The showrunners of Game of Thrones are taking some big questions about season 5. Below, David Benioff and Dan Weiss (along with producer Bryan Cogman) tease what’s in store for fans of HBO’s acclaimed fantasy hit this year, while tackling issues like the show’s increasing divergence from George R.R. Martin’s novels and this year’s toughest production challenges. We have a lot of topics to explore, so let’s get right to it (and don’t worry, we’re avoiding spoilers):
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Now that you’re done shooting, what strikes you as the most unique thing about the new season?
David Benioff: Worlds are colliding. For so long, we’ve been in separate continents, and finally this season we’re starting to see some crossover. Tyrion and Arya—at end of season 4, we saw two major characters bound for Essos. That changes everything for us. It’s exciting to see our familiar characters in unfamiliar locales and interact with each other, and hopefully we’ll see more of this as the story progresses.
Dan Weiss: It’s almost like Boggle—or is it Yahtzee?—where you shake up the dice and reshuffle. One of the pleasures of the show is being able to breathe [in] new energy and life, not just by doing things bigger and more elaborate—which we are going to be doing—but by playing people against each other who we’re really invested in, who have never met before in the show.
Bryan Cogman: The storylines are blending in exciting ways. It’s like Phase 2 of Thrones. The set pieces and scope of the world has expanded hugely. It’s going to be a very rich season. Also, a lot of our major characters in one way or another find themselves in positions of power. Some are seeking it, and some stumble into it. And if there’s one common thread, it’s what they do in these positions of power—you got this thing, so what happens next? What’s great about George’s world is exploring what it really means to be a leader and a ruler. You’re going to see more of the intricacies of politics in a fascinating way. The other thing is having characters come into contact with one another.
The trailer shows that Tyrion [Peter Dinklage] sets off to find Dany this year. But let’s run down some of our other favorite characters who have big arcs this season. Arya [Maisie Williams]?
Benioff: Arya is going to Braavos to find her destiny there, which is fascinating for us. She’s been wandering the moors for years in the same costume, and this year she gets a new costume, new hairdo, new people to pal around with—or fight with, as the case may be. It’s an exciting season for Arya and Maisie loves it.
Jon Snow [Kit Harington]?
Benioff: It’s a huge season for Jon. He’s really stepping up and assuming the mantle of leadership. In the wake of the Battle for Castle Black, he’s shown he’s a leader of men. He took control and really saved the day. This season, he starts from a position of more authority than he’s ever had before, and all the responsibilities and pressures that come from that. He’s caught between two powerful kings, Stannis Baratheon [Stephen Dillane] and Mance Rayder [Ciarán Hinds], both of whom he admires in some ways but also finds frustrating because neither is willing to compromise.
Cersei [Lena Headey]?
Benioff: In some ways, she’s really alone now. Cersei is not someone who should be on her own for too long because she has dark ideas, and now has the means to implement those ideas. It’s a powerhouse season for the character, and the way Lena has stepped into that has been incredible to watch.
Dany [Emilia Clarke]?
Benioff: She’s been incredibly successful as a conquerer, and now she’s having difficulty ruling. Conquering is binary—you either lose or win. But ruling is making complicated decisions every day, where there often are no right answers. It’s just a matter of who you’re going to piss off over the course of the day. She’s struggling to maintain her sense of justice and to do the right thing, and learning that’s impossible when ruling a city as large as Meereen.
We’re going to Dorne. What excites you about adding this kingdom?
Weiss: We were so happy to be able to include it. We didn’t know if it would fit, to be honest—because of budgeting, scheduling and story reasons. There were a lot of ways we had to cram it in. But it’s such an important place. Of all the places in Westeros you’d ever want to live, the Dornish seem to have figured out the right approach to life. It’s the one most aligned with what our approach to life would be if we weren’t making this show. It’s our Brazil—we dream of Dorne and the way they do things down there. And Indira Varma [who was introduced as Ellaria Sand last season]—once you have someone of her caliber, you want to double down on that casting strength. Also the Sand Snakes are such a fun, exciting addition to that world. [Prince Oberyn Martell] opened up a tiny window into this world last season, and now you get to go through that window and see what kind of world this is that made this person we loved so much.
