Interviews: Sound Designer Paula Fairfield Talks About Her Emmy Win for The Long Night and The End of Game of Thrones

TMS: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me about Game of Thrones. I'm a huge fan, so I'm really excited to have the opportunity to talk with you.

PF: Oh, my pleasure.

TMS: So, you won the Emmy for Outstanding Sound and Editing for Comedy or Drama Series for The Long Night. Can you talk about why you chose that episode or why the team chose that episode and what sound elements you focused on?

PF: Yeah, I mean, not just our department but most of the departments I think chose that as the episode because of the sheer enormity of it. I mean, it was something so gargantuan that people can't even conceive of how big it is. And it's a shame there was a lot of controversy when it came out because, in some ways, some of that was overlooked. But from my point of view, it was one of my most challenging episodes. Although a lot of them from this season were for me. Because my job was the dragons, the army of wights, cutting wight vocals and all the things that go into them, their bones, their icy bodies, all that stuff; The weather, just the weather layer, which was very disorienting, which was conjured by the Night King; The White Walkers and the onslaught of millions and millions of wights that went on-and-on-and-on; The air battle between three dragons, one of them icy, (laughs) and then he dies again. I mean, it just went on and on and for me. It was kind of sheer insanity that episode. But, you know, it was really interesting in a lot of ways. I mean, we have a group of us who work on it. I do the sound design and then we have another person cutting sound effects, and people doing foley, and dialogue, and then the mixers. So, we all kind of worked together to come up with the best solutions for these sequences, because they were unlike anything, you know. Consider even some of the movies you've seen. It was feature film length, but it's a TV show. A feature film of that size would've had months and months and months of sound work on it. And we did not have that. So it was not only technically challenging, but because it was for TV, time wise it was extremely challenging. But it was good. I was proud of us because this team has been together since season three with very few changes. Really only one, I think. We had another dialogue editor originally who moved to Australia and he was replaced. But besides that, it's been pretty much the same team. Everybody's fabulous and works together really well. It just was a really good team effort, you know. It really took a village to get that thing done.

TMS: I recently re-watched the episode. I had not seen the episode since it first aired and preparing for this, I re-watched it with headphones, and you catch so much more. What really stuck out to me in this particular episode, even though Game of Thrones is in the fantasy genre, this episode crosses over into horror. The Long Night is actually like a full length feature horror film. So, because what you're trying to get from the audience is different in horror than fantasy, I wonder if that came into play at all while you were preparing for this episode?

PF: Well, it definitely has that element. I mean, we are responding to how it's structured visually. Our job is to hit all this plot points, but also find the dynamics where you pull back, where you go to silence, in and out, stuff like that. There was a lot of that this season. The Long Night was a horror movie about survival. To me, episode five The Bells, was the other book end, which was a poem about survival. That episode was very beautifully done, and it's the same director for both episodes. But yeah, The Long Night was like a horror movie, and it was very visceral that way. The idea was to put you in the battle, and people were disoriented by that. They didn't like the fact they couldn't see what was happening. But if you were in that battle, that's what would happen. There would be times that you wouldn't be able to make out objects or people. So what happens is the sound takes over and it leads you through those moments where you can't see. We used sound, like for the weather that the White Walkers conjured. I did a full pass just of weather, sleet, ice crystals flying, icy winds, wind whipping around and whatnot. It helped to transition from air to ground, but it also added to the disorientation at times. It's very textural and very visceral. That was sort of the point of it. I think everybody, whether or not people liked it, the general consensus was they were exhausted by the end. That was the point of it. I mean, if you felt that it meant you were in it in a way, and that was the point.

TMS: I wonder if some of the controversy with viewers is that they were so worried about which characters would survive that they missed all of the elements as a whole. I found when I watched it for the second time, I already knew what was going to happen, and I knew that it was disorienting, which actually was much more exciting for me. I'm no longer worried about who is going to live or die, so it just washes over you and sucks you into the action.

