With Game of Thrones returning for Season 3 on March 31st, the Academy of Television hosted an evening to celebrate the cast and creative team, and the huge success of the popular HBO drama series, while giving a glimpse into what fans can expect as the story continues. Collider was there to cover and attend the event, and we’ve compiled the highlights of what the behind-the-scenes talent had to say during the Q&A.
During the discussion, executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss, along with author George R.R. Martin, talked about how this book series came to be a TV show at HBO, having to re-shoot 90% of the pilot, making sure that Martin gets his cameo this season, the biggest difficulties in shooting with different first units on different episodes in different countries on a daily basis, who the funniest actors on set are, whether the dire wolves are real or CG, the most technically difficult episode to shoot, whether getting to know the actors makes them feel guilty about killing characters off, the process for changing what is in the books, how there will be a few different people sitting on the Iron Throne before the series is done, and why Season 3 is the one they were most excited about doing. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Well, I had written three books, at that point, and each one of them was better than the other. At a certain point, as the books were doing well, I started getting interest from Hollywood, from various producers and studios who were initially interested in doing a feature film. I met with some of those people and I had phone conversations with some of those people, but I didn’t see it being done as a feature film. But, it did get me thinking about how it could possibly be done, and I decided the only way it could be done was with someone like HBO, as a television series, with each book being a season. I didn’t have time to do it, but I did tell the idea to my agent. I was out in Hollywood on something, and he told me he had set up a meeting with Benioff and Weiss, so I met them at the Palm restaurant. I knew a little about their credits beforehand. They’re both novelists who have written their own books. So, we had this lunch at the Palm that was pretty epic. We got there for lunch and started talking, and we continued to talk. They had the some notion not to do it as a feature film, but to do it as a television production. We talked right through lunch. Everybody from lunch left. We were alone in the restaurant. They started resetting all the tables for dinner, and then the dinner crowd started to come in, and we were still talking. I did ask them a few pointed question to determine whether they had actually read the books, and they gave me the right answers. So, we shook hands and they took the ball and ran with it. The next thing I knew, we were in business with HBO.
DAN WEISS: He asked us, “Who is Jon Snow’s mother?” We had discussed it before, and we gave a shocking answer. At that point, George didn’t actually say whether or not we were right or wrong, but his smile was his tell. We knew we had passed the Wonka test, at that point.
How nervous were you about the meeting?
DAVID BENIOFF: We were nervous. We had read thousands of pages. I was about mid-way through Storm of Swords and I called Dan and I said, “If we could somehow get George to agree to do this, and we could get HBO to agree to do this, and we got to a third season and could get to this scene, I just think an audience is going to love it.” But, that means getting George to say yes and HBO to say yes and getting a pilot picked up. It all seemed pretty unlikely, and it all depended on this meeting with George. So, I would say we were intensely nervous. There’s never been anything I’ve worked on before where I was so excited for the possibility of it. It was pretty intimidating.
WEISS: It was such a singular opportunity. We knew that it was a one-shot deal. There’s one series of books like this. There would never be another series of books like this. There’s one place we could make it. There’s nowhere else in the world, besides HBO, where you could make a show like this. When you want something that badly, it does make you nervous.
BENIOFF: We pitched HBO and Showtime, a few weeks after we met with George. That was March of 2006, seven years ago.
And you shot the pilot twice, correct?
BENIOFF: Yes, I think 90% of the pilot was reshot.
MARTIN: They cut my cameo. I was left on the cutting room floor.
Any chance George could make another appearance?
BENIOFF: Yes, this year. We’ve got a cameo set for George, and it will be in.
On the surface, this seems like a story of power, but it’s also very much a story of loss and what each of those characters struggling for power loses along the way. Would you say that’s true?
MARTIN: That’s certainly part of it. There are a number of things that I’m trying to get into the books. There’s a meta-fictional aspect, if I may use that pretentious word, to writing anything. You’re writing in the shadow of all the people that have gone before and, in a way, you’re having a dialogue with them. As someone who’s read J.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard and all the great fantasists before, this is almost my answer to them. A lot of it is about war. A great many of the epic fantasies, from The Lord of the Rings onward, are about war, but to my mind, a lot of it doesn’t really deal honestly with the consequences of war, what war does to us, as a society, what war does to us, as individuals, and the struggle for power, in the same way, and what we’re fighting for.
