HBO’s block­buster fan­tasy se­ries marches on to its fifth tri­umphant sea­son.

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In a cav­ernous stu­dio five min­utes drive from cen­tral Belfast, Maisie Wil­liams, as Arya Stark, is tip- toe­ing through a stone room. Around the walls are carv­ings of gods and mon­sters. Her fists are clenched – a stan­dard Arya pose – as she passes a hooded fig­ure, a face­less man, and

whis­pers “Valar Morghulis”. The direc­tor says cut. Maisie does a quick run­ning man dance and pulls a face. No notes, no changes, a per­fect take.

Fans of the books would be able to tell by now that this is the House of Black and White, a key set for se­ries five and the next stage of Arya Stark’s jour­ney from tomboy to cold- eyed as­sas­sin. But as to what’s ac­tu­ally go­ing on, your guess is as good as ours. It’s vir­tu­ally pitch black, barely a word is spo­ken and more’s the point, if SFX had fil­leted any spoil­ers from the film­ing it’d be more than our lives’ worth to share them with the world. Game Of Thrones, whose fifth se­ries be­gins this April, is now such a mas­sive world­wide cul­tural phe­nom­e­non that you’d have an eas­ier time ex­tract­ing Rus­sian state se­crets than get­ting the writ­ers and pro­duc­ers to give some­thing juicy away. When we speak to pro­ducer and writer Bryan Cogman along with Dave Hill, the se­ries’ new staff writer, a catch­phrase is quickly es­tab­lished to ri­val “Valar Morghulis” – it’s: “I can’t tell you that.”

To cut them some slack they are the main cogs in a huge ma­chine, and they’re busy. Our in­ter­view, which takes place be­hind the mon­i­tors be­tween scenes for episode three, is con­stantly in­ter­rupted by run­ners, script ad­vi­sors and ac­tors look­ing to Cogman and Hill ( Hill is like a Game Of Thrones tour guide, who ap­pears to have a brain with the pre­cise same to­pog­ra­phy as the seven king­doms) for guid­ance and facts.

“We felt that, for the par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter that the flash­back in­volves, it seemed like the right move”

It’s un­der­stand­able – with Game Of Thrones, you need point­ers. There’s such a vast mythol­ogy con­tained in Ge­orge RR Martin’s ( known uni­ver­sally as GRRM) se­ries of books, so many char­ac­ters, cities and in­ter­lock­ing plot­lines that part of the prob­lem for the TV au­di­ence is mak­ing it very clear where we are, who knows what, and why this might be im­por­tant. Then there’s the TV se­ries’ in­evitable – though still some­times con­tro­ver­sial – de­par­ture from the books. And it’s all go­ing to get that lit­tle bit more com­plex this time round. The show’s cre­ators David Be­nioff and Dan Weiss sur­prised ev­ery­one at Comic- Con this year, re­veal­ing that come sea­son five Game Of Thrones will fea­ture flash­backs, open­ing up a whole new labyrinth of back­sto­ries and nar­ra­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“It was de­bated and dis­cussed,” says Cogman, “and we just felt that, for this par­tic­u­lar story that we’re telling, the par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter that the flash­back in­volves, it seemed like the right move.”

This multi- lay­ered com­plex­ity is what fans have come to love. On the other hand, it can make life con­fus­ing for the ac­tors who have to bring the con­ti­nents of Es­sos and Wes­teros to life. On the day we’re on set Maisie Wil­liams her­self comes over to pro­ducer Cogman to ask him about the var­i­ous deities on the wall ( all from Ice And Fire iconog­ra­phy, it turns out) she is sup­posed to be point­ing to. Later Tom Wlaschiha, who plays J’aqen Hager and will re­turn for sea­son five, pops over with a few mythol­ogy ques­tions for res­i­dent or­a­cle Hill, ask­ing about the phi­los­o­phy of the many­faced god.

