To cap off our coverage of the press events at the recent TCA winter press tour is our report of HBO’s Game Of Thrones panel. The panel consisted of Emilia Clarke, Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, Dan Weiss, George R. R. Martin, and David Benioff. For about 30 minutes they answered questions about Thrones from journalists and critics. Oh, and a couple of fan bloggers. Read on to find out what was said.
First, let me set the scene. The room they held this press event in was a big ballroom at the super-fancy Langham Hotel in South Pasadena, CA. A huge stage was set up at one end of the room with two large screens on either end with the HBO logos projected onto them. The stage itself had a backdrop of thousands of tiny blue lights, which you can see in all the photos. In front of the stage were rows of tables set up with chairs for each of the journalists covering the panel to set up with their laptops. At the very back of the room were rows of chairs for non-journalists to sit and watch the precedings. I saw reps from HBO Asia, HBO Latino and other invited guests of HBO in this section. Fire and Blood and I, not knowing exactly which category we would fall into, straddled the line a bit. I sat in the last row of tables while FaB sat right behind me, in the first row of chairs.
So the panels began, first Mildred Pierce and then Pee-Wee Herman (HBO has a variety of programming, that is for sure). And then, Game of Thrones. HBO President of Original Programming Sue Naegle came up front to introduce the panel…
“Last year for Boardwalk Empire, HBO recreated the Atlantic City Boardwalk as it looked in the 1920s. This year we have taken on an entire world. In April, we are so excited to premiere an epic ten episode series called Game of Thrones based on the best selling book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones transports viewers to a fantastical continent of Westeros, a land of kings, queens, barbarians, direwolves, black magic, palace intrigue, bloody wars, and it’s all woven together into an intricate tale of fantasy, history and imagination. A dedicated cast and crew came together on the island of Malta and in the misty forests of Northern Ireland to help bring this world to life. Let’s take a look at another trailer.”
And with that the lights dimmed and the trailer began. It opened with the now-familiar execution scene. Some of the same shots, but some new ones as well. We see Will say his last words and insist he saw “the white walkers.” Bran asks Ned, “Is it true he saw the white walkers?” A lingering shot of the Iron Throne in the Red Keep. Robb tells Jon, “Next time I see you, you’ll be all in black.” Ned pushes Littlefinger up against the wall. Jory stares longingly at a whore as she begins to open her blouse. Ned, “Jory!” He snaps out of it. Some quick cuts of action fill out the end of the trailer. April 17, 2011.
Then the panel came on stage. First question was to Emilia, was it your plan to have such a huge role right out of drama school?
“Obviously that’s the dream. I never thought it would actually happen, though. I never thought that I would actually be here so relatively inexperienced, so it’s a blessing. It’s incredible.”
Next question, a journalist, don’t know who, says his readers are agog about this show. They know more about it than most of the shows that are already on the air and they want to know more and more and more. What is it about this genre that makes a certain group of people so fervent and avid?
“Well, fantasy and science fiction fans are very intense. They love their favorites with a great deal of passion,” Martin answered. “Fantasy is something that’s been largely restricted to books for a long time, and the readers of those books who have their favorite series, and some of them are readers from my series, are really hungry to see some good fantasy brought to television.”
Benioff added, “I also think George is being a little modest there, because it’s not just the genre that people are so obsessed with. It’s George’s books, in particular.” He then tells a story of how the dean of Stanford Law School sent him a two-page email about how excited he was about the series and how obsessed he is with Martin’s books.
“George’s characters don’t feel like they come from a fantasy series in that they feel like human beings,” Benioff continued. “It’s not just the epic battle of good versus evil. These are characters of enormous complexity and shades of gray, and I think fans have been as George said, there is a hunger for that, not just in the screen, but in the books where they’re so used to having read the sort of simplified version of it where everything is black and white, and to come across something that treats it with as much sensitivity and intelligence as George does, it generates enormous passion from the fans.”
The panel is then asked why none of these kinds of shows have really performed very well on mainstream broadcast networks, even though some of them are quite good.
“I can’t speak to why the other series haven’t worked.” Benioff stated, “One incredible luxury that Dan and I have had working on this is that we’re not making it up as we go along. We’re going into it knowing that we have an incredibly well mapped out, well plotted storyline that’s going to continue for, if we’re lucky, season after season, and George has already done so much of the work for us. We have characters and storylines that continue for years, and to be able to build into the first scene things that are going to happen in the third season gives us an incredible amount of freedom and also just a major, huge canvas on which to paint.”
Next, the three actors are asked if they had read the books prior to getting their role in the Thrones. Dinklage is the only one who answered (though the other two confirm later that they have read the first book).
“I’ve read the first one, and I loved it, and that was one of the reasons I signed on for the show,” Dinklage said. “That combined with the fact that I knew David beforehand, and I knew his skills as a writer, and that, combined with the novels, combined with HBO, is a pretty perfect package for me, so it was a pretty easy yes.”
