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Interview: Deborah Riley Discusses the Art of the Game!

Published on October 7th, 2019 | Updated on November 3rd, 2019 | By FanFest

Game of Thrones production designer Deborah Riley brings us back to Westeros! Courtesy of HBO and Insight Editions, The Art of the Game of Thrones chronicles the artistic efforts behind GoT’s stunning cinematic imagery. This must-have collectible features unforgettable moments and stunning locations from a show that has thrilled audiences for almost 10 years! Ms. Riley has earned four consecutive Emmy® Awards, three Art Directors Guild Awards, and a BAFTA for her efforts. Fan Fest News was fortunate to speak with Deborah about her beautiful new book that includes previously unpublished works of art, sure to excite fans across the realm.

Image: HBO and Insight Editions

Linda: Could you tell me a little bit about how you get started with Game of Thrones?

Deborah: I joined Game of Thrones in Season 4, so that was 2013. I did the next five seasons of the show and it was extraordinary for me because I was in Los Angeles and I was having real trouble finding work. I was down in Louisiana working on a ghost hunting movie, earning $100 a day, and I received a call saying “I think you should interview for this”. It took about a month of more interviews and showing more examples of my work, and then the next thing I know the producers are showing me around the set!

“It’s not often in your life that you can pinpoint a moment where it took a sharp turn, but I remember it exactly.”

Linda: Had you been watching Game of Thrones?

Deborah: They sent the first three seasons to me, the third season and hadn’t even aired yet., so I spent a weekend with sort of matchsticks in my eyes. I spent 30 hours that weekend watching everything and I thought if I can’t get this job then… I begged them, I just said I know how to do this. I really understand what you’re trying to achieve.

Linda: Had you read the books?

Deborah: No. In the end, I was pleased because David (Benioff) and Dan (Weiss) were the leaders and they told me everything they wanted me to know and it was great because there was never any issue all. We just didn’t have time to go back and forth you know, they wrote their scripts that I was working from and if I had any questions about their scripts or what we were doing, I spoke to them about it. It was always a very, very clear line of communication and that was amazing.

Linda: I feel if you had read the books maybe it would have clouded your vision.

Deborah: They (creators) were using the books as they needed to use (them). I always just saw it as we were creating their shot. Somebody else would have adapted the books differently and somebody else would’ve designed it differently. You have to run with the show that the guys were trying to make.

Linda: What was the most challenging aspect of all this?

Deborah: The length of time [was challenging] because we were trying to create film finishes on a TV show that involved a lot of running and it was fascinating because I really learned the power of loyalty. People knew it before I got there. We were able to just take it and run because there just wasn’t the time that you would usually have in getting to know one another, getting to know the project. It already had such kinetic energy, I just had to catch up with it and off we went. It was a really wonderful time, I was terrified obviously.

Linda: Do you have a favorite scene? A favorite location?

Deborah: We did some wonderful work out in Spain, which I really enjoyed. I will never forget, I think it was in Season 5 when we worked in the Alcazar in Seville. I had been there as a tourist many years earlier but Game of Thrones used it as a location, it’s where they set Dorne. The gardens were closed [to the public] so we had access to the whole place. To be able to walk through the gardens by myself and to be able to walk into that extraordinary building and to be working there, I’ll never forget it. It wasn’t a massive design job for us but it was such a privilege.

Linda: What was your Westeros inspiration?

Deborah: We took each region individually, and it was always just a matter of finding the reference, finding the pallete, finding the texture, knowing about the climate, you know all that sort of stuff just fed into who the people were that lived there. It’s surprising how you can figure it out. Obviously, with the producers and David and Dan and myself, there would be a lot of emailing back and forth. I would present ideas and we would like or not like them and it would go from there. It would always develop but it was very much a team thing. It’s all just a function of money and time as well. It’s not just having the idea, it’s actually being able to execute on schedule and on budget, so there’s a lot of moving pieces.

Linda: It sounds like you’ve had an amazing team. 

Deborah: That’s actually why this book is really important.

“It’s a real tribute to the team the way that we were and to the concept artists who created this incredible work and it’s for everyone else who came along and built it.”

