For Game Of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, a staggering 23 Emmy nominations was an apt capper for Season 6. It was the most ambitious season yet for an HBO series that featured epic battles, bloody score-settling, shocking twists, extinguished long running characters and a major character rising from the dead (and President Obama asking if Jon Snow was really gone forever), as Benioff & Weiss invented much of the narrative after they blew past the books of George R.R. Martin. They are back in Belfast, preparing the seven episodes that will comprise Season 7, setting up a final season that will wrap up the most epic medieval power struggle ever seen on a TV screen. Because of the logistical challenge, most of this interview was done via email, and they have answered the questions together.
Emmy Handicaps 2019: Outstanding Limited Series
Early on, you described your ambition for Game of Thrones as The Sopranos meets The Lord of the Rings and spent years regretting that you had invoked that watershed series and film trilogy. Many feel when you finish, Game of Thrones will fare favorably in the conversation about the most ambitious TV series ever made. What in your minds is the greatest ever TV series?
David Benioff & D.B. Weiss: First of all: thank you! We hope many are right, but we have to recuse ourselves from that conversation.
So, the conversation about the greatest TV series ever made. Man, it’d be great to say something original here. Not to talk about the total game changer that was The Sopranos, or The Wire’s dead eye and ear for every layer of Baltimore’s dysfunctional society, or Deadwood’s brilliant recreation of the true West, or the way Seinfeld both encapsulated and swallowed a culture, or Cheers or The X-Files or I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners or any of those. Everyone always talks about those, and it’s hard to say anything that hasn’t been said before and said better. And that’s not even touching on the cartoons. Don’t get us started on the cartoons.
Okay, fine, we can talk about cartoons if you like. Working on a drama 363 days a year really makes us appreciate animation. Because you know what it’s not? Live action drama. On which we spend 363 days a year. At least once, one of us went on a long, drunken rant about why Adventure Time was the best TV series ever made. Unfortunately, we can’t remember the specifics of that rant, but it’s entirely possible that it was correct. South Park has maintained its high level of excellence for much longer than should be possible. Rick and Morty is one of the funniest, smartest things ever put on TV; every one of its 22-minute plots is more ambitious than 99% of the science fiction films that will be made in the next ten years. Of course, these are all current shows. But like George Harrison once said about Beethoven, “Beethoven’s great, man, but he’s dead! What’s happening now?”
How has throwing yourselves into an all-consuming show factored into the progression of your lives, including family and other professional pursuits?
Benioff & Weiss: When we pitched this show, we were both unmarried, without children, and one of us (David) had made a 20 minute short film on which the other (Dan) did craft service. We now have two wives who have chosen to stay married to us for some reason. And five children, one of whom was born at the Ulster Hospital in Belfast, all of whom are raised together, travel together, and speak their own secret language like carnies. Actually, the kids do go home when school starts. And the three months or so during the fall school year while we’re shooting involve us doing a lot of flying between Belfast and Los Angeles, which isn’t normal, especially as far as sleep patterns are concerned. But we are on set as often as possible, every day we’re not visiting home. It felt important for us to be there when we started, and it still feels important.
As much as we miss our families, which is a lot for those months, production can be the most enjoyable part of the year. The Irish countryside—hills, forests, coasts—is beautiful. Spain’s castles totally make you understand why people were so hellbent on sacking each other’s castles. Turns out castles are really enjoyable places to work. And the glaciers in Iceland are awesome in the serious old-timey sense. There are challenges everywhere… but these are glorious places. People seek these places out just for the privilege of seeing them. Having your job take you to these places… next year we may actually take the kids out of school for a semester and have the families travel with us, so they can all experience it too. Teach them to wield swords. It’s time.
The signature set piece for Season 6 was the Battle of the Bastards, pitting Jon Snow against Ramsay Bolton and his army. Snow watched his brother Rickon die and angrily charged his troops into Bolton’s trap. The depiction of the formation of a back wall of bodies felled by Bolton’s archers, followed by a vise-like frontal assault with shields and spears, made an unforgettable visual. The famous battle of Agincourt was mentioned as inspiration. Explain how you meld history to frame these epic battle scenes that in earlier seasons included Blackwater and Hardhome.
Benioff & Weiss: The Battle of the Bastards started as Agincourt in the first version; or Agincourt and Crecy. The beginning is still Agincourt-y. Not Ramsay’s specific “game” with Rickon, but the basic strategic layout of the thing. The body pile: that’s inspired by accounts of Agincourt. When we scheduled that original version, however, it ended up being 50% more expensive and time-consuming than what we ended up shooting. Which was itself 50% more expensive and time-consuming than what we initially thought we could afford, and we were being generous.
