On Writing Game of Thrones
Winter finally arrived for the groundbreaking series Game of Thrones. In this episode, series’ co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss detail the process of adapting George R. R. Martin’s bestselling books into the epic HBO series that changed the landscape of modern television.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
[multiple voices chattering]
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
Game of Thrones co-creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
- When we pitched HBO originally,
we said this is not about a million creatures
fighting a million other creatures,
in a giant fantasy environment.
This is about people, it's like War of the Roses ?
It's like Lion in Winter .
[Narrator] In this episode, Game Of Thrones co-creators,
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
detail the process of adapting George R.R. Martin's
bestselling books into an epic HBO series,
which changed the landscape of modern television.
- What an incredible feat pulling this show off was.
And so I'd really love to hear about how you all
approached it and your pitfalls
and your successes
and the things you learned from it.
- You know, before we could go into HBO,
we had to convince George to let us pitch it.
And so we had a meeting with him,
along lunch meeting where we,
where he sort of questioned our, our bona fides,
which were few, 'cause we hadn't actually made anything.
And we had never worked in TV,
so the end of this lunch was him giving us a test question
of who was Jon Snow's mother,
which hadn't been revealed in the books yet.
And because we got that right,
I think that's why we got the chance to...
to do the show.
We pitched the pilot episode in detail,
and we really, we told the story of the pilot
and we had a back and forth routine where we,
he take a scene, I'd take a scene
and we really kind of gave them a
sense of how this would feel.
And the pilot was contained, it all took place, pretty much--
almost all took place in the, there was the North
and then there was the Daenerys beds,
but it was, two locations.
And we stripped it down in such a way that
it was understandable to somebody listening
to it for 20 minutes.
And then we gave a very quick overview
of who the families were and the main players
and like what they were after.
But we didn't, we really kept it intentionally very vague.
And, and we, you know, and we mentioned the highlight,
we mentioned the bit where of course
we told them about Ned's head,
coming off and we told them about the dragons being born.
And yeah we told them the things that made them realize
the things that would make people go [beeps]
when they saw them and wanna keep watching.
So they knew those things were there.
But we didn't really explain a lot of the details,
'cause I think people's ability to follow
something like that verbally is really limited.
- It's terrifying 'cause pitches are always
a little bit nerve-racking
unless you're the kind of person who likes pitching,
in which case you're insane.
And because if- the more you care about it obviously,
the more you want it, the more stressed you are.
And we wanted this desperately,
we were so in love with these books,
and so believed in what the series could be.
And we were warned before,
we were pitching to Carolyn Strauss,
who was President of production HBO at that time.
And we were warned ahead of time,
Carolyn's a really tough pitch.
She will not smile.
She will not laugh at your jokes,
she's just gonna stare at you
like you know, she's a stone cold killer.
So we were prepared for that and we came in
and we did our little song and dance thing
and I think towards the very end she actually chuckled, right?
I mean, I don't know if she laughed, but she sort of.
- I think we made her laugh.
- Kind of like her lip kinda.
- Felt like a victory. - Yeah.
- Was it a part of the pitch that was that funny?
- I don't even remember what it was.
- It was literally -Four years ago yeah.
- She laughed when the kid got thrown out the window.
- The pilot that you'd first done,
you guys said was not good.
Can you talk about what, so what happened?
Like, so what was in that pilot
that wasn't good and what did you do?
- It was sort of a film/TV hybrid in a lot of ways.
In terms of the production design,
in terms of this shooting, the scheduling, the shoot,
all of this stuff was done in a way that was probably
had more in common with film than television,
but it needed to be done on a TV budget.
It needed to be done within a TV time frame.
So it was very, everyone involved
was kinda figuring out how to make something like this
for the first time.
And it just, it took more than one try,
which we were very fortunate to get a second chance
because I think they were most likely about 50/50
on whether or not to give us that chance but.
- A lot of the mistakes were very basic,
elemental, writing mistakes, you know,
Like I had this thing we both did,
but it's like, I don't want any lines in there like
"Oh, sister, what do you think about that?"
Like, "Sweet sister, what...?"
None of that crap, I don't want any of that.
And so then we showed the pilot to these guys,
who were three of the smartest writers out there,
Craig Mason, Scott Frank and Ted Griffin
and the final scene of the pilot
for people who've seen the show,
you might remember it's Jaime Lannister
and Cersei Lannister are having sex at the top of the tower
and it's supposed to be shocking because they're twins.
- He saw us.
- It's all right, it's all right, it's all right.
- He saw us.
- I heard you the first time.
What the little climb aren't you?
How old are you boy?
The things I do for love.
- It's not shocking if you don't realize that they're,
brother and sister.
[D.B.] They're related.
- None of our three brilliant writer friends knew that.
Because we hadn't made it clear.