The many- faced god, of course, is the God of Death. That’s the same God of Death who spawned one of the se­ries’ best lines to date, when Arya’s old sword teacher Syrio told her: “There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: ‘ Not to­day.’”

dead men walk­ing

Death. But Not To­day: it’s as use­ful a sum­mary as any for the en­tire se­ries – a group of char­ac­ters from dif­fer­ent places and back­grounds spend their time try­ing to fend off death, in a world in which the only other cer­tainty is that “All men must die”, a truth so bru­tally ob­vi­ous that it’s been turned into a greet­ing, “Valar Morghulis”.

Which makes Thrones sound sim­ple. But as time spent on set makes all too clear, it’s not. Even the lead writ­ers start ev­ery day with a lit­tle ori­en­ta­tion ses­sion.

Bryan Cogman: “Most of the con­ver­sa­tions are, okay, where are we? Which scene is this? Even to­day, Dave and I were like, okay so Arya’s here, the next scene she does this. Yeah, you have to sort of piece through it. Thank­fully we have it all out­lined pretty well.”

So, to those out­lines. Se­ries four ended with Arya get­ting the slow boat to Braavos, hop­ing to find J’aqen. In se­ries five she’s got there, and she vis­its the House of Black and White, home of the Face­less Men. The pres­ence of Tom Wlaschiha on set very much sug­gests that she’s found her man, and it would be a sur­prise if she didn’t – the Arya/ J’aqen scenes were some of the strong­est in se­ries two. Cogman says that bring­ing Wlaschiha back was an easy call.

“When we started script­ing the House of Black and White, it seemed like the nat­u­ral thing – to have her brought into this world with the rep­re­sen­ta­tive that we’ve al­ready met from this world. They have a shared his­tory to­gether, and it gives the scenes an added kind of dra­matic weight.”

Fans have been call­ing for J’aqen’s re­turn ever since that dra­matic de­par­ture in the sec­ond sea­son. But fans’ clam­our doesn’t get to make the call, says Cogman.

“Ul­ti­mately, David and Dan [ Be­nioff and Weiss] want to tell the story that they want to tell, based on Ge­orge’s world. We’re cer­tainly aware of the fan feed­back, but we never say, ‘ Oh, we’d bet­ter do this be­cause peo­ple have asked for it.’ We have to trust our in­stincts.”

strange times

Arya’s Braavosian odyssey is just one part of what Cogman and Hill call this se­ries’ over­rid­ing theme:

“If there’s kind of one com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor for all the char­ac­ters this sea­son,” says Hill, “it’s that most of our pro­tag­o­nists find them­selves as strangers in a strange land.

“Some­times, they’re thrust into a sit­u­a­tion where they have to be­have and in­ter­act in ways they never had be­fore, which was tremen­dously grat­i­fy­ing and ex­cit­ing for us as writ­ers.”

Ex­am­ple: Cer­sei Lan­nis­ter’s ( Lena Headey) plot­line is one of the stand­outs of se­ries five, even though she re­mains in King’s Land­ing, the place with which the ma­jor­ity of Thrones fans are most familiar. For the first time she meets the city’s poor, served by a re­li­gious leader called High Spar­row, played by Jonathan Pryce, the an­nounce­ment of whose cast­ing was met with whoops of joy at Comic-Con last year.

But much of this year’s story will be about ven­tur­ing abroad. Braavos, “a labyrinth of illusion and de­ceit”, as Ser Jo­rah called it, is one strange land we have only vis­ited via the in­te­rior of the Iron Bank, when Ser Davos went to raise money for an army last term. This time we will spend much more time there, vis­it­ing the House of Black and White, meet­ing the Face­less Men and en­coun­ter­ing more Braavosi, sea­far­ers and swords­men.

