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Interview with Bryan Cogman

We understand you trained as an actor at Juilliard?

Yes, I did. I went there from 1997 to 2001, right out of high school. I was a stage actor after that in New York, then I came out to Los Angeles where I was doing Shakespeare. I expected to act for the rest of my life, but ... life takes you to unexpected places.

So you didn’t intend to become a writer and editor?

Like a lot of actors, in between roles I’d try to write the script that I’d star in and become famous with. Everyone wants to become the next Ricky Gervais and sort of create the great vehicle for themselves.

I had an idea for a story that I had been writing in my head for years and I thought, “Well, I probably should put that on paper.” I started fiddling with that, I worked with that for a little while—again, not really thinking I would actually become a writer—and then I met David [Benioff]. My wife Mandy was David’s nanny and I guess I was over there one day four years ago while she was watching his daughter, and I was fiddling with the script and David noticed. I’d only met David once or twice before that, but he asked, “What are you doing?”

I said, “Oh, I’m just writing this little script. A little pilot script…” and he told me he’d love to read it. And I thought, “Oh, okay. That’s nice of him to say.” (laughs) But when I was finished I thought since he said he’d like to read it, I’d send it to him, asking him to share his thoughts if he had the time. He wrote back the next day, “Wow, I was just being nice, but you can really write!” He gave me a lot of notes—it wasn’t ready for production or anything—but he told me that I really had something as a writer, and he said he’d be happy to help me if he could. Then certain opportunities came up at NBC, which he was able to get me an interview for, and I became a writers’ assistant on a show called My Own Worst Enemy.

The day that show was canceled was the day that the pilot for Game of Thrones was picked up.

Oh, wow. That’s some timing.

David and I had been talking a little bit about me possibly assisting him, so the timing was beautiful. So I came on as the assistant right away, and everything snowballed from there.

So you weren’t involved in the development before the pilot was greenlit?

David and Dan had written the script, and it took a pretty long time for the deal to work out, from what I understand. Mandy had been talking to me about how David was working on this show that might be going forward at HBO that was based on a series of books, that it might shoot in Europe, and that it’s a medieval fantasy-type thing. And I thought that sounds fun, so I actually picked up the books, just because I thought I’d read them.

The job I had before My Own Worst Enemy was as an assistant to the chairman of NBC at the time, Ben Silverman—and I say assistant, which really means glorified driver—and I would be sitting in his car, and I read most of the A Song of Ice and Fire series while sitting in the driver’s seat of the car, waiting for him. I’ve a lot of memories of screaming in horror at times and having to put down the books and collect myself before I could continue.

I immediately fell in love with the book from page one, as most people do. It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had reading anything. Which is good, because I’ve read the books… far too many times to count.

That was going to be one of our questions, how many times you’ve read A Game of Thrones.

I’ve probably read the first book completely five times, and then you count all the times I’ve thumbed through it… it’s obscene. I’ve read A Clash of Kings four times, I think.

So I’d read all of them back then, and then I tried to find everything I could, so I remember going on EBay to track down “The Hedge Knight”. And this was all before I even had the job. George’s world is addictive. It’s inspired storytelling, that’s all there is to it, and the characters are so rich, the themes are so varied. I love it.

So I read all that without having any remote idea I’d be writing the show. I thought if I was lucky I might be able to assist David here before they left for Europe, but it wasn’t something I really thought would happen. But thankfully, he saw something in me that I didn’t even see. He’s been an incredible mentor and friend to me, and Dan as well. I’ve learned so much from watching them.

It’s sort of crazy. I was assisting them in an office in West Hollywood on the old Pickford-Fairbanks lot. The pilot had already been written, but we had to break down the whole of the first season for HBO. I had assumed I’d just be sitting in the next room answering the phone, but when they started, “Okay, Bryan, want to come in and help us out?” And I said, “Oh, okay.” I thought I’d just sit and watch, maybe take notes, but they really just welcomed me as part of the team from the get-go and I was helping them outline the whole first season.