And so now if you go back and watch
the pilot that actually aired,
you'll see there are a lot of lines,
where Jaime's like "Sweet sister."
What, you know, all of these...
which are terrible, but at least you know by the end
that they're brother and sister.
- So how did you get through that first year essentially?
And what did you take away from it?
- Well, after the misadventure of the pilot,
we thought things are feel pretty smooth now.
And, a couple months before we wrapped on season one,
we got a phone call from Gina Balian, who is our
brilliant executive at that time, she's now at FX.
"Guys, have you seen that the timings have come in,
like the early timings on the first cuts of the episodes?"
And we were like, "Yeah."
And she said, "Whoa, 'cause you know
they're coming in really short, right."
And we're like, "Oh yeah."
And some of our episodes were clocking
at like 39 minutes and 42 minutes.
And what had happened was that we had written
our original scripts, which had all, you know,
timed out properly, but then as you start
making the season and you start running out of money,
we'd been cutting all these things.
And, and so we had this kind of a fluid two months
before the end of season- of shooting season one,
and we were a hundred minutes short of a viable season.
And we had virtually no money left,
which meant that we had to write
all these really cheap scenes.
So they tended to be two or three handers
just people in a room talking
and the scenes that you could just shoot
in like in a morning.
And it was terrifying at first
and then it became fun
because there were all these scenes that weren't,
because of their nature,
they weren't really plot related,
you know, like the, the central plot scenes
were already in there.
And so these were scenes that had to be
interesting enough to justify their existence,
but they didn't really move the plot forward.
So in some of my favorite scenes from the first season,
like Dan wrote this great scene between
King Robert and Queen Cersei.
And it's because we realized that we didn't have
a single scene with the two of them
alone together in the rest of the show.
- We haven't had a real fight in nine years.
Backstabbing doesn't prepare you for a fight,
and that's all the realm is now,
backstabbing and scheming and [bleep] money-grubbing.
Sometimes, I don't know what holds it together.
- Our marriage.
- It was really the first time I think
that we'd started out writing these scenes.
And these weren't scenes from George's books.
And so this was the first time I think we deviated at all,
really from the central narrative.
I think we got to know the characters a lot better,
by that point we'd already been working with these actors
for several months, so we knew their voices.
They were in our heads,
when you're writing for King Robert
and you have Mark Addy's voice in your head,
or a Cersei with Lena,
it-- just a huge boon.
And that was again, a weird circumstance
where our inexperience ended up kinda helping
because we learned so much from that.
- So, you know, you weren't trying to just
make the books right?
- Yeah, I mean, I'd say I'd say the first season
it was actually quite faithful to the first book,
and the second season, maybe 10% less,
every season got a little bit less.
Partly, just because, yeah, as Dan said before,
George's story kept getting so much bigger and bigger.
He didn't write it with television
producability in mind
and we had to compress and condense in ways,
you know, to make it producible for television
just 'cause if we'd included
all the characters that were in the book,
we were running up against a situation
where people would just,
you'd be dropping the balls of the,
the Tyrians in the Dante's
and the Aryas that you cared about
to service these new people.
So at certain point, we made the decision,
we stopped putting pieces on the board
for the most part and start, you know, playing with,
with the pieces that were, were already there.
- It's possible we should have made that decision
like a season earlier.
[D.B.] Not entirely possible.
- I remember, you know, when we were outlining season one,
and at that point it was just
the writer's room was really just the two of us
and Bryan Cogman.
And we would talk about the season
and we would start putting, you know,
scenes down on index cards
and putting the cars up on the board as you do.
And the different plot lines had different colors,
So for instance,
not season one but then later on Arya would have yellow
and the Danny storyline would be green and so forth.
I think by season five we had...
- Season four or five was the most,
and at one point I think we had 11 or 12 different colors
on the board.
And I remember looking at it and wondering
"Is this gonna actually make sense to anybody?"
Well, so some person on the internet...
Created this, which was really helpful to me
I started my own... - It will be helpful to me too.
- That just came... - Forgot about him.
- ...showing this thing that just gives the families
and the main characters.
- Oh thank you, God.
Yeah, where was this eight years ago?
Coulda used that.
Oh, her notes are on the back, we don't wanna...
There is a lot of online stuff
that was actually useful to look at 'cause
there's some great maps online
and you know, they were actually better
than the maps in the books.
- We're both kinda geographically challenged.
We don't have a very good sense of where we are in space.
So having mapping maps of where these things
were happening was, was helpful.
- Did you really sit down and try to boil those
concepts of what the books are about down
before you started your process
of creating the show so that you...
In other words, what did you use as your foundation
to build the episodes out of the seasons?
- I don't remember the name of the Russian poet,
but there's some famous Russian poet
who read his poem and then someone in the audience said,
"Do you mind explaining?
"I didn't totally understand.
