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Talking 'Game of Thrones' with the HBO Show's Executive Producers

by Maureen Ryan, posted Apr 7th 2011 3:00PM
Last January, the day after HBO screened advance footage of 'Game of Thrones' for critics, I sat down with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the show's executive producers, to interview to them about the process of adapting George R.R. Martin's fantasy novel for the small screen.

The much-anticipated drama finally debuts April 17, but the process of getting it on the air was a long one. More than five years ago, Weiss and Benioff, both of whom have written novels and films, began the process of convincing HBO that the pay-cable channel should delve into fantasy, a genre that made executives "nervous" at first, Benioff said. Once the series was green-lit, they had to figure out how to subdivide Martin's novel, a saga that takes place in several locations with a large ensemble of characters, into 10 episodes of television that were shot last year on location in Northern Ireland and Malta.

Those may well have been the easy parts. Now Benioff and Weiss have to convince TV viewers -- or at least HBO subscribers -- that a tale featuring knights, swordplay, mysterious creatures and palace intrigues is something they should try.

Though 'Lord of the Rings' was a hit at the box office, as Weiss noted, there's a "preconception that fantasy as a genre is the province of 13- to 15-year-old boys."

"When you're saying, 'That's our target," it's just not a very generous conception of what kind of person would conceivably be interested in a story set in a world that doesn't actually exist," Weiss continued. "And we think that lots and lots of people are interested in that, if it's done well. We think it's a kind of, 'If you build it they will come' attitude.'"

What's set Martin's book series apart from most fantasy sagas is its devotion to telling interesting tales about individual characters within the wide sweep of a dynastic clash among various noble houses. There are battles and backroom plots by the dozen, but the success or failure of the TV series may well hinge on how invested viewers get in the fates of Lord Eddard Stark's children, or an exiled princess whose story takes place many miles from the kingdom of Westeros, where most of 'Game of Thrones' takes place. At more than one point in Martin's book, the emotional weight of the tale rests on the narrow shoulders of a 10-year old girl.

In the interview below, Weiss and Benioff talk about the process of adapting Martin's book, the first in his projected seven-novel 'Song of Ice and Fire' series, about the perception (and misperceptions) of the fantasy genre and about the casting process for the series, which stars Sean Bean as Eddard Stark, a powerful nobleman, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, a barely tolerated member of the influential Lannister clan, Lena Headey as his sister, Cersei, who's also queen of Westeros, Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister and newcomer Emilia Clarke as Daenerys, an exiled royal trying to get back to Westeros. The series also features Jason Momoa as a fierce warrior named Khal Drogo; he's pictured above standing between Weiss and Benioff.

By the way, for my take on the recent 'Lost' vs. 'Game of Thrones' kerfuffle, look here. For excerpts from recent interviews with Martin, Clarke, Weiss and Benioff, look here. For a long interview with Martin from 2010, look here (I'll post a more recent interview with Martin early next week, and also check back in a week or two for the complete interview with Clarke). Finally, for all of our coverage of 'Game of Thrones,' look here.

The interview below was edited and slightly condensed.

Maureen Ryan: Has it been an interesting process to compare the experience of making films with making television? Here you have that larger canvas of 10 hours as opposed to two or three. Was there a learning process or a learning curve to figure out how to approach the story so that each episode felt satisfying on its own and the series made sense as a whole?

D.B. Weiss: [A TV show] becomes a more realistic endeavor in a lot of ways. You can go into a level of detail with the characters that it's impossible to do in a film with this many characters. You can do it with two people or three people, but you couldn't do it with 25 people.

David Benioff: Also, I think George has made our jobs a lot easier because the book is broken down in such a way where, when we were trying to figure out how to do 10 episodes, it was almost like he had done a lot of work for us. From the very first time we came in to pitch to HBO, we always knew that the pilot would end with [a key moment from the book]. We always knew that. And you'd find, almost every 80 or 100 pages or so, there was a natural episode break, maybe not for all 10 episodes, but for many of them, there's kind of a cliffhanger ending. We just knew, very early on in the outlining process, "This is where we're going to end Episode 3."

DBW: And maybe you'd shuffle a scene around and you would move one scene forward and flip another one back so you could end on that punch, [but] you never had to look far. It was never something where we had to fabricate something for the end of an episode of out of whole cloth.

It was already embedded in there.

DB: It is embedded, yeah.

DBW: And George is a television person -- he worked in television for a long time and he's been a fiction writer for even longer so he's kind of got those two strands of DNA.

