As much as I was looking forward to the discussion with George R. R. Martin, the chance to meet and hear from Game Of Thrones writers and producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss was what I was really excited about. We’ve heard GRRM talk extensively about the show, both on his blog and in interviews, but aside from a post on Making Game of Thrones and brief clips in the Making Of videos, this would be the first time we got David & Dan’s thoughts on the series.
Prior to GRRM’s roundtable discussion, I had already had a chance to meet George and even got to enjoy having breakfast with him. But this would be my first time meeting David & Dan, what would they be like? And what would they think of the site and the fans?
We walked into the room and were introduced. Both David & Dan seemed genuinely excited and happy to meet me and Fire and Blood. As the reporters settled in, FaB joked with David & Dan that they both looked much better rested than we last saw them, in the behind-the-scenes video. Both men laughed and Dan relayed a funny story about his mother’s reaction to watching that video.
“Yeah, my mother actually got mad at me. That was from almost a year ago, the very end of a long day, and she said, ‘David’s talking, your friend’s talking, and you’re drinking your coffee while he’s talking, it’s very rude.’”
“Better than falling asleep while he’s talking,” FaB said.
“Which is what he normally does,” David replied. Everyone laughed and then, with the ice successfully broken, the questions began.
And right out of the gate, the question of the fans came up. With the rabid fanbase these books have, what were the pressures on you to live up their expectations?
“Well they were great,” Benioff responded. “Not just with the fans, but with George who entrusted these books to us and for ourselves who had such a great time reading the books and not wanting to screw it up. It’s a huge thing.”
“I think at the same time, you have to go into it and not be writing scripts or casting or any of the process, in fear. You can’t be living in fear that someone on Winter Is Coming is going to have a nasty post.”
“Not you guys, you guys are awesome,” Benioff added to me and FaB. Damn straight.
He continued, “But you are always going to have trolls out there who are going to be angry about something. You can’t try to please 100% of the people. But if we can make George happy and we can make ourselves happy, as incredible fans of the book, I think we feel confident that we’ll make the vast majority of the readers happy.”
“It’s easy to respect the fanbase, when you are the fanbase.” Weiss explained, “I feel like the fact that people occasionally get angry about something is great. You don’t get angry about something unless it matters to you, unless you care about it. By and large, 95% I would say, it’s a very respectful and intelligent fanbase.”
“And an educated one.” Benioff continued, “There’s some comedian who did a contrast between Jeopardy contestants and Wheel of Fortune contestants. The Wheel of Fortune people would be like, ‘I like bright shiny objects’ and the Jeopardy ones would be professors of particle physics. We’ve got the Jeopardy fanbase.”
“The way George will throw out a clue on the latest casting thing, and here’s some incredibly obscure clue and then the fans will somehow have figured it out in four and a half minutes. I have no idea, I’m looking at it like, ‘I know who we’ve cast and I can’t figure it out!’”
As a follow up question, David & Dan were asked, knowing that the fans are going to be obsessive on details that already exist, does that limit their ability to go off-book.
Benioff answered, “I think, if we didn’t have the stones to sometimes go against what some of the fans would like, we would be the wrong people for the job. Because you have to be able to do what you think is right for the show and, ultimately, it’s not a democracy. We have to make the decisions. We’re the ones writing most of the scripts, and making the final decisions on creative matters.”
“We can’t go out there and have a poll, we can’t do an Internet poll and say ‘So what do you want to have happen in this fight scene?’ You gotta make the decisions, and often you gotta make them very quickly and you gotta make hundreds of them every day. And you’re not gonna get every one right, but you hope if you’ve got the right basic philosophy for the story and how to tell the story, you will get the lion’s share right.”
Benioff and Weiss were then asked how they first discovered the books and what their initial reactions were upon reading them. Benioff answered that he had discovered them first, that he was sent a package with all four of the books.
“I remember walking into your house,” Weiss said, “and just seeing [the stack of books], it was by the door, so it literally looked like a doorstop. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, what the hell is that?’”
“I admit, I hadn’t heard of the books,” Benioff explained. “I had been a giant fantasy fan growing up but then moved away from it. And hadn’t read a fantasy book in probably 15 years when I got these books and hadn’t heard of them and saw this, what is it, 4400 pages or something, and at first I was thinking, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’”
“And I started reading the first one, and I remember, at the scene that ends the pilot, which I won’t spoil but you guys who’ve read it will know what I’m talking about, I emailed Dan, shortly after that, and said, ‘I don’t know if I’ve lost my mind but I think what I’m reading right now is more fun than anything I’ve read in a really long time. Tell me if I’m wrong.’ And so a couple days later, I’d already gotten 400 pages into it, and Dan went out and got the book and like a day later had finished it.”
