Interview: Game Of Thrones Creators David Benioff And D.B. WeissFeatures
We speak with the men behind the epic fantasy show.
In the second of our Game of Thrones roundtable interviews we sit down with the creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
Benioff first began reading the book series A Song of Ice and Fire in the winter of 2006 and almost immediately called his friend D.B. Weiss to say, “I think it’s the best thing I’ve read in as long as I can remember.” Weiss began to read the series and, “two and half days later I was done with a 900 page book, which is probably the first time I had done that since I was 12.”
Before Game of Thrones Benioff was best known for his writing credits on the films Troy and The Kite Runner as well as the novels City of Thieves and The 25th Hour, which he himself adapted for the Spike Lee feature film of the same name, while Weiss wrote the novel Lucky Wander Boy and has written the screen adaptations of the videogame Halo and the upcoming, highly anticipated Ender’s Game.
How do you go about adapting a massive saga like Game of Thrones without making errors that could impact on future seasons?
Benioff: I think that part of it is just the two of us sitting down together, spending a lot of time deciding what the core stories are and the characters that we're going to follow. The books were originally sent to us to adapt as features and I was only about 100 pages into it when I realised this was not going to make a good feature. In order to compress the first book into a two hour movie you'd have to cut out 80% of the story lines, you'd have to cut so many characters it would've been an act of vandalism as opposed to adaptation so when we called George we said, "look we love your books but we really don't see it as a movie to be honest. We think it's an HBO series" and we were nervous about that because we had no idea he’d be keen on that idea, as a writer you make more money selling your book to a movie studio. So we thought this is going to be controversial, not sure if we can persuade him. But luckily George said, "well that's the only way I ever thought these books would work, as an HBO series." And not just as a series but specifically HBO for him he's a big lover of Rome and Deadwood and for us George's world is a quite adult world, there's obviously a lot of sexual content, there's profanity, there's violence which is supposed to read like real violence not like PG movie violence and so this wasn't going to work on American Network television, the only place that could really it off and provide the production value we needed for the show was HBO and it was always about going there.
Getting back to the original question I think that it was trying to figure out how do we tell the story of Game of Thrones in 10 hours and what are the central plot lines we're following? What things do we have to leave aside at least for now, because as much as those scenes might work in the book we just are not going to have time to tell them? And in certain places expanding actually, there are characters who we love in the books that never encounter each other and we always thought, “well wouldn't it be interesting if Jamie Lannister met Jon Snow, what would they talk about?" Or Jamie Lannister works for the King, he's protecting the King but we never really see the two of them talking and that would be an interesting conversation given Jamie killed the last King and his sister is the wife of the current king. Or even a more basic one the King and Queen, we never really see them in the book having a conversation alone together and we really wanted to see the two of them together. What the hell do they talk about when no one else is around? So taking the characters in the books, I think quite faithfully in terms of adapting them, but also looking or opportunities to show scenes that might well have happened off page in the book that we wanted to see.
Weiss: It's really the only way to explore who these people are because you can't tell stories from their past. Somebody telling a long story on the page about what happened to them in the past is really, really compelling because it puts you there in the action. Somebody saying it on screen at length is stultifyingly dull after 5/10 minutes so you need to find a different way into a character.
Was the fact that George R.R. Martin works with point of view characters an advantage for you?
Weiss: As far as getting into the characters in the book it's a really, really great way to just dive into a character and what he or she thinks and feels but it’s also something that obviously you can't replicate without copious amounts of voice-over or expositional dialogue which is something we really try to not do any voice-over and to limit expositional dialogue to the bare necessities so it forces you to find another way into exploring who these characters are.
Is it your choice to write almost all the episodes and how do you manage to write and supervise on all seasons?
Weiss: We do a lot of drugs! (laughs)
When you read the books were you already thinking, "this is going to be big?"
