The 'A Song of Ice and Fire' Domain


Interview with David Benioff and Dan Weiss

Having planned to run this last week just before the premiere, and then just after the premiere, and then when we had the renewal news, and then this past weekend…

Well, it’s finally live: the last interview from our trip to the international press junket in London in late February, where we talk with executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss. I’d met David before when I visited the set back during the filming of the first season, and I’d spoken to the both of them during an interview around that time as well, but it was the first time meeting Dan… and yes, he’s just as much One Of Us as you can imagine, geek boys and girls; check out the question regarding the shirt he was wearing!


Q: How close did you stay to the story in the novels?

David: The same impulse as the first season: trying to stay as faithful as we can while being mindful that it’s an adaptation. We’re treating it now as an adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire rather than sticking strictly to each book, so there are certain elements from the third book that are going into the second season, and certain elements from the second book going into the third season.

Dan: If we didn’t love the books, we wouldn’t have devoted our entire lives for the last six years to do this.

Q: What was the biggest challenge of adapting it?

David: It’s just the scale. The books are so massive: there’s so many storylines, so many characters. We have ten hours, which is great—when the books were sent to us by George’s agent, he was suggesting features. This was the agent’s suggestion, not George. We immediately realized that wasn’t possible. Still, even with ten hours there’s so much that we can’t do. If we tried to shove every single character into the story, we’d have about 45 seconds per storyline per episode.

Q: How has the fan reaction been?

Dan: We’ve been really gratified by the response by the overwhelmingly positive response from the fans who love and read the books, that they understand the TV show isn’t a movie and it isn’t a novel and it operates by its own logic, but that we love the material as much as they do.

Q: What is it about the books that you love?

David: For me it’s the characters, first and foremost. I remember reading the first one and in that moment when Bran was pushed out the window, I realized I was reading something very different from any other fantasy novel I’d ever read—any novel I’d read, period. You become so immersed in these characters and develop such affection for them, and even the characters you don’t really like, you’re really interested in them. And then these terrible things happen to them. George is such a ruthless god. It makes you very tense. When Ned dies in the books, it’s complete shocking to us because you expect the hero not to die. Once you realize that heroes do die in this world, it makes it that much more terrifying. It makes for good drama.

Dan: The opportunity to go to such an amazing, epic fantasy world and that it includes characters that you’d want (or not want!) to have dinner with because they feel as real as people you know in everyday life. It’s a very rare experience.

Q: Do you think that’s why viewers respond so well, because the characters are relatable?

Dan: Yes, their concerns are very much like our concerns. It’s not the sort of story where they’re looking for the magic sword and so on.

David: Yeah, everyday I think about how to feed my dragons.

Q: With the news that Alan Ball has decided to step back from writing for True Blood, can you see yourselves writing for the show for as long as it goes, or can you see yourself stepping back from the writer’s room at some point?

David: You know, we loved it from the beginning, and when we met HBO and pitched the project we told them that it was a potentially eight or nine season story—it’s all one story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Virtually every show on television, even the great ones in the past, the writing staff comes up with the bible for the season ahead. There may be some exceptions—I think Matt Weiner (Mad Men) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) have an end in mind—but we’re telling potentially an 80, 90 hour story that we’d love to see through to the end.

Dan: I can’t imagine that—so long as we’re allowed to go forward with it—that we’re ever going to step back from it.

Q: Can I ask how many episodes you wrote for this season?

David: For season 2?

Q: Yeah.

Dan: We’re not done writing yet, so we can’t—

David: Season 2! Season 2!

Dan: Oh, season 2, the one we finished writing, yes…

David: Six episodes, Vanessa Taylor wrote two, Bryan Cogman and George wrote one each.

Q: If George is god, what does that make you?

David: What does that make us?

Dan: Disciples? Apostles? I’m not clever enough this early in the morning.

Q: Do you have one character you like most?

