In 2015, I interviewed Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. During a very busy period of production, they were kind enough to answer some questions I had for my ABR feature article, The Golden Age of Television?
This is the whole interview, released for the first time.
After heavy-weight graduate degrees in literature you started out as novelists, and also wrote features – what drew you to television writing?
A Game of Thrones. George’s books had been sent our way to consider adapting for film, but one hundred pages into the first book it became clear that this story was too complex, the canvas too large for a 2.5 hour treatment. The complexity and scale of the tale is what makes it epic, and the only way we could imagine adapting it for screen was if we he had ten hours per book (or 20 in the case of A Storm of Swords). So it was more about choosing the proper medium for the story than anything else.
Critics say the past 15 years have been a golden age of television – do you agree? If so, why?
Absolutely. From The Sopranos to Deadwood, from The Wire to Breaking Bad, the most memorable characters created on screen in the last fifteen years or so have been on the small screen. Which movie character during that time span has become a part of the cultural imagination in the manner of Tony Soprano or Walter White?
There’s a tongue-in-cheek video that imagines the title sequence of Game of Thrones as a 1995 network show (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fPgIIB67bw). Aside from technological developments in VFX, what changes in the TV industry have given you the freedom to make Game of Thrones the way it is?
One major change is the growth of the cable networks. The censorship at the broadcast networks stifles innovation, experimentation, and subversive behavior. For instance, a friend of ours who works on a network show reported that Standards & Practices had recently banned the word “crazy.” How crazy is that?
A network never would have allowed us to adapt Game of Thrones with the pronounced sexuality and violence that define the books. They never would have allowed us to kill the leading man in the first season.
You’ve brought the traditionally niche genre of fantasy to a broad TV audience. Have you actively sought to do that? If so, how?
We wanted the show to appeal to people who don’t consider themselves fantasy fans, yes. For instance, our wives. The truth is, regardless of genre, a show only succeeds if people care about the characters. The audience reaction to Ned’s death or the Red Wedding was not dependent on magic or monsters. At heart this show’s concerns are the same as any decent story’s concerns, in any genre: love; death; family, and thousand-year-old ice demons.
Your show has novelistic reach in narrative scale and character complexity, and cinematic scope in production values / battle sequences / use of CGI. Critics suggest that television is now the dominant cultural medium of our age – do you agree? Is TV king?
I suppose some could argue that video games or social media are now the dominant cultural medium. Certainly in terms of numbers, far more people are playing the latest Call of Duty or World of Warcraft than are watching Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones is both beloved by a broad popular audience and written about in high-brow literary periodicals (e.g., New York Review of Books, London Review of Books). What do you think gives Game of Thrones its crossover appeal?
It’s hard to say with any authority why anything connects with a large number of diverse people. One of the things GoT seems to have going for it is that everybody comes into the story knowing the same amount about Westeros: absolutely nothing. This is a barrier to entry at first, because there’s a lot to explain, and it’s that very world-building exposition that can easily scare away non-genre viewers. But once they’re convinced to stay onboard, we think it’s an asset, because everybody can bring their own experiences to the table. Sports people can see a reflection of their world. Politics junkies can see a reflection of theirs, and history buffs, and people who work in a particularly nasty office environment.
As writers whose work spans television, the novel, and feature film, what medium do you find most artistically satisfying, and why?
Novel writing is a solitary endeavor, which can be both appealing and intimidating. Appealing because the work lives or dies on your own merits as a writer— you don’t need anything but a computer (or a typewriter or a pad of paper) to create your story. But novels are intimidating for the exact same reason. Every day you face that blank screen or sheet of paper and try to fill it with black squiggles that will mean something to someone. Every other form of writing we’ve ever tried is easier than writing a novel.
Writing a screenplay for a feature involves a bit more interaction. Generally you work with a producer or studio executives. Sometimes a director comes on board and gives notes. If you’re lucky and the movie goes into production and you’re not replaced, you get to field notes from actors. But 99% of the time it’s still just you alone in your office with your laptop. And in the end, you have no control over the final product. So in terms of artistic satisfaction, we’d rate feature writing last.
Television is the most collaborative of these mediums. As writer/producers we’re responsible not only for writing the show but also for overseeing all the other departments. That means constantly reviewing VFX, score, edits, sound mix, etc. That means flying to London for casting sessions and driving around Northern Ireland looking at locations and meeting prospective directors in Los Angeles. All of that can be tiring but it’s also a great deal of fun.
This is starting to look like a vote for television.