This year’s South by Southwest Festival included its first-ever session with Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The panel was moderated by Stark actors Maisie Williams (Arya) and Sophie Turner (Sansa). The group took time from their busy SXSW schedule to meet Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden before heading to the GoT panel. Together, they discussed creating the final two seasons, pranking Kit Harington and how Jason Momoa sent Benioff to the hospital. Thirteen takeaways from the talk are below.
1. Williams and Turner both have tattoos of the date August 7, 2009 – when they each learned they’d been cast in the series.
According to Weiss, the hardest part to cast was young Arya. “[Arya and Sansa] start so young, but we knew if the show worked, [the characters] were going to go to extremely dark places, so it was a tricky thing, casting people and just hoping they would blossom into the women that they’ve become,” said Benioff. “I remember we probably looked at 300 girls in England and could not find the right Arya.
Weiss told the actors how proud he was of their growth over the years: “It can be a difficult situation to navigate when all of a sudden this thing [the show] blows up the way it did, and you both completely weathered it in a very impressive way. On the performance side of things, to watch you guys become the actors you’ve become has been very gratifying for us.”
2. The actors grew faster than the show could film.
Weiss and Benioff discussed how the young actors grew so quickly between shooting the pilot and the rest of Season 1. In the case of Kit Harington, it prevented using footage of certain pilot scenes.
Benioff shared that one specific Episode 1 scene in Winterfell – with Robb, Jon and Theon shaving – was written for one specific reason: to shape beard expectations. “That scene is in there because there is no continuity between scenes in the pilot. The beards were all different.” About the shirtless scene Benioff joked, “If you look closely, you can tell they’re all flexing.”
3. The books’ strong female characters are hugely appealing.
D.B. Weiss said, “We realized it’s an awful world where this story takes place, but there were compelling, female characters who had agency. They weren’t secondary to anybody – they had their own storylines."
4. Sansa Stark is one of David Benioff’s favorite characters.
“Arya’s a rebel, and I think people are drawn to people who rebel against whatever the societal structures are. For me though, Sansa goes on one of the most interesting journeys; She doesn’t start out as someone who is really sharp, shrewd and tough, but she becomes that person. Arya is kind of always there, which is what’s great about her, but Sansa had to get there by painful experience.”
Weiss added, “I think Sansa’s had to face harder choices. With Arya there’s always a pretty clear path of: What’s the cool, badass thing to do? Sansa’s choices, in a way, feel more real, and resonate more with not black and white, but gray experiences.”
5. Killing off characters is complex business.
Noah Taylor (Locke, Roose Bolton’s hunter) was destined to die in the bear pit in “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.” But after working with the actor, the creators decided they’d rather keep him around longer. “He was too much fun to waste,” said Weiss.
Unfortunately, they didn’t always have a choice. “Killing [Jason] Momoa sucked,” said Benioff of the Khal Drogo actor. “It was such a classic death from the book, so there was no way to change it.” Turner asked if that was why they brought him back for Dany’s dream sequence in Season 2. “Pretty much,” joked Benioff, who shared a story about playing a “hand-slap game” with the huge actor and actually injuring his hand to the point he had to go to the emergency room. “It seemed like a good idea at the time…I thought ‘Oh he’s big, but I bet I’m quicker. But I’m not.' ”
6. The creators play pranks on their actors.
“We wrote a scene for Kit Harington where his face melted off,” confessed Benioff, describing the scene where Jon faces off against a wight who catches fire. Instead of sharing the actual pages in which Jon burns his hand, the writers instead wrote – in graphic detail – just how mangled Jon’s face would be for the rest of the series. “It was his upper lip and all of his hair … Kit’s got great hair and a great pout,” Benioff continued. “He was a good sport about it, but you could tell he was really sad,” Weiss added.
7. Playing Sansa has made Sophie Turner an activist.
Turner candidly said she was very proud of the discussion that came out of her wedding night scene with Ramsay. “It led to a discussion about the taboo of rape, and it turned me into an activist for that.”
8. Certain moments leave a lasting impression.
Describing their first shoot in Iceland while filming for Season 2, Weiss commented it felt like a peak moment to have “a bunch of very improbable circumstances had fallen into place to put you in this very unlikely, beautiful place. It’s not pride, so much as gratefulness.”
9. Season 7 will feature another musician cameo – singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran.
But many musicians who want to come on the show don’t realize how long the shoot will be. “Jónsi was so done after his close-up,” said Weiss, who had to tell the Sigur Ros musician he couldn’t go home yet because "You’re in 1700 other shots.”
10. Season 8 will be 6 episodes – and started with a 140-page outline.
Benioff and Weiss begin with an outline, and are joined by writers Bryan Cogman and Dave Hill to break down the upcoming season and split sections to write. Benioff shared that the divvying up process was more difficult for the final season. “We realized this would be the last time that we would be doing this.”
11. The creators were thrilled to keep the core cast throughout the show.
“From the very first moment we pitched the show to HBO, we wanted to tell one 70-hour movie, that’s going to turn out to be 73 hours. It stayed relatively the same from the beginning to middle, and now we’re coming to the end. It would have been really tough if we had lost any of our core cast members along the way, so I’m happy we got to finish the way we want to.”
12. Both creators hope to take swords home after the series ends.
...but they couldn’t decide which one.
13. Spoilers are a thing, but the show must – and does – go on.
In response to keeping leaks to a minimum, Benioff responded, “It’s virtually impossible.” But the series creator mentioned how in “Season 1 there were 10 million people who had spoilers about Ned’s death in a book, and somehow the season still worked.” Weiss added, “And the Red Wedding there were people watching who didn’t know this was coming.”
“I’m the kind of viewer or reader where I just don’t want to know about stuff… I want to be surprised by things,” said Benioff. “So I just kind of work under the assumption that a lot of people are like me and people who are desperate to find out everything beforehand will probably find a way to do it. And that just is what it is.”