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The penultimate season of HBO’s Game of Thrones is less than three weeks away and EW has its annual pre-season interview with Emmy-winning showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. The duo take some of our burning questions with their usual spoiler-free mix of insight and wit as they give fans a sense of their international hit drama’s unprecedented massiveness this season — as well some thoughts on Dany’s dragons, Tormund’s fixation on Brienne, the one scene they wish they could write, and more… (Note: Some of their comments have been previously published — so regular readers of EW’s GoT coverage will have a few moments of deju vu — but there is also new material scattered throughout).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’ll start with the most important question first: Is there an ending to Tyrion’s “I once brought a jackass and a honeycomb into a brothel…” joke? And if there is, and if it’s never going to be told in the show, can you tell us what it is?
Dan Weiss: We can’t tell you. We have three teams of comedy writers working on that joke.
David Benioff: Louis CK, Amy Schumer and Tig Notaro are in three different rooms trying to come up with that.
Okay if not that, then what strikes you most about season 7?
Weiss: To me what’s most exciting is being able to play interactions between various characters that for years we haven’t been able to play. There’s a whole bunch of reunions and first time meetings that people have been waiting for for a long time and when you put it on paper you just want to do justice to the work that these guys have done building these characters over so many years. You want to give them as much as you can.
Benioff: Everyone steps up their game every season. I know you probably get sick of hearing us say that. We say it every year. But it’s kind of astounding to us. We were looking at a battle scene and we set more stuntmen on fire in one of these shots than have ever been simultaneously set on fire … But every department constantly improves, from the effects to the acting. [Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner] have been great from the beginning and how they’ve grown as actors — I mean everybody in the cast has, but in them it’s especially pronounced since they started as kids. Now we’re coming into the final season and it’s very gratifying. We’ve managed to keep everybody on the same path moving the same direction for so long.
The pace is faster this year, the actors are saying.
Benioff: For a long time we’ve been talking about “the wars to come.” That war is pretty much here. So it’s really trying to find a way to make the storytelling work without feeling like we’re rushing it. You want to give characters their due, and pretty much all the characters left are important characters, even the ones who might have started out as relatively minor characters have become significant in their own right.
Weiss: The scope of the story naturally has increased season to season. That also probably feeds in a little bit into the pacing, that things are coming to a head and the war is here. It’s this urgency from within the story that drives the pace rather than any external decision. Things are moving faster because in the world of these characters the war that they’ve been waiting for is upon them, the conflicts that have been building the past six years are upon them and those facts give them a sense of urgency that makes them move faster.
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Is there a feeling of pressure to top the last two episodes in season 6, directed by Miguel Sapochnik, which some felt were the best the show has ever done?
Benioff: Yeah. It’s incredibly hard to top those two. Miguel did such a fantastic job, all the departments and actors everybody topped themselves in those episodes. So trying to live up to that standard is certainly added pressure.
You originally thought this season would be more about setting the stage for the more action-intensive final season, right?
Weiss: We didn’t think it would be about the major events on a grand scale because there are so many major events that we had been planning on a human scale. The human collisions are every bit as powerful — in a different way — as horses running into each other. It’s characters running into each other that you’ve known for so long. I hope people are as excited for that as we are.
Benioff: When we thought about this penultimate season we thought it would ramp into the final season with less action and more conversations. And I think we told [executive producer Bernie Caulfield] that and then we started planning the actual season and started realizing all the conflicts that were about to occur.
Weiss: So we handed Bernie the schedule she was like, “What the f—!? This isn’t going to be relaxing! This is going to kill [the crew] just like last year did.”
One thing I found interesting is how some main cast members say they’re working more than ever, getting more screen time, despite shooting fewer episodes.
Weiss: If you kill enough people, if you kill a couple dozen characters, the people who are left just by default need to carry more dramatic weight. As the worlds start to converge characters who haven’t met each other before start to meet each other and there are more and more main characters together in each other’s storylines than there have ever been before. Ever since Tyrion crossed the Narrow Sea and met Dany it’s been the show’s general direction. And for us, it’s so much fun because these guys don’t get to spend too much time together except when they pass like ships in the night passing to and from storylines. So having them on set together is a real privilege for us because we get to spend more time with then.
You pair several characters together this season. What are two characters — living, dead or a mix of the two — that you wish you could write a scene for?
Weiss: It would be fun to write a Tyrion/Drogo scene.
Benioff: Yeah, Drogo and Tyrion would be entertaining. I feel like they would eventually get to like each other. They’re from two different worlds but they would bond over their love of fermented yak milk or whatever and would eventually become good buddies.
If you could build an entire episode following just one character— like HBO’s The Leftovers does — which would it be?
Benioff: That’s a tough one because once you pick one as your favorite then everybody else gets excluded and it becomes like asking a grandfather which of his kids he likes best. I think it would be cool to have a whole season like that where you’re following each character on separate stories. We just can’t because we’re pushing toward the end. But all the central characters you could build an hour around and have plenty for them to do. Once or twice we’ve come close with Jon Snow in stories set almost entirely up North. Maybe that can be one of the 20 spinoffs.
Dan, do you want to annoy some actors by answering that question?
Weiss: Nah, I gotta work with these people. There are almost none of the principals that I wouldn’t love to write a bottle episode for. In hindsight, it could have been possible in some of the earlier seasons. But as this story’s momentum picks up its kind of impossible to tell this story the way it needs to be told except in a few examples like the battle at The Wall — that’s as close to a bottle episode as we’re able to come.
Benioff: We could have a eunuch episode where we get Varys, Theon and Grey Worm together to fight crime.
The dragons look amazing this year. Just how big and powerful are they?
