Q&A: 'Game of Thrones' Insider Bryan Cogman on the Biggest Season Yet

It 'really tears into the characters' inner lives,' says the fantasy series' executive story editor

Peter Dinklage, Jerome Flynn, Daniel Portman, Game of Thrones
Keith Bernstein
Peter Dinklage, Jerome Flynn, and Daniel Portman on 'Game of Thrones'.
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Game of Thrones fans, meet your man on the inside. Bryan Cogman's as diehard a devotee of A Song of Ice and Fire, the sprawling series of epic fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin upon which HBO's cultural phenomenon is based, as anyone out there watching. A screenwriter for the show – he penned this season's fifth episode, and was responsible for last season's early standout "What Is Dead May Never Die" – Cogman also serves as Executive Story Editor, taking point with showrunners and primary writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss on translating the massive books into manageable ten-episode seasons. He's known to the fandom as the production's liaison between the source material and what goes onscreen, able to call to mind minutiae at a moment's notice. And as Benioff and Weiss took on the additional responsibility of directing this season's third episode, Cogman often found himself the sole writer on set.

All of this makes him the ideal man to talk to about Game of Thrones' absolutely pivotal third season. At this stage of the Game, the books get too long to fit into a single season – season three will adapt about half of A Storm of Swords, the third novel. Meanwhile, the cast, the locations, and the stunning plot twists accumulate at an even more daunting rate. It's one of the most challenging acts of adaptation a TV show has ever faced – but to hear Cogman tell it, the attitude on set is basically "Bring it on."

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A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series and the basis for this third season, is frequently cited as the fan favorite. Your bosses have referred to this season as the reason they wanted to make the show in the first place. What's your main concern in helping to adapt material that's generated such an intense reaction?
Well, you always want to honor those key sequences and moments from the books, but at the same time they have to mesh with the world of the show and [Benioff and Weiss's] interpretation of Westeros. Yeah, SoS is definitely the book we've all been working towards, so Season Three, and the upcoming Season Four, are going to be very special. More than once I found myself on set watching a scene play out and realize I'd been envisioning this scene in my head for years. I got lucky in that I was assigned an episode with several such fan-favorite scenes. Hopefully, book fans will like it, but you can't please everyone.

One thing I love about this season, and the third book, is it pays off and builds on plotlines and character arcs that go all the way back to the very first episodes of the series. Another reason I think the third book connects with readers, and with us, is that it contains lot of game-changing moments – no reference to the show's title intended. George really tears into the characters' inner lives in an arguably deeper way than the previous volumes did.

Oh, totally. I literally lost sleep one night after reading something in this volume. Which reminds me: Book fans are one thing, but the show obviously has a huge fanbase that hasn't read the books at all. Seems like there's a shitstorm in the future from them, no?
A shitstorm of fun!

[Laughs] So far, the basic battle plan for the show has been "one season = one book." This year, for the first time, you'll be stopping well short of the conclusion of the volume in question. Why?

Well, A Storm of Swords is a massive volume, and it seemed like it would be shortchanging it to try to cram it into ten episodes. There are some huge scenes in that book, and I'm not just talking about action or VFX heavy stuff, though there's plenty of that. There are tons of emotionally charged, game-changing character moments, all of which have huge ramifications going forward. I think it was felt that if we piled too many of those moments on top of each other, they would lose some of their impact.

And it should be noted: We're taking the approach, from now on, that this TV series is one big adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, so elements from any of the books could show up in any given season, if that's what is required. That said, essentially, Season Three is about half of A Storm of Swords.

It seems like any cut-off point you pick before the end of the novel would provide natural climaxes for some characters, but the storylines for some other ones would be left hanging a bit . . .
The key when approaching each season is figuring out the arcs for each major character. So, as you say, just cutting Book Three in half wouldn't do it. We had to figure out a journey for each character that made sense for the season. It's a challenge as some characters have significantly less chapters than others. Tyrion, for example, has something like 12 chapters in SoS, whereas Bran Stark has, I think, four? Someone will have to doublecheck those numbers for me.

