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Season 2 Interview with Bryan Cogman

Almost a year ago, we first had a long chat with writer and keeper of the mythos, Bryan Cogman, about his role in the first season, which included writing the episode, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”.

Bryan was there almost from the ground floor, helping during the time of the pilot, and becoming the right hand man to David and Dan as they developed, wrote, and produced the show. Going into the second season, he received the title of story editor… and he wrote the extremely well-received third episode of the series, “What is Dead May Never Die”.

In the interview below, Bryan discusses various aspects of the episode, his overall role on the show, and more. Insightful as always!

Interview

What exactly does a story editor do, anyways?

“Story Editor” is really just a writing staff title. Tt has to do with where you are in your career more than anything. The entry level title is Staff Writer, then Story Editor, etc. I’ll be “Executive” Story Editor for Season Three, but I imagine my duties will remain the same.  Every show is different.  On THIS show, in addition to working with David, Dan & Vanessa mapping out the season, the Story Editor’s job is to be on set for most the production, advising the various depts, and so on. I’m often D&D’s eyes and ears when they’re on other units.  And, of course, I get to write an episode a season.  Plus I maintain the show bible, help .com & Home Ent. with special features, etc.  Just try to be on hand to be a resource on the show’s mythology whenever I can.

I think that part of the process is obscure to viewers, who don’t really know what amount of work goes on between the wrap of filming and writing for one season, and cameras rolling for the next season. Can you discuss a bit for fans how the mapping out actually works?

Well, it starts with me breaking down the book chapter by chapter—summarizing it, listing all the new characters & locations, and breaking down the key story beats for the major characters.  For Season 2, I did that work whille were shooting Season One.  Once we wrapped Season One, we all got together in LA in the new year and went episode by episode, using notecards, a white board… until we had a rough ten episodes, beat by beat.  Then we were each assigned episodes and wrote out detailed outlines for each.  D&D put ‘em all together, rewrote as needed, and then we have a the basic season.  Of course, once we all start writing the actual scripts, things change—scenes are cut, added, reordered, etc… but that’s our starting point.

Sounds like a bit of a collaborative jigsaw puzzle.

Yeah, without a doubt.  It’s fun.  It’s my favorite part of the process, actually.

How spirited can the discussions get, I wonder, about what gets to stay and what gets to go? You’re all passionate about what you’re doing, after all.

Ha!  Well, it’s funny.  D&D keep it cool.  I’m the crazy one.  So I may be going on and on, getting all worked up, pacing… but that’s my nature.  Apparently, I have a tell if I don’t like what’s happening during a take. I guess my leg shakes.  But, on the opposite side, if I love something I show it even more—nodding my head, jumping up and down, etc.  But, yeah, it occasionally gets spirited in the writer’s room, as you say… but it’s always fun.

I was an actor, you see. These guys are cerebral writers.

I think that’s best. I’d hate to think everyone’s sort of just sleepy-eyed and drowsy at the planning stage.

Oh no, no, no.  It’s the most exciting part! We’re sleep-eyed and drowsy on set first thing in the morning. Thankfully, we’re not the ones being filmed.

Yeah, filmmaking entails early, early hours.  I couldn’t manage it. I’m a night owl.

As are (or were) D&D. They had to adjust when they took this on.

A lot of coffee fuels those early mornings, I’d guess.

Yep. I’m a hopeless addict now.

Is that why you’re at a coffee shop now? I didn’t realize you tended to work from one. I know quite a lot of writers do, a change of environment and all.

Yeah, I have three in rotation, currently.  I used to have an office—it’s now my baby daughter’s room.  But, in truth, I do like working away from home—I’m less distracted, I like the crowd noise… but what will generally happen is I complete the bulk of a script outside and then finish the last of it off in a crammed frenzy at home late at night.  Don’t know why but that’s almost always how it’s happpened…

There’s always that ONE scene I can’t figure out that just happens at the end.

Did your script for this season feature one of those?

It was the Varys/Tyrion scene! Largely from the book—but it was figuring out how to fit in this episode because it’s a combination of a few different moments. The scene wasn’t in the outline—but I really wanted to work the riddle in somewhere… knew the episode was missing something, so I wrote it last.

Whoever cuts together promos seems to have decided it worked really well, since it was the centerpiece of the “Power” promo.

Yeah, that was gratifying.

Were you on set when that scene was filmed?

Yeah, I was there for every scene of my episode.  That was a fun day—it’s always good to be on set with Peter and Conleth get together, because they’re very funny.  I think Conleth was calling Peter “Emmy” that day.