I was kind of their reference guy—still am—so I took the first book and broke down the chapters as a start. We used that to roughly map out the season. Then, once the director and various designers came onto the show, I started writing various time-lines. I wrote a one page time-line of the War of the Usurper that I could hand out, and that snowballed as I started writing documents about the religion, the Free Cities, character break downs, the sigils of all the Houses…

Sort of like the bible for the series?

Yes, basically. This show has a rich mythology all ready to go, and it can be very intimidating I think for everyone coming on, so this could be a way to condense it into more bite-sized chunks. It would be helpful in story meetings, design meetings, and so on. And once the actors came onto the show, I’d also provide them profiles of information pertinent to their characters. Harry Lloyd devoured the Targaryen dynasty information I gave him, for example.

Is that the full Targaryen genealogy, or just the one from the book?

No, no! Just the one from the book. I shudder to think about how much George hasn’t yet made available to the public.

So that’s sort of what my role grew into. There were jokes that I was sort of the keeper of the mythos, which I wouldn’t say. You guys are so much more versed in this…

We’ve had a lot more time, though. Given how little time you had, you certainly had to cram a lot into your head. A real crash course.

Yeah, it was crash course. It was just about trying to be as helpful as I could. Thankfully, when the opportunity came for a script to be written, the guys said, well, no one knows these characters better than Bryan—lets give him a try! I thought it was just an exercise when David came up and asked if I wanted to take a crack for episode four, I said, “Oh! Well, that’s nice, trying to give me something to do.” It was like when he wanted to read my pilot script.

We were doing post-production on the pilot then and I didn’t have quite as much to do around that time, so I thought it was a nice gesture. So I went home and wrote it and turned it in and then they said, “Well, that’s it, that’s episode 4.”

Would you have been a little more nervous if you had known you were really writing episode 4?

You know, that was actually the best thing they could have done. Now, if we get a season 2, and I’m a writer on the show, there’ll be a lot more pressure. But it was really fun.

We’re actually all waiting for that title to leak, you know.

I wish I could tell you! They won’t let me. I will say this, though: I don’t think anyone will guess the title from my episode.

[Note: Since the interview, HBO has published the title of the episode, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”.]

Did the script writers pick their titles, actually, or was that David and Dan?

George actually picked his [episode 8, “The Pointy End”]. We didn’t title the rest of them until we were done with them.

Everyone was a bit concerned that there were just numbers for the episodes.

Oh, I know! It was the scandal of the blogosphere. But there wasn’t really any real reason, it was just easiest for production reasons. It was actually kind of nice in one way, though, because then we had the whole thing in front of us and could pick out titles in that context. Maybe if we get a second season, we’ll do it that way again.

With the fourth episode, you said earlier that the whole season was broken down by that point, so we guess you sort of knew, “Okay, A, B, and C have to happen…”

I had the basic beats already laid out. Of course, that had been more of a guide at that point, where there were scenes we thought we weren’t going to use were actually used after all, and vice-versa. And then of course once you start shooting, things change and there are scenes that we thought might be in episode 5 that ended up in episode 4. That happens a lot when you’re in production, and especially Game of Thrones because we were shooting a lot of episodes simultaneously. A lot of things change in the editing room.

What’s interesting about this show is that there are so many plot strands. For instance, Dany really could just have her own series. One of the biggest challenges is finding where to slot her scenes in an episode because—apart from a couple of events—they don’t correspond with what else is going on. That’s certainly a challenge. And once everyone splits off… For example, Jon’s storyline is on its own.

George certainly doesn’t make that easier later on.

Oh, no, no he doesn’t. That would be a real challenge for us as everyone goes off on their separate ways and more characters emerge. Every episode wants to have its own thematic spine, and finding where all the plot strands can service that is a fun challenge. Luckily, David and Dan are masters at adaptations.

