Natalia Lee: Interview with the 'Game of Thrones' weapons specialist

Natalia Lee

When most people think of shows like Game of Thrones, they usually think about the dragons, impeccable battle sequences or Jon Snow's family lineage.

Not many people stop and consider all the behind-the-scenes aspects that help bring this story to life.

That's where Natalia Lee comes in. Having worked as a weapons specialist and armorist on several major projects in the past, Lee has been a part of HBO's Game of Thrones since the show began airing. She's the one who's responsible for making all the weapons look realistic as possible, having even created the design for the infamous sword 'Heartsbane.'

She's done stunts and even appeared in an episode of the show.

Perhaps even more impressive is that Lee is one of the only female film armorist currently working in the industry today. While the trade is a unique one, she serves as a role model to any young girl who picks up an archery bow.

Lee spoke to Brandon Schreur in May of 2018 about everything that goes into being a film armorist and what working on Game of Thrones has been like. Read the full interview here:

Brandon Schreur: Hi Natalia, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me today. How are you doing?

Natalia Lee: Good, how are you?

BS: I’m good. Definitely can’t complain.

NL: And where in the world are you? I don’t recognize the area code.

BS: I’m actually in the West Michigan area. A city called Grand Rapids, if you’ve heard of it.

NL: Oh really? I was guessing it was San Diego! But you’re way over there!

BS: Oh yeah, I’m out in the crazy weather area.

NL: Too funny.

BS: To start off, I was wondering if you can tell me how you first got involved with becoming a film armorist. Was this something that you always knew that you wanted to do when growing up?

NL: Oh no, I don’t think anyone even knows that a job like this exists. I think you just fall into it, like a lot of jobs in the film industry.

I did security work when I was younger. I was always out on the shooting range when I was growing up too. I did a lot of martial arts, and then some stunt training when I was in my teens. Then I worked in a police armory as a civilian, looking after the weapons and ammunition. I think I just gravitated towards it.

I remember one time when I was dragged out by some stunt friends to a film school. There was a seminar going on and the armorist there asked me to help him with a presentation to scare the film students with a squibb — a fake blood packet. He shot at me with a blank firing arm and we sure shocked them.

From there I further assisted him. I kept assisting film armorist and eventually became one myself. It’s a complementary field, really. You can come from different sides because some people are gunsmiths and some make bows, or you can be a blacksmith. Really though, I just had a general exposure to weaponry and stuck at it.

BS: What’s the whole training aspect life when you’re learning how to do all of that? Is it really specialized or do you just kind of pick it up little-by-little along the way?

Natalia Lee
credit: Courtesy of Anderson Group PR

NL: Everybody’s different. Some people might be gunsmiths in the police armory, like me. I would do minor weapons repairs and armory courses on different weapons, but that’s modern weaponry. In film though, you might go to something like Game of Thrones for eight years, and then you’re dealing with Viking and medieval armory and it’s completely different. You can be centuries off, so you’re apprenticeship starts when you first arrive on the film set.

There are a lot of special applications for safety and safety versions too. All of this makes film armories really quite different. It’s very complimentary to real-world skills to do with weaponry, but it’s definitely its own occupation and skill-set.

BS: That’s so interesting. How long were you an apprentice of sorts?

NL: You’re kind of on the job all the time and, in some ways, I feel like I’m still an apprentice. There might be a new weapon in the script, like a trebuchet. I’ll look at it and go ‘Oh my god, I’ve never built a trebuchet or had to work one before.’ So you have to then consult experts and be willing to learn different things.

You just never know every weapon. There are certain people who are experts just in their field and they can do it for their lifetime — like Japanese sword making. I’ll consult with those people. I also have friends who make bows, and that’s all they do their entire life. You’re definitely a student through it all, you have to walk in and be ready to learn.

Maybe I'll change when I’m 60-years-old or something. I usually work with men, and they’re usually about 20 years older than me. They always have gray hair and a bit of a pot-belly, so I’m really kind of young for this profession.

