Interview Date: 01/07/2011
Run Date: 04/15/2011
Fans of fantasy and sci-fi have spent decades thrilling to the works of author George R.R. Martin, who first came to prominence in the 1970s and has continued to compose novels, novellas, short stories, even screenplays and teleplays. Of his work, arguably the most notable is the so-called Song of Fire and Ice series of novels, the first of which – A Game of Thrones – has been transformed into a television series for HBO.
During the January 2011 TCA Press Tour, Martin sat down with a small group of journalists (including yours truly) and spoke of the long road traveled to turn Thrones into a TV series, what adjustments took place to the original source material, and, perhaps most importantly to fans of his written work, if we can expect to see the next volume of the Song of Fire and Ice series turn up on bookstore shelves anytime soon.
Bullz-Eye: Well, I know this series has been a long time coming…
George R.R. Martin: Yeah! It depends on what you count as the start date, but it’s been a little series of baby steps. Deals and other deals and waiting for green lights and scripts, etcetera.
BE: What were the very first baby steps?
GRRM: Well, the first steps, I suppose, were writing the books. And at a certain point, as the books started to do well, I started to get feelers from various production companies and studios and producers, mostly about possible interest in a feature film, especially after “Lord of the Rings.” People were looking for another fantasy franchise. But although I had a few meetings and discussions with people, I tended to discourage that because I didn’t think it could be done as a feature film. Even as a series of three feature films, like “Lord of the Rings,” my books are much longer. I mean, “Lord of the Rings” is great, but you can take all three books of Tolkien’s trilogy, and total they’re the same wordage as A Storm of Swords. So I didn’t see how it could be done as a feature film without severely truncating it, and I said so. We also had some interest at various points from television producers who wanted to do it as a weekly series. Having worked in television for ten years, I was also weary of that, because, you know, you put on a series and, gosh, the ratings aren’t good the first week, and you get canceled. You get three or six or ten episodes on the air, and everything’s finished. And then there was also the issue of the adult content. I mean, these books are gritty, and there’s sex and there’s violence, perhaps more than one of the traditional over-the-air networks would be comfortable with. So what I said to my agent at that point was, “You know, the only way to really do this is with HBO…or somebody like HBO, but HBO would be my choice, ‘cause they’re the Tiffany, the Cadillac of the premium channels…and do a series of series, each book as one thing. So you’re not talking a two-hour movie, you’re talking ten or twelve hours to tell the story of one book.” And my agent took that and ran with it.
I guess the first step was a meeting, God, a number of years ago – I don’t even remember how many years ago – with David (Benioff) and Dan (Weiss), where I got to meet them for the first time. They were attached to the project, and we met at the Palm Restaurant here in Los Angeles, which is a very nice, famous, old-school steak house. We met for lunch and started talking about it, and they told me their reactions to the book…evidently, I think Dan had read it first and given it to David…and how they would approach it. I liked everything they had to say, and we had a great lunch. We came to this place at the height of the lunch break in L.A., and every table was full, it was crowded and it was noisy, and we kept talking, and people kept leaving. Pretty soon, we were the only people in the restaurant, and it was, like, three o’clock in the afternoon, or three-thirty. And we continued to talk. And then the staff is setting up the other tables and clearing them and setting them up for dinner. And then five o’clock, people are coming in for the first dinner seating, and we’re still there from our lunch seating! But it was a great conversation.
So David and Dan came aboard, and they were the ones who pitched it to HBO. And then we got HBO onboard, so that was exciting. And…you know, you never get a commitment all at once. The first thing was, “Well, we’ll commit for you guys to go write a pilot script.” So they wrote a pilot script, then they rewrote a pilot script, etc., etc., and at a certain point, we got the pilot order. “Okay, you can film the pilot.” We made that last year…or in 2009, really. Then, early in 2010, we got the series order for the first season, so…that’s pretty much most of the major steps along the way! (Laughs) It was an exciting journey, although every step of the way you hold your breath. “Well, okay, they ordered the script. Will they order the pilot? Okay, they ordered the pilot. Will they order the series?” You know, you’re always… (Takes a deep breath) But so far, everything’s worked out well, and I’m very happy with what we’ve done.
Journalist: What was it about that initial meeting, or their vision, that allayed your fears?
