'Game of Thrones' showrunners talk season 2
The wait for Game of Thrones season two is nearly over. Get ready for Sunday’s premiere with EW’s in-depth interview with writer-producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the showrunners behind HBO’s acclaimed fantasy series. Without revealing any major spoilers, find out which characters get more screen time this year, how the producers pulled off shooting dragons, battles, magic and direwolves, some of the changes from George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” book series, preliminary plans for a third season (yes, Book 3 will be split), and more.
What are some of the biggest challenges of season 2?
Weiss: It’s a bigger fish to fry. It needs to be real battles and dragons and direwolves. And we’ve got all these characters that you’ve hopefully have fallen in love with that we need to keep vibrant. We’ve got all these new people who hopefully will be equally compelling. The way George has dealt with that challenge is to start making the books longer. We will have that luxury if we’re lucky enough to be allowed to continue making the series. But in terms of each season, we got 10 episodes, and that’s literally all that’s conceivable to [produce] of this particular show.
Benioff: You know, what was scary during the first season is you’re doing all this work and you have no idea if it’s just gonna sink into the ocean without a trace. At least knowing that there’s a fan base out there that’s waiting for these shows … that helped a lot.
So it’s more visually grand this time?
Weiss: Yeah. Most shows, once you’ve got the office or the apartment building that it’s set in, you’ve got it. You have that asset where the vast bulk of your principle action is going to take place. For us, we just keep adding new locations.
Like Iceland. How was that?
Benioff: The whole reason we’re going there, of course, is to better portray North of the Wall. We were actually facing the unsatisfying, extravagant, expensive possibility of snowing up a field in the middle of Ireland and having people walk into green screens. Or we could go to the most beautiful scene on earth and stick people on a the middle of a glacier. It’s just so much more exciting than shooting with a green screen.
Weiss: Our general approach with everything is if there’s something real that we can build on and use effects to turn into our world, that’s always better. It’s always going to be better to start with a real foundation, whether it’s a castle or a canyon encampment, or whatever. In Iceland, there’s not a damn thing you need to do. It looks like no other place on earth.
I heard there was a blizzard? Is that accurate?
Benioff: There was a blizzard. There was a shot where Samwell’s talking to Jon and he looks normal. You cut to Jon, then you cut back to Samwell and he looks like Father Time — like with the snow and the ice just frozen onto his face in just a matter of seconds. It’s really hard to do continuity. [But the actors] never complained once.
Weiss: I knew it was gonna be pretty rough [on Kit Harington] and there’s no shelter out there for six, eight hours in very cold conditions. And I went up to talk to Kit on his first day of shooting and asked, “How you doing?” He said, “I’ve never ever had a day of shooting that I loved as much as this.”
How’s the tone of the scripts evolved this season?
Weiss: There is more humor. It’s about letting light shine in through this dark world. It’s about preserving a sense that there will be people on the show who end up going through the fire and they’re coming out stronger and better.
More sex, less sex, than season 2?
Weiss: It seems about the same. There’s not a checklist. You just have to do what feels right to you and not worry too much about it. [You don’t] start counting how many breasts per episode or how many full‑frontal male nudity shots. There are always going to be people who think there’s too much. There will be some who want to see less. One of the benefits of HBO that we can give a more well‑rounded representation of life. And that sex is a part of it and darkness is a part of it, and so is the humor.
Does anybody have a nude scene in season 2 that didn’t have one in season 1?
Weiss: I will say the answer is yes. I can’t say who.
You also got a bigger budget this time around. Was that tough to get?
Benioff: We went in asking for more money, a considerable sum, in order to shoot the battle scenes. We didn’t get everything we wanted. But [the conversation with HBO wasn’t about] ‘Will this attract more viewers? Is this something that’s gonna pump ratings?’ It was all about why this story needs this big battle. And so it was really a long conversation about how the second season builds towards [a battle sequence].
About that big battle sequence [which I’m playing coy with here for those who haven’t read the book]. Can you give a sense of what that was like to shoot?
