Inside Game of Thrones' disastrous original pilot: 'Nobody knew what they were doing'

An exclusive excerpt from the upcoming book Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon, by EW editor at large James Hibberd.
By James Hibberd
September 14, 2020 at 10:31 AM EDT

You haven’t seen the original Game of Thrones pilot. Few have.

While the HBO fantasy series became a global sensation and the most Emmy-winning drama of all time, the first attempt at bringing George R.R. Martin’s bestselling novels to life very nearly sunk the series.

Below is the first excerpt from the upcoming oral history Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon: Game of Thrones and the Untold Story of the Epic Series. The book (coming Oct. 6 and available for preorder now) represents the first-ever behind-the-scenes account of making Thrones from start to finish. It’s an uncensored look inside the 15-year battle to pull off the show – from its earliest meetings to the airing of its final season – and is largely told from the perspective of the show’s creators, cast, crew and executives. 

The following picks up midway through the original pilot’s production in 2009. First-time showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss had struggled for four years to get their fantasy series off the ground. There had been an endless number of meetings, rewrites, negotiations and hiring decisions. "It was a frightening time because it was our first time running a production of any scale," Weiss recalls. "And there are many, many moving parts, human and otherwise, that go into any production, especially one of this size."

Finally, the cameras were rolling in Northern Ireland and Morocco. But even the production's most experienced members had never worked on a TV series as ambitious as what Thrones was attempting – and some of the veteran actors were getting the sense that not all was well in Westeros...

NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU (Jaime Lannister): Nobody knew what they were doing or what the hell this was. During King Robert’s arrival I remember finding the whole thing ridiculous. The absurdity of doing this parallel universe with these very noble men. It’s a very fine balance between being serious and believing it and just being cosplayers. There was certainly not a sense that this was going to be some game-changer for anyone. But we had a lot of fun. 

MARK ADDY (Robert Baratheon): We were trying to establish the rules and order of this new world. In the Winterfell courtyard scene, nobody kneeled when the king arrived in the first pilot. You can’t play being the king. You can’t display “look at how powerful I am.” People have to give you that by showing subservience. It has to be afforded to you by others. In the reshoot, everybody kneeled. It made a huge difference in terms of establishing who’s in charge. 

LENA HEADEY (Cersei Lannister): I looked like a Vegas showgirl in the [original] pilot — furs and massive hair, like a medieval Dolly Parton. Not that I’m complaining, I loved it. My hair devolved.

BRYAN COGMAN (then Benioff’s assistant; later a co-executive producer): When we first shot the scene where the Starks find the direwolves — this was the version you never saw — the wonder of what a direwolf was wasn’t coming across. It didn’t seem important enough to the characters. And I’m little assistant Bryan running around the set yelling to anyone who would listen: “These are direwolves! No one has seen these in a million years! This is like seeing dinosaurs! It’s not like finding puppies!” And everyone’s sort of chuckling. 

Credit: HBO

CHRISTOPHER NEWMAN (producer): Joffrey had a different haircut. In the original pilot, it was more pageboy cut, slightly pudding bowl-ish, like Henry V. It wasn’t that it didn’t suit him being a little shit, but it softened the edge. The modern cut in the version that aired gave him more spitefulness.

DAVID BENIOFF (showrunner): At first it seemed to us like it was going well, but that was because we didn’t know any better. 

DAN WEISS (showrunner): As we went on, the cracks turned into bigger cracks, which turned into fissures. You started to feel the wheels coming off by the time we got to Morocco. 

In Morocco, the production staged the sequence where the smug sociopath Viserys Targaryen sells his sister, Daenerys (played in the first pilot by Tamzin Merchant), into an arranged marriage to the menacing Dothraki warrior Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa). Except this version shot Daenerys’s wedding at night, among several other differences. 

GEORGE R. R. MARTIN (author; co-executive producer): I went to Morocco for Dany’s wedding in the first pilot. I played a Pentoshi nobleman with beard extensions and an enormous hat. I looked like an idiot, but it was fun. 

HARRY LLOYD (Viserys Targaryen): I had a different wig. It was titanium and silver, and it was shorter and a bob. Looking back, it was a mistake. There were consultations: “I’m not like Draco Malfoy, I’m not like Legolas … how do we do this?” 

IAIN GLEN (Jorah Mormont): It was a bit ragged and, in some ways, ill conceived, and no one had great conviction. Since the wedding was shot at night, quite a lot of money had been spent on seeing absolutely f—k-all.

GEORGE R. R. MARTIN: There are a couple of stories. As a wedding gift, Khal Drogo gives Daenerys a silver horse and she rides away. For a moment you think she’s fleeing. Then she turns the horse around and leaps the horse over a big campfire. Drogo is very impressed, and it starts the relationship on a good note. We tried to film this scene. We got a top stunt rider and a top horse, a silver filly, but the filly would not jump that campfire. She got close and then was like, “There’s fire there!” and would turn the other way. We tried to film it a half dozen ways. So [director Tom McCarthy] goes, “Put out the fire and we’ll do the fire with CGI.” They put out the fire and the horse would still not jump the dead fire. It’s a smart horse. It knows it’s not burning now, but it was burning a little while ago! So they had to scrap that sequence, which was unfortunate, as it was a bonding moment between Dany and Khal Drogo. 

