They’re the men responsible for bringing the biggest TV show on earth in for a landing.
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the two showrunners of Game of Thrones, met with TIME in their Los Angeles offices in March as they worked on the eighth and final season of their show. (“We know what happens in each scene,” said Weiss.) The pair were candid about their struggles learning the ropes of making TV — they’d had no such experience when HBO hired them — and the nerves that come with wrapping up a project as demanding and widely-speculated-about as this show. “You kind of understand why George Lucas wanted to go back,” said Benioff, the drier of the pair. “Not that we’re going to do that.”
Ahead of the seventh season premiere on July 16, here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
How long does the writing process usually take?
WEISS: It’s hard to say with this one especially, because so much of the endgame is stuff that we’ve been discussing for at least four or five years, if not longer. So a lot of the pieces have been put on the board years ago. You could go back to season 2 and some of these ideas started to come out. But the actual writing process, when did we start doing the outlines?
BENIOFF: I don’t know, because we started going over it back when we were shooting season 7.
WEISS: That’s true — we did 7, we sort of planned 7 and 8 together in a way, and we focused more on 7, but as we were focusing on 7, we were putting stuff into place for 8 as well.
Did you know in season 2 where the story was going to end up?
WEISS: When did we meet with George [series author R.R. Martin] in Santa Fe?
BENIOFF: It was before season 3 wasn’t it?
WEISS: It was when we were getting the track that the Hold Steady did, their studio version of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.” It was between season 2 and season 3.
BENIOFF: That’s when we started talking to George and he was giving us a sense of things he was working on that were to come, that’s when he told us about the Hodor backstory, and endgame stuff. He had some great stuff that he could share with us, like the Hodor thing, but a lot of it, he wasn’t sure yet, because he was writing, and he discovers things by writing. For us as TV writer-producers, we have to be architects. Everything has to be planned out really far in advance. And for us, we can’t say we’re going to stop and figure things out for a couple years. We know we have to have a season every year, pretty much. We knew we were barreling towards an ending, because we knew from the start the show would run seven or eight years.
WEISS: There were some details that were added later — but pretty much the actual endgame, the main climactic moments, we had in mind then. We had ninety percent of this crucial chunk of the story for the final season, and we were mainly talking to George to see how our notion of where things ended up jibed with his notion.
It must just be a different show to make when people haven’t read the story on the page — as had originally been the idea.
WEISS: In some ways, it’s terrifying because you’re operating, initially, with this amazing structure that he’s given you — especially having so much else to figure out in terms of the two of us never having produced a television show. It’s scary on the one hand to not have that to fall back on. In other ways, it’s liberating because it narrows your focus to a more normal development process and we’ve spent so much time with the characters, the story, and the world.
To what degree do you feel it needs to be perfectly congruent with the vision of the endgame of the novels that Martin presented to you?
BENIOFF: It’s already too late for that. We’re already well past the point of it jibing 100 percent. We’ve passed George and that’s something that George always worried about — the show catching up and ultimately passing him — but the good thing about us diverging at this point is that George’s books will still be a surprise for readers who have seen the show. Certain things that we learned from George way back in that meeting in Santa Fe are going to happen on the show, but certain things won’t. 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, along with millions of readers when we read those books. Some people wish we would wait until the books were finished to finish the show, but George works on his own schedule, which is the way any good writer should do it. He shouldn’t be beholden to a TV schedule to finish his novels, that would be completely artificial and would not serve him well. But we do have these actors and they’re getting older, and we have to finish.
WEISS: To have a 35-year-old Arya Stark wandering the countryside somehow doesn’t quite feel the same. But it’s always been something from the beginning where we knew the show needs to work as a show. It needs to make sense to somebody who is not familiar with the books and there are places, ways in which sticking to the chapter and verse of the books would make that impossible. The books have a different carrying capacity for information than television does. This is not based on data, just on instinct: We have, almost certainly, the largest cast that has ever been in television, in terms of the sheer number of recurring characters you have that stay in the story for long periods of time. And it’s a fraction of the characters that exist in George’s books. We’re right up at the outward bound of what’s feasible in a television show, that still makes sense to people and still allows for enough emotional connection and investment in these characters.
