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Interview

Exclusive: Empire Meets George R. R. Martin
An interview with the Game Of Thrones author

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With fantasy epic Game Of Thrones rampaging across our screens, it's safe to say that if you don't already know your Starks from your Lannisters, you will soon. For one thing, it's just been renewed for a second season by HBO. With the show going clanbusters, who better to talk to than the man who create the world of Westeros, George R.R. Martin himself? "The second season will be Clash of Kings," the writer told Empire, as he elaborated on his feelings about TV adaptations, fantatical fans and the likely impact of Game Of Thrones. "I know we'll see a lot of other fantasy series and maybe fantasy movies 'cause Hollywood is imitative..."

Exclusive: Empire Meets George R. R. Martin

Are you nervous at all to see something like this, something very personal being brought to life by someone else?
George R. R. Martin: To an extent. I mean, I have a good feeling about this, 'cause everybody who has seen it tells me it's very good, and I've seen some of scripts, and I've seen pieces being done, and they all look to good to me. So my feeling is basically optimistic, but there's always a certain amount of nervousness, sure.

Is it your connection to TV that's made you so involved in this? When writers have their books adapted, often it's the case that they take the cheque, then grumble as their literary children are butchered for audiences.
George R. R. Martin: Yes. The fact that I did work in TV for those ten years made my involvement possible. You know, some of those writers of novels or short stories that are adapted into movies or television shows are frankly - putting on my television producer's hat - a pain in the ass to work with. 'Cause they don't understand the demands of the new medium and they don't understand the realities of things like budgets and shooting schedules. But I've seen the other side of it. I mean, the very first thing that I adapted was an adaptation of a script by my friend, Roger Zelazny, his short story, The Last Defender of Camelot. I went into that saying, "Well, I'm not gonna let Hollywood butcher this the way it butchers everything. I love this story, Roger's a friend of mine, I'm gonna protect the story." And that's what I did in my first draft. But then as we get into it, it's suddenly like, "Well, we have a 20 minute dialogue scene here..." If I put in every line of dialogue from Roger's story, it would take like an hour and a half. So the first thing I have to do is start cutting things.

Then he has a climax in his short story where two knights on horseback are fighting in Stonehenge, or kind of an other-wordly Stonehenge, and that's the way I wrote it in my first draft of the script, again being very faithful. Then the producer came to me and said, "You can have horses or you can have Stonehenge, but you cannot have horses and Stonehenge. 'Cause we have to build Stonehenge out of papier maché, and the rocks will wobble as the horses gallop by if we use horses." So I called up Roger and said, "Roger, forgive me. They're making me change it." But Roger was very mellow and said, "I'd rather have Stonehenge." So we lost the horses and kept Stonehenge. And so that was my introduction to this process, so... After ten years of that, I know how it works.

So that makes it easier - knowing they're going to have to cut out large quantities of the narrative.
George R. R. Martin: Right, right. You have the time you have. It goes into a one-hour timeslot, and you need to get all of it in there. Now you can campaign, certainly. You can say, and I did when I was helping to set this up, that I want it on HBO, I wanted a ten hour season, not a two hour movie. That was another option that was raised: "Do the entire trilogy, do all seven books in one two hour movie." Yeah, that would be possible, sure!

How involved were you with the project? Did they consult you when they did the casting, or did they just encourage you to weigh in?
George R. R. Martin: I was quite involved in the casting. I mean, they sent me everything. They had a website where all the auditions were posted, and I would go there, and I would look every day at the people and would weigh in on... "I like this one. I didn't like that one. This one gave a great performance, but looks all wrong", you know? I would give detailed approaches, but of course it's not like I made these decisions. I was one voice among many voices. There was also Dan (Weiss) and Dave (Benioff) and there was the director, and there was HBO and the casting director. So there were a number of people involved in the decisions but I certainly felt that I had my two cents worth. It's an amazing cast. Our casting director really did an outstanding job for us.

