Over the years, HBO has had an almost preternatural ability to make “the best shows on television.” From past cultural juggernauts like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire, and Six Feet Under to current must-see shows like Veep, Girls, Silicon Valley, and Game of Thrones, the cable network’s ability to dazzle with complex and intelligent shows suggests some sort of deal was struck with an otherworldly power. Because, really, how can they consistently be that good?
The answer, however, is much simpler: story.
Creators of two of HBO currently obsessed-over shows–David Benioff and D.B. Weiss of Game of Thrones, and Armando Iannucci of Veep–were in Cannes at the International Festival of Creativity recently to talk about the power of story in a session led by journalist and Veep executive producer Frank Rich. While sharing tales of how their shows were created, and thankfully avoiding spoilers for any attendees who were behind on their viewing (cough, cough), they also revealed a few insights for creators of all stripes.
Here, Benioff, Weiss, and Iannucci talk about the importance of writing what interests you, the dangers of using social media for the creative process, how setting the stage for dramatic turns takes significant planning, and why creative freedom is really all it’s cracked up to be.
Audience is a huge factor when creating a product intended for mass consumption. But to what extent should a writer think of the audience when writing?
“You become more aware of the audience as the show goes out and you come back for more seasons. You become aware of what people would like to see more of,” said Iannucci. “But I always tell writers, write what makes you laugh, not what you think will make someone else laugh because that’s when you write your best stuff.”
Weiss revealed that when he and Benioff started adapting George R. R. Martin’s sprawling saga, they had no idea who their audience was. “We knew there would be a core group of people who’d read the books who would like it, but beyond that it was impossible to know how far beyond that our audience would reach. So we wrote the show we would want to watch under the assumption that there’s nothing all that special about us, that we more or less liked the shows that other people have loved, and we made sure that George was happy with it. We triangulated all of this to something we hoped other people would like too.”
Any creative property that gains (or starts with) a devout following needs to be mindful of social media. This comes with its benefits (a direct line to an audience) and its drawbacks (being subjected to the whims of that audience). The three showrunners had some compelling advice for those prone to social listening.
“That anyone responds to and understands what you’re doing, there’s a desire to engage with them on that level,” admitted Benioff, who previously engaged with fans on social media but has since signed off. “But at a certain point you realize it can become almost an addictive experience. You’re like a crack-addicted lab monkey just pushing the little button for another hit of something that feels good. At the end of the day you end up spending time on that when you should be spending time on your actual job. I started to realize that even the good things, in a strange way, were starting to make me feel bad, so I regretfully disengaged.”
Iannucci, on the other hand, is an active Twitter user, but cautioned to be sure of your motivations and role. “I use Twitter to be funny but I don’t invite suggestions on what to do on Veep. There’s a line in the British show The Thick of It (a BBC comedy that Iannucci wrote for) that featured a politician putting up his own blog then there were unedited comments underneath and it was just foul abuse. And he said: ‘It’s like opening up a room in which a million people are telling you how shit you are.’ And nobody wants to go into the shit room.”
When it comes to dramatic plot developments, Game of Thrones is the ultimate master class in the art. No character is sacred, no taboo off limits, and to call the conniving, backstabbing, intertwined treachery “epic” would do the series’ ability to twist a plot a disservice. This, says Weiss, takes a great deal of work.
“I remember when reading the books there were definite moments that were ‘holy shit-read-that-again-to-make-sure-that’s-what-you-read’ moments,” says Weiss. “And then you read the books again in the course of adapting them and you realize how much scaffolding and planning was done to set those events up in such a way that during the second time I read the books I was like, ‘How could I have not seen that coming?’ It’s telegraphed from a mile away except that it’s not because I couldn’t see it. In the adaptation process, [our job was to] strip away a lot of that information because if you put them on screen as they were written, they would have telegraphed what was coming, but not strip away so much of the build-up that it seems random.”
While dramatic plot developments might not seem the domain of a sitcom, Veep has some seasons-end twists of its own (for the sake of not being spoiler sports, we’ll leave it at that). “If there’s a shock, it has to be a shock that retrospectively has to seem natural or inevitable,” says Iannucci. “It can’t be a completely out-of-the-blue thing–you’ve got your earn it. So whenever we put our big twists in, all of the information has been laid out in all of the episodes before it so that you can trace back how we got to that position.”
The freedom afforded to creators by HBO is not a myth; it’s probably the single most coveted aspect of working with the network. Iannucci, Weiss, and Benioff credit the success of their shows to this creative freedom, perhaps offering insight into how letting go of the reins can lead to the best possible outcome.
“I thought there would be a lot of people giving notes,” said Iannucci, who after a career at the BBC is working with HBO for the first time. “It’s a relatively small company. There are only two or three people I have to talk to on a daily or weekly basis and the notes are all constructive. And when you do get notes it’s always along the lines of, ‘We just want the show to be good.’ It gives you the confidence to know that everyone’s behind that show.”
One way that HBO demonstrates its constructive collaboration with its creators is in how it shares its notes, said Weiss. “There’s a lot of territorial marking that goes on in studios–and this is not to tar and feather everyone with the same brush because there are a lot of great executives–but there’s a tendency to have an impact on something so they can point at a line or a scene and say, ‘That was me.’ What shocked me at HBO is I kept waiting for that–like who’s going to come along and make a completely neutral or negative change so they could say, ‘That was me.’ There’s not been a single time or a single note that’s been crammed down our throats. Here, suggestions are just that, suggestions. If there’s a tie, 10 times out of 10 the decision goes to the creator.”
“Freedom is the key word,” added Benioff. “Before I worked on the show I’d worked on a number of studio features and what you get used to with studio notes is the dumbing-down process. If maybe 75% of your audience it going to understand something, they want 100% the audience to understand it, which always means being forced to write these expository lines that you really don’t want to write because there’s a fear that if we have them in there, it’s just going to go over people’s heads. That just never happens at HBO. If you just look at the history of the shows on there, you look at how they’ve deconstructed genres and exploded them because these various showrunners came up with these ideas and took the genres in fascinating directions.”