I love fantasy. I grew up reading fantasy. But, I wanted to put a somewhat different spin on it. The whole trope of absolute good versus absolute evil, which was wonderful in the hands of J.R. Tolkien, became cliche and rote in the hands of the many Tolkien imitators that followed. I’ve always preferred writing about grey characters and human characters. Whether they are giants or elves or dwarves, or whatever they are, they’re still human and the human heart is still in conflict with the self. As Faulkner says, all of us have the capacity in us for great good and for great evil, for love but also for hate. I wanted to write those kinds of complex character in a fantasy, and not just have all the good people get together to fight the bad guy.
What are the difficulties in shooting this, having different units working in different countries, at the same time?
BENIOFF: We’ve got two geniuses, Bernie Caulfield and Chris Newman, who are the real producers. We’re not. We’re the writers who say, “Wouldn’t it be cool, if we did this?,” and they’re actually the ones that have to do it all and produce things. Chris’ office is right down the hall from ours, so every night, when we’re leaving the office in pre-production, we walk by this massive wall board with the schedule. It’s a giant flow chart schedule, and it’s got the three units and all the different locations. This past year, we shot in five different countries. It’s the most terrifying thing.
BENIOFF: You don’t want to look at it. It just seems impossible. Every time something bad happens, like we lose a day because of weather or an actor gets injured or anything else happens, the schedule has to change. It’s the most challenging Tetris puzzle, and somehow Chris has it all in his brain.
WEISS: We make him wear a helmet because God forbid he gets knocked to the head.
How many countries did you shoot in for the episode you directed in Season 3?
WEISS: We shot in all of them. We had a couple days in Morocco, a day in Croatia, a day in Iceland, and the usual Belfast stuff.
How many episodes do you cross-board at a time?
BENIOFF: The whole season. The first scene we shot from Season 3 was from the 10th and final episode. The entire season is cross-boarded. We have two first units shooting two different episodes, virtually every single day, with two directors. For a couple of weeks last season, we had three units shooting every day, with three directors from three episodes, often in two different countries.
Who is the funniest on set?
WEISS: Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne, is a very funny person.
BENIOFF: I think I went four months, in Season 1, without ever seeing Sean Bean smile. And then, one day on set in Malta, I heard laughter that I had never heard before. I looked over and there was Sean Bean laughing, and it was all Conleth Hill. Conleth was just cracking him up, and I’d never seen anyone doing that before.
Are the dire wolves real or are they CG?
WEISS: They’re real trained wolves that we shoot here, as visual effects elements, and then we scale them up by about 50%, which is about the maximum you can realistically scale an animal up without it starting to look fake. They’re supposed to be the size of a small pony. We looked into doing CG, at the time, and it just looked like it was going to be prohibitively expensive to do it that way. So, we do it with real wolves, shot separately, and then inserted with visual effects into the scene.
Who would you like to play on the show and why?
BENIOFF: Khal Drogo, definitely.
David, didn’t you actually have a run-in with him?
BENIOFF: Yeah, he’s strong, and not just Hollywood strong. That’s real strength, which I found out, to my dismay. We brought him back in Season 2 for one scene, mostly just so we could hang out with him in Belfast because we love [Jason] Momoa. So, after his scene with Emilia [Clarke], Dan, Emilia, Jason and I all went out to dinner. He was talking about doing his Conan work-out, and I had been drinking quite a bit. It was like that story about the mouse in the bar where the beer tap is open and he starts lapping up the beer puddle and says, “Now, where’s that damn cat?” So, I was the drunk mouse and I said, “Momoa, have you ever played that game Mercy?,” and he said, “Yeah.” For whatever reason, I had it in my head that I was really going to win, but I didn’t. I was so drunk and stubborn that I refused to say, “Mercy,” even though he was destroying me, until Emilia started screaming.
WEISS: Why after that you decided to then play the slap game was the mystifying move to me.
BENIOFF: I also didn’t win that.
BENIOFF: The next day, my hands were pretty swollen, but I thought it would go down, if I kept icing them. The day after that, they were even more swollen. And then, we were done and I flew back to L.A. I went home and tried to hug my wife, but I couldn’t really touch her. She looked at me and said, “We’re going to Cedars Sinai, right now.” He had squished my hand. In the emergency room, the doctor actually said, “Your hand was squished.” Matthew Weiner (the creator of Mad Men) would never do that.
WEISS: He’s too smart for that.
Dan, who would you want to play on the show?
WEISS: I would save the show by absolutely refusing to play any character, whatsoever. No good could come from that, I promise you.
George, what about you?