David: It’s like trying to decide your favorite foster kid—I can’t say kids because they’re really George’s children—but if there’s one in the second season that we really loved, I’d say Theon Greyjoy. His arc over the course of the second is just so fascinating, and Alfie Allen brings it to lie wonderfully. I truly do love them all, but Theon is particularly captivating.

Q: First, Dan, I love the Karateka shirt you’re wearing. Where can I get it?

Dan: Unfortunately, Jordan Mechner—the creator of Karateka—gave this to me, and I’m not sure if they’re available to the public yet. They should be available soon, though, as he’s putting out a new version of the game.

Q: When you outline the season and write the scripts, how much do you have to keep in mind the budget?

Dan: Very much. At the end of the day there are always things you want to do that you can’t be able to do, so you have to decide what’s most important.

Q: So it’s mainly battles that get axed?

David: For the second season, we knew that we really wanted to show the Battle of the Blackwater—a version of the battle, we couldn’t do it exactly as it is in the books because it would have meant months of shooting time and $50 million we didn’t have—but we wanted to show a battle rather than do another off-screen one. Sometimes we’ll be forced to do that, but in this season it all really builds toward the Battle of the Blackwater and so many of the storylines coalesce around that battle, so to do it all offscreen or have Lancel Lannister reporting to Cersei in Maegor’s Holdfast about what’s going on outside without showing it was something we didn’t want.

So we tried to protect it, meaning that we preserved time in the schedule for it and to preserve enough dollars for it… and also to go back to HBO to beg for more money because we realized we didn’t have enough to do it. And even the version we had wasn’t as grand as in the books.

Dan: HBO was very generous when we held out our hats.

Q: So is it Helm’s Deep-style?

Dan: It’s interesting because we feel—not just for budgetary reasons, but for reasons of tone and the feel of the show—thatshowing grand spectacle in the way that movies like The Lord of The Rings show grand spectacle isn’t really the feel of the show. I love those movies to death, but that’s not the feeling of the show; it’s more about the worm’s eye, ground-level view. Sometimes you don’t really want giant, sweeping spectacle shots because it can distance you from the world instead of making you feel immersed. We want people to feel like they’re down in it, covered in the muck and the dirt and the blood of it.

David: I think it’s Massive that they used in The Lord of the Rings..

Dan: Is it still Massive? I’m not up on the technology. Maybe it’s Gargantuan now…

David: Yes, Gargantuan. But those really give you a god’s eye view. For our version of the battle, we’re with Tyrion, Davos, or Stannis, and we see the battle from their perspectives.

Q: How do you decide which characters to keep and which to drop?

Dan: Ultimately, there are so many characters in the books that we’ve told George that if we cast all the characters in the book, we’d use all the budget on casting with no money for cameras or crew or sets.

David: One thing that’s important for us to think about is that we’re making it for an audience that has some viewers who’ve read the books, and many whom have not. We want to appeal to both groups. There’s a huge number of characters. I don’t think there’s a bigger cast on television—

Dan: I believe that is a fact.

David.—and I don’t think anyone else asks viewers to process so many storylines and characters. And also one thing to keep in mind is that there are characters in the second book who don’t appear this season, but are coming in later. It’s just about so many new characters introduced in the second season, so we saved some for the next season. They aren’t being omitted, they’re just being delayed.

Dan: A lot of it is just where does somebody really become central to the story, and we can’t afford to have people waiting around for their story to start.

Q: Are there characters that you can use to condense the story?

David: Yeah.

Q: Can you give an example?

David: We can’t really, because we want the viewers to experience that themselves.

Q: What about in the first season?

Dan: I think the Greatjon Umber is an example. Robb had a lot of different bannermen, and we can’t follow them all, so we decided to concentrate on one of them to stand in for the bannermen.

David: Or Jory. Ned brought a number of named guards with him from the North, and many of them have dialog in the books. But we wanted to concentrate on one character and so when he dies, hopefully he’ll have some meaning to viewers.