Benioff: Well we told HBO it was going to be big! When we pitched them the show we said this is going to be huge so you should really do it because it's going to be an international blockbuster but we didn't really know if we knew what we were talking about because we had never made a show before so why would we know what we're talking about? We did think that it would appeal internationally more than most shows would because it's not set in any place in our world, it’s not set in California. Dan (Weiss) made a really interesting point yesterday which is most shows or movies set in the real world whoever is from that place in the audience they have an inherent advantage. For instance I love this English show called Peep Show, it's great I think it's incredibly funny and everything but I am sure there are several jokes I’m not getting because they’re kind of local jokes I'm just not from here (the UK) so I'm missing it.
Weiss: Like a show called Freaks and Geeks which we loved because it so closely mirrored my experience as a teenager that I felt like there wasn't a single that happened there that I couldn't relate to directly. Somebody from Croatia watching Freaks and Geeks I'm not saying they didn't enjoy it, they missed a lot of the texture whereas this show nobody can say, "no it's a Westeros thing, you wouldn't understand it." Because they don't come from Westeros, nobody does. The texture that's there needs to touch everybody, reach out to everybody equally and I think that's worked to our advantage.
Benioff: It's a very international cast which is something we always wanted not only, obviously, English, Irish and Scottish but also Dutch and German and a couple of Americans.
Were you involved in casting Carice van Houten?
Weiss: Yes. That was one of the things we loved most about the show and why we're so excited to be not just writing but executive producers is that we go to do the casting and had never had that opportunity before. The movies I've worked on the screenwriter has no say in casting. You can try and whisper in the director’s ear or if you know someone at the studio you can say, "what about this person?" But you have no power whatsoever. Whereas in television as the showrunners we're responsible for the casting and it was a little intimidating at first because it's a massive cast and we've never done it before and we're trying to fill literally hundreds of roles. But it's also for me one of the most rewarding things because there's no more important decision in making a show or a movie than which actors play which roles. And so we're able to cast Carice as Melisandre or Maisie Williams as Arya and then watch them inhabit those roles and really become the characters. It's been thrilling for us.
How did you know her?
Benioff: From Black Book.
Weiss: And from Black Death I saw as well. All the black! And Black Butterflies with Liam Cunningham who is also in our cast.
Benioff: We had tried to meet with her for season one. We were really impressed with her work and she wasn't available at that time. And when season two came around the part of Melisandre was open and we thought let's take another shot at Carice it's probably not going to happen because she obviously works so much but we managed to get her to Belfast for an audition and ten seconds in we knew she was the one.
She'll have a bigger role in season three?
Benioff: She's pretty big in season two I think she'll be in more episodes in season three. She's the kind of character when she's in a scene she kind of dominates the scene. She has so much presence but she's not in as many episodes. It's true she'll be in more episodes in episode three.
The children are incredibly important in both the show and the books and as the seasons progress will become even more so. How did you go about casting them, considering that they have to deal with such adult themes and language?
Weiss: That’s one of those things where you come in with some ideas of who you want in roles, with the kids we had no ideas and it was really up to Nina Gold and Robert Sterne our amazing casting directors to find a huge pool of potential Stark children for us to choose from. They just have a real gift for meeting children and being able to assess what their ability is going to be down the line because none of the kids had done anything. I think maybe Maisie or Isaac had done a TV commercial at one point but none of them had ever acted in front of a camera before or maybe they were in a school play. It's really just about the raw ability and the willingness and readiness to get out there and put yourself in front of the five hundred adults who are all staring at you and to deliver.
Benioff: That role in particular was one of the hardest to cast we probably looked at maybe a hundred and fifty different girls for Arya, no one seemed right at all. I remember we were in a hotel in Morocco, Nina and Robert will take these casting videos and put them online so we can watch them wherever we are. We were scouting locations and we saw there was a new batch of Arya candidates and there were these little thumbnail photographs about an inch big on the lap top screen. And we saw this picture of Maisie, a tiny little picture and there was just something about her face, she just looked kind of like she had some fiery aspect to her and we thought she looks interesting. We played her video and I can't now imagine anyone else in that role. Those three roles are so crucial as you say, these characters go on such dark journeys and they're not typical kind of Hollywood cute little moppet who's just there in an episode to say a line or two and be funny and cute they are as important as any of the characters. We were really, really nervous about it and kind of thinking, "well as long as two of them are good we can maybe figure out a way to keep one of them slightly out of the story.” The fact that all three of them have turned out to be brilliant is a) we got really lucky and b) Nina and Robert are so good at finding these kids.
