At the Con of Thrones You Win or You Just Have a Great Time (It's Not Catchy)
This past weekend I attended the very first Con of Thrones organized by Mischief Management and Zack Luye at the Gaylord Opryland resort in Nashville, Tennessee. It was, overall, a totally wonderful experience. The crowds were great, the cosplays were fantastic, both my planned panels went well and I was invited to join two others while there. I met Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzalez, and Neil Miller among many others. I was astonished by the venue itself, which includes massive enclosed gardens including a quarter mile-long river. I updated some on my Twitter and Instagram over the weekend, but wanted to wait until the end to do a full accounting. So here we go.
Friday I arrived at the hotel a little after 10am and was able to check in right away and chase down my press pass. This was good, since I had both my scheduled panels on Friday afternoon and wanted to have some time to relax and prepare before them. I was able to make it to the Opening Ceremony at noon, which featured a short sketch by the Mischief Management team before an official opening announcement. After that I got some lunch and went over my notes before No Fires Burning, my first panel based on this piece I wrote after last season looking at the empty castles and what it could mean for both Dany’s conquest and the coming War for the Dawn. Mostly: that there’s a lot of Westeros that needs defending and not a whole lot of people left to do it. Maybe Daenerys and her armies can fill that gap before the White Walkers make it past the wall. Maybe not. I had just enough time after that to get a drink before my panel A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Castamere where I discussed Eleanor of Aquitaine and how her life compares to Cersei Lannister. For both panels I had great audience participation, particularly in the Cersei panel where people were incredibly well-versed in Medieval history and suggested other parallels, and even brought up other historical queens and how they compared to the women in Game of Thrones. And that was basically it, I had an early morning friday so after I was done with my panels I went almost straight to bed.
The absolute highlight of Saturday was the two panels I saw with Paula Fairfield, the sound designer for Game of Thrones. She spoke extensively about her process in creating otherworldly sounds that still have a relatable heart, and her process of creating stories in the sounds she’s making and how they interact with the larger world. There are two dozen animal sounds layered to make the dragons voices, but none of those sounds are synthetic. She said firmly that “If you use something that does not have a soul, what you make will never have a soul.” It’s clear how personal her work is to her, she told us of her dog who had died this past winter and how she used the dog’s voice in the show both for the emotional resonance and as a tribute to her pet. Later in a meet and greet small session she answered questions about finding sonic literacy, the way we absorb sounds and can immediately identify ones out of place and build stories around them, and gave advice to film students on learning to trust their instincts and really listen to the world so they could see how to add sound to their films. It was wonderful to hear how engaged she was in the show, and the more I thought about it the more I realized how crucial her work is to the tone of the overall series. The cries of the dragons have been pleading, playful, aggressive, scared, angry, afraid, and a series of other emotions because she is there making them that way. The White Walkers sound like a force of nature because of her. The giants and mammoths have a language and relationships that she built into the sounds they make. We talk a lot about the score, and it’s a wonderful score, but the individual sounds also build a great deal of emotional resonance in the show.
Also on Saturday was the excellent “Ghosts of Westeros” panel hosted by David Chen and our own Joanna Robinson. On that panel Iwan Rheon, Kate Dickie, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Sam Coleman, Kerry Ingram, Aimee Richardson, and Miltos Yerolemou talked about their characters, their deaths, and what it was like to be a part of the series. There was a wide range of experiences, Sam Coleman only played young Hodor in one episode and for Aimee Richardson her role as Myrcella had been recast by the time the character died. Miltos’s Syrio, of course, is believed (or hoped) to still be alive by some including the panel moderators who tried to ferret any secrets out of him. Of the actors, both Miltos and Kate, who played Lysa Arryn, had read the books until their characters’s deaths. Kerry Ingram shared that Shireen’s death involved minimal CGI and barely any acting, since they had her standing about a meter away from actual flames that, because of the wind, got a lot closer to her than she was anticipating. It was also revealed that Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Mace Tyrell was meant to have a last line before the sept was destroyed, whispering urgently to Margaery “But they are madmen!” as she tries to reason with the High Sparrow. Kerry also talked about Shireen was only meant to appear in one season and even with a gruesome death she was grateful to have the chance to work on the show for so long.
