Bryan Cogman is responsible for two of the best episodes in “Game of Thrones” Season 4, and two of its most talked about scenes. He penned episode 4, “Oathkeeper,” which ended in the reveal of the White Walkers turning Craster’s sons into similar supernatural creatures. He also wrote Sunday’s “The Laws of Gods and Men,” which featured the heartbreaking trial of Tyrion Lannister.
Zap2it: Fans weren’t sure whether the show would be able to top the Red Wedding, but Season 4 has been one big episode after another. I’ve been loving it.
Bryan Cogman: I appreciate that, thank you. Season 4, much of it is based on the last third of the third book. It’s funny, when we were mapping it out we were like, “Wow, this is kind of one long huge climactic season.” There’s event after event after event, and it was exhausting to shoot, but I’m very gratified with how it turned out — and it just gets crazier from here on out.
Do you have a say in which of the episodes you get to write?
No, I’ve just been lucky in that I’ve been assigned really juicy ones pretty much from the beginning. [Showrunners] David Benioff and Dan [Weiss] and I map out the seasons together. There’s a bit of all of us in every scene. In terms of the actual scripting of the episodes, no, David and Dan generally just assign them to me. I almost always get ones in the middle because they quite rightly want to write the beginning and write the end. But those middle episodes are fun. They often have a lot of great turning points. I’ve been lucky to get a bunch of really iconic scenes from the books, and also some new stuff to play with. And the trial from last night was probably my favorite thing I’ve ever written — not in terms of “Oh it turned out so well,” but the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything.
People immediately responded to that by saying, “Oh, there’s Peter Dinklage’s Emmy run for this season.”
That was seriously gratifying. [laughs]
When you wrote that speech for him, were you thinking, here’s our opportunity to let Peter let loose as this character?
Absolutely. It’s adapted from George’s original scene in the books, so I’ve got to definitely say that. But the idea was that the whole trial scene and even the things that were unsaid in the scene within the Lannister siblings is you’re basically just seeing his entire life laid out before him — not just the quotes that you all as viewers have witnessed in the series, but everything that’s happened before the series in terms of the relationship with him and his father and the relationship with just the Westerosi people in general. That peanut gallery, they sort of end up representing every person that’s blasted him, every person that thought he was a monster, every snicker he’s heard behind his back as he’s walked down the hallway or the street.
That speech at the end is definitely meant to be him letting loose because ultimately Shae’s betrayal, once that happens and once she throws back those intimate details of their love to hurt him and to mock him, he’s had enough. He really doesn’t want to live anymore, I think. This trial by combat is sort of “I’d rather be hacked to death at a trial by combat than give into you ever again” — essentially him and his father. It’s no accident that the whole episode ends on a stare-down between him and his father.
I read that you wrote a lot more of the scene originally as well.
When you’re scripting it, you just throw everything at it. I remember it was a page longer when I first wrote it, and we ended up trimming it down. I had a lot of funny courtroom business. There’s still a little bit in there, but there was a bit too much in the original draft. [laughs] I was having a little too much fun with courtroom tropes. But it’s funny — in the books George gives you some detail in terms of how the trial is structured, but actually not a lot. There were a few blanks I had to fill in in terms of just