Game of Thrones: How They Make the World’s Most Popular Show
By Daniel D’Addario/Belfast | Photographs by Miles Aldridge for TIME
The battle for Westeros may be won or lost on the back of a lime green mechanical bull.
That’s what it looks like on a January Monday in Belfast, as Game of Thrones films its seventh season here. Certainly no one believes the dragons that have thrilled viewers of HBO’s hit series exist in any real sense. And yet it’s still somewhat surprising to see the British actor Emilia Clarke, who plays exiled queen Daenerys, straddling the “buck” on a soundstage at Titanic Studios, a film complex named after this city’s other famously massive export.
The machine under Clarke looks like a big pommel horse and moves in sync with a computer animation of what will become a dragon. Clarke doesn’t talk much between takes. Over and over, a wind gun blasts her with just enough force to make me worry about the integrity of her ash blond wig. (Its particular color is the result of 2½ months’ worth of testing and seven prototypes, according to the show’s hair designer.) Over and over, Clarke stares down at a masking-tape mark on the floor the instant episode director Alan Taylor shouts, “Now!” Nearby, several visual-effects supervisors watch on monitors.
Clarke and I talk in her trailer before she heads to the soundstage, at the beginning of what is to be a long week inhabiting a now iconic character. Behind the scenes it’s more toil than triumph, though. The show’s first season ended with Daenerys’ hatching three baby dragons, each the size of a Pomeranian. They’ve since grown to the size of a 747. “I’m 5-ft.-nothing, I’m a little girl,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Emilia, climb those stairs, get on that huge thing, we’ll harness you in, and then you’ll go crazy.’ And you’re like, ‘Hey, everybody! Now who’s shorty?!’”
She has reason to feel powerful. On July 16, Clarke and the rest of the cast will begin bringing Thrones in for a landing with the first of its final 13 episodes (seven to air this summer, six to come later). Thrones, a scrappy upstart launched by two TV novices in 2011, will finish its run as the biggest and most popular show in the world. An average of more than 23 million Americans watched each episode last season when platforms like streaming and video on demand are accounted for. And since it’s the most pirated show ever, millions more watch it in ways unaccounted for. Thrones, which holds the record for most Emmys ever won by a prime-time series, airs in more than 170 countries. It’s the farthest-reaching show out there—not to mention the most obsessed-about.
emilia clarke | daenerys targaryen
People talk about living in a golden age of TV ushered in by hit dramas like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. All had precisely honed insights about the nature of humanity and of evil that remade expectations of what TV could do. But that period ended around the time Breaking Bad went off the air in 2013. We’re in what came next: an unprecedented glut of programming, with streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu jumping into an ever-more-crowded fray. Now, there’s a prestige show for every conceivable viewer, which means smaller audiences and fewer truly original stories.
Except for Thrones, which merges the psychological complexity of the best TV with old-school Hollywood grandeur. You liked shows with one antihero? Well, Thrones has five Tony Sopranos building their empires on blood, five Walter Whites discovering just how far they’ll go to win, five Don Drapers unapologetic in their narcissism. Oh, and they’re all living out their drama against the most breathtaking vistas not of this world.
kit harington | jon snow
The phenomenon is fueled by a massive worldwide apparatus that, in a typical 10-episode season, generates the equivalent of five big-budget, feature-length movies. Even as the series has grown in every conceivable way over the years—it shoots around the globe; each episode now boasts a budget of at least $10 million—it remains animated by one simple question: Who will win the game in the end? And if Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that every reign has to end sometime.
1. the fiction
It all started with a book. In 1996, George R.R. Martin published A Game of Thrones, the first novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. (Back then, he conceived of it as a trilogy. Today, five of the planned seven volumes have been published.) As a writer for shows like CBS’s The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast in the late ’80s, Martin had been frustrated by the limits of TV. He decided that turning to prose meant writing something “as big as my imagination.” Martin recalls telling himself, “I’m going to have all the characters I want, and gigantic castles, and dragons, and dire wolves, and hundreds of years of history, and a really complex plot. And it’s fine because it’s a book. It’s essentially unfilmable.”