You mind explaining the poem?"
And he read the poem
and that was his response is like, that's it.
And I feel like it's such a complex story
and I don't think we ever tried to reduce it
to kinda like end the theme.
And people would ask.
And so sometimes you'd have to have kind of
a prepared answer.
But the honest answer for me is we,
we didn't have like a...
Game of Thrones is about power and family
and like how the dynamics,
and that's all true, you know,
it is about power and it is about family.
But I think it's also true that you could
have two shows that are, have the same themes
and they're wildly different
and one's good and one's bad.
And ultimately it's like,
it's about the complexities that you're trying to depict
It's the characters.
And, and to try to kinda cram it into a single aphorism
isn't helpful for me.
- I mean, the biggest influence on us obviously was George.
I mean, he's the reason we got to do this.
He's the reason that it exists.
And obviously we wanted,
we loved his books more than anything
and wanted to do them justice.
But you also, it's very hard to work on something
for 364 and a half days a year
for 10 years without feeling like it's your own.
I think Steve Martin once said something
close to paraphrasing,
but he said something to the effect
that every adaptation process
is like a marriage that ends in divorce.
And he said, sometimes there are amicable divorces,
sometimes they're ugly divorces.
He goes, you always start with the best of intentions.
You're gonna be faithful, you know, forever.
And then you start to have some other ideas
and you start to stray a little bit and in a way,
but just because of the scope of what George created,
we, I think we ended up with
what ended up being a very amicable divorce
from the source material because we ran out of it.
I think it's interesting though
that I think we were all for years
with network television,
just regular network TV led down this path.
Like you didn't have really big things
that were unexpected happen
in general network drama, you know,
and so obviously that table's turned completely,
but you all really took it to an extreme in some cases.
I mean, you'd bring a character in
and lead us to believe they were gonna do something.
And be a much bigger part of something
and then all of a sudden, boom, you know, Hodor kills...
- I think that's why we had such well behaved actors.
- And sometimes it's just casting.
I mean the hard home episode,
we cast this incredible Danish actress
for a really small role
that was originally written for a man.
And then someone said, "What if this was a woman?"
We didn't change anything.
We didn't change the dialogue,
we didn't change the character's name, Carsey.
We just cast this great actress from Borgen.
- Birgitte Hjort Sorenson. - Yeah,
And she's just so good and so charismatic that you're,
I think as you're watching you're like,
well there's no way she's just a one episode character
'cause like she's gonna become something important.
- I'll never trust a man in black...
but I trust you Tormund.
If you say this is the way,
we're with you.
- And then she dies.
And that's really casting, I mean ultimately.
- Well I mean I think it was all, it was about,
initially it would time out the episode nine
would be when a big thing would happen.
Then you deal with the aftermath in episode 10.
You did that for a couple of years.
But then at a certain point that becomes
within the context of the show,
people familiar with the show
becomes a predictable move and like,
so we said let's kill Joffrey in episode two
because nothing big ever happens
in a second episode of anything.
Like the second episode is always
the one that you can kinda,
you can wait to see later
because people come out swinging into the first episode
'cause they wanna convince everybody this is great,
keep watching it, you know?
And then once they've got you on the hook,
they feel like they can relax the tension a bit.
So that was just a place where, you know,
we had discussed it could have the possibility
of it happening in the first episode
and we thought that's kind of obvious
to come out with with this big, you know,
this inciting incident or whatever you would call it
in the first episode,
let's wait until the second episode,
really milk it in the whole, you know,
make a big long wedding sequence that seems like
it could be about anything except this
and then have that come at the end.
Needs washing down.
- If I please your grace,
Lady Sansa is very tired. -No.
No, but wait here...
- Your Grace.
- It's nothing.
- A lot of it were just, their decisions were made
in the context of the show as a whole, you know,
like what have we done before and what would,
what would be a more surprising or more interesting
way to do the same thing later?
- HBO, lot of risks always with their content
and certainly it was always ahead of the curve.
And you guys though really went so deep
in this brutality in some cases,
but yet when you got into the battle scenes,
I mean, they were pretty,
I mean, you had a lot of that in there,
but maybe it's because the shots were,
they, you didn't linger on the death and destruction
in the battle scenes as much, you know.
- It's weirdly easier to do in that context
because you know, there's so much going on
and it needs to feel,
it needs to feel like being there would feel,
which is frenetic and you know,
disorienting and chaotic.
- Well you'll never...
[yelling and chaos]
- It like in that battle of the bastards
where you got the shot choices were really
interesting 'cause you were so, you were
really focusing on just the horror of
being in it as opposed--
And so were you, were you guys active in that,
those choices or were your DPs really working...
- Yeah I mean the two, is mostly the two of us
and Miguel talked a lot, you know,
exhaustive exhaustively and exhaustingly
about the importance of shooting the battle
from a point of view.