Benioff: It was pretty much a month straight of night shoots, which is just tough for anybody unless you’re a vampire. It’s Belfast nights, which means it’s cold and it’s usually wet. There was an incredible amount of mud. It’s tough for the crew, but then when you see it on screen and see how good it looks, you see the way the weather affects people. You see the wind blowing their hair and the rain coming down. None of that’s faked.
Is this season better than season one?
Is this season better than season one?
Benioff: It looks better. I think the cast is taking it to another level. I think the directors did an incredible job. [But] I don’t have any distance from it, so it’s impossible to know. I didn’t know last year if anything worked. I really didn’t know if people were gonna understand what was going on. I was generally terrified that people would watch it and be like, “Wait. Who’s brothers with who?” … From the beginning we’d always prayed we’d get to season three at least because, you know, two of our favorite scenes from the entire saga are in season three.
Of course. The Scene Which Shall Not Be Named.
Benioff: The scene that we cannot mention. I just remember reading the book before we’d even written the pilot and thinking, “Oh, my God, we’ve got to get this. We’ve got to get this show to happen because if we can make this scene work, it’s gonna be one of the greatest things ever on television or film.”
There’s more magic this season too. How are you handling not breaking the sense of realism in the show?
Weiss: We’re well within the bounds of grounded‑ness. When supernatural things happen, they happen infrequently enough that they’re still startling. By the time the next thing comes along, your roots in the story are deep enough that it doesn’t yank you out.
Also you’re using real wolves this season?
Benioff: There’s a difference. Just those wolf eyes looking at you. Those dogs did a perfectly fine job last season but there’s always a little bit of, “That’s not really a wolf, that’s a dog.” You know when a wolf is staring at you and it makes a big difference, so that makes me very happy.
Weiss: We’ll get to see what a bigger direwolf can do to a person.
How much screen time do the dragons get?
Weiss: Ideally you have enough of them and not too much of them. If you’re in a scene where you and I are talking and there’s a dragon sitting next to my water bottle, then you may as well be talking gibberish because no one’s going to see anything except the dragon. You have to be careful with that stuff and not use it when it’s going to be detrimental to what you’re trying to put across.
And you don’t want them to become mundane.
Weiss: And that also. There is a desensitization that happens. I’m not pointing fingers and naming names, but when I watch some movies where the sky’s the limit, I find myself not caring that much about the effects because I’ve already seen everything by the middle of the film. And then I’m also not invested in the people in the film because I’ve been spending all my time gorging on all this amazingly well‑done visual effects work, but to the exclusion of actually paying attention to what’s going on with the characters … When we’re writing, we try to write the perfect version [of the episode]. The version you would love to see. Bringing [the story] in line with [a budget then] actually forces you to think really hard about what’s important. People who have access to unlimited resources don’t have to make those choices. Sometimes maybe things are stronger for having to make them.
More or less deviations from the book this season?
Weiss: Definitely more, only because there are characters who are off screen in the book. A lot of the changes keep people front and center who are very important characters.
Benioff: We’re adapting “A Song of Ice and Fire.” So we’re bringing in elements from [Book 3] A Storm of Swords. We don’t think of this season as being strictly an adaptation of A Clash of Kings, it’s really a continuation of our adaptation of the series as a whole. For our purposes, moving some stuff forward helps a lot and pushing some stuff back helps us a lot.
Like Robb and Jaime, who didn’t have much to do in the second book.
Weiss: Richard Madden is just so great … we need to keep [fans] watching the most stylish man in Scotland… And Nicolai [Coster-Waldau] doing such an amazing job of bringing this character to life and so many people have gotten invested in him.
Benioff: Some of it is falling in love with the actors and what they’re doing. You know, Charles Dance [Tywin Lannister] is so perfect. He didn’t have a lot to do in book two. And we just wanted more of him.
Any characters getting more screen time this year?
Weiss: There’s more Tyrion, obviously, and there’s more Cersei. A lot more Cersei. The biggest increase percentage wise from last season is Theon. He has a major storyline and it’s one of my absolute favorites … He’s kind of like Gollum. He’s the one who’s the most shadowy, like you don’t know is he’s good or not, but he’s not really evil, either.
