Taking the reins of a book series with a devoted following can be daunting for any producer. But for Game of Thrones executive producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, the solution to adapting George R.R. Martin’s fantasy bestsellers was to be diehard fans of the source material. Weiss and Benioff also enjoy a fruitful open dialogue with the author, who Weiss says “ultimately understands that we live and breathe this show. Our devotion to it is total. It’s like a cult.” Their ambition also shows in the scope of the HBO series, which Benioff reveals has a budget of “more than $5 million” an episode, making it among the most expensive epic series produced.
DEADLINE: Last time we spoke was when we first revealed you were doing Game Of Thrones for HBO.
D.B. WEISS: Yeah, and you remember that whole Sopranos and Middle Earth thing we first said to you, when you asked for a one-line description of what we wanted to do? Do you remember that line? That line has been haunting us for like 7 years. I always cringe when I hear it.
WEISS: It’s insulting to both Sopranos and Lord of the Rings. It’s one thing where you’re trying to sell, and you say, “My movie is Die Hard meets Above the Law.”
DEADLINE: You are being self-deprecating. You certainly have killed more beloved characters than The Sopranos and other HBO series. You’ve killed a lot of characters I really liked.
DAVID BENIOFF: We needed to make room. We only have so many trailers.
DEADLINE: With so many characters to draw, do you have a chart on the wall to keep it all straight?
WEISS: We do have pictures on the wall, in our office in Belfast where we spend half our time. All the head shots are on the wall. So yeah, we just throw darts at the ones we don’t want anymore.
BENIOFF: We’re done with all that, knock wood, those major cast reductions. New blood will be introduced, but …
DEADLINE: You’ve been taking a lot of pieces off the chessboard.
WEISS: And we’re still knocking them off. In those first few years, there would just be a black sheet of paper where a head shot was supposed to go, and the name underneath, a chessboard of blank spaces. It was a daunting process, casting all those roles each year, and so satisfying to see those squares eventually get in with the faces you’d chosen.
DEADLINE: Neither of you comes from a traditional TV background, but both of you are authors who’ve written film scripts. How much does that account for why this feels different from most TV shows?
WEISS: We were too ignorant to know what we were getting ourselves into, so we just jumped right into it and only found out what we were shouldering after it was way too late to turn back.
BENIOFF: Ignorance, going back to the very first meeting we had with George Martin, when we took him to lunch and he said upfront, “You know I wrote these books to be un-producable.” Now, George worked in television for a number of years and got sick of its limitations, sick that every time he wrote a script, the producers would say, “George, we love it, but we don’t have time to shoot it all.” And so he said: “F— it. I’ll write books that are way too big for anyone to make because it would cost too much.” And then we had this lunch with him, and when he said, “You know this is impossible to produce,” like idiots we said, “No, no, we got this one.” We didn’t know enough about television to know A) to be afraid and B) that the stuff we wanted to do wasn’t really feasible.
DEADLINE: What was the first rude awakening in transferring one of your big ideas to the screen?
WEISS: In the first season, when we were shooting constantly, sometimes with four first units going at the same time, being naïve as to how television works, we took a movie-driven notion and thought we would write the scripts and be on set every day. When you have four sets going in three different countries, that’s not physically possible. We realized slowly what it meant to be working in a television world, where the time pressures are so intense and yet you’re still trying to deliver a viewing experience that at least visually is more informed by feature film than television.
BENIOFF: Our inexperience showed when, in the first season, our shows came in really short. For HBO it’s supposed to be around 52 or 54 minutes, and we had a bunch of episodes clocking in at 40 minutes. It was a crisis because we had very little money left and had to somehow come up with an extra 90 minutes.
WEISS: We had to create 100 pages in two weeks.
BENIOFF: Because we had no money left, these had to be inexpensive scenes, like two actors in a room. We certainly could not add any battle stuff. So we ended up writing like 15 scenes or something over the course of the first season.