“It was one of those experiences, it’s an 850 or 900 page book and I read it in, like, two days,” Weiss said. “Which is the kinda thing I did when I was 12 or 13 years old, I’d sit in a chair and read for 9 hours at a stretch.”
Benioff continued, “You get more and more cynical as a reader, the more you work in this business and the more you see how the sausage is made, because sometimes it’s not a pretty process. But also you just kinda get used to all the different narrative tricks that writers can do, so it gets harder and harder to be completely wrapped up and engrossed by something the way you were as a kid where you could just read for 8 hours at a stretch and not have any kind of skeptical thinking about it, just be lost in the story.”
“It had been years since I had that experience while reading a book and this one brought it all back for me and so, that’s again, pressure on us because we are hoping to try to replicate that process for viewers of the show, where it’s an escape every week, it’s every Sunday night, it’s an hour where they’re not in America anymore, they’re not in Germany, wherever they’re watching the show. They are in Westeros or Essos.”
David & Dan then were asked about their decision to bring on Tom McCarthy as director of the original pilot.
Benioff answered, “Tom’s really smart for one thing, so talking to him about the project got us excited about his vision for it. And then I loved his movies, and I think we both loved his movies, and the way he works with actors.”
“The other way to go was, potentially, to get someone who is known for the big effects things, the lavish spectacles,” Benioff continued. “We weren’t going to try to compete with Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings and there’s no way we could, what we could do with this story though is spend a lot of time with these characters and they’re wonderful characters and really get to know them, and get incredibly in-depth and incredibly intimate. And we both felt that Tom did that better than most directors we knew.”
Benioff and Weiss also talked about the concern of having so many children actors, and not only that, but having to rely on them to tell large parts of the story.
“We were trying to think of shows or films, especially shows, where you’ve got children carrying so much dramatic weight in a show that is so adult and mature in its content. And yeah, that’s a scary proposition,” Weiss explained.
“We saw hundreds and hundreds [of kids]. Nina Gold, our fantastic casting director, David was saying she was looking under rocks and cornfields, she dug deep and she reached wide and she found a huge population of people. From people who had done this many, many times and been child actors since they were four to people who had never been on camera before. And she found us three amazing, amazing performers.”
Then we got into the flashbacks, as promised. I asked David & Dan how they planned to get across the extensive amount of backstory in the series. Did you do it through the use of flashbacks or other similar devices?
“That’s a really good question,” Dan said.
“Yeah, and it’s an important question,” Benioff added. “For instance, just looking at the pilot, Jon Arryn’s death is something that triggers so much of what happens through the rest of the story and he’s someone who is talked about a lot. And in the book George is able to have characters thinking about Jon Arryn and so what he meant to Ned, and Ned’s not the kind of guy who’s gonna have a long speech to Catelyn about what Jon Arryn meant to him, he’s going to think about it, but he’s a fairly taciturn man. And we didn’t want to violate that, we didn’t want to violate Ned’s basic character, at the same time it is very important that people at least see Jon Arryn or have some knowledge of who the guy is because his death and murder triggers so much of what’s to follow, so we have a scene where you actually see the funeral ceremony for Jon Arryn. So that’s one example. What are some of the other things that are sort of referenced in the book that we show?”
“Brandon Stark being strangled,” FaB offered.
“Yeah,” Benioff replied. “How did you know about that?”
We have our ways. Never underestimate the obsessiveness of the Thrones fanbase! Anyway, Benioff continued, “That’s one of the things that is so great about the books and I think one of the reasons why people become so immersed in George’s world, is because the world is so detailed that you believe, even if George isn’t going to focus on this particular family, that there is a family history going back.”
“When we’ve gone off-book and we’ve deviated from what’s represented in the book often it is in service of giving people what’s in the book and giving people a different way in to those backstory elements,” Weiss explained. “As David said, you have that leeway in the book of exposition, exposition in the book isn’t a bad thing, whereas in film and television, it’s usually a pretty bad thing.”
Benioff gave an example of how they managed to do this with a new scene that they have added between Barristan and King Robert. “There’s a scene with Ser Barristan and King Robert and we know from the books that Barristan’s been guarding Robert, as his bodyguard, for years and years and we know that Barristan is this legendary warrior, it hasn’t really come out in the series yet because it’s something that comes up, yet again, mostly through character’s minds.”
“So we have this scene with Robert and Barristan, where Robert’s been drinking all day and we were thinking ‘Well who would he be drinking with? It’s probably Barristan.’ Not actually drinking with him, because he’s on duty, but he’s there listening to Robert’s drunken stories and they’re talking as old soldiers often do about their early experiences in combat. It’s all stuff that comes from the books in one way or another, but it’s not a specific scene from the book.”