GRRM: Well, they loved the books, for one thing. They loved the books, and their whole approach was how to do the books on a different medium, how to do books on television. As opposed to some of the meetings I had earlier with feature-film guys or even television guys, who would sit down and say, “I love your books, but…you can’t do it that way for a feature film, so here’s what I would do. I would take this character, we’ll trim away some of the other characters and we’ll focus on this character, and that’s the thru-line. That’s the arc.” Well, they may have made a decent movie that way, you know. Possibly. An entertaining movie. I can’t say. But it wouldn’t have been my story. It would’ve been a vastly truncated version of my story, as if you approached “Lord of the Rings” by saying, “We like Aragorn, so let’s get rid of these hobbit guys, and we’ll just tell this story of this exiled king and his love affair,” and things like that.” (Sighs)
Journalist: Do you remember any spectacularly bad ideas from those early pitches that people gave you, that they just missed the point of the books completely?
GRRM: Ah, there wasn’t anything that was out and out stupid. I mean, I understand where they were coming from when they were talking about focusing on this character or that character, because it’s the realities of business. I mean, these books were never made to be filmed, so the fact that there was any interest at all from television and film producers was, in some ways, kind of a surprise to me. Actually, I don’t know how much of my background you know, but I worked in television and film myself for ten years, roughly from the mid-‘80s through the mid-‘90s, and I worked on the revived “Twilight Zone,” I worked on “Beauty and the Beast.” I was staff on those. Then I did a lot of development. I did some pilots for series of my own, I did some feature-film scripts that were never made. So, you know, I was familiar with the other side of the process and the realities of budget and all that.
Through all those ten years I worked in Hollywood, maybe because I came from prose originally…I mean, from ’71 to ’85, I was a prose writer, I was a novelist and short story writer…when I arrived there and started writing teleplays and screenplays, I would write the first draft and I would turn it in, and the producer would say, “This is great, but it’s too long and too expensive. We can’t possibly…this is, like, three times our budget, George, so, y’know, get real.” And then I would have to go in and say, “Okay, I can’t have this feast scene with a thousand people. I’ll have seven people at the dinner. And I can’t have seventeen matte paintings here, I can’t have so many settings…” And I would cut it. I would trim. I prided myself on my professionalism, and I mastered the process pretty quickly. I would write the first drafts for myself, to try to tell the story in as powerful a way as I could, and they would tell me it was too long and too expensive, and I would start cutting and trimming and combining characters and condensing, and I would finally end up with a shooting script that was producible.
But after 10 years of that, I was sick of that. So when I came back to novels and I started this, I said, “I’m going to return to my roots here – prose – and I’m going to write a story that’s as big and as expensive…I don’t care! They’ll never make it for television or film. I’m going to have a thousand characters, and I’m going to have spectacular battles, and I’m going to have giant castles…not just one giant castle, but a whole series of gigantic castles…and I’m going to really stretch my wings and do something epic, because it’s prose, and I can have anything I can describe! I don’t have to worry about what the budget is, or what’s doable with the present art of special effects, or how many extras we need, or any of this stuff!” And that’s what this came out of. And then suddenly… (Laughs) It’s a great irony, I suppose, that I did a dozen projects to be movies and to be television series, none of which ever got made, and here’s the one thing I thought that nobody would ever make, and we’re gonna be on HBO! So life is full of these little twists, I guess.
Journalist: And you wrote one of the scripts for this season…?
GRRM: I wrote Episode 8.
Journalist: So what was it like adapting yourself for television?
GRRM: It was actually very easy… (Laughs) …because I was a little trepidatious when I started it, because it had been so long since I had written a script. I kind of got out of that in the mid-‘90s, and I guess in the late ‘90s I did one or two things left from old contracts, but it had been ten years since I’d written a screenplay or teleplay, so I thought, “God, I hope I still remember how to do this!” But, you know, it came back easily, and I was working with my own material – it’s a faithful adaptation – so I was just taking scenes from the books and transcribing them, you know, to the thing. The hardest part of it was actually mastering the new software, the computer software, because the computer software I used in the ‘90s, nobody was using anymore! So I had to use new computer software, scriptwriting software, that I was unfamiliar with. And as my assistant can tell you, I don’t like working with computer things that I’m unfamiliar with. I find something I like, and I stick with it for a long time. I still write my books on WordStar, on a DOS computer. (Laughs) Which drives my editors in New York crazy, because nothing can read my DOS disks anymore! But, you know, there it is. I like working with that, so I still do. But writing the teleplay was fun, yeah. I mean, I would gladly do more of them and be a bigger part of this production…except, of course, that the series is not finished! So one script a year is about all I can manage while still writing these enormous 1,400-page books.
