“Game of Thrones” creators turn epic fantasy into a reality for HBO

In his multipart saga A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin has used thousands of pages, as well as countless appendices and maps to help readers sort out the mammoth world of medieval fantasy he created. The writers of Game of Thrones, the new HBO series premiering Sunday that is based on Martin’s works, have just a few hours and can’t rely on viewers’ ability to flip pages back and forth to remember who’s who, what kingdom is where and when some conqueror might have ascended to the throne.

Still, it’s a challenge that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said they couldn’t resist. The longtime friends said they were so taken with the story that they felt it was worth the five years they have invested to bring it to the screen.

The screenwriters shared with us what drew them to the books, how they went about adapting them, and the anxiety that comes with working with child actors:

There are tons of epic fantasy book series out there. What stood out about Game of Thrones that made you want to adapt it?

David Benioff: I just think it’s better written than most of them. I’d been a fantasy addict for years when I was younger, and then I kind of moved off them at a certain point because I think a lot of the new ones really just felt like half-baked Tolkien rip-offs. [It] was so compelling, the characters were so rich, and the storyline held together, and momentum built and built. The reading experience of it, the only thing I can compare it to was when I was much younger, 10 or 12, and I could read a book in one night. It wasn’t because I was such a fast reader; it was because I could just sit down for nine hours and just read and no one would interrupt it. When you get older and you get much more easily distracted … it’s just hard to have that same kind of reading experience. Game of Thrones was the first time I’d had that in years and years. George is able to create this fictional world and suck you into it and make you believe it. That’s why you’ve got so many fans who are so obsessed with the books, and that’s why we wanted to adapt it for them.

D.B. Weiss: As a writer and a storyteller, he’s got that “one more chapter” gift. As a reader, you just keep going, “All right, one more chapter. One more chapter.”

Benioff: There are many fantasy writers who set up the epic battle of good vs. evil and you’ve got your heroes and villains and everything else who seem a little bit larger than life. They seem like they were born in the epic hospital somewhere. But George’s characters feel really human. They feel things in a way that I can respond to, I can relate to. They get horny. They get scared. They do stupid things. George has heroes who do incredibly dumb things and aren’t always following the proper, heroic course of action. On top of all that, he’s a ruthless overlord who’s willing to kill off even his most beloved characters at any moment.

Weiss: He’s a cruel and vengeful god.

How challenging was it trying to introduce the characters, the settings and character relationships in a visual way?

Weiss: You’ve really hit on one of the biggest challenges of bringing fantasy to the screen. When you’re reading the book for the first time, or the second time or even the third time, you find yourself doing a lot of flipping to the back and the front and sometimes you’ll flip to the family tree and the name charts in the back. We obviously don’t have that, and we can’t rely on that. HBO is doing a wonderful job of online support and rounding out the world on the web, but we know we can’t rely on that. The story has to stand on its own. A big part of the challenge of adapting something like this is finding ways to make the relationships between people clear, to make the family relationships and geographical relationships clear. Ways to artfully and hopefully elegantly put that stuff across without resorting to flat-out clunky exposition.

Talk about how you went about adapting it artfully without, like you say, just doing an exposition dump.

Benioff: We had 10 hours to tell the book, and we wrote the pilot way before we wrote anything else. Years before, because it took a long time to get the pilot made. It worked out roughly to the first 80-90 pages of the first book. Most of the key scenes were in there, and once we got the pickup for the series, we basically went the same way, to have about 100 pages or whatever [per episode], then figuring out what’s the most efficient way to tell the story, which scenes are necessary, which scenes could be compressed, which scenes could be combined with other scenes.

Weiss: George’s world is so fully fleshed out and well-realized that you could pick out a guy at a table in any scene and there’s probably a whole movie you could write about that guy, because George has figured out who his family was, where they came from and there are at least 20 different stories about his history. Some of those things obviously aren’t going to fit into even a 10-hour version of the story, so it was basically about figuring out where the spine of the story was and making sure that was followed throughout the season.

I know you targeted HBO for this from the beginning. Was it a tough sell once you actually pitched it to them?