It’s unbelievable to think about and it’s pointless without the amazing artists who can follow it through. My job was just to be able to go around and encourage each of them, you know, a bit more like this, or a bit more like that or that’s amazing, let’s get more of that, or you know, whatever. The great thing was to then be able to present that work to David and Dan and so here we are, “How’s that?”, then they would respond. We were always in this constant circle of getting approvals, getting permission [and] keeping the guys involved… this is what it’s looking like, “Can you come to the workshop and have a look?”

The process feeds back on itself constantly, just checking and double-checking so that by the time the shoot day comes everybody knows exactly what it is. The worst thing in the world would be to have a surprise for anybody, to have a director not know what’s in front of them or not know how to shoot it or [for] the lighting to be in the wrong place. We would just constantly, constantly, constantly be communicating with one another.

Linda: Has there ever been a time where you look back at any given episode and been like, “I wish I would’ve done ‘this’ differently?”

Deborah: I think the part of the secret actually was being able to let stuff go because there was just never time to think about it anymore. We were always just crossing things off the list and moving onto the next thing. Emotionally it was important to just focus on what was ahead.

Linda: I want fans to understand there are so many layers that go into these shows, I mean everybody’s just giving so much.

It represented our hearts and souls. It was an extraordinary thing to be a part of, no matter what anybody might say.”

Linda: How did you decide what to put in the book?

Deborah: It’s interesting because I obviously remember all of the drawings, every single one of them from my point onwards, from season four on. They represent obviously everything that was seen on screen. I approached all of the artists as well that I had worked with over time, so they also presented me with their favorite work. For people who weren’t there, who weren’t a part of it [we also wanted them] to try and see it from our eyes. David and Dan wanted to see evidence of that. There’s more, there are some drawings that are more significant than others, there was a lot of interpreting.

Linda: Specific scenes or episodes resonate differently.

Deborah: Exactly. The whole evolution of content art has been incredible.

Linda: How long did it take you to put the book together?

Deborah: They were kind of quite tight deadlines so for the first time in a really long time, I was doing all-nighters. I was sort of begging the artists, “I need it now”. They were so touched by the fact that their work was being recognized, it was really not a hardship for any of them to go back through and send me their favorite selections. So much work went into it, the concept art, adding some of the construction drawings and everything represents a lot to us.

Linda: What’s the best advice you can offer for somebody wishing to pursue Production Design?

Deborah: I was an architecture student and then I went and studied stage design, but then there are film students…. everybody finds their own way into the industry. You can find your own way into the art department and you can be a painter or a props builder or a model maker or an art director. So many wonderful positions and everybody’s an artist in their own right. It’s all just making sure that we’re all working towards a vision. Books like this, I hope help illustrate that.

“…it’s a wonderful thing to work as a team and to create something that has the kind of adrenaline that we all enjoy.”

Linda: How has this changed your career?.

Deborah: Dramatically. I have to be honest, I had a bit of trouble with this, just understanding that my skin was now very different. Everybody wanted to know about Game of Thrones and I had all this information in my head. I was lucky enough to be a part of this extraordinary thing. I think for the rest of my career people will ask me about it and I don’t mind. I feel really honored to be a part of it. It’s unbelievable because I’m one of those people whose life changed for them.

Linda: Did you anticipate all of the success?

Deborah: That’s the thing, when I arrived in season four nobody was saying there was going to be a season five. Then it was like okay, now we’re going all the way to season eight, it was a wild ride. Just to have a seat at the table with such intelligent people. David and Dan, so smart, producers like Frank Doelger… really nice people.

As we were walking through the destruction of Kingslanding I remember saying to David and Dan, “But we’re really nice people, how did we get here? It’s dark. How did you know that I could cope with it?” Emotionally I found season 8 really difficult to work through, just looking at images of destruction and devastation for all that time, it eats away at you. I can only imagine what it’s like as an actor to go through that with that character, it’s hard. They talk about method acting, I’m very method in terms of design, I try to get inside. It was tough and yet you couldn’t work with a nicer group of people.

Linda: Awesome.

A big thank you to Ms. Riley for taking the time to speak with Fan Fest News. The Art of The Game of Thrones will be available on November 5, 2019! Pre-order your copy at Insight Editions to revisit Westeros in discriminating detail via the artists that brought it to life.

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