Is the end point of Season 2 the same as the book?
Is the end point of Season 2 the same as the book?
Weiss: Not exactly the same. We’re doing it just like last year. We took a couple of things from other books and brought them into the show. I don’t want to spoil any surprises.
Any extra fights?
Weiss: I think the Hound has more fighting than maybe he does in the book.
And are you still planning to split Book 3 into two seasons?
Benioff: As George and all his fans have said for a long time, there’s no way to do it in a single season, so it’s being broken into two. We’re still kind of figuring out exactly what goes where. We don’t want it to feel like a two-part season. Another rumor is that we’re shooting both seasons simultaneously, which would be a really efficient way to do things, but you can’t write it.
Weiss: Season three, we’re talking about it as if we have a green light. We’re all optimistic about it, but we won’t know until after the second season starts to air.
Give the rising cost of effects and battles, could you have still hired another big name actor like Sean Bean this year for one of the new characters?
Weiss: You can. You decide if you absolutely need somebody who is well‑known to play a role. And you have that cost‑cutting analysis. I sound like an accountant… but honestly, it’s something we never came up against this year. It wasn’t like we said, “We need Daniel Day-Lewis to play Stannis.” [The new actors] performances were so compelling and so overpowering that we decided that this person is far and away the most interesting person we saw for this role. Like Gemma Whelan came in for the role [of Theon’s sister] and I seem to remember her not looking the same as the character in the book. But she is the character now and so overpoweringly great that I can’t imagine anybody else being the character.
And there are black actors this time too. Was that a conscious decision?
Weiss: It was the last thing on anybody’s mind. It wasn’t like, “Let’s cast a black guy for this role.” But if we can, let’s cast this specific person because he’s far and away the most compelling person we’ve seen for this role.
Plus you also add several major new characters, particularly Melisandre and Stannis.
Weiss: Talk about complicated relationships. She’s a priestess of this religion who is ruthless. By her own admission she’s willing to do anything to advance her agenda, to get her religion moved to Westeros. And Stannis wants the throne — not out of greed or power-lust, but because he’s a man who’s always done everything by the book and the book now says, “I should be king” because he’s the rightful heir. So you have a man who’s completely righteous and we have a woman who’s completely willing to do anything.
Director Alan Taylor (who shot the pivotal Episode 9 and four episodes for season two) was snatched up to shoot the Thor sequel. Will you guys renew your contracts after season two?
Benioff: We want to keep working on the show and they want to keep us working on it. So I feel like that’s not going to be an issue. We hope to keep going as long as we can, because we love it.
Weiss: We went into this with the potentially over-ambitious notion that to get to the end we would have 70 or 80 hours of continuous, consistent film stories. I don’t know that anybody’s ever really done that before. We’d love to do it.
Thrones was nominated for best drama series Emmy. Do you think a fantasy series can win the top prize?
Weiss: I think we can win it.
Benioff: Yeah. I feel like it sometimes takes awhile for people to get their heads around that notion. But you’re aiming to do the best work you can do.
You guys often work separately overseeing different units. When you see each others’ footage, was there ever a time when one of you said, “No! Not like that!”
Benioff: Once, in season one, you see Maester Aemon chopping meat.
Weiss: Why can’t a blind guy chop meat?
Benioff: He can definitely. I just think: Wouldn’t you probably have your steward do it? I look at the dailies and I called him, ‘Why is this blind 100-year-old man chopping meat?'”
Weiss: The actor doing the chopping, Peter Vaughan, he’s actually legally blind. So whatever he was doing, he’s a blind person doing it. I stand behind that.
ALSO: Check out EW’s Inside TV Podcast this week where we talk Game of Thrones and Spartacus (we’ll have a Sparty showrunner interview tonight after the bloody finale).
ALSO ALSO: Check out our recaps of the first season here — and be sure to go to EW.com this Sunday night for our Thrones season 2 premiere recap.
Game of Thrones
HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series 'A Song of Ice and Fire.'