Exclusive: Empire Meets George R. R. Martin

Is there a character that you yourself identify with or have a particular affection for?
George R. R. Martin: All the viewpoint characters. I mean, in order to get inside their skin, I have to identify with them. That includes even the ones who are complete bastards, nasty, twisted, deeply flawed human beings with serious psychological problems. Even them. When I get inside their skin and look out through their eyes, I have to feel a certain - if not sympathy, certainly empathy for them. I have to try to perceive the world as they do, and that creates a certain amount of affection. That being said, my favourite character is definitely Tyrion. He's the one who I most enjoy writing. But I identify with all of them.

Is there a count? You must have one hell of a corkboard up in your house somewhere with all these characters on it.
George R. R. Martin: I don't. I don't have a corkboard. I have files, I have computer files and, you know, files on paper. But most of it is really in my head. So God help me if anything ever happens to my head!

The production values look pretty impressive on this. I guess it must be a worry - something like Rome, for example, proved too expensive to support itself.
George R. R. Martin: Well, we're not as expensive as Rome. I believe Rome was the most expensive show ever done for American television. You know, I loved Rome. Rome was one of my favourite shows and I wish HBO had given it three more seasons 'cause I would have loved to continue watching it. But I also love I, Claudius, which, to me, feels very much like Rome, even though I, Claudius was made for $1.95. You can see that the backgrounds are painted canvas, 'cause occasionally the marble columns will blow a little in the wind as an actor walks by! It's no less interesting for all of that. But we're not as expensive as Rome. We found a less expensive place to shoot. We're shooting primarily in Belfast and Northern Ireland, and we got a great deal there. We shot some scenes in Malta and Morocco. Rome shot in Italy, and Italy is one of the most expensive places in the world to shoot.

David Benioff described the series rather tongue-in-cheekly as sort of "The Sopranos in Middle Earth". How does that sit with you?
George R. R. Martin: David says he regrets saying that now because it's quoted, but I think it's fine. That's Hollywood speak and I was out there for ten years so I pitched shows like that!

Everything needs a logline...
George R. R. Martin: Yeah, you just find two shows and you say something like that. I mean, Star Trek was "Wagon Train to the stars", right? And if you've ever seen Wagon Train, you know it wasn't. But that helped sell it at the time 'cause Wagon Train was a hit. So anything that'll get the suits to pay attention is fine with me.

Originally you were more inclined to write science-fiction. What prompted you to move to fantasy, and how did The Song of Ice and Fire come about?
George R. R. Martin: I don't think I really did 'move' per se. If you go all the way back, I've always written science-fiction, I've always written fantasy, I've always written horror stories and monster stories, right from the beginning of my career. I've always moved back and forth between the genres. I don't really recognise that there's a significant difference between them in some senses. I mean, the furniture is different. One has spaceships and one has horses; one has ray guns and one has swords. But it's all still what Faulkner called "the human heart in conflict with itself". He said that was the only thing worth writing about and I've always agreed with that. It's about the people, and the rest is just the furniture and the setting.

Exclusive: Empire Meets George R. R. Martin

What was the germ that the whole saga sprouted from?
George R. R. Martin: I don't really know. I mean, I know how it began. It was in the middle of my Hollywood decade. It was 1991 and I had no assignment one summer, I had fulfilled all my current contracts. I was waiting for my agent to sell a new deal and I thought, "Well, I may have a couple months off here. Let me write a novel." I actually began a science-fiction novel that I'd been thinking of for some time. I was thirty/forty pages into it when suddenly the idea for the first chapter of A Game of Thrones came to me: the chapter where they find the direwolves. It came to me so vividly I knew I had to write it, but I didn't know what it was. It wasn't part of the novel that I was writing currently, I certainly knew that. So I put the science-fiction novel aside and wrote that chapter. It only took me three days. By the time I'd finished it, I knew what the second chapter was, and I knew the third and the world started to come together and I never returned to the science-fiction novel. I spent a whole summer working on what proved to be A Game of Thrones.

Then Hollywood reared its head again, and I put in a drawer for three years while I worked on a couple of television pilots and some movies. The amazing thing was that I never stopped thinking about it during those three years, and when I returned to it in 1994, it was just as fresh as when I'd put it aside in 1991, which is not normally the case for me. But with Game of Thrones it was like three years was three days. Everything was right there, and I just picked up right where I left off. But if I knew where this stuff came from, I'd bottle it.

