The HBO fantasy drama Game of Thrones, adapted from George R.R. Martin’s best-selling Song of Ice and Fire books, is one of the most highly anticipated series in recent memory. And, all of the hype that you’re hearing about it is completely deserved, as it is also one of the most intriguing, well-written and believably acted epics that I’ve seen, in a long time. As someone who is normally not what I would consider to be a fan of high fantasy, I got so engrossed in the story and characters that I watched the screeners for the first six episodes in one sitting. It’s that good. I’m sold, as I’m sure countless other viewers will be as well.
During a recent interview, executive producers/writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss talked about tackling the complex and compelling work of author George R.R. Martin, casting such a wide variety of characters, the challenge of revealing the basic information in a way that doesn’t overwhelm viewers who aren’t familiar with the book, and often wondering what they’d gotten themselves into. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Game of Thrones follows kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars and noblemen as they vie for power. When the series opens, King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), who is married to Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) of the wealthy and corrupt Lannisters, asks Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean) to come south and help run his kingdom after the questionable death of his right-hand man. Meanwhile, there is a threat to the throne from the east by the exiled teenage Princess Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and her brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd), whose family ruled the Kingdoms for many years before being ousted. As there are rumors of strange things happening at the edges of the Kingdoms, north of the Wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Ned’s bastard son, goes to be part of the brotherhood of the Night’s Watch, which is sworn to protect the Kingdoms.
And, because Benioff and Weiss were so generous with their time, I’ve broken down the interview with a list of the 10 coolest highlights. A full transcript of the interview follows.
- They were first approached to turn Martin’s books into a PG-13 movie, but knew there was no other way to bring them to life than with HBO
- They had a major “Oh, my god!” moment when the Dothraki wedding sets from the pilot were washed into the sea by a hurricane
- They had an opportunity to go back and re-shoot the pilot, fixing all of the mistakes they felt they made with it, including script adjustments, re-shooting in Malta instead of Morocco, and the re-casting of Daenerys Targaryen and Catelyn Stark
- The first scenes and the last scenes of Season 1 are very close to those of the book, with only minor deviations in between
- Their biggest trepidation in bringing this story to life was that so much of the story rests on the children, until they found young actors who delivered beyond their imagination
- The two roles that they didn’t audition for were Ned Stark and Tyrion Lannister, as they couldn’t see anyone other than Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage in those roles
- They saw 300 actresses for the role of Daenerys, finally choosing Emilia Clarke, who was straight out of drama school and had only done one episode of a British soap opera, prior to landing one of the most important roles in the story
- The author was not only a resource they could turn to if they had questions, but he also had a hand in the cast and wrote Episode 8
- They hope to know about a Season 2 before all 10 episodes of the first season air
- In order to tell the entire story, they hope to get seven or eight seasons to bring what will eventually be seven books in the series to life
Question: George R. R. Martin has said that, when he wrote the novels, he considered them unfilmable. What ended up convincing you that it could be done?
D.B. WEISS: Well, who doesn’t like a challenge? George had worked in television for many years, and is intimately familiar with the restrictions of television budgets and schedules. And, as somebody with a massive imagination that eventually started to wear on him, he felt the need to let his mind roam free. That’s why we’re lucky enough to have his Song of Ice and Fire books. But, HBO does give you a much wider playing field and, frankly, a much bigger budget than is customary in television. The technology has also moved on since when George was working in television. There were things that were not remotely possible, even in big-budget feature films, that are now things you can do on a television budget. So, while he devoted his life to these books that he created, the playing field of television changed, in such a way as to make it a possibility, where it wouldn’t have been before.
