around than I expected. It's great experience if you're a student or if you have a lot of time on your hands. The whole experience was interesting and it makes you appreciate all the different elements that go into film-making. I remember one particular night when we were filming in Gozo, the rain was pouring down and everyone – from main actors to extras – was so, so eager to get it over and done with. But in retrospect, the memories were all good."
Know your GoT Houses
Still unsure which House is based where and who is related to whom? Sort yourself out with our quick guide.
House Baraethon - Founded after the conquest of Aegon Targaryen by the conqueror's general (and rumored bastard brother) Orys Baratheon. More recently the House seized the Iron Throne and have ruled the Seven Kingdoms since.
House Stark - The Stark family traces its lineage back to the First Men, who landed in Westeros more than 10,000 years ago and eventually forged a lasting peace with the continent's druidic natives, the Children of the Forest.
House Lannister - The family ruled as kings at Casterley Rock until the Targaryens brought dragons to conquer the continent, placing all the lords of Westeros under control of the Iron Throne.
House Tully - When the Targaryens attacked, Edmyn Tully rebelled against the King of the Isles and sided with Aegon Targaryen. Harren's other supporters soon followed suit, paving the way for the new king.
House Targaryen - The Targaryens brought dragons from the eastern continent and settled on Dragonstone. After an unknown disaster wiped out their homeland and killed most of the world's dragons, the Targaryens invaded Westeros.
House Arryn - The Arryns serve as wardens of the East from their mountain stronghold, the Eyrie – a key defense against the violent clans that surround their home.
House Frey - The House is led by Walder Frey, who took his eighth wife, a 15-year-old, when he himself was over 90. With his enormous brood of children, it is said of him that he could "field an army out of his britches."
House Tyrell - After the Targaryen conquest, the Tyrells bent the knee to the Iron Throne and then rose to become principal house and warden of the South at Highgarden.
House Greyjoy - Legend has it that the Grey King ruled the sea itself and took a mermaid for his wife. After the Targaryen conquest, the people of the Iron Islands chose the Greyjoys to serve as lords from Pyke.
Facts and figures
How many Maltese were involved in the production and which localities can we expect to take pride of place on HBO this season? Oliver Mallia, Unit Production Manager for Malta, spills the beans.
Game of Thrones shot in Malta for 37 days spread over 6 weeks between September and November of 2010.
267 local crew members where engaged through local film production services company Pellikola Limited to work in various departments.
A total of 12 locations, mostly of historic and environmental importance were used. The dressing at each location was so substantial that in most cases production had to close off public access four days in advance and work round the clock to lay ground cover and place in pre-fabricated sets.
Malta doubled for all the exteriors in King's Landing and Essos Several streets and squares in Mdina, the gate at Fort Ricasoli, all the public areas at the president's palace in Attard and Villa Bulebin in Zebbug will all feature prominently in several episodes as palaces and streets in King's Landing.
The presidential palace in Verdala and Dwejra attracted four days of filming.
All scenes that were shot there appeared in the first episode that premiered on 17th April 2011.Other locations included the renovated square and ditch of Fort Manoel, a hamlet in Manikata, streets in Valletta, the dungeons at Fort Sant'Angelo and the Dominican convent in Rabat.
Since the TV series had two units filming simultaneously in Northern Ireland and Malta, the challenges where higher then on other shows as the extremely tight schedule eradicated almost all safety cushions that one usually allows for when scheduling a picture. The storms that battered the last October stopped production filming for 2 days.
Only a handful of locals were given speaking parts on the show however familiar names like Alan Paris, Edward Mercieca, Paul Portelli, Matthew Scurfield and Graham Charles will all be appearing in the series.Over 900 locals took part as extras.