Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss discuss the final season of their blockbuster HBO series in a deep-dive, spoiler-free conversation. Below are new behind-the-scenes insights about creating the hugely anticipated final six episodes of the global fantasy hit as the Emmy-winning duo discuss writing the finale, the season’s massive battle episode, author George R.R. Martin’s contribution, fears about spoiler leakage, their favorite scenes, and their rare arguments amid an obsessive drive to create the best possible drama. (Note: A few of these quotes were previously published in EW’s season 8 cover stories.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So here you are. The final season. How is it? Are you happy?
DAVID BENIOFF: It’s still too early to say.
DAN WEISS: It could end up being a complete mess.
You guys always say that. Every season.
BENIOFF: Yeah. But every year there’s a bit more pressure. There’s no, “Well, we’ll get it right next year.” This is it.
How long have you known the broad strokes of the final season storyline?
BENIOFF: I remember the two of us talking in season 3.
WEISS: We’ve known the major beats for at least five years.
Was this a situation where, because you were thinking about the final season for so long, it was easier than usual when it came time to actually write the episodes?
WEISS: On the one hand, when you’ve been working on something for 10 years, knowing you’re writing the last episodes is harder because there’s a lot more weight and pressure on those scenes. “Is a line right?” seems more important than in seasons past. On the other hand, the motivations behind each scene are something you’ve been thinking about for five years, so the foundations in your mind are stronger for what you’re putting on paper. But you still find yourself spending a lot more time to get it right.
You’re used to giving scripts to your cast and hearing their reactions. Your cast has such ownership over these characters and you only had six episodes to wrap the story. Were you nervous when you sent them out?
BENIOFF: We knew exactly when our script coordinator sent them out. We knew exactly what minute they sent them. And then you’re just waiting for them to email.
WEISS: Why aren’t they writing? Does that mean they like it? Does that mean they hate it?
BENIOFF: [Sophie Turner] was the first one to write, so she gets credit for racing through all six scripts in like an hour or something. But some hadn’t read it until the table read.
Kit Harington waited, I heard.
WEISS: That was funny. “F—. Does he hate it? If he hates it, does that mean we got it wrong?” We spent a lot of time thinking about his character. We saw him on the day of the table read and said: “So?” And he’s like [in a husky Kit Harington impression], “Oh, I haven’t read it. I want to experience it the first time in this room.”
BENIOFF: Which ended up being really fun.
WEISS: It was great, and it was a huge relief.
Did any of the actors say, “This wasn’t what I wanted for my character?”
BENIOFF: I don’t think anyone said anything like that.
WEISS: They seemed to get the dramatic necessity behind it.
I heard you guys read the cast the riot act at the table read about spoilers, “Not even a photo of your boots on the set.”
WEISS: Yeah. You do your best. It’s getting harder and harder.
BENIOFF: I think we’ve said to you before: If the NSA and CIA can’t protect all of their information, what hope do we have? Stuff is going to leak no matter what, so you try your best to limit it. There’s always going to be a certain level of douchery, of people trying to spoil things. But luckily most people out there don’t want the story to be spoiled.
WEISS: On Wikipedia during season 1, you could read that we’re cutting Ned Stark’s head off. The fact that everybody knew what was in those first books made people less interested in trying to ferret it out. When it’s something nobody knows, it oddly makes people more inclined to go digging.
BENIOFF: We won’t be relieved until the final episode airs without a leak. We’re certainly happy we got through production without a leak. But there have been issues that have happened in postproduction, or a week before an episode airs. So we’re entering the most dangerous time.
You took so many precautions. I remember at one point there was a team trying to forensically calculate the exact spot that somebody took a distant photograph from a building to try and then block that particular vantage point.
BENIOFF: At one point we set up these giant shipping containers on the street so nobody would see what we were shooting. Then this concert series came to Belfast and it was right across the street and they put up this giant Ferris wheel.
WEISS: They basically put up a viewing platform of our set.
BENIOFF: I remember being with Dan and seeing this thing being built and going, “Well, there goes that. Months and months of security preparation and now there’s a Ferris wheel.”
How much of this season is from discussing the ending with George R.R. Martin?
BENIOFF: [The concern] used to be that the books would spoil the show for people — and luckily it did not, for the most part. Now that the show is ahead of the books, it seems the show could ruin the books for people. So one thing we’ve talked to George about is that we’re not going to tell people what the differences are, so when those books come out people can experience them fresh.
WEISS: It’s kind of nice for him because — obviously through necessity we’ve pulled out ahead — the show has become so different [in recent seasons] that people will have no way knowing from watching what will or won’t appear in the books. And honestly, neither do we.
BENIOFF: We don’t. And George discovers a lot of stuff while he’s writing. I don’t think that final book is written in stone yet — it’s not written on paper yet. As George says, he’s a gardener and he’s waiting to see how those seeds blossom.