You guys, I imagine, have different skills. How do you divide the writing of the season?
BENIOFF: We really do split it. Writing-wise, we split halves of the script. We’ll have an argument before the season where we’ll go over the coming season. There will be six episodes, and I’ll say here are the halves that I want to write last half of episode whatever — and Dan will say…
WEISS: Those are exactly the halves that I want to write!
BENIOFF: And then we’ll do some horse-swapping.
WEISS: This was the hardest season. Usually, it’s figured out within 40 seconds. This season was a whole day of emails going back and forth. The final season — who writes which half, where the scene break would be, the second half of an episode, are you including that scene or not including that scene? It got to be more contentious than it’s been before.
I’ve been rewatching season 1—
BENIOFF: Remember how blonde Tyrion was?
WEISS: He had, like, streaked hair.
BENIOFF: It’s funny because there are a few shots in the first episode of the series that are from the original pilot, which was shot a year before — the first time you see Tyrion, he’s in the brothel with Ros and that was shot a year before anything else. Eminem blond.
WEISS: Obviously we loved the books so much, loved them enough to possibly devote ten years of our lives to them. And so I just look back at it now when I see those scenes and realize how we were sticking [to the books]: He’s blond, so he’s got to be. It’s not what’s going to look better, it’s light blond in the books so he’s got to be light blond in the show.
BENIOFF: Also, to be fair, it’s a pretty important plot point that the Lannisters are blond.
I also remember even at one point we were trying out purple contacts for Daenerys and [Tyrion] was supposed to have one green eye and one brown eye. The reality of it is that a character who’s in the show as much as Peter is in the show, to be wearing colored contact lenses every day you shoot is a nightmare. But sticking to the letter of the books was important enough that that was all on the table. I think by the time Emilia [Clarke] came along we were off that idea. But in the initial pilot we see what acting with purple contacts can do to somebody and how much time they spend focusing on the fact that their eyes don’t feel right.
What else do you think you would have done differently?
BENIOFF: Our budget has gotten much bigger over the years. Some of the scenes we shot in season one, we didn’t have the time to shoot them properly. We didn’t have the money for the visual effects. There was just a lot of stuff we couldn’t do the way we could now. But the actual visuals, you just go “Ooh, god, I wish I could redo that.” You realize when people do things right because so much of learning how to do this is seeing what works. We didn’t really have a coherent vision.
What was the deal with the reshoots you had to undertake on the first pilot? What happened?
BENIOFF: I think we just made a lot of mistakes! We’re the showrunners, and if the show’s not working, it’s our fault. For instance, we screened the pilot for a few of our writer friends. At the end of the show, which ends the same way the screened pilot airs, with Jaime pushing Bran out the window, our friends — really smart, savvy writers — didn’t [realize] Jaime and Cersei were brother and sister. Which is kind of a crucial piece of information. We realized there was one reference to them being brother and sister in the dialogue, that if you missed it, it’s over. We ended up writing a new scene for Jaime and Cersei, the funeral of Jon Arryn. Part of that was really to let us know who these characters are and that they’re connected.
Or that opening sequence where they reference the Wall. The audience hadn’t seen the Wall. So we realized that nobody knew what the hell they were talking about, so we ended up changing that whole opening sequence with the help of Tim Van Patten who came on to direct it and came up with a cool way of showing it.
WEISS: We gotta see this wall! It’s important that everybody see this wall!
BENIOFF: The look of the White Walkers completely changed from the pilot to what aired. Just so much is different. Certain parts were recast.
WEISS: In the original pilot, the White Walker was a guy in a green suit. Just a way of saying we’ll figure this out later, because we don’t have the time or resources to figure it out now. So if you end up making this show, we’ll tell you what gets put in the place of the guy in the green leotard. We ended up realizing that’s not an economical way to create creatures, putting people in green leotards and figuring it out later. You can maybe do that if you’re making Avatar, but we need to know what the creatures look like before we turn on the camera.