Next question was one we’ve heard many times before, did Martin ever envision this series becoming a film or TV series? Martin gave his usual answer, he wrote these books because he was fed up with having to write to a TV or film budget and wanted to write something that had no limits. Of course, now that it is being adapted to television there are a lot of challenges. “But now David and Dan have to solve those problems that I created, and I’m glad it’s them and not me.”
Next question for the panel was how surprising and gratifying was it to have this project end up at HBO as opposed to say, the SyFy channel?
“For my mind, HBO is associated with quality, and I wanted this to be a quality production,” Martin answered. “HBO was always my dream for this.”
“Not just saying it because there is ‘HBO’ on all the screens in front of us. It really was,” Weiss added. “It was sort of a one‑shot opportunity. It was the only place we ever envisioned this being done and done properly was HBO. They’re the only people who have the experience in doing epic television that really feels epic in scope with shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Rome and Deadwood.”
Martin was then asked how much control he has as an executive producer. “I don’t really have any,” Martin answered. “I have a very good relationship with David and Dan, and we consult and we talk, but ultimately, they’re the showrunners, and the ball is in their court, and sometimes they listen to me, and sometimes they don’t.”
Then David was asked to explain his quote describing the series as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth.” “Did I say that? Yes. I think that’s from four years ago, and I kind of wish I hadn’t ever said that,” Benioff joked.
Benioff went on to explain himself, “One of the things that always intrigued us about doing this at HBO, and as Dan said, the only place we could really imagine doing it was on HBO was that you could actually lavish the time on these characters and that you could do it as with the darkness that the story requires, because George’s fantasy is not a for‑children fantasy. It’s sexy and it’s violent and it’s brutal, and none of the characters are safe.”
“You think of all those shows that have done that kind of putting‑character‑in‑jeopardy drama, who has done it best? It’s been HBO in The Sopranos. And one of the things that was so exciting about tuning into The Sopranos or The Wire is you never knew who was going to get whacked. We’re not a gangster show, but it’s got elements of that within it.”
The panel was then asked why British accents are always used in fantasy pieces, which prompted this exchange from Weiss and Dinklage.
“That’s a really, really good question. We don’t know,” Weiss said.
“A New York accent wouldn’t work,” Dinklage added.
“New York accent wouldn’t work.”
“Doesn’t sound right.”
Martin tried to give a more serious answer, “Most written fantasy, even if it’s set in an imaginary world, is inspired by the history of the Middle Ages, and it’s full of castles and lords and swords and knights and all of the other trappings that we associate with England in this country. So that seems natural. It would be hard to do it with a bunch of actors who had thick Southern accents here.”
But then added, “The more curious question is why Romans always have British accents.”
Then our own intrepid FaBio launched a question at the panel, specifically Bean and Dinklage. “[You guys] were the consensus choices for the roles by the fans. Do either of you feel any additional pressure knowing that all these people basically hung their hopes and dreams for this series on both of you?”
“That’s quite a responsibility. Thanks for letting me know,” Bean said, chuckling. “Obviously I was delighted when I first met David and Dan and we would discuss this, and having read the book, and I found the book very exciting, very luxuriant, very dangerous, very edgy, very sexy, and you know, that’s very flattering. I’m sure we’re both very flattered that we were kind of chosen to play these parts.”
Weiss added, “The two roles that we had sort of cast in our head before the casting process began, before we even brought it to HBO, were the two people sitting to my right.”
“Real quick follow‑up question,” FaB said. “We posted on the boards was there any questions the fans wanted to ask any of you people, and the first question actually that popped up was, ‘Could we get Emilia’s phone number?’”
Clarke laughed and said, “That’s very flattering.”
“You can decline if you want,” FaB said.
“Maybe I will [give my phone number].”
“Maybe? All right. We’ll put ‘maybe.’” So far, still no word from Emilia on her phone number. I expect to get it any day now though.
Next, Bean was asked if he had any fear of being typecast after doing Lord of the Rings and now Game of Thrones.
You know, I do happen ‑‑ I happen to enjoy playing those kind of roles with riding horses and swinging swords and having fights and wearing wigs and growing beards, even though I don’t first thing in the morning when it takes you about three hours to get ready,” Bean answered.
“I do have an affinity to that kind of role, and I think the good thing about Game of Thrones is that there is such score for it. Whereas Lord of the Rings, admittedly, there was three films and, you know, they thoroughly researched it, and it was very well‑replicated on screen. But with what George has created, it’s a very different world. Goes on much, much further and much longer, and there’s many more twists and turns, but I certainly enjoy this genre, if that answers your question.”
As a follow up, Bean was asked if doing something similar to Lord of the Rings but with less resources affected him as an actor.
“I didn’t find that it affected me at all. I think the amount of production value that was put into Game of Thrones was incredible, and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen on any other production, including Lord of the Rings,” Bean replied. “I saw the sets there, and it was a wonderful production, of course. I was very proud to be part of that, but I was absolutely impressed by the detail, the sheer size of it, the craftsmanship in the studio, the sets. Everything was so detailed, so vast, and you know, it was a lot of work ‑‑ it was like working on a big feature film every week.”
Martin was asked if he had any desire to continue writing for television after his experience writing for Thrones.