Hah.

In your epsiode and the previous one, you can see that Conleth and Peter really click. Varys and Tyrion together tends to steal the show.

Yes, it’s like the bizarro world of Ned & Varys.  Varys sees Tyrion as the first Hand of the King he can really work with.  They’re kindred spirits, in many ways.  Tyrion’s ascension in Season Two was so exciting to write and to watch play out as we shot—Peter’s really going to blow people away this year—it’s a whole different animal for Season One. And Conleth’s Varys, at least for me, just leapt right out of the book.

I can already see the Emmy predictions. And yeah, his Varys—his voice, his delivery, is pretty much the only actor’s that works its way into my head when re-reading the books. He really nailed it.

Oh, that’s interesting.  I’m trying to think if I picture the actors as I read the books… not sure that I do, funnily enough…  probably a good thing—keeps them as separate universes for me. Well, maybe Mord the jailer.

Hah. Ciaran Bermingham was amazingly funny. If we see the Vale again, I hope he’ll be there.

Yeah, I’m sure he will be. You should have seen his audition—it was even wackier than what you saw on TV.  He toned it down a bit.

You know, now that you mention it… As an actor yourself, I suppose it might be true that you think of characters from an actor’s perspective—how would you play this, how would you deliver this? Is that right? A general you, not specifically you imagining yourself in every role!

Oh, yeah, definitely.  I’m always reading the line aloud as I write, accents and all… just to see how they sound when spoken. Aand I think, when approaching scenes, I probably ask the questions an actor asks when preparing—what are my given circumstances?  What do I want?  What’s keeping me from what I want? Etc. The fun is creating scenes that don’t have much dialogue—I hope I’m getting better at that—the scenes I’m most proud of in 203 are the two Theon scenes where there are barely any lines spoken!

I was going to mention those. Because, bar none, those scenes are my favorite in the first four episodes. The spareness is exactly what it needed.

First four, I mean.

Oh really?  Cool.

Yep! Have you seen it yet, with the final scoring and all? Everything just comes together—you wrote just what was needed and no more, the director shot exactly what was needed, Ramin Djawadi’s gorgeous new Greyjoy/Theon theme really underlined what was happening. Great television.

No, haven’t seen it scored yet!  So excited.

And what’s interesting from a purist’s perspective is that it’s really a bit of a new scene. In the novel, we go from Theon learning that no, his father means to attack the North… to the next chapter, a week or two later, he’s fully on board and he’s not really reflective on his decision. You filled that gap beautifully.

The “burning scene the letter” scene was interesting—it wasn’t in our outline. We were cutting from Yara (Asha, I know, I know…) saying “make your choice” to the baptism ritual. But there was something missing—and ultimately, it had to come back to Robb. In our version of the story, Theon is very close to him—he’s the brother he never had.  And I wanted to take him right up to the point of betraying his own blood—so that’s where the warning to Robb scene came from.  And at first, it was more elaborate—he was going to write it, take it to a rookery, nearly give it to a maester—(remember when I asked you if the Ironborn have maesters? that’s why).  It was going to be more of scene/scene. But it never worked, so we just went with the simple act…

Now it helped that Alfie is so bloody fantastic in the scene and that Alik Sakharov directed it as if he was directed a huge setpiece—meaning he gave it the same time and attention as a “big” scene. He did take after take after take with Alfie trying it all kinds of different ways—perfection.  my most treasured souvenier from the show is that I have the prop letter to Robb… the one in the shot.  It’s framed on my wall.

Nice!

And with the baptism scene—we made the decision in the writers room that it would be more of a formal ritual—I think it’s very powerful. And, again, it’s the look on Alfie’s face at the end! Alik and I were jumping up and down in the tent watching on the monitor, we were so excited. We’re kindred spirits—he’s a crazy Russian, I’m a crazy actor.  We would talk about Chekhov and annoy anyone else who had to listen to us drone on.

Yeah, Alfie did a lot with just his eyes, with the way he carried himself. And hat’s off to Alik. Though it niggles at me that there’s some sort of cinematic reference to that pitch black room lit only by the candle and the letter that’s escaping me. It feels like a famous shot. And if it isn’t a reference, well, it’s gonna get referenced in the future, I’m pretty sure. It was that well-done.

Oh, that’s funny.  I’m sure it’s some kind of reference. That room is actually the Greyjoy great hall because we didn’t have any other Pyke sets—so a bit of trickery there. He would constantly say stuff like—“This is the Kurosawa shot!” or “this scene is pure Tarkofksy!” Or the dinner scene with Sansa—he came into my office one day, I guess he was prepping it and shouted “I got it!  It’s Bergman!  You’ve done pure Bergman!” That’s actually my other favorite scene in the episode.

