Portrait

Production designer Deborah Riley on building the world of Westeros. By Sarah Price.

Game of Thrones’ Deborah Riley

From the outline of a script Deborah Riley created new worlds. She dreamed up kingdoms. Made temples and castles for the living, forests for the dead. She reimagined the walls and towers of an ancient city. Built icy wastelands for White Walkers and wildlings to roam. She mapped out skies in which dragons would fly, and fields, for dire wolves to drift and stray. To Riley, the world of Westeros is as real as any.

In 2008 Riley left Sydney for Los Angeles. Her agent sent her on meet and greets, but five years later she was still out of work. Financially, she had dug a deep hole for herself. In the midst of the global financial crisis, she lived above a two-car garage and accepted low-paying jobs on low-budget films. She wanted to give up and come home. Instead, she gave herself a deadline: her 40th birthday in May. In February, Riley got a call. Five years after their meet and greet, Janet Graham-Borba from HBO asked her to interview for Game of Thrones.

Riley got the job. Beginning in Season 4 as production designer, she was allowed to bring to Belfast a supervising art director, but was told, “the orchestra was in place – they were only replacing the conductor. If I wanted the job, I had to make sure I could work with an established team.”

Her first year on the show was all about survival. It was intense, frantic. Workdays were long, the learning curve steep. Riley discovered her strengths, and “worked out who I was. When you work in such a hothouse environment you learn more about yourself in a shorter amount of time than what would happen on a more subdued project.” For her first year’s work Riley won an Emmy. She’s won the same award for her work on the show every year since.

The table in the production office seated 50 people. Ideas evolved. Time was limited, the pressure “enormous”. Her great joy in working at the table, Riley says, was being surrounded by smart people who really cared about what they were doing. “We had such a huge amount of work to do so we just got on with it. You didn’t always know the answers at the start. It was amazing to have a voice in a room like that. Working with such extraordinary artists is inspiring … it made me feel like I walked into my own skin.”

“One of the difficult things about a creative career is: when do you share your ideas? Do you let your ideas develop first, so that you feel more confident about them, or do you show what you have, even though it might not be quite right yet? By the end I had become the latter. I was the person who didn’t care if the idea wasn’t properly formed – if there was a kernel in there somewhere I was happy to talk about it. I started the show more defensively. By the end I was happy to show them a sketch on a napkin if it meant it got the idea out faster, because it was such a race against time.”

Game of Thrones had a crew of nearly 1000 people. From the start Riley was told there would never be a raised voice, that the work was hard enough, so everyone had to be really kind. “That was the thing that struck me the most,” she says. “The most successful way of working is not having the loudest voice, it is actually being able to gain people’s respect by just doing what you do. On set you would never hear a raised voice, even when they yelled ‘Action!’ it was often a whisper.”

Riley is passionate about the psychology of space, and how different spaces make us feel. What does it feel like to walk into a large empty space? Or a small enclosed space? How does walking into a forest feel different to walking onto a field? “It’s all the subtle, emotional cues that help you design space,” she explains. “Depending on what the emotional thrust of a scene is, and how you think a character might be feeling, that often helps me design a space. The work of the art department needs to support the script and, if possible, even enhance it. Like the costumer designer tries to tell a story through costumes, we try to support the story through sets and props.”

The world of the story was in Riley’s head all the time. She felt as if she lived there. The whole environment, she says, was all-encompassing. “It’s the reality of the places and the characters. The characters are so richly drawn, and the environments feel real and heavy and aged, so it allows you to take that step to believe in dragons. I just love the fact that dragons are incidental and accepted. Our references are solid historical references, which grounds it. We were very interested in the reality of it, the fact that bad things happen to good people, and in order to invest in all that, you really had to believe in the world that the people lived in.”

After the filming of Season 8, Riley returned to Surry Hills in Sydney, where she is taking time to recover. The show’s last season was the hardest to work on. “I have never worked as hard or as fast, or been so physically and emotionally exhausted. The art department is always the first to discover where the problems are, because we need to be working so far ahead. I ran from morning until night. I realised at one point that all the work we’d done in previous seasons was just a warm-up for Season 8.”

Finishing was a relief, but incredibly emotional for everyone, she says. At the end of filming the final season, there were too many goodbyes. “On our last day, we were told: ‘Your watch has ended’ … and I just couldn’t stand it. There wasn’t a dry eye.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 15, 2018 as "Riley, ace of guise". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.