Blood Caffeine Sex Magic: How ‘Game of Thrones’ Gets Written

Producer Bryan Cogman takes us inside the writers' room of HBO’s biggest show

Well it doesn't LOOK like Winter is coming! (HBO)
Game of Thrones. (HBO)

There’s a recurring prophecy in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire: “Three heads has the dragon.” Maybe it means something about the heroes who will save Westeros from the White Walkers. Maybe it’s nothing but a shout-out to House Targaryen (or King Ghidorah). But when applied to Game of Thrones, HBO’s preposterously successful adaptation of Martin’s books, the meaning is unmistakable. Creators and showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss are heads one and two. Head three is the show’s producer, unofficial loremaster, and only other writer to work on all five seasons: Bryan Cogman.

A Juilliard graduate who’s parlayed his well-received episodes into a gig writing a movie adaptation of the mega-hit fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering, Mr. Cogman has emerged as a key creative player in the Game, as well as one of the show’s most fan-accessible staffers. Talk to him about working on the show, though, and he displays a loyalty to his liege lords Benioff and Weiss, affectionately known as D&D, that would make a knight of the Kingsguard nod in approval. And given that the series has only ever employed seven writers over its five seasons—four of whom are Mssrs. Benioff, Weiss, Cogman and Martin himself—few people have more insight into the construction 10-episode saga that’s about to make its Sunday, April 12 premiere.

OBSERVER: This show is a massive, massive hit. Like, the most popular show in the history of the network, and one of the most watched shows on all of television. How much swagger does that buy you, in terms of feeling you’ve got the clout to do your own thing when necessary?

BRYAN COGMAN: Speaking personally, I’m just has nervous and self-loathing as ever, so I don’t think I have any additional swagger. I think David and Dan have a certain vision for the show and the show’s universe. And while the show is popular and we’re thrilled about that, D&D never take that for granted. They approach all their decisions carefully, as they go. They really want each season to build on the momentum of the last and, importantly, feel different from the last.

How so? Is there a nutshell description of what each season felt like, or was “about,” that made them each different?

No….I mean, in hindsight one might attach a “theme” once it’s all put together, and perhaps D&D have had discussions of that kind which I wasn’t privy to. But we don’t really operate that way in the writers’ room—it’s about the story and the characters. I think George operates the same way when he’s writing the books. When I talk about each season being different, it has more to do with the characters moving forward, changing.

I know very little about the actual writing process that you, Dan and Dave have, right down to whether a proverbial “writers’ room” even exists. How do you guys write this thing?

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.

How does the writing aspect of your job fit into your other responsibilities as producer?

When we’re shooting, I’m in producer mode. We shoot two units simultaneously at all times so I generally cover the set David and Dan aren’t on, working with the directors, giving notes as needed, advising on anything story-related—basically making sure the story being told is the story we hammered out in the writers’ room. When we’re in post-production, I’m not really involved apart from giving my own notes on cuts of the episodes. By that time I’m focused on the writing of the next season.

Even at its biggest, it’s been a small writing staff. What’s that like?

I think it’s worked so far; don’t know if it would for other shows. But for us, it’s nice and focused. We’re all present for the entire production, which isn’t typical of most shows, so we’re very connected to all the actors and departments. But, yeah, we’ve never had more than four in the writers’ room at any one time, and in the case of Seasons 1 and 4 it was just David, Dan and me. We had the wonderful Vanessa Taylor for Seasons 2 and 3, and this past season we had a terrific young writer named Dave Hill joining the staff, so that was great. But in the end, the show’s voice is David and Dan’s. My job is to support that voice and write for that voice.

You’re just about to hit the end of the story that George R.R. Martin has published so far. Did you see this coming?

Well, I think, in the first couple of years, it was really just about getting each season right and hoping people would watch. By the time we got to planning out and shooting Seasons 3 and 4, David and Dan started really thinking about the overall shape of the series, since we knew we were going to be able to see this thing through. In the end, the show has to go at its own pace and George has to write the books at his own pace. He and D&D are obviously in close communication the whole time about both. But the show is its own thing, as it has to be.

There’s a segment of the fandom that’s freaking out about this, saying that the TV series will “spoil” the remaining two volumes of the book series. Is that a concern the show shares?

I think we just have to make the best Season 5, Season 6 and beyond that we can. Not sure I’m at liberty to comment more specifically than that.

“New” material aside, it also seems from trailers and casting and locations and so forth, that this season will change some existing storylines sort of dramatically. When you do stuff that’s not in the books, for whatever reason, what’s the vibe, creatively? Is it a “with great power comes great responsibility” thing or “woo-hoo, we’re goin’ off-book!”