PF: Yeah. I've heard that before too, and I agree with that. I mean, they took some chances to be very bold. It's the boldest thing that's ever been on television and it was the most elaborate and longest battle ever filmed in film or TV. It was relentless. My initial viewing of it, I remember I couldn't even speak for like three hours after. Part of it was me going, "Oh my God, how the hell are we going to do this?" But also it was exhausting to watch. I mean, it happened to me, it was overwhelming, you know? So I think that's the thing, when you go back again you have a better appreciation for it, and I think that's what's going to happen. People screamed and yelled, Some didn't want it to end, everybody had an opinion that was ridiculous. But I think it'll simmer down. Other things will come and go. People will return to it and then they'll go, "Oh!" I think it was so crazy that one TV show could rile up people to such a level. I mean, Game of Thrones was born of a very particular time in this world. The craziness didn't disappoint right to the end. But anyway, whatever.

TMS: People, including me, are very attached to the show. However, I think that speaks to the success of the production team. These characters became part of our lives, so we forget, we forget that this is a production, we forget about all the work of a team of creators that goes into it. Then when our favorite characters don't turn out the way we hoped, the audience gets riled up.

PF: Yeah. Well, it's crazy. I worked on Lost also, so I did see a bit then too, but I also feel like the stakes were a lot higher with Game of Thrones. Twitter is the gigantic cesspool of the world. When Lost ended Twitter was barely functioning, so now it's a whole different feel. That's what happens when people get so invested in something. Of course they don't want it to end, but of course it's does. It has to sometime, you know.

TMS: If it didn't end, inevitably it wouldn't be as good.

PF: You can't sustain it, and they already were having problems sustaining it. I mean, the other thing that happened was they were midway through an Epic, they've run out of books, and the dude who's supposed to write them... I don't know what he's doing. He's going to premieres and stuff and having a great time, and God bless his soul. But the problem was they were sure they were going to get his next book in time and it didn't even come close. So now I worry for him. I mean I can't even imagine being him right now. Imagine not finishing the books and then have the series end that way with everybody all in it's tizzy. When A Dance with Dragons came out, everybody hated it. Now the tides have turned, and Dan and David have just "destroyed it all". After Game of Thrones ended, it's like you could hear everybody's collective heads turn and look at George Martin and go, "Okay, we're waiting for the books now of how it really would have ended." It's like, Oh my God, I wouldn't want to be him. You know? I mean, if I were him I would never finish it.

TMS: It's like that episode of Game of Thrones, The Door where Bran is in the warg realm walking among the army of wights and as he approaches the Night King they all turn and look at him.

PF: Yeah, (laughs) exactly. And everybody's looking at him going, "Okay George, so how did it really end? And make us happy." It's like, Oh, my, God.

TMS: Dan and David have touched his arm and now they have their mark upon him.

PF: Yeah. Well that's the other thing, to write the way he writes, how could you be untainted by what just happened? I don't know enough about his process, but I can't imagine for any artist that they could remain untainted by what just happened. I can't also imagine that something that he's created like that he wouldn't have had some say in the end. So it's very curious and it may remain one of the great mysteries because we may never find out what he would have written had he finished it, because he may never finish it. You know? I don't know. It's a very unenviable position to be in. That's all I know. I'm just like, "Oh, better you than me, man. I'm off."

TMS: So during my research for this interview, I learned that you never read the script until you saw the whole season in its rough cut form. How do you think this benefited your creative process?

PF: More shows are starting to do this, which I think is really great and it's really fun as a sound designer. Rather than like a movie or a single episode of a show you have a whole season to unroll a sound design, which is cool. I also like to see it just in its roughest form, as it's kind of assembled to be introduced to the world, because it's the only time I will ever get to see it anywhere close to how a viewer will see it. So that way I can wander in to the world of the show with the same innocence of viewers walking into it, to just to kind of get a sense of stuff. Because by the time I'm done, I've watched every frame a million times. You can only have that first experience once. That's why I like to do that. Unless there's a necessity to read it before I start something, I like to just see it.

TMS: I also learned during my research that you dream sonically, and earlier you said you didn't talk for three hours after you saw The Long Night for the first time. So did you have sonic horror nightmare dreams when you went to sleep that night?