DAVID BENIOFF: When the books were originally sent to us, they were sent over to consider as feature adaptations. In reading them, the very first decision that we made, probably a week after we started reading the books and having more fun than we have had reading anything in years, was that these were not going to work as features because there is such massive sprawling tapestries, so many characters and so many plotlines. The movie version of this would have to simplify everything and cut it down to maybe one storyline, so that it’s the Jon Snow (Kit Harington) movie, or the Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) movie, or whatever else, and you are probably going to end up eliminating about 95% of the characters, storylines and complexities. That wasn’t interesting to us. We did want to adhere as closely as possible to George’s world, knowing that there were going to be certain deviations, but we didn’t want to get rid of so much of what made it special. Beyond that, these are books written for adults. This is not fantasy written for 12-year-old boys. Not to say that there aren’t 12-year-old boys out there who would love it, but for the most part, it’s a more sophisticated readership, and we wanted to keep that. We wanted to keep the sexuality of the books. We wanted to keep the profanity. To have a PG-13 movie where Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) never gets to say the “C” word, it just wouldn’t be Tyrion anymore, and we wanted that. We wanted the brothel scenes. We wanted the bloody violence. You know that someone’s head gets chopped off and you are going to see blood spurting out. You don’t want to not do that because it’s a PG-13 movie, and you only get two blood spurts per hour.
WEISS: And, the blood has to be green.
BENIOFF: Yes. There are so many goofy rules involved with the Ratings Board. HBO was really the one place where we could have the time to tell the story, and be allowed to have the freedom to tell it the way we wanted to.
In taking on a project, this epic in scope, with major locations, sets, costumes and looks for so many characters and kingdoms, while still making it accessible to people who aren’t normally fantasy fans, how many times have you wondered if this is something you could really pull off, and did you have moments of, “Oh, my god, what have I gotten myself into?”?
BENIOFF: Every day.
WEISS: There were a few, “Oh, my god!,” moments when I watched our Dothraki wedding sets from the pilot being washed into the sea by a hurricane. I know that was an, “Oh, my god!,” moment right there.
BENIOFF: One thing that gave us confidence about being able to lure in fans who are not normally fantasy fans was just knowing how these books have attracted readers that don’t normally go for fantasy books. I can think of my own family with that, whether it’s my wife or my father, or whoever. They started reading these books and they became incredibly engrossed in them because the characters are so vividly drawn, and you become so tied into their fates. You just want to know what is going to happen to them, and you are terrified about what’s going to happen to them because George is brutal on his characters. It’s one of the things that he is famous for – just a willingness to kill anyone. That keeps you nervous, as a reader, and I think it will, as a watcher of the show as well. Anyone and everyone is at risk of getting his or her head lopped off. That is something that makes the show very tense and would, hopefully, keep people tuning in every week.
For those who haven’t read the books, would you recommend that they start reading the books, or just enjoy the show in its own?
WEISS: I think you can really come to it either way. The show is definitely designed to stand on its own, and reading the books is not a prerequisite for understanding the show. They are two different experiences. Each one will give you something that the other one doesn’t, and each one will also give you different perspectives on what is very much the same story. We’re very indebted to George, and we feel very grateful that the books have so many fans, because that has given the show a lot of excitement that otherwise wouldn’t be there. But, the idea of people watching these shows who don’t know what’s going to happen is very exciting for us because we do have to make the show for people who haven’t read the books and who have no idea what’s going to happen to these characters. You’ll have the same level of surprise that you would, the first time you had read the books. Ideally, the show works either way. I can’t wait to watch it with friends of mine who have never read the books, just to gauge their surprise level for all the various calamities and unexpected events that happen.
BENIOFF: It was a good experience for us, in that we got to go back and do much of the pilot over again and learn from some of the mistakes we made the first time, some of which were scripted ones. You take certain things for granted, from reading the books. You think certain relationships are clear. We would show the original pilot to friends of ours, who are very intelligent friends that watch very carefully, and they would get to the end of the pilot and have no idea that Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) were brother and sister, which grew into the last scene of the show. So, we clarified some of the relationships. We also had shot the Dothraki wedding scenes in Morocco, originally, which made a certain amount of sense, practically and budgetarily. We had great sets that we could use there, which had been built for Kingdom of Heaven for Ridley Scott. But, Malta ultimately made a lot more sense for a location than Morocco had. And, there were a couple of re-casting moves, which had been made, that necessitated re-shooting all the scenes.
Which characters were re-cast?
BENIOFF: We re-cast Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, and Michelle Fairley as Catelyn.
