Q&A Time: Author George R.R. Martin Talks 'Game of Thrones' (and Endings)
This weekend, HBO will finally debut the fantasy epic 'Game of Thrones.' It's based on a book Martin began working on two decades ago, the first in a projected seven-novel series that spins a complex tale of love, betrayal and danger in a world not unlike Medieval Europe.
Last January, I spoke to Martin during the Television Critics Association press tour, and the transcript of that chat is below. Of course, Martin has given lots of interviews since then, and in a conference call with reporters on Monday, he addressed, if only indirectly, the brouhaha over what he said about the ending of 'Lost.' A few tidbits from that conference call are below as well.
If you're a newcomer to 'Game of Thrones,' it begins at Winterfell, the castle of the noble Stark family. Eddard 'Ned' Stark, his wife Catelyn and their children are soon caught up in the schemes and intrigues that swirl around the court of King Robert Baratheon, Ned's old friend. Even as the Starks and other noble families, most notably the wealthy Lannisters, begin contending in these aristocratic games, there are threats from the north, where an icy Wall and the men who guard it are supposed to keep "wildlings" and even scarier creatures at bay, and from across the Narrow Sea, where two royal exiles are plotting to recapture the throne. For links to more stories on the series, see the end of this post.
Maureen Ryan: Was there anything that you looked at in the scripts and said, "Oh, I'm sorry we had to lose that," or was it all apportioned out in ways that you thought were right?
George R.R. Martin: Well, I think, by and large, they've done a great job. But yeah, there are quibbles. I can quibble about what they did here or what they did there. Doing something like this is a matter of making choices, in some cases, hard choices. Unless for some reason they say, "You have a $300 million budget, you can do whatever you want," you have to cut and trim and make choices.
The main concern that I flagged David and Dan with was, and we've had conversations about this, was what I call "the butterfly effect." The way my books are constructed is very unusual. Most shows or movies, you know who the principal characters are right from the beginning, and they remain the principal characters throughout. My books have an unusual structure in that there are many minor characters that appear, and it looks as though, "OK, we can cut this character. This is a nothing character, this is a minor thing."
But then in Book 3, that character has a huge role to play, and if you remove that character in Book 1, then by the time you get to Book 3, or season 3, you're going to have to vamp some, or deal with it somehow. Whenever David and Dan have made a decision where I think the butterfly effect may kick in, I try to tell them about it. Sometimes they address it, sometimes not, in which case, two seasons from now, if we're still on the air, we'll see how they deal with that.
The ripples in a work this complex trickle down from season to season and are the things that can be trickiest to handle, particularly in something that's constructed in the way these books are.
Is there any moment in the footage you've seen so far that has been a wow moment? I mean, the first sight of the Wall ...
Yeah, that was pretty cool.
Was there anything else you saw in the clips, or on set, that stopped you and turned out to be way better than your expectations?
Better? I don't know. I have a pretty vivid imagination, so I've been seeing these things for a long time. Certainly [some things have been] different but just as good. On my most recent visit to Belfast, when I walked into the High Hall of the Arryns [part of a castle that is first shown in Episode 5]. It was stunning. The Paint Hall, where we shoot it, is, I believe, the largest soundstage in Europe. It was formerly a place where they painted ships, it's part of the old Harland and Wolff shipyards. It's gigantic. They've divided it into four pods -- there are actually four soundstages there and we had all four. The High Hall of the Arryns occupied the entirety of one of those pods, so it was a very large and spectacular set.
That being said, it's also very different from the way I describe it in the books. In the books, the room is long and rectangular. But they had essentially a square space, which they chose to put a round hall in, with a staircase curving up to a throne that was high above. It was different from what I had described, but nonetheless gorgeous to look at. So it's a process of adjustment, and you look at it and go, "Well, that's not quite what I described, but God, what they did is very good." The set designer and various people brought their own sensibility to it and they came up with something beautiful.
They do have a huge soundstage and all that, but nonetheless, some things are smaller than I envisioned them. Many things are smaller. But I think that's part of the process. Fantasy, by its very nature, is big. I take something like Hadrian's Wall, which was the inspiration for my Wall -- Hadrian's Wall is, like, 10 feet tall, you know, and I make a 700-foot wall of ice out of it. That's the process of fantasy. You make it more spectacular, you make it more vivid, you make a world full of wonders and marvels and things to inspire this sense of awe.