Journalist: You’ve often talked about your characters like your children. Do you have any apprehensions about handing these characters over to HBO, and David and Dan?
GRRM: Yeah, a certain amount of that is human. Because I’ve actually used that analogy myself. It’s, like, you know, you have these kids, and they’re at home and you’re raising them, but there comes the day that you have to send them off to school. And now you’re trusting them to teachers, and you hope that they’re good teachers. Or day care people. Whoever you’re putting your children in the hands of, you hope they’ll take good care of them and love them and nurture them in the way you do. But you never quite know, you know? You’re always a little nervous. So I’m putting my children, in that sense, in the hands of David and Dan, but also the directors and the actors who are cast for the role, all of whom will bring their own input to them, and…yeah, there’s a little bit of…I don’t know, an empty nest syndrome, almost, that occurs there. But it’s part of the process, you know? I’m aware of it. It certainly doesn’t keep me awake nights or anything like that. (Laughs)
Journalist: You said that this is a very literal adaptation. Based on what you’ve seen, who is the most different from the books? What changes could you point to?
GRRM: (Long pause) Well, they’ve done a marvelous job. Most of the characters are quite…are not different from the books. They’re doing an excellent job of capturing the books. I mean, some characters have been written out, at least temporarily. Minor characters. They may be back in the second season, assuming we get a second season. Nobody has been changed radically that I can think of. Probably the biggest…and I actually haven’t seen any of her footage yet, but there’s a character called Osha, who’s a Wildling woman, and she’s being played by Natalia Tena. I was part of the audition process…I wasn’t there physically, but they would send me the tapes, and I would view all of the actors reading for the parts on the line and give my input. “I liked this one, I didn’t like that one, this one was good, but with reservations.” So I was in constant communication with David and Dan about all of that stuff. And when I was looking at the auditions for Osha and this actress came up, I said, “This is all wrong! She’s ten years too young, she’s too pretty, this is a hard-bitten older woman…” And then I watched her audition, and her audition just blew me away. She was sensational. I said, “It’s got to be her. She’s by far (the best). She makes the character more interesting.” The character should be more interesting in the show than she is in the books. So my task now is, when I bring Osha back…she’s not in the current book, but when I bring her back in Book 5, I’m going to have to make her more interesting… (Laughs) …so I can match the wonderful actress portraying her.
Journalist: I have a question. In the limited stuff that we have seen released, you know how people on the internet…you guys can flash scene after scene after scene, but we’ll pause it and we’ll pause it and we’ll pause it, and we see each thing. There is one scene in which we see an image of Sean Bean essentially being strangled, much like Brandon, his brother, had died. Do you know…to your knowledge, is that any sort of flashback or dream sequence in which Ned is putting himself into Brandon’s shoes?
GRRM: No, you’d really have to ask David and Dan about that particular image. But my impression is that it is a flashback scene, and that it’s not Sean Bean. It’s someone who we had cast to play his brother. But I don’t know. Ask David and Dan when you do your session with them. I think that is a flashback. I know they cast the Mad King. They cast Aerys. And, of course, he doesn’t actually appear in the books. ‘Cause…not to be too much of a cliché, but it’s a different medium, and each medium has its strengths and weaknesses. The writer in one case or the screenwriter in another case has different tools at their disposal. Now, as a prose writer, writing the books, I have the tool of internal monologue. I can take you inside a character’s head. I can tell you what they’re thinking. I can have the character standing, looking at a sunset, thinking, “This reminds me of the day the sun set when my father died, and it was a beautiful sunset, but it was a sad day.” And suddenly I’m taken back 20 years. Well, you can’t do that (on television). You just have an actress standing looking at a sunset, and who the hell knows what they’re thinking? Unless you have a voiceover, which is clumsy.
So there’s a lot of back story in “Game of Thrones” and the books that I get across by taking you inside the characters’ heads and having them doing associations and thinking about things. And David and Dan have to approach that some other way, with new scenes or altered scenes or actually showing it, or the reader is not going to get it. The other thing that is also a challenge, a challenge for the directors and the actors as well as the screenwriter, is the fact that, since I’m inside the characters’ heads, you’re hearing what they’re thinking, which does not necessarily correspond with what they’re saying. ‘Cause my characters, as you know, are duplicitous! So someone may say, “Are you going to do this thing?” And the character is thinking, “Of course I’m not going to do this thing,” but what they say is, “Oh, yes, yes, I’ll do that thing, don’t worry about it.” Well, you don’t have that, so how does the actor sell that? Or does the actor sell it? I mean, these are the questions that David and Dan had to wrestle with that, thankfully, I don’t have to wrestle with. So they have certain tools for their bow, and I have other tools. Now, on the other side, they have tools that I don’t, too. They have music, which can punch emotional things. There’s nothing like the power of a score to heighten the emotions of an appropriate scene. And they have special effects, and they can do amazing things with set dressing. So we each have our bag of tricks, but as you translate from one to another, you do have to keep that in mind.
