When HBO’s first fantasy series outing came thundering into our living rooms, all swords and sex, beheadings and butchering, many of us didn’t know what to expect. For the uninitiated, a new kind of epic and thrilling adventure began—and for the already ardent fans, “Game of Thrones” was a surprisingly faithful adaptation. An inspired cast full of actors old and new, introduced us to rich characters we quickly grew to love and hate, their lives and deaths playing out against a glorious backdrop of medieval worlds previously only dreamed of.
This edition of Mindhole Blowers was culled mainly from two of the seven available commentaries (“Winter is Coming” with David Benioff and Dan Weiss, “The Pointy End” with George R.R. Martin) and the DVD extras: “From the Book to the Screen” and “Making Game of Thrones.”
1. “Game of Thrones” is based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire; Season One follows book one, A Game of Thrones. Martin began the series in 1991 and as it became successful, appearing on best seller lists, he was immediately contacted by people who wanted to buy the rights. The author talked to his agents and said making the books into a film “just couldn’t be done—they would have to cut so much there would be nothing left.” Martin asserted that the only way the series could be translated would be on HBO. He told his agent, “That’s where it belongs; go forth and make it happen.”
2. Martin’s agent sent the books to Writer/Producer David Benioff (Troy, The Kite Runner); he loved them. Five hundred pages in, Benioff called Writer Dan Weiss and told Dan he had to read it, A Game of Thrones “was the most fun he had reading anything.” Dan got to the last scene (of the pilot episode) and wondered if there was any way it could be done. No one had acquired the rights. Martin, who had worked in television, knew that the more successful he became, the more they would be worth.
3. According to Benioff, after reading the book he had only two actors in mind for characters: Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage. When Martin first met with Benioff and Weiss (even before HBO was involved) they played the casting game and Martin felt there was never anyone for Tyrion but Peter Dinklage. No one else read or was auditioned, they “just had to get Dinklage” and he was “incredible from the start.” The actor won the 2011 Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister.
4. In the original pilot for “Winter is Coming,” there are several actors who were later replaced, among them: Jennifer Ehle as Catelyn Stark and Tamzin Merchant as Daenerys Stormborn. Van Patten replaced Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor). Some of the original pilot footage remains in the aired pilot; Benioff pointed out continuity errors such as Will (beheaded by Ned Stark), who in one shot is portrayed by an unknown actor and in another, by Bronson Webb; in the scene where the direwolf pups (the show uses dogs bred to look like wolves) are discovered, it is raining on one side of the scene and not on the other. One of the animal handlers, Kenny, also served as a butcher when necessary. He gutted the stag, which had been sitting around for a couple of days. Benioff called it “a sight to see” when the animal (not killed by them) was opened up and said that Scottish prop man Brian, who wasn’t normally squeamish, “couldn’t keep his haggis in his stomach.”
5. Director Tim Van Patten (“The Sopranos, The Pacific, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire”) came in to a meeting with storyboards he’d created for the opening sequence. When he was done presenting them, he waited for the reaction—no one said a word—there was just applause.
6. Fourteen countries were researched for possible filming locations. Northern Ireland and Malta were chosen for the range of environments necessary. Production Designer Gemma Jackson created Winterfell in a parking lot, with such detail as to allow the director to shoot 360 degrees. Jackson also designed the crypts in the basement of Shane’s Castle, and later transformed that same area into the black cells under the Red Keep of King’s Landing. Castle Black was built on location to a certain height for episodes 1 through 10, for wide shots, the towers were added on. Everyone talked about the wall, but no one had seen it so producers wanted to show it. The top of the wall was build on a stage set, then green screen was used around the set and wind and snow effects were added.
7. The title sequence was by Angus Wall of E52 Elastic, after being given only the notion of a raven flying over a map. Benioff said Wall made it “something far more extraordinary.” Martin said he’s loved the opening since he first saw it, that “because geography is very important, getting in the map was a good idea.” Here is a great interview with Wall about the process. Wall won the 2011 Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design.
8. All the snow and ice is created for the show. Benioff lamented that though Northern Ireland is cold, it doesn’t snow when you want it to (in August). The first time they shot the pilot, there were just heaps of bodies, it was bloodless, not violent or horrific enough. After the pilot aired, they received lots of comments that the girl nailed to a tree didn’t look real, she looked like a doll. In fact, she was a real, 19 year old girl (Claire Wright).
9. Costumer Michele Clapton (“Sense and Sensibility, The Diary of Anne Frank”) “has a gift;” she creates looks for people in all the worlds. All the clothing is made new; the second part of the process is destroying the clothes so they look lived in.
10. When Benioff asked Music Supervisor Evyen Klean (“Enlightened, Mildred Pierce, The Pacific, Memphis Beat”) who to get to score the series, Klean suggested Composer Ramin Djawadi (Red Dawn, Safe House, Clash of the Titans, “Prison Break, Flash Forward”). Djawadi was phoned, he came in for a meeting and was hired. Three days later he called and said he couldn’t do it—he was working on a film. They “begged and begged” and finally the composer agreed to do the show.
11. All the weapons are created by Tommy Dunne. Benioff looks forward to his meetings with Dunne the most; “it’s like early Christmas to see all the weapons he comes up with.”
