In the third and final installment of my conversation with D.B Weiss, the executive producer of "Game of Thrones" (Sundays at 9 p.m. ET), he discusses a dilemma that he and fellow executive producer David Benioff faced in adapting George R.R. Martin's series of fantasy novels. They've got a very popular cast of series regulars -- which is expanding all the time -- and yet, in the books, some of those characters don't make appearances for long periods.
Television is a medium that fosters a certain kind of welcome familiarity -- once we know who Robb Stark, Jaime Lannister and Jon Snow are, we want to see them frequently. But in Martin's epic tale, characters are sometimes "offstage," as it were, for long periods of time.
Below, Weiss discusses how he and Benioff weighed the desires of the audience to see their favorites with the needs of the story; balancing the sheer tonnage of plot in Martin's grand tale with the more emotionally poignant and dramatic sides of "Thrones"; and an important event that may or may not happen next season (and don't worry, you'll get a spoiler warning before you get to that section).
This interview has been edited and slightly condensed.
As the series goes on, ideally for many years, the divergences from the books could kind of add up and accumulate, theoretically. Is that something that you are comfortable with, or is it something that you feel like you have to kind of police as you go forward?
We talk to George a lot about what he has in mind. We know what's in the first five books, and we talked to him a fair amount about what he has in mind going forward [in subsequent books], to make sure we don't do anything that's going to be too drastic in that regard. We do want to make sure that, while we do need to leave the highway here and there, we want to make sure we don't end up taking a detour that doesn't let us get to the places we need to go down the road. So yeah, we're aware of it, but I'm not that worried about it. I think we've got a pretty good handle on the world and on the things that are going to be most central down the line. We're aware of it, but not overly concerned with it.
What about fan reactions to various changes or alterations? Is that something you keep up with, or is it better to just kind of let it unfold without getting too involved in the audience reactions?
Luckily, the time demands of the show are so extreme that any sort of impulse you might have to get lost in the fan reactions is kind of dealt with by the fact that you're working an 18-hour day, and there is just not as much time for that as there would be otherwise. I mean, if you look at what people are saying on a discussion board, you'll change something and some people will say that they love it and some people will say that they hate it and some people will say that it was not better or not worse, but different. Unless you're really going to sit down and start tallying up responses and getting percentages, it's hard to really say what the fans think about anything. The aren't a monolithic entity, and I don't think taking polls and [calculating] percentages is a particularly good way to create anything worthwhile.
I don't think George sent out questionnaires during the writing of his last book and he won't do it in the writing of his next book. Sometimes it's worth dipping your toe in the water and getting a sense of the temperature. But as long as things seem like they're moving in the right direction and as long as people seem happy with where things are going overall, I don't think that overly paying attention to that stuff is in the best interest of the show and ultimately, [it's] not in the best interest of the people who like the show.
"Game of Thrones" is obviously a television show, and people have certain expectations for that medium as opposed to a novel, where people can kind of come in and out of the narrative a little bit more freely. There are characters such as Jon Snow, Robb Stark and Jaime Lannister that fans of the book really care about and viewers of the show, who are new to the story, love. They're not as prominent in certain parts of the novels, but there are a lot of reasons to keep them around. Can you describe how you approach the whole issue of keeping around a series regular and someone who is important to the story, but maybe goes away in the book for long periods? How do you keep them in the mix?
Well, it's interesting. It's one of the places where novels diverge pretty drastically from television. Robb is absent from the second book, but he's not absent. He's not a point-of-view character [in the novels, Martin rotates around a series of "point-of-view" characters; in the second book, Robb is not one of those POV characters]. He's basically not "on-screen" in the book, but in a way, he is on-screen because in the novel, Robb is mentioned as are stories about something that Robb did. [So Robb and his deeds are present and important, but] a story that is being told about a person is words coming out of somebody’s mouth for three, four, five minutes in a way that's just not tenable on television.
So you kind of hit on one of the primary differences between the two media: Robb is present in the books in a very real way, even though he's not technically there "on screen," as it were. And we feel like we needed him to have that same presence, if not more so, in the show. Adding to that, we felt, is the immense talent and magnetism of Richard Madden [who plays Robb] and what he brought to the character -- it was a very easy decision to make sure he had his own storyline that spanned the whole of the second season.
Is that part of it? Could there be an expansion or maybe just a little bit more of a through-line in response to an actor’s performance? Or is it story needs? Do a bunch of different factors go into those decisions?
Yeah, sure. It's all those things. A lot of it is making sure that the stories that are in play remain [coherent] for people and that people don't lose track. It’s much easier to flip back in a book than it is to flip back in a television show. It's easier now than it used to be, but it's still not a natural way of experiencing a TV show [to constantly go back and re-orient yourself in the story], whereas that is a natural way of experiencing a book. I think that a lot of it also does, as you say, come down to individual performances and actors' embodiments of characters. You realize what an asset the people working with you are, and you want to utilize those assets to the fullest because you’d be crazy not to.
There is just so much actual story that you need to put in the show and even as you condense things are pare them down or switch them around, is it a constant battle to keep the emotional and even logistical plights of these characters vivid and in the foreground? You've got to both lay out the story points you have to hit, and then you've got to make us care about each person's dilemmas. Is that the struggle, to just get all of that on the screen?
Yeah, I think we're always trying to strike that balance. [We don't want to get] on such tight rails that you're going A, B, C, D, E -- like, ticking off plot boxes and never stopping to check in with people and have quieter moments where we aren't immediately servicing some urgent plot issue. [We want to have moments where we] are kind of maybe delving more deeply into who they are. There are a lot of great scenes this season between Peter [Dinklage, who plays Tyrion Lannister] and Lena [Headey, who plays his sister Cersei] that especially stand out as scenes that obviously are connected to the story at hand and are related to what's happening, but also give you a bit of a peek into who those characters are. [The hope is to have scenes that] let you know something surprising about the characters that you wouldn't have known if we had just been concerned about getting them from point A to point B to point C as efficiently as possible.
[Weiss' assistant lets him know that he has a meeting to get to.]
All right. Maybe later in the season I'll get to talk to you about the Battle of the Blackwater [which is coming up in Season 2].
Yeah, that would be great. As for the Blackwater, we hope people will have as much fun watching it as we had standing out in the mud and the freezing rain making it.
This next question isn't spoiler-y, per se, but it obliquely references an event that happens in the third book. Look away if you don't want to see the not-very-specific question and Weiss' non-spoilery answer.
There is an important event that happens in the third book, and I'm sure those who have read the books know what I'm talking about. It does that seem like it could be a natural endpoint to the third season. Do you not want to talk about where that event could fall? Could it close out the third season?
All I can really just say is that we’re still writing the third season, so we can let you know when the scripts are done. But we won't let you know. [Laughs.] It's one of those things where even telling people that something big is coming is probably doing them, we think, a bit of a disservice. I remember how I experienced that event in the books and it was just such a massive, shocking, "Holy shit!" moment for me, and part of the shock of it was not having any idea that it was coming. So to the extent that it's possible, we'd love to preserve that for the people who haven't read the books.