"‘Game Of Thrones’ Executive Story Editor Bryan Cogman On Sex Scenes, Magic, And Those Amazing Sword Fights"
We’re halfway through the third season of Game of Thrones, a year that’s seen the elevation of female characters—and consensual sex—suggestions that one religion, the worship of the Lord of Light, could be gaining precedence and validity in Westeros, and some of the best swordfighting the show’s ever seen. I talked to executive story editor Bryan Cogman about how the show’s handled changes in characterization from the page to screen, how he wrote those steamy sex scenes in last week’s episode, and how the action choreography of the show comes together. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
To get started: halfway through the third season, Game of Thrones remains largely true to George R.R. Martin’s novels, but there are diversions in both plot and characterization. As the story editor, I’d be curious what the conversations about those changes look like. And in the case of characterization changes, do they tend to be driven more by the actors cast in the roles? The need to pace the story? Or a mix?
Oh, good you started with an easy one! Well, for one thing, now that we’re in Season Three — a lot of the changes stem from changes/alterations we made in previous seasons. Now, Margaery Tyrell, as we’ve talked about before, is an important character in the novels in terms of plot but she isn’t a point of view character and you don’t really get to know her until later in the saga. And even then, she’s not really driving her own storylines. Now, in Season Two, we always planned to go behind the curtain, if you will, with Renly and his relationships, but even with that, Margaery was still planned to be (more or less) a minor character. Now, Natalie Dormer was original considered for another role. I’m not sure who’s idea it was to have her be Margaery, but casting her immediately changed the character and the possibilites for her before we even started writing. It allowed us to move up the Cersei versus Margaery dynamic–that’s a big part of a later book).
And this solved a few problems we needed to deal with as we started adapting A Storm of Swords. If you break down A Storm of Swords, there isn’t a ton of King’s Landing story in the first half of the book, and virtually nothing for a few characters (Cersei, Littlefinger, Varys) to do. So having Margaery be a greater presence on the show (coupled with her arrival of grandmother, Lady Olenna) allowed us to dramatize the arrival of the Tyrells and their effect on the Lannisters (and Cersei, Joffrey) in particular. And the idea of Margaery as a sort of Princess Di type was very interesting–and that’s definitely in the books–her popularity with the people is mentioned, we just took that ball and ran with it.
Well that brings up a second question I had: this has been a real breakout season for female characters, from Margaery to Brienne of Tarth, to Ros, who’s a wholly original creation. Was there a deliberate decision to try to expand the female characters, either because there was promising material there that hasn’t been fleshed out, or in response to the way people reacted to the characters in previous seasons?
In terms of the “marriage” plot — that’s all from the books too, but we needed to find a way to expand it to cover several episodes, use it as a way to explore character, and amp up the court intrigue. So the Varys/Littlefinger rivalry was woven into it, etc. So, basically — these changes come about for all sorts of reasons (writing for the actors, adapting the storylines for a TV format, etc). I don’t know if was a deliberate decision, but I guess it did turn out that way. It was especially evident in the second episode of the current season. With Ros, it was always planned for her to rise up in Littlefinger’s organization, all the way back to Season One. And when David Benioff and Dan Weiss wrote that scene for her and Littlefinger in Season Two, at that point we knew she would eventually turn double agent for Varys. Brienne’s arc with Jaime is laid out in the third book and we’ve had it play out, more or less the same way thus far. And the Tyrells, I would say there’s a greater emphasis on the women being the smart ones in that family. I think Cersei, while she dislikes and mistrusts Olenna and Margaery, she’s envious of them as well, of the power and influence they wield.
But, again, these kinds of things just sort of… happen in the writers’ room. That’s the nature of the show. We knew we had this to work with: Sansa wants out, the Tyrells make overtures, the Lannister find out, they betrothe her to Tyrion. From there we just riff on how we can expand on that and how many of our core King’s Landing characters can be serviced.
You’ve mentioned the writers’ room a couple of times. Are there particular interests each of you have in the material that influence some of these changes, whether it’s the presentation of women, or the mythological and religious systems Martin set up? There’s so much to be interested in there.
Well, I’m definitely interested in the religious systems. I think it’s safe to say the guys are too. That’s a theme that becomes increasingly important as we go on. To be very honest, it’s not the kind of thing that’s discussed openly. We really approach it in terms of story first and foremost: what does a character want? What will he or she do to get it?What’s in his or her way? The basic questions. You have to start from there.
Speaking of what characters want, I was curious about something I hope you won’t think is too cheeky. Your episode this season had both a lot of equal-opportunity nudity and consensual sex. We haven’t had a lot of the latter on the show for a while. And I was curious as to whether the nudity was a response to complaints from some critics about the presentation of women on the show in previous seasons?
The equal opportunity nudity just happened to be what was required for the story in that episode! I just got to be the one who wrote it. I mean, look, there could very well have been conversations amongst the producers about that, but I wasn’t privy to it.
