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‘Game of Thrones’ Showrunners Reveal Their Most ‘Brutal’ Season Yet

“Jon Snow is dead.”

So say David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, when asked that inevitable question.

The fans may have whipped themselves into a frenzy leading up to the sixth-season premiere of “Game of Thrones,” but the co-creators and showrunners of the Emmy-winning HBO juggernaut are slightly more blasé.

In an extensive interview with Variety a few weeks before the highly anticipated April 24 premiere, Benioff and Weiss couldn’t resist joking about the intense speculation over the fate of Kit Harington’s character, who was stabbed in a mutinous uprising at the Wall in last season’s finale.

Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Art Streiber for Variety

“People are spending a lot of time looking at his eyes, thinking he’s not dead,” says Benioff. “We spent a lot of time … ”

Interjects Weiss, “…We spent a lot of money on his eyes.”

Let’s put it this way: If your Jon Snow theory rests on whether or not his eyes are fully dilated, think again.

But there’s a lot more at stake this season for Benioff, 45, and Weiss, 44, than the is-he-or-isn’t-he status of the fan-favorite character.

On the heels of last September’s Emmy win for best drama (along with a record-breaking 11 other statues), it’s the first time Weiss and Benioff have produced episodes without George R.R. Martin’s books as a roadmap, as their pace has overtaken the author’s own. Martin is still at work on the series’ next novel, “The Winds of Winter.”

“This is us carrying the story forward from the end point of the final book,” says Weiss. “That was both very exciting and a bit terrifying at times.”

Runaways Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) search for shelter. Courtesy of HBO

There’s perhaps even more at stake for HBO. It’s long been speculated that “Thrones” will conclude after season eight, and HBO has yet to produce another significant hit to take its place.

The hope was that “Westworld” would inherit the genre mantle, but while Jonathan Nolan’s long-delayed, mega-budgeted production is now back on track, a premiere date has yet to be announced. Martin Scorsese’s rock-’n’-roll epic “Vinyl” has been renewed for a second season, but the ratings were disappointing (hovering around 1 million viewers in live-plus-3 estimates), and showrunner Terence Winter recently exited due to “creative differences.” Critically acclaimed series “The Leftovers,” from Damon Lindelof, is heading into its third and final season this fall. And there’s still no word on a potential third season of Nic Pizzolatto’s “True Detective,” after a lackluster second outing.

Meanwhile, several pilots from A-list directors have been tabled, including two from David Fincher, “Lewis and Clark” from Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt, and Steve McQueen’s “Codes of Conduct,” amid shuffles in HBO’s executive ranks. (Casey Bloys has replaced head of drama Michael Ellenberg.)

“We do believe that every show we put on needs to aspire to its own greatness,” says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. “It’s nice to have a show [like ‘Game of Thrones’] that hits this kind of zeitgeist of popular culture. At the same time, it’s really just one piece of a bigger tapestry for us, and I never lose sight of that.”

“This is us carrying the story forward from the end point of the final book. That was both very exciting and a bit terrifying at times.”
d.b. weisS

The show is vitally important to HBO’s premium-network profile at a time of intense competition from the likes of Netflix, Showtime and FX. It’s the marquee property the cabler is leaning on to drive subscribers to both its linear channel and the HBO Now stand-alone digital service — a top priority for parent company Time Warner as it seeks to adjust to a shifting global business landscape.

“Thrones” has been an unparalleled success for HBO, breaking records for the network (averaging more than 20 million viewers per episode). No matter how high the per-episode price tag climbs, the program pays off in myriad forms for Time Warner. “Thrones” has even become a juggernaut in DVD, licensing and merchandising sales. Not to mention that vital “it” factor: buzz. Benioff and Weiss might, in fact, be among the most valuable producers in the company’s stable. Lombardo acknowledged as much at the show’s April 10 Hollywood premiere, calling the duo “the most talented showrunners we have the pleasure of working with.”