PF: Honestly, I did all summer. Because what happened was when I saw that episode, I saw that episode out of context. I happened to be traveling at the time and went to Belfast to go visit the set. It was about to close down for a couple of months, it was just finishing off, and I had never been. So I went to visit them while I was there. Miguel was shooting episode three and they had a lot of it assembled and he grabbed me and asked me to watch it. They were trying to structure that opening when the wights are approaching. And it's just super tricky. We spent more time on that and did more versions of how that could be than you can even imagine. They were trying to get the pacing and the timing right. They knew they wanted to build up this kind of silence, but what could we do? Had I known this battle was going to happen, early on in other seasons like in the Hardhome episode, I would have developed a sound for when the wights are approaching from a distance. However, the rules were that they only really made noise when they were attacking or being attacked. So we never had a sound for them approaching from a distance. That was part of the weirdness of it. We did try some stuff, but it was already a weird episode, so introducing something new would be almost like a red herring. It would be a bit unfair I think. So we just played around with the of structure it. It was one of the main reasons that they wanted me to see it. I was overwhelmed. The dragon fight for instance, was a lot of blocked out diagrams and things and I thought, "Oh no", but I was also just overwhelmed at what was going on. It was harrowing. I got a taste of what we were facing and I thought, "Holy shit!" Of course, the visual effects come in later. They're very complicated, especially in that episode. They kept stuffing in more and more wights and the absolute scale of it was even less apparent, but became more over time as we started to see the visuals. But I had a sense of that during that first viewing. So, yeah, all summer I kind of had nightmares about it off and on as I thought about how I might create some of that movement and this sense that, the wights are everywhere, all around you, all the time. It rolled around in my brain for the summer, so by the time I was ready to start at the beginning of November I had an idea of where to begin at least. So it was good, and at least I had some forethought to it, but it did terrorize me for the summer.

TMS: It's interesting you bring up that that beginning sequence where the wights are approaching. During my re-watch I found it one of the most haunting sequences of the episode. When Melisandre enters the camp, she has the Dothraki raise their swords and invokes the Lord of Light to set them all ablaze. I actually wept when that happened. It was this emotionally exhilarating and unifying moment, where they begin to charge at this dark and quiet space representing the army of wights. Next you hear a little fighting off in the distance, and then silence as all the flames go out. I found the contrast horrifying. The lack of sound of approaching wights makes them way scarier.

PF: That's the thing, it was like how much silence can be tolerated? You don't want to break the tension, but there's a point where you're going to break it if you go too far. How can you stretch it out? Yeah, I agree with you. You do hear something off in the distance right just before she lights their swords. There's a sense that there's something there. We wove a few distance screeches in there, because if you imagine there's millions of them perhaps fights break out amongst them, who knows? So you hear  the odd screech, but nothing, nothing that much. So, yes, I love when they go off into the distance and then it's just screeching and horror and then you start hearing the horses and people dying, and then it just goes to nothing, and it's fabulous. The whole thing was how much can you get away with? How much can you imply with sound and without sound? It was a tricky sequence. Also the music, how much music? Should there be any? At one point they had none for all of it until the attack. It went through many different configurations. It was a tough series for music and sound, I think.

TMS: I did notice that in this episode there is some music, but not very much. This sound is really the star of the show.

PF: Well it has to be, like I said, it guides you through the fight. It helps tell you what's going on. It helps build anxiety because you can hear what's going on, but you can't see it. The sound is very intricate. And a lot is happening visually too. I mean craziness visually. So, part of our job is to continue the world beyond the frame. So you feel like it's everywhere not just in front of you.

TMS: There are only a few shots where they really kind of show you how massive the army of the dead is, but you can hear it. It's like millions of sounds all around you.

PF: Exactly. That was the challenge. How do you make it feel like they're everywhere, you know, how do you get that feeling? It was a lot of individual cutting for anything that you could kind of make out. Everything was hand cut and then I created these kind of huge beds with a particle software that made movements and created this library of feet and bones and screeching and all that kind of stuff. It created this sense of movement all over the place with lots of layers so they can shape it around music. It took a lot of coordination from everybody really.

TMS: Now that it's over, it has to be kind of bitter sweet and sad that you don't get to work with these dragons anymore. You essentially created their personalities with your sound design. So, if you were going to give them a sending off, is there something about them you want the audience to take with them?

PF: Well, the one thing I've been saying, over the course of creating them as they grew up and finding stuff for their emotional palette was that I used a lot of animal voices. We would watch different kinds and listened to different kinds of animals. This year I recorded some animals at two animal sanctuaries that deal with endangered, critically endangered and extinct in the wild species. One of the things that has become apparent a few years ago was people's love of the dragons. Of course, who doesn't love dragons, right? But if you love the dragons, that are imaginary creatures, that don't exists, but their vocals are created from probably 30 some species of animals that do exists, many of whom we are killing off, have compassion for them. And think about that because of the irony of it. For example, when Rhaegal is killed, I had gone to the White Oak Conservation area in Florida and recorded the Mississippi sandhill crane, which is a critically endangered species of bird. They are very tall, my God, they're huge, like six feet when they stand and screech. And so that horrible screech when Rhaegal is getting hit with the bow are from those birds. So a critically endangered species that is dying out is vocalizing the dying of a mythical being that we love more than the actual creature. That's for real.