The books became a hit, especially after 1999’s A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords a year later. Martin, who writes from his home in Santa Fe, N.M., was compared to The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien. Like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Martin’s Westeros is a land with a distinctive set of rules. First, magic is real. Second, winter is coming. Seasons can last for years at a time, and as the series begins, a long summer is ending. Third, no one is safe. New religions are in conflict with the old, rival houses have designs on the capital’s Iron Throne, and an undead army is pushing against the boundary of civilization, known as the Wall.
Thrones’ vast number of clans includes the wealthy and louche Lannisters, including incestuous twins Cersei and Jaime. She is the queen by marriage; he helped ensure her ascendancy through violence. Their brother Tyrion, an “imp” of short stature, is perhaps the most astute student of power. Then there are the Starks, led by duty-bound Ned. His children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Rickon and “bastard” Jon Snow will be scattered throughout the realm’s Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys is a Targaryen, an overthrown family that also—surprise—has a claim to the throne. Soon enough, Thrones devolves into an all-out melee that makes the Wars of the Roses look like Family Feud.
lena headey | cersei lannister
In the wake of director Peter Jackson’s early-2000s film trilogy of Tolkien’s masterpiece, Martin was courted by producers to turn his books into “the next Lord of the Rings franchise.” But the Thrones story was too big, and would-be collaborators suggested cutting it to focus solely on Daenerys or Snow, for instance. Martin turned them all down. His story’s expansiveness was the point.
Two middleweight novelists, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, had come to a similar conclusion and obtained Martin’s blessing at what the author calls “that famous lunch that turned into a dinner, because we were there for four or five hours” in 2006. The two writers thought Thrones could only be made as a premium-cable drama, and they walked into HBO’s office with an ambitious pitch to do so that year. “They were talking about this series of books I’d never heard of,” says Carolyn Strauss, head of HBO’s entertainment division at the time. “[I was] somebody who looked around the theater in Lord of the Rings, at all of those rapt faces, and I am just not on this particular ferry … I thought, This sounds interesting. Who knows? It could be a big show.”
HBO bought the idea and handed the reins to Benioff and Weiss, making them showrunners who’d never run a show before. Benioff was best known for having adapted his novel The 25th Hour into a screenplay directed by Spike Lee. Weiss had a novel to his credit too. The two had met in a literature program in Dublin in 1995 and later reconnected in the States. “I decided I wanted to write a screenplay,” Benioff told Vanity Fair in 2014. “I’d never written a script before, and I didn’t know how to do it, so I asked [Weiss] if he would write one with me, because he had written a bunch already.” It never got made.
The Thrones pilot, shot in 2009, got off to a rocky start. Benioff and Weiss misjudged how much planning it would take to bring Martin’s fantasy to life. To portray a White Walker—mystic creatures from the North—they simply stuck an actor in a green-screen getup and hoped to figure it out later. “You can maybe do that if you’re making Avatar,” says Weiss. “But we need to know what the creatures look like before we turn on the camera.” They also had trouble portraying Martin’s nuanced characters. “Our friends—really smart, savvy writers—didn’t [realize] Jaime and Cersei were brother and sister,” says Benioff of the ill-fated first cut. Ultimately, they reshot the pilot.
nikolaj coster-waldau | jaime lannister
When Benioff and Weiss look back at that first season, they see plenty to nitpick. Their fealty to Martin’s text, for example, made Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion “Eminem blond,” per Benioff. (His hair was later darkened.) Still, the elements that have made the show a monster success were there—and audiences (3 million for Thrones’ first season finale) picked up on them. Arguably the most groundbreaking element was a willingness to ruthlessly murder its stars. Ned Stark, the moral center of Season 1, portrayed by the show’s then most famous cast member (Sean Bean, who starred in The Lord of the Rings), is shockingly beheaded in the second-to-last episode. By the third season’s “Red Wedding,” a far more gruesome culling, the show had accrued enough fans to send the Internet into full on freak-out mode.