DEADLINE: And it wouldn’t be prudent to have filler scenes where they talk sports or the weather.
BENIOFF: We wish it had been that easy. But these scenes ended up being some of our favorites of the season. Like one scene between King Robert [Mark Addy] and Cersei Lannister [Lena Headey] in the first season, when before that they didn’t have any scenes alone together. There had to be moments where, even if they hated each other, they are still married and would be forced to be alone together in a room. The show would have been a lot weaker without that and other ‘Hail Mary’ scenes we threw at the time because we were out of money.
WEISS: It was good we were forced into a place where we had to literally go off book and start making the show live and breathe on its own as a show inspired by the books but not fully informed by them. We were talking recently with Homeland’s Alex Gansa about his experience, who said after seeing the original Israeli form of Homeland and saying, “Oh great, I can just change the names and I got myself a television show.” And obviously, when he got into the meat of adapting it he realized it was far from that simple. We love George’s books, and we went into it thinking these were great. But you realize no matter how great, books are not shows or movies; each operates on their own different rules. Game of Thrones is no different. Being forced to come up with those scenes on short notice helped how we were viewing the show and forcing it to come into its own.
DEADLINE: Describe your relationship with George R.R. Martin and how you factor in his creative wishes and your own instincts for storytelling.
BENIOFF: First of all, I’d say it’s a really good relationship, and the whole reason we wanted to do the series was because we love the books. George is not a naïve dude; he’s spent his time in the Hollywood trenches, and he’s had enough people talking bullshit to him. He had offers way before we came around because after Lord of the Rings, people were looking for the next fantasy franchise. He kept saying no because everyone he talked to, he felt they read only the coverage. And those who said they’d cracked it into a two-hour movie would tell Jon Snow’s story or it would be Daenerys’ story and you lose all those other interesting characters. We said, “We want to tell the whole story — as much of it as we possibly can in 10 hours a season.” But that also means there are going to be changes, and we’ve definitely had disagreements; every season we have disagreements about certain things.
DEADLINE: Any come to mind specifically?
WEISS: Lots of it. The stuff we’ve talked about most recently applies to the fourth season and beyond, so I wouldn’t want to get into that. But in the abstract, it usually comes down to us feeling like we have to limit the number of new faces we see on the screen and him talking about the “butterfly effect” that runs through the whole story. We understand that but for the good of the show we need to work around that and not give more information than people can handle.
BENIOFF: George understands that we don’t make these kinds of decisions flippantly or lightly, and we always want to give him a chance to kick back at us. Sometimes we’ll say, “You’re right,” and it’s ultimately worth rerouting something we were planning on doing.
WEISS: It drives him nuts that characters are fighting without wearing their helmets.
BENIOFF: That’s one of the places where we talk about the difference between the source material and the medium you’re transporting it to. It doesn’t matter whether a character has a helmet on in the book because we can access what’s inside the helmet, but in TV, we can’t do that unless we can see the guy’s face. It’s a mundane-sounding thing, but it impacts the kinds of things you can do and can’t do onscreen.
DEADLINE: He’s the reluctant conqueror who sacked Winterfell to please his father, was betrayed by his men, taken prisoner and spent the last season being tortured mercilessly.
WEISS: So much of it is due to Alfie Allen’s vulnerable performance. He’s a character who’s doing horrible things in a world where people are doing horrible things, and he’s just digging himself in deeper. And you’re with him every step of the way and you understand why he’s doing what he’s doing but you’re also saying “please don’t do what I know you’re about to do.” Because you know it’s going to make things worse, not better.
DEADLINE: Because he knew it was wrong.
WEISS: Joffrey, for example, is a character who’s doing hateful and horrible things and he’s a psychopath; I can’t look at Joffrey and say I understand at a gut level why you are doing the things you are doing as a human being. Because I don’t think I’m a psychopath. Yet, but ask me again in Season Six. But Theon was doing terrible things, and yet it’s so easy to understand what was driving him to do those things. On all sorts of different levels I thought that was a very satisfying thing.
