If you’ve always wanted to be a fly on the wall of the Game of Thrones writer’s room, then this as close as it's gonna get. In an interview with the Observer, writer-producer Bryan Cogman gave the rundown on the process of writing for the hit fantasy TV series based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. Just yesterday, Martin released a new preview chapter for The Winds of Winter (being the upcoming sixth book in the series), featuring Sansa Stark Alayne Stone, Lord Petyr Baelish's "bastard daughter." You guys need to read it, because it's awesome. But I digress.
Apparently, working on Game of Thrones is a year-long affair. While the cast and crew go on hiatus for about six months (which is from July to December) after filming wraps-up, the writers and showrunners are hard at work on the HBO series year-round. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are on set the entire time the show is being filmed, and when it wraps, it’s off to the editing room for post-production. Then, once that’s done, it’s back again to being in pre-production. Whew! Benioff and Weiss have said before that each and every single episode must be written before they start filming, because they shoot the season out of order. So, it’s a big, 10-hour movie type of puzzle. And how does that work, actually? Here’s what Cogman says:
Well, it’s varied from season to season as we figured out how this thing works. But it’s basically run the same way the past few years. As we’re shooting one season we’re trading emails and/or chatting on set about the broad strokes of the next season: "Character X" starts at "blank" and we want him or her to end up at "blank." Then, as we start to approach the end of production, David and Dan, in some years, will assign the various writers a few characters. For instance, when we were working on Season 4, I was assigned Arya and a few others. So I’d go home and work for a few weeks on my "Arya Season 4," keeping in mind a few scenes we’d already discussed and what chapters and scenarios and themes from the books we might use.
Then, in January, when we’re back in L.A., we’d meet for about two or three weeks, armed with the work we’d all done individually, and throw it all up on the board. You debate, you use some stuff, you throw some stuff out, you think up some new stuff. Sometimes what you end up with is really close to the individual outlines. Sometimes it’s very different.
After we map out all the main characters’ individual arcs, using color-coded index cards, we arrange them by episode and get a rough idea of the scene order. From there, we all split up again and each tackle a chunk of the outline—a detailed outline, which sometimes ends up being over a hundred pages. David and Dan polish it, and that’s what we use to script our episodes. I’m generally assigned mid-season episodes—it just seems to work out that way. George wrote a script per season for the first four seasons, but took a break for Season 5 as he’s hard at work on the next book. And while George isn’t in the writers room, he reads the outlines and gives his notes.
From there I write my two scripts—it takes me about a month and half to do both—D&D read them, give notes, I do a rewrite, D&D sometimes do a pass on it themselves. And we continue to tinker with all of the scripts through prep and production. But they’re generally camera-ready when we finish them. They have to be, as we have to have all 10 scripts complete well before shooting starts. We shoot all 10 episodes simultaneously, out of order, like a big, 10-hour movie, with two shooting units going at all times, sometimes in different countries.
Cogman also pointed out that the writer’s room is relatively small for such a big production. He claims they’ve never had more than four writers in there at any one time. Originally, it was him, David Benioff and Dan Weiss. Then, Vanessa Taylor joined them for Seasons 2 and 3, and season four saw the addition of a young writer named Dave Hill. But in the end, the show’s voice is actually D&D’s. Benioff and Weiss write most of the episodes for each season — in fact, they penned seven out of ten scripts just last year.
What do you guys think of the way the writer’s room works on Game of Thrones? Are your surprised the writing team is so small for such a massive production?