As millions of fans eagerly anticipate the final season of Game of Thrones, Contact caught up with star production designer and UQ graduate Deborah Riley to reflect on her success and what it takes to bring such an epic production to life.
Image courtesy of HBO
Image courtesy of HBO
Making fantasy reality
For five years, Deborah Riley has watched over the seven kingdoms. She’s travelled to ancient cities, shivered through icy winters, and stared down dragons.
Feeling dead on her feet, she’s pushed through the long hours to create a world that has ruled the small screen for eight seasons.
In that time, the acclaimed designer has won four Emmy Awards, the latest in September for outstanding production design for a narrative period or fantasy program, along with the show’s art director Paul Ghirardani and set decorator Rob Cameron.
But to Riley and her colleagues, the world of Westeros is far from fantasy.
“In many ways, I treated the set designs on Game of Thrones with all the seriousness of a historical drama,” Riley said.
“The more the audience believes in the world of the show, the more they believe in dragons."
“The art department and I tried to make all of the sets as realistic as possible by making sure that there was a heaviness and age to the spaces. It takes a lot of layers of detail to make the spaces feel realistic, and this is reflected not just in the set design, but also in the set dressing and props.
“But this all means nothing if the costumes don’t work, and seeing the characters walk onto a set is when it really comes alive.
“Great set design works cohesively with the work of the director and the cinematographer. It should support the scene, inspire the actors and enrich the story for the audience.
“When it works, it’s enough to give me goosebumps.”
Game of Thrones has received 47 Primetime Emmy Awards and attracted a record international viewership since it first aired in 2011. It is just as popular with critics for its acting, complex characters, story, and epic production values – an area for which Riley can take much of the credit.
It’s an incredible achievement, considering she had never seen an episode before joining the show’s art department ahead of season four.
“I had kept in contact with HBO’s Senior Vice-President of Production Janet Graham Borba since I first moved to Los Angeles in 2008. She called my agent in early 2013 and said that I should interview for the production designer position that had become available,” Riley recalled.
“As I had not seen the show, HBO sent me the first two seasons to watch, as well as the third, which was due to air in the coming months.
“But nothing could have prepared me for the reality of how the team functioned in order to produce that amount of screen time.”
Filmed across several locations, the show’s production involved huge sets, attention to detail, and long, long hours.
“The schedule was punishing and it took every brain cell I had, as well as every ounce of energy I possessed, to keep going,” Riley said.
“We were filming over a couple of locations at once, sometimes in different countries. In order for this to go smoothly, teamwork is the key. We had a fantastic team of art directors, set dressers, greenspeople, construction crew, plasterers and painters who would take care of our work abroad.
“I would fly out to see them as often as I could. There was one season that I finished with about 60 boarding passes.
“One crazy day I flew from Croatia to Belfast and back in a day to work on the Volantis paint finish and, on another occasion, from Belfast to Bilbao and back in a day as we were trying to find somewhere to fit our Dragonstone gates.
“Mostly I loved the travel, and it was fun to see the different teams working. It was an incredible machine.”
Riley has lived and breathed Game of Thrones for half a decade and has honed her craft with the best in the business. But her career could have taken a different path if not for her decision to pursue a Bachelor of Performing Arts (Design) at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) after completing a Bachelor of Design Studies at UQ in 1993.
“I had every intention of graduating from the full architecture course and one day being an architect,” Riley said.
“We were given a very solid grounding in the discipline at UQ. The most instrumental subject for me was a subject called Behaviour and Environment Studies. It boils down to psychology of space and I have been fascinated by it ever since. I can honestly say that I use the basic principles of it at work every day.
“I remember having to design a bridge, connecting two existing buildings, and it was the first time I understood more clearly that buildings have personalities.
“Later, we worked on a prison design, and I recall it because I was more interested in the drama of the spaces than in the detail of how the building worked.