Thrones had by then become the pacesetter for all of TV in its willingness to forgo a simple happy ending in favor of delivering pleasure through brutality. Even if you don’t watch, Thrones’ characters and catchphrases have permeated the culture (the apparent death of Snow was an international trending topic all summer in 2015). Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and The Tonight Show have lampooned the show. And the recent South Korean presidential election was called on a national news network with depictions of the candidates duking it out for control of the Iron Throne.
2. the production
Wandering around the Belfast set, the scope and the orderliness of the enterprise is staggering. The wights, zombie-like creatures with spookily pale faces and dressed in ragged furs, form a tidy line as they wait to grab breakfast burritos. Outside the stage door, a few smoke cigarettes, careful not to ash on their worn-in tunics. “At first we had a season with one big event, then we had a season with two big events, now we have a season where every episode is a big event,” says Joe Bauer, the show’s VFX supervisor. Bauer and VFX producer Steve Kullback oversee a group of 14 FX shops from New Zealand to Germany that work on the show almost continuously.
One of those big events this season is a battle whose sheer scope, even before being cut together with the show’s typical brio, dazzled me. In order to get on set, I agreed not to divulge the players or what’s at stake. (Thrones has been promising this clash all along, and when the time comes, the Internet will melt.) It will be all the more impressive knowing that the cast and crew were shot through with a frigid North Atlantic wind that whipped everyone during filming and sent them all flying to the coffee cart during resets. (The cold, a prosthetic artist tells me, is at least good for keeping the makeup on.)
peter dınklage | tyrion lannister
The setting is as grand as the action. The battle was filmed in what was once a Belfast quarry, drained, flattened out with 11,000 square meters of concrete and painted over with a camouflage effect—all of which took six months and required special ecological surveys. This kind of mountain moving, or leveling, is par for the course for Thrones.
Each season starts with producers Christopher Newman and Bernadette Caulfield circulating a plot outline on a color-coded spreadsheet, dictating what will be shot by the show’s two simultaneous camera units, which can splinter into as many as four. It’s perpetually subject to change, given the complications of a television show this ambitious—over seven seasons they’ve shot in Croatia, Spain, Iceland, Malta, Morocco and Canada as well as locations around Northern Ireland. While I’m in Belfast, my plan to watch Jon Snow in action is canceled because of inclement weather (that same wind) that makes filming from a drone hazardous. At this point, Caulfield will grab onto any small comfort. “Now the dragon doesn’t get any bigger,” she says, “so we know that much.”
Another breakdown goes out to department heads, and a massive global triage begins. Costumer Michele Clapton, for example, begins figuring out if she’ll have to dress any new characters or armies and then sets out on the most complex work. “I know that Daenerys’ dresses will take the longest,” she says. Each look, no matter the character, may take as many as four craftspeople to bead, stitch and—if there’s meant to be wear and tear—break down. Deborah Riley, the production designer, begins looking for references to new locations in the outline. Tommy Dunne, the weapons master, starts forging gear for the season’s big battles. “My big thing is the numbers,” he says. “I hope they won’t frighten me.” He made 200 shields and 250 spears for last season’s epic Battle of the Bastards.
sophie turner | sansa stark
Benioff’s and Weiss’s jobs amount to maintaining constant conversation with numerous producers. The pair are usually in Belfast for about six months a year. Wherever in the world they happen to be, they get daily video from the shoots and field an endless stream of emails from staff on location. During my visit, wolves described in the script as “skinny and mangy” showed up to the shoot looking fluffy and lustrous. Around the world, new message notifications lit up smartphone screens.