I have to say, having been at Magheramorne and watched some of the filming, and seeing some of the clips—so much of the book has come through, down to specific lines. And for all fans might gripe about some changes, it feels like it’s 90% the same, 10% different. It’s a testament not only to George’s writing, but to David and Dan’s focus of getting this adapted with such fidelity.

What’s really struck everyone involved, from the top of HBO down, is just how passionate the fan-base is about the material and how personal it is to them. There’s no bigger fans of these books than David, Dan, and I, but at the same time we have to produce a TV show. You’ll see scenes that are practically verbatim, scenes that are completely new, but hopefully the new stuff will be exciting.

The way I think about it is playing with action figures as a kid. When I was a kid, I’d play with my Star Wars figures as a kid, I’d play The Empire Strikes Back and pretty much play it out like in the movie, but I would take it in my own little direction here and there. That’s how I approach it: it’s George’s world, but we get to play in it.

There are obviously gaps in it, there are always places where you can’t write everything single thing every single character is doing. And fans certainly in discussion start to wonder about these things, what happened when these characters met, and so on.

When David and Dan decided early on that they weren’t going to stick to a strict POV framework, that opened the series up to seeing scenes with Jaime and Cersei, scenes with Varys and Littlefinger, and so on. That’s really fun, expanding on the world, finding different points of view. Especially the Varys and Littlefinger stuff—I didn’t write any of those scenes, but those were some of the best days on set, watching Conleth [Hill] and Aidan [Gillen] spar was just so much fun.

We just saw some scenes with Gillen. He’s quite a casting coup.

Aidan’s terrific! He works really hard and asks a lot of questions. He really gets inside Petyr. I think people are going to be really thrilled with his performance. Everyone’s performance, really; we have an incredible cast, a huge cast. And it comes back to the material, because so many of the actors were really excited to be a part of it.

Certainly, seeing how many have read it and enjoyed it has been really thrilling.

Absolutely. Some actors devoured them all, and some wanted to hold off and wait as they were shooting to read along. Everyone has a different approach, but everyone’s in awe about how big it is and how deep it is. I’m certainly having the time of my life. Being an actor myself, having gone to London to watch theater productions, these are actors I’ve admired on stage and screen for years.

And it’s funny, I actually got to read with actors for some of the auditions, because the reader was sick. So they said, “Bryan’s an actor, he can do it!” I think I read with Ron Donachie who plays Ser Rodrik Cassell, with Donald Sumpter who plays Maester Luwin, and I actually read with Roy Dotrice who unfortunately couldn’t do the show [for health reasons].

This has really been the time of the life for me. (The lesson kids: marry a good nanny.)

Now, one of the things that came out of the Moot was that even if the show isn’t greenlit for another season, some low-level work has to be done, preparatory work so that when the greenlight comes, there’s a foundation to start from. Can you comment on that?

I can say that certainly season 2 is on the brain, but until they give us the go-ahead, we can’t really discuss it. Also, right now I’m working on some supplemental features for the Blu-ray season 1 set, so there’s really no time when I’m not reading the books. I thought I could get a month away from it, but no. I actually have to force myself to read half an hour of something else, to keep my brain functioning on other fronts.

Do you have a favorite character?

My favorite character is probably Tyrion. I know it’s the obvious one but, you know, come on. You see that he’s the next POV and your heart leaps up a bit.

Yeah, it’s hard not to like the little guy.

Although it’s funny, my favorite characters to write for were actually the kids.

Really? George has complained that they’re the hardest for him to write. Especially Bran. Although maybe it’s easier having an actual child actor as an example, they can take over some of the nuances so you don’t have to imagine all the aspects of being a child.

I think you’re absolutely right. These actors, the Stark kids, they’ve made these characters their own. That may be one reason why I enjoyed it so much. Funnily enough, I didn’t really have that much with the kids in my episode—there was a Sansa and Arya scene which we didn’t end up using, but it was a fun scene to write—but I love writing for Bran, I love writing Arya and Sansa.