Amazing. That may be why it’s not one of Linda’s favorite scenes—as a Swede, she has a special dislike for Bergman. ;)

Wait, she’s a Swede and doesn’t like Bergman?

It’s more common than you think!

Do swedes hate Bergman? That’s funny.

I think it’s generations being told that it’s almost a national duty to watch and love Bergman that does it. A little rebellion!

Oh, I see. I wasn’t intentionally going for Bergman. Just cruelty.  But I guess there’s a lot of that in Bergman.

Yes, it is a cruel scene, having Sansa have to navigate those waters, Cersei toying with her…

Yeah, and I wanted to tee up some of the Tommen/Cersei stuff from Book 4

And that it’s couched in this very domestic moment, too. It adds to it, because you can sort of see that Myrcella and Tommen aren’t quite following… or maybe they are, but they can’t show their mother.

Exactly. Myrcella is nice and minds her manners.  Tommen is curious and sweet and innocent…  the line “would you like that?” is a nod to her dealings with him later—I’m specifically thinking of that great scene (SPOILER FOR NON BOOK READERS)
where she makes him beat his servant
. The main function of the scene, at first, was to remind the audience who Myrcella was, since so much of the episode deals with her. In fact, it was originally a two-hander between Cersei & Myrcella—I scene I quite liked, but D&D (correctly) asked that Sansa be the focus…

I did like seeing Aimee and Callum coming forward a bit more this season, too.

Yes, Aimee sent me a sweet note at season’s end thanking me for her “lines”.

I think it’s the right call to give Sansa the focus, but still, that’s an interesting impulse. It’s one of the things that having the show not be stuck in a POV format gives you the chance to do, to flesh out secondary characters, to use them to underscore the stories of primary characters in a way that a novel might not allow.

Yeah, I was bummed at first, but the resulting scene was much stronger—that’s why they pay them the big bucks.

To go back a little to the story editor title… as you say, you keep the show’s “bible”. Do first drafts of the scripts ever come in with notes like, “Bryan, please insert appropriate place name here”, to weave in more of the setting and background material?

Hmmm… no, not really.  I may tweak something here and there, but at this point, D&D are so immersed they don’t need much help from me.  And Vanessa dove right in too—wasn’t easy!  The show bible documents are more helpful, I think, for the directors, designers, actors—people coming in to the show who don’t eat, sleep, and breathe it and need to know certain bits of information. But usually people just flag me down or call or come into my office—I’m pretty much the walking talking show bible. And your website continues to be an invaluable resource as well!

Thank you!

This may be illusory on my part, but when I watch your episodes this season and last, they alway seem to have just a little bit more referencing of the background and the setting and its history.

Oh, that’s funny. Maybe. It’s unintentional.  but i love that stuff.  I think I executed that kind of thing much better this year, at least I hope.  I was much more of a novice in Season One.

For example, this episode, you worked in a nice reminder of Sam’s family life before he came to the Watch, kind of pulling in a little of the material he has in the third book.

Yeah, I like that Sam bit a lot. That was a great day—John Bradley is exceptional.  That might have been the first scene we shot for the episode, in fact…

Speaking of that, how much easier was writing this season’s script to last season’s? We of course had your telling us last year that you started writing it thinking it was just a nice thing David was letting you do, not quite realizing he was serious about it.

It was harder, for sure.

1)  More pressure.  Now I was a proper member of the staff.  Need to prove I could do it again, and better.

2) As you’re (sometimes painfully for you & Linda) aware, there were a lot more scenes that weren’t in the book, so it required a lot more imagination on my part.

3)  It’s a bigger, much more unwieldy book to adapt into episodes of televison.  Doesn’t lay out as neatly as AGoT does. But I had a great time with it.

The challenge is invigorating?

Oh, yeah! Tyrion’s ruse is a good example—that was such a fun challenge, to make that work for the screen.  I wrestled with that for days!

I loved that one. That was smart use of the medium, I think.

Alik particularly enjoyed shooting that.  We did it all in one day.

I imagine this rotating door. In comes Aidan Gillan, out goes Julian Glover. Out goes Aidan, in comes Coleth…

Basically, yeah!

And the way that’s done, you can’t do that in a book. At all. It’d be weird.