Journalist: So, now, you were on set. How much were you actually on set for?
GRRM: Not very much. Basically, I visited when we were filming the pilot. We were shooting in Belfast and in Morocco, so I visited each of those locations for about a week, and then came home for the better part of a year. And then when we got the green light this last time, actually, I had a convention in Dublin where I was the featured speaker, so since I was going to be in Ireland anyway, I went up to Belfast and spent a week there again as they were doing the series. And then we flew to Malta, and I spent a week there. So, y’know, two weeks each year. Two weeks in 2009, two weeks in 2010. But I got to see some of the sets, some of the scenes being shot.
Journalist: What was your reaction to seeing it sort of come to life?
GRRM: Oh, I loved it. I loved it. I mean, it’s not exactly…people ask, of course, especially when I’m walking in and seeing a set, “Is it the way you pictured it?” And the answer is almost always, “No, it’s not the way I pictured it.” (Laughs) But I’ve been picturing it since 1991, and I’m a very visual writer anyway, so I have a very strong look in my head as to what it looks like, you know? And unless I was doing it…I mean, I suppose if I was doing it, if I was doing David and Dan’s job, and working with set designers and all that, and I was there every day and could review all of the sketches, then I could make it look exactly like I pictured it…assuming that the budget could withstand that! But failing that, you put it in the hands of good people. So frequently, walking into a set, it was a double sort of process. Is it the way you pictured it? Well, no. On the other hand, it’s pretty great! (Laughs) It looks really good! And it’s going to look good on film! And, you know, some of the ways I pictured it, they’re not integral to the story. It’s just the way you describe it. I mean, I describe things in quite a bit of detail because my approach as a writer has always been to…I want the reader ideally to experience the story and not just read it. I want them to fall through the page. My goal is vicarious experience, and to that, you involve all the senses. I want the reader to see the scene. I want the reader to smell the scene. I want the reader to hear what’s in the background, as if they were actually personally living it. And that involves a fair amount of detailed description. But the detail isn’t integral. If somebody changes the kind of chair that somebody is sitting in, I don’t think it makes two tanks worth of difference. I know on some of your blogs you’ve had giant debates about a chair that was seen. (Laughs) Didn’t you have a huge controversy over a chair?
Journalist: Chair-Gate. (Laughs)
GRRM: (Laughs) The chair didn’t bother me.
Journalist: Some people were saying, “It’s Byzantine! What is it doing there?” But we thought it looked great.
GRRM: The fact that the world is a fantasy world, of course, means you have a certain amount of freedom. You’re not doing ancient Rome, where people go, “Wait a minute, the Romans didn’t have that sort of thing!” This is inspired by history, but it’s not history, so that gives you a certain freedom to tweak things and make things more interesting and so forth and so on.
Bullz-Eye: Do you think it’ll be a pro or a con that a lot of mainstream audiences will compare this to “Lord of the Rings?”
GRRM: Well, I suppose it’ll be a bit of both. Some people will like it better, some people will like it not as well. You know, from the very first, when these books first came out in the ‘90s, there was the thought that this was a fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy. And my publisher over the years has experimented with many different cover treatments because the book market, if you put a certain kind of cover on it, you sell to a certain audience, but you don’t sell to other audiences who would never buy a book with that kind of cover on it. So we tried to reach that, and to the extent that we succeeded in reaching that, which I think we have, I get many letters from fans who say, “I hate fantasy! I never read that elfy-welfy stuff! But your stuff…I really like your stuff. I like your stories.” I get fantasy fans who like it, too. There are…I have a lot of readers, and a lot of them are very passionate about it, but I do get critics who don’t like what I’m doing. Which is fine. There are a lot of other fantasies out there that are more traditional fantasies, and that’s great, too. The people who like that can follow that sort of stuff. So we shall see when it comes on. It’s well done, I think, from everything I’ve seen so far, so hopefully we will get people tuning in who would never go to “Lord of the Rings.” I mean, I…I love “Lord of the Rings.” I love the movies, and the book is a book I’ve gone back to many, many times. I read it first when I was 13, and it had a profound effect on me.
