Game of Thrones is one of those great, unlikely Hollywood success stories. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss took a complicated series of fantasy novels and, under the care of HBO, crafted a cultural phenomenon. At its best, Game of Thrones makes incorporating dense, compelling characters, and a wide scope into a single package look easy.
But making anything this ambitious is never easy. Each season of Game of Thrones is an ordeal and a half to create. And the roadblocks arrived early – it’s no secret that the show’s original pilot had to be almost entirely reshot. Now, years later, Benioff and Weiss seem comfortable talking about their disastrous first stab at this show and it’s the kind of behind-the-scenes story that is equally horrifying and uplifting.
Benioff and Weiss recently appeared on the Scriptnotes podcast (via Vanity Fair), where screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin dive deep into the world of film and television writing. Although Game of Thrones is one of the biggest things in the world at the moment, the show’s masterminds took a stroll down memory lane, recalling the first time they screened the disastrous original pilot episode for a group of writer friends, Mazin included. Here’s Weiss:
Watching them watch that original pilot was one of the most painful experiences of my life. As soon as it finished, Craig [Mazin] said, ‘You guys have a massive problem.’
Benioff chimed in as well, recalling Mazin’s blunt, if not particularly useful, advice on how to whip the episode into fighting shape:
I was taking notes and I had this yellow legal pad, and I just remembered writing in all caps, ‘MASSIVE PROBLEM,’ and it’s all I could think about the rest of the night. Craig [Mazin] didn’t really have any great ideas except that he said ‘change everything.’
And to their credit, they did go about changing everything. Director Tom McCarthy (a newly minted Oscar nominee for Spotlight) was replaced by television veteran Tim Van Patten and a reported 90% of the pilot was reshot and restructured. The role of Catelyn Stark was recast, with Michelle Fairley replacing Jennifer Ehle. Emilia Clarke replaced Tamzin Merchant in the role of Daenerys Targaryen. Entire sequences – like a flashback to the execution of Ned Stark’s father and the onscreen death of Jon Arryn – were cut. More importantly, some vague information was clarified, as it wasn’t clear that Jaime and Cersei were siblings in the original cut, making their shocking final scene totally weightless.
A few key moments survived from the original pilot, however, including the scene where Robert Baratheon visits the tomb of Lyanna Stark beneath Winterfell:
On the podcast, Mazin described watching the final version of the pilot:
I will never forget being invited to the premiere of the first season. I went in just thinking, ‘Well, I guess we’ll just see how this goes.’ I sat there and this show unfolds and I am stunned. Stunned. And I very specifically remember walking out and I said to [Weiss and Benioff], ‘That is the biggest rescue in Hollywood history.’ Because it wasn’t just that they had saved something bad and turned it really good. You had saved a complete piece of sh*t and turned it into something brilliant. That never happens!
And the rest, as they say, is history. If you want to know more of the finer details, the Vanity Fair article digs deeper into other aspects of the original pilot and it is well worth your time. In the meantime, Game of Thrones season 6 is set to premiere on April 24. No full trailers have been revealed yet, but here’s all you need to know: everyone is dead or dying.