As 'Game of Thrones' nears its finale, show runners David Benioff and Dan Weiss talk about Season 2
The first season of “Game of Thrones” comes to a close this Sunday, having won over many viewers who wouldn’t normally immerse themselves in fantasy. It's also left some fans — those who hadn’t already read George R.R. Martin’s books — shellshocked by the brutal deaths of a few major characters (some more beloved than others).
HBO has granted the show a second season, sending show runners David Benioff and Dan Weiss back to Belfast, where they are furiously working on adapting a script from the second book of the saga, “A Clash of Kings.”
They spoke by phone about which characters will reappear in Season 2 and the near-impossibility of creating a cable series out of books that depict an increasingly complex, epic world.
[Spoiler alert: If you don't want to read any discussion of the next season, avert your eyes now.]
There are some big shifts between the first book and the second — different characters, new locations, huge battle scenes and new elements like ... dragons. How closely are you sticking to the book?
Weiss: The book is always going to be our template, our go-to bible. It's mainly about the balancing act between keeping the characters the viewers have spent so much time investing in front-and-center and introducing all these new characters George has come up with and giving them their fair share. That's what we're currently engaged in doing.
So you’re still rewriting?
Benioff: We're definitely still rewriting. You start out with your dream scenario, and then the hard reality hits you and you make adjustments. We're still in that adjustment phase. There's a lot of writing and a lot of casting still. Most series if you get second season you're done with most of the casting. With the second book and the second season, a whole slew of characters make their appearances.
Weiss: I'm sitting here looking at our casting grid, which is a grid of names and faces of all the characters. Last year I remember being so excited as I'd watch week after week — it gradually fills in and finally ... you have this beautiful wall of faces that represents your cast. Now I'm looking at the grid again, and half the people are gone because they've been massacred wholesale. And now there's a grid to be filled in again with a new group of people.
Benioff: Luckily it's a big enough cast that the people we're attached to ... the whole top row is all people we know.
Weiss: It’s different people in the top row, but the whole top row is people we know, and almost the whole second row.
Benioff: We should keep a ghost wall up.
Weiss: The dearly departed. But eventually the dearly departed will be bigger than the cast.
There have been a lot of deaths in the first season. Our recapper has been keeping a tally of deaths and breasts — and often it’s an uneven number of breasts.
Benioff: That’s an inside joke. One of the characters visits the Meereen, and the fashion in that city in that book is that women wear one-breasted gowns. But we're not sure if we're going to replicate that.
The first season has inspired a fair amount of conversation about gender in the series — whether there’s too much nudity for its own sake, whether or not you should show rape. Have you been engaging in any of that?
Benioff: In rape? Very, very little.
Weiss: Has Lars Von Trier taught you nothing?
Benioff: I was not aware ...
Weiss: It's not that we're interested [in the conversations], but we've been so up to our eyeballs in it that we haven't had time to do what comes naturally to us, which is to sit and read about our show.
Has Martin been giving you feedback, and will he continue to be involved to the same degree?
Benioff: He’s writing an episode for the coming season, which is probably the heaviest, the Battle of Blackwater Bay. Now that we're on the ground here in Belfast and working with the visual effects team and production team that's going to create the sets, we have to talk to George about what that looks like. He's just as involved as in Season 1. He'll watch casting videos from afar, and meanwhile we get responses to the episodes.
Weiss: After each episode we get a report card.
Benioff: And he's been kind enough to let us read his new book ahead of time, which is great. It's good to be the envy of fanboys.
That could be dangerous.
Benioff: I don't carry it with me.
Weiss: So it's not on your iPhone?
Benioff: It's terrifying to think if we ever made it that far how we'd attempt to shoot some of the stuff he's got coming up in future years. Something to worry about many, many years from now ...
Even in Book 2, aren’t there huge battles and dragons?
Benioff: We used to say when we pitched it to HBO, if we get to that point when we have to make those decisions it's a great problem to have because it means we got a second season. Now that we're actually here, it doesn't seem like such a great problem — it's a terrifying problem, and we are daily trying to figure it out. We want to get in as many dire wolves and dragons and massive naval armadas. So it's about where and how to do it and how much to show....
What will happen to the major characters who remain mostly out of the action for Book 2? Will you keep the actors on retainer?
Weiss: In the book there are a couple of characters who have more of an offscreen role and come back in Book 3. But in the case of, say, Robb Stark — played by Richard Madden — he has more of an offscreen presence in the book, but Richard did such a fabulous job once his character came to the fore, he so commanded the screen that we realized there's no way to talk about this guy and not have him in the show. So there are people offscreen in the book who we are going to write onscreen in the show to make sure people who viewers have fallen in love with are still there in the second season.
Benioff: In the case of Jaime Lannister, he's got one scene in the second book, but he's such an important character we want to see more of him. There's fluidity in that certain scenes from the third book find their way into the second season just as certain scenes from the second book find their way into the end of the first season. We wanted to make sure those characters stayed in the audience's mind and didn't disappear for a whole year.
Presumably Martin is open to compromises, since he’s talked about his own experiences of working in TV?
Weiss: Yes, it’s a relief because it would be heartbreaking to have somebody who did what George did on the world-building front who didn't understand what it meant to adapt that to television and was agonized over every change.
Benioff: Did we tell you the story about [Martin’s experience as a TV writer on], I think it was “The New Twilight Zone”? He had written a scene with knights battling on horses at Stonehenge, and the director came to him and said, 'You can have the horses or you can have Stongehenge.' That's how we frame things: Sorry, we wish we could do all this, but we have to make a horse/Stonehenge choice.
Weiss: I don't remember George's choice in the original story, but I hope it was Stonehenge.
— Joy Press
Photos: Top: Richard Madden. Credit: Nick Briggs/HBO.
Bottom: Left, Dan Weiss and right, David Benioff. Credit: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times.