When Benioff and Weiss aren’t shooting, they’re writing. And when they aren’t shooting or writing—which happens rarely—they’re promoting. The two make a complementary pair. Benioff, who wears his hair in a Morrissey quiff, is the more sardonic one. Weiss, with silver rings in his ears, is nerdier and given to hyperbole. They say they’re still having fun making Thrones, despite the stakes, and still regularly find themselves surprised by its scale. Weiss recalls seeing the buck Clarke rides to simulate Daenerys’ dragons for the first time: “We knew it would be a mechanical bull. We didn’t know it would be 40 ft. in the air and six degrees of motion with cameras that swirl.” Says Benioff: “It’s like the thing NASA built to train the astronauts.”
Despite nonstop production, Weiss says, “There’s still a kid-in-a-candy-shop feel. You’re going to look at the armor, crazy-amazing dresses—gowns Michele is making—then you’re going to look at the swords, then watch pre-vis cartoons of the scenes that will be shot and you’re weighing in on shot selection. Every one of these things is something we’ve been fascinated with in our own way since we were kids.”
“Especially dresses,” cracks Benioff. Weiss adds, “Especially the gowns.”
3. the players
The first few seasons’ worth of swordplay and gowns turned the show’s cast into recognizable stars. But it’s the complexity of their characters, revealed over time, that made them into icons. “My friends always say to me, ‘It’s like you’re two different people. I see articles about you in BuzzFeed’—but then they see my Facebook posts,” says Maisie Williams, who plays the tomboy turned angel of vengeance Arya Stark. Williams was two days past her 14th birthday when the show debuted. There’s TV-star famous, after all, and then there’s some-percentage-of-23-million-people-has-been-actively-rooting-for-you-to-kill-off-your-co-stars-for-six-years famous.
Thrones’ story doesn’t ask its actors to break bad or good, and viewers stay tuned in large part because of the characters’ moral mutability. Consider Cersei, played by Lena Headey, who is either a monster or a victim. The character has become more popular with fans even as she’s wrought greater carnage, including blowing up a building full of people last season. “At the beginning, people were like, ‘Oh my God, you’re such a bitch!’” she says. “What’s moving is that people love her now and want to be on her team.” That Headey, a Brit, uses an exaggerated American accent as she delivers the harsher interpretation of her work is revealing of nothing, or a lot.
She’s thought through every element of her character, though, including the incestuous relationship with Jaime that provided the show its first narrative jolt. “I love to talk about all of it,” she says, citing her frequent emails to Benioff and Weiss. “Cersei’s always wanted to be him. Therefore, for her, that relationship is completion. There’s been an envy, because he was born with privilege just for being a man. I think their love was built on respect.”
maisie williams | arya stark
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the Danish actor who plays Jaime, is a bit less excited to discuss the subject. “I’ve never really gone too deep into the whole sister-brother thing because I can’t use that information. I have to look at her as the woman he loves and desires. Lena’s a very good actress, and that’s kind of what carries the whole thing.” He adds, “I have two older sisters. I do not want to go there. It’s just too weird.”
Even a character like Jon Snow, as close to a pure hero as possible as Season 7 begins, has outgrown the box he originally came in. Snow, an illegitimate child never embraced by his father’s wife, is a James Dean daydream of Sir Walter Scott. “I made mistakes and felt that he wasn’t interesting enough,” says Kit Harington of the way he’s played Snow. We’re in a Belfast hotel bar, and Harington is squeezing in a coffee before he makes an evening showing of Manchester by the Sea. “That sounds weird, but I’ve never been quite content with him. Maybe that’s what makes him him. That angst.” His character has been slowly absorbing lessons about duty and power—and “this year there is this huge seismic shift where all of what he’s learned over the years, suddenly …” Harington trails off. “He’s still the same Jon, but he grows up.”
Dinklage, too, found in Tyrion a character who surpassed his expectations. The actor says he’d never read fantasy beyond The Lord of the Rings. “That’s the part of the bookstore I don’t really gravitate toward,” he says. “This was the first time in this genre that somebody my size was an actually multidimensional being, flesh and blood without the really long beard, without the pointy shoes, without the asexuality.”
