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Game of Thrones Season 2 Q&A

2012-04-01 09:27
War is coming.

Game of Thrones, the epic drama set in the realm of Westeros, returns for a second season to see the fight for the Iron Throne continue.

Creators DB Weiss and David Benioff discuss creative challenges, being the "dip-shits" who thought they could take this on, winning over the fans of the books and more of what to expect in season two as the world built up in the first season now falls apart in the absence of a ruler. 

Q: What do we have to look forward to in Season Two?

DB Weiss:  We are going to see what happens when a power vacuum opens up and more than one person decides that they are the best person to fill it. That’s probably the simplest way to put the overarching thrust of season two.

David Benioff: In the first season, two of the most powerful figures died; King Robert first and then obviously Ned Stark, played by Mark Addy and Sean Bean so memorably. Their deaths then cast a shadow over season two. And as Dan says their absence creates this power vacuum, especially with King Robert: the throne passes to his apparent son, Joffrey, but there are many other claimants to the throne who deny his legitimacy. It’s very much about that: the struggle for power and specifically the struggle for the Iron Throne, and it’s all building towards this massive battle.

Q: Much of the first series was spent establishing a world that we now get to see falling apart…

DB: That's a good way of putting it. In the first half of the first season we had to spend a lot of time introducing an audience to a world some people had already encountered through the books, but at the same time we had to create a series with the non-readers in mind.

DBW: It was kind of a slow burn at times where we were maybe proceeding with some trepidation - are people going to stick with this until it reaches the top of hill and the rollercoaster goes over?

DB: …but one of the things the two of us talked about a lot last season was that if we can just get an audience to episode five, we know we’re going to keep them, because that’s when things really start moving. In episodes five and six and all the way through to the end, it felt like it gained momentum. With this season it feels like the audience now knows the world, and they know the characters that are returning – though of course there are some new characters too. It enabled us to get things moving faster. Last night we watched the first two episodes with the cast and it just feels like things take off at a much faster rate, at a faster clip this season. For us, it’s always been about trying to tell a single large story on the biggest canvas imaginable, with the hope that we’ll be able to get eight seasons to tell the whole thing, and that someday someone will be able to take the DVDs and watch the whole 80 hours!

Q: So for the second season, does it feel like the creative shackles are off to some extent?

DBW: It’s a different kind of challenge. In one way there’s a weight off your shoulders - not wondering, ‘is anybody going to actually care about this?’ Because when you’re working as hard as you have to work - not just us, but the hundreds of people who are working themselves almost to the bone to make this show - you don’t know until it’s aired. It could be we’re writing it and producing it for a very small group of people and it could just disappear. Now, knowing that, at least for the time being, we have a committed, solid group of people who are excited to see what happens next is exciting. It’s also terrifying.

Q: It must be very pleasing for you that you did win over the fans of the books.

DB: Absolutely! And I think this time last year I was much more nervous because you just didn’t know how people were going to react. You had the fan base, of course, which is one powerful constituency, but also we had the people who had never read the books, and one of the things we were worried about was will anyone who hasn’t read the books care about this, or even understand what the hell’s going on? It’s a really complex story line; there are so many different plots going through the episodes.

So the fact that the fans seemed to, by and large, respond really positively, but also that we got so many non-readers, and that many people who are not normally interested in fantasy came on board, was very gratifying for both of us.

Q: When other writers join to write episodes, do you have rules? Is there a Game of Thrones style bible that has to be adhered to?

DB: We just beat them when they get things wrong…

DBW: It’s not so much a question of rules. We have a very small writing team. I mean there’s George [RR Martin], the two of us who write the majority of the episodes and then we have two writers, Vanessa Taylor and Bryan Cogman, both of whom are so thoroughly vested in and committed to the show, that you don’t need some kind of a style guide. It’s a steep learning curve to be able to just know what you need to know about these characters and the world. That’s one of the reasons that we don’t have lots of new people coming in writing episodes. It’s just not feasible - it’s a big show!

Q: What lessons have you learned from writing the first season?

DB: I remember reading a paper about how so many of the great accomplishments have come from people who were new entrants into whatever field they came in to. I think in some ways our lack of experience might have been a good thing in the beginning, because we just didn’t know that it was insane what we were trying to do. George [RR Martin] told us the first time we met him that he wrote these books almost intentionally to be un-producible.

Q: When did he tell you that?

