HBO’s new hit GAME OF THRONES airs the penultimate episode of its first season tonight at 9 PM. All hell appears prepared to break loose, what with eldest Stark son Robb (Richard Madden) preparing to lead troops into battle against the wealthy Lannister clan, in the hopes of freeing Robb’s imprisoned father Ned (Sean Bean), who is facing the wrath of Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). Across the Narrow Sea, the Dothraki hordes led by Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) and his bride Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) are preparing to invade. At the northern edge of the seven kingdoms, the monstrous White Walkers may be about to come over the ice wall.
GAME OF THRONES is very faithful to its source material, the first novel in the series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin. Fans of the books – and even fans of the show who haven’t read the books – can thank GAME’s show runners/executive producers David Benioff (screenwriter of THE 25TH HOUR, TROY, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and BROTHERS) and Dan “D.B.” Weiss for this fidelity. The two men, who have been friends since their college days, talk happily about their foray into epic fantasy while sitting on a couch in Pasadena’s Langham hotel.
It turns out that writer Martin, who is one of GAME’s co-producers, wrote an episode of HBO’s horror series THE HITCHHIKER long ago. “I was an avid watcher of THE HITCHHIKER at a time it was obviously inappropriate for me,” Weiss laughs.
Benioff explains how he and Weiss became involved with the project and why they brought it to HBO.
“The books were sent to us by George’s agent,” says Benioff. “At that time, I think it was more to look at them for possible feature adaptation and the first thing I thought when I read the books was, ‘I’m in love with this.’ The second thing was, ‘These aren’t going to work as movies. They’re too long, they have too many characters and they’re too complex. And to do these for a big studio, there’s going to be so much pressure to make them PG-13 and under two-and-a-half hours – we’d be cutting out ninety-five percent of the story.’ As George points out, LORD OF THE RINGS is approximately the same length as the first GAME OF THRONES. LORD OF THE RINGS works very well as a ten-hour film, and we felt that this would work very well as a ten-hour [series].”
Benioff also notes that Martin was a TV writer for many years before he segued into being a novelist.
“George was a TV writer for many years,” Benioff continues. “He worked on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, he worked on [the 1980s incarnation of] TWILIGHT ZONE, and so that form of propulsive, forward-leaning, cliffhangers storytelling is in his story DNA. And it was just rare to read something, especially in the genre, that had that kind of narrative propulsion to it, but that also had that kind of psychological depth. It felt like an HBO fantasy series. It was just a very instinctive, immediate reaction, maybe a hundred pages in. Normally, you get a book and it’s offered to you to adapt it and you might get really into it and then you’re kind of waiting for it to fall apart, because most books don’t tend to hold up that well. To read a book that’s an experience where it kept getting better and the ending is incredible – it comes at you and you really are not expecting it. And obviously, we wouldn’t be sitting here saying that we didn’t like the book, but I could show you emails that I sent to Dan five years ago when I started reading the first book, and I just said, ‘I don’t think I’ve had more fun reading anything in twenty-five years.’ Annoyingly, he got through it much faster than I did, because I’m slow and Dan’s a fast reader.”
As for Weiss, he remembers when Benioff first called him after he read GAME OF THRONES.
“He said, ‘Read this and tell me, am I crazy, or is this something really unique and amazing?’” recalls Weiss. “I sat there and read a nine-hundred-page book in two days, which I did when I was twelve or thirteen and probably haven’t done since. To have that kind of experience as an adult, with all the filters that develop for you as a reader, and in your tastes and your likes and dislikes, is very rare. We love the books and we love these characters and one of the things we said to George from the beginning is, ‘We think there’s a way to do it and be quite faithful to these, but the way to do it would be on HBO, not to go and do the feature way.’ So at least for the first season of this, all that was written so far is quite faithful to who the characters are, and with one exception, all the major characters are straight from the books. The rest of the plotlines follow the books quite faithfully. There’s a character named Ros, played by Esme Bianco, who’s not in the books.”
According the Benioff, the plan is to do one book per season.
“I think that initially that will be our approximate goal, and if we’re lucky enough to make it to books four and five – with four and five, they take place concurrently, at the same time, so there would obviously be some reshuffling,” he adds.
There isn’t a sole protagonist in GAME, Benioff points out either. “It is an ensemble,” he notes. “If you’re going to look at one character as kind of the lead in the first season, it’s probably Sean Bean [as Ned], but there’s not really a Tony Soprano.”
Bean, Benioff notes, was the producers’ first choice to play Ned, who is perhaps too honorable for his own good in GAME’s world of overlapping machinations.
“When I started to read the book quite early on, I pictured Ned as Sean Bean, partly maybe because I’d worked with Sean before [on TROY], but also just because he’s so good and it’s a character that demands a lot of the actor.”