Thrones catapulted Dinklage, the only American in the main cast, from a well-regarded film and theater actor to among the most-recognized actors on earth in part because the asexuality is quite absent. Tyrion thirsts for wine, sex and, crucially, love and respect. As the offspring of a wealthy and powerful family, the first two are easy to come by. The latter not so much. “He covers it up with alcohol, he covers it up with humor, he does his best to maintain a modicum of sanity and he perseveres,” says Dinklage. “He’s still alive. Anyone who’s still alive on our show is pretty smart.”
Indeed, with just 13 episodes left, everything is possible—alliance, demise or coronation. “Every season I go to the last page of the last episode and go backward,” says Dinklage. “I don’t do that with books, but I can’t crack open page one of Episode 1 not knowing if I’m dead or not.”
4. the drama
The size of Thrones’ controversies have, at times, been as large as its following. Its reliance on female nudity, especially Daenerys’, was an early flash point. “I don’t have any qualms saying to anyone it was not the most enjoyable experience. How could it be?” says Clarke. “I don’t know how many actresses enjoy doing that part of it.” That aspect of the role has faded as Daenerys found paths to power beyond her sexuality. This evolution from a passive naïf into a holy terror who rules by the fealty of her subjects is what has earned Daenerys, according to Clarke, the audience’s loyalty. “People wouldn’t give two sh-ts about Daenerys if you didn’t see her suffer,” she says.
More controversial still has been the prevalence of sexual violence. Many of the major female characters have been assaulted onscreen. In a 2015 sequence, Sansa, the Stark daughter played by Sophie Turner, was raped by her husband. According to the logic of the show, the plot gave her character a reason to seek revenge and power of her own. It nonetheless generated substantial blowback online and clearly turned some fans away from the series for good. “This was the trending topic on Twitter, and it makes you wonder, when it happens in real life, why isn’t it a trending topic every time?” says Turner, who is 21. “This was a fictional character, and I got to walk away from it unscathed … Let’s take that discussion and that dialogue and use it to help people who are going through that in their everyday lives. Stop making it such a taboo, and make it a discussion.”
Benioff and Weiss claim to have seen no other possible outcome for a character stranded in a marriage to a psychopath, in a skewed version of feudal society. “It might not be our world,” says Benioff, “but it’s still the same basic power dynamic between men and women in this medieval world. This is what we believed was going to happen.” Adds Weiss: “We talked about, is there any other way she could possibly avoid this fate that doesn’t seem fake, where she uses her pluck to save herself at the last? There was no version of that that didn’t seem completely horrible.”
Even if Benioff and Weiss don’t always admit it, the show has changed. Scenes in which exposition is delivered in one brothel or another, for example, have been pared back. It’s at moments like these that the success of Thrones seems a precariously struck balance, thriving on a willingness to shock but always risking going too far.
5. the end of the end
Benioff and Weiss claim to have sworn off reading commentary about the show, good or bad. When I visit them in Los Angeles in March, they’re writing the next and final season. I peek into a fridge in a lounge area in their offices, a room dominated by a Thrones-branded pinball machine Weiss proudly points out, to find three cases of beer with Westeros-themed labels, low-calorie ranch dressing and yellow mustard. At this point, they have full outlines of the final six episodes. In fact, they’ve been working on the very last episode, possibly the most anticipated finale since Hawkeye left Korea. “We know what happens in each scene,” says Weiss.
The fact that they know is remarkable considering the show will reach its conclusion long before the books. The last new Thrones novel came out in 2011, the year the show began. The author describes his next installment, the sixth of seven, as “massively late.” “The journey is an adventure,” says Martin, who, at 68, has fought criticism that he won’t finish the books. “There’s always that process of discovery for me.” But with young, and rapidly maturing, actors under contract and a community of artisans awaiting marching orders in Belfast, the show can’t wait.