DB: We had lunch with him when we were trying to persuade him to give us the rights to take the books to HBO. He said he worked in Hollywood for a long time, on a show called Beauty and the Beast and some other shows. His episodes always came in too long and over budget, and so he always had to compromise his vision. So he said screw it, I’m going to write the books that I want to write, that no-one will ever be able to adapt and I’m going to make them so big that anyone thinking of it… well, it would be a billion dollar movie.

We’re the dip-shits: we read those books and we thought, ‘Wow, this would be a great TV series’, not realising that really there was such a small chance of us being able to even just get the opportunity to try to do it.

DBW: It’s not just blowing smoke at our bosses, but it really is testament to everyone at HBO over the course of a six-year period. They could have turned on the show and decided, not irrationally, that this is a relatively crazy bet to make and killed it. But they all stayed all in and they didn’t just bet half-heartedly on it, they really bet whole-heartedly on it. Without that support it just wouldn’t have happened.

DB: The odds of failure were pretty great and it would have been a very visible failure. You can put on a show that’s set in an office and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but you haven’t spent tens of millions of dollars on it and it hasn’t been the kind of thing that is like a worldwide fiasco. If this show had tanked, it really would have been incredibly embarrassing for them and they would have lost a major investment. There was a lot of pressure on them just purely from a business standpoint with this decision.

Looking back on it I’m kind of shocked that they trusted a show like this with two guys like us, you know! I mean we’re experienced with the writing but we’d never run a show before, never produced anything. So I don’t know what the hell they were thinking.

Q: With the books being so big and each episode having only a given number of minutes, is much of the writing a process of omission?

DBW: Oh yes, it’s omission and condensation and impression but also sometimes expansion. That’s kind of intuitive, but sometimes you need room to let these characters breathe.

DB: Sometimes we love one of George’s characters and feel like we want to spend more time with that character. So, for instance, Robb Stark, who’s so captivating and so memorably brought to life by Richard Madden, he doesn’t have a huge presence in the second book because none of the chapters are told from his perspective. You’re really only seeing him from his mother’s point of view or from someone else’s. But we love the character, we loved his storyline and we wanted to see more of him. So as Dan mentions, we expanded that role greatly for the second season.

DBW: Varys, played by Conleth Hill, is an important character in the books, but he has a relatively circumscribed role. But Conleth just does such a delicious job with every single line that you write for him, that you want to find ways to work him in to the story.

Q: So once you’ve seen a performance, sometimes it gives you more to work with?

DB: Absolutely, yes. When we first saw how good Aidan Gillen was as Littlefinger and Conleth Hill as Varys, we just thought these are two of the most interesting characters in the books and now on the show, but they’re never alone together. These guys know more secrets than anyone else, so what would a conversation between the two of them be like? And then we just started writing more and more for them.

There are all sorts of combinations that you kind of wonder about from the books. Like Jaime Lannister and then someone like King Robert: you never really see the two of them talking in the books, but Jaime Lannister killed the last king he worked for, so that’s a kind of curious relationship!

DBW: To the extent that we succeeded in doing the show, so much of that success is really just maintaining an openness to the contributions of other people. Whether it’s actors or whether it’s costume designers, production designers, visual effects, directors, DPs… what can each person bring to the process?

You have to just make sure you maintain open channels for communication with everybody and let them contribute what they have to contribute to the best of their ability. That’s a huge part of making something of this scale and scope work.

Q: Which characters do you most like writing for?

DB: The safe answer is that the second season in general has been a lot more fun to write because we know these actors now. So, I’m not thinking, for example, ‘Catelyn Stark’ as a kind of abstraction, I’m thinking ‘Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark,’ so you’re really writing for them. And we know their strengths so well.

Beyond that it is so hard to choose one, but just in terms of second season alone, Theon Greyjoy’s arc is so dramatic and he’s such a complex character. I think we both love him because he goes on a very, very dark journey, but you sympathise for him because you see he’s caught in a very tough place. He makes some terrible decisions, but partly because the character from the books is so fascinating and partly because Alfie Allen is just so good at bringing him to life, he’s a lot of fun to write for.

DBW: Tyrion and Cersei were separate for the most part in the first season, but for this second season we’ve been able to put those two people together. They [Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey] love each other so much in real life and have known each other for a long time, so just to let them go to town hating each other on screen, has just been a treat. It’s a very complex kind of blame/hatred relationship but one that’s been such a joy to write: because you know what an amazing job both of them are going to do.