“To have a show like this, where you can actually get eyeballs on the air, is incredibly important,” Lombardo says.

“I don’t think it takes pressure off, but it does make you able to take some chances on other things that might otherwise feel too risky.”

Climbing the Wall
“Game of Thrones” ratings have soared with each passing season since the show bowed in 2011.
2.5m (Season one)
4.7m (Season two)
3.8m (Season three)
6.85m (Season four)
6.87m Disc sales and rentals in 2014

The executive producers are considering concluding the saga of Westeros and the battle for the Iron Throne with just 13 more episodes once this sixth season wraps: seven episodes for season seven; six for the eighth and final season.

“We’re down to our final 13 episodes after this season. We’re heading into the final lap,” says Benioff. “That’s the guess, though nothing is yet set in stone, but that’s what we’re looking at.”

While any decision is premature, given that the showrunners are still outlining their plans, Lombardo says he accepts their plan to end the series, if regretfully. “As a television executive, as a fan, do I wish they said another six years? I do,” he says. “But as on all great shows, they respect the characters, they respect the writing, and they respect the truth of the storytelling. So whatever decisions they make come from a place of integrity — however disappointing it might be to me as a television executive.”

Explains Weiss: “It’s all done with an eye toward continuing and improving the quality of what we’re doing, especially on a production level. There’s an unwritten contract with the audience every year that the show is going to reach a different level than it did the year before — that we’re going to do things we didn’t and couldn’t do before. To continue making good on our end of that bargain, this is the only way that we could really [guarantee that].”

Lombardo had floated the idea of a “Game of Thrones” prequel at the Television Critics Assn. press tour back in January, but Benioff and Weiss now dismiss that notion as an “off-the-cuff” comment. “At a certain point,” says Weiss, “especially if it’s a serialized story, it falls apart and loses its heat and its momentum because there’s a carrying capacity even a world the size of ours has.”

Lombardo, too, now says there won’t be a “Game of Thrones” spinoff. “That’s never the way we’ve done our best work,” he says. “I can’t imagine, if it were not driven by them, that that would happen.”

The creatives know fans will be disappointed by the news that the show will be ending, but hope they understand it’s the right thing for the story. “We want people to hate the fact that it’s over and wish that there was more of it coming,” Weiss says.

Weiss (right, with Benioff) says he values “having someone whose thoughts, opinions and taste you trust when you’re in the middle of what can be a cyclone of information.”
Art Streiber for Variety

The natural camaraderie between Benioff and Weiss, best friends who met 20 years ago in grad school in Ireland, is palpable. The only one-upmanship comes in the form of playful banter — who can land the better joke.

Weiss: “Even with all the people we kill, I look at the call sheet and I’ll be like, ‘Goddamn it, that’s a lot of people. Got to kill some more.’ ”

Benioff: “It’s easy to kill. Creating a new character, you’ve got to service their whole backstory. Killing is just a line: ‘Head explodes.’ Done.”

Weiss: “ ‘Tyrion dies.’ The end.”

It’s been 10 years since a pair of untested TV producers who’d fallen in love with Martin’s epic series of novels “A Song of Fire and Ice,” on which “Game of Thrones” is based, first pitched the concept to HBO. They’ve faced a number of pivotal tests along the way: Martin’s pop quiz (correctly answering the question, “Who is Jon Snow’s mother?”); a rocky pilot, which had to be completely reshot; and mastering the elements of showrunning, from the basics of coverage to the most complicated of visual effects.

But this season presented perhaps the biggest challenge of all: writing without a safety net. “Now there’s a new kind of pressure of, ‘Can we keep it going even though we’ve gotten past the books?’ Time will tell,” says Benioff.

Benioff and Weiss have long known they were tearing through story faster than Martin could write, so they say they’ve had ample time to prepare for this moment. That first became apparent in a meeting with Martin three years ago in Santa Fe, along with Bryan Cogman, one of the show’s writers.