Weiss agrees. “Ned Stark is someone who’s survived a couple of wars and is at this point very happy to spend the rest of his life away from all the scheming and back-stabbing at the capital and he’s drawn back into the fray by his oldest friend, who he went to war with seventeen years ago, because his old friend is the king and he doesn’t trust anyone but Ned,” says Weiss. “He needs Ned by his side as things are starting to fall apart, so Ned has to bring much of his family with him and he gets caught up again in the treachery that he had hoped he’d escaped.”
“The heart of it is a reluctant gunslinger story,” Benioff elaborates, “about someone who thought he’d gotten out of this world and is drawn back into this world, but in a way that he’s not necessarily as well-suited for. He’s a very straightforward person. He likes to get out there on the battlefield and know who he’s fighting. But this is a world where battles are fought in much different, much less straightforward, political scheming ways, and he has to navigate those waters. He has some moments of gravitas, but you don’t want to see him too grim, you don’t want to see him humorless, and yet he’s got to be someone who’s haunted by all the terrible things that he’s seen in the past. From the beginning, we thought Sean Bean was the right guy for it, and luckily, George felt the same way. It was great. Peter Dinklage for playing Tyrion always seemed like a no-brainer for us. And for the rest of it, it was kind of finding people.”
Casting was very important according to Weiss, and felt that casting director Nina Gold was “brilliant” and “incredibly helpful especially since most of young cast were unknowns.
“She found a lot of these kids God knows where, because a lot of them had never worked before,” says Weiss. “She plucked them from a strawberry field somewhere.”
Given that a number of main characters are minors who are placed in some harrowing situations, Benioff says they worked hard to make sure this wasn’t an issue for production or the young actors.
“We were very careful to work with the parents,” Benioff says, “and make sure that everybody knew what we were doing and everybody was comfortable with what we were doing and to make sure, obviously, that we weren’t exposing them to anything they weren’t allowed to be exposed to.”
“That said,” Weiss adds with a chuckle, “it’s not clear that all the kids are going to be allowed to watch the show.”
One of the big finds in the cast is Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys who Benioff notes came “straight out of drama school.”
“This is someone we’d never heard of,” Benioff says. “Nina Gold brought her in – we’ll see these casting videos on the Internet, because three hundred people were brought in, we saw her and we thought, ‘There’s something interesting about her,’ and we saw her in person, and we thought, ‘God, she’s really good, what has she done?’”
“She had done an episode of DOCTORS,” Weiss adds. “The crazy thing about Emilia is, she’d done one episode of DOCTORS and you’d think, having these scenes with three hundred extras and [intimate scenes] in front of the cameras and just so much pressure, and I’m sure she must have been afraid in some part of herself, but I never saw a glimmer of nervousness. And she looks good with silver hair. It’s a role that demands a huge range of emotion. She starts out as a helpless little girl and she ends the first season in a very strong place. For the scared part, there were a number of people who could do the beginning stuff very well, but finding somebody who could switch into the gravitas that was necessary for the end of the season …”
The reason why the character works so well Benioff notes is that you’re on her side from the beginning.
“She’s an abused young girl and you want to see her escape from that abuse,” says Benioff. “I think her character becomes more and more complex as [the story] goes on, because she’s been through so much, and unlike in some other stories where the abused person emerges from that remarkably unscathed, she’s been scathed and she is damaged and she does some dark things going forward, especially in later seasons. So I think you’re going to see more and more moral ambiguity. By Season Three, wow.”
Sometimes dialogue in fantasy books that is perfectly serviceable on the page doesn’t work so well when spoken aloud. However, Benioff says this wasn’t the case in adapting GAMES.
“George wrote a lot of great dialogue,” says Benioff. ” He’s got a contemporary sensibility to his dialogue that I wouldn’t say is unique, but I think is probably not as common in the fantasy genre as it would be in other genres, and there are many places where we have George’s dialogue very much as is, and there are other places where we’re just seeing how things fit and see how things sound when someone’s actually delivering the lines and tailoring it to the actor. As the season goes on, you get to know the actors better, you have a better sense of which lines they’re going to be able to handle better. Something that’s very useful to have is a table read. Before we start shooting, where we have [the scripts for] three episodes in a day, and the actors are all sitting around a round table and are reading them, often you find that lines that looked perfectly good to you on the page don’t sound that good and it’s not the actors’ fault, it’s just no one, even Daniel Day-Lewis, could make this line sound good, so then you go back and start rewriting.”
Another reason to change dialogue, Weiss notes, can be something as simple as an actor’s accent. “Sibel Kekilli, who’s playing the role of Shae, I heard it as having an English accent in the book,” says Weiss. “Then we met her and she’s fabulous and we felt like we needed to have her in the show, but she’s German, so obviously that changes the dialogue concept for how she speaks.”