TMS: Wow.

PF: While I was working on it I was thinking about the irony and the metaphor of it. I know people miss the dragons. I certainly do too, but one thing we can do is think about the beautiful animals that are also disappearing, whose voices are just appearing from this Earth, and the things we can do to help. I mean, I'm right up there with climate change and all the other stuff that's going on right now.

TMS: Yeah. People can direct their love for the dragons to a tangible real cause.

PF: That's right. Absolutely. You know, and it's something to think about because I only used beautiful animal voices for those dragons and they are real. I talked about my dog being part of the dragons, but also many other creatures, so think about all that and the beautiful voices in this world. It's so ironic we can fall in love with mythical beings and get riled up about those more than we can about the fabulous creatures that are all around us, you know?

TMS: Yeah, I agree. The irony is almost too much.

PF: Yeah, it is.

TMS: So on top of the attachment to the dragons, you've also been working with the same team for six seasons now. I'm sure the team developed its own working language and now that you've moved on, do you feel like that was something that was really special?

PF: Oh yeah. It's a special group of people. And you know, we didn't work year round on Thones when it was going full tilt. We would just work for a few months on it only. So we would come together and do that show and then everybody would go off and do own stuff. I miss them terribly. They're all fabulously creative, brilliantly talented and a group of the loveliest people you'd ever meet. I do work a lot alone, so I didn't see them as much as I wanted to, but I certainly interacted with them all quite often. Just knowing that we were all collaborating together to make this amazing thing was fabulous. This past week, with the Emmys and the end and the farewell, my God, when they all came out on stage during the Emmys, I was watching it on TV and it brought me to tears. That is it. There it is, the end. It was the last time everybody was together. It's weird, but you know, onward to new things and there'll be more cool stuff, you know?

TMS: Speaking of new things, what projects are you working on now? I did see that you're working on the new Harley Quinn movie.

PF: I am doing a little bit of design on that. Just a small, small bit. However, I did work on a super cool Netflix series this summer called Wu Assassins. A really fabulous cast that is almost completely Chinese or Chinese American actors. Women doing some insane fighting and doing their own stunts in heels. It also has some cool Chinese mythology and a supernatural element to it. It's based on the Five Elements Theory or the Wuxing. I had studied Feng shui for years and that's the basis it. I got to do some neat stuff in that that series. I also just started another Netflix series called Warrior Nun. And it is awesome! I am so excited about it. It won't be out until the spring, I think. It's about a group of women connected to an ancient order of nuns and they fight the spirits of good and evil. Oh my God, what a cast. They're just fierce. It's fantastic. It's very cool, as cool as the title sounds. I've also been working on my own piece, which is an immersive sound poem, in a number of parts, about grief. The piece is called Ocean of Tears. I did a little bit of a work in progress thing this summer in London and I'm aiming to get that out for next year.

TMS: So when Ocean of Tears is released, where will audiences be able to listen to it?

PF: I'm thinking there's lots of possibilities and it's a funny technology to be working in right now, but I'm hoping to do a concert and release it on iTunes or Spotify. I also would love to do a live performance and/or installation with it. I think grief is something that we all experience and don't talk about enough. Way too many of us are in pain these days, and having had my own journey I thought that was something I really want to just sort of explore. I've been experimenting with the best way or ways to present it and hopefully later next year I'll have at least one iteration of it figured out.

TMS: Well I look forward to hearing it. It sounds like a really interesting project.

PF: Yeah, I used to make art before I wandered into film and TV and it's nice to go back and do that again.

TMS: I want to thank you very much for taking this time to talk with me and, and thank you very much for all of your work on Game of Thrones. I am not one of the people who was disappointed with this show. I think it is the best show that has ever been on television. It's really a gift to get to watch it. So thank you very much for all your hard work.

PF: Oh, my pleasure. Good luck with everything and thanks for reaching out. Appreciate it.

-Dawn Stronski