12. Martin and Benioff agreed that the children were hardest to cast—they watched hundreds of audition for Arya, Sansa and Bran. Casting Director Nina Gold (The King’s Speech, Eastern Promises, The Illusionist, Jane Eyre) found all the “incredible kids,” none of whom had done anything much before “Game of Thrones.” Maisie Williams (Arya) said that her mother heard about the auditions and read the book (too grown up for the young girl), passing on the relevant details to her daughter. Martin noted that Jack Gleeson (Joffrey) is “…really a very nice young man, charming and friendly.” The author sent Gleeson a letter that read, “Congratulations on your marvelous performance, everyone hates you.” Charles Dance was Martin’s first choice to play Tywin Lannister, the writer was quite pleased to have gotten him, as well as “lucky” to get Iain Glen, who is “usually a leading man.” Maisie Williams (Arya) and Miltos Yerolemou (Syrio) were Martin favorites since the show began. Though they received complaints from fans that Miltos didn’t look old enough, Martin brushed them off, saying “he is Syrio.
13. Tyrion’s opening scene was not directly from the book—it was invented to show what Tyrion is all about. Benioff called it a continuity error that one of the prostitutes later plays Cersei’s handmaids. Esmé Binaco (Ros) was so good in the scene, her part was expanded. Another error was later discovered, a painting in the scene where Daenerys is introduced shows a ship with guns—which wouldn’t have existed at the time. Filming was done at the President of Malta’s summer palace (they weren’t allowed inside). Benioff called actress Emilia Clarke “a real find;” she had just gotten out of drama school. Clarke was the only actor who had to fly in to do a scene in front of HBO and a bunch of executives. She was 23 at the time and had done maybe only one small role before, but she “didn’t look afraid at all.” Not wanting her to suffer anxiety, Benioff went after Clarke to tell her she had gotten the role of Daenerys before she flew back to England. Fans have asked why Dany doesn’t have violet eyes; Benioff said they tried filming Clarke with colored lenses, but because people act through their eyes, it hurt the performance. Meanwhile, the producers were uncertain if they were legally allowed to shoot the Dothraki scenes of sex and violence—Malta has strict laws about what can be done in public—but no one bothered them. During filming, Malta was hit by its biggest storm in twenty years. Benioff received pictures taken by Clarke, he described seeing a tidal wave so big it looked like a photo taken by someone who was killed twenty seconds later.
14. They looked “high and low” for a silver horse, but were unable to find one. Benioff also spoke of the difficulty in getting dragon’s eggs right, the ones in the original pilot looked like “Christmas ornaments.” Gemma Jackson redesigned the final eggs and one was given to Martin as a wedding gift when he married Parris McBride in 2011.
15. Martin wrote “The Pointy End” script and noted that when he worked on CBS’s “The Twilight Zone,” the producer would never let writers adapt their own work. For “Game of Thrones,” Martin will do one script per season, he said it does create a strange conflict for the writer. Martin described several additional scenes he’d written that were cut (as he expected), including one of ravens calling the banners—the ravens were received at Dreadfort, Last Hearth, Bear Island, etc. and all the secondary lords responded. Martin called it a “magnificent sequence,” but Benioff said it would take four or five times the entire season’s budget to film. The author’s “first drafts are always too long”—he writes for himself, then later cuts and trims to make it “filmable.”
16. The Dothraki tongue was commissioned by HBO through the Language Creation Society. Linguistics expert David Peterson created the language and delivered over 1700 words before the series began filming (there are now more than 3000 words).
17. Assistant Stunt Coordinator Buster Reeves (Red, Clash of the Titans, The Dark Knight Rises) directed all the fights; he mentioned that the actors didn’t have much time to learn swordplay. Reeves said “it’s more like learning a dance,” with different styles for different characters (eg Ned and Jamie, who fight in completely different ways).
18. Martin is especially pleased to see the depictions of strategy going on during war. The author said that as a fan of fantasy and television himself, it is a pet peeve of his to see many battles and wars shown only as two armies fighting. “Seldom is there a sense of anything that goes into a campaign” (logistics), “…feeding the soldiers, stuff from The Art of War, things generals and commanders have to do.” He wanted the audience to have a sense of that strategy and the geography both in the books and on the series.
19. Martin was very happy with the staging of the scene when Tyrion arrives at the Lannister camp with Shagga and company (because of budget, the group walked out of the woods, instead of riding on horses). Inside the tent, Tyrion keeps reaching for the wine and Tywin keeps denying him, without saying a word. Martin did not write, but admired the line uttered by Bronn (Jerome Flynn) as Tyrion introduces him: (“Son of…”) “…You wouldn’t know him.” Martin commented on how funny it was and said that he didn’t know if it was ad libbed or written—but, he wished he had written it.
20. People have asked Martin if the television show will impact his writing the books—in general, his answer is “No.” However, one exception may be in writing for the wildling, Osha (Natalia Tena). When he initially saw a picture of the actress, Martin said Tena was all wrong for the part, but as he watched her audition, Martin “couldn’t take his eyes off her.” Because he finds Tena’s portrayal of Osha more interesting than what he had written, he would like to write more for her.
Cindy Davis says, “Not today” every day.