With serialized shows, there is so much pressure on the finale. People’s opinion of the last episode can color how they feel about the whole series. How important is it to you that final episode sticks the landing?
WEISS: We want people to love it. It matters a lot to us. We’ve spent 11 years doing this. We also know no matter what we do, even if it’s the optimal version, that a certain number of people will hate the best of all possible versions. There is no version where everybody says, “I have to admit, I agree with every other person on the planet that this is the perfect way to do this” — that’s an impossible reality that doesn’t exist. You hope you’re doing the best job you can, that this version works better than any other version, but you know somebody is not going to like it. I’ve been that person with other things, where people are loving something and I’m going, “Yeah, that’s okay. I was hoping for more.”
BENIOFF: From the beginning, we’ve talked about how the show would end. A good story isn’t a good story if you have a bad ending. Of course we worry. It’s also part of the fun of any show that people love arguing about it. I loved the way David Chase ended The Sopranos [with its surprising cut to black]. I was one of those people who thought my TV had gone out. I got up and was checking the wires, unable to believe my cable had gone out in the most important moment of my favorite TV series. I think that was the best of all possible endings for that show. But a lot of people hated it. I’ve gotten into a lot of arguments with people about why that was a great ending, but people felt legitimately cheated and that’s their right to feel that way, just as it’s my right to feel like they’re idiots. I’ll always remember being on the subway headed to Yankees Stadium a couple days after the Sopranos ending aired. And there were like three different conversations in the subway and they were all about the exact same thing.
I didn’t like The Sopranos ending the first time I saw it. A few years ago I rewatched the series and loved the ending. But that was also because I came away with the firm belief that Tony died, and that gave me a sense of resolution. Knowing that ending was coming, it felt like the final season clearly foreshadowed his death and the way the final scene was constructed heavily implied it.
BENIOFF: Once it cuts to black, the show’s over. Either way, it works for me. Somebody put together that long detailed explanation of why Tony’s dead. It’s incredibly convincing. But at the same time, that’s not part of the show. Once it cuts to black nobody knows, and that’s what great about it. The only sad part is nobody can ever do that ending again.
WEISS: Except us.
BENIOFF: Except for our black screen.
WEISS: I remember talking with [director] Alan Taylor, who worked on our show and The Sopranos, asking whether “Don’t Stop Believin’” was a song David Chase liked or whether it’s a song David Chase loathed but thought Tony Soprano would like. And there’s not even an answer to that. I’m hoping we get the Breaking Bad [finale] argument where it’s like, “Is that an A or an A+?” I want that to be the argument. I just wish we found better directors for it.
What made you decide to direct the finale yourselves? As I heard that news, my first thought was: They probably didn’t want to have to trust one additional person with their ending.
WEISS: We trust our directors. When something has been sitting with you for so long, you have such a specific sense of the way each moment should play and feel. Not just in terms of “this shot or that shot,” though sometimes it’s that as well. So it’s not really fair to ask somebody else to get that right. We’d be lurking over their shoulder every take driving them crazy, making it hard for them to do their job. If we’re going to drive anybody crazy, it might as well be ourselves. At least if something goes wrong, he can yell at me and I can yell at him.
Speaking of yelling at each other, you guys normally come across like you’re so in sync. Do you ever fight? Is there anything you two strongly disagreed about for the final season storyline?
WEISS: It wasn’t like something where five years ago one of us said, “I think this has to happen and I know this is right.” [The storyline was] something that gradually unfolded with neither of us wanting to plant a flag in the ground right out of the gate. Because what if you’re wrong? What if there’s a better idea out there and you planted a flag on the second- or third-best idea? So it was always more a “What if…” conversation than an “I think that…” So by the time we got to the place where we were outlining we already knew most of the big things.
BENIOFF: Our arguments tend to be about little detail things.
WEISS: Things like how many frames to leave at the end of a shot. Or whether the take where an actor is smiling or just sort-of smiling is better. That’s the type of thing we’ll go back and forth over for 20 pages.
BENIOFF: We had a long argument about when Dany’s dragons flew over the Dothraki whether their horses should be afraid. And Dan was like: “You know, the horses have been with her for a long while…”
WEISS: Why would they be afraid?
BENIOFF: Because they’re horses and they’re f—ing dumb and dragons are big and scary. So we’d spend like an hour on that.
WEISS: An hour discussing literally four seconds of film. Seconds that probably happen when most viewers are looking at their watch or checking their messages.
So let’s tease the final season a bit. What excites you about these last episodes?
