Emmys 2011

08.29.11

Game of Thrones’ Creative Gurus

David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the addictive HBO fantasy drama’s head writers, discuss season two, Emmy nominations, Emilia Clarke’s snub, 'sexposition,' casting Melisandre and Gilly, and what’s to come.

HBO’s gripping drama Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s bestselling fantasy-novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, has permeated the public consciousness, drawing new audiences to the brutal Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a land where summers can last for decades and where the threat of winter (and worse) always looms large. The show also did the seemingly impossible in winning over passionate adherents of Martin’s sweeping novels—the most recent of which was released in July—obsessively adapted by writers/executive producers David Benioff and D. B. “Dan” Weiss. After a first season that captivated 8.3 million average gross viewers, Game of Thrones scored an impressive 13 Emmy Award nominations (PDF), including nods for best drama and, for Peter Dinklage, best supporting actor.

The Daily Beast caught up with Benioff and Weiss—currently working around the clock on the second season of Game of Thrones, set to air in 2012—to discuss the Emmy nominations, Emilia Clarke’s snub, “sexposition,” casting for season two, and what’s coming up next season on the addictive and shocking fantasy drama.

Congratulations on Game of Thrones’ 13 Emmy nominations. Are you at all surprised that the Academy has embraced the show? Or, given the overwhelming audience reaction, is that to be expected?

David Benioff: Thank you. “Surprised” is an understatement. “Stunned” or “shocked” would be more accurate. I was writing in our office when Dan said, “We got nominated.” For a few seconds I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. I thought of those lines from The Magnificent Seven. (“You get elected?” “No, but I got nominated real good.”)

D. B. Weiss: The night before, we made a dinner bet with some friends that the show wouldn’t get a drama-series nomination. I never would have made this bet if I thought there was a real chance of us being nominated. I really had no intention of buying them dinner.

Benioff: Actually, I still don’t.

Weiss: Yeah! Screw them!

Many were shocked that Emilia Clarke failed to nab an Emmy nomination, though the supporting-actress category this year is likely to be a bloody battlefield. Why do you think her stunning performance as Daenerys was overlooked?

Benioff: I imagine it’s always hard for a newcomer to earn a nomination. The name recognition isn’t there yet for voters. But I’m not too worried about Emilia. Dan and I will be long forgotten, playing shuffleboard down in Florida, bragging to our geezer friends about how we discovered Emilia Clarke.

Weiss: In my unbiased opinion, she deserved a nomination. But there will be many other nominations and awards in her future. As to why she didn’t get it this year … some of her most powerful work was in the last two episodes. Maybe those hit too late? I don’t know. If I could predict and explain the behavior of large groups of people, you think I’d be working in Hollywood? I’d be Warren Buffett.

What lessons did you learn from the first season—in terms of adaptation, breaking episodes, production, etc.—that you’ve taken on board for season two?

Weiss: In general, across the board, we learned the necessity of planning ahead with a show that strives to be ambitious without completely breaking the bank. We can’t afford to waste expensive shots, or shooting days, or ketchup. So we try to stay as far out ahead of everything as we can, we eat what we kill, and now it’s all smooth sailing!

Benioff: Whatever lessons we’ve learned from the first season are mitigated by the increased difficulty of the second season. We have more characters, more locations, more dragons. I wish we could say we’ve found a nice groove and life is easy now, but I still find myself waking up from anxiety nightmares at 4 in the morning.

You’ve cast Carice van Houten as Melisandre and SkinsHannah Murray as Gilly in season two. What do each of these actors bring to their respective roles? What about their auditions stood out to you?

Benioff: In both cases, Dan and I looked at each other after the auditions: She’s the one. Hannah brings a wonderfully damaged quality to Gilly—the character is a bit like one of those girls who is kidnapped and abused for years, and brainwashed by her captor into thinking he’s a prophet and a righteous man. Hannah understands that intuitively; her Gilly is also lovable and fetching and sympathetic.

Weiss: We were very excited to cast her. She has an immediately compelling quality. A few years ago, someone sent us an episode of Skins, the U.K. teen show she was on, and she pops right off the screen. As for Carice, she has always been in the forefront of our minds, ever since we saw Black Book five years ago.

“We will address [the sexposition] issue with a 20-minute brothel scene involving a dozen whores, Mord the Jailer, a jackass, and a large honeycomb,” jokes Benioff.

