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July 20, 2018

Wing Man

Be it dragons or the dramatic stage, director Matt Shakman likes shaking things up.

Paula Hendrickson
  • Matt Shakman with Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones

    Macall B. Polay/HBO

Directing the Game of Thrones episode "The Spoils of War" — including the epic battle scene in which Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) uses one of her dragons to immolate dozens of Lannister soldiers — was quite an honor for Matt Shakman, especially since that episode and the one following it, "Eastwatch," marked his first experience with the HBO series.

"I think I'd [previously] done everything that the show needed me to do, just on a smaller scale and never at the same time," Shakman says. "With Game of Thrones, I found myself doing things on an incredibly large scale. I had the tools in my tool kit, but I'd never been asked to tackle something that big."

He wanted to show the battle sequence from the point of view of the men quite literally in the line of fire. "I wanted to focus on the men on the ground experiencing this dragon attack for the first time, to see the horrors of war as this huge weapon is introduced that changes the way wars will be fought from that point on."

Shakman's path from child actor — he was a regular on Just the Ten of Us in the late '80s — to directing two episodes of one of television's most ambitious series was a bit circuitous.

"I fell into being an actor as a kid," says the southern California native. "I wasn't terribly well known, nor do I think I was very talented." He soon discovered he preferred being behind the scenes. "I gravitated toward directing plays — a lot of Shakespeare, revivals of classic plays, then new plays."

After graduating from Yale, he lived in New York for a few years, then returned to L.A. and eventually opened the Black Dahlia Theatre, which he ran for 12 years. At the theater's first production, Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow, he met producer-director Edward Zwick, who, along with partner Marshall Herskovitz, hired Shakman in 2002 to direct an episode of their drama Once and Again.

"That was my big break in television," Shakman says. "The next thing was a Fox comedy called Oliver Beene. They couldn't have been more different." His diverse credits since include It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Good Wife, Fargo, Psych, Mad Men, House, Childrens Hospital and Billions, to name a few.

His path has been atypical for a TV director, but for Shakman it feels natural, given his theater background. "When I started out in TV, I was innocent enough that I thought I should be able to direct different genres." After returning from six months on Game of Thrones, he directed the pilot of Olive Forever, a modern take on Oliver Twist, and he recently signed to direct a new film adaptation of Norton Juster's children's classic, The Phantom Tollbooth.

Last September, Shakman became artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. "I was excited to come back from doing CGI dragons and start planning a theater season," he says. "They've been very kind to let me continue to work in television and film, so I can do The Phantom Tollbooth and some select television projects while continuing as the artistic director of the theater. It should be a fun juggling act."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 6, 2018

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