Then came the filming of the wedding night. In the Emilia Clarke version, it’s rape. It’s not rape in my book, and it’s not rape in the scene as we filmed it with Tamzin Merchant. It’s a seduction. Dany and Drogo don’t have the same language. Dany is a little scared but also a little excited, and Drogo is being more considerate. The only words he knows are “yes” or “no.” Originally it was a fairly faithful version. 

So we’re by this little brook. They tied the horses to the trees and there’s a seduction scene by the stream. Jason Momoa and Tamzin are naked and “having sex.” And suddenly the video guy starts to laugh. The silver filly was not a filly at all. It was a colt. And it was getting visibly excited by watching these two humans. There’s this horse in the background with this enormous horse schlong. So that didn’t go well either. 

Credit: HBO

After the original pilot wrapped filming, Benioff and Weiss presented a rough cut to family and friends to get a sense of how the episode was playing. The experience was, to put it mildly, unpleasant. 

DAVID BENIOFF: I showed it to my brother‑in‑law and sister‑in‑law and just watched their reactions. You could tell watching their faces that they were bored. It wasn’t anything they said. They were trying to be nice. 

DAN WEISS: You listen to how sharply the pitch of somebody’s voice turns up when they tell you it’s good — “It’s good!” How much higher than their average register is the word “good”? That’s a gauge of how f---ed you are. Our “good” was in dog-whistle territory. There were others who weren’t trying to be nice but were actually trying to be helpful. [Veteran television producer] Craig Mazin told us: “You guys have a massive problem.” 

GINA BALIAN (former vice president of drama at HBO): Their screening was the final confirmation for them that we had problems.

One frequently cited issue at HBO was that the pilot lacked “scope.” Thrones was supposed to be an epic fantasy, but the production felt “small,” particularly for its steep budget and exotic locations. 

MICHAEL LOMBARDO (former HBO programming president): There were some concerns about whether we were getting enough wide shots. Are we getting the coverage we need? We hired the best costume designer and the best art director and shot this in Northern Ireland and Morocco, yet there was very little scope. I remember the quote was, “We could have shot this in Burbank.” 

IAIN GLEN: Some bigwig at HBO said, “Why the f--- did we go to Morocco? You can’t see f---ing diddly squat, we could have shot it in a car park!” 

GINA BALIAN: Somebody said, “It looked like it was shot in my backyard.” 

The tone also felt off, like a series set in the world of Downton Abbey or a Merchant Ivory film, instead of Westeros and Essos. 

MICHAEL LOMBARDO: Some scenes were fantastic, like at Winterfell with the family. Arya, Sansa, Tyrion. But there was something about it that felt vaguely similar to British period dramas. 

Another concern was caused by hand‑wringing over the project’s fantasy elements. A Song of Ice and Fire is an intensely realistic drama with moments of supernatural magic. But nobody was exactly sure how much Thrones should have of each genre, and it showed. 

BRYAN COGMAN: Is it fantasy with dramatic trappings? Is it a drama with fantasy trappings? There was a nervousness about the pilot leaning into the fantasy too much — ultimately to a fault. Key exposition was cut to make the dialogue sound more “real,” and as a result, the pilot didn’t make much sense. The impulse to not be over-the-top Shakespearian and Tolkien-esque was right — you’re trying to make it as grounded as possible — but this is still an epic fantasy, and if you ignore that, it’s to the detriment of your story. 

GEORGE R. R. MARTIN: The biggest thing was Dan and David called me up and had the idea of eliminating Rickon, the youngest of the Stark children, because he didn’t do much in the first book. I said I had important plans for him, so they kept him. 

One confusing aspect wasn’t entirely the filmmakers’ fault — they couldn’t afford to stage any King’s Landing scenes which more firmly established the Lannister family in the re‑shoot. But the dialogue didn’t help either. The shocking punch of Jaime pushing Bran out the window seemed nonsensical, as viewers didn’t realize that Jaime and Cersei were sibling lovers trying to protect their treasonous secret. The producers tried to help explain the show’s backstory by adding at least one flashback (of Ned Stark’s father and brother being killed by the Mad King), but that idea was later scrapped as it just seemed to add to the narrative muddiness. 

GEORGE R. R. MARTIN: I liked the pilot. I realized later that I was a poor person to judge because I was too close to it. Some didn’t know Jaime and Cersei were brother and sister. Well that wasn’t a problem for me! My great familiarity with the material made it hard for me to objectively judge. I liked that they kept a considerable level of complexity. I’m told I’m under penalty of death if I ever show it to anyone. 

The producers knew they were in deep trouble. Benioff and Weiss drew up a list of what they knew wasn’t working and how to fix each issue. 