What was the biggest challenge this year?
Weiss: The biggest production challenge is there are two scenes that are so much larger in scale than anything we’ve tried to do. Maybe 17 days to shoot one sequence. That’s something we’ve never attempted before. There are lot of special effects pieces in that scene.
Benioff: Every year gets more difficult. We keep hoping one season will be easier, but this one is the hardest in part because we’re shooting more exteriors than we ever have before.
More dragon action this season too, I hear?
Benioff: As they grow, they become more complex. Dany said she was the Mother of Dragons and she didn’t mean that as a metaphorical thing, but that they are the only children she will ever have. They’re bigger in terms of personality and in terms of their actual size, and that makes them more complicated to deal with in story terms and production terms. You talk about characters having their most important seasons so far, this is definitely the biggest season the dragons have had to date.
One actor noted that getting the budget you needed was less of an issue this time.
Weiss: The money issue was largely supplanted by the time issue. There’s still the money issue; since television budgets are not movie budgets, you’re always making Sophie’s choices in terms of visual effects. We ran up against the absolute limit of how many days we can shoot in a year.
This season, you’re taking more detours from the books.
Benioff: I think every season has been a little bit more. The first season was extremely faithful. The next season had a few more deviations. Each season has had to go a little more. If we were to remain entirely faithful to A Feast for Crows, half the characters—the most popular characters—would be absent from the screen this season. It’s always been about adapting the series as a whole and following the map George laid out for us and hitting the major milestones, but not necessarily each of the stops along the way. It’s an adaptation, it will have to adapt in order to survive. There are always going to be some people who want everything to remain exactly as in the books. For us, it was never a choice.
Cogman: This is the riskiest season, from a storytelling perspective, and certainly the most difficult. We were faced with adapting two huge books and following up on arcs and themes that—while certainly inspired by the books—were a little more our own thing.
Once you start to get closer to the end of George’s published material, there must be a switch in the dynamic with the actors too—nobody will know how long they have.
Benioff: Absolutely. Everybody’s curious. Some actors don’t want to know. Some want to know everything. But if an actor knows their character is going to die at a certain time, we don’t want them playing like that’s going to be their fate.
George didn’t write an episode this season, so some fans wonder if you’re still on good terms.
Benioff: We don’t always agree on everything in the series, but we have a great relationship with him. George wants to finish the book, so when he decided not to write a script this year it wasn’t a contentious thing. It wasn’t a screaming match. He just felt like needed to prioritize the book, and that makes sense to us.
A question I’ve wondered for awhile: With winter coming, does that mean that some areas of the show will be winter-free? Winter, I’m assuming doesn’t impact Essos as much. And like, what’s the average snowfall in King’s Landing?
Cogman: The jury is still out on how much winter appears everywhere. We’re only really seeing evidence of winter in northern areas. What’s fun about it, though, is not only does it become a thematic part of the story, but it will become a practical part, as well. Weather will impact the story in cool ways.
The ratings go up every year. Does that add pressure to keep improving the show?
Weiss: Yep. People who watch the show, they almost enter into an unspoken contract with you, and you feel pressure to keep them excited. They’ve done you the favor of choosing your show over the many many other shows they could be watching for that 10 hours a year, and it feels like you owe them something.
Benioff: The first year working in Northern Ireland, we go through customs, and the customs officials would go, “What are you working on?” “A TV show.” “Which show is it? “Game of Thrones.” “Is that some kind of game show?” Now we come through and they say: “Don’t kill Arya!”
For more on Game of Thrones season 5 scoop, pick up this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, where we devote 30 pages to the HBO hit and traveled to three countries to go behind-the-scenes of the mega-production. Get all four collectible covers here. Previous news: HBO discusses how many years the show has left, we reveal first photos of Arya’s new look and the Sand Snakes. For ongoing Thrones news, follow @jameshibberd. Game of Thrones returns to HBO on April 12.