With HBO, my understanding is they're planning to do one book a season? Is that right?
George R. R. Martin: That's certainly true in the beginning. I mean, the first book is Game of Thrones. The first season is ten episodes. Now that's all we have right now, but if they like it and they renew it for a second season, that will be Clash of Kings. It's yet to be determined if they do the second season how many episodes that will have. Maybe ten again, or maybe they'll give us twelve. I think the crux will come if we get a third season. Storm of Swords is a gigantic book, it's five hundred pages longer than Clash of Kings, which is itself a hundred pages longer than Game of Thrones. So you're talking six hundred extra pages compared to Game of Thrones. I don't think they can do that in one season, unless they do a season in 20 episodes. So I think they're gonna have to break that one into two.

How exhausting it is having millions of fans waiting for you do to nothing else other than finish the story for them?
George R. R. Martin: Well, you know, sometimes that gets annoying. I have to say, to be fair here, that most of my fans are great. They're usually supportive. Every time there's been a delay or something I get a hundred encouraging emails. But then I'll get the one nasty email. Of course, being a sensitive writerly sort, that's the one that sticks in my craw. The nasty letter that you get from people who are impatient, and they don't like me doing anything else. They just want me working on this book day and night, and it does get a little wearing sometimes. But on the other hand I try to put it in proportion and say, you know, "This is a good problem to have." 99 percent of the writers out there would love to have millions of readers just eagerly waiting to snap up their book. Because, you know, I have a lot of writer friends, and most of them are in quite a different position. A position that I've been in at other stages in my career where nobody notices when your book is coming out 'cause nobody much cares.

Given that Feast and Dance weren't initially planned for novels, is that why they've been so difficult to put to bed?
George R. R. Martin: Yes, in part. There have been a number of reasons. Of course, I've tried to analyse this. And it's a very complicated question to which there is no simple answer. Some of it may just be that I'm older and may have slowed down a little. The books have gotten very, very complicated. I mean, really, I'm not writing 'a novel', I'm writing like eight novels which I'm weaving together. And the length of the books and the number of characters has only risen over the years. As fast as I keep killing them off, new ones keep elbowing their way into the text. So I'm juggling a lot of balls now and it gets very complicated, and I think that's part of the delay too.

Fantasy as a whole doesn't tend to get a lot of love onscreen, whether the small or big screens, with the exception of Lord of the Rings, mainly as it's rarely done well. Why do you think that, as a rule, that's been the case? Especially since science-fiction seems to be done well quite often.
George R. R. Martin: (Pause) Well, that's a good question. You know, science-fiction was not necessarily always done well, either. If you look at some of the earlier science-fiction movies, yeah, you had an occasional great science-fiction movie like Forbidden Planet or The Day The Earth Stood Still. But you also had an awful lot of terrible movies about giant insects eating Chicago. And, you know... When I was a kid back in the '50s, science-fiction and fantasy were both considered stuff for kids. I think that is breaking down to an extent: both science fiction and fantasy certainly have proved their commercial viability to Hollywood and they've proved their literary value, I think, to much of the world. But there's still some prejudice so you have to overcome that. And what overcomes it is when someone does something different that's successful - particularly in Hollywood. The great science-fiction boom in Hollywood came out of the success of Star Wars. Fantasy didn't have that breakthrough until much later with Lord Of The Rings and my hope is that my HBO series here will be a breakthrough of a similar type that'll show you can do fantasy on television. It doesn't have to be for kids or teenagers. You can do something that's just as an adult. HBO, of course, has a reputation for taking these genres and bringing it to a new level. They did it with Deadwood for Westerns, and The Sopranos for the gangster film.

The Wire, really, for cop films...
George R. R. Martin: The Wire, yeah. So our hope is that Game of Thrones will have the same effect and if we're successful I know we'll see a lot of other fantasy series and maybe fantasy movies 'cause Hollywood is imitative. All of the networks will start to develop their own fantasy things. I've been through that with my books when Lord Of The Rings was a hit. That's where we got that big flurry of people who wanted to make one two-hour movie out of my thing 'cause Lord Of The Rings was big, they were looking for other fantasies. So hopefully this can open some doors.

Interview by James Dyer


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