What was your thinking behind some of the changes to Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley)? In the novel, she’s all for her husband, Ned (Sean Bean), becoming the King’s Right Hand, but she is opposed to it in the TV series. What was your process in coming up with those changes?
BENIOFF: The series is quite faithful to George’s books, but there are going to be deviations. There are times where something works very well in the books, and we can feel it work as well in the show. When there are those forks in the road, where veering left means adhering absolutely and literally to the text, or going right means doing something a bit different that we think is going to be better for the television series, that’s the way it is. But, by and large, fans of the books are going to find a faithful incarnation for television. The first scenes of the season are pretty close to the first scenes of the book, as are the last scenes. There haven’t been major character deviations or inventions. I don’t think we have totally changed very much, but there are alterations. This is an adaptation.
With such a huge cast of characters and so many storylines, is there anything, in particular, that you feel drawn to and maybe spent a little bit more time on?
WEISS: All the characters that remain in the show are characters that we are personally very invested in. If there is a center of gravity to the first season, it is definitely Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean. It’s his journey down south, to unravel the mystery surrounding his foster father’s debt, that really drives much, if not all, of the action in the show. And, if that is the spine of the story, we definitely wanted to make sure that that was solid. Sean can convey more with a look than many people can convey with a monologue.
BENIOFF: One of the great things about having a 10-hour canvas to develop a story on is that we can spend so much time with the characters that we wouldn’t have been able to, if it were a feature. We were also still writing, after we began shooting. You see the actors and how they interpret the roles, and that inspires you to write for them. There are several scenes in the series that are inspired and suggested by the books, but that don’t take place in the books. For instance, you know Varys and Littlefinger, played by Conleth Hill and Aidan Gillen, are so phenomenal and so beautifully inhabit their roles that we just wanted to see them together. We were very curious about what these two guys, who are the grand conspirators and masterminds of so much that’s going on, would be like if they were talking. Or, what would happen if Jaime Lannister, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, ran into Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in the courtyard of Winterfell? There were other moments like that. It became a lot of fun. First, you are writing really in the abstract, without knowing which actors will play the roles. But, once all the roles were cast and you saw the actors doing their thing on screen, and had a sense for how they read their lines and how they performed in those roles, it was even more fun to write for them and to come up with new ideas and possibilities for what those characters might be up to.
The children of this story are so important, especially in the books to come. Was there any trepidation with casting child actors to do such mature things, especially in possible future seasons where they will play an even bigger role?
WEISS: One of our single biggest trepidations was that so much of the dramatic weight of this season, and the story in general, is on the shoulders of people so young, who, at least in television and in film, are just not customarily carrying this kind of weight, or dealing with these very adult, sometimes disturbing situations. With the help of our amazing casting director, Nina Gold, we laid eyes on many, many children for Sansa, Arya and Bran, specifically. I don’t know how she found Sophie [Turner], Maisie [Williams] and Isaac [Hempstead-Wright], but she did. None of them had a great deal of prior acting experience, except for school plays or maybe a television commercial, here or there. They all just really electrified us with their auditions, and continued to do so with their performance. An audition is one thing, but when you stick someone who is 11 and 12 years old, in front of 200 people and lots of cameras, cranes, lights and people running around, frantically watching the sun go down, to be able to deliver under that kind of pressure is a different thing entirely, and these kids did an absolutely amazing job.
BENIOFF: We are so used to seeing child roles, in television shows or movies, and in stories like this, being peripheral, and they don’t have to say much. If they’re doing much, it’s really just acting as little innocent creatures. The kids in George’s books are very, very different. Those three Stark children have amazingly important roles, and they each go off in their different directions. For the most part, they’re without their parents around. They’re following their own storylines. So, it was amazingly important to find the right kids, and we were terrified. Especially in Hollywood, you see so many kids, and they’re adorable and very poised, and they have got mannerisms already worked out, but there is nothing very real-seeming about them. We wanted kids who were going to feel like real kids, and who had to perform in amazingly difficult scenes, watching horrible things happen to family members and just be tortured. And, those three kids delivered, beyond our imagination.
In this series, you are taking a more sophisticated approach with fantasy on screen and not having a lot of effects sequences. Has that been intentional?