Benioff: Melisandre is a tricky role, and very few actresses have all the attributes required. Drop-dead gorgeous? Check. Charismatic and fiercely intelligent? Check. Able to convey a sinister, menacing presence without going over-the-top villainess? Check. In Carice’s hands, Mel is like Lady Macbeth and the three witches rolled into one.

Weiss: When you put it that way … yeah, it is a tricky role to cast. If we hadn’t gotten Carice, we might’ve just had to put Lena [Headey] in a red wig.

The show drew some criticism during season one for its use of so-called sexposition and a reliance on nudity. Why do you think that some critics and viewers reacted so strongly to the inclusion of the nudity, considering George’s novels are rife with them and this is HBO? Do you intend to address the “sexposition” issue in the show’s second season?

Benioff: We will address this issue with a 20-minute brothel scene involving a dozen whores, Mord the Jailer, a jackass, and a large honeycomb.

Weiss: There will always be those who want to see less sex, and those who want to see more sex, and those who want to see sex in big tubs of pudding. You just can’t please everyone. This year, we’re going to focus on the pudding people.

Viewers were shocked by the death of Ned Stark, even though readers have known this for almost two decades. Were you surprised that nonreaders reacted so strongly to Ned’s death, and do you think, had this been originally written for TV rather than as a novel, there would have been more of a temptation to keep Ned/Sean Bean around?

Benioff: The vast majority of the readers did an incredible job policing the various websites and trying to keep spoilers from ruining the surprise for nonreaders. It’s hard to emphasize how much we appreciate that—our biggest surprise, probably, was that the moment remained a shock for so much of the viewing audience. The strong reactions make us very happy. Fury? Great. It’s apathy that makes us sad.

Weiss: Ned’s death was one of the things that made us want to do the show in the first place. It was presented as a fact on the ground from the beginning. Any network that would have insisted on keeping him alive would have been the wrong network for this show. The prospect was never raised at HBO. Not once in 10,000 meetings.

Filming is already under way on season two. Ten episodes is not a lot of installments to contain everything within A Clash of Kings. How difficult was it to structure the season, and how much—if at all—do you diverge from the source material?

Benioff: We’d prefer to let the audience watch season two and make their own judgments, rather than revealing too much now.

Weiss: Hodor.

Season two will see the introduction of such fan-favorite characters as Melisandre, Davos, Gilly, Asha/Yara, Stannis, Roose Bolton, Jaqen H’ghar, and others. Were you surprised by which of those ended up being the most fun to write?

Weiss: Don’t forget Brienne! Gwendoline Christie is fantastic. She so perfectly embodies the kind of wounded strength the character requires. And she’s been training. She will kick your ass.

Benioff: We’ve already shot many of the Yara-Theon scenes, and I’m happy to report that Gemma [Whelan] and Alfie [Allen] make an insanely good pair of siblings. We could make a whole series about the Greyjoys. Speaking of which, we’re negotiating with HBO Family on a Gilly Loves Samwell sitcom. Tom Wlaschiha is a deeply compelling Jaqen. Carice and Stephen Dillane—watching the two of them together is like watching a master class in acting. Liam Cunningham brings humanity and wit to one of our favorite roles, Davos Seaworth. We haven’t shot anything yet with Roose, but we know Michael McElhatton will be superb. And he’s got the palest eyes of anyone I know.

It’s never too soon to start thinking about season three. What about the hefty A Storm of Swords do you think will provide the most challenging aspect to adaptation? Have you given any thought—or have there been any discussions with HBO—about breaking it into two seasons? Or moving elements into season two?

Weiss: Season two is a 100-hour-a-week job. It doesn’t leave a lot of time to think about seasons three and beyond. But yes, Storm of Swords … very long, dense book.

Benioff: A Storm of Swords will not be a single season. Beyond that, we’d rather not speculate, as HBO has not yet confirmed a third season and we’re not in the mood to jinx anything.

What can you tease about how season two will stack up against season one for viewers who haven’t read George’s novels? And for those who have, what will we be most surprised by seeing on screen?

Benioff: For Tyrion fans (and really, who isn’t a Tyrion fan?), season two sees the Imp in fine form, serving as hand of the king and trying to make the best of the chaos in King’s Landing. The Stark children struggle for survival, now that Ned’s not around to protect them. And Daenerys Stormborn finds that life in the big city isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Weiss: And Theon. People are really going to like Theon, I think. He makes some bold moves.

Benioff: Right, and Hodor gets his big monologue. Shakespeare, watch your back.