The other hugely challenging sequence was the final one… In my first draft, it was closer to book—the holdfast attacked, Yoren killed, Arya and the gang escape. But then due to scheduling, budget, etc…  it fell to me to combine what I had with the NEXT sequence (Lommy getting killed, etc). Plus it was up to me to thread the Gendry/Gold Cloaks thing into it, which isn’t in the book

A lot of things to juggle.

PLUS we had a specific location we had to use—that didn’t have walls to scale! PLUS we only had a few nights to shoot it—and kids can only work a certain number of hours! So it was a real collaboration between me and Alik and the guys to get that final sequence where we could tell the story we had to tell and get it shot in time— I think we pulled it off, but it was rough.  that scene/sequence went through a ton of versions.

There’s two parts to the end there. You’ve got Yoren and Arya talking, and Yoren planting the seed of the idea of her mantra… and then, yeah, the real end. Which—yeah.

I can’t take credit for the Yoren speech—those bastards D&D wrote the best piece of dialogue in my ep, of course.

Shh, if you didn’t say that, no one else would be the wiser!

Aw, ok.  Cut that bit. I’m done being nice.


What was that location, anyways? There’s this shot of a tower setting it up, but I don’t know if that’s even a real tower. CG these days always leaves you wondering.

It was a real tower—but we weren’t allowed to go the top! The interior was filmed elsewhere

Ah-ha. The magic of television.

Oh, and one more thing about that scene—and this is a detail about a uberfan of the books who had to write for the TV show. Without a doubt, one of my favorite moments from the books is when Hot Pie shouts “Hot Pie!” when going into battle… When we cast Ben as Hot Pie in season one, I thought—“Yay! Can’t wait for him to yet HOT PIE!” But…

You sometimes have to kill your foster babies.  We hadn’t established the convention of shouting your homeland while going into battle on the TV series, our Arya is a bit older and probably wouldn’t yell “Winterfell!”, and the nature of how I had to adapt the scene to meet the criteria (child hours, time, location, story beats, etc) meant that Hot Pie isn’t really fighting in the scene, so one of my favorite moments had to go. I made the call!  I stand by it!  But it did hurt.

I don’t blame you. I didn’t miss it at all when watching the scene the first time. Only noticed the second time, and more of a, “Ah, okay.” The Hot Pie fanatics may feel differently, of course.

I miss it.  Every time!  But it didn’t fit. But, hey, at least there IS a Hot Pie!  If this had been GAME OF THRONES: THE MOVIE—there might not have even been an Arya for all we know!

If you start recieving pies in bulk at the production office, you’ll know they’re protesting.

Well, I like pie, so that’ll be ok.

I’ll just let people know now that there’s more Hot Pie in episode 4, so hold off with the pie protest… or maybe not, since you like ‘em. I’m sure they’d be appreciated. :)

I like cherry. And apple. Or if you’re going for meat pies, that’s fine too.

Just you wait and see. Someone’ll hire a bakery to deliver fresh pies.

Good!  I shall use the book fans’ outrage to my advantage!

*makes note, knows just the man for the job*

Ok, I probably have about 15 more minutes, then I gotsta go

Okay, first, minor question that will probably be answered once everyone sees it in HD—no Shagga, this season, right? Am I right to think that’s Timmett son of Timmett handling the Pycelle assault duties?

Yeah, that was Timmett. Same actor from last season, too…

It was a fun scene. Julian Glover was great in it.

Julian is exceptional, we’re lucky to have him.  Lucky to have all our cast—it’s an embarrassment of riches.  That’s another difference between writing the two seasons—when I wrote Ep 4 we only had our main cast, because it was post pilot, but tons of roles hadn’t been cast yet - LITTLEFINGER, VARYS, SAM…  so it’s a different experience now writing for the actors as well as the characters.

And looking forward to the next season… we know you all are already writing away. George revealed he’s writing what appears to be episode 7, working title “Autumn Storms”. So, can you say what you’re working on, or is this one of those need to know basis things right now? “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Ugh, I wish I could say.  For some reason they don’t want me to.  I will say it has a pair of iconic book moments that I was thrilled to adapt.

Excellent. Very excellent. I know everyone’s going to be looking forward to it.

I hope so!

And since HBO finally said okay to the third season… I guess it’s just a few months before cameras are rolling again. Looking forward to it, I imagine?

Certainly!  Miss my Belfast folk.  I don’t go back until late June, so that’s nice—have a lot more time at home this year.

That’s good. More time with the daughter, too, I expect. :)

Aye.

All right, thanks so much for your time, Bryan. Great to chat, as always!

Thank you, that was really fun.
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