How did the budget increase — gradually or all at once?
WEISS: It was gradual. There’s never a blank check policy. As nice as it would be in the moment to say yes, you can have in season 2 whatever you want… in season 2 that would feel great, but we knew rationally that if that happens, the show becomes non-viable. It becomes too big to really continue to exist. We, the show and HBO were all on the same page of wanting to do the story justice visually and also wanting the show to remain a going concern through to the end, so we’ve been very good and responsible about making tough choices and cutting things that it would be fun to have in there.
In the first season, there was a battle that we would have loved to have had where Tyrion was going to be behind the Mountain and you would only see the battle from Tyrion’s perspective with the Mountain blocking eighty percent of his field of vision for most of the fight. It would have been great — Alan Taylor had a shooting plan for it that would have made for a great sequence. And at the end of the day we got to those days were coming up and we said those are three shooting days we can’t afford. So we and Alan sat down together and figured out a different way to approach that battle. It was a tough choice but we’ve learned how to be very economical about the shots that we’re getting and the way we’re shooting sequences.
What is it like when one, or both, of you is in Belfast? It seems like there must be various people demanding attention.
BENIOFF: When we’re there, it’s a lot of running from place to place and rewriting, the scripts always need to be rewritten up until and after the scenes are shot because we’re often writing new lines after scenes have been shot.
WEISS: For us, there’s still a kid-in-a-candy-shop feel. You’re going to look at the armor, crazy-amazing dresses — gowns Michele [Clapton] 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.
BENIOFF: Especially dresses.
WEISS: Especially the gowns! There really is, even though it’s a lot of work, it’s still so much fun, that if it were to not be much fun anymore, it would be time to think about doing something else. I remember seeing the buck, the motion control — you see that, the thing Emilia rides? We knew it would be a mechanical bull, we didn’t know it would be 40 feet in the air and six degrees of motion with cameras that swirl.
BENIOFF: It’s like the thing NASA built to train the astronauts.
WEISS: I remember going in there and seeing it the first day — it felt like Disneyland, it was just such an amazing thing to see.
BENIOFF: And it’s half of our season 1 budget right there.
WEISS: 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. There’s a joy that comes with seeing that stuff that hasn’t abated at all.
I had imagined you’d be relieved the show would be winding down and you’re soon to be off the hook, but it seems likelier now that your feelings are at best mixed.
BENIOFF: We still love it. I think it’s very good for the story that it’s going to end, because I think about it as having a very definitive endpoint, not the kind of show that drifts on for twenty years, but I don’t think I’ll ever have a better job. I don’t think I’ll ever do something that I enjoy more than this. We’re very, very lucky that we have a show that’s clicked with the audience.
Ever since the election, there’s been a lot of overreading of culture whereby everything is being seen as a direct one-to-one parable. But as regards the show’s lightning-in-a-bottle qualities, I do think the show’s rising to an immense level of popularity at a time of global upheaval isn’t insignificant. What political valences do you see in the story? What did you put there?
WEISS: We had Joffrey before he even thought about running. You cannot blame that on us.
BENIOFF: I try hard not to map in just because I feel like whatever the time period, yes, there’s a lot of upheaval right now in our country, but you look back, there’s pretty much always upheaval somewhere or other, maybe things were more stable in Washington, D.C. than they are right now. I remember when Lord of the Rings was out and people were saying it was so timely because of the Iraq War and all of these issues. The thing that drew us to George’s books and makes them so relevant whether the time they were written or now is that it’s about people, and power, and the pursuit of power, and how that affects those without power. All those questions really don’t have much to do with current events — or they have a lot to do with current events, but they don’t have much to do with what’s happening that day.
WEISS: There’s a reason you can still read Thucydides and it still makes sense to you thousands of years later. Because people fundamentally haven’t changed that much in the past couple thousand years, and…
BENIOFF: When I was reading Thucydides this morning, I was like, wait, what? He would never do that.
