Running Game of Thrones is a year-round job. Sure the cast and crew go on hiatus once production ends—a process that in and of itself lasts about six months, from July to December—but the show’s writers and showrunners are working on Game of Thrones every month of the year. Creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are on set throughout production, then when filming wraps they’re in the editing room during post-production, and once the show is done airing it’s time to start pre-production again. So when do they find the time to write?
Benioff and Weiss have revealed previously that they need to have every episode of a given season written before they start filming, since they shoot the whole season out of order like one giant 10-hour movie. In a recent interview with Observer, Game of Thrones writer Brian Cogman—who’s written at least one episode a season throughout the show’s run—offered a detailed rundown of how they go about writing Game of Thrones.
It’s a fascinating and lengthy response, so I’ll offer it in full for clarity:
“It’s basically run the same way the past few years. As we’re shooting one season we’re trading emails and/or chatting on set about the broad strokes of the next season: ‘Character X’ starts at ‘blank’ and we want him or her to end up at ‘blank.’ Then, as we start to approach the end of production, David & Dan, in some years, will assign the various writers a few characters. For instance, when we were working on Season Four, I was assigned Arya and a few others. So I’d go home and work for a few weeks on my ‘Arya Season Four,’ keeping in mind a few scenes we’d already discussed and what chapters and scenarios and themes from the books we might use.
Then, in January, when we’re back in LA, we’d meet for about two or three weeks, armed with the work we’d all done individually, and throw it all up on the board. You debate, you use some stuff, you throw some stuff out, you think up some new stuff. Sometimes what you end up with is really close to the individual outlines. Sometimes it’s very different.
After we map out all the main characters’ individual arcs, using color coded index cards, we arrange them by episode and get a rough idea of the scene order. From there, we all split up again and each tackle a chunk of the outline—a detailed outline, which sometimes ends up being over a hundred pages. David & Dan polish it, and that’s what we use to script our episodes. I’m generally assigned mid-season episodes—it just seems to work out that way. George wrote a script per season for the first four seasons, but took a break for Season Five as he’s hard at work on the next book. And while George isn’t in the writers room, he reads the outlines and gives his notes.
From there I write my two scripts—it takes me about a month and half to do both—D&D read them, give notes, I do a rewrite, D&D sometimes do a pass on it themselves. And we continue to tinker with all of the scripts through prep and production. But they’re generally camera-ready when we finish them. They have to be, as we have to have all ten scripts complete well before shooting starts. We shoot all 10 episodes simultaneously, out of order, like a big, ten-hour movie, with two shooting units going at all times, sometimes in different.”
Since Weiss and Benioff are credited with writing the majority of the episodes each season (they wrote all but three last year), I’ve always been curious how they juggled such a herculean task. It’s also interesting to learn that Game of Thrones keeps a very small writers room—Cogman says it’s never been more than four people. But with such a mythology-heavy series it makes sense to first plot out detailed storylines for each character, and then see how the pieces of the puzzle can fit together to craft individual episodes.
And since Game of Thrones shoots the entire season at once, the directors of said episodes are working for months on end as well, as Alex Graves detailed in his interview with us last year.
So as you’re watching Season 5 of Game of Thrones—which premieres on HBO on April 12th—know that, assuming they’re keeping to Cogman’s timeline above, Benioff and Weiss are probably already in the outline stages for Season 6.