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'Game of Thrones' producer: Season 6 not as dark as last year

Bryan Cogman interview: New episodes to include callbacks to show’s past

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HBO

In a conversation with EW, Game of Thrones writer-producer Bryan Cogman tackles some of our burning pre-season questions, teasing some of the global shifts coming to Westeros and Essos. Plus, Cogman reveals how the show is going to explore the mythology of the series in new ways, and talks about the inherent pressure of creating the first season set almost entirely beyond the narrative scope of George R.R. Martin’s novels.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First: How would you tease up this season?

BRYAN COGMAN: Season 5 was about taking characters to the brink — and for certain characters like Stannis and Jon, destroying them altogether. We left our central characters in huge moments of crisis and at their lowest points last year. All of them are now trying to rebuild their lives. Season 5 was in many ways our darkest. This season is still very dark, very intense, but it’s very much a next act.

What’s unique compared to previous years? 

This many seasons in, you have the chance as a storyteller to draw on the past in a way we haven’t been able to do before. There are a lot of thematic and explicit callbacks to season 1, and the seasons that preceded this one, and even to events that preceded them — in terms of the mythology. There’s also a trend that began in season 5 and continues even more so in this season of worlds colliding, with characters meeting in hopefully very unexpected ways. Seasons 2–4 were about the expansion of this world; seasons 5 and 6 are about contracting. Characters who were rivals, and in some cases enemies, are being forced to work together, which makes for a lot of juicy dramatic tension. And then there’s the obvious answer in terms of the size of the show. We say this every year, but it’s true — this is the biggest season of Game of Thrones. It took me by surprise, just how big it is — and I helped write it! This is also the first season in awhile where we did read-throughs with the cast.

What prompted the table reads?

The scope of this season was so vast that we felt hearing the storylines all together out loud and seeing how it played would be beneficial — especially since we are creating a lot of this stuff ourselves based on themes and ideas from George’s books. There was a proof of concept we wanted from the read-throughs. We separated the read-throughs by storyline. We did a day of the Northern storyline, a day of King’s Landing, a day of the East. Hearing the arcs play out isolated was hugely helpful. I remember thinking: “Holy s–t, this is huge, how are we going to do this?”

Your biggest action sequence yet is a part of that scope.

Yes. Definitely. We’ve always wanted to get to a place, story-wise and budget-wise and time-wise and resource-wise, when we would be able to do a proper battle — with one army on one side, one army on another side. 

Also, of course, fans are really not going to know what’s coming…

Which is scary, but exciting. It was the hardest season to write for that very reason. While we’re still drawing from a lot of situations and arcs in the books, it’s obviously not a direct adaptation of any of the books this year. I will say you’ll see character versions and interpretations that are in some of the previous books that we hadn’t gotten to yet. I think of it as Westeros 2 — the alternate universe version of Westeros. There’s the book universe and a show universe and this is what happens in the show universe. 

You’re the one producer on this show who will actually submerge their head in the Internet reactions, in social media, which is — 

Stupid.

Well, I don’t know that it’s stupid. I can respect David and Dan for choosing to stay offline. And I also think it’s smart to have at least one producer representing the show in the online space. But it can be rough putting yourself out there to be the focus of online feedback. 

If anything, it’s probably the lapsed actor in me that craves audience feedback. But it must be said that as much publicity the negative comments receive, the overwhelming majority of comments are supportive and positive. It’s not lost on me that it’s a rare and wonderful thing to be able to entertain this many people. And I’d rather be a part of something that gets a dialogue going than part of something boring that’s forgotten five minutes later.  

After winning all those Emmys last year, has that added pressure to making season 6?  

It didn’t really. Apart from it being wonderful validation of all the hard work everybody has put into it all these years, the beauty of it was we were shooting the show in two countries as we were winning. We partied that night and went back to work. It was nice to win this many years into the show because it felt like an award for all five seasons, not just for season 5. We would be doing the same thing even if we haven’t won. We’re just making the best season we can.

Was there something sweet about winning for the season that got the most controversy?

Sure, that was gratifying. We told our story and put our characters through what we put them through for a reason. We knew in the writing and execution it was our darkest and most troubling season, but I believe very strongly that that’s drama. We put our characters through hell, but it’s a very carefully thought-out hell. Season 5 was meant to break a lot of these characters down. A lot of people were upset but the majority of the audience and the Emmy voters understood it’s part of a grand scheme and I think viewers know we’re aiming toward something. There are things we did last year that we’ve laid the track for over five seasons. Doomsday people were saying viewers were going to leave in droves and that hasn’t been the case.

They’ve been saying that since Ned Stark died and the numbers go up every year. 

People also say we love to terrorize the Game of Thrones audience. That’s not how we see it. Ultimately it’s putting characters through situations that are realistic. This is a story about a world war, and war is hell on everybody. The innocents and the vulnerable play a terrible price for the games rulers play. I’ve been listening to this podcast on World War I and you think what we do on Thrones is terrible, look at world history, look at what’s happening now. We’re not pulling this stuff out of thin air. It’s a very easy, and frankly very lazy thing to say, “Oh, they’re just doing this for shock value.” If that makes you feel better, fine, but we don’t do anything for shock value. The idea that we’re sitting around going, “What can we do to this person to shock people next?” … that’s not how this works. 

So overall, what’s been the greatest challenge this season? 

Not letting everyone get overwhelmed by the size of it and keeping your eye on the prize — the clarity of the characters and their motivations. You can obsess about a sequence or a line of action, but if you lose sight of the story then none of it matters. So I think about keeping everything grounded and remembering what we want to achieve and to set up for the future. The good news is we’ve been doing this for a long time now and everybody knows what they’re doing. Everybody involved knows how to tell this story at this point. There is no show like this on the planet. And anybody who tells you there is hasn’t worked on this show. 

For more on season 6, follow @jameshibberd for ongoing GoT coverage, sign up for our Thrones email newsletter, bookmark this page for the latest GoT stories, and subscribe now to our season 6 podcast. Preview:

Game of Thrones returns to HBO on April 24.