BENIOFF: So much of it comes down to the actor. You want to find someone who can not only fit the role but do something with it that no one else can. And that was true with Lena Headey. When we saw her for Cersei we saw dozens of actresses. All of them were playing the typical “ice queen.” And Lena came in and she was funny, in a nasty way. She made us laugh, and no one else had. She broadened our view of what that character could be. So when she wants to be charming she can be, and even people who should know better get drawn in. Once you find those actors, it becomes a great privilege to help their characters grow.
DEADLINE: George Martin has dictated in his books who gets killed, and you guys bump off way more actors than happens on regular TV. I can remember the days of Hill Street Blues, when they killed the cop character played by Ed Marinaro. Shocking. Besides the beheading of Sean Bean’s Ned Stark character that set the tone for all this in Season One, what has been the toughest death scene that you had to script for the characters that you most hated to let go of as writers?
WEISS: Man, Hill Street Blues was on when I was 12 and I remember feeling I’d never seen anything like it. It was that far ahead of its time, with dark characters you loved. I remember Ed Marinaro, the football star.
BENIOFF: I remember when that M*A*S*H episode, when Radar O’Reilly said that Colonel Blake had been killed in a helicopter crash. That had a serious emotional impact on me as a kid.
WEISS: Hey, what about the brother in Happy Days who walked upstairs and never came back down?
BENIOFF: I mentioned the pieces on the board, and it’s a real good way of looking at it. At the beginning there was an expansion to populate the game board, and we are at the point where it heads in the other direction and these pieces play off each other and, occasionally, kill each other off, knocking them off the game board. This necessary contraction will continue until the end if we’re lucky enough to get that far. There is a real fundamental satisfaction seeing things head in that direction.
WEISS: Well, it’s harder for us than George and that’s because George is killing off one figment of his imagination, and we’re forced to say goodbye. Jason Momoa became a really good friend of ours when he played Khal Drogo. We loved hanging out with Momoa, and suddenly we couldn’t bring him to Belfast anymore.
DEADLINE: Anyone try to lobby you out of killing their character?
WEISS: There are definitely some deaths coming up where the actors are like, “Are you sure you gotta…?” There are also some characters we have to kill who don’t die in the books, or who are going to die earlier in the series than the books. So we don’t want people to be too confident that they know exactly what’s going to happen, and it is hard. You work a long time on this show and you become close to people, and the idea of killing them doesn’t just mean this character isn’t going to be in the series anymore, it means basically we’re not going to see this person.
BENIOFF: We have a death coming up, and a lovely young woman who doesn’t want to die.
DEADLINE: What’s the great challenge of plotting out each season where so much has to happen to keep pace with the books and the inevitable clash with the White Walkers?
BENIOFF: We knew where to start and where we would end, so if was figuring out the middle and making sure the characters were going to end up in the right places. We went in with a pretty good idea of where the characters were heading and some we knew nothing until we went into a room and started talking about but then once we get to the end point we get a good sense about how to drive everything there. The person taking you on the journey needs to be confident. We are both obsessed with Breaking Bad, and the great thing about Vince Gilligan is you he’s taking that character some place and that he has a beginning, middle and end in mind. And for us what is most enticing about this series is, if we’re lucky enough to get to the end, there will be 80 hours of screen time with a beginning, middle, and a real end. Not something that feels like 80 separate episodes, but instead something where, if you were masochistic enough, you could go into a theater and watch a marathon of the whole thing.
WEISS: I’d like to add that to endure such a marathon would probably have to involve a Clockwork Orange scenario, with your eyes forced open.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you’re in this until you finish?
WEISS: I hope so. We went into this with the ambition to tell this story through to the end. We’ve been given this great gift, this huge canvas of these beautiful books by George Martin, and the idea of telling this whole epic through to the end is incredibly compelling. We’d love to be there to shoot the last scene.