BS: And jumping off of that, if I’m not mistaken, you’re the only professional female film armorist who is working today. Can you comment on that? Do you take inspiration from it, or do you feel like it adds some pressure to your job?

NL: I am the only female film armorist that I know of, yes. It’s quite a niché specialized field, so there’s not really a lot of people doing it in general, which means there’s obviously far fewer females. There probably is apprentices out there, and there probably are girls in the workshops or helping. Generally though, it’s very hard to get into this work.

It’s been tough, just like it was in the police force as a civilian. You’re always around men. There’s always girls coming up to me and saying ‘I would love to have a job like yours.’ I really think that it’s just breaking the mold. Girls do want to do this kind of stuff — they do want to do archery, they do want to play with swords, they want to be a stuntman, they want to do action and they want to be gunsmiths.

It’s nice to be a good positive example. It was definitely hard starting out, and I’m still always mistaken for the secretary or the other half of somebody else. Sometimes the older generation can be a bit discouraging, even if they don’t mean to be. They might not understand different fields of work and all that. It took my mom years to come out on set and go ‘Okay, that’s what you do.’

Women do want to get their hands dirty. It’s always the case of people thinking ‘You wouldn’t want to be in a workshop’ or ‘You wouldn’t want to do this kind of stuff.’ We’re more than capable. If I can get out there and lift boxes of ammunition and hundreds of swords up mountains, I think it proves that.

BS: That’s amazing. What kind of advice would you give to someone — especially a woman, maybe — who was interested in getting into this line of work? Maybe something you’ve learned along the way?

NL: I would tell young girls not to be discouraged by being the only girl in the room. They should use that to their advantage. Most men will want to help and see you succeed. You’re always going to be judged on your abilities in the end, not your gender. Working hard is everything.

Natalia Lee
credit: Courtesy of Anderson Group PR

You have to ask yourself whether it’s armor and weapons that you like to work with, or is it something else in the film industry. Either way, I always urge people to get experience on film sets. When you’re out there in the big studio environment or you’re out on location and can actually see all the different departments, it really lets you know what the work is like. Maybe it’s not for you or maybe you’ll love it. It’s a creative field that’s very technical and can have long hours, so I always urge — especially young people — to go out and try it for themselves. Even if it’s just being a runner or serving coffees on set.

If you come from a weapons background in a certain particular field, it can be quite different. We do a lot of model making and a lot of versions. There’s a lot of risk assessment and a lot of creativity. It’s definitely complimentary to have those skills from the real world, but you may just not enjoy being driving a truck out in the bog at 5 a.m. or cleaning fake blood off of 500 swords. It's not as glamorous as everyone sees on the red carpet.

BS: That’s so crazy because I feel like these are the kinds of things no one thinks about nearly as much as they should when it comes to the film industry. As far as Game of Thrones goes, what lead up to that? Were you a fan of the books beforehand? Did you wind up reaching out to them, or did they hear about you and seek you out?

NL: Fantasy is really not my favorite genre. I was kind of skeptical of the whole thing at first. I remember one of the weapons masters asking me if I wanted to come on board and help him out. That’s when I started reading the books and breaking them down. I’ll read scripts and I’ll seek references from real books, manuals or, in this case, Martin’s novels. I started reading them and had to get references about special Valyrian Steel, Dragonbone and all the rest.

I also remember sitting on a train with one of the books and someone said ‘Oh, you’re one of those people’ and I went ‘No no no, this is just for research.’ Then I ended up really getting into it. It kind of captures you in.

As much as fantasy isn’t my particular genre, it has kind of been amazing that the creators love us doing gritty things and they still wanted to keep the show in that gritty world of traditional medieval warfare.

It’s been an amazing journey just to work on these creative things. We’ll probably never get a project where you can do so much in the way of fantasy and creativity. It’s nice to be able to design your own swords and work on some amazing pieces.

Now, these weapons have taken a life of their own, as they’re part of television history. People will come up to you and tell you all these facts about them that you didn’t even know. It’s definitely once in a lifetime, so you have to sit back and remind yourself of that sometimes instead of thinking about it in terms of what the next projects are going to be. That technical mindset is an easy one to get into because there’s so much work that goes into this job. When you step back and see the pop-culture impact, it’s great.