When the Peter Jackson movies were coming out…when the third one was about to be released, I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, some of you may know, which is a small town, I got a notice that there would be a screening for Writers Guild members, Directors Guild, SAG members – there are actually quite a few actors and movie stars and stuff who have second homes in Santa Fe – at a local Santa Fe theater. It was a special screening of “Return of the King,” the third film. So, hey, great, we don’t have to wait for the premiere, we get to see it early with our Writers Guild card. So I went with a couple of other writer friends of mine to a local theater to see this thing. Well, there aren’t actually that many, so the theater was mostly empty for the screening. There were only a handful of people there, and about five rows behind us, there was…how do I describe him? A flaming asshole... (Laughs) …who obviously, I guess, was a writer or director of some sort, because he got in to see the screening. And all during the screening, this guy is loudly laughing at inappropriate places, or shouting, “Oh, come on,” or shouting out, “What crap!” When the spider attacks, “What crap! What is this, some fucking old horror movie? Giant spiders?!?” I don’t know why he felt the need to broadcast his opinions to the other nine of us in the theater there, but evidently he was very loud. And that reminded me, that experience. This is, of course, the movie that went on to win the Best Picture Oscar, and I think most people consider it a huge achievement, but this is a guy who would never accept any fantasy film. Elves and dwarves and giant spiders and trolls and all of that was beyond him, and he would never like anything like that. And there are such people out there. So will they like the show? I don’t know. They might have a better chance. But then again, I do have dragons and things like that. So it will be interesting to see. But hopefully the fantasy audience, a larger part of the fantasy audience, will like the show. And hopefully we will also get some people who would never, ever watch Tolkien but will watch this because they like historical fiction.
Back when I set out with this, one of my goals was to…not even to do a fantasy, as much as I love Tolkien, but also to do something strongly flavored with historical fiction. The grittier, realistic take on the middle ages. The middle ages is the template for 90% of the fantasy that’s out there. The European middle ages, the age of chivalry and knights and castles and all of that stuff. But a lot of the fantasy out there does sort of a Disneyland version of it. I also read in other genres besides science fiction and fantasy. I also wanted to borrow some of the wonderful flavor from some of the great historical novelists I’ve read over the years, and combine those two currents. So hopefully I appeal to both sorts of readers.
Journalist: What is the pressure on you now with the subsequent books? If it’s going to be a season per book, give or take, do you feel any pressure to sort of keep ahead for at least as long as you can?GRRM: Well, yes, I feel definite pressure to get these things done. I don’t want the series catching up with me! You know, it’s no secret that this last book has taken much, much longer than I thought it would, and much, much longer than anyone wanted it to. My editors and publishers are not happy with that, there’s an element of my fans that are vociferously angry about that, and most of all, I’m unhappy about it! But my goal, of course, has always been to make it the story I want to tell and to make it as good as it can be. I wish it was coming faster. Some of the early books in the series did come faster. But this particular one, for whatever reason, I’ve struggled with. Maybe it’s the particular nature of the story that I’m telling in this volume, maybe it’s the fact that I’m older and just slowing down as I age. I don’t know. I don’t know, but at a certain point, when the stress of that really got to me, I said, “I’ve got to stop thinking about how long it takes to write a book and just write one page at a time, one sentence at a time, one word at a time.” That’s all I can do. I can’t say, “Oh, God, I’ve got 40 chapters left to do! How am I ever going to do it?” I’ve just got to write this chapter, this scene, get it down on paper, and stop worrying about that. And, you know, A Dance with Dragons is almost done, and after that there’s two more. And I’m going to finish Dance and go on to those, and hopefully stay ahead of David and Dan and the production machinery. I do have a considerable head start. Assuming HBO sticks with this for the long haul, they have A Clash of Kings to go, which is another full season, and then they hit A Storm of Swords, which is a monstrous long book. It’s 500 pages longer in manuscript than A Clash of Kings, which is itself 100 pages longer than A Game of Thrones. So when they hit A Storm of Swords, they’re going to have to, I think, make two seasons out of it. And that’s three years right there. And then A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons…Dance with Dragons should be out by then, and A Feast for Crows, you combine those two, and it’s two more seasons. So I have, like, a five or six year head start here. So hopefully I can take advantage of that! (Laughs)