BENIOFF: Yes, it’s something that we talked about, from the very first time we went in to pitch the book to HBO, and I think it’s very much following George’s model. This is a fantasy world, and magic does exist in the world, but it tends to be more on the outskirts. It’s not front and center. George didn’t want it to be a story about wizards throwing fireballs at each other. That was important to us, partly for practical reasons. We can’t compete with Peter Jackson, in terms of the high effects spectacle. This is never going to be The Lord of the Rings. And, at the same time, what makes this story so compelling and so different from something like The Lord of the Rings is that it’s really about the human interaction. The great majority of the story is about characters – men and women in conflict with one another, not with supernatural forces. That said, this isn’t our world, and there are major differences. This is a world where winters can last for 20 years, and there are dark forces lurking beyond the wall. There are dragons that existed, at one time, and perhaps they will again. It’s very important to us that we create a world that seems completely real to the people within it, and it doesn’t seem like a fake world, but at the same time, it’s not our world.
WEISS: When the supernatural does come into play, the reactions of the people in the world is closer to the collective reaction to the supernatural in our world, which is to say that many people don’t believe in it while other people do believe in it, but have to admit that they have never witnessed it themselves. One of the things that made the books so much easier for me to relate to, on a deeper human level, is that I saw people who would react to a display of supernatural power the way I would, if I saw one, which is to say that they are profoundly freaked out. It’s not as if, when the wizard shows up and starts casting spells from his staff, everybody claps. Everybody runs, if something like that happens in this world.
What is your long-term vision for this series? Will each season cover one book, or do you want to stretch it out for more seasons?
BENIOFF: We don’t even know yet if we have a second season, but if the show were to go on and we were that lucky, the first few seasons would roughly map onto the book. So, the first season is Game of Thrones and the second season will be Clash of Kings. The third book, Storm of Swords, is considerably longer, so there has been some talk about what to do with that. It would be a great problem to have, if we get that far, but because it is so much longer, perhaps it would be one and a half seasons. And then, the fourth and fifth books, Feast of Crows and Dance with Dragons, operate concurrently, so we would start to get a little bit more fudged, as we move down the line. But, for the first few years, at least, it would be a book per season. Ultimately, it would probably be about seven or eight seasons, for the eventual seven books, if that wonderful thing came to pass.
In reading most books that get translated to films and movies, you can see exactly how they would get translated, or what parts should come or go. With Game of Thrones being such a huge book, what was the process you went through, in breaking it down into 10 one-hour episodes?
WEISS: We got several packs of notecards and it really was just going through the story, and pulling out what, in each section of the story, we thought was essential and what we couldn’t do without, which is an embarrassment of riches with George’s books. It is such a well-conceived and fully dimensionalized world, on all fronts. It was really just about putting it out there, on the big board, and seeing what we ended up with. And then, there were places where we would diverge a little bit, in terms of perspective. For example, the feast scene, in the book, is from Jon Snow’s point-of-view, but it was one of those rare instances where we had many of the principle characters, all together in the same room, so we expanded that a bit, in order to have Ned interacting with Jaime, and going to the queen, and interacting with Catelyn. There were places where we changed perspectives, and there were places we would outright invent scenes to put across things that we felt were hard to get across without new scenes. It was about feeling our way into the story and breaking it down into episodes that stand on their own and make coherent sense, and just seeing where we ended up.
BENIOFF: On a day-to-day level, George was focused on writing his next book, which we’re grateful for. Obviously, all the fans of the books are incredibly eager to read Dance with Dragons, and I don’t think anyone is more than we are. But, George was quite involved, as much as he could be from Santa Fe. Because casting was done out of London, probably 100 different actors or actresses would come in to read for the roles, and we wouldn’t see most of them in person. They would be put online. We would pick out the top 10 or so, and go watch them, and George went through all of those casting videos with us. He would tell us the people that he liked the most, which was great because, every now and then, faces would slip through the cracks, since there were thousands posted. We got an email from George saying, “Have you guys watched Rory [McCann] read for the Hound? I think he is fantastic!” Somehow, we hadn’t seen him yet. We pulled him up and, sure enough, he was the best of the lot. He came up with all sorts of great ideas for how to convert certain scenes from the books in episodic fashion. Whenever we had questions about anything, he was there as a trusted resource. For instance, we talked to him about the design of the dragons, which was something that occupied a lot of our time. He has very definitive ideas about what dragons should look like, and it was good to hear those from him because we wanted the dragons that he sees on screen to closely mirror the ones that he had in his head. George was a huge asset. Hopefully, if there is a second season, things will continue as before.
