GAME OF THRONES
HBO’s blockbuster fantasy series marches on to its fifth triumphant season.
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.”
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.