Game of Thrones Premiere: The Secret Symbolism in Daenerys’s Awesome Throne – Vanity Fair
If the Game of Thrones season premiere proved anything, it’s that the HBO drama is keeping its female domination momentum going in its seventh season. So after Cersei (Lena Headey) ascended the Iron Throne in last season’s finale, the drama’s masterminds decided to give Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) her own damn throne too. In celebration, Vanity Fair reached out to Emmy-winning Game of Thrones production designer Deborah Riley about the design of Khaleesi’s Dragonstone den, and any clues it may hold.
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“The only piece of advice I was given from [creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] about the design was that it was to be a totalitarian space that felt protected,” said Riley, whose team built the room in about six weeks—before reading the season’s scripts, but after being given an outline of Daenerys’s Season 7 arc.
“The thing about her character and about her whole space this season is that we wanted to convey that it was one of absolute power,” Riley continued. “Spaces have the ability to impact us emotionally, and it was very important that we know that, considering her whole arc thus far, she is finally home and on her way to the ultimate goal of the Iron Throne.”
“It needed to be a space that allowed her to feel like she was home and that it was worth the trouble, that it was worth fighting for,” Riley said. “And it gives her the confidence and the ability to keep going. From my point of view, it was very important, even as crew members, that we felt that.”
A Throne Fit for a Queen
The key to the design of the throne, Riley said, was pinpointing the location that the show would use as a model for Dragonstone—the coastal island fortress previously occupied by Daenerys’s ancestors, where the throne sits—and incorporating its special characteristics into the design.
“Daenerys makes landfall at Dragonstone for the first time in the season premiere, so we needed to find a location that was suitably powerful for that,” Riley said. “When we were scouting throughout Spain, what we usually do is make a lightening trip around the country to try to uncover anything that might appeal to us. We found a place called Zumaia beach in the Basque Country [of Spain], and it has that extraordinary strata that is also reflected in the Dragonstone throne itself.”
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“That strata is very unique actually . . . there are only 8 kilometers of this particular geology in all the world,” she continued. “To be honest, once we found that location, everything else felt like it fell in my lap. Because of those amazing stone strata, it seemed important that we incorporate them into the design.”
Built from plaster over a timber frame, the throne was created on site—meaning that it did not have to be moved for production. That was a relief, considering, according to Riley, “there was some argument early on [with Weiss and Benioff] over how big the throne should be and the proportions of it. We did tests with a double of Emilia to make sure she looked good on that sized throne, and it suited a person of that size.
“We also had to make sure it filmed properly—and it wasn’t so dark that it disappeared. And that’s why you see some silver leaf in the throne as well, to give it a bit of a kick in the light.”
In previous seasons, Game of Thrones depicted Dragonstone’s interiors as dark and cave-like. With Zumaia beach chosen as the basis for the exterior, though, Riley had to somehow reconcile the competing aesthetics, and envisioned the Targaryen ancestral seat was both a soaring castle but very much built into the island’s rock.
“I wanted to tie those two ideas together, and create this sense of strength in the very rock work,” explained Riley, who credits the digital team with giving the space the boost it needed to soar beyond the 30-feet height her crews were able to build on set.
Riley added some symbolic flourishes to the Dragonstone interior as well.
“There is a motif of dragon scales everywhere—on the throne itself, the doors, all over the place,” said Riley. “Another thing on the floor is a giant ancient old Targaryen sigil, so it is still the three dragon heads, but it is a much older version of it.”
Riley felt it was important to pay homage to Ireland, where much of the series has been shot.
“We incorporated the giant, hexagonal, basalt formations that are found in the Giant’s Causeway up in Northern Ireland—these fantastic black hexagonal shapes that are incorporated into the floor design,” explained Riley. “I thought it was important to get a bit of that Northern Irish culture in there, since it is such a part of the show.”
Asked which throne she is partial to, Riley said, “Of course I prefer the Dragonstone throne, just because I was involved with it. It is certainly bigger and has an entirely different concept behind it.”
Laughing, she added, “Obviously in terms of symbolism, though, nothing beats the Iron Throne. So I would be foolish to try to compete.”