BS: Oh definitely, there’s all kinds of Game of Thrones fans out there and I love the show myself too. As far as the whole designing process goes, how much freedom are you given? Do they basically just hand you a script and say ‘We need all these weapons?’ or do they work with you more hands-on than that?

NL: Sometimes it’s a bit of both. Sometimes they look for guidance from us and other times they have a very specific Japanese weapon, for example, they have in mind. Other times, it’ll be quite vague and we’ll just have a rough idea that they need some type of sword.

The Heartsbane Sword is probably a good example. We tried to incorporate elements important to the script, so in the case of Heartsbane, it was the House of Tarly since it was their ancestral sword. Their sigil is a hunting archer, so I tried to incorporate the archers in the sword. I put them in the crossguard. I sought out some inspiration from biblical Renaissance paintings and classical hunting rifle engravings, so if you look closely there are all kinds of other house sigils or animals being maimed by the archers and the arrows.

credit: Courtesy of Anderson Group PR

I tend to want to give the fans a lot of detail they can see when they look into it. I put in stories and history behind things that they can find, creating a mythical element. Other times they might be very specific. When we did the sword for the White Walkers they have to look like icicles, and that was a huge challenge to find a chemical that would make them strong but not shatter.

BS: Do you put that same crazy amount of detail you just described for Heartsbane into every single weapon that you make for the show?

NL: (Laughs) No, unfortunately not. We probably do a handful that will be principal for the cast, when there’s a special character or something. The rest is all just standard. In previous seasons we’ve had armies of 400 or 600 soldiers, which then turn into 10,000 with CGI. We literally have to make 400 sets of shields, spears, swords, leather belts and scabbards, so we might do them a bit more generically so we can mass produce them a lot faster.

Definitely the principal swords for the cast members we put that time into, though. In the case of Heartsbane, my sketches were turned into computer-generated imagery and then we had 3D-printing done. Then we went to sculpting as well. For bronze casting, we sought out special wood to give it that grainy, ancestral look. It was a very expensive sword and it took months. It was a big collaborative effort that took a lot of people, so it’s definitely not something you can do with each weapon. We would never finish the show.

BS: How long does it take to make all the weapons for an army of 400 then, like you said?

Natalia Lee
credit: Courtesy of Anderson Group PR

NL: Roughly on every movie or production that you do, there’s about a three-month leeway. I’ll be given a script and I’ll have to break it down and budget it for the production, and then they’ll make their choices. It always comes down to budget or what, exactly, they need. That’ll dictate how many principal weapons and so on.

If it’s a very small production or an independent film, they might rent certain weapons. Generally though, you get a good three months for big blockbusters, which gives time to set up workshops and teams. With something like Game of Thrones, you’re going all the way through until the very end. Right up until a couple weeks before an episode, we keep working and planning out things.

Game of Thrones is something that’s very action-oriented and labor intensive. It’s all about war and weaponry, so we’re kind of always working and working. We still have full-time model makers with us that might do rubber variations and safety ones, which also get quite intricate. If we need a war hammer, for instance, because we’re hitting a stunt guy in the head 50 times a day, we might do a super soft one so he doesn’t get a headache.

It’s a full-time job though, so we usually have a team of four or five for a production, and then we start bringing people on set — like myself — to supervise while people stay in workshops. If there’s a scene with firearms or swords, it means that you’re literally there all day long. That can mean supervising, providing blank ammunition or observing safety. Sometimes there will be flaming arrows or 400 soldiers, so it can be a task.

BS: When you’re on set then and working with these actors, like in Game of Thrones, do many of them have any prior experience with weapons or are you usually starting from ground-zero in terms of teaching them how to handle a weapon and make it look realistic while also being safe?