Weiss offers another example. “That’s the beautiful thing about when you create this fully realized world, as George has created, you find yourself thinking, ‘Do Robert and Cersei ever talk to each other when no one is around? They hate each other but people who hate each other and are married still have to talk to each other from time to time. It has to happen and what would that be like, what would make them break down the wall of silence and speak to each other and what would they say when they did?’ Scenes like that just emerge organically from the world, because the world is so detailed and richly realized.”
“Or Jon Snow ran into Jaime Lannister in the Winterfell courtyard,” Benioff adds. “We know the Lannisters have been up there for a month, so they probably would have encountered each other, what would that conversation be like? As characters that we love so much and knowing that they are going off on their separate ways I want to see the two of them have one meeting before it’s too late and they’re separated by three thousand leagues or whatever it is.”
Any time you are talking fantasy adaptation, you have to talk Lord of the Rings. Despite sharing they did not want to compete with Rings, Benioff and Weiss were asked about what sort of influences and templates they used when adapting the material.
“We always said it was more like The Lion in Winter than Lord of the Rings in a lot of ways,” Weiss replied. “And George is very steeped in history in general and European or Medieval history in particular. So there is that real politic aspect to it.”
“Yeah, and in terms of the family dynamics, probably more influenced by some of the great HBO series than the movies,” Benioff adds and then lists shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood as examples.
“Just creating all these different characters and how they were able to take maybe seven different storylines in every episode and weave them together in an elegant way where you kinda always know where you are at the same time, you’re wanting to learn more about this character and you want to get back to the next character.”
Benioff adds, “Lord of the Rings sorta just makes me feel really jealous because I watch all the great helicopter shots, ‘Oh I wish we could have afforded some helicopters!’”
Next, Benioff and Weiss were asked about the issue of having to plot out a full series story arc when the full series isn’t yet complete. In terms of actually breaking down the season and breaking down the stories, how do you work around that?
“Well he’s still way ahead of us.” Weiss replied.
“We also know. We have some insider knowledge,” Benioff adds. “We sat George down with the spotlight on him and made him answer some questions. We do know some of the bigger picture things, where it’s going to end up, which makes our lives a lot easier.”
“Every once in a while, we will have to call George and be like, ‘So George, this guy, what happens there?’ And sometimes he’ll tell us and sometimes he won’t and sometimes he’ll give us a hint.” So George doesn’t just like to drop hints to the fans, he likes to play games with the show’s executive producers too!
Next, FaB asked David & Dan what, beside from the great buzz, has been their most pleasant surprise about the show.
“For me, probably the kids,” Benioff answers. “Because you go into shooting something like this and they might have great auditions but you never really know until you are out there doing it for real and they’re under the pressure of being in front of the entire crew and the cameras and having to learn their lines everyday, the fact that our three main kids, the Stark kids, have performed as well as they have.”
“You’re 12 years old, 13 years old, you’re being asked to shoulder a very adult-sized responsibility,” Weiss said. “On the other side of the camera, we feel like ‘Wow, this is a lot to carry, this is a lot for two adults to carry. And your 12?’ All this machinery is buzzing around you and it’s all literally aimed at you, it takes a special kind of strength to shoulder that and they’ve all just done such an amazing job.”
“Yeah,” Benioff added. “And they’re so frickin’ cute.”
Lastly, with the discussion of the past 30 minutes mostly revolving around fantasy fans and fans of the book, Benioff and Weiss were asked if there is stuff to offer for those not necessarily fantasy fans?
“We really hope we get a lot of fans who are not just fantasy fans,” Benioff answered. “People in my family who, by and large, could care less about fantasy everyone has started reading these books… they’ve become completely immersed in the series because even if you’re not typically a fantasy fan the books are so rich and detailed and the characters are so engrossing that I think there’s something in there.”
“And another thing that makes the series palatable for those who are not obsessive fantasy fans is that it’s not as if there are people throwing fireballs every other scene and there’s not a great deal of monsters, it’s not really an effects driven show, it’s really about the characters, it’s really about the intrigue and the relationships. It’s one of the things that George does so intelligently in the books is the way he doles out the magic and it’s really in doses, and there are many people in this world who are quite skeptical about, do the Others actually exist? Or the white walkers. And dragons, no one has seen a dragon in 300 years. So it’s not as if you’ve got these monsters flapping around with their bat wings every other frame, it’s actually, I don’t want to say minimized, but it tends to be on the fringes of the show as opposed to dead center.”
“On the flip side, we think that fantasy fans will respond to that,” Weiss added. “I mean fantasy fans also love Sopranos, fantasy fans also were really into The Wire. I don’t think the worlds are as separate, as it sometimes seems like when you find yourself talking about it.”
“I think ultimately if it’s good storytelling than people are gonna respond to that and get engrossed in the story,” says Benioff. “It might take an episode or two, but once they get into it, once they start to feel who these families are and what this world is, I don’t think it’s going to matter that much, because it’s just a great story that George has created here, a great world.”