Producing the most popular series of all time

Frank Doelger, executive producer of Game of Thrones begins by explaining that “I am always asked the same questions: who is John Snow’s mother? And why did you kill Ned Stark? So I will save time and answer those questions. I don’t know who John Snow’s mother is because George Martin hasn’t told us yet. I think he knows but I’m not certain. And we killed Ned Stark because George did.”

Basics over, Doelger tries to explain what his job actually entails. “For Game of Thrones we have 10 episodes per season for which we hire four to six directors.” This makes television production almost the opposite to film production. In the latter the directors are the one with the creative vision, in the former it is the producers that have all the control: “They [the directors] come in and direct using the actors we chose ad the places we’ve chosen to shoot. Months before the series airs their job is done.” “You don’t want to give them control of a programme like Game of Thrones. Last series we had a director who wanted to film an entire episode by hand – we shot like that for two days and then fired him.”

It is the producers of a show like Game of Thrones then that are responsible for exactly how it comes across. Two of the most challenging aspects of this brief is how to get the “question of fantasy versus reality” right and “in a show that went from world to world and could be incredibly confusing how [to] come up with something visual that immediately indicated to our audience where they were”. When the original script was written and the first pilot shot they felt that it was a 60/40 balance between fantasy and reality. “We realized we couldn’t sustain the fantasy.” They went back and re-shot the episode and now “the characters are real and the fantasy is an overlay”. The second issue was also solved quite successfully. “In each season there would be four or five worlds.” The solution to this was “to imagine that everything the characters wear, eat, build with comes from a 50 mile square radius from where they live”. Once this happens, “you should be able to put a character against a blank backdrop and be able to tell what world they’re from – from what their hair looks like, what they eat with, what the fabrics they use and wear are like.”

All this costs a lot of money; how much exactly? “I can’t actually tell you because it’s confidential but it is the most expensive show ever produced for television […] but it’s also the most popular, airing in 163 countries.” Did they realize this was going to be the case when they begun? “We didn’t have a clue; we thought it might be one season with a small audience. I’d never read anything in the genre, never even heard of George Martin when I started producing the show.” What is it about it that makes it just so popular then? “Visually its so spectacular and surprising. It stands out for that.”

But when people think of Game of Thrones, there are other things that stand out quite obviously. A marked presence of incest, for instance. Danielle Henderson, writing for the Guardian recently expressed how ‘the misogyny of Game of Thrones has always seemed so gratuitous as to pull me out of the story. For every woman with authority, there are five more being disparaged, and most women come to their power through physical and emotional humiliation (Daenerys) or a cool detachment from reality (Cersei)’. How do the producers deal with the social taboos that are brought up in the show? “Well we actually just embrace them. There’s nothing we’ve done that isn’t historically accurate. We lose audience because of that – there’s certainly some people who think we go too far. But we never think it’s gratuitous. We just try and be as true to the story as possible.”

So the television series vision remains close to the writers’ vision? “The vision of the show as articulated in the beginning was very much shaped with the writers: they keep building on that, we keep refining it season by season but I think the world we’ve created is very true to what the writers wanted.”

One thing we have noticed change slightly in the later episodes is the plot being made very explicit; Game of Thrones can be a very confusing show, is your primary concern to be clear? “ It’s really tough for people to follow and there has been a little tendency to over-explain…what to spell out and what not to is a question we ask each other every episode and it’s a thing you can kind of never quite get right.”

Part of the confusion in Game of Thrones might arise from the fact that often when plot is being explained, we see prostitutes having sex in the background; what is the point of all the sex? “It is an instinct of the writers…they wanted this to be a sexually charged world.” That, it certainly is…

How many writers does Game of Thrones have? “For most series we’ll have four or five writers. Good writers will always be on the set, the script is never really signed off, it’s a very dynamic environment.” And how much control does George R. Martin have on the script and/or anything else to do with the production? “He has approval of nothing. He isn’t involved in that sense. However because of his talent, because of his position in the industry we do everything we can to do what he would approve of. He’s very smart, he realizes that you can’t go directly from the books to the screen. But then again whatever we change we do so very cautiously. We want his approval, we don’t want him to think that we’re not doing good things with his work.” And in its current status as the most popular TV series of all time, it would seem that they are!