WEISS: But I think there really is, trying to map it onto anything specific always felt like it was going to flatten it out. If you’re going to do that, it’s going to force you into a schematic that excludes other possibilities that might make the show better and more interesting.
The show really rejects archetypes of heroes and villains that are really a bit tired. Every character has a moral ambiguity that’s really sophisticated for a show of this magnitude—
BENIOFF: For a show about dragons? That’s one of the things that really drew us — for instance, when Lena Headey came in and did her audition for Cersei. And we’d seen a number of actresses before, very good actresses, but they were all playing the ice queen. And Lena came in and she was funny and she was weird and she wasn’t what we were expecting. We hadn’t seen Cersei as funny before…
WEISS: She seemed uncomfortable in her skin, and then when she plays the scene that way, you think this is one of the most famous and powerful people in this world, it makes total sense the second you see it that that person might be uncomfortable in her skin. But I never thought about it that way until she did it that way.
BENIOFF: She’s someone people have been staring at her entire life, more for who she was when she was born than for things she’s done. All of a sudden it made her someone that, when we wrote the pilot, wasn’t that much fun to write for, to, because of Lena, becoming one of the most fun to write for. Part of that is, she’s not the embodiment of evil! She does a lot of really horrible shit, but you kind of always know why she’s doing it, there’s a reason for it.
Talking about this complication and moral ambiguity gets us to two scenes I feel we ought to discuss which were heavily litigated when they came out — the [fifth-season] rape of Sansa and the [fourth-season] scene when Jaime is forcing himself on Cersei while their son Joffrey’s body is lying there. These sequences became effectively radioactive, particularly online. Did the controversy surprise you? And did you want to do different things with the show subsequently?
WEISS: No, I would never try to invalidate someone’s opinion of something or the feelings something makes them feel. On some level, we felt like it’s impossible to get outrage about something that happens to a fictional person unless you’re very heavily invested in that fictional person. So on some level, there was the sense that if you’re that angry that something awful happened to this person that doesn’t exist, that means that it felt like we maybe, and more than anyone Sophie Turner [who plays Sansa], in that one scene, had done a really good job making you care about this person who doesn’t actually exist.
BENIOFF: So much of what happened happened offscreen. When you read some of the criticism, it’s like, we’re playing this on Theon’s face and it’s his reaction to the horror that’s happening. I guess I would say in terms of “were we surprised” — not with that scene. It was first of all, it was in the wake of the whole Jaime/Cersei controversy, so we certainly knew how sensitive an issue it was, and we knew Sansa’s a beloved character and a very young girl, so this was going to be a big one. If you write a scene trying to provoke controversy, you’re a juvenile — that’s what I did when I was 12, writing dirty words, trying to get a rise out of my teachers.
Being a troll.
BENIOFF: Being a troll, right.
BENIOFF: The flip side of that is if you avoid writing a scene because you’re afraid of the controversy it’s going to generate, then you’re being cowardly and you’re not serving the story. The truth is, this is what we thought was going to happen, so it’s not about is this something we should be afraid of, or is this going to generate controversy. It was just, she’s being married off to this guy, who we’ve established is one of the worst people in this world. This is medieval times — it might not be our world, 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.
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.
BENIOFF: So at a certain point, it was, the depiction of atrocities, of horrible events does not imply endorsement of them. You would think that would be obvious, because when we have a montage of babies being killed, no one came out and said, “Look at those guys, they’re supporting baby murder!” This is a horrible crime and there was nothing about that scene that was sensationalizing it or showing nudity or something, it was very much played on Theon’s face.
WEISS: The funny thing about the other scene you mentioned is, that was the fourth season. We’d definitely sent that episode out, we’d sent out the first three or the first four, wide, to critics. That season, I believe, as far as sending it out to critics, was the best-received we’d had. People really enjoyed those three episodes they got, which included this scene! And I think we went back after the fact, after people got upset about the scene, went back and looke d— we had stopped by that point reading the internet about the show, which is its own separate question. It felt like an unhealthy thing to be doing so we quit around season 2.
And you stuck to that?
