On Sunday night the fifth season of HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones premieres, and at this point, there is no questioning its epicness. With nearly 20 million viewers per episode across all platforms, the show is the most popular in the premium cable network’s history. Its duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-duh-nuh-nuh-nuh theme song has been covered by everyone from cellists to the Queen’s guards and is basically today’s equivalent of the Star Wars score. And if you’re unfamiliar with the line, “Winter is coming,” just go hide under a rock.
The show, which is based on George R. R. Martin’s books about warring families in medievalish times, didn’t appear to be a sure thing when creators David Benioff and D.B. “Dan” Weiss first pitched it to HBO. It was viewed as a wildcard. HBO was The Sopranos and The Wire. How could this fanboy fantasy series feel worthy of the HBO pedigree? HBO took that chance, and it not only helped lead its creative renaissance but it also helped boost Richard Plepler into the CEO role he holds today.
Benioff, Weiss, Plepler, and Michael Lombardo, HBO’s head of programming, recently spoke with Fast Company about the origins of the show and that maturation process–from crazy idea to world-class hit.
In 2008, when HBO received the Game of Thrones script, the company was in the midst of a management shakeup. Lombardo, who had previously worked in business affairs, had recently been named head of programming along with Plepler, whose background was in corporate PR.
Michael Lombardo: I say this with all due respect to our predecessors, but you sometimes become slightly hostage to your success. There becomes a desire to replicate the success of–like, looking for another Sopranos or looking for another Sex And The City. I think what Richard and I sort of fostered in each other was, that wasn’t the answer. And so our first programming decision was True Blood. Everyone said, True Blood? Vampires on HBO? This is the home of The Wire! You’re gonna have vampires on HBO? Two guys who know nothing about content!
As everyone was getting their sea legs, a decision had to be made about GoT.
Lombardo: I had not read the books. And when I read the script, I thought, this is dazzling. It’s just a great hour script. And Richard and I talked about it, we met with Dan and David. These guys are very serious, and I mean that in the best possible way. These are not two guys that are interested in telling a story about dragons. They didn’t come at this because they were interested in visual effects. They were really, profoundly, emotionally moved by the story of these warring families and about the thirst for power and love and validation.
David Benioff: I had a meeting with Richard Plepler in New York City right before we shot the pilot, or before the pilot had even been green lit. He had been there for the original pitch meetings, but we just never had had a chance to sit down with Richard before we went into production on the pilot. So I went in and met with him and sort of laid out in broad strokes what we were trying to do with the series. He really got it. Which is impressive. Dan and I come from this fantasy nerd background. We both played Dungeons and Dragons growing up and we’re obsessed with Tolkien books and all the sort of things you’d expect for a series like this. I don’t think that’s . . . Richard’s much more into politics and Washington. The fact that he quickly got what the show was and how, regardless of the effects and the monsters and everything else, it really boils down to power. He just grasped onto that astonishingly quickly.
GoT became an even bigger risk for HBO when the BBC, which had originally signed on a production partner, pulled out. With its elaborate sets and huge cast, the show costs a reported $6 million per episode. Now HBO would have to foot the whole bill.
Lombardo: I knew this was a big swing for us. To pull this off on a TV budget . . . because even though people talk about our big budgets, we didn’t have the money Lord Of The Rings had to pull this off. And I think the consumer had a certain bar in their mind of how something had to look to have the feel of authenticity. You really had to transport yourself into a world that felt real even though it was a mythical world. And that takes money and expertise, and, so, we were aware of that.
Plepler: When the BBC pulled out, it was all on us. We made a big bet on Thrones. But I think what Mike and I did was we trusted that quality would find the zeitgeist.
Lombardo: I was at the gym one morning and I saw Dan Weiss on a recumbent bicycle. And he had this dog-eared paperback in his hand and he had a yellow highlighter, and I thought, I’m gonna go up and say hi. And he had George’s first book (A Song Of Ice And Fire). And I thought, oh my God– he has no idea I’m here, he’s read this 20 times, and he’s still . . . . It’s that kind of focus (that made me believe) these are the right guys for us to do a show with.
Despite some pushback inside HBO–“Oh my God! Dragons at HBO!” Lombardo says, laughing–the two writers went off to shoot a pilot.
Lombardo: The pilot was okay. It wasn’t great. The casting was really good. We ended up reshooting, I don’t know, 80% of that pilot, 90% of that pilot, but by that time we were in. We knew there was something amazing and we learned from our mistakes.
D.B. Weiss: We were not that happy with what we’d done. We knew that it could be better. But for us to make it better than that would have required us to get the go ahead on the series. We were told by someone who watched it with Richard that when it was done, he stood up and pumped his fist in the air, which was very far from our own reaction to the pilot we had shot. To his credit, he saw through the mistakes that we couldn’t.
Lombardo: The weakness was that the show needed more scope. It screams for scope. You need to feel the landscapes of the different kingdoms, so it was a visualization and an execution that we learned from, and we learned to do it on a budget that made sense for us. And I think Dan and David, who were just writers–that transition from being a writer to being a show runner–not all writers are built to do it. All of a sudden you go from a very solitary pursuit to basically running a company, making tons of decisions every day.
During the filming of the first season in Ireland, the writers felt the distance and isolation of being far from home.
Benioff: The first season was really hard because the pilot was tough enough. But shooting the first season, it’s just such a long process and we were coming to it with really the only experience we’d had at that point was making the pilot, which we considered a failure. We didn’t have a huge amount of confidence. And when the first stuff started coming in, we still weren’t confident, we still didn’t feel like it was working. So there was a pretty low morale period. And I think it was late fall in Belfast, which is a pretty gloomy time and place to be. It’s always raining and it gets dark at 4 o’clock. And I remember it felt like no one at HBO was completely aware of us. I mean, I’m exaggerating slightly, but it felt like we were working over there in a bit of a vacuum.
D.B. Weiss: At the time there was no evidence at all to our senses that this was going to be anything other than a very expensive also-ran.
Benioff: And I remember getting these emails from Richard, talking about how much he loved what he was seeing. It sounds kind of corny in retrospect, but saying he really believed in what we were doing and that he felt like this was going to be incredible. We were in the car, and it was when we really needed a morale boost, and he gave it. That’s not necessarily the job. He’s not the cheerleader. He didn’t have to do any of that. But it really kind of gave us much needed bit of energy at a time when we needed it most.
The show debuted on April 17, 2011 and was not a cultural phenomenon at first.
Benioff: The initial numbers were not that great. We were a little disappointed. They slowly climbed as the year went on. The moment we felt it was working was when Ned (Stark, a patriarch on the show) is executed during season one. And it sort of seemed like the Internet blew up––we were getting so many emails like, what have you done? The fact that we got that reaction to a fictional character…
Weiss: When I saw the video of the guy filming his friend having an eminent freakout over the death of Ned, I knew. This was gonna work.
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