Actually, the first things I wrote for the show were audition scenes that I had adapted. When we were auditioning Sansa, for example, she didn’t actually have any lines in the pilot originally—she does now—so we needed to come up with a scene for the audition. So I adapted Sansa and Arya arguing about Arya wanting to go look for rubies.

Who else… I also love Littlefinger, and Brienne, whom we haven’t gotten to yet. Oh! And Theon, I love him.

His story in the second book is pretty amazing. I hope we get to see it play out on the screen.

Yeah, Theon’s really exciting to me. If we get to go there, I really hope to get a lot of juicy Theon stuff. Alfie [Allen] is phenomenal. And our Theon’s a little different from the Theon in the books. He’s younger, more of an age with Robb, so he’s 17—same age as Robb and Jonn. For a few reasons. One, they just all looked the same age once we cast them. But more than that, we’re going to see a much more brotherly relationship between Theon and Robb, so that subsequent events will be all the more tragic and powerful. It’s a slightly different relationship.

Besides writing, you also have another role. Now, I recently made the mistake of calling you a script supervisor, but you kindly corrected me. Just what is your official title?

Well, that’s sort of a funny thing. I don’t really have one. I’ll be credited as the writer of episode 4 of course, but I started as their assistant and that just evolved in the course of the show into something that doesn’t really exist on TV shows. We called it script editor, because technically that’s what I did, but for various boring reasons I’m not sure that’s how I’ll be credited.

[Note: Since the interview, Bryan has informed us that if there’s a second season, his official role will be story editor.]

Part of the reason I asked was because of this interview on Blastr where George mentioned that in his episode he had a montage that would have broken the budget of the episode—

The calling the banners montage!

Were you the guy who broke the news to him that that couldn’t be filmed?

Oh, he must have known as he was writing it. Peter Jackson couldn’t have shot that sequence! It was a great, a beautifully written piece of screenwriting.

He says that there’re lots of other juicy bits, and I’ll believe him, given what we’ve seen.

It’s an incredibly epic television show. But it is a television show, so some of the huge, spectacle bits—I think the show looks incredible, but we couldn’t call the banners, unfortunately.

We also read a report in Variety where they were talking about the cost and how Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings was the elephant in the room, that people would mentally compare them.

Which is unfortunate, because when you break it down they’re not that alike.

You certainly couldn’t have done the whole series in three movies.

No, I couldn’t even imagine how that could be done. For me, it’s a no-brainer, you want the story. I guess you could do a film of this and—I can’t even see how it could be done. You’d have to pick one story and just focus on that, I guess.

That’s what George said about earlier attempts to option it. They said they would just follow Jon or maybe Ned.

Okay. Yeah, you could just follow Jon. That would be fine. You could follow Dany, maybe even Ned, but… No, no.

It just wouldn’t feel like A Song of Ice and Fire. What was it like in Belfast? How long were you there? Did you get to visit your family on occasion?

I was there for 8 months, but my wife was there with me, otherwise I could never have been there. We did have visitors, my parents visited and other relatives. It was a long time. Belfast’s a great city, however, and the people were amazing, and they seemed really excited by the show being there. I’m an Anglophile and I loved being in the U.K., and drinking tea and watching the BBC. I had a great time, but it’s nice to be home now. I imagine I’ll be there for another big chunk of time if the show goes forward.

You were in Malta at some point, right?

I was in Malta for part of the shoot, maybe two weeks. That was incredible as well. That was a pretty hard shoot. We worked six day weeks in Malta, so I didn’t do much of the touristy stuff, because I was so exhausted on my day off. I saw a lot of the Intercontinental Hotel in Malta. But there were beautiful locations there. I wasn’t there for a lot of the episode 1, 9, and 10 shooting—a lot of the Dany scenes from those episodes were in Malta—but I’ve seen footage from it and it looked incredible.

George creates so many different climates and geographic locations. That’s going to be another challenge if we go forward, trying to represent so many places in Northern Ireland. And when necessary, going outside of Northern Ireland as well.