But as a result, fantasy tends to be very large and it's difficult to reproduce on a budget, except with special effects and matte paintings and all that. Our throne room is a spectacular throne room -- we actually redressed a throne room built for [another] film. And again, it occupied a quarter of the Paint Hall, so it's very big, but in my mind, it's Westminster Abbey, it's St. Paul's Cathedral. Even this huge set that we built, if you've been to either of those places, those are cavernous places capable of holding thousands of people. ['GoT's' throne room is] not that, obviously. But you know, we'll address some of [the look of the show] with special effects and all that, and you know, it looks great. So I'm satisfied, I'm not dissatisfied in any sense.
Have the actors brought things to the roles that you never saw before but were good interpretations or additions to the characters you wrote?
The most striking example is a minor character, Osha, who is one of the wildlings. [Various things happen, and] she forms a relationship with some of the [Stark] children. When we were casting for that part and they sent me the videotapes, one of them was this actress, Natalia Tena. I looked at her picture before I played the audition and I said, "I don't know why brought her in, she's all wrong. She's too young, she's too pretty." Osha is described as a very hard-bitten woman, probably at least 20 years older than Natalia. But then Natalia played the role, and God, she was terrific. I couldn't take my eyes off her. She brought a very interesting dimension to it that is not in the books, but now I want to go back and put it in the books. Their Osha, at least based on that audition, is going to be a lot more interesting than my Osha. So when I bring her back [in upcoming books], maybe I'll address that.
In one of the conference calls he did with the media on Monday, Martin also addressed various 'GoT' topics. Here are some excerpts from that discussion:
• He wrote the eighth episode of the season, which is titled 'The Pointy End.' He will write an episode in the show's second season, if it gets one, and it's likely to be hour that depicts the Battle of the Blackwater.
• Martin was traveling last week and didn't have a computer with him, so he said said he was only "vaguely aware" of the kerfuffle with 'Lost' co-creator Damon Lindelof, who reacted vividly to Martin saying in a couple of interviews that he very much disliked the ending of the ABC show. More to the point, Lindelof said he took issue with Martin saying that to give a tale an unsatisfying ending was to "pull a Lost." "I can understand that," Martin said of Lindelof's reaction, though he said he's going to wait to address the 'Lost' issue in more depth when he's more caught up on what Lindelof said.
• Martin, who worked in television for many years before turning to literature, noted that for decades, networks encouraged TV shows not to have any kind of endings so that they'd sell better in syndication. ('The Fugitive' had a conclusive ending, which, according to Martin, executives thought depressed the price for the show, because audiences knew how it turned out.)
• He added that "it's quite a challenge to any creator" to end a show, especially when the creative team often doesn't know how many seasons a show will get. If 'Game of Thrones' gets additional seasons that spin out the rest of Martin's tale, "presumably the show will end the same way the books will end."
• Asked by Hanh Nguyen of TV Guide what TV finales he did like, Martin cited 'Friday Night Lights' ("a terrific ending") and 'Six Feet Under' ("it was quite moving").
• Asked if he regrets anything he's done to his characters in his novels, Martin said he has "no remorse and no regrets," though a particularly tough sequence in the third book was very hard to write. Even though that section was in the middle of the book, he couldn't bring himself to write it and skipped over those scenes. He wrote the entire novel before going back to write that difficult section.
• When sequences shot in Malta were thrown out and those parts of the pilot were reshot, Martin's brief cameo as an extra was left on the cutting room floor. He later suggested having a facsimile of his head put on a pike for another scene, but that proved to be surprisingly costly. "It's very expensive to have a severed head made of yourself," he said.
My review of 'Game of Thrones' will post later today, and a Talking TV podcast discussion of the new TV show with the founders of the 'GoT' sites Westeros and Winter is Coming can be found here or here.
For an interview with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, executive producers of 'Game of Thrones,' look here. For my take on the 'Lost' vs. 'Game of Thrones' dust-up, look here. For more excerpts from TCA interviews with Martin, cast member Emilia Clarke, as well as Weiss and Benioff, look here. For a long interview with Martin from 2010, look here. Finally, for all of our coverage of 'Game of Thrones,' look here.
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