So we reconfigured it, with lots of directorial input from Miguel Sapochnik, and chose the battle of Cannae, in which the Carthaginians lured the Romans into an encirclement and massacred an almost unimaginable number of them. We made the body pile the fourth wall of this encirclement. The Carthaginians were mounted, however, and having that many horses on top of all the other horse stuff we had already was also breaking the bank. So we brought the Bolton cavalry in to serve that purpose, and Mig had the great idea to use their shields not only as a part of the encirclement strategy, but as a strong visual element as well, to help define the general geography and layout of the battle.
And that is more about the genesis of a fake battle than anyone probably needs to know. We both do read and listen to a lot of history. Not only military history, by any means. On the contrary, it’s nice to remember that the past did not consist entirely of people murdering each other to take each other’s stuff. Mostly, but not entirely.
Your background was books and features and you once said early on that your unfamiliarity with episodic TV sometimes left you short of scenes that had to be written hastily. What other learned lessons will help you the rest of your career?
Benioff & Weiss: One practical thing we’ve learned as writers is how to work almost anywhere. We had specific, persnickety routines, before. This chair, this coffee mug, this time of day. When we started Thrones, it quickly became apparent that our old ways of working would prevent us from getting the scripts done on time, and that this in itself could destroy the show. So we got better at working wherever we were, whenever we could. And that’s been really helpful, realizing that what we thought we “needed” to work effectively was really just a kind of magical thinking, and that we could get words down anywhere. They weren’t always good words. They often needed to be rewritten, and rewritten again. But they fed the machine, and kept things moving.
What’s the most enjoyable and challenging parts of working on this large a canvas, week after week?
Benioff & Weiss: The source of the joy and the challenge are the same: the opportunity to tell a story encompassing so many characters and so many places, over such a long stretch of time. To be able to bring a world to life, and actually have it be a world, as in, one with different continents, the one that George bequeathed to us. We try to maintain a strong sense of forward momentum, especially at this late stage in the story.
But even with all that, the scope of the thing gives us time to let characters spend a few minutes with each other here and there without propelling the plot forward.
Dan, what is David’s great strength, have you found, and David, please answer the same thing about Dan?
Benioff & Weiss: Dan: pull ups. David: deadlift.
Jaime returns in triumph, racing home to his love, Cersei, only to see part of King’s Landing smoldering, and a steely Cersei sitting on the Iron Throne. Jaime’s glare is memorable. When you or the director told him what his motivation was to focus what was he thinking, what was the message given to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau?
Benioff & Weiss: We don’t remember the specific wording, but it’s definitely a moment where Jaime has to start coming to terms with how drastically and irrevocably everything in his world has changed—political arrangements, his personal life, everything. He knew his sister was capable of big plays, but this is another level. And Cersei’s look back to him… well, he’s probably always known that she was in charge in their relationship. Now he really knows it.
Every time Cersei vindictively settled a score, she paid a high price. In trying to get back at her daughter-in-law Margaery, she empowered the High Sparrow and his religious fanatics who put her in a prison cell and forced her humiliating nude walk of shame. In the Season 6 finale, she exacts unimaginable cruel revenge on the High Sparrow’s tormenter Septa Unella by making her the plaything of her half-dead bodyguard The Mountain. So he’s not babysitting her king son Tommen, who jumps out a castle window to his death. Was Cersei heartbroken? Has she got any heart left?
Benioff & Weiss: We had intended the connection you just made, so we’re glad you made it. If she had been more focused on her family, and less focused on enjoying her revenge on someone who had done her wrong, then Tommen’s suicide probably never would have happened. That’s what so much of next season is going to be about; finding out what Cersei’s mindset is, and who is she? Cersei has certainly done a lot of horrible things in her life and she could be a very cruel person, but the one thing that was redemptive about her was she genuinely loved her children. Now they’re all gone, and I think that is very interesting for us. Who is she, without her children? The answer is something you’ll find out about next season.
Which characters did you find most fun to write in Season 6?
Benioff & Weiss: In the past season or two, things have finally started to contract in a very positive way. It was such an expansive world for such a long time, but things have really started coming together. Obviously, we had to say goodbye to a lot of characters and storylines we loved a lot. The ones that are left are ones we’ve been engaged in so long. Writing for Maisie [Williams] is always great, writing for Peter [Dinklage] and Emilia [Clarke] is great, especially now that they’ve come together in the same storyline. Writing all the stuff for Kit [Harington] and all of the epic stuff he gets to go through now. There isn’t anyone left we don’t love writing for, because we’ve been writing for them for so long. We know them so well at this point.
Red Wedding architect Walder Frey and Ramsay Bolton were two of your most deliciously evil villains, and they met their end. Your clear villain is the White Walker leader The Night King. Both Frey and Bolton established their loathsomeness through dialogue as much as action. How much of a challenge has it been, writing a Night King character who doesn’t speak?