“We were talking through our schedule and where we thought the series was going, what events would happen in which seasons,” recounts Benioff. “And then we saw the look on George’s face as he realized we were catching up faster, I think, than he had anticipated.”

That triggered a plan not just for this season, but for the very end of the series. The key question: How will their path ultimately compare with Martin’s? “George has always said he’s more of a gardener than an architect,” Weiss says. “He’s not a guy who draws up an elaborate blueprint of what he’s working on and then does paint-by-the-numbers.”

The two say Martin has given them only “vague, distant” landmarks. And then there is the so-called butterfly effect: Characters have taken different paths — and met different fates — on screen than on the page.

That means this is the first season where even fans who’ve read the books won’t know what to expect. They’ve been able to foresee twists like the ones in season three’s “Red Wedding,” and the deaths of several key characters.

“I think people underestimate the power of their writing. They’ve absolutely spoiled me rotten for reading any other kind of script because they’re so good at what they do.”
EMILIA CLARKE

The actors, too, are in the dark. “We just wait impatiently for scripts, and then get them and go, ‘Oh, I’m employed.’ Or not,” says Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister). “They’re really tight-lipped. Even if you get them drunk, they don’t tell you.”

The creatives promise that this season delivers — and more. “I honestly believe this is the strongest season we’ve had,” Benioff says.

They also call it the most “brutal” from a sheer production standpoint. Since its debut in 2011, “Game of Thrones” has set an impressively high bar for modern television production, with its massive set pieces, state-of-the-art visual effects and jaw-dropping battle sequences — at a budget of well over $10 million per episode.

This season topped out at nearly 700 hours of dailies (vs. 500 last season) filmed across five countries, with sometimes three, and even four, units shooting simultaneously. “It became a real endurance test for everyone on the crew,” Benioff says. “We never quite knew where we were going every day.” Adds Weiss, “It’s crossing out of a television schedule into more of a midrange movie schedule.”

Every element of the show has gotten massively more complicated — take visual effects, for example. “I think back to season one, and the big vfx was the
baby dragons,” says Benioff. “We were so nervous about that shot. The team did a very good job, and they look great.

But baby dragons grow up, and they get violent.”

The season premiere was met with rave reviews from the audience at the L.A. event, where Benioff vowed the second episode will be “even bigger.” And as in years past, the penultimate episode will be the showstopper. Director Miguel Sapochnik “absolutely crushed it,” says Benioff. (Adds Weiss: “Not saying that the final episode is not also very hoo-ha.”)

Star Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) calls it “the biggest, baddest season so far.” “I’m going to be surprised if people’s televisions don’t explode,” she says. “I remember reading the scripts and being like, ‘So, everything we’ve ever managed to do in one entire season, we’re doubling and putting into season six?’ ”

Despite their outward cool, it’s only natural to ask the showrunners if they’re feeling any kind of pressure.

“I’ll start to be afraid when we stop being afraid,” says Weiss. “If it feels like there’s anxiety over what you’re doing, it means you’re constantly pushing yourself.”

HBO’s Lombardo has every confidence in the pair. “It’s human nature that you want to not disappoint these very emotionally engaged fans and not disappoint George — not disappoint themselves,” he says. “They’re both pretty elegant guys, and they don’t spend a lot of time showing their sweat, but I know that they think about this show 24/7.”

Left: Season-six premiere director Jeremy Podeswa with Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister); Right: Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) finds herself a captive. Courtesy of HBO

What’s also changed over the course of the past five seasons is the power of fans. Even the biggest show in the world feels the pressure of answering to a chorus of voices amplified by the megaphone of social media. “I’m still waiting on the first crowd-sourced TV show,” cracks Weiss.

Early on, Benioff and Weiss tuned in to the commentary — and even credit fans with suggesting Jason Momoa for the role of Khal Drogo.