The main other “strange land” the se­ries

“We’re aware of fan feed­back, but we never say, ‘ Oh, we’d bet­ter do this be­cause peo­ple have asked for it.’ We have to trust our in­stincts”

will visit is the sun- swept sybarite’s par­adise of Dorne, home of the Martells. One of the most mem­o­rable scenes of last se­ries was the “Viper” Oberyn hav­ing his eye­balls dealt with like soft boiled eggs by the Lan­nis­ter cham­pion Gre­gor Cle­gane, aka the Moun­tain. This se­ries Oberyn’s brother and his daugh­ters, the “Sand Snakes”, will be out for re­venge. Dorne has been filmed in Seville and Osuna, Spain.

“Oberyn Martell and Pe­dro Pa­cal, and Indira Varma as El­laria Sand, were both so suc­cess­ful last year,” says Hill. “They re­ally whet­ted our ap­petite, and I think a lot of view­ers’ ap­petites, to see more of that world.”

Tyrion too, is off on his own, whisked across the Nar­row Sea with Varys af­ter do­ing away with his own fa­ther on the dunny. A trailer has re­vealed him emerg­ing from a crate, heav­ily bearded and con­fused and very much on his own. He will meet up with an­other ban­ished char­ac­ter and form an un­easy al­liance.

And pho­to­graphs sug­gest that we will travel to the Free City of Valan­tis to the east in Es­sos, famed for a gi­ant bridge. Cor­doba in Spain, which has a fa­mous Ro­man bridge, stood in for Volan­tis. Need­less to say, Cogman will not be drawn, ex­cept to say, “I know it’s leaked, I don’t know whether it’s con­firmed, so I prob­a­bly shouldn’t com­ment. I think it’s safe to say we’re see­ing more of the east than we’ve seen be­fore.”

Ge­orge RR Martin has not writ­ten an episode this year, for the first time, but Cogman says we should read noth­ing into that.

“He reads the out­line ev­ery year, and gives us notes and thoughts. This year he didn’t write an episode, be­cause he’s hard at work on the next book.”

more than fan­tasy

It’s easy to for­get that Martin’s first A Song Of Ice And Fire book was pub­lished 20 years ago. It’s a mam­moth un­der­tak­ing that, in con­junc­tion with the TV show, has changed how fan­tasy is per­ceived.

“As the books have done,” says Dave Hill, “I think the show has grad­u­ally got­ten fans who may not re­alise they love the fan­tasy el­e­ments into the fan­tasy el­e­ments – my par­ents be­ing an ex­am­ple. I think there are peo­ple that re­ally got into the first sea­son be­cause of the po­lit­i­cal in­trigue and the fam­ily drama, and cer­tainly that’s still, for me, the spine and the back­bone of the whole thing. But those peo­ple all still love the dragons, they love the 700- foot wall, they love the shadow baby.”

And that means that Game Of Thrones has made its own li­cence to un­leash more fan­tasy in sea­son five than ever be­fore.

“I think we’ve ac­cli­mated peo­ple to those el­e­ments,” says Hill. “In­tro­duc­ing them in a big­ger way into the se­ries now isn’t go­ing to throw most view­ers. This sea­son will be big­ger – not just in size but in scope.”

Game Of Thrones is on Sky At­lantic from Mon­day 13 April.

“Ge­orge RR Martin didn’t write an episode this year, be­cause he’s hard at work on the next book”

What will Cer­sei and Jaime get up to now their dad’s out of the pic­ture?

Tor­mund, a beard, sorry, a leader among men.

Areo Ho­tah gets to grips with his axe and El­laria Sand. On the rocks: Po­drick and Bri­enne of Tarth. Will Varys and Tyrion be­come BFFs this year?

Will Tom­men meet the same fate as his big brother Jof­frey?

Melisan­dre wor­ships a fire god – and lights your cig­a­rettes. Mis­sandei must be hap­pier with her name than Grey Worm is of his.

Arya: just one of the many char­ac­ters who prob­a­bly won’t make it to old age…

Daen­erys’s clothes are a long way from be­ing rags.

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