[yelling and chaos]
There were three points of view.
Even like when, when Sansa rides in,
we wanted, even if it was a big giant wide shot
that gave you kind of the geography of the battle,
we wanted that to be from someone's
potential point of view if possible
because it's what prevents it from seeming
like what a lot of special effects driven battles.
They all look a certain way
and there's a video game quality to them
and it's because there is no real camera lots of the time.
So when you can do anything and you do anything
like you're swooping around with the gods eye
kinda point of view of a camera that doesn't exist
in a set that doesn't exist.
It can start to feel very fake very quickly.
And we wanted to pin it to character.
- I really don't look at that show as a fantasy show.
I do look at it as a show about humanity,
you know, like, or the lack of.
- Well, what HBO has been so great at doing for a long time
is taking really established genres,
maybe entire genres and blowin' them up, you know,
so Soprano's took two gangsters
and The Wire with the cop drama
and The Westerns with Deadwood and on and on.
And that's the same kind of approach
we want to do with this.
So yes, it's a story where ice demons are real
and dragons are real.
But some ways, I think it was a resistance
to Lord of The Rings and both the books
and also the Peter Jackson adaptation and you know,
and that was in our pitch,
it was like this is, it's not Lord of The Rings ,
it's not gonna be a million orcs versus a million humans.
And you know, our hobbits get [beep],
I mean it was very like [crowd laughs]
darker, it's more sexual and it's very much HBO.
- Genre on television is a, is a tight rope.
It's very easy to fall tonally.
I think it's very easy to fall
either into like a very arched direction
or you know, kind of a,
it can get go campy or you, we were always 15 degrees
away from Monte Python and the Holy Grail .
Like every scene you're like,
if you changed these three lines,
this is the Holy Grail.
But, and it's also just difficult with,
I mean you wanna, we would always endeavor
as David mentioned earlier,
to kind of like with terms of fantasy,
exposition and fantasy proper nouns.
It was almost like a game of Jenga where you're,
you're trying to pull out as many of them as possible
without the whole thing falling over.
And the first pilot we pulled out one too many
and the whole thing fell over and it didn't make any sense.
But we even going forward we tried,
you know, we tried to keep that stuff
to a minimum because we didn't just want it to
appeal to a fantasy fan base.
We wanted them to love it
and we wanted like our parents to love it
and people who played professional football
to love it.
And we kinda want it to reach a wider audience.
And to do that we, the tone was very important.
Like dragons, people riding dragons
is a very difficult thing.
Like Amanda, David's wife
would be constantly sending us emails
of just like the cheesiest like cartoons
of people on giant birds and...
and like, you know, like my little pony stuff
cause she's like,
that's what this looks like if you do it wrong.
And the first time we've got her on the dragon,
we, you know we had never done that before
and there are a lot of things that don't look right
or they look silly when you shoot someone riding
an imaginary beast that way.
And we kinda figured out
how to make those shots look good more often than not.
- The blood work looks better in season eight
than it did in season two.
And, you know, the stunt work
just kept getting better and better.
Everything just kept improving because
largely because we had the same team
and we all got more experienced together.
- You basically made 30-some feature films.
So, so that's, I mean, over eight years,
which is more than any filmmaker out there,
you know, pretty much.
That was, I mean, that's an not just that, but you,
they had so many of those were massive set pieces.
They had to be exhausting though to shoot those.
Well, they sure were for Miguel Sapoznik
and you know, I think for,
I'd say the first three or four years,
we never missed a night shoot, you know,
four years, probably for four seasons.
And it was sometime around season five or six
when I was standing there at four in the morning in Belfast,
you know, looking around, I was like,
I wonder if I just sort of like back away if anyone's...
- Like Homer fading into the hedges.
It's kinda disappearing.
Will they notice that I'm not here?
- So by the time Miguel did the final season battle
at Winter Fell which were all night shoots for,
I mean he shot 55 straight on location
and then I think another 10 in a row off location.
So it's something like 65 straight nights for Miguel.
I think it was over 70 for the crew,
which is debilitating.
I mean, it's just, you know,
for anyone who's ever worked on a night shoot,
it's tough doing 10 straight weeks of them.
- It was really, it was the feeling
that everybody was pulling together
to accomplish something that was bigger than any of us.
It was something very energizing about that.
I would say that the adrenaline of just getting
to do the greatest job on earth
and being lucky enough to have the greatest job on earth.
It really was.
It was, you know, you'd wake up
in the morning after four hours sleep
and you never questioned for a second,
like, "Why am I getting out of bed and doing this,"
'cause this is what I dreamed of doing
since I was eight years old.
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In this episode, Game Of Thrones co-creators,
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
detail the process of adapting George R.R. Martin's
bestselling books into an epic HBO series,
which changed the landscape of modern television.