Interview Date: 01/07/2011
Run Date: 04/15/2011
It’s been a long, hard road transforming George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” into an HBO series, as everyone from Martin on down would almost certainly agree, and it’s quite possible that it never would have come to pass were it not for the hard work, dedication, and love of the original source material that producers David Benioff and D.B. (Dan) Weiss bring to the table. Benioff and Weiss sat down for a roundtable discussion during the January 2011 TCA Press Tour, and they detailed their love of Martin’s work, the stones it takes to change or add to his mythology, the good fortune they had with the young actors in their cast, and how they take their creative inspiration for “Game of Thrones” less from “Lord of the Rings” than “The Sopranos.”
Journalist: I’d say you guys look much better rested than you did in the making-of video. I was watching your coffees leaning to the side…
D.B. Weiss: The making-of video…a lot of that stuff was actually from…
David Benioff: Your mom got mad at you, didn’t she?
DBW: Yeah, my mother actually got angry at me as she was watching the video. It was shot…that was from almost a year ago, it was at the end of a very long day, and she said, “David’s talking! Your friend’s talking, and you’re drinking coffee while he’s talking. That’s very rude!” (Laughs)
Journalist: You should say, “Well, Mom, that’s better than falling asleep while he’s talking!”
DB: Which is what he normally does!
Journalist: Obviously, the books have a rabid fan base. I’m wondering what the pressures going into this were, in terms of delivering on those expectations.
DB: Well, they’re great. I think they’re great, also, not just with the fans but with George, who entrusted these books with us, and for ourselves, who had such a great time reading the books and not wanting to screw it up. I mean, it’s a huge thing. I think at the same time you have to go into it and not be writing scripts or casting…well, any of the process…in fear. You can’t be living in fear that someone is going to have a nasty post. Not you guys. You guys are awesome. (Laughs) But you’re always going to have trolls out there who are going to be angry about something, and you can’t try to please 100% of the people. But if we can make George happy, and we can make ourselves happy as incredible fans of the book, then I feel confident that we’ll make the vast majority of the readers happy.
DBW: It’s easy to respect the fan base when you are the fan base.
DB: And when you’ve been working on the script for five years.
DBW: And I feel like the fact that people will occasionally get angry about something is great. You don’t get angry about something unless it matters to you, unless you care about it. By and large, for 95%, I’d say, it’s a very respectable and intelligent fan base. Not just saying that ‘cause you guys are here… (Laughs) …but it’s true.
DB: And an educated one. There was some comedian who did the contrast between “Jeopardy!” contestants and “Wheel of Fortune” contestants, and the “Wheel of Fortune” people were, like, “I like bright, shiny objects,” and the “Jeopardy!” ones would be, like, professors of particle physics.
DBW: We’ve got the “Jeopardy!” fan base. (Laughs) ‘Cause, I mean, if you’re a fan of these books, it means you’ve read, what, 4,000+ pages of very detailed, very character-rich material. And I think that probably weeds out a certain kind of person.
Journalist: It’s not exactly Twilight.
DB: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, the way George will throw out a clue about the latest casting thing, saying, “Here’s some incredibly obscure clue,” and the fans will have somehow figured it out within four and a half minutes. I have no idea. I’m looking at it, like, “Uh, I know who we’ve cast, but…” So, yes, it’s fun writing and knowing that we’re going to have a lot of intelligent people watching the show. And, yes, they’re going to be critical of things, but as Dan says, that’s a good thing that people are so emotionally wrapped up in it.
Journalist: Does that limit you, though, to some degree? I mean, knowing that fans are going to be that obsessive and that specific on details that already exist, does that limit your ability to go off book?
DB: No, I mean, again, I think if we didn’t have the stones to sometimes go against what some of the fans would like, we’d be the wrong people for the job, ‘cause you have to be able to do what you think is right for the show. And, ultimately, it’s not a democracy. We have to make decisions. We’re the ones writing most of the scripts and making the final decisions on creative matters, and we can’t go out there and poll…we can’t do, like, an internet poll and say, “So, what do you want to have happen in this fight scene?” And you’ve got to make the decisions. Often you’ve got to make them very quickly. You’ve got to make hundreds of them every day, and you’re not going to get every one right, but you hope that if you’ve got the right basic philosophy for the story and how to tell the story, you’ll get the lion’s share right.
Bullz-Eye: Like you said, you guys are obviously fans, but how did each of you discover the books in the first place?
DB: I guess…I got them first, and then I called… [to Weiss] I sent you an email. I got a package with all four of the books, and…
DBW: I remember walking into your house and just seeing…it was by the door, so it literally looked like a doorstop, ‘cause it was so big, and I was, like, “Oh, my God, what the hell is that?”