But by the third season and the ill-fated Red Wedding, they’d had enough. Recounts Weiss, “I was waking up half the time grinding my teeth. I couldn’t completely figure out why.” He decided to go off social media cold-turkey, and Benioff followed suit. “At a certain point, if you’re going to do the best job that you can do, we need to recuse ourselves from that conversation,” Weiss says.

If they’re going to argue about a plot point, they say, they’d rather do it with each other. “That’s actually more useful and profitable for us than trying to have an argument with 30 million invisible people out there who I can’t actually talk to,” Benioff says.

The backlash over the rape of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) last season, they contend, was misdirected. “Sometimes I think there’s a belief that depiction of misogyny and horror indicates some kind of endorsement. That couldn’t be further from the case,” Benioff says. “Even though this is a show about dragons and a show with magic, we’re still trying to be truthful to the world that we know.”

Back in season one, the death of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) sent shock waves through the internet. But that was a mere ripple compared with what happened after the season-five finale aired, and Jon Snow was left for dead.

Benioff can’t resist making a joke: “People have to understand that at a certain point, Kit Harington became such a monster that writing him off the show was imperative to our sanity and the well-being of the crew, because he’s, frankly, abusive.”

To which Weiss gleefully adds, “There’s a certain level of violence, physical and mental, in a human being that you just can’t abide.”

Lombardo defends the use of the poster promoting the new season, depicting a bloodied Jon Snow, even if it has added more fuel to the speculation that the character would be returning — and raised questions over whether the network is trolling fans.

“Game of Thrones” by the Numbers
Some facts and figures from the HBO blockbuster
5 Countries filmed in: Croatia, Ireland, Spain, Canada, Iceland
12 Emmys won in 2015, for season 5, the most ever for a series in a single year
900 Crew members
3.7 In millions, feet of film shot for season six
9 Cast members added for season six, including Ian McShane
2 Hosts of the new post-show “After the Thrones” (Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan)

“The noise, the volume, the frequency with which the Jon Snow question was being asked, and the response to his death in season five was so palpable, to ignore that seemed somehow silly,” the exec says. “I don’t think it was an attempt to play with the audience as much as to remind an audience of where we took them this season and the stakes of the next season.”

Last year, for the first time since being nominated in 2011, “Game of Thrones” won trophies for best drama as well as writing. Its total haul of 12 was the most of any series. While audiences have long embraced the show, the Television Academy’s seal of approval meant that there was no longer any stigma attached to genre. “I remember genuinely being shocked when they called our names,” Benioff says.

For Clarke, the award that meant the most was the one for writing.

“You know when you see something that’s so good you can’t see the complexity in how difficult it is to make it that good, because it looks so easy?” the actress posits. “Sometimes I think that’s what happens with their writing. I think people can underestimate its power. They have absolutely spoiled me rotten for reading any other kind of script because they’re so good at what they do.”

As for Weiss, he jokes he was just happy with the free McDonald’s backstage at the awards. “I’ll remember biting into that Egg McMuffin, thinking that an Egg McMuffin will never, ever taste this good again in my life,” he says.

But after six seasons and counting, the experience isn’t just about winning accolades. The two creatives work together, vacation together; their wives are best friends. They admit they disagree at times (they can still recall arguing about how many frames to show of Ned’s execution) but also say they can’t imagine doing the job without one another. “That back and forth gives both of us a lot of confidence when we go to present these ideas to the people we work with that we’re not completely insane most of the time,” says Weiss. “I know a lot of people who do this job don’t have that [sounding board], and I imagine it can be a very isolating and anxious experience.”

It’s that chemistry that’s sparked one of the greatest successes in television history.

“When you’re doing the biggest battles on television, and killing people, and there are blood and guts and boobs and fires and dragons,” says Clarke, “the heart of it needs to be two best friends, having the time of their lives, writing a show that people love to watch.”

Watch Benioff and Weiss discuss Jon Snow’s fate. 

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