Weiss: It would've been really sad because writing one of them down or out of the story would really remove such a huge part of the texture of that world.
Has there been a lot of debate about the title of the show because it only reflects the first book?
Weiss: No we know that if you're going to have television show that's an ongoing concern you can't be changing the title of the show every year because that would've been confusing.
There wasn't talk of maybe using the title A Song of Ice and Fire?
Benioff: We talked about it once for ten minutes but Game of Thrones to us is the story right there it just felt really strong to us.
Weiss: It's kind of the most pithy and poetic way of encompassing what the whole show is about.
Did you feel under pressure to create an adaptation to satisfy George R.R. Martin and the fans?
Weiss: No, no pressure! Sure yeah. I mean we want to do the best adaptation possible and we love that the majority of the fanbase seem to enjoy the show. We also know that the show needs to appeal to people beyond that fanbase, it needs to work first and foremost as a television show. We've always said if we can make a show that in hindsight we are proud of and that George really loves as well then we'll feel like we've probably done our jobs right.
How much is George involved in the production?
Benioff: Yeah so George writes one episode every a season, he's also involved in terms of casting, that site I was telling you guys about where you see the little videos, that enables him to watch from Santé fe and so he'll write us with his opinions about various actors who've come in. Sometimes there are literally hundreds of different actors for each role and sometimes we miss people. There's at least one important character I can think of where we somehow hadn't seen the casting video and George saw it and said, "this guy's fantastic have you seen him?" And then luckily we did and ended up casting the guy. He's very involved in terms of the big picture stuff because we talk to him a lot about where the series is going, where the books are going, what the ending is going to be because we want to make sure that we're properly building towards that in the hope that we get to go for as many seasons as it would take to tell the story. And sometimes (he's involved) in very minute detailed ways, for instance the look of the dragons, George had very definitive ideas of how the dragons should look. Specifically that dragons have two wings and two legs but not the more traditional dragon with wings and four legs because as George said that would never fly, it's not aerodynamically possible.
Weiss: They'd have to flap those wings so fast, it would just never work!
How important has a big budget been in making the show the success it has been?
Weiss: In terms of overall production value that is why the show can only exist on HBO because of the nature of the material and the tone and the keeping to the integrity of the books is one thing and the ability to do it on a scale that makes you feel the immensity of this world that makes you feel that the different regions of an entire continent and the continents beyond it are actually different places and not all shot in the same parking lot. I think that that's another challenge and that challenge to be blunt does take money, it takes resources I think well above and beyond what most or any television show has access to.
Benioff: I think we have the biggest cast on television and all of these actors need to get paid.
Weiss: And bizarrely they all want to get paid! I personally think it’s out of line!
Will the DVD sales be a factor in getting the green light for a third season?
Benioff: That would be a Mara question.
Weiss: Mara works for HBO.
Mara: Officially the series has to be picked up but for a project this large you always have to plan ahead, with the assumption. So we're hoping that everything will move forward and they'll start shooting again in July.
Benioff: We're knocking on wood that the (DVD) sales go well. We really want people who didn't watch last year to come in to our second season but it's not as if the first episode of season two provides kind of, "now here's a reminder of who these characters are."
Weiss: We had a screening for the cast and crew the other day and one of the cast members brought his girlfriend and she watched and was very complimentary and then I realised that she hadn't seen the first series and I said, "why are you being complimentary? This must of been complete gobble-de-gook. This must've made no sense!" She's like, "no I got some of it." I really feel like the experience of watching the second season would be, to say the least, greatly aided by watching the season that came before it.
Benioff: The ideal here, if we get time and the generosity of HBO, would be to have say eight seasons and some masochistic viewer started from the beginning and watched 80 hours straight through it wouldn't feel like episodic television it would feel like one massive movie, one 80 hour saga with a true beginning, middle and an end. You can't take several hours out it would be like removing a chapter from the book.
Weiss: You don't just pick up Anna Karenina and open the page at 200 and say, "I’ll figure out what happens."
Game of Thrones The Complete Season One is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.
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