MARTIN: I do play all the characters, when I write them, one after another. If they actually had to film me, the only one I could play would be Samwell Tarly or Hot Pie.
BENIOFF: Anything with the dragons is tricky because they’re not there. But last year, the Blackwater episode was a monster, partly because it was one giant battle and partly because it was all shot at night. Nights in Belfast are not pleasant, so it was tough on the crew, tough on the cast and tough on everybody, but Neil Marshall (The Descent) did an insane job. He was our hero. That whole episode was the biggest challenge.
George, if you develop an emotional rapport with the actors, does that affecting your writing or your plans for those characters?
MARTIN: I think it has the potential to do that, and I don’t know if that would be a good thing. Fortunately, I’m so far ahead of the series. At the premiere, I found myself talking to three very nice actors, at one point, who were very pleasant, and I was having a great time talking with them and drinking with them, and then I suddenly realized that I had killed all three of them, at various points in the series, and that they would all shortly be unemployed actors. And I had a moment of horrible guilt, but it’s already done. It was particularly sad when one of them said, “Please don’t kill my character,” and she’s already dead. It’s probably just as well that I don’t actually know these people when I’m doing it. When I meet the actors and actresses, they’re such tremendously nice people, and it’s then hard to kill them. David and Dan don’t seem to have that problem, though. I’ve noticed that, as bloodthirsty as I am, in killing all of these characters, David and Dan are killing some characters who are still alive in the books. Their body count is actually ahead of mine. When they say no one is safe in the series, that’s literally true. There are characters who are in book 5 and who are going to be in book 6, who are dead on the TV show.
WEISS: We need to make room. It’s a huge cast and sometimes you just need to clear some people out of the way. It’s a culling. There are too many deer in the forest. No. Obviously, we love George’s books, in many ways, more than any books we’ve ever read, otherwise we wouldn’t have devoted every waking and most sleeping moments of our lives to them. In the process of adapting, as complex as the show is allowed to be, compared to a feature film or a normal television show, 10 hours seems like a lot, but when you have a world like the one that George has built, you start to realize how quickly that story real estate gets taken up. There have been places where we did just have to clear out space to make room for all these guys who we love so much and are so invested in, to do them justice. If there are too many balls in the air, at a certain point, you reach the limit of what an audience can really keep in their head at once and remain invested with at once. It’s a juggling act to get right up to that line of maximum complexity, but not go over it and start to lose people.
Who do you want to be on the Iron Throne, at the end of the story?
WEISS: George has told us the answer.
David and Dan, why was Season 3 the one you were most excited about doing?
WEISS: We fell in love with George’s books, and there are so many devastatingly great set pieces and scenes in the book. They’re across the series, of course, but the predominance of the scenes that made us say, “Holy shit!,” and we knew would make other people say, “Holy shit!,” if they saw them properly done on television, more came from the third book. That actually will span over the third and fourth seasons, it turns out, but Season 3 was really the one that we focused on as, “This is the place we need to get.”
BENIOFF: The longer you work in this business, the more you start to be able to see the carpentry. You can see where things are going, and it’s harder to surprise you, as a reader. There were a few scenes in Storm of Swords that are so devastating, and I didn’t see them coming. When I went back and re-read them, the clues were there. It wasn’t a random surprise. They’re beautifully set-up, but somehow George hid them from you, and that’s what we’re trying to emulate with Season 3. God knows if we’ve succeeded, but that was the book we always prayed we’d get to.
BENIOFF: There is no order. We’re still waiting on a green light for Season 4.
George, where are you at with the book series?
MARTIN: Well, I’m writing book 6, The Winds of Winter. I’m starting to worry because everybody keeps asking me, “What are you going to do, if David and Dan and the show catches up to you?,” and I didn’t think it was a problem before, but they’re moving faster than I am and it’s beginning to scare me. I have not failed to notice this. I feel sometimes as if I’m laying track for a railroad and I can hear the locomotive coming up behind me. It’s building speed and I see the smoke and I hear the whistle coming, and I better keep laying that track pretty fast ‘cause I’ll get squashed, if the locomotive comes. But, I still have a pretty considerable lead, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Season 3 is only the first half of book 3. Season 4 will be the second half of book 3. And then, I have book 4 and book 5, and those are gigantic books which have to be recombined because they’re actually parallel. I’m hoping those will be at least two seasons, maybe three. That will give me some time to finish book 6. By the time they’re doing that season, I’ll be writing book 7. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Game of Thrones returns for Season 3 on HBO on March 31st.