Saturday was also the first of my two bonus panels, as Laura Downing was kind enough to ask me to participate in both “The Kingdoms of Westeros and the Countries and Cultures of the Middle Ages” on Saturday and “The Parallels Between Westeros Religions and Real World Faiths” on Sunday. Both of these panels were excellent examinations of how reality is generally stranger than fiction (although sadly/blessedly more free of dragons) and our audiences were engaged and thoughtful for both. Even in the panel about religions, which is a tricky topic to navigate, everyone felt respectful of people’s religious beliefs. That’s also where I threw a wrench into the whole thing by confessing that I see The Seven more as Jungian archetypes meant to enforce a specific social hierarchy than a parallel of a particular religion, but luckily that didn’t seem to throw off the discussion too much.
Finally, my Sunday was cut a bit short by thunderstorm induced migraines (mmmm, summer in Tennessee) but I was able to get to two “Great Debate” panels hosted by the Storm of Spoilers crew. The first was about who was the greatest fighter in Westeros, the second pitching possible spin-offs for HBO. By popular acclaim, the greatest fighter in Westeros was decided to be Ser Arthur Dayne. As far as series go, Ashaya of the History of Westeros podcast came with a completely polished pitch for a multi-season anthology epic based on the adventures of Nymeria and the Children of the Rhyone. I pitched my own suggestion of a mystery series based on my suspicion that the Iron Bank of Braavos uses the House of Black and White to chase down their debts, which lost in an early bracket to Nymeria the eventual champion. Other notable suggestions included a Golden Girls style series of Littlefinger’s retired employees dubbed “Where do Whores Go?”, a series narrated by Ser Pounce, a modern day Westeros show set thousands of years in the future, and the life of Melisandre. After that I was able to get back to the Great Hall in time for the wrap up of the weekend and the promise of a Con to come next year.
There were some flaws with the weekend. Even before the Con started two of the high-profile guests had to cancel, those being Carice Van Houten and Robert Dunne the weapons master for the show. The marketplace was also a bit underwhelming, most of the booths there were great, but there weren’t many of them and the space felt pretty empty. I was attending on a press pass, but I heard people who had paid extra for the Valyrian pass didn’t feel that they were getting the full benefit of that pass, in particular that the special seating areas weren’t being policed properly. There was also a “Ball on the Wall” on Saturday night where the actual ballroom was very dark and loud, so most attendees spent their time in the lobby so they could see people’s costumes and talk. There were also a few small issues with the panels, the nature of how they were decided meant a lot of inexperienced presenters were leading them (myself included here) so there was some unevenness in them. The Cosplay Contest featured a huge number of people who had put hours of work and hundreds of dollars into their costumes, the winning couple had made Wun-Wun and Ygritte costumes complete with stilts by hand, but the prizes were just Con merch. The first place prize of a poster was signed, but it still seemed a bit underwhelming. Also, a problem I encountered was that I was holding a presentation panel next to a room where they were playing a party game based on the Red Wedding so there were frequently loud bursts of applause or laughter heard through the wall. Maybe there wasn’t much they could do to move quieter panels away from more raucous ones but it’s something I’d encourage the Mischief Management team to consider for the future.
I do hope there is a future, though. As Joanna reminded me while we were talking this weekend, there’s more than a year until the next and final season of the show premieres. Fans will want to talk. There’s always the possibility that Winds of Winter will come out before then and people will want to gather and talk about that. More than that, though, it’s wonderful to finally see a community you know from the internet in person. I’ve been writing for Pajiba since 2009 and this is the first time I’d ever met Joanna in person. I met commenters from the site, people I’d known from Twitter, and new friends at the Con. After the closing ceremonies I went to grab food with the Storm of Spoilers group along with other podcasters and bloggers and we looked down at the other end of the table at one point and saw Aimee Richardson, the original Princess Myrcella, sitting with us. The weekend was full of amazing experiences like that. It was a wonderful time and if it comes back next summer I hope to see even more of you there.
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