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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Vicky Jessop

Meet Clare Kilner, the director who changed how sex was filmed on House of the Dragon

Warning: spoilers for House of the Dragon ahead

When it came to filming House of the Dragon, director Clare Kilner took inspiration from a somewhat unusual experience in her early 20s: attending an orgy in Berlin.

“My friend took me to a club and said, ‘Come with me,’” she tells me, adding she did not participate. “He sort of hugged me, because he said, ‘You’re not allowed to come in and just look, but I want to show you this.’ And I looked, and people were just basically looking at each other, walking towards each other, ripping each other clothes off, having sex. My mind was blown.”

Years later, when the time came to construct a scene in a King’s Landing brothel for the Game of Thrones prequel series, that memory leapt into her mind. “I remembered that image, you know… the sex was in the air. And I thought, ‘Somehow I want to recreate this.’”

It’s all in a day’s work for Kilner, who is the directorial mastermind behind the House of the Dragon episode that aired earlier this week. And during her stint on the show – directing episodes four and five as well as nine – she’s also been at the forefront of a revolution in the way the show treats its female characters.

Beginning her career at the Royal Court Theatre in London, she earned her Masters in film and television directing from the Royal College of Art and has gone onto work on episodes of Snowpiercer and The Alienist, as well as directing the Amy Adams film The Wedding Date.

When House of the Dragon showrunner Miguel Sapochnik asked her to direct on the show, she jumped at the chance. “I think what appeals to me the most is, I’m really interested in family dysfunction. And this is dysfunction of epic proportions,” she says. “It has that sort of Shakespearean quality to it.”

Kilner set the internet ablaze in episode four with her portrayal of the sex scenes between a young Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock) and, respectively, her uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) and guard Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel).

(Clare Kilner)

“As a female director, I do seem to get a lot of orgy scenes,” she says. “I think male directors have been nervous of tackling those at the moment. And I was very aware of it, and of the way women were shot… I had to really think carefully about how I wanted to approach the scenes.”

Part of that involved extensive communication with the actors, employing the services of an intimacy coordinator to choreograph the sex scenes and unpacking the difference between the male and female gaze when it came to shooting them.

“As a woman, I have a certain sort of ick factor, how I don’t want to see women portrayed,” she says. “So I really dive into the story. What is the story? And what is the moment that we’re trying to get across to the audience?

Sometimes the shoot was straightforward. “The funny thing is with the brothel scene, all the supporting artists who came along really wanted to take their clothes off, because they were really excited about being in a Game of Thrones show.”

However, a sex scene between a young Alicent (Emily Carey) and Paddy Considine’s ageing King Viserys required more care – Carey recently made headlines saying that she’d initially been scared to film the scenes due to her youth and Considine’s comparative age (she was 17 and he was 47).

“There’s a place for [sex], but it’s got to be the right place,” Kilner says. “I had this vision that [when Alicent] was having sex with Viserys, her nightie was pushed up. And that she was surrounded by all the material of her nightie and almost suffocating.

“There were times when they were at it, where the nightie would go over her face, so she was sort of suffocating in the royalty of it all. And for me, that was a more interesting image than, you know, some nudity.”

The reception to that episode seems to have taken her by surprise. “I literally was getting hundreds of messages on Instagram, from women and Game of Thrones fans, saying, ‘You’ve changed the way sex is portrayed in the canon of Game of Thrones.’ You know, I didn’t mean to do that. I was trying to be as authentic and honest as possible. But I love it.”

That focus on the female perspective also plays into Kilner’s work in episode nine, especially the scenes between Alicent and the oily Lord Larys Strong, where the two plot how to bring down her father Otto’s network of spies. “That scene was surprisingly difficult. It wasn’t difficult to shoot, but I felt that Alicent was almost being raped,” Kliner says.

In trouble: Alicent in the latest episode of House of the Dragon (2022 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)

During the scene, the camera focuses on Larys’ gaze, as he in turn stares at Alicent’s bare feet as they converse in her private chambers.

“She’s looking away and in the background, he’s doing what he’s doing [putting his hand inside his robes]. It’s so invasive and icky, and she doesn’t want to be revealing herself in that way. She’s just doing it for the Crown and doing it for the power that she felt she needed to get in order to keep peace in the realm.”

In addition, the dynamic between Rhaenys, played by Eve Best, and Alicent, played by Olivia Cooke, also comes under scrutiny during the episode – resulting in a climactic showdown as Alicent attempts to win Rhaenys over to her side.

After Viserys’ death, Alicent puts her son Aegon on the throne instead of Rhaenyra , before the ceremony is interrupted by Rhaenys escaping imprisonment and riding a dragon through the Great Sept itself.

“When she breaks through on her dragon, she’s so powerful and the choice to not kill everyone in her sight is such a powerful one,” Kilner says of the episode’s ending.

“It really expresses the divide between these two women, Alicent, who thinks she can work with men, and sort of mould the future, within the patriarchy. And Rhaenys, who is like the Lone Ranger, making decisions for herself.”

After episode nine, Kilner’s time with House of the Dragon is over – at least for season one – but it’s been an experience that both she and the fans will remember.

“It’s been great,” she says. “And it’s important. I’ve always felt that I’ve grown up with the male gaze, and you have to then think about, ‘What is the female gaze?’

“I think that’s a question for all of us, in the way we live our lives even, you know, ‘Who are we and what is it that we want?’ Rather than being fed what men think we want.”

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