There is a lot of basic information to convey, for those who haven’t read the book, in regard to who belongs to what house and the basic geography of the Kingdom, that is really important to know. How did you overcome the challenges of delivering that type of ground-level information to viewers?
WEISS: When you read the book, you frequently flip back to the maps, at the beginning of the book, so you can literally get a sense of the lay of the land and who is where in this world, relative to anyone else. We felt like the credit sequence was a definite step in that direction. A lot of it is a matter of creatively and artfully putting information into scenes, in a way that gives you information that you need to know without making you feel like you are being fed boiled spinach. One of the trickiest things about Game of Thrones is just seeding those first couple of episodes with that basic information that people need to know, both about the world and the ground rules of the world, and the relationships between the characters, as far as who means what to whom and why.
Will that credit sequence actually change, as different houses come into power?
BENIOFF: Yes, it does, actually. That’s one of the things that we loved about the concept. As the season goes on and the characters venture to different parts of Westeros, you will actually see different landmarks. We have seen the title sequences probably several hundred times now, and you’re always seeing new things. There is so much detail in there. They had a massive team of talented artists working on it, for so many months. As the episodes progress, you will see different things, whether it is different palaces or different locations.
Given the constraints of the adaptation process, budgets and time, are there any scenes from the novel that you really wish that you could get in there, but you couldn’t do?
WEISS: George has such a great mind for the reality of warfare and combat, and how that would have worked in these scenarios. But, we knew going in that we really had to pick our battles. We knew that we weren’t going to be able to do full-on versions of some of the battles later on in the show, but it would have been nice. We also knew that, in the first season, we were going to be using Northern Inuits for the Dire Wolves, which is a breed of dogs that’s bred to closely resemble a wolf, and the dogs did an outstanding job. I think they were convincing. As we move forward and we can really move into pure, full-on Dire Wolf territory, that is going to be something really exciting.
If you get a second season, do you think you will take any more liberties, as far as keeping certain characters alive or making changes to the story itself?
BENIOFF: We wouldn’t make any guarantees about anything, but the truth is, the reason we have been so faithful to the book, in the first season, is not because of any contract or sense of moral obligation to stay truthful to the book, but because we love the books. There are always going to be certain deviations, and we’re not going to make any guarantees, as far as what happens to various characters, but we intend to remain faithful to the books because we’re massive fans of them and because we believe they worked incredibly well as narrative. George is a master storyteller, and he has come up with so much great stuff that we want to see on screen.
WEISS: We also do rub up against things that are not possible, financially, even for a generously budgeted television show.
BENIOFF: There were certain characters cut in the first season, that were mostly minor characters. There will have to be more cuts, proportionally, in the second season, because there are just so many more characters. Partly, it’s a budgetary thing and, partly, it’s just that, even with the amount of time that we have with 10 hours per book, we still wouldn’t be able to service every single storyline, if we included every character of the book.
WEISS: You’re also faced with situations like Robb Stark not playing as big of a role in the second book as he does the first book, but then you see Richard Madden’s performance in the first season and you realize that you love this character that he has brought to life, and the idea of cutting him loose or putting him on the back-burner for a whole season just becomes a really difficult thing to think about doing.
BENIOFF: We have been friends for about 15 years. We met in graduate school in Dublin and have been close friends since then, but we hadn’t really worked together. The first screenplay that I actually ever wrote, I wrote with Dan because he knew how to do it and I didn’t. We wrote a brilliant horror movie called The Headmaster, about a boarding school where the headmaster turns out to be Satan. It was really, really bad. We never showed it to anybody. We never even tried to sell it because we were smart enough to know it was bad, but it was a great experience and we remained friends. Throughout the years, whenever I wrote the first draft of a script or a novel, Dan would be the first person to read it.