Benioff: Well about four or five years ago we asked Joe Bauer, our visual effects maestro, if he could show us concept art from like where we were in season 3 to their full size. It was pretty incredible because they grow to an extraordinary extent. I remember thinking, “God that’s going to be complicated as hell to shoot when we finally get there.” But it seemed like one of those uptown problems when you’re in season 3 and just hoping enough people keep watching so that you eventually get to a season 7. Finally this year they’re no longer babies and it makes every scene with them more complicated to shoot. We’re seeing stuff from the visual effects team and every time they’re flying through the screen it’s impossible to take your eyes off them. I’m excited for people to watch it. It kills me that so many people watch the show on their phones because you don’t get the full glory of this on a six-inch screen.
What were some of the biggest challenges during production?
Benioff: It’s the first time we shot two battles at the same time in different countries [Spain and Northern Ireland]. It was really hard in terms of a strain on resources and manpower. That was a difficult month but we managed to get through it.
Weiss: The amount of dragon work and the nature of the dragon work was exponentially increased this year. We usually have one green cell. This time we had up to four green VFX stages working simultaneously. One of them was just [Emilia Clarke] on that dragon rig. It was a lot of time spent doing those shots.
Ed Sheeran makes an appearance this season. He told CNN, “I sing a song and then [Arya] goes, ‘Oh, that’s a nice song,’ and I go, ‘It’s a new one.'” Outlets reported that like it was true. I thought he might be messing with them, making that part up. I know you won’t confirm if that scene description is correct, but I’m wondering if you can say if it isn’t.
Benioff: That’s clever James. I like the mystery of it. Is Ed an honest man or not?
Weiss: The scene will really be a referendum on the character of Ed Sheeran. What kind of a person is Ed Sheeran, really? He seems like such a nice guy…
Benioff: We’ll all find out soon enough.
Of the 15 photos HBO initially released from season 7, the one of Brienne and Tormund drew the most interest from our readers. Has fandom fascination in Tormund’s attraction taken you by surprise? And has that inspired you to play with that a bit more this year?
Benioff: That scene last season when Tormund was eating and lasciviously staring at Brienne was one of our favorites. Usually, when we really love something there are a few other people who like it as well. It’s great because there was no dialogue written for that, or major stage direction, there was just a line like, “He stares at Brienne because he’s never seen a woman like that before.” And then we let the actors do what they do.
Weiss: There was the episode where they’re all leaving Castle Black together and there’s a shot — it wasn’t scripted at all — of two of them on horseback and she looks at him and he smiles at her. It’s not something you could ever write. It’s just this moment where this guy is creeping out on her and he smiles in a way that makes her very uncomfortable and she just looks away. I saw it 150 times and every time it made me laugh; it’s purely the two of them.
Benioff: It inspires us because we need to kill one of them now because there can’t be a happy ending or any romantic connection on the show. But we’re not going to tell you which one.
Ha! … at least, I assume you’re kidding. Any super-sized episodes this season?
Weiss: There is definitely one that is considerably over 60. We have two episodes over 60 minutes this year.
Benioff: One will be our longest episode ever. It always amazed me when I watched Breaking Bad and they could get every episode so perfect and they would all be like 42 minutes and 40 seconds or something. Which is its own separate skill amongst everything else that went into making a show that [creator] Vince Gilligan and his team were able to do. One of the things we’re lucky about is we don’t have the same pressure. We have one episode that’s coming in around 90 minutes and another that’s going to be our shortest episode at 50 minutes. Those episodes are better at those lengths but I’m glad we didn’t have the additional pressure Vince had.
Can you imagine having to write five commercial act breaks into each hour of Game of Thrones?
Weiss: That was one of the things when we started doing this, we told HBO, that that’s what made their network such an enticing place — we don’t have to get out of the way for the toothpaste ad and wrap everything up in a neat bow that feels like the end of an act where you don’t want the end of an act to be happening that breaks the spell of what you’re doing.
Benioff: Overseas it’s aired some places with commercials and it’s not written for these breaks so it’s always a bit random. It’s not the broadcasters fault, there’s just no natural place to put the ads. So it’s always disorientating when I watch it over there.
You’re currently writing the show’s final season. How’s that going?
Benioff: It’s nearly completed. Well, I shouldn’t say “nearly.”
Weiss: I wouldn’t go that far. It’s exciting but there’s always pressure. You don’t ever want to drop the ball.
And the odds of it airing in 2019 instead of 2018?
Benioff: We honestly don’t know yet. There’s been a lot of back and forth about air dates. That’s a long way off from being settled.
There’s been so much speculation about how this story will end. Is there anything you can do to spoiler protect the final episodes from leaks that you haven’t done before?
Weiss: Ehhhh. We don’t even want to tell you because if we do then somebody will figure out how to circumvent the things that we’re doing.
Benioff: You were there in Austin [at SXSW] and we were talking about how even the CIA and NSA are unable to prevent leaks. It’s incredibly hard for anybody for a show of this size, with so many people working on it, and all you need is one person — and it’s not necessarily a bad egg among the crew members. The leak can be a relative or roommate to somebody with access to the scripts who decides to try and get a few Facebook friends. It becomes harder every year as the show and the viewership expands. Thankfully there are so many false rumors — which makes us happy, because it becomes harder for people to know what’s real and what’s not real. We will do everything we can to keep [leaks] from happening but some of this is on people who watch the show [to avoid posted spoilers].
Weiss: The idea experiencing a story in Cliff Notes fashion first [by reading spoilers online] and then watching it … I don’t get it.
Benioff: We always talk about how the first several seasons were faithful to the books and anybody who wanted to could go onto Wikipedia and learn Ned Stark gets beheaded or about The Red Wedding and most people don’t want to know — because why ruin a story?
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Game of Thrones is back on July 16.