Benioff and Weiss always knew this would happen. So they met with the novelist in 2013, between Seasons 2 and 3, to sketch out what Martin calls “the ultimate developments” after the books and show diverge. The upshot, they say, is that the two can coexist. “Certain things that we learned from George way back then are going to happen on the show, but certain things won’t,” says Benioff. “And there’s certain things where George didn’t know what was going to happen, so we’re going to find them out for the first time too.”
d.b. weiss and david benioff | show-runners
In preparation for Season 7, Benioff and Weiss have gotten more possessive. That has further fueled fans’ curiosity even as it has created security challenges. In the run-up to Season 6, paparazzi shots of Harington—and his distinctive in-character hairdo—in Belfast tipped the Internet off that Jon Snow wasn’t, in fact, as dead as he’d seemed the season before. “Look at how difficult it is to protect information in this age,” says Benioff. “The CIA can’t do it. The NSA can’t do it. What chance do we have?”
It’s also changed the on-set dynamic. Coster-Waldau says Benioff and Weiss have “become much more protective over the story and script. I think they feel this is truly theirs now, and it’s not to be tampered with. I’ve just sensed this last season that this is their baby: ‘Just say the words as they’re written, and shut up.’”
Then there’s the end of the end, the finale likely to air next year or the year after. Benioff and Weiss are not writing the Thrones spin-off projects HBO revealed this year that could explore other parts of Westerosi history—some, all or none of which may end up on air. In the meantime, they claim not to be worrying about the public’s reaction to their ending. (Benioff says that when it comes to endgame stress, “medication helps.”) Weiss says, “I’m not saying we don’t think about it.” He pauses. “The best way to go about it is to focus on what’s on the desk in front of you, or what sword is being put in front of you, or the fight that is being choreographed in front of you.”
What’s currently before them seems like plenty. When I first met Clarke in Belfast, she was shooting on the back of a dragon. When I leave a week later, she’s still at it. “Thirty seconds of screen time and she’s been here for 16 days,” the episode’s director, Taylor, remarks at one point. Later on, I’d remember this moment of exhaustion when Weiss described seeing the buck for the first time. He went on to add, “It probably feels a bit less amazing to Emilia, who sits on it for eight hours a day, six weeks in a row, getting blasted with water and fake snow and whatever else they decide to chuck at her through the fans.” The table with the espresso machine—just beyond Clarke’s line of sight—is well trafficked.
Clarke doesn’t seem bothered, though, smiling and chatting with the crew from atop the buck. As the state-of-the-art hydraulics move her into position, her posture shifts from millennial slump to ramrod straight. In an instant, she converts herself into the ruler of the fictional space around her. On cue, she looks over her shoulder with a face of marble. She casts into an imagined world some emotion known only to her. She’s gazing into a future that, in the flickering moments that the story remains a secret, only she can see.
Clarke: Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture gown and necklace, VV Rouleaux silk flowers, Simon Harrison earrings, Dolce & Gabbana ring; Coster-Waldau: Joshua Kane jacket, Burberry shirt, Richard James scarf; Headey: Giambattista Valli Haute Couture evening gown, Dolce & Gabbana earrings; Dinklage: John Varvatos suit and shirt, Linda Bee at Grays Antiques tie pin; Turner: Gucci dress; Weiss: Dries Van Noten suit, COS shirt, Hardy Amies tie; Benioff: Hardy Amies suit, COS shirt, Burberry tie; Williams: Valentino dress; Harington: Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY suit jacket and shirt
On the Cover: Harington, Coster-Waldau: Dolce & Gabbana suits; Clarke: Dolce & Gabbana dress and fine jewelry, Vicki Sarge choker, VV Rouleaux collar; Headey: Dilara Findikoglu dress, Garrard fine jewelry, Erdem boots; Dinklage: John Varvatos suit
Correction: The fashion credits accompanying the original version of this story misstated the jacket worn by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. It is a Joshua Kane jacket, not a Thomas Sabo jacket.