NL: Everybody is different, and every actor has different experiences. For example, Nikolaj — who plays Jamie Lannister — has starred in a lot of action movies before and he’s quite sporty, so he brings in a lot of experience. A lot of other actors might have stage combat experience. Sometimes they might know a lot more about a specific weapon than you might think if they’re already been in movies that required them to use one. Some of them are also much older than me and have already been around this block before.

Natalia Lee
credit: Courtesy of Anderson Group PR

Other actors might just need fine-tuning. I might have extras standing as guards at their post, and they may have never touched a weapon before. You have to work with their mannerisms and you might not even have time to do so, because they’re not the principal cast members. Definitely, in rehearsal at the beginning of the day, you have to watch everything to do with weaponry and tweak things like how someone sits down and walks.

You might be the specific person who has to tell an actor how to sit down and not be clunky with his sword. These smaller mannerisms are huge. For some people it’s natural and for some, it’s not. Not everyone is born with firearms in their hand. I haven’t met too many people who have operated catapults and trebuchets before Game of Thrones.

Stunt teams will also come to us and test lots of our weapon and give feedback, finding out what the weak points and the strong points are, so there’s lots of engineering that goes into it.

BS: Do you ever see certain actors progress in that sense too? Someone who has been on board the show since season one, like Kit Harrington. Did you start off teaching him basic weaponry lessons and them more advanced stuff as the show kept going?

NL: Oh definitely, and some actors will go away to do complimentary martial arts training or something. We had one actor who played the Viper, and he would spend time doing wushu. He introduced a long spear against the actor who played the Mountain, who had a giant war sword. The actor went away and actually trained, so it was quite a circular-form of martial arts.

You still definitely see a huge progression over eight years. We had Maisie, who was just a child — I think only 12 years old — when we started. Of course, she had a natural aptitude and she was quite good with the sword fighting, but she’s also definitely progressed. Now she’s doing wire work, knife fights, stunts and all sorts of things. What an apprenticeship, at the age of 12, to spend eight years on this action-adventure series and learn all these skill-sets.

It’s definitely something that has to be taught and learned along the way, mostly dependent on how detailed your character is and how much you do. Some have personal trainers and take it really to heart by putting all this effort into it.

BS: That sounds like it would be so much fun to learn and master and all that. During the eight years that you’ve worked with Game of Thrones, are there any really crazy or fun behind-the-scenes stories that you’ve been a part of?

NL: Oh jeez, I don’t know. The crazy ones are when you’re asked to do stuff like play a character. I told them that maybe I should look up the character first. I got a book and it said I was a flat-chested Amazonian warrior that chops ears off. Sometimes that’s just Hollywood, they’ll go ‘Hey you, jump in there, we really like you so you should play this character!’ It’s kind of absurd things like that, when it’s not really my day job. Suddenly I’m chopping ears off like Dolph Lundgren while wearing a necklace of those ears around my neck.

Another time they asked me to stunt double. I told them I didn’t even want to see the costume. It turned out to be a very molded, corset leather body armor. There are all these shenanigans on set like this, you really just have to be ready to be thrust into anything.

We’ve been in crazy places too. We were filming on glaciers in Iceland. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself and go ‘Okay, this is crazy, we’re on top of the world. There’s a crevice here in which I could fall kilometers to my death.’ It’s an action-adventure outing just filming the show.

One time we were in Spain and we were filming at this massive fortress on an island, but there was, like, a million steps leading up to it. It looked so much easier on paper! I thought we could just easily put a couple of hundred soldiers up there or film a knight’s tournament on a big fortress wall in a Croatian old town. When you’re physically there at 7 a.m. it’s more like ‘Oh my god, I have to carry all of this up there.’ It looks fantastic on-screen, but it’s a mini-melodrama behind the scenes.

BS: Wow, that sounds like it would be great to experience though. When you’re doing something like stunts or playing a small role, how does that compare to be an armorist? Are there any skills that crossover, or is it its own thing entirely?