DB: And I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of the books. I had been a giant fantasy fan growing up, but I had moved away from it and hadn’t read a fantasy book in probably 15 years when I got these books. And I saw this…what is it, 4400 pages or something? And I was just thinking, “They’ve got to be kidding! I’m not going to be able to read all of this!” And I started reading the first one, and I remember…it’s probably pretty much the scene that ends the pilot, which I won’t spoil, but…I emailed Dan shortly after that and said, “I don’t know if I’ve lost my mind, but I think what I’m reading right now is more fun than anything I’ve read in a really long time. Tell me if I’m wrong.” So a couple of days later…I’d already gotten 400 pages into it…and Dan went out and got the book, and, like, a day later, he had finished it. (Laughs)
DBW: Which I never…it was one of those experiences where, you know, it’s a 800, 900 page book, and I read it in two days, which is the kind of thing I did when I was 12 or 13 years old, and I would sit in a chair and read for nine hours at a stretch. But I was trying to remember the last time I’d done that, and I was probably 12 and 13 years old.
DB: I mean, you get more and more cynical as a reader the more you work in this business, and the more you see how the sausage is made, you know, because sometimes it’s not a pretty process. But, also, you just kind of get used to all the different narrative tricks that writers can do. And so to be in a book…it gets harder and harder to be completely wrapped up and engrossed in something the way you were when you were a kid, when you could just read for eight hours at a stretch and not have any kind of critical, skeptical thinking, just be lost in the story. It had been years since I’d had that experience reading a book, and this one brought it all back for me. So, you know, again, it’s pressure on us, because we’re hoping to try and replicate that experience for viewers of the show, where it’s an escape every week, it’s every Sunday night, it’s an hour where they’re not in America anymore or wherever they’re watching the show. They’re in Westeros.
DBW: I mean, it’s not…a popcorn experience. It’s an escape, but it’s not a popcorn experience, and it doesn’t feel like…it’s, like, a steak experience. It’s substantial, but it’s something you really, really enjoy.
DB: It’s a drinking experience.
DBW: It’s a heavy beer experience.
DB: The drinking is going to be one shot every time someone says, “Milady.” (Laughs)
DBW: I am not playing that drinking game! (Laughs)
Journalist: You have a big-production HBO script, and obviously HBO has a stable of directors they work with, and for the pilot for this fantasy novel, you bring in a contemporary American indie director (Thomas McCarthy) who’s done all of these small-scale things. What was it that attracted you to him, and what did he bring to the project that no one else would?
DB: Well, Tom’s really smart, for one thing, so talking to him about the project got us excited about his vision for it, and I loved his movies…I think we both loved his movies and the way he works with actors. And, you know, the feeling was…the other way to go was potentially to get someone who was known for doing the big effects things and the lavish spectacles, and for us, what made this story…we weren’t going to try to compete with Peter Jackson and “Lord of the Rings.” There’s no way we could. What we could do with this story, though, is spend a lot of time with these characters – they’re wonderful characters – and really get to know them and get incredibly in-depth and incredibly intimate. And I think we both felt that Tom did that better than most directors really do. And, you know, the last couple of movies…I think of Peter Dinklage’s character, for instance, in “The Station Agent,” and just how much I loved that character. I wanted to spend more time with that character and was upset when the movie ended, and I felt like Tom could really bring that kind of direction to the actors and begin this journey for them.
Journalist: Was his experience working in “The Wire” as an actor part of the thing that drew you to him?
DBW: No, although, y’know, the fact that he’s an actor, quite a good actor, was something that made him attractive as a director. Because he was with us through the initial casting process.
DB: It was really educational for us to watch how he handled the casting process and how he, as an actor, had been through this drill I can only imagine dozens, probably hundreds of times, just gave him an empathy for the person sitting there. Because casting can be, I would imagine, a very uncomfortable experience for an actor, but he really made people feel at home, and when they walked into that room, it didn’t matter if they were great or they were not so great, nobody left there feeling bad. That’s a very cool thing.
DBW: Yeah, and it was quite an ordeal casting the show. I mean, it’s a huge cast, and there’s a lot of kids in the cast, and casting kids is really tricky. And, you know, we saw a lot of kids for Arya or for Sansa or for Bran or so many of the other roles, and watching Tom with those kids…I think it takes a specific kind of talent to work with child actors, and Tom’s quite good at it. So it’s exactly as Dan says: making them feel comfortable and then getting the best possible performance from them.
Journalist: And was that a concern at all, the fact that many of the characters are under the age of 12 getting into it?