WEISS: Writing can be a very isolating profession. By its very nature, you spend a lot of your time barricaded in your house or office, typing on your own. To be able to do the show with a close friend is a great opportunity.
BENIOFF: If you’re writing a screenplay for a feature, you don’t have any involvement with the casting process, the editing process, the set design, the costume design, or any of that stuff. Working on the show, aside from being able to interpret some of our favorite books that we have ever read, just the joy of being able to take part in all aspects of the production, to work with people who are so talented, to see that stuff come to life and to have a bit of input on it, was incredibly gratifying. Even if it doesn’t go for a second season, we are really proud of this and we feel like this is something that will hold up. It’s a 10-hour movie. It’s a story that holds together. I have absolute confidence that people who get through the first episode will be hooked. There is no doubt that it’s been the best working experience of my life.
The marketing for this series has been really ingenious with getting the word out, especially with people who don’t have the background of the books. How have you gone about handling all of that, when it comes to making audiences, who are not typically fantasy fans, interested in this series?
WEISS: That is something that we have discussed with HBO’s marketing department, from the beginning. We all want this to be something that the fans can really appreciate, and something that people who aren’t necessarily given fans of this genre or these kinds of worlds can experience because we just feel like it is such a rich, potential experience for them. So, there was a lot of discussion about how to reach out to people who might not normally find themselves tuning in to something like this show, and invite them to come in and check out a few episodes and see what it does for them. We feel like HBO has done a really excellent job of trying to make a broad spectrum of people aware of the show. We can’t predict who will watch and who won’t, and who will stay on board and who won’t, but we really are grateful for their efforts because we think they have done a fantastic job.
BENIOFF: One of our producing partners on the show is Carolyn Strauss, who ran HBO original programming back when The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood were on. She’s been a great ally because of her experience and because of her great taste, and she is someone who is not remotely a fantasy fan. When we first pitched her the show, it felt like a pretty good pitch, but it was a little bit tough because we were talking to someone who was quite open about saying, “I am just not normally a fan of this genre. It doesn’t appeal to me.” And, she has become such a lover of the series. For her, it’s all about the characters. This is a world where magic exists, and it is a fantasy world, but the characters feel like real human beings. So, having her by our side has always been really informative because Dan and I did come from a fantasy background. We were both Dungeon Masters, in our various games growing up. It’s actually been really helpful to have the perspective of someone who is not from that world. Hopefully, the show will attract a lot of viewers who might not normally find fantasy appealing, but realize that this is something very different from the standard fare, just like they have with George’s books.
These books have a lot of sex and nudity, but it’s one thing to read about it and another to see all of that on the screen. How did you find the balance with what you would show and how far you would go with it?
BENIOFF: That’s a good question. We didn’t want to have something where it was the equivalent of a shower scene, basically just showing someone naked, for the sake of having a little bit more nudity in the show. It is a very sexual world. We want to see Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) with a prostitute in a brothel, and not cover it up daintily with sheets, the way you would have to on network television or in a PG-13 movie. It’s equal opportunity nudity. Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) comes in and does what he does, quite brutally with his young wife, and it should feel brutal. It’s supposed to be terrifying for her. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is a young girl. Even though she is not as young in the show as she is in the book, she is still quite young, and she was virginal. We wanted that scene to have the power that felt right for her, and that meant not being coy about it and really seeing what you had to see. Luckily, we had actors who embraced that. I think it was much more terrifying for them than for us because they were the ones doing it. They’re the ones that have to reveal everything.
What was the significance of choosing Ireland for a shooting location? Did you shoot the entire season there?
WEISS: It’s Northern Ireland, and we shot most of it there.
BENIOFF: We have a few seconds of stuff shot in Scotland, and we have six weeks that we shot in Malta.
WEISS: The rest was all Belfast and surrounding areas. One of the reasons we chose Ireland was the pool of people there. There are a lot of fantastic people in the pool to draw from. The environment there was great. There was a lot of geographical variety in a very small area. You could drive from the mountains to the sea to a willow field, all in an hour and a half.