Did you actually call on him and say, "Hey, we're trying to figure out how to do this and this, what do you think?" Obviously, he wrote a script and he's a co-executive producer, but did you call on him as a resource in production and pre-production, as someone with television experience?

DBW: Well, George had been involved from the beginning, he's a co-E.P., we shared our casting videos with George so we could get his input...

DB: And the season outline -- when we broke down the first season, George got that. All sorts of things, I mean, even things that are very specific to the show, like the look of [a key scene featuring Daenerys]. It's kind of spoiler too, I guess, because [redacted, see the end of this post for the full text of this paragraph].

Well it's hard to know how to treat spoilers, because the information is out there in the books. I guess I just try to be respectful of people who are not familiar with the books. It must be a hard line to navigate for you guys as well.

DB: Are they books that you were familiar with beforehand?

Yeah. My husband had read them some time ago, and we have very similar tastes, so I just got into it and it was immediately a very immersive experience. I really respond to things like that. I'm on like volume seven of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series right now, and that's another hugely immersive world. I just was on the plane coming out here last night and crying because of what the characters were going through. I think that's George's strength as well, that there is this epic sweep to the story, but he also brings it down to the human level, you know, "What will happen to this 10-year-old girl?" Was that always foremost in your mind, to have those emotional journeys?

DB: Well, I think what you say is -- you're absolutely right when you [talk about] bringing it to the human level. And again, this all goes back to the first time -- it's almost five years ago now -- that we brought it to HBO. They were very nervous, you know, trying to do an epic fantasy for television. Even though HBO is much more generous with their budgets than many people are with television budgets, it's still a television budget and you're trying to shoot something on television schedule. We can't do the Peter Jackson ['Lord of the Rings'] thing where he's spending two years in New Zealand and has weeks with helicopters shooting and armies of 500,000 orcs fighting a million elves or whatever. We're never going to be able to compete on that level.

But where we can compete and where we think we can actually do better than movies is getting down and dirty with those people and being very intimate with them and lavishing 10 hours on these characters and getting to know them better than you ever could with movies. You're talking about crying on the plane when you were on the seventh book of the Dark Tower series, and you know, for me I was [very] affected when, Adriana, Christopher's girlfriend on 'The Sopranos' was shot in the [fifth] season of 'The Sopranos.' I felt like I'd grown up with this character. It's been so many years and so many hours. That death or Christopher's death had more impact than almost any movie death that I can think of, just because you got to know those characters so much better.

DBW: So it is a question of -- well, lots of questions -- of psychological depth and a question of investment on the part of the viewer or reader. For me anyway, so much of what is fascinating about the story that George is telling is the way it depicts the intersection of the personal and the political. It shows how very, very personal things that happened in rooms between people have repercussions that sweep out and ripple out and engulf whole massive cities and countries and groups of people. To me, to get into that, you really need to have the space to get very, very into the characters and that's where television can really excel.

Daenerys, I know, is some people's favorite character but I could never really bond with her on the level you're talking about in the books, though I think Emilia Clarke's performance may change how I see her. How did you approach incorporating Daernerys into the story? Did you regard that as one of your primary challenges?

DB: I think it's not that different from the way it is in the book. It's such a subjective thing, because I've heard other people say the same thing you do, that Daenerys didn't quite click for them, and she's maybe my favorite character. I just adored Daenerys and her journey.

We were talking earlier today about the difference between writing novels and this, and one of the great things [in TV] is that you're collaborating with other talented people. We have the luxury of being able to choose these talented people that we're working with, and going out there and finding the best possible people, whether it's the crew, whether its designing costumes or sets or the actors. And you know, as a screenwriter in features, you don't have any casting participation. Maybe if the director is your friend he'll ask, but it's unlikely and it's not a typical part of the role.

Here, we were able to do it all with with the help of a wonderful casting director and our producing partners. But finding Emilia, for instance, and what she brought to that role, and finding Michelle Fairley and what she's brought to the role of Catelyn [Stark, wife of Eddard], or our kids, who are just fantastic, that was one of the really gratifying parts of this experience. Because, as you say, they bring so much richness to it and they make us look good, frankly, because you'll write scenes for these characters and you might think, "I'm not quite sure if that's going to work" and then they're so good and they make it better than what's on the page.

There are a couple of cases where we read the books and just felt -- maybe 60 pages into it, I thought Sean Bean's got to play Ned Stark and I thought Peter Dinklage has to play Tyrion. I mean, those were the two that I really felt, even before I finished the first book, we've got to get those guys if we can. And we got a number of them here today in Pasadena [at the critics' press tour], so ... [Laughs] That worked out well.