Benioff & Weiss: We don’t think of The Night King as a villain as much as Death. He is not someone who’s like Joffrey or Ramsay. He’s not really human anymore. Evil comes when you have a choice between that and good, and you choose the wrong way. The Night King doesn’t have a choice; he was created in that way, and that’s what he is. In some ways, he’s just Death, coming for everyone in the story, and for all of us.
In some ways, it’s appropriate he doesn’t speak. What’s Death going to say? Anything would diminish him. He’s just a force of destruction. I don’t think we’ve ever been tempted to write dialogue for The Night King. Anything he said would be anticlimactic.
You’ve said that Iwan Rheon was runner up to Kit Harington when you cast Jon Snow. He doesn’t seem to have the heartthrob vibe, the liquid brown eyes, the empathy present in Harington’s character. What did he bring to the table that made you consider him for the hero role that was so opposite the villainous character he played in Ramsay Bolton?
Benioff & Weiss: Iwan, this interviewer here just said that you don’t have a heartthrob vibe. How would you reply? What? You’re going to do what to him? But Iwan… wait, Iwan, not the dogs, Iwan, noooo!
Iwan Rheon is a great actor, and he’s going to go on to a long brilliant career. And most of the characters he’ll play will not be evil. He’s not one of those who can only play a bad guy. We first saw him when he auditioned for Jon Snow. He was incredible and went down to the very end, in terms of our pick for Jon Snow. He’s an incredibly versatile actor.
It was so much fun to write for him because he’s such a charismatic kid and he’s got such intelligence and a sense of humor, so he never just played it like the snarling villain. He put a little spin on every line and so it was great to write for him and to watch him perform, especially in these last couple of episodes. That last scene with Ramsay and Sansa probably goes down as one of our favorite scenes. To watch the two of them alone, with the dogs… He could very well have been a boring character, because he’s so evil and beyond redemption. And Iwan kept him interesting the whole way.
After killing off so many fan favorite characters, what did it mean to bring back The Hound? Why did the gruff disfigured brute make such an impression and what are you most excited to explore with him?
Benioff & Weiss: So much of this comes down to the casting. I doubt we would have cared nearly as much for The Hound if anyone but Rory McCann was playing the part. What’s been exciting is seeing the glimmers of humanity behind The Hound’s scarred exterior. And then seeing him shove aside those glimmers, when necessary, and murk motherfuckers that need to be murked.
Bran’s half uncle, who is half undead and who rescued his nephew from the White Walkers, said he couldn’t go to The Wall; that it keeps out The Night King’s forces and isn’t just ice and rock, but contains spells that keep the dead North. Book fans talk about the Horn of Joramun, which the Wildlings dug for at one time and that has the power to destroy the wall. Can you give us a hint where this is going?
Benioff & Weiss: We don’t want to give away too much. There are the books, and the show, and it would be a disservice to both if we went into too much detail of, we’re going to use this or that. We’re not using that. What’s laid out in this season is, very clearly, The Wall isn’t just a physical structure that is keeping the army of the dead out. If it were, and if the Wildlings managed to make it over, at least in theory someone like The Night King has so much more in the way of both power and troops who’ll do literally anything he says. We have been laying out the likelihood that it’s going to be more difficult to get past The Wall than that, but we wanted to put that basic prospect out there. We’ll keep it at that for now.
While Benioff & Weiss won’t give up their secrets as they write the final two seasons of Game of Thrones, they did shed a little light on the strengths and vulnerabilities of the finalists for rule of the Seven Kingdoms.
Benioff & Weiss: Dany has a boundless confidence in herself and her mission in this world. Her sense of destiny makes her a compelling, charismatic leader, a messianic figure for multitudes. She has arguably the cleverest advisor on the planet in Tyrion Lannister. She has three dragons, an army of Unsullied, and a great Dothraki horde.
What could possibly go wrong?
Benioff & Weiss: Cersei will do anything to win. In the past, the only factor limiting her ruthlessness was her love for her children. Now that her children are gone, nothing restrains her. As she herself said, “love is weakness.” A loveless Cersei is a fearsome thing.
Benioff & Weiss: Jon’s honorable nature has proven a disadvantage in some regards: a man who plays by the rules will have a harder time defeating men and women who don’t. But Jon’s nature also provides one of his great strengths: his ability to win others to his cause. Men who respected his courage and honesty elected him Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. The Free Folk, who had never before aligned themselves with kneelers, chose to fight for Jon Snow because they believed in him. The lords of the north named him King in the North because they realized he was their last, best chance to survive the wars to come.
The question will be whether an honorable man can overcome dishonorable enemies. As E.O. Wilson wrote, “Within a group, selfish individuals always win. But in contests between groups, groups of altruists always beat groups of selfish individuals.” So Jon Snow better hope this is a contest between groups.
THE NIGHT KING
Benioff & Weiss: Strength: He can raise the dead and have them do his bidding. Weakness: He’ll never be as funny as The Ice King.
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