“Well, you know, yes. I enjoy ‑‑ it was actually fun writing the episode. It had been ten years since I wrote a teleplay or a screenplay, so when the time came for me to sit down and do my script, ‘Boy, I hope I still know how to do this.’ What do you know? I did,” Martin answered.
“There’s part of me that would love to be more involved, that would love to write several episodes per season and be there every day on the set with these guys. On the other hand, I still have the books to finish, and the books are 1,500 pages long and take me years, and I have a mob outside of my house with pitchforks and torches that are already very irritated about book five being late, and after that, I have books six and seven. So as much as part of me would like to be part of the process, I think I better stay where I am and finish the books because, of course, the real scary thing is if these guys catch up with me….”
Next, Benioff and Weiss were asked about the directors working on Thrones. Weiss answered, “They all did fantastic jobs and really immersed themselves in the material in a way that was impressive, even to people who’ve spent the past five years immersing themselves in this material.”
Then Clarke was asked how it was working on such a huge production so early in her career, how much professional experience did she have at that point.
“You can class me as a rookie, I think. I didn’t have a huge amount of experience at all,” Clarke answered. “I had done some kind of camera work, but a lot of my theater had been at school, and it was a very new process I was getting myself into. But I had the joy of having the best character ever, so it was really wonderful and really easy for me to be able to just kind of fall into the acting side of things.”
And what was the audition process like? Did you know how big of a role this was?
“As the audition process went on and on, the gravity of it kind of hit home a little bit more, like how huge this character really was. I knew from the start that she was amazing, but by the end of reading the first book, by the time I had gone into the screen test, it was like, ‘Whoa! Oh, my goodness!’ But I just connected with her immediately, straight off the page and kind of related to her on so many levels as a young woman growing up.”
“And the screen test was scary. The last audition I did was really ‑‑ yeah, quite frightening, but incredible at the same time. And everyone was so nice, so it was really, really difficult to be intimidated in any way apart from just how many people there were, but that’s like right now. So it was just everyone was just so nice that it was difficult to be so scared.”
Martin then talked a little about his writing process. “When I’m at home, I pretty much work seven days a week. I don’t crank out a certain number of pages. I sit down, and I look at the work I did yesterday, and I usually wind up revising that for a certain period of time because I hate some of the stuff I did yesterday, and then I get into new material, and some days I have good days and I get a lot of pages done, and some days I work all day and maybe I’m a paragraph further on. I’m a slow writer, and these are huge books, so it takes a long time. I’ve never been a fast writer. But it seems to work for me, so I’m probably too old to change at this point, so I’ll stick with my working methods.”
Given the fan expectations, was it a lot easier to come up with the first novel than it is to keep raising the bar for yourself and keep satisfying the fans?
“Well, I hope they’ll continue to be satisfied, but it’s certainly true that when the first novel came out, no one was waiting for it,” Martin answered. “I wasn’t getting any e‑mails as I now get every day about ‘Where is the next novel?’ and ‘Could you please hurry up?’ and ‘Why are you going to Los Angeles when you should be home working on the novel?’ So yes, the situation has changed somewhat, but then again, it’s every novelist’s dream.”
“The vast majority of novelists in this country, be they science-fiction novelists or mystery novelists or mainstream novelists, labor on their books for years, and no one cares whether they turn it in or not, and then they’re published to total obscurity. My problems are very nice problems to have, and I appreciate them and the fans, the readers.”
Lastly, Martin was asked what he thought of the cast, did they match the images in his head?
“Some of the choices were surprising, but then you see the actual performance, and for the most part, I think this is an extraordinary cast,” Martin responded. “I’m not going to claim I was familiar with the work of every actor we’ve cast. After all, we have, I don’t know, 742 of them that we have cast here, but as I watched their auditions and I checked the credits, you know, it’s just an extraordinary group of people, and not only the actors on the stage who, of course, have done an incredible job, but many of the actors who are not here. You haven’t seen the kids yet, the three kids that we got for the three major children’s roles. They’re just amazing, and they come from nowhere. I don’t know how the hell these guys found them, but they’re gonna ‑‑ the world is going to fall in love with them, I think.”
Benioff added, “We had a wonderful casting director named Nina Gold who managed to find these kids who, as George said, hadn’t worked before, and she plucked them from some strawberry field somewhere, and they’re just remarkable.”
“The fact that they were able to perform as well as they did with no experience, and the fact that Emilia, who has such an incredibly huge role, came in with that much pressure, big sets with lots of extras and a lot of lights shining down on her, and I never saw any fear. Maybe that’s because she’s an incredible actress.”
“I was hiding it really well,” Clarke said.
Lastly, the producers were asked if they had a safe place to go, in case they got it wrong, because these fans are crazy! (Hey! We’re not crazy…. okay, maybe a little bit.)
Benioff responded confidently, “I think we got it right, so I’m not worried about it.”
And that’s it, folks. We hope you’ve enjoyed our coverage of all the press events at the 2011 winter TCA tour. It was a blast being there and getting to be a part of it all. And getting to meet David, Dan, and GRRM was awesome. Hope to do it again soon!