DBW: Yeah, it was a very…I’ll put it out there: it was a very scary proposition, because you never… (Starts to laugh) What do they tell you? Kids and dogs, right? No kids, no dogs…? Well, we had kids and dogs! But they…we were trying to think of shows or films, especially shows, where you’ve got children carrying so much dramatic weight in a show that is so adult and mature in its content. And, yeah, that’s a scary proposition. We saw hundreds and hundreds of…Nina Gold, our fantastic casting director, I don’t know where she…David was saying she was looking under rocks and in corn fields, but she really dug deep, reached wide, and found a huge population of people who had done this many, many times as child actors, since they were four, to people who had never been on camera before. And she found us three amazing, amazing performers, none of whom had ever, I don’t think, been on camera before.
DB: Isaac (Hempstead-Wright) had done a commercial.
DBW: Yes, Isaac was in a commercial.
DB: But even some of the older actors…Kit Harington had done very well on stage, but I’m pretty sure this was the first time he had been in front of the camera professionally.
DBW: Really, he was right out of drama school and had been in one episode of “Doctors,” a British soap opera, and I think that was about it.
Journalist: Was there someone who tried to convince you to age the characters up by two or three years, so that you could get the Tiger Beat audience?
DBW: (Laughs) We did age some of the characters up a bit, only because…well, some of them…like, if someone’s supposed to be 10 years old or 8 years old, fine, but if someone’s supposed to be 6 years old, there’s certain things that you’re just not going to have a 6-year-old say. Like, how old is Bran supposed to be in the books?
DB: He’s eight.
DBW: Eight. And Rickon is supposed to be three. You can’t… (Starts to laugh) I have a 3-year-old. You say, “Stay there,” but a 3-year-old’s not going to stay there for more than, like, 30 seconds.
Journalist: But that’s Rickon’s character, too. (Laughs)
DB: Yeah, but you need the little kid to actually say his lines and hit his marks and everything. But the Rickon we got is wonderful. He’s a local kid named R. Parkinson who’s got this great face. He looks like a Stark. It’s a tough role for a little kid, and it’s a dark role.
DBW: He’s got a good English accent, too.
DB: He does.
Journalist: Are the kids leverage to get HBO to make a quick decision on Season 2? ‘Cause, otherwise, you know, they’re going to…
DBW: We’ll have a six-foot-tall Bran? (Laughs) Yeah, we thought about that. Put them together in a music video, crying, saying, “Please pick us up, HBO!” Hopefully we won’t have to resort to such dramatic measures… (Laughs) …but they are fantastic. And they’re just really good kids. And their mothers are really good, which is something that you don’t really think about that much until you’re on set and they’re there all the time. And they get along with each other, and we love them. I’ve worked on other things where the stage mothers can be a nightmare, and these ones…they’re really good people, and they’ve made our lives a lot easier.
Journalist: One of the great things about the books is that you’re reading the story, and the story they’re telling in the books is only a small part of the overall story. There’s a lot of back story there, and history. How did you guys manage to get that across in the series and tell that back story? Flashbacks, or similar devices?
DB: That’s a really good question.
DBW: And it’s an important question. I mean, for instance, just looking at the pilot, Jon Arryn’s death is something that triggers so much of what happens through the rest of the story, and he’s someone who’s talked about a lot, and in the book, George is able to have characters thinking about Jon Arryn, so what he meant to Ned…Ned is not the kind of long speech to Catelyn about what Jon Arryn meant to him. He’s going to think about it, but he’s a fairly taciturn man, and we didn’t want to violate that. We didn’t want to violate Ned’s basic character. But at the same time, it was very important that people at least see Jon Arryn or have some knowledge of who the guy is, because his death or murder triggers so much of what’s to follow. So we have a scene where you actually see the funeral scene for Jon Arryn, and…that’s one example. What are some of the other things that are kind of referenced in the book that we show?
DB: I’m trying to think…
DBW: I’m trying to avoid a spoiler.
Journalist: Brandon Stark being strangled?
DBW: (Surprised) How’d you know about that?
Journalist: (Laughs) I saw one half of a second in the trailer. You know how that goes right? If you’re going to put a frame in, we’re going to see the frame. We’re going to stop and go, “Is that…?”
(Weiss suddenly looks around in mock annoyance and yells out the name of the publicist for “Game of Thrones,” pretending to be furious at this betrayal by HBO’s marketing department. I say he was pretending, but I also have this feeling that someone got a stern talking-to after the roundtable concluded. Either way, Weiss earned a big laugh from the room.)