On the one hand, I envy you deeply, being able to be involved and immersed in it all. But on the other hand, I can’t envy you and David and Dan the enormous headache from trying to juggle all of this.

It’s really David and Dan who have a lot on their shoulders. It’s a big project to be spearheading. I had a lot of fun and responsibility on the show, but nothing like that. They’re eating, breathing, and sleeping this show. They’re in post-production right now on the first series, which I’m not really involved with, so I’m having a separation anxiety thing going on. I was intimately involved all the way up to post. Now I’m seeing cuts and giving my opinions, but that’s about it.

I’ll be seeing episodes 1 and 2 at a screening in a week. I can’t wait, I’m eagerly awaiting every bit of news just like everyone else right now. It’s the best job in the world, really. I keep going back to the action figure thing, where you have this incredible toy set to play with. It’s an incredible honor.

We’ve also been very grateful to the fan support and the excitement about it. It’s was hugely helpful and encouraging to know that there’s already a built-in audience that loves these characters. It’s also very exciting to know that this show can turn more people onto the books. I really hope people love the show on its own, but I also hope it encourages people to pick up the books. Like I said, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had reading anything.

We see that every day, people tweeting that they’re starting or that they need to get started ahead of the show.

What’s fun as well is that most of my friends and family had no idea about it, but now I’ve turned most of them onto these books. To a man, they’re all in love with these books, even people who’d never read a “fantasy” novel normally. They’re hooked. When “The things I do for love” scene happens, if you’re not hooked then, there’s something wrong with you. That’s very encouraging for us, because we think people will tune in who wouldn’t normally get into this kind of thing. And when you have a lead like Sean Bean… I can’t say enough about Sean Bean.

That’s another thing we’ve seen, a lot of people who see he’s involved and that’s enough for them to tune in.

Fans are going to see sides of Sean that they haven’t seen before. I think there was an interview even where he said it was nice to play a hero. He was Sharpe, of course, but it’s not well-known in the U.S. I love Sharpe, but people in the U.S. mostly know him as a villain or a rather villainous hero.

Is there a favorite scene in the novel, or moment, that’s different from your favorite moment from the show?

Interesting question. I’d say that the most powerful scene from the show is probably the most powerful scene from the book, which you can probably guess… I also love the moment with Sam and Jon on the Wall, and Sam’s telling his story. It’s a beautiful scene. Both of them play that so well. I love John Bradley. Samwell’s introduced in my episode, and the second I saw his audition video, and I thought to myself, “It’s got to be him.” He’s phenomenal. There’s already a lot there in the way George wrote the character, but John brings a lot to the character as well. He alludes to it in his interview, but he brings a lot of humor to the character, and he plays off of Kit so well.

And the Stark goodbyes in episode 2 [“The Kingsroad”], those really affected me when I saw an early cut of it. Because basically the story is the story of a family that loves one another and who are all pulled apart. The interesting thing about this show is how those who are familiar with the story from the books are going to take different things out of it compared to those who don’t know anything about it. Kit’s particularly strong, when he’s saying goodbye to Bran.

To wrap up, lets say we get a second season. Is there any scene from the second book, A Clash of Kings, that you’d hope to get to write or is there anything you’d like to see on the screen from that book?

I love the small council scenes in general, so the idea of seeing Tyrion at court is exciting. It’ll be really fun seeing Cersei and Tyrion spar, which in many ways I think is the spine of the book, this tug-of-war for power at court between the two of them. Peter [Dinklage] and Lena [Headey] are good friends in real life, so I imagine they’d be looking forward to it.

I’d also love to see the Craster’s keep section, I love that one. Craster’s a nasty character. And just exploring new places, like Pyke and the Iron Islands. We have no shortage of locations in Northern Ireland that I think would work for that. What else… I think Stannis is an incredible character, he’d be a lot of fun to cast and write for, I’m sure. And that story, Dragonstone… Wow, that’s a huge book.

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