Q: George has mentioned the butterfly effect about little changes leading to unexpected results. Obviously, changes are necessary for adaptation, but to whate degree do you look ahead to the whole 80-90 hour plan, or is it really the needs of the current season trumps everything else?

Dan: You have to keep one eye on the grand scheme and one eye on the story at hand. If the story from moment to moment and scene to scene isn’t working, then you’re never going to get to the point where hour 75 is an issue. So we want to make the moment as satisfying as possible, but at the same time we don’t want to wreck anything coming down the road.

Q: I really love the character of Robb Stark and what the actor brought to the screen was great. In the books, the character is not a point of view at all, so how does it work to feature him?

David: We see Robb a lot through the eyes of other characters in the novels, but we’re never in his head. Part of the reason was that we liked the character, but honestly part of it was that Richard Madden was so shockingly good that we didn’t want to be away from him for most of the second season. He’s a crucial character—Ned’s Stark, the leader of the North—so we wanted to spend more time with him. Hopefully we’re being faithful to the character George created.

Q: Are there characters not in the book that you invented? I believe Ros is an invention.

David: She’s not in the books. She’s pretty much the only one I can’t think of.

Q: Is she coming back?

David: Yes, she is. There are prostitute characters in the books that Ros is an amalgam of in a way.

Dan: Esmé Bianco started out as a one-scene player, but we really loved what she did in the scene and we realized she was a way of representing a class of person that the story doesn’t generally focus on, and she can serve all sorts of different functions down the road that exist in five or six different characters.

Q: Some say there seems to be more sex in the show than in the books…

David: There’s more sex in the books than there is in the show.

Dan: If we showed all the sex in the books, you’d be talking to us from behind prison bars.

David: I’m thinking of this scene in A Dance with Dragons and… well, I can’t even imagine how we’d shoot that. And there are scenes in the books that we did not do for legal and moral reasons, that feature underage characters. There are certainly scenes in the show that don’t exist in the book, but I think the level of sexual content and graphic content is the same. And it’s one of the things we loved about George’s books—I don’t think Bilbo Baggins ever got a boner, but in these books the characters think about sex, and that seems real for us.

Q: Do you talk with George R.R. Martin on a regular basis?

Dan: George writes an episode every year, and we consult wth him pretty closely about story matters. We ask him a lot of questions, but we don’t want to distract him from his core business of writing these massive, fantastic books. But yeah, George is involved in the process.

David: George looks at all the casting videos on a secure casting site—I hope it’s a secure casting site—and one of the major new characters this season is Brienne. When he saw Gwendoline Christie’s audition, it was a case where there was complete unanimity. It was just, “She’s the one.”

Dan: We said “She’s the one” before she even said anything. It was the way she moved and occupied the space. We were, like, “Please don’t have a very funny voice.”

David: That was a role we were nervous about casting. For many of the roles, there’s a physical appearance from the books that we try to stay true to, but if an actor comes in who’s so good—for instance, Liam Cunningham is not at all like how Davos is described in the books; frankly, he’s better looking and should be a leading man—we’ll go with that. But for Brienne, it’s important that she has a certain physical appearance. If she’s not large and powerful looking, you won’t believe it. So when Gwendoline walked into the room, you know, I’m 6’2” and she’s taller than me and was looking down at me. So we were, “God, hope she’s good.” And she wasn’t just good, she was phenomenal. It was a big relief.

Q: What can we expect from the second season?

David: The world gets bigger. In the first book, so many characters start in the same place and then spread out. To equal that challenge on screen, was immensely challenging. But we equaled it in part because we shot in three different locations—Iceland, Northern Ireland, and Croatia—and those locations are phenomenal. And then the returning cast members have come in and know their characters better, and we know how to write them better, and then we have the new characters as well, the new actors are terrific. It’s a whole lot bigger, and I think it’s more beautiful, it looks better than it did last season.

Dan: And romance. There’s a lot more romance in season 2. Not just sex, romance. Sexy romance.