WEISS: Definitely. But we — for this, we went back and spot-checked this thing, to see if anybody who had reviewed the show so positively and seen this scene had commented upon it when they were watching it individually and reacting to it as an individual, and not one of them had, to my recollection. And then, some of the people who had come back and seemed to be somewhat outraged about this scene were outraged about a scene that they had already seen! And not been outraged by when they saw it. I just think it’s a byproduct, not specific to our show, it’s a byproduct of the way people talk about culture now. And the immediate interconnection of anybody who’s talking about a thing that happens at the same time — it changes the nature of the conversation.
Even on location, it seems pretty locked-down, and yet there are ideas, right or wrong, about what happens in season 7. Where do you fall on that?
BENIOFF: We were talking at the South by Southwest panel and one guy had a question about this — look at how difficult it is to protect information in this age. The CIA can’t do it. The NSA can’t do it. What chance do we have? We’re probably the most careful of any show out there, or equally, but there’s just too many people have access to things. For instance, when Jon Snow was killed, a couple of days before it aired, the images started appearing online. As Dan said we’re really scrupulous about not looking at stuff online, but HBO contacted us. That was really disappointing. And it turned out it was from one of the overseas HBO affiliates, they do dubbing or subtitling and some young person had been in there with a camera. It’s really hard to prevent something like that from happening.
That being said, the first few seasons, which were quite faithful to the books, you had millions of people out there who knew that Ned Stark was going to get beheaded, who knew that the Red Wedding was going to happen and the Starks were going to get massacred. And as far as I could tell, it didn’t ruin the show for people. There were some people who knew it was going to happen, and many people who didn’t know. The way it is now, if you want to find things out — and there’s some stuff online that’s completely bogus, which is kind of cool, not that we spread disinformation but some people are out there talking about complete bullshit. And so, first of all, I don’t think anyone out there other than people who work on the show knows what’s actually going to happen, but also, if you want to avoid these kind of spoilers you can. You can avoid going to the sites that talk about them and if you really are desperate to find out maybe you’re going to glean some information ahead of time.
Even shows as non-plot-driven as the average sitcom come under incredible scrutiny for their finales, which have to be simultaneously artful and able to wrap up plotlines — but not too conclusively. That’s before you take into account that Game of Thrones poses a question with a single answer: Who will rule? How do you work towards this finale without being institutionalized?
WEISS: I wouldn’t say that that has happened with certainty yet. There’s two years to be signed into the facility of our choice.
BENIOFF: Medication helps.
WEISS: I’m not saying we don’t think about it, because you put it out there so people watch it! You’re thinking about the fact that people are watching it! But if you spend too much time thinking about that, there’s too much to do that the best way for us to go about it is to focus on what’s on the desk in front of you, or what’s on the screen in front of you, or what sword is being put in front of you, or fight is being choreographed in front of you, like, it’s trying to stay in the tasks at hand and not think about what’s going to happen when we’re done with this, because the number of things that have to happen between now and then in terms of — from our perspective — there are tens of thousands of things.
What about life after Game of Thrones are you looking forward to?
WEISS: Drinking less. The only upside I can see of spending less time with Kit [Harington] and Alfie [Allen] is we will be drinking less.
BENIOFF: It’ll be fun to do something new. This is the only thing I’ve worked on where I could imagine working on it for ten years — it’s the only thing that’s maintained my interest for that long. But it’ll be fun to write for different characters at some point, it’ll be fun to write in a different world, maybe in a world where we don’t need horses and swords and—
WEISS: —It’s funny because there’s so many… shooting people on horses is challenging in so many ways and there’s a whole different set of skills. It is a visual language of doing that. And so we’ve become pretty good of knowing what works with that and what doesn’t, and having specific ideas about that. We haven’t shot a single conversation in a car — when it’s done, it’ll be ten years without one conversation in an automobile. I have to go back and watch other movies to find out how people shoot people talking in cars, because we’ve never done it. It’s a simple thing that anybody who shoots almost anything deals with on every show and movie in existence almost, but that’s not our show.
Favorite character to write for?
WEISS: Who’s going to say Hodor first? You are.
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