NL: Oh for sure there are some things that crossover. For the stunts, they wanted someone to work with whips. It helped very much because I was used to a bronze bullwhip. The actor may have to do a lighter one because their hands might not be strong enough. It’s easier because you know all the engineering behind it and you test it all the time in the workshop and on the range. In this case, with the bullwhip, I would have to test it for safety and to know the range.

credit: Courtesy of Anderson Group PR

It definitely helps to jump in there sometimes to do the stunts. I know in the workshop, we have a young blacksmith who jumped in to do the forging sequences, which made it look more authentic.

BS: I also know that Game of Thrones is now winding down as they’re filming the final season right now. There’s also supposed to be a bunch of spin-offs that are coming up after that. Are you going to be involved with any of those?

NL: I’ve kind of said no (laughs). Never say never, because you don’t really know, but I kind of wanted to go off and do my own thing and work on my own documentary. Maybe do some work in other shows, research my own history and go on my own journey.

Since then, I’ve worked on Amazon’s new Tom Clancy series, Jack Ryan.

BS: Oh, no way. I didn’t know you were involved with that show. I’m so excited for it, it looks great.

NL: Yeah, we get to really dive into modern warfare there. I think I just really needed to pull myself out of the past. Game of Thrones was very much in the medieval world and I thought it was time to come back to firearms. I went to L.A. and started back on the shooting range and everyone was like ‘What’s happened?’ I’d tell them that I’ve been working with swords for the last eight years.

For me, it’s just time to move on. They still keep us on tender hooks. They tell us all the prequels aren’t happening for a few more years, but then you hear rumors that it is. I just felt that I would be forever stuck in fantasy land if I didn’t come back to reality.

BS: How does something like Jack Ryan compare to Game of Thrones? Is that also an entirely different thing? I’m guessing it’s a completely different skillset if you’re working with guns and have to train actors for different things and that.

NL: Oh yeah, it’s definitely different. You’re dealing with firearms and ammunition, and then we’ll have different advisors. We worked with different military advisors and some former NAVY SEALS. There’s a lot of very technical weapons craft and field craft that they bring in.

It’s definitely different, but in the way of safety parameters, you still have background checks, laws, legalities and safety concerns. We have Humvees, helicopters and Chinooks. Put that together with night-time maneuvers, night-vision and drones and it’s a completely different world.

BS: Oh my God, that’s so cool.

NL: In some ways though, it’s kind of the same. It’s really just the evolution of warfare. You go from medieval weaponry to modern. It’s sort of a massive unit in a history class.

BS: I would never have thought of that kind of thing. Is there anything else you have coming up in the near future that you’re currently working on?

Natalia Lee
credit: Courtesy of Anderson Group PR

NL: I’m writing my own show for a large network that I can’t mention, but it’ll be a weapons show. Hopefully, fans can come on the journey with me on how I research and design weapons, seek experts and go on my own journeys to train. That’s a new challenge for me. It’s sometimes hard always being behind the scenes because I can’t always share those adventures with the viewers.

BS: That’s something I’m going to be checking out then. Do you know when it’s going to be airing yet?

NL: It’ll still be awhile. I’ll definitely get back to you when we’re up and running and ready. It’s definitely time for a woman to do it because we’ve seen so many male historical weapon shows and documentaries.

BS: Oh for sure, this sounds like a big deal.

NL: Yeah, it’ll be a lot of fun and it’ll be energetic. I’m guaranteed to be doing some stunts and action in there.

BS: Wow, so cool. Is there a place on social media where people can follow you?

NL: I’m @NataliaLeeArmoury. I post lots of my designs and go into a lot of detail about weapons I make on Game of Thrones and so on. Hopefully, I’ll be posting more of those and my adventures soon then.

BS: Definitely. That was all I had for you then Natalia. Thank you so much for taking time out for this, I really enjoyed talking to you and definitely learned a lot.

NL: No worries and I’m glad. Hopefully, you enjoy the last season of Game of Thrones when it comes out too.

BS: I’m so excited, I can’t wait.

NL: Alright, have a good day.

BS: Bye!

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Brandon Schreur

The fella over there with the hella good hair. Movies and TV are my jam, and the fact that I get to write about them on a regular basis is the bees knees.

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