"This new season is an entirely different show" - secrets from an exclusive Game of Thrones season 7 set visit

It’s lunch hour in Westeros. More specifically, it’s fag-break time.

Long-haired warriors stroke gingery beards and exhale cigarette smoke into the damp air. Tall-walking, earth-shaking Brienne of Tarth tucks into a polystyrene box of stodge, a carb-heavy diet the better to march on the salad-munching southerners of King’s Landing. The newly anointed King in the North, though, isn’t quite at battle stations. Jon Snow may be fully kitted out in war-council regalia, but into his leather boots are tucked not a blade or two but an iPhone and 20 Marlboro Lights.

It’s September 2016 and at Northern Ireland’s Linen Mill Film and Television Studios, hidden in the countryside 25 miles from Belfast, it’s the calm before the storm. Filming on Game of Thrones season 7 is in its early stages. Out here near the town of Banbridge, and in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, the vast army of cast and crew are hard at work filming episode 2. Even in a truncated, seven-episode season for HBO’s fire-breathing, ratings-topping TV juggernaut, there’s still a mountain to climb. And, perhaps, a Mountain to return to his skull-crushing ways.

In season 6's thrilling climax, The Winds of Winter, multiple loose ends were tied up – and many knotty problems teed up. Cersei Lannister incinerated the Sept of Baelor, and many of her adversaries, allowing the now childless queen to claim the Iron Throne.

But for how long? Having triumphed over the Boltons at the Battle of the Bastards, the Starks are busy uniting the families of the North under Jon Snow – the families oblivious to the newly uncovered secret of the bastard Snow’s paternal parentage: he’s half Targaryen.

Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen has finally set sail for Westeros, mob-handed with dragons, Dothraki, Dornish, Unsullied, Ironborn and, most dangerous of all, Tyrion Lannister. What could possibly go right?

In a corridor off set, one of the men charged with wrestling these competing narratives on to screen is nursing a coffee. How is it for writer/producer Bryan Cogman, orchestrating the convergence of these armies and families?

“Tremendously fun and hugely challenging,” he replies cheerfully. “I think in many ways this new season is an entirely different show. It’s sort of phase three of Thrones. Dany’s imminent arrival changes everything. So that was a lot of fun to play with. Worlds colliding is a good theme, I think, for this season.”

Also colliding for the first time: many of the actors, their storylines and onscreen locales often leagues apart in the previous 60 episodes.

“Oh yeah, that’s just so much fun,” nods Cogman. “They’ve all become really good friends through the junkets. And the fact is, we’re all here filming [interiors] at the same time, so they’ve all gotten to know each other over the years. They’ve just not had scenes together – or in some cases, haven’t had scenes together since the first few episodes of the show before all the storylines kind of broke off.

“So that’s been the greatest joy of the last three seasons, but especially this season: throwing all these characters into the mix and seeing how they bounce off each other. I think it’ll be really fun for the audience as well.”

Winter Warriors

At the time of SFX magazine’s visit to the set, many of the GoT team have just returned from the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. The show won 12 of its 23 nominations. This took its total wins to 38, beating a record previously held by ’90s sitcom Frasier for the most rewarded prime-time series.

Still, everyone’s returned to the Northern Irish set with a soggy bump. The stakes are higher than ever. For one thing, while on the show, winter has finally come, the end is coming, too – this is the penultimate series of Game of Thrones. For another, season 6 featured acclaimed set-pieces by the fistful: Cersei’s wildfire spectacular, the Battle of the Bastards, the death of Hodor, the destruction of the slavers’ fleet and the doggy devouring of Ramsay Bolton.

How, then, to top those? Especially when, as the series’ sabre-rattling first full trailer recently promised, “the Great War is here”.

“Um, no,” Cogman smiles. “Believe it or not, the story just organically goes where it goes. The stakes are escalating, and the story is naturally escalating as the war escalates. So I don’t think we approach it with [the viewpoint of], ‘well, we’ve got to top this’. But we certainly have some spectacular stuff planned, that’s for sure.”

Into the Fire

Back in the Belfast HQ, even with much of the plotting under wraps (and with SFX hidebound by NDAs that threaten to gift our firstborn to the White Walkers), it’s hard to disagree. In the costume department, they’re working on Dothraki winter wear – because, one of the team explains, the hitherto scantily clad, desert-dwelling horsemen are “now in Westeros”. Next door, in leatherwork and metalwork, Lannister army uniforms are being buffed and polished.

Armourer Tommy Dunn and his team of six are equally busy. “We’re in a world of shields at the moment, for a sequence we have in Spain,” he reveals before threatening to cut out our tongue with a gleaming slice of Valerian steel.

Meanwhile, in the sculptors’ hut, three craftspeople are getting busy with hot wires and regular kitchen knives. They’re shaping a pile of 40 polystyrene blocks, stacked to the dimensions of a double-decker bus, into a giant... well, that would be telling.

One thing we can say with some assurance: in GoT season 7, the women are now running the show. Cersei, Sansa, Dany, Arya, Yara Greyjoy, Olenna Tyrell, Ellaria of Dorne and, of course, fearsome adolescent Lyanna Mormont – forget the beardy men, as it enters its second-last lap, these are the show’s real warriors. The line-up’s unofficial queen wholeheartedly concurs with this.

“When I first read the books and [heard] they were turning them into a TV show,” begins Gwendoline Christie (who plays Brienne of Tarth), “I wondered if they would cut down the point-of-view female characters. And I was really pleased that those female characters were honoured and continue to be at the forefront of the show. And we see a development of the female characters that I think is three-dimensional, is complex, is conflicted – and is also powerful.”

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. That’s the case behind the cameras as well as in front of them. With Game of Thrones the jewel in HBO’s crown, not to mention the feverish fan anticipation the world over, has success made the jobs of the writers, producers and directors more difficult? Do Cogman and his team wake up at night in a fever dream, troubled by a message from the Three-Eyed Raven: “We’ve only got 13 more episodes – don’t mess this up for us...”?

“No, I don’t think so, truthfully,” the Cogman insists. “It gives us a lot of freedom. We’re very fortunate that we have a network and a production crew and team that can pretty much make any crazy idea we have come to fruition. You can’t say that about most shows. So that’s been a wonderful luxury to have as writers. You can write a scene about a zombie army cascading over a cliff and they’ll do that for you! Or you can write a scene where Jon Snow is in the middle of horses running back and forth, and they’ll do that for you, too! So that’s amazing.”

Let the season – and all-out war – commence...

This feature originally appeared in GamesRadar+'s sister magazine SFX, issue 289. Pick up a copy now or subscribe so you never miss an issue.