DBW: Okay, so that’s an example… (Laughs)
DB: Next question! (Laughs)
DBW: It’s one of the things that’s so great about the books, and one of the reasons why people become so immersed in George’s world, is that the world is so detailed that you believe…even if George isn’t going to focus on this particular family, there is a family history going back, so the Tarlys…you know, there’s so much information about the Tarlys, and it’s not going to come out in…some of it will come out in the books and some of it will come out in the series, but…
DB: Among the things where we’ve gone off-book and we’ve deviated dramatically from what’s represented in the book, often it’s in service to giving people what’s in the book and giving people a different way into those back story elements that is in the book, because as David said, you have that leeway in the book of exposition. Exposition in a book isn’t a bad thing, whereas in film and television, it’s usually a pretty bad thing.
DBW: It’s long voiceovers, and you can’t have that.
DB: Yeah, you can’t. And so you need to find a dramatic way in to information dispersal, and I think a lot of the scenes…some of the scenes that don’t appear in the books but do appear in the show will be in the service of rounding out that vision of the world.
DBW: But also without casting, like, 20 more speaking parts that are people who are in the distance. I mean, if you’re doing a flashback of Rhaegar Targaryen and the Trident, you can just have a guy with a helmet...
DB: …and the water.
DBW: Right. Stuff like that. It doesn’t have to be…he doesn’t have to have lines.
DB: Or someone like Ser Barristan, who becomes a very important character, and he’s certainly important to devoted fans of the books, but if you’re watching the series, he doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time. So we’re going to get to a scene, ultimately, where he is demoted or essentially fired by Cirsei, and it’s an important scene, and it’s important that we know who he is by then. We wanted to spend more time with him. He’s also a wonderful actor. So there’s a scene with Ser Barristan and King Robert, and we know from the books that Barristan’s been guarding Robert, as his bodyguard, for years and years, and we know that Barristan is a legendary warrior. It hasn’t really come out in the series yet because it’s something that comes out, again, basically through characters’ minds. So we have a scene with Robert and Barristan where Robert’s been drinking all day, and we’re thinking, “Well, who would he be drinking with? Probably Barristan. He’s not actually drinking with him, but he’s on duty, and he’s there listening to Robert’s drunken stories, and they’re talking as old soldiers often do about their early experiences in combat. And, again, it’s all stuff that comes from the books in one way or the other, but it’s not a specific scene from the book.
DBW: It’s a beautiful thing when you create this fully realized world that George has created, you as a reader or a person thinking about the books, you find yourself thinking, “Do Robert and Cirsei, the king and queen, ever talk to each other when no one’s around?” They hate each other, but people who hate each other who are married still have to talk to each other from time to time. It has to happen…and what would that be like? What would make them break down the wall of silence and speak to each other, and what would they say when they did? And just scenes like that emerge organically for the world, because the world is so detailed and richly realized. Jon Snow ran into Jaime Lannister in the Winterfall courtyard. We know the Lannisters have been up there for a month, so it’s certainly possible that they would have encountered each other. What would that conversation have been like? Characters that we love so much and knowing that they’re going off in the separate ways, I want to see the two of them have one meeting before it’s too late and they’re separate by 3,000 leagues, or whatever it is.
Journalist: Are you guys banking on fantasy fans and fans of the book tuning in only, or is there stuff to offer to, y’know, fans of cable series?
DBW: We really hope we get a lot of fans who are not just fantasy fans. Part of the reason I’m optimistic about it is that I know…well, again, I think I was saying earlier, I’ve been off fantasy since I was probably 19 or so, until I read these books and became a new convert. Not so much to fantasy, but to George’s fantasy. And people in my family who by and large couldn’t care less about fantasy, everyone has started reading these books because I’m working on the show. My 72-year-old father and my 71-year-old mother and my cousins, none of whom I don’t think have ever read a fantasy book in their lives, they’ve become completely immersed in the series because even if you’re not typically a fantasy fan, the books are so rich and detailed and the characters are so engrossing that I think there’s something in there. And another thing that makes the series palatable for those who are not obsessed with fantasy is that it’s not as if there are people throwing fireballs every other scene, and there’s not a great deal of monsters. It’s not really an effects-driven show. It’s really about the characters. It’s really about the intrigue and the relationships, and…it’s one of the things I think George does so intelligently in the books, the way he doles out the magic. It’s really in doses. And there are many people in this world who are quite skeptical about, “Do the Others actually exist?” Or the White Walkers. And dragons…no one’s seen a dragon in 300 years, so it’s not as if you’ve got these monsters flapping around on their bat wings every other frame. It’s actually…I don’t want to say “minimized,” but it tends to be on the fringes of the show as opposed to dead center. It’s not an effects spectacle.