Benioff: It’s interesting. We went into the room, and I don’t think the pitch itself was that hard. It felt good, it didn’t feel like they were lost or anything. They seemed quite interested in it. But that was five years ago, so it took a long time. Even after they bought the pitch, it took a long time to convince them that the pilot should be made and that the pilot should go to series. Look, it’s a really big series. It’s not as expensive as some other things they’ve done but it’s not cheap either. It’s a big investment. No one has really pulled off epic fantasy on TV before, so I think they were justifiably nervous … and wanted to make sure that the team would hold together. They wanted to make sure that we could make it work visually and all the rest. It’s taken five years.

DB: They were on board right away, but it took awhile to lift anchor.

Fans of the books have been greatly anticipating this show. Knowing their devotion, did that add any pressure to the production?

Benioff: Working on a show like this is so all-consuming that you barely have time for your family. [Benioff is married to actress Amanda Peet.] We are massive fans of these books — there’s no way we would have spent the last five years trying to get the series made if we were not — and so we’re trying to make the best possible adaptation of George’s books, and we hope, if we succeed in that, if we make ourselves happy with it, if we make George happy with it, that the great majority of the fans will feel the same way. It’s impossible to go online and poll the various fans and see how would they go with it. You can’t make it too democratic. … You’re never going to make everybody happy, so you have to kind of accept that you’re not going to and just do the best you can by your own judgment.

George R.R. Martin has been quite visible with his support of the series. Do you think the fact that both of you are novelists as well as screenwriters/producers helped him warm up to the idea?

Benioff: I think so. Part of it was having written books and knowing how hard it is for me to write a short novel, a 250-page novel, and then to read a beautifully composed 1,000-page novel, let alone four of them. It’s such an awe-inspiring work, I think he understood our respect for that. It’s the old thing where you don’t know how hard it is until you’ve tried to do it. When we talked to him about the books, really just the whole idea about going to HBO, it came from what’s the best way, what’s the most faithful way to adapt this series? Believe me, we’ve worked a lot harder, and got paid a lot less than the way it would’ve been if we’d sold it to Warner Bros. or Sony to do as a feature. But it’s worth it, because it’s going to be Game of Thrones as opposed to the big studio, PG-13 two-hour version of that, which might be a decent movie but it wouldn’t be a genuine representation of the book. I think it did give him some comfort that these guys are genuine and they want to do this the right way. We thought we were going to make this really heartfelt pitch about why it should be a TV series, and it turns out that he’d always imagined it should be an HBO series. That was the best way he felt to do it as well.

DB: We didn’t know going in that he was just a rabid fan of all the great HBO epic series — The Sopranos, The Wire, and then Rome, Deadwood — these were the things that were closest to George’s heart on television. He felt it was a very natural fit for him.

The plan is to turn each of the books into a season, yes?

Benioff: Yeah, right now we still don’t even know if we’ll have a second season (Note: HBO recently asked the writers to start crafting stories for Season 2), but if things go well and people like the show, ideally each book [would be a season]. Roughly. I mean, it gets tricky down the line. As you go forward, some books might have to be combined, parts of this books 4 and 5, for instance. Even in the first season there were bits that we moved up from the second book. It’s not entirely neat, but the rough rule of thumb is one book, one season.

Would those future seasons still be called Game of Thrones?

Benioff: Yeah.

DB: Game of Thrones kind of encapsulates what the entire series of books is about as well as any titles we could think of.

Part of the trick with this is you’re adapting source material that isn’t completed yet [The fifth book, A Dance With Dragons, will be released July 12.]. How did you go about making sure you didn’t cut something out, or change something that would be important in the upcoming books?

Benioff: We were constantly asking George questions about what does this guy do, and what does she do, and where does she go? You’re very right, you have to be careful you don’t yank out a thread that’s going to have repercussions you’re not aware of until much later.

Weiss: Even with 10 hours to tell the story, there are certain storylines that are not going to fit. We would rather cut a storyline that’s a minor one that we’d only be able to give short shrift to rather than try to get every single thing in there and throw another 10 characters at you that no one except the people who’d read the books will know who they are.

Benioff: The series needs to work for people who haven’t read the books, and the majority of the people watching the series will not have read the books. If they’re confused, our excuse can’t be, “Well, if you’d read Chapter 3, you’d know blah blah blah …” That doesn’t work. In order for things to make sense in the time we have, we have to make certain cuts and there will undoubtedly be people upset about that, and that’s fine. You have to make those choices, always with the eye to what’s going to make the whole 10-hour series, not just what’s going to be most faithful to the books.