Close! Tyrion had 11. Dead-on for Bran, though.
D'oh! Anyway, if you take Dany as an example  – if Season One was about her ascension from frightened girl to mother of dragons and Season Two was basically about her screwing up a lot and learning from her mistakes, what is her arc in Season Three? Once we answered that question we figured out which chapters or sections of SoS (or other books) would best service that. And we did this with all our core characters.

That's the second time you've mentioned drafting material from other books into this season, and now I'm pretty intrigued. Are you talking about doing stuff out of order, or is it more a matter of taking individual characters farther along their storylines than others, in order to even things out or round out a story arc?
Well, I'll let you see for yourself. But this isn't all that different from what we've done previously. There was material from Book Two and Book Three in Season One, Book Three in Season Two, and there are whole characters we've saved for Season Three – the Reeds, the Tullys – that appear in the first two books. The big difference now is we're not treating it as one book = one season.

The big cable dramas tend to have a pattern in terms of when, in the season, the big stuff happens. How do you fulfill or subvert the expectations we've been trained to have by everything from The Sopranos on down and still pack the wallop the books' big surprises pack?
That's an interesting question. Not sure I have an interesting answer! I don't really think about that kind of thing when I'm in the writers room or working on my individual episodes. I just concentrate on what feels right for the characters and the story D and D are trying to tell. David and Dan, as showrunners, may very well think about that kind of thing, but you'd have to ask them.  

Since we're talking about other dramas, are there any current or former series that influence you in terms of how you approach this material?
I wouldn't say a lot of time is spent consciously using other series as templates. Subconciously, well, I suppose The Wire, in that in my opinion it's the greatest TV show of all time and it dealt with its own complex mythology, dozens of characters, very specific "worlds", and intricate plots. References to Deadwood come up in the writers room from time to time.

Readers kept the big surprises from the first two seasons pretty tightly under wraps. Do you think that will change this season, given how many more readers and viewers there are now?
I think the book fans have been admirable in keeping such spoilers under wraps. I was delighted when a certain character's untimely death in Episode 109 ended up being such a shock to so many viewers. Look, I think book fans want the new viewers to enjoy this story the same way they first did. Of course you get a few trolls who try to spoil the party for everyone, but for the most part, they've been great about spoilers. 

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Actually, what's your opinion on spoilers in general? It's a hotly debated topic among TV critics, given how often we reference Show X in a review of Show Y.
Well, I feel like if you are coming to this story for the first time via our TV show then I wouldn't want it spoiled for you. I hate when the major event of a show I watch is spoiled for me. And I'm wracked with guilt when/if I spoil something for someone else. The other night, like an idiot, I referenced the death of a major character on Downton Abbey assuming my friends present had seen it. They hadn't. That was unforgivable. Hopefully they'll speak to me again.

It happens to the best of us, man.
Wracked with guilt.
I asked them to spoil something for me, like Breaking Bad, which I'm not fully caught up on, but they took the high road. 

Back to the storythe canvas begins expanding rather rapidly in this volume, and the cast and setting only gets more sprawling from here. What's your number-one trick for getting new people and places to become "sticky" in the minds of viewers?
I don't know if there's a number one trick. It helps that we cast great, memorable actors who can do a lot with their limited screentime – someone with the presence of, say, Stephen Dillane. Stannis is a major character, but has comparatively little screentime, or book time,  than the others, so you need someone who can really draw you in as a viewer. Same with Liam Cunningham, Diana Rigg this season . . .

I totally know what you mean about the difference actors make. Prose has its own advantages, but there's something about seeing a character embodied by a flesh-and-blood human being that, somewhat literally, brings them to life. Sansa is a character who only clicked for me after watching Sophie Turner play her. Bronn too, thanks to Jerome Flynn.
Yeah, and both of those characters are examples of us writing to the particular strengths of our actors. As the series goes on, you're writing Jerome's Bronn, not just Bronn. The same goes for Lena [Headey]'s Cersei, Alfie [Allen]'s Theon, Rory [McCann]'s Hound, Stephen's Stannis, and so on. With Sansa, aside from the fact that Sophie's amazing, I think that character might have clicked differently for you because we aged her up. She's 11 in the books, and making her 13-14 spun the character in a slightly different direction, I think.