And you know, Aiden Gillen as Littlefinger, I mean, it's just been phenomenal that we've been able to get those people. Charles Dance is incredible as Tywin Lannister.

DBW: Talking about the people we had envisioned beforehand and the ones that we found in the process -- there were really only three for me that I envisioned. Two were Peter and Sean, which are slightly more obvious ones, but the third was Charles Dance as Tywin.

DB: And then you have someone who's totally different than the way you imagined it, like Sibel Kekilli playing Shae. Shae, in the book and in our minds, when we went into the casting process, was going to be an English girl, because that's the way she's written in the books. And then Sibel came in. We had seen this movie she that she did called 'Head On' and thought she was so incredibly compelling in that, that we just thought, it's a long shot, but why don't we see if she'll come over and read for us, and she did and she knocked our socks off.

DBW: And Aiden as Littlefinger is different, just different than what I had envisioned, but it's so superior to the default version that I had in my head that he completely swept away what I had in my head.

DB: Or Natalie Tena for Osha. George has written about this on his blog, [about how] she is so much different than the way that he conceived of the character and yet we kind of like it better.

One thing I've actually debated is how much I should use the word "fantasy" when writing about this show. I mean, Tolkien wrote a classic and I love those books, but the people in George's story, you know, have sex and get hungry and are not elves or ethereal and all that. I don't want people to not try 'Game of Thrones' because they make assumptions about what it is or isn't. Is the use of the word 'fantasy' something you embrace?

DBW: On the one hand, we do feel very much that it's a show that people who might not be interested in this genre as a whole will invest in because it has as much in common with storytelling genres that they love as it does with fantasy. But on the other hand we want to embrace the fantastic elements of it, because that's what makes it special in so many cases. Science fiction fans talk about the sense of wonder and the sense of awe they can get when they're in a really, really great story told within those genres. And we will embrace that because we feel that that's a big part of what the show has to offer as well.

I just think that, unfortunately, there's a lot of bad fantasy out there, in books and TV and film. It'd be a shame for people to think that this is starting out in that derivative realm.

DBW: We've talked about this -- so much of it is this preconception that fantasy as a genre is the province of 13- to 15-year-old boys. When you're saying, "That's our target," it's just not a very generous conception of what kind of person would conceivably be interested in a story set in a world that doesn't actually exist. And we think that lots and lots of people are interested in that, if it's done well. We think it's a kind of, 'If you build it they will come' attitude.

DB: Yeah. And this is one place where we're lucky that we're working with HBO because, you know, I wasn't particularly interested in watching a western before 'Deadwood' came along, and I became obsessed with 'Deadwood.' I didn't need to see another gangster show for as long as I lived before 'Sopranos' came along or a cop show before 'The Wire.' One of the things we talked about in that first meeting with them is that no one explodes genres better than HBO does. They take certain conventions [of the genre] -- there are plenty of the gangster elements to the 'Sopranos' and there are total Western elements to 'Deadwood.'

DBW: 'Deadwood' was a Western -- it embraces it in a way that actually is in some ways is more immersive and more complete than a less thoughtful Western would have done.

DB: But they do it better, though. That's the thing. I can be a fan of anything. I'm not a particular horror fan, but if a horror is done well I love a great horror movie. I don't think I would rule myself out of seeing anything if my friends told me, "You've got to see this, it's really, really well done. You're going to love it." And I hope we get that kind of reaction to this show. And I really believe that if we get people to the end of episode 2, I think they're going to be hooked, regardless of whether they've ever watched or read a fantasy thing before.

And I think one good thing about the magic in this story is that it's not used really for plot purposes as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card.

DB: It's a crutch for so many writers and [Martin] doesn't do that.

Here's the full version of what David Benioff said above. Note that it contains a spoiler about the last episode of the season.

DB: And the season outline -- when we broke down the first season, George got that. All sorts of things, I mean, even things that are very specific to the show, like the look of the dragon scene. George had very particular ideas his mind about what the dragons should look like and it's literally something he had been thinking about for a long time, and so we got his input before we went to the [special effects] artists who were actually creating the look. And it's kind of spoiler too, I guess, because it's the last shot of the season.

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This should be a great show! If HBO invested that much money and time into a project this big then they must have written a good script. I work in the TV industry for Dish Network and if anyone who has Dish didn't already know HBO is doing a free preview starting on April 15th and ending on the 18th giving you a chance to catch the premier without you having to add HBO just to see if you like it. So you should definitely check out Game of Thrones on HBO.

April 11 2011 at 9:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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