DB: On the flip side, we think that the fantasy fans will respond to that. We think… (Hesitates) I haven’t done any market research, but I would imagine the average fantasy fan is not 13 years old, and the default assumption in the world of the Hollywood studio feature world is that fantasy fans are 13 or 14 years old.
DBW: And boys. Which is not true.
DB: Right, which is not true of George’s fan base, either. And we feel like this is something that both fantasy fans…I mean, fantasy fans also love “The Sopranos.” Fantasy fans are also into “The Wire.” I don’t think the worlds are as separate as it sometimes seems like when you find yourself talking about it.
DBW: I think ultimately it’s good storytelling, and people are going to respond to that and get engrossed in the story. And it might take an episode or two, but once they get into it, once they start to feel who these families are and what this world is, you know, I don’t think it’s going to matter that much, because it’s just a great story that George has created here. A great world.
Bullz-Eye: You were saying that you weren’t trying to compete with “Lord of the Rings,” but did you go in with any other templates as far as how to approach the adaptation of the material? Because, like, the family aspect, there are some “Tudors” aspects there.
DBW: We always said it was more like “The Lion in Winter” than “Lord of the Rings” in a lot of ways, and George was very steeped in history in general and in European medieval history in particular, so there is that real politic aspect to it.
DB: Yeah, and in terms of family dynamics, we’re probably more influenced by some of the great HBO series than the movies, just because they have the time. It’s the bigger canvas, so the way that David Chase handled things in “Sopranos” or David Simon on “The Wire” or David Milch…there are a lot of Davids! (Laughs) …on “Deadwood,” and just creating all these different characters, and how they were able to take maybe seven different storylines in every episode and weave them together in an elegant way, where you kind of always know where you are and, at the same time, you’re wanting to learn about this character and you want to get back to the next character.
DBW: You learn just from…I mean, if you’re thinking about what we watched and what we watched to learn from, there are things you would watch “Lord of the Rings” for that were really helpful and instructive, and you could even watch “The Godfather” and you’d say, “Oh, yeah, a lot of this we can learn from. A lot of this applies to what we’re doing as much as, if not more than, ‘Lord of the Rings.’”
DB: And some great old westerns, like some of Jon Snow’s stuff starts to feel. Especially second season, I think. “Lord of the Rings” sort of just makes me feel jealous as I watch all the great helicopter shots. (Laughs) “Wow, why didn’t we do that? I wish we could’ve afforded some helicopters…”
Journalist: Obviously, the fact that George is not finished with the series leaves it sort of open-ended for you in terms of plotting a larger arc. In terms of actually breaking the seasons and breaking the stories, how do you work around that?
DBW: Well, he’s always still way ahead of us, so…
DB: Also, we have some insider knowledge. (Laughs) We sat George down with a spotlight on him, and we made him answer some questions. So we do know some of the bigger-picture things, where it’s going to end up, which makes our lives a lot easier. Going into it, I mean, just the way a traditional TV series…they’ve got to basically make it up every season. They start at the beginning of the year in the writer’s room and break down what’s going to happen. And the fact that we know larger picture, anyway, what’s going to happen seven seasons down the line, and certainly into detail four seasons down the line, gives us a great deal of latitude and allows us to set up things that are not going to pay off ‘til the Red Wedding.
DBW: Every once in awhile, we’ll have to call George and say, “So, George, this guy, what happens there?” (Laughs) Sometimes he’ll tell us, sometime he won’t, and sometime we’ll get some hint.
DB: He likes to give hints.
DBW: Yeah, he does.
Journalist: Aside from the generally really good buzz that’s just been building for this, what’s been the most positive surprise involving (“Game of Thrones”)?
DB: For me, probably the kids, ‘cause you go into shooting something like this, and…they might have great auditions, but you never really know ‘til you’re out there doing it for real and they’re under the pressure of being in front of the entire crew and the cameras, and having to learn their lines every day. The fact that our three main kids, the star kids, have performed as well as they have…
DBW: I mean, you’re 12 years old, 13 years old, and you’re being asked to shoulder a very adult-sized responsibility that we…I mean, I’m on the other side of the camera, but we feel like, “Wow, this is a lot to carry.” It’s a lot for two adults to carry, and you’re 12, and there’s all of this machinery buzzing around you, and it’s all literally aimed at you…? That takes a special kind of strength to shoulder that, and they’ve all just done such an amazing job.DB: Yeah. And they’re so fricking cute. (Laughs) Like, Isaac gave us these little stuffed dire wolves at the end of the season, and Maisie and Sophie gave us these Christmas stockings filled with little toys. They’re awesome, these kids.