TV writers take the throne - that wasn't in the script
UNTIL THE 2007-2008 writers’ strike in the US, few people gave much thought to the plight of the TV writer. Beavering away in front of a laptop, bashing out scripts, they remained largely anonymous.
As the quality of television programmes has increased, however, writers are finally getting recognition. Bryan Cogman is executive story editor on HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones, and his foray into TV began – as it does for many – as an actor.
“I studied acting at Juilliard and then moved to LA. Writing was something I did on the side and every actor dreams of writing a movie script which they direct and star in themselves to get famous. But I got to know David Benioff.”
Benioff is one of two showrunners on Game of Thrones. He and DB Weiss adapted George RR Martin’s fantasy book series for television. Benioff started out in film, with scripts for Troy, The Kite Runner, and The 25th Hour (which was based on his own novel). Originally, Game of Thrones was pitched to him as a film, but Benioff and Weiss knew it could only be conceived for television. Like The Wire and The Sopranos, shows with longer narrative arcs have been drawing in directors who want to work outside of the confines of film. It’s also preferable for a writer, says Cogman.
“With TV, you have room to delve into characters and tell their stories properly. Shows like Breaking Bad could never have worked over two hours. Television gives you the freedom to tell the stories the way they’re meant to, and some of the best work in recent years – like Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica – are being produced for TV.”
Benioff read Cogman’s early work and mentored him before employing him as an assistant on Game of Thrones. Cogman worked on the original pilot, and by the time the show went to air he had progressed to full-time writer.
“It helps that your boss has never made a TV show before and doesn’t know that you’re not meant to let your assistant write the fourth episode of your show. David and Dan [Weiss] gave me an incredible opportunity to help shape the first season.”
Unlike Mad Men, The Wire and other high-profile American TV shows, Game of Thrones is based on existing material: George RR Martin’s series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire. Every season, Martin contributes a script for an episode, alongside Cogman, Benioff, Weiss and the occasional freelance scriptwriter. Cogman stresses how small the staff is, which contrasts with the scale of the show’s production. Martin’s contributions are hugely helpful, but he has also been supportive about the introduction of new characters and of necessary changes to make the books work for television.
“It’s a gift to have a core storyline that comes from the books because we know where everything is going, but George has been great at giving us room to change things. The books get more unwieldy in terms of adapting them into something that works for television. Originally, we thought of doing one book per season, but as they get bigger, that’s just not possible. ”
Where Game of Thrones also differs from other US shows is in the writing process. Certainly there is necessary collaboration at the start, but most of the writers work alone. “The writers sit down together and break the books, talk and bounce ideas around. Once the episodes are assigned we go off and write solo, so it’s not a traditional writers’ room.”
The show is shot “like a 10-hour movie”, not by episode, largely due to location issues. Cogman’s background is in theatre - would he like to try film next? He admits that he has been hired by a studio to write a film but he can’t say more. “Movie budgets can allow you to do things you can’t do in television, but thankfully Game of Thrones is a very cinematic show. I still learn things every day working on it.”
Bryan Cogman will take part in the Talking TV Drama seminar tomorrow in the Radisson Hotel in Galway. galwayfilmcentre.ie