I’m curious, though, what you think goes in to writing a good sex scene? Because both of those scenes had quite a bit of character development in them, even though they’re quite different: one’s the result of a long-simmering attraction and has a basis in real affection, while the other is basically casual, opportunistic sex on both sides.
Well, writing a sex scene is…challenging. With Jon and Ygritte, I at least had the book’s version to go on. But, it’s like writing an action scene, in a way–you want to be specific about the stakes in the scene…[In the scene with Loras], my first version of it had a lot to do with him mourning Renly (and screwing this guys to forget) but it was just too long a scene and the pace needed to be quickened. But that was a sex scene that was more to do with plot mechanics, anyway.
You want to script the various “acts” in a way that makes it clear to the actors/directors what needs to be done staging-wise, but also comes out of where the characters are emotionally, if that makes sense. Also you want it to “read sexy” so the producers want to shoot it! But the trick is making it not sound like a grocery store romance novel. I’m still working on this particular skill. Thankfully, the only people who read my sex scene descriptions are the cast and crew.
I noticed that both Jon and Loras appear to be on the bottom here. Is that the kind of thing you mean?
I did script Ygritte on top on purpose. I’m not sure I specified with Loras. But, again, the Loras and Olyvar scene became a much quicker beat in the final version..
That makes sense. I wanted to go back and ask about religion, since you’d mentioned that’s an interest. Game of Thrones tends to use actual magic relatively sparingly, which I’m sure is part of a product of the price of special effects, among other things. But I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how characters themselves think about magic and the power of the various gods they believe in, and how that ties into their larger characterizations.
Well, the intriguing thing about magic and the “fantastical” elements of the show is that they are on the periphery at the beginning and slowly seep into the main story. As a result, one thing we try to remember when we’re scripting scenes and when we’re working with the actors and directors on shooting them is that the characters should treat magic as you and I would. If I saw some dude run over to another, put his hands on him, and bring him back to life that’s big deal! Or if I saw a dragon in front of me–Iain Glen’s look at the end of Season One is, for me, largely why that scene is so powerful! So the magic is treated with, I suppose the word is respect?
What’s interesting about the Lord of Light is that it’s a religion where its adherents have testimony of these fantastical things. So that strengthens their faith, makes them arguably more fanatical about it. And we play with that a lot this season, particularly in next week’s episode.
Well and the events of the show also seem to suggest that their belief might be justified, right?
Well, yeah, I suppose. I mean, the guy did come back to life! But that doesn’t necessarily mean the god is “true” does it? I suppose this gets into a larger discussion of faith and why people believe or don’t.
Well that’s an interesting question, right? Is there an actual Lord of Light? Or he is just the framework people have cobbled together to explain phenomena that are coming from somewhere else?
And magic in the world of Game of Thrones isn’t exclusive to the Lord of Light either–you have whatever Northern forces are communicating with Bran and Jojen, you have the dragons and the magic of old Valyria. Maybe they’re all related? Maybe not? George R.R. Marin hasn’t answered those questions yet.
On another note, I was wondering what you could tell me about your action choreography this season. Do you have a dedicated person who’s doing sword fights, etc? You’ve had two big duels in particular, the fights between Brienne and Jaime and between Sandor and Beric, that are just chock-full of character moments. And I was curious how much of those were in the script, how many of them were the result of the choreography process, and to what extent you’re working with the actors and the choreographer to fit those beats in.
Well, we have our amazing stunt team led by Paul Herbert. We script the action pretty specifically on the page–that first Beric/Hound fight in my script is three pages of scripted action. That said, none of it’s etched in stone. The director and stunt team start with the page and expand on it accordingly…I learned from David and Dan who also script action pretty specifically. One element Alex Graves and the stunt scene added in the Hound/Beric fight was them fighting through the crowd of Brotherhood extras and Arya getting caught in the crosshairs, pushed out of the way, all of which I loved!
So, it’s not unlike the sex scene–you try to be as specific as possible and get the reader from point a to point b. Then the production team and actors build off of that…That sequence was an amazing thing to watch unfold. Alex was very good at using the space–the cave’s a big set but not so big when it’s full of people. Using props in the fight was all them too, when the Hound kicks all that stuff out of the way.
Was the Brienne/Jaime fight like that too, in terms of using the space? That’s a scene where you’ve got more space, but obstacles in terms of the walls, and a defined lane.
I wasn’t on set for the shoot. but it’s the same sort of thing. But both of those scenes, they’re not about the fight–they’re about the characters. The Hound’s afraid of fire. So he’s dealing with all of that. Beric knows he can’t be killed, so he’s working with that knowledge. And was important when writing that scene to script all of Arya’s reactions. With Jaime and Brienne, it’s about Jaime realizing he’s off his game. Ayway, our stunt team are amazing because they approach the choreography of these scenes as actors would. It’s all about given circumstances, character, etc., never about flashy moves, unless that’s what the character would do.