DB: We could write a show just for the two of them. I’m thinking ‘Cersei and Tyrion are in hell’ with the two of them trapped in one small room for a while.

Q: Did you have any misgivings about killing off Ned Stark, one of the major characters, in season one?

DBW: I think that was one of the things that made us most excited about doing the series when we read the scene in the book. It was never in question that we would. When we pitched it to HBO that was one of the centrepieces of the pitch - that this was going to be a world and a show in which this kind of thing could happen. People were going to be shocked by it, and hopefully that’s a good thing.

DB: And if actors become too expensive we can always de-head them.

DBW: Sets a nice precedent I think.

Q: Even though Ned meets the same fate in the books, viewers were still stunned…

DB: Well, I’d say for one thing we’ve been really surprised and gratified to see that the community of readers online, when they’re talking to non-readers, by and large they have been incredibly respectful in terms of not revealing things. You’re always going to have the occasional dip-shit who likes to spoil things for people, but for the most part, like if you go on to the various fan websites or whatnot, they’re really careful about segregating the spoiler side of things from the non-spoiler side.

And then we do make some changes from the text, so there are a few things that we’re excited about this season which I think are really going to surprise the readers. They’re not going to see it coming because they haven’t read it.

Q: How do you feel about the idea of this running for eight seasons? Because even in this season we have more characters, more locations - it’s big already.

DB: I feel very tired.

DBW: We try to focus on the here and now. When we said going in to HBO that we want to take this through to the ending, I think we were maybe naïve in some ways in not knowing exactly what that meant, from an experience point of view. But we were serious about it and if we’re lucky enough to be able to keep doing it, that’s what we intend to do.

Q: Do you write together?

DB: Yes. Normally what happens is one of us will write the first half, the other will write the second half and then we swap halves, re-write each others and then keep swapping back and forth.

DBW: We tried writing sitting down together and in three hours we got, like, half a page.

Q: In a world that’s as vast as this one, do you write in the shadow of an enormous map?

DB: Well we do have maps, but we also have a giant cork board to map out storylines.

DBW: The four of us plus our assistant, we sit in my converted garage office and write scenes on nix cards and tack them up on this giant board. Then we’re looking at this big jumble of multi-coloured nix cards and thinking, ‘Well that’s the season… I don’t know what any of it means.’

Q: To these eyes the world appears to be getting darker, in a moral sense. Where’s the redemption for viewers?

DBW: I would say it’s getting darker, but I think it’s also getting funnier. It’s a way to balance the world and maybe let rays of light in where you can, even if it’s in really dark situations.

Q: The general line seems to be people in this world, for whatever reason, think that they’re doing good but they generally end up just making things worse?

DB: Yes, that’s pretty accurate.

DBW: Then again if I were to look at the New York Times it seems like maybe that’s quite a realistic world, put it that way.

DB: For me I have a hard time reading a book or sitting through a movie where I can’t sympathise with any of the characters: I just feel alienated from all of them. Even though it’s such a dark world, there are many characters that I’m absolutely behind. Like I’m very much rooting for Arya Stark. And I’m very much rooting for Jon Snow and for Daenerys Targaryen. All of them end up doing some pretty terrible things, but you feel that they are good people who are trapped in a not-so-good world.

DBW: One of my favourite things is when two of these people who you’re rooting for, end up butting heads with each other. Then it’s not about, ‘I want them to win, I want them to lose,’ it takes on a much richer feel.

That was one of the things that was most interesting for us, about the final battle, the big battle of Blackwater: not so much trying to recreate the spectacle that say a feature film would do, because we’re never going to be able to match the resources of Peter Jackson with Lord of the Rings, or Ridley Scott with one of his movies.

But it’s these characters that you’ve come to know well and spent hours and hours with and they’re not fighting some evil force, they’re fighting each other. So you have Davos Seaworth played brilliantly by Liam Cunningham and you have Tyrion Lannister played by Peter [Dinklage] and they’re both good men - complicated, but essentially good men.

But they’re enemies and they’re trying to kill each other. That, to me, is much more interesting than the epic battle of good versus evil. And it’s what season two is all about.

Game of Thrones Season 2 airs on M-Net (101) from Friday April 13 at 21:30, with the repeat episode airing on the following Sunday at 22:05.

A chat with the creators of the thrilling series about what to expect in season two, airing on M-Net from April 13.
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