There is plenty of violence in GAME, but Benioff says it’s handled in a very specific way.
“One of our directors, Dan Minahan, directed one of our favorite episodes of DEADWOOD, where there’s this great fight – it may be my favorite fight from any TV show – between Swearingen’s right-hand man Dan against the big guy,” explains Benioff. “There’s this great street fight, and then it ends in an eye-gouging and we always talk about that fight as one of our touchstones of how violence can be handled in a way that you don’t want to watch and yet you have to, and Dan’s philosophy about it is that you’re never in the right place. If you see a fight break out, if you see something violent, you’re never are at that angle where you’re just looking at it perfectly. You’re always kind of in the corner of the bar drinking and you see something happening, and ‘Oh, my God, that guy’s just had a mug shattered on his face.’ Dan had episode six [‘A Golden Crown’] and he put a lot of fight scenes in there and that’s the way he shot them.”
The supernatural elements of the story have likewise called for careful handling too.
“It’s something that’s been an important part of our conversations from the beginning,” says Benioff. “Again, obviously, what we liked so much about the books is the way he doles out the magic, and yet magic doesn’t have a huge presence for most of the people in this world. The people within this world have as much skepticism as people in our world might. At the same time, you know from the first scene that there’s stuff out there that’s not from our world and there’s a princess carting around three dragon eggs. This is a fantasy series and we never want to run away from that fact or try to hide that fact, because we love that and we’re really proud of it, but most of the people in this world are fairly cynical about the presence of the supernatural. It makes it fun, because it makes it more relatable.”
Weiss makes a comparison to LORD OF THE RINGS.
“In LORD OF THE RINGS, Gandalf shows up to the party in the beginning and does something with his staff and the dragon flies out of his staff,” adds Weiss. “Everybody claps and cheers. If somebody could do that in this world, everybody would probably freak out and run, because no one’s seen anybody perform anything like that at least for hundreds of years. It’s more grounded in that way, but it is real.”
Most of GAME’s first season was shot in Northern Ireland, in and around Belfast, which worked for a number of reasons according to Weiss.
“One is the pool of people there is fantastic,” says Weiss. “There are a lot of people to draw from and that environment there is great, and probably as importantly, there was a lot of geographical variety in a relatively very small area. You could drive from mountains to the sea and then drive to a willow field that looks like something from the middle of Asia, and all in all, you’ve driven for an hour and a half. There are a lot of places where, to get that geographical variety, you’d be in cars for a long, long drive.”
Benioff adds, “We have a few seconds of stuff shot in Scotland and we have six weeks we shot in Malta. The rest was all Belfast and the surrounding area. Dan’s right. I think it’s the people more than anything. They’re very well-educated and just wonderful. We actually really loved working there, because [Benioff and Weiss] met in Dublin fifteen years ago at Trinity College, so Ireland has been a place that we’ve always loved going back to, and the people in Ireland just work their asses off. Some of them came into it without that much experience in terms of TV production, but came out of the season just having learned so well what to do. People worked their asses off and were very enthusiastic, very positive. You don’t get the kind of cynicism you get other places, where people have been doing this for a hundred years.” Also, he notes, “It’s a lot cheaper than it would have been shooting in L.A. The fact is, they saved a lot of money shooting in Belfast.”
Asked to sum up the theme of GAMES, Benioff says it’s ultimately about “power.”
“If you had to pick just one word to describe a very complicated story, it’s about power and how it affects those who are pursuing it, how those who already have it try to retain it and how those who are caught in the crossfire between the two are mutilated in the process,” says Benioff. “And one thing that’s been really interesting is, I’m surrounded by people in my family who couldn’t care less about fantasy, and they’ve all become obsessed with this series. I was at a wedding, and I was talking to this guy and I got an email from him talking about how excited he was, because he found out that I was working on this series, and he was going on and on about the books, and how much he loves the books, and it’s from a guy named Larry Kramer, who is the dean of Stanford Law School. He has this brilliant legal mind, and the fact is, all these people you wouldn’t normally expect to be fantasy fans have become really addicted to the books and we hope this will be the same for the series.”
If the ratings are anything to go by, it seems that Benioff and Weiss’ hopes have come true.
Click on link for AX’s review of GAME OF THRONES – Season 1 – “Baelor”
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Click on link for AX’s complete GAME OF THRONES – Season 1 reviews
CLICK HERE for AX’s review of GAME OF THRONES – Series Premiere
CLICK HERE for the scoop on GAME OF THRONES from creator GEORGE R.R. MARTIN
CLICK HERE for AX’s interview with GAME OF THRONES star PETER DINKLAGE