More novels and book series are becoming TV projects, like True Blood or The Walking Dead. But those tend to deviate, sometimes greatly, from the source material. Are you planning to stay pretty faithful to the books?

Benioff: We are. I think “pretty faithful” is a key phrase. There are going to be moments where the fans will be surprised by things. We actually like the idea that these people sitting there smugly expecting that they know everything that’s going to happen next are going to have a few surprises in store for them. We feel like it’s important that we have the willingness to make changes when we feel that they’re necessary. That said, Game of Thrones is a brilliant book, and it works incredibly well, on a character level and on a plot level, and we didn’t feel the need to tamper with it much for the sake of tampering with it.

When casting, did you have certain actors already in mind? I’d read that Sean Bean [as Eddard Stark] and Peter Dinklage [as Tyrion Lannister] were your first choices.

Weiss: There’s always a default you have in your head, but it was definitely not always what we ended up going with at all.

Benioff: For instance, the character of Bronn, I think we had a much different sort of person in mind. Then Jerome Flynn came in and from his first audition, we were [thinking] “That’s the guy.” We’d never actually heard of him before, Jerome has been very successful in England, but his shows I don’t think ever made it across the Atlantic. People over there think of him as this guy from a comedy — well, I don’t know, is Soldier Soldier a comedy or a drama?

Weiss: A dramedy.

Benioff: And he’s a famous singer. He had a few hits, covers of Righteous Brothers songs, and he’s playing a cold-blooded killer for us. And he’s amazing. But it’s one of those things where if we’d been English maybe we would have dismissed him earlier because we’d been thinking, “Oh, it’s Jerome Flynn. He’s the singer guy, he’s not going to work as our cold-blooded killer.” But we didn’t know him and it worked out perfect. He and Mark Addy, who plays King Robert, who is best known really for The Full Monty and playing those kind of big, bearish, full-of-life guys. More comedy roles. Robert is funny sometimes, but he’s really a tragic, debauched figure and again I think a lot of people in England were surprised when they heard we cast Mark Addy, but he’s been sensational as Robert.

Weiss: I think HBO has a long tradition of taking actors out of their comfortable contexts and put them into new contexts that lets them display the breadth of talent that they have. We tried to follow that lead with this in several cases.

With the scale of this project, how much of a concern was it that a lot of the drama depends on the abilities of child actors?

Weiss: It was terrifying.

Benioff: One of the things that would keep you up at night was thinking of these scenes to come with 12-year-old actors, how the hell was it going to work out. It’s always a crapshoot, even when you have the best possible audition, and you think, “All right, that kid’s got something,” you never know how they’re going to react when they’re standing in front of three different cameras pointing at them from different angles and all the lights are there and the crew of a hundred people, and the extras are in costume. … It’s @#$%ing terrifying. You know, there’s a big scary guy with a beard saying, “We’ve got five minutes left of light. We’ve got to get this take or we’re screwed.” That’s scary for adults, and for kids, you just multiply that. For the most part, we had kids coming in who hadn’t worked before, at least not on this level, and they were incredible. It’s one of the most gratifying things about the whole season, how good our star kids turned out to be.

Weiss: The show leans very heavily on a younger cast. You look at actors under 25, that’s like half the principals of the show. They all bring such an enthusiasm and such an unjaded excitement to the process where it’s contagious. You’re happy to wake up at 6 in the morning and go out to a freezing sheep meadow to stand out there for 14 hours because you can feel from afar the excitement that these guys are bringing to the process. They’re as excited about it as you are.

You guys have been friends for a long time, but it’s the first time you’ve worked together professionally. Talk about how that’s been.

DB: The first script I ever wrote was with Dan. We wrote a horror movie together called The Headmaster, which has never seen the light of day.

Benioff: We’ve worked together a bit, and Dan was always the first person, when I finish a script or a novel, Dan was the first person I’d send it to to get his thoughts, or for a critique. It certainly felt like we’d been working together on other things, but we’d never gotten paid before.

DB: It’s really having someone you can kind of have a frictionless creative relationship with. I know that if I write a scene and part of the scene isn’t working, it won’t be that dance around the fact that it isn’t working. He’s someone who will have a straightforward discussion with. There’s a lot of trust involved in that, and there’s not a lot of people you find that with.

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