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Game of Thrones – Executive producers and writers David Benioff and Dan Weiss on epic television

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Game of Thrones - Conleith Hill, Aidan Gillen and Sean Bean
Game of Thrones - Lord Varys, (Conleith Hill), Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Aidan Gillen) and Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) © 2011 HBO
Game of Thrones - Producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss
Producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss on location © 2011 HBO

Based on the bestselling fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin comes the new series Game of Thrones on HBO. After only airing one episode, the network renewed the show for next season.

The series follows kings, queens, knights, renegades, liars and noblemen as they vie for power in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

The show’s writers and executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss spoke of their epic undertaking at the TV Critics tour.

When did you first hear of the series of novels by George RR Martin?

David Benioff: (In 2006, I read) A Song of Ice and Fire. I got completely hooked and a few hundred pages later, I called Dan (DB Weiss), who has been my friend for about 15 years and said, ‘Tell me if I’m completely crazy but I’m in the middle of this book called A Game of Thrones and I think it’s the best thing I’ve read in as long as I can remember.

Dan Weiss: Two and a half days later, I was done with the 900-page book, which is probably the first time I had done that since I was 12.

What was it about HBO that made it the right network for this project?

Game of Thrones - Emilia Clarke and Iain Glen
Episode 1.03 – Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) © 2011 HBO

David: Fantasy is one of the most successful genres in the history of storytelling, but no one’s ever done it the HBO way, where the focus is on character and psychology rather than spectacle. Knowing the essential shape of the entire series from the beginning is an incredible luxury for us, as adapters of the material.

The story is so rich and has so many characters, different viewpoints and narratives all woven together with incredible expertise. I think you admire it even more as a writer because you know how hard it is to do, and George RR Martin is a master at storytelling.

It was such an intricate tapestry that we couldn’t imagine mutilating it to make it into a feature script, which would involve cutting 90% of his characters and stories. The only way that we could see doing it was as a series, and really, the only place we could see doing it properly was HBO.

Game of Thrones - Sean Bean
Episode 1.02 – Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) © 2011 HBO

Dan: It was a one-shot opportunity. HBO was the only place we ever envisioned this being done properly. They’re the only people who have the experience in doing epic television that really feels epic in scope with shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Romeand Deadwood. Even though they haven’t done it with this genre before, that was almost more of a reason to go with them.

Why do you think novels like this have such a fan base?

David: It’s not just the genre that people are so obsessed with. It’s George’s books, in particular. George’s characters don’t feel like they come from a fantasy series in that they feel like human beings. It’s not just the epic battle of good versus evil. These are characters of enormous complexity and shades of gray, and to come across something that treats it with a much sensitivity and intelligence as George does, it generates enormous passion from the fans.

I think I saw a quote from you that said, ‘This is The Sopranos meets Middle Earth.’

Game of Thrones - Conleith Hill, Aidan Gillen and Sean Bean
Lord Varys, (Conleith Hill), Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) and Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) © 2011 HBO

David: Yes, I think that’s from four years ago, and I kind of wish I hadn’t said that! One of things that intrigued us about doing this at HBO is that you could actually lavish the time on these characters and you could do it 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.

One of the things that was so exciting about tuning into The Sopranos or The Wire was you never knew who was going to get whacked. We’re not a gangster show, but it’s got elements of that within it.

How active was George as executive producer on this?

Game of Thrones - Emilia Clark
Episode 1.01 – Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) © 2011 HBO

David: George was an integral part of the show from the beginning. He gave us notes on the first draft of the pilot and he was a part of the casting process.

We get his feedback on pretty much everything. It’s important that he’s happy – he’s the reason we’re all here.

Except for Lost, none of these kinds of shows have really performed very well on the mainstream networks, even though some of them are quite good. Why do you think that is?

David: I can’t speak to why the other series haven’t worked. 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.

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 a huge canvas on which to paint.