Well, I think at this point, we do have great responsibility to the viewing audience, whether they’ve read the books or not, to try to produce 10 hours of outstanding television. All sorts of factors go into why a particular subplot, character, story beat, etc. might differ from the books. Again, it’s all tackled and debated on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, it always has to come down to what David and Dan feel is best for the show.

The enormous, intense audience brings additional scrutiny, and the reaction can get very vociferous. I’m thinking of “that scene” from last season with Jaime and Cersei in the sept next to Joffrey’s body. Book purists felt the scene altered the character dynamic, people concerned primarily with social justice issues felt it excused sexual assault, and people parsed every word Dan, Dave, director Alex Graves and actors Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau said about it for what the scene was “really” doing. If you can speak to it specifically, what happened there?

My bosses, the showrunners, haven’t publicly commented on it. So while there’s a lot I could say about it and the media’s reaction to it…I don’t feel it’s appropriate.

Generally, then, do you weigh criticism of whatever kind when writing? 

That would be a polite and respectful “no.”

Thanks to the books, it seems like this show had all the ingredients of a cultural phenomenon baked right into it from the start. The houses, the sigils, the mottos, the rivalries—it all lends itself so naturally to T-shirts, Tumblrs, Team Lannister vs. Team Stark, shipping and so on. It’s like part-drama, part-superhero universe, part-sports league. Do those elements factor in for you?

That’s what the good and talented people at HBO marketing are for. I don’t think it factors in our storytelling. I mean, obviously, it does in that the rivalries and House pride are important parts of the narrative but….I’m gonna sound like a broken record here, but we really just go beat by beat, moment by moment when crafting this thing. What does this character want? How do they get it? What’s standing in their way? The same questions an actor asks when building a performance. The other stuff tends to fall into place from there.

How do you drive the audience’s attention to those questions, to what they’re actually experiencing in the show as it airs, versus what might someday happen in future seasons? Trailers, teasers, casting news, leaks, story speculation, spoilers, theories—as a culture, we’re very invested in the anticipation of art, almost more than we are in art itself. Hell, I’m guilty of it myself in this interview. Is addressing that a concern? Is it even possible?

Yeah, it’s very difficult. We really want the audience to experience the story as they watch it. It’s certainly how I prefer to experience a TV show or a movie. Spoilers drive me insane. But that’s me. It’s harder and harder these days… I think we’ve done O.K. so far. I was amazed how many viewers weren’t tipped off about the Red Wedding. We do our best to crack down on leaks, ask actors/crew members not to spoil, choose just the right bits of information to release in the trailers, advertising, etc. Definitely something we deal with, impossible to pull off perfectly every time. But we’ve done pretty well.

How do you stay focused? What do you do when you write?

I tend to work in coffee shops. I need to get out of the house, and, well, I need the coffee. There are about three I frequent these days. Sometimes I’ll just write to the chatter of the people in the shop, but usually I’ll have a playlist of music on headphones, depending on what I’m working on. For GoT, it’s the various GoT soundtracks, naturally. I wrote a movie called The False Prince, and that was a lot of classic swashbuckler scores, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and the like. I’m writing Magic: The Gathering now, so it’s a lot of big, epic fantasy/sci-fi scores. I’ll waste hours of precious writing time cultivating those playlists.

Do you have a favorite GoT soundtrack season? Mine is totally Season 4, which is goth as hell. Maybe it’s all the Night’s Watch music, since they wear black all the time.

Yeah, I’d say Season 4, too, as a whole. But it’s probably my favorite of the four seasons already aired, so that might have something to do with it.

When you’re not writing, what are you watching?

I think The Americans is exceptional on every level. I love love love Justified—that’s probably my favorite, as far as pure entertainment goes. I think both of those shows are underrated. I find quite a few similarities to GoT in Justified, actually: the shared histories, the rival families, the power plays, double-crosses, territorial wars. Mad Men, of course; I’ll miss it. “The Suitcase,” from its fourth season, is my favorite television episode of all time. I’m looking forward to the new slate of HBO dramas coming down the pike; Terence Winter’s new series in particular—I thought the final season of Boardwalk Empire was exquisite. And this show has nothing to do with what I write, but Community is my religion.

But there’s a ton I need to catch up on. We all loved Breaking Bad tremendously, so I need to get started on Better Call Saul. There are so many varied choices on so many platforms. It’s a very exciting time—unfortunately, I don’t have much time!

Blood Caffeine Sex Magic: How ‘Game of Thrones’ Gets Written