DAVID BENIOFF: HBO was very much on the fence. It’s a traditional thing at any studio that the last regime’s projects are going to be less appealing to the new regime. And this was a very expensive project. 

DAN WEISS: It seemed like Mike was leaning toward no. He was not at all pleased, and for good reason. He decided maybe it would be better to just take the loss on this one. 

MICHAEL LOMBARDO: We were in the conference room and had the producers in for a “come to Jesus” meeting. The question was whether the showrunners thought they nailed it. Because if you’re on a different page, that’s really a concern. How do we show this pilot to our CEO and convince him to pick this up to series? How do we convince him this is a gamble worth taking? We go into a mode of “how do we fix this.”

DAN WEISS: We’d done a lot of soul searching. The one thing I think we did right is we owned all the mistakes. We didn’t point fingers. We said: “We know this isn’t good, and here is what went wrong and how we would do it differently the next time.” We just went down the line. I think they got the sense, which was honest, that we weren’t coming in trying to explain why the bugs were features. We were all on the same page that where we want to be is many levels up from this. 

CAROLYN STRAUSS (former programming president at HBO; executive producer): There was a lot of begging and pleading. I think what was clearly evident was that there was a show here. This is why you do a pilot, because you’re looking at what works and what doesn’t and whether this thing has legs. Once certain things were fixed, this would be a story you can tell over many episodes that keeps moving, with characters that keep evolving, but not so fast that you run out of story. 

The rough pilot and the revision plan were handed to HBO’s co‑president Richard Plepler, who was the ultimate decision-maker. The company had already sunk $10 million into a dragon drama. Would they double down? 

DAVID BENIOFF: We knew going into that screening that his decision was going to make or break us. It was a very tense hour while waiting for a phone call from Gina. 

DAN WEISS: The line about pain being a great teacher is true. It was so deeply unpleasant to have been given the opportunity to make something like this, an opportunity we knew would most likely never come along again, and then to have the sense there was a 52/48 chance you f---ed it up. It was one of the most horrible feelings I can remember. 

DAVID BENIOFF: Then Richard came out and said, “You know, let’s make this.” 

RICHARD PLEPLER (former co‑president and CEO of HBO): You could see that some of the casting and the narrative was off. It needed to be fixed; it needed to be reshot. But the overall emotional response was that you could feel how engaging it could be. So just as you could feel there were a range of problems that needed to be addressed, you could equally feel that there was magic in there. 

DAN WEISS: To his credit, Richard saw through the mistakes to what this could be if the mistakes were fixed. 

HBO ordered 10 episodes of Game of Thrones, including a reshot pilot. Changes weren’t only made to the script and the production plan but among the cast and crew as well. First- time TV director Tom McCarthy was replaced on episode one by a top HBO veteran, Tim Van Patten, who had directed many acclaimed episodes of HBO dramas. Meanwhile, British- American actress Jennifer Ehle, who’d played Catelyn Stark in the original pilot, had changed her mind about the series.

MICHAEL LOMBARDO: The actress who played Catelyn decided she didn’t want to move to Northern Ireland. I’m like, “What?” Then you have a conversation with yourself about whether to force her to uphold her contract. In retrospect it was one of the best things that could have happened. Michelle Fairley took over the role and was fantastic. 

Benioff had spotted Fairley in a London production of Othello, where she played Emilia, whose tragic final scenes of breakdown and murder are not unlike the eventual fate of Catelyn Stark. “Emilia’s not a character I generally notice in Othello,” Benioff recounted in Cogman’s book Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones: Seasons 1 & 2. “Iago’s wife? Who cares? But Michelle was so absurdly good that I left the theater thinking, ‘Who the hell was that? And is she available?’ ” 

But the team’s most difficult decision was to recast Daenerys Targaryen. One source said that breaking the news to Merchant was “the hardest phone call [the producers] ever had to make.” 

MICHAEL LOMBARDO: There was a piece of casting we had to rethink, [a role] that was compromised. We all knew Daenerys’s journey was critical. Her scenes with Jason just didn’t work. 

JASON MOMOA (Khal Drogo): [Merchant] was great. I’m not sure why everything was done. But when Emilia got there that’s when everything clicked for me. I wasn’t really “there” until she arrived. 

BRYAN COGMAN: Everybody involved in making the original pilot scored such a bull’s‑eye with so many of our actors. I thought Tamzin did a really good job. It’s hard to say why things didn’t work out. Ultimately, it’s obvious Emilia Clarke was born to play that part.

Second chances in Hollywood are rare. You take a big swing, you miss, and you’re done— definitely with that project, and sometimes with your entire career. Game of Thrones was granted a very rare second chance. The producers, cast, and crew were determined not to blow it. 

HARRY LLOYD: We were very lucky to be given a $10 million-dollar rehearsal.

Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon will be published Oct. 6 and is available for preorder now.

A version of this story appears in the October issue of Entertainment Weekly, available here or on newsstands beginning Sept. 18. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.