BENIOFF: I think it was the people, more than anything. They’re very well educated, and just wonderful. We actually really loved working there because we met in Dublin 15 years ago at Trinity College, so Ireland has always been a place that we’ve loved going back to. The people in Northern Ireland just work their asses off. Some of them came into it without that much experience, in terms of TV production, but came out of the season just having learned what to do so well. They’re enthusiastic and very positive. You don’t get the kind of cynicism you get in other places where people have been doing this for 100 years.
WEISS: It’s an attitude thing. When you’re in a place for seven months, working 14 to 16 hours a day, day in and day out, it really makes a huge difference.
BENIOFF: It’s about power. If you had to just pick one word to describe a very complicated story, I think it’s about power and how it effects those who are pursuing it, how those who already have it try to retain it and how those who are caught in the crossfire between the two are mutilated in the process. It’s also very much about families. Ned Stark (Sean Bean) is someone who has survived a couple of wars and, at this point, he is very happy to live the rest of his life in the north, away from all the scheming and backstabbing of the capital, but he is drawn back in by his oldest friend, who he went to war with 17 years ago. Because his old friend is the King (Mark Addy), he doesn’t trust anyone but Ned and he needs Ned by his side, as things are starting to fall apart. So, Ned has to bring much of his family with him, and he gets caught up again in the treachery that he had hoped he’d escaped from.
WEISS: At the heart of it, there’s a reluctant gunslinger story about someone who thought he had gotten out of this world and is now being drawn back in, but in a way that he’s not necessarily as well suited for. He’s a very straight-forward person. He likes to get out there on the battlefield and know who he’s fighting, and beat them. But, this is a world where battles are fought in a much different, much less straight-forward, much more political, scheming way than he’s used to, so he’s got to navigate those waters.
Why do you think Game of Thrones rises above so much bad fantasy?
WEISS: It’s frightening to dare to take a story, set in a world that’s not our world, seriously. There are always going to be people who refuse to do that, who aren’t interested in making that imaginative leap, and giving themselves over to the work as fully as you need to. But, we know, first-hand, how extremely rewarding that can be, both as kids who grew up reading it and as adults re-engaging with it through George’s books, and I don’t think we’re that special or unusual. If I am somebody who can have this experience, then millions of other people probably aren’t that different from me. It was really just about keeping your eye on that, throughout the process, and keeping your eye on the characters, how fascinating they were, and how real and relatable their conflicts and struggles were. You can look at Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) and her son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) as the queen of somewhere that doesn’t exist and her son who is the crown prince, and it can be very distancing on that level. But, you can also look at her as a woman who desperately loves her son and, ironically, makes her son into a terrible person through that love and through over-indulgence. Looking at it that way, it becomes a very relatable dynamic that I see played out, all the time in the world.
BENIOFF: If there were two things that I would single out, as what might distinguish this from some other high fantasy, is that George’s underlying story is so strong, and it’s an entirely new story. It is not something that we have heard a million times before. It’s quite fresh. And, the actors are phenomenal. We have got a great cast, and I have so much faith in them and their ability to take incredibly difficult scenes and make them work. If you have got a great story and great actors, that takes you a large part of the way.
With such a huge cast of characters, and many of them carrying on through potential future seasons, and all of them having varying degrees of shelf life, did that make the casting process that much more difficult?
BENIOFF: There are a lot of actors who are being asked to make a very long-term commitment. The actors came in with varying levels of foreknowledge of the book. Most of them had read the books by now, and there were some unpleasant surprises. I am sure people have found out that they don’t stick around quite as long as they might have liked, but there is also the fact that nothing is written in stone. Maybe somebody who doesn’t make it all the way through the books will get to stick around for a bit longer than they do in the books. We’ll have to see.
How did the casting come about for Peter Dinklage, who had long been the fan choice for Tyrion Lannister?
