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Game of Thrones' disastrous unaired pilot included Cersei as 'medieval Dolly Parton,' totally different Daenerys wedding

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Sep 14, 2020, 3:27 PM EDT

The journey HBO's Game of Thrones took from page to screen is almost as arduous and improbable as was the person's who finally ended up on the Iron Throne. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss were first-timers in the position, putting together a big-budget fantasy adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fan-favorite series. A dangerous place to be for TV production, especially because the original and unaired pilot (shot back in 2009) was so bad that cast and crew thought they didn't have a chance.

A look at the show as a whole, author James Hibberd's Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon: Game of Thrones and the Untold Story of the Epic Series documents all the changes the series took even at these early moments - whether that means changing Cersei's wig or totally reconfiguring Dany's wedding night.

An excerpt from the book over at EW focuses on the botched pilot that would eventually be reshot into the first episode of the series, "Winter is Coming." But first there were a lot of changes that needed to be made. Some were major, like replacing actresses Tamzin Merchant (Daenerys Targaryen) and Jennifer Ehle (Catelyn Stark) with Emilia Clarke and Michelle Fairley. Some were more nuanced, like the look of certain characters.

"I looked like a Vegas showgirl in the [original] pilot — furs and massive hair, like a medieval Dolly Parton," said Cersei Lannister actress Lena Headey. Her evil on-screen son Joffrey boasted a "pageboy cut, slightly pudding bowl-ish, like Henry V" in the pilot that "softened the edge," while Harry Lloyd (now of Brave New World, the actor played Dany's brother Viserys) had a shorter "titanium and silver" bob wig. "There were consultations," Lloyd remembered, "'I’m not like Draco Malfoy, I’m not like Legolas … how do we do this?'"

Changing the character design around probably helped fans take the show more seriously, just as certain on-screen moments needed some extra gravitas that they just weren't getting in the pilot. "During King Robert’s arrival I remember finding the whole thing ridiculous," said Jamie Lannister's Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. That could've been because nobody really acted like a king was there. Robert Baratheon actor Mark Addy said that "In the Winterfell courtyard scene, nobody kneeled when the king arrived in the first pilot." No respect, no ruler. And if the production can't even respect a king...well, the direwolf puppies probably never had a chance.

Then there was Daenerys' wedding night. In the final version of the first episode, Dany is raped by Jason Momoa's Khal Drogo. In the original version (and the book), it was played as a seduction with a totally different lead-up...which had its own problems. Martin, on set for the original pilot's scene, remembered that a part from the book where Dany jumped a horse over a campfire rather than use it to flee the arranged marriage was a disaster to film.

"We got a top stunt rider and a top horse, a silver filly, but the filly would not jump that campfire. She got close and then was like, 'There’s fire there!' and would turn the other way," Martin said. "We tried to film it a half dozen ways. So [director Tom McCarthy] goes, 'Put out the fire and we’ll do the fire with CGI.' They put out the fire and the horse would still not jump the dead fire. It’s a smart horse. It knows it’s not burning now, but it was burning a little while ago! So they had to scrap that sequence, which was unfortunate, as it was a bonding moment between Dany and Khal Drogo."

That horse popped up a little later, interrupting a more intimate scene between the two. "So we’re by this little brook. They tied the horses to the trees and there’s a seduction scene by the stream," Martin said. "Jason Momoa and Tamzin are naked and 'having sex.' And suddenly the video guy starts to laugh. The silver filly was not a filly at all. It was a colt. And it was getting visibly excited by watching these two humans. There’s this horse in the background with this enormous horse schlong."

Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. How did Benioff and Weiss try to fix things and actually get HBO to give them the greenlight? They "had the idea of eliminating Rickon," because he "didn’t do much in the first book," which Martin stopped. They cut a flashback to the Mad King and focused on the family connection between Jamie and Cersei. They replaced director Tom McCarthy with Tim Van Patten. They owned their errors to the HBO decision-makers. But most importantly, according Carolyn Strauss, "there was a lot of begging and pleading." They knew there was a show worth making there and HBO co‑president Richard Plepler could see the potential — and eight seasons and 73 episodes later, that gamble clearly paid off...even if it all started with some bad wigs and uncooperative horses.

Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon hits stores on Oct. 6.

 

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