BENIOFF: Part of what excites me is the performance of these actors. So many of them have been with us since the beginning and they’ve grown — both literally for the kids, and as characters. In many cases, they’re going so far beyond what was expected for them. Some, like Lyanna Mormont [Bella Ramsey], were just supposed to be in one scene. Bella is such an incredible actress that we kept bringing her back because we wanted more Bella. And in some cases big actors like Lena [Headey] and Peter [Dinklage], you go back to the pilot where they were already great and you look at how much richer those characters have become. To know them this well and to have their voices so clearly in your head when you write for them is a such a rare gift.
WEISS: Sometimes they’ll deliver a line and I’ll think, “No, that’s not the way you’re supposed to say that.” Because their voices are so burned into my brain. But whether it’s Maisie [Williams] or Kit, you have to go, “Do I know how they’d say that? Because they’re them.” So you take a breath and realize maybe their way is better.
But in terms of the story?
WEISS: Jon and Dany are obviously together-together now. We didn’t have much time, or any time, to explore that relationship as a real relationship in the seventh season. It came to fruition at the end. It was a lot of fun to write them meeting each other, and now there’s a new kind of relationship between them. And here they’re together from the beginning.
And, of course, there’s the massive battle episode.
WEISS: The show began with the threat in the North. From the beginning, there were all of these squabbles that were going on between people that seemed important happening against the backdrop of much larger and more momentous events that only a few people who lived on the fringes of the political world knew about. This always was the overarching structure of the series: The very slow burn of the rise of the [Army of the Dead in the] Far North and the [rise of Daenerys and her dragons in the] Far East. If you live in the capital, everything that matters to you is happening right in front of you while the things happening in the flyover parts of the world don’t really matter. So the things driving the story are from the edges of the earth, and it seems fitting that these things from the East and the North should come together to decide the fate of everybody in the middle, who didn’t even know about them until recently.
Director Miguel Sapochnik said he can’t think of a longer action sequence in cinema history.
WEISS: I’ve thought about this. I actually can’t think of anything that even comes close. There was the Takashi Miike movie 13 Assassins that did a pretty awesome 40 minutes. That would be the closest I can think of.
BENIOFF: Having the largest battle doesn’t sound very exciting — it actually sounds pretty boring. Part of our challenge, and really Miguel’s challenge, is how to keep that compelling. If it’s just humans hacking and slashing at wights for 55 minutes, it’s going to quickly become dull. We’ve had big battles since season 2. But just because we have the budget to do bigger battles doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be more exciting or have more to do with the story. It always comes back to what’s best for the story. We’ve been building toward this since the very beginning and it’s the living against the dead, and you can’t do that in a 12-minute sequence.
WEISS: Even in 13 Assassins, you have half a movie telling you who everybody is and why you should care about them. Then you got half a movie to do your battle. We’ve been lucky enough to have 70-plus hours to tell you who everybody is. There are so many individual stories you bring to that situation. The best action is driven by character, not by how many swords and spears you can swing around. It’s driven by who is Arya Stark — she made it to this stage of her development, so how does that come to bear in the events she’s thrust into? Then add 20 to that, because there are 20 people you care about in this situation. That’s a huge challenge, but it’s also a lot of fun. Usually things of this scope tend to be in movies because they take a lot of time and resources. We’ve been lucky enough to mount something of this level with characters that have a television level of investment poured into them.
You told me back when filming season 3 that you were thinking of doing the final season as three movies because you couldn’t imagine pulling off what you and George had in mind on a television budget. Do you feel like you’ve been able to do what you envisioned years ago?
WEISS: Yes. To their credit, they put their money where their mouths are — literally stuffed their mouth full of million-dollar bills which don’t exist anymore. They said, “We’ll give you the resources to make this what it needs to be, and if what it needs to be is a summer tentpole-size spectacle in places, then that’s what it will be.”
BENIOFF: HBO would have been happy for the show to keep going, to have more episodes in the final season. We always believed it was about 73 hours, and it will be roughly that. As much as they wanted more, they understood that this is where the story ends.
When the final episode airs, do you have any specific plans for what you’ll be doing?
WEISS: We’ll in an undisclosed location, turning off our phones and opening various bottles.
Won’t you be a little curious? I know you’re not big on social media, but you won’t be tempted at all to look at Twitter?
WEISS: At some point, if and when it’s safe to come out again, somebody like [HBO’s GoT publicist Mara Mikialian] will give us a breakdown of what was out there without us having to actually experience it.
BENIOFF: I plan to be very drunk and very far from the internet.
Finally, for each of you: What is the scene you’re most proud of in the whole series?
BENIOFF: That two-episode arc that Miguel directed [“The Battle of the Bastards” and the season 6 finale, “The Winds of Winter”]. The montage where Cersei got her revenge against the High Sparrow. So many departments came together so beautifully, and Miguel’s direction was incredible.
WEISS: “The Battle of the Bastards” turned out very well. But I hope it will be a scene in this season. It’s nice to go out on your strongest notes.
Game of Thrones returns Sunday, April 14.
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