Nine years ago, before anyone knew how huge it was going to be, the HBO TV series’ first season was partly filmed in Malta. Some of those involved look back at those fateful shoots ahead of the final episode out tonight.
Every Saturday for the last five years, Malcolm Ellul has loaded up a coach full of eager tourists and set off on a tour around the island, stopping not at temples or churches, but at the place where Ned Stark fought Jaime Lannister, where Daenerys Targaryen gave birth to three dragons, or where Queen Cersei once said: “When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.”
As the HBO mega-series comes to a close – and nine years after it filmed its first season in Malta – appetite among fans to see the real-world palaces, gardens and cliff-sides that stood in for Westeros has not yet dried up: nearly all the film tours Mr Ellul runs are now Game of Thrones tours. And all are fully booked, with American, English and German visitors making up the bulk.
“I have a lot of people who first book the tour, then book their flights and accommodation. The reason they’re coming here is because of Game of Thrones,” said Mr Ellul, who worked as a background actor when the fantasy epic filmed in Malta, and who has himself visited filming locations in Croatia, Northern Ireland, Spain and Iceland as a fan specifically to take similar tours.
Game of Thrones will air its globally anticipated final episode in the US this evening after an eight-season run in which it has consistently smashed viewership records, won the most awards of any drama series and become one of the most ambitious and expensive TV productions ever.
But none of that was certain when the show started shooting its modest-by-comparison first season in Malta and Northern Ireland in late 2010.
“I had no idea then that it was going to be so huge,” said Alan Paris, one of a handful of Maltese actors to have had a small speaking role in that first season. “But it’s fantastic. To this day I have friends from abroad calling me because they’ve just seen the episode and can’t believe it’s me.”
Mr Paris played a guard at the capital King’s Landing, denying access to – and being put firmly in his place by – Arya Stark, played by Maisie Williams, then a 13-year old girl in her first professional role and now one of the show’s biggest stars.
He recalls that on the day of the shoot, the actor meant to play his fellow guard was unexpectedly unavailable so a reluctant stunt coordinator was roped in to the part at the last minute. He also remembers stumbling over a line during one of his takes – and promptly being corrected by the young Ms Williams.
“It was a great experience,” Mr Paris said. “Compared to other productions I’ve been involved in, it was quite a tense environment at times, but extremely well organised, especially considering the scale.”
In all, some 900 locals took part as extras, as well as the few actors with speaking parts, alongside more than 260 local crew members working across different departments during the six-week shoot between September and November 2010.
Game of Thrones is a good credit for the island, but so are many others
Malta doubled for all the exteriors in King’s Landing and Essos, with several streets and squares in Mdina and Valletta, the gate at Fort Ricasoli, all the public areas at the President’s Palace in Attard and Villa Bulebin in Żebbuġ all featuring prominently, as well as Fort Manoel and Dwejra’s Azure Window.
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.
“It was one of the craziest experiences I’ve had,” said Oliver Mallia, whose film company Pellikola handled all production in Malta. “First seasons are often difficult because of limited budgets, and when you consider that the production was filming in different locations in two different countries at the same time, I think what we managed to do in Malta was quite remarkable.
“It wasn’t the biggest, but it was very challenging because of the speed: we were shooting in autumn in Malta and the project had to be delivered in April. That had a ripple effect on everyone’s nerves. I found out from other people that in later seasons the production solved a lot of those problems with larger crews and larger budgets.”
Does he feel any disappointment that Game of Thrones never returned to Malta after that first season, and arguably hit its greatest peaks away from our shores?
Mr Mallia insisted that the decision not to return – most of the scenes shot in Malta were moved to Dubrovnik in Croatia for later seasons – was, despite public perception, completely unrelated to the environmental controversy at Dwejra, where construction sand was strewn over fossil-rich stones.
“Anyone who watches the show knows they have different looks, and it was clear from the first year that Malta did not offer that variety that was required by the series,” he said.
“If the experience had been entirely positive, perhaps some later stuff might have been filmed here, but I think it was a good lesson for authorities and service providers, and while it was unpleasant and cost the production quite a bit of money, speaking nine years later, I think it was probably blown out of proportion.”
Mr Mallia has a mixed view as to the impact Game of Thrones has had on Malta and its film servicing industry, warning that the global hype and fan culture surrounding the show does not necessarily reflect the production realities.
“Malta has had its fair share of productions before and since,” he said. “Of course because this is one of the most-watched, it’s brought more awareness to Malta. The fact that a country has serviced a production of that scale is important; it’s a great feather to have in our cap, but it’s not the only issue.
“Game of Thrones is a good credit for the island, but so are many others.”