‘Game of Thrones’ producers Benioff & Weiss on approaching ‘the halfway point’

The job of running any of today”s ambitious cable drama series is hard, but “Game of Thrones” bosses David Benioff and D.B. Weiss“s jobs come with an added degree of difficulty, because they”re adapting a series of beloved, enormous books by George R.R. Martin. So they have to mostly stay faithful to Martin”s stories, and that means incorporating dozens of significant characters, and almost that many separate plots that take place across two different continents, with characters sometimes spending whole seasons just traveling from one location to another. And because of the production logistics involved in filming the HBO drama in multiple countries, Benioff and Weiss say they can realistically only make 10 episodes a season. So even if they”re taking two seasons to cover a particular book – as they are with the third book, “A Storm of Swords,” which will span the third and upcoming fourth season of the show – they have to be very judicious in how much time any one story gets in an episode, or a season.

I”ve seen the first several episodes of season 4, which debuts Sunday night at 9 on HBO, and they”re very strong. I think the denseness of the source material is always going to be a limiting factor to the show, but there are so many strong individual moments and sequences early on that are also a reminder of how much great material the books give Benioff and Weiss to work with.

In advance of the season, I got to interview several of the actors in person (look for those over the next few days), and I emailed Benioff and Weiss a few questions about how they”re approaching things at this point.

Half of an upcoming episode is essentially one long scene. As you get deeper into the process of making this show, how do you decide when it’s appropriate or necessary to concentrate the action in that way, and is it something you wish you could do more of if there weren’t so many other characters and plots to deal with?

Benioff & Weiss: The long scene you mention struck us as a rare opportunity, since more characters are gathered in one location than at any other time in the series. When we were kids there was a Marvel anthology called “What If?” What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four? What if the Hulk was as smart as Bruce Banner? For us it’s fun to see characters who normally occupy separate storylines collide like charged particles in an accelerator. What if Cersei met Brienne? What if Loras bumped into Jaime?

But beyond those moments, there’s great pleasure in taking a show which normally bounds between locations and slowing it down, lingering on the moment. Later in the season we have an episode that takes place in one night, in one general location. The decision to focus on one storyline is driven by the story itself. When a wedding congregates so many of our characters, we dwell on that congregation at length. When it’s time for a great battle, we want to see both sides. We believe that the most compelling conflicts are the ones where the audience roots for certain characters on either side, instead of clearly delineating between good guys and bad guys.

As for wishing we could do more of these focused episodes, part of what lured us to “Game of Thrones” was the massive canvas, hundreds of characters living in a vast make-believe world. As you say, there are many characters and storylines, but that’s exactly why we wanted to adapt the books as an HBO series instead of features. Features would have forced us to drop most of that complexity and focus on just a few characters– Jon Snow, say. But discarding 90% of the books’ material felt like a great shame to us.

Are there certain characters you’ve found it particularly challenging to present as part of the bigger story, either because they’re very far removed from what everyone else is up to or because they simply aren’t doing a whole lot at a given point in the narrative? If so, who are they and how do you deal with that?

Benioff & Weiss: Really good question. Episode structure is one way to connect characters who are far removed from each other in space (geographically, in the world of the story), and remind us of the importance they have for each other through proximity in time (in the episode). “The Wire” is a great example for us in this way — no one has ever done a better job of showing intuitively how people who never meet nonetheless have a tremendous impact on each others’ lives. Bran Stark, for instance — he’s far away from most of the characters in the story and moving farther, but both his actions and the mere fact of his continuing existence are of paramount importance to many people.

Of course, now that we’ve passed what we see as the halfway point, one of the great pleasures of the show for us is seeing some of these disparate plot threads come together, and seeing characters who have never met each other finally occupying the same frame. It feels like this is the season where the “GoT” universe finally stops expanding and starts contracting, and the resulting collisions can be a lot of fun.

Related to that, when you have characters like Bran or Daenerys who at various points in the series have had stories that are primarily about getting from Point A to Point B on the map, what do you try to latch onto so that you’re not simply showing the audience a group of characters who are walking for a long time?

Benioff & Weiss: The points on the map are far less important than the development of the character. If you quizzed viewers, only a very small percentage would remember Dany’s journey from Pentos to Vaes Dothrak to the Red Waste to Qarth to Astapor to Yunkai to Meereen (just listing them is exhausting). But any attentive viewer could tell you how Dany has evolved from the frightened girl of the pilot to the powerful queen of Season 4.

We ended season 3 with a lot of the classical hero and villain types like Ned, Robb and Jaime either dead or incapacitated, and now so much of the future of Westeros hinges on outcasts and rejects like Jon Snow and Bran and Tyrion. Is that more exciting for you or more challenging, and how?

Benioff & Weiss: More exciting! Lots of heroes begin as outcasts or rejects – Luke on his farm, Perseus in poverty with his single mother, Lawrence of Arabia painting his maps in that Cairo basement. But what’s most exciting for us isn’t heroes vs. villains. It’s characters vs. characters — people we’re heavily invested in coming into conflict with each other. And hey, for the villain fans: we’ve still got Joffrey. We’ve still got Ramsay Snow and his not-so-nice father. And Cersei can certainly hold her own in the nastiness department when required.

Are there any characters from the books you’ve found yourselves more invested in as you’ve written for them on the show than when you were reading, and why?

Benioff & Weiss: Several. One obvious example would be Shae. We intended to stick faithfully to the character as depicted in the book, a flat character in the classic E.M. Forster definition, a gold-digging whore with no emotional depth. Then we saw the movie “Head-On” and fell in love with Sibel Kekilli. Once we saw her audition (one of the great auditions of all time) we knew we needed a more complex Shae. And we’re quite proud of the fact that George R.R. Martin has grown to love the show’s Shae, thanks in large part to Sibel’s brilliance in the role.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

NOTE: No more comments on any “Game of Thrones” posts. I tried setting up separate message board threads for readers and non-readers, but that unfortunately didn’t work out so well. Sorry.