From the moment in the pilot when Ned Stark beheads a Night’s Watch deserter with his imposing Valyrian steel longsword, weapons of every manner — blades, axes, arrows, bows, cudgels, clubs and more — have played a crucial role in the brutal universe of “Game of Thrones.”
And as the show’s weapons master, Tommy Dunne and his team designed and built all of them, from Arya’s beloved Needle to the swords, shields and scabbards of the Lannister army. If it’s sharp and lethal, then Dunne made it.
A native of Wicklow, “the garden of Ireland,” Dunne never had dreams of being in the industry. He stumbled into it by accident after pursuing a career in engineering and precision welding, when he was called to work on “Braveheart.” That led to gigs on projects including “Band of Brothers” and “Black Hawk Down.”
He was creating weapons for the stoner fantasy comedy “Your Highness,” also filmed in Northern Ireland, when producer Mark Huffam asked him to read the pilot for “Game of Thrones.”
“I had a read and I said, ‘Ah, we’ll give it a go. It can’t be that big,’ ” he recalls. “All you can do is create the weaponry. You have no power. If it doesn’t go, then we’ll have a lot of souvenirs to get rid of.”
Of course, the show did go — and then some — providing him with an increasingly huge to-do list every season, as the series grew in popularity and ambition. While Dunne says it’s impossible to estimate how many weapons he’s created over the years, he notes that every army that has appeared in the series requires 200 to 300 swords, scabbards and shields, many featuring elaborate filigree and leatherwork.
Without revealing any details about the heavily anticipated final season, Dunne says it presented “the biggest trouble I ever had.” But the work got done “at the 11th hour as per normal.”
“The leprechauns come in at night and do it,” he jokes. “Because you never see them, you don’t have to pay them.”
With a shop operating out of Titanic Studios in Belfast, Dunne oversaw a relatively small team of up to a dozen artisans including blacksmiths, carpenters and model-makers from all over the world.
The Valyrian steel swords, renowned in the world of “Thrones” for their strength and sharpness, were hand-forged. Most of the weapons in the show are made of aluminum or bronze, although for fight sequences they often used models made of bamboo or foam rubber.
Weapons for fight sequences were custom-fit to actors for safety purposes. “We have to make sure it is workable for the stunt man as well as the actor. You can’t just make something that’s grotesque and can’t be used.”
He also provides archery tutorials to hundreds of extras every season, to ensure the safety of everyone on set (the tips on the arrows are rubber, but those wooden shafts can still do some damage, he says).
A modest guy, Dunne is reluctant to name a favorite weapon from “Game of Thrones,” but after some cajoling admits to being fond of the longaxe carried by Dornish bodyguard Areo Hotah in Seasons 5 and 6 — “Very opulent, very big, nice style to it,” he says.
Dunne has also had a few turns in the spotlight, playing a royal armorer who melts down Ned Stark’s sword in the opening scene of the fourth season, and a barber in the series pilot. Then there was that time he met Queen Elizabeth when she visited Belfast. “We had a full array of weapons on display,” he recalls. “That was a worry with the six snipers on the roof.”
Dunne laughs when asked if he is a weapons enthusiast outside of work. “I don’t fixate on wanting to be involved with reenactments or weekend warriors. I am happy not to be doing it.”
Besides, he’s also pretty busy, having wrapped Season 2 of “Jack Ryan” for Amazon (he also does modern weaponry) and is now in pre-production on the pilot for the “Game of Thrones” prequel, which is tentatively scheduled to begin shooting this summer.
“We’re proud of what the whole show turned out to be,” he says, “and what it was and what it’s given people.”
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