BENIOFF: Peter and Sean [Bean] were the exceptions to the long, drawn out casting process because we knew we wanted them, from the beginning. So, we obviously didn’t ask either of them to audition. We just went after them. I had met Peter before, socially. We have a mutual friend, so I got his email address and sent him an email that just said, “I don’t know if you have heard of these books, but there is a character named Tyrion Lannister and I think you would be fantastic. Maybe we could talk about it at some point.” So, we started emailing, and then he came out to L.A.. We sat down with him and had a great conversation, where he basically said, “I am really interested in this part, but don’t give me a beard. Dwarves in fantasy movies always have big beards. It’s the cliché of fantasy.” So, we promised him that he wouldn’t have to have a beard, and that went well. And then, I had actually worked with Sean before and was just a huge admirer of him, as a professional and as a person. We had lunch with him in London and talked to him about the part, and we managed to get him. With Peter and with Sean, we just knew from mid-way through reading the first book that those were the actors we wanted.
How did you find Emilia Clarke and decide that she was right for the role of Daenerys?
BENIOFF: That is someone we had never heard of. She was straight out of drama school. (Casting director) Nina Gold brought her in for a reading. Three hundred people were brought in and we saw her and thought, “There’s really something interesting about her.” And then, we saw her in person and thought, “God, she’s actually really good. What has she done?”
WEISS: She had done an episode of Doctors, an English soap opera.
Were there known people up for the role?
BENIOFF: Absolutely. There were a lot of people with name recognition.
WEISS: We won’t name names, but there were.
BENIOFF: Kit Harrington (Jon Snow) had been on stage in War Horse and a couple of other plays, but had never been in front of a camera. The crazy thing about Emilia is that she had done one episode of Doctors and you would think that she would be terrified having these scenes with a ton of extras, in front of all the cameras. I’m sure she must have been afraid, on some level, but I never saw a glimpse of nervousness. She’s just a rock. And, she looks good with silver hair, which is a plus.
Are you at all concerned about the reaction of die-hard fans?
BENIOFF: That’s part of the reason I don’t go onto the message boards. You could spend your entire day, trying to gauge fan reaction. But, it is very important to point out that the fans are not a monolithic enterprise. They have wildly disparate opinions on everything from who should be cast in various roles, to how scenes should be interpreted, and everything else. We’re fans. We would not have spent the last five years of our lives trying to get this adaptation off the ground, if we weren’t completely in love with George’s books. There are certainly going to be fans who disagree with various choices, and we’re glad for that. We’re glad that there is so much passion about the books that they would have these spirited debates online. That said, we have to remain a little bit outside of that fray because otherwise we won’t be able to do our jobs. Ultimately, that means making 75 to 100 decisions, every day. You can’t go online and poll people about what the answer should be. You have got to do what you think is right for the show. I am not particularly worried about being fire-bombed or anything. There are going to be people out there who don’t like it, but my hope is that most of the fans will enjoy this adaptation.
What are your greatest concerns or fears, with bringing this out to the world?
WEISS: There is always going to be a lot of trepidation, when you spend five years working on something that you love as much as we love this. It’s our baby, so we’re very biased, in favor of it, and we want other people to love it as much as we love it. There is no way of predicting how many people are going to love it, but we hope it’s a lot. And, we really have no idea who it’s going to connect with and how it’s going to connect with them. I suppose there is a certain level of edge-of-the-seat until we find out what happens, but that is probably inevitable with anything that you would invest yourself in, as fully as we have invested ourselves in this show.
BENIOFF: It is nerve-wracking. We just really want to keep telling the story because we know how much great stuff is to come. It would be a shame not to get to the third season. The roles of those child actors in Season 1 become even more interesting, as seasons progress. To watch them grow up, onscreen and off, would be so much fun. So, we’re just really hopeful that we can get that far. In the next few weeks, we’ll know if it works or if it doesn’t.
Have you been given any indication from HBO, as far as when they might make a decision about future seasons of the series?
BENIOFF: Hopefully, we’ll know something a little concrete about our future, one way or another, before Episode 10.
WEISS: Believe us, no one is more on the edge of their seats than we are because it determines where we are going to be living, and where our families are going to be living.
BENIOFF: And, it determines what kind of accent my kid is going to grow up with.