Also, it was a goal from day one of the first season make the various "worlds" as specific and memorable as possible, so the viewer knows exactly where he or she is within a few seconds. So hats off to Gemma Jackson and her production design team, Michele Clapton and her costumes, Steve Kullback and his VFX wizards, and of course our directors and cinematographers.

On the flipside, what do you do to keep absent characters and settings fresh in people's minds?
Well, that's a trick. We're still figuring that out. One way is that we keep characters in play whereas in the book they might disappear or have less to do. Littlefinger and Varys come to mind. And we pepper in references here and there into dialogue, but we have to very judicious about when to do that. Too much of that kind of thing kills the drama. We'll often have a lot more of that stuff in scenes and it ends up getting cut out. 

I know that one of the things a lot of people said they loved about "Blackwater" from last season is that it didn't cut away from the characters in King's Landing or Stannis's army once. The episode benefitted greatly from that tight focus. Are you taking that into consideration this season?
Yeah, it's certainly one of our strongest episodes, but you gotta remember  – the book does the same thing. A Clash of Kings takes a break from all the other characters and jumps back and forth between Tyrion, Davos, and Sansa until the battle is done. It's the only time that really happens, I think. So, if the story dictates it, we'll do it. You'll see some episodes in Season Three where we leave certain "worlds" for that week and focus on just a few.

It's a question we're always grappling with. Do we visit every single character in, say, the season premiere, or do we leave a few for next week? There are pros and cons to both options. You don't want to leave characters for too long and screw up that storyline's momentum, but you also don't want to be constantly jumping all over the place and overwhelming the viewer.

The show's invented individual scenes and even entire storylines in the past. In my experience of the fandom, the scenes tend to go over better than the storylines. Does that square with what you've observed?
You're asking why I think some fans didn't like our storylines? Um . . . I don't know. like them. I assume you're speaking of book fandom since people who haven't read the books don't know what's "invented" or what's not.

Yeah, I meant the book readers.
In that case, I assume they didn't go over well because those book fans preferred the book version. That's ok if they did. Like I said, can't please everybody.

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My theory is that individual scenes come across like "deleted scenes" from the novelslike a conversation King Robert and Cersei might have had, but we never got to see since neither of them was a main character at that point in the series. But the larger the invention gets, the more proprietary the readers start to feel about the version they knew and loved from the books.
Perhaps. Hey, you never know, it's all subjective. You mention that Cersei/Robert scene. I think it's one of the best scenes in our series and it was kind of a turning point for David and Dan in terms of adhering to book canon. It was written later in the season, after we'd pretty much completed the episode it's in – 105, "The Wolf and the Lion." I think it's safe to say some book purists might not like that scene  – because it's unlikely "book Robert" and "book Cersei" would ever have that conversation, in which they discuss the current political climate and reflect on their marriage. But "show Robert" and "show Cersei" would have that conversation. I think it was really freeing. Some book purists may not have cared for it, but for the show to work and for those two characters to really make an impact in Season One, that scene ended up being essential. I think Mark and Lena would tell you it was one of their favorite pieces of material too. But, you know, different strokes.

From here on out, I feel like the trajectory of the adaptation process gets trickier and trickier. As the books get longer and longer, the amount of splitting, splicing, reshuffling, cutting, and adding will increase, with all the peril and potential that entails. Sound about right?
Yeah, that's right. As I said before, this show is now officially one big adaptation of all the books. The "book a season" rule doesn't apply anymore. It's tremendously challenging, but it's a really fun puzzle to work out. I've said this before: George has given us a fantastic set of toys to play with. David, Dan and I just met with him over a few days at his home in Santa Fe, and it was so exhilarating to hear him talk about the mythology of Westeros and what's in store for the characters. It's going to be a hell of a lot of fun moving forward. 

He didn't happen to mention a release date for the next book in the series, did he?
Ha! No.