“But it was when I saw Tim Burton’s Batman Returns in 1992 that I first realised someone was responsible for designing the sets. It had not occurred to me before that it was an actual job.
“NIDA had a great reputation and was quite famous, and without any prior experience in the theatre at all and no right to assume I would be accepted, I set my sights on studying there.”
Riley’s breakthrough into film came in the late 1990s, when she was hired as a set designer for The Matrix.
The film broke new ground in the world of visual effects and won four Academy Awards.
“I realise now how lucky I was to work on such a blockbuster and I am grateful, and still slightly amazed, that it was my gateway into the film industry,” Riley said.
Riley went on to work on a number of high-profile films, including Anna and The King, 21 Grams and Moulin Rouge!. Her success saw her selected as an Art Director for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games closing ceremony.
“The scale of an event like that is enormous and I had not encountered protocol like it. The props were made in enormous numbers and the production team had to plot where every prop and every performer would be at any given point in the show,” Riley said.
“Of course it has to be planned down to the second, but I had never given any thought to how it actually happens and who calculates that.
“Seeing the helicopters approach as they were following the lead marathon runner into the stadium, at which point the closing ceremony had to be ready to go, sent a wave of fear through my body. It was such a strange feeling knowing that the world was watching.
“Events like the Olympics tend to be about the identity of the place that they are held in.
There is a huge responsibility to get the tone correct and represent the history, thoughts and ideas of a nation fairly and creatively.”
Riley credits these previous experiences for helping her thrive in high-pressure environments, such as on the sets of Game of Thrones.
“I realised that my work on Moulin Rouge! prepared me for building on stage. My work on 21 Grams taught me how to work on location and my time on the Olympics taught me not to be afraid of scale,” Riley said.
“With these three projects came three different ways of thinking and, somewhere inside of me, I knew I had the tools to cope.”
Images of Deborah Riley: Studio Commercial/David Silva
Given the enormity of the production, its ever-expanding list of locations and its complex storylines, Riley, like many of the show’s viewers, could be forgiven for losing track of which character holds the throne and who is still alive.
“It was hard to keep up at first, but the characters and the places soon became as real to me as anyone and anywhere else,” Riley said.
“I loved to hate Joffrey and Ramsay, and wondered how the show would survive without them. I thought the same when Tywin died, but somehow the show kept going from strength to strength.
“I’ve always liked Brienne as she operated with honour in a world that often seemed to function without a moral code.
“That said, in the art department, we always used to get the most enjoyment out of Hot Pie and hoped that he would open a franchise of bakeries throughout Westeros.”
As for Riley’s favourite set and location on the show?
“I thoroughly enjoyed working on Dragonstone in season seven. We had to weave a large tapestry of locations and build sets into a cohesive whole,” Riley said.
“The Spanish locations in the Basque Country were staggering and it was a privilege to be able to work there. If I had to choose, the steps at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe were the most spectacular of them all.”
Riley’s work on the season-seven episode ‘Dragonstone’ earned her an Emmy Award in September this year. The win follows previous ones in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
“I spent a long time watching my career go down in flames while I was out of work in the US, so being given the awards there means more to me than I care to admit,” Riley said.
“To be accepted and acknowledged by such a tough industry felt like a great relief.”
The final season of Game of Thrones airs in 2019, and now that her watch has ended, Riley has been enjoying a well-earned break, catching up with family and friends in Australia.
Reflecting on her career so far, Riley said she realises now that architecture is a degree that can launch graduates in many directions.
“Little did I know at the time, that it is where many production designers begin their careers,” she said.
“It’s important to remain open to different opportunities as they present themselves. That is a great lesson in life, not just in architecture.”
Deborah Riley is an example of a UQ graduate who has overcome the unknowns of the design and entertainment industries to work on one of the world's most popular television shows. Learn how UQ can help you go further in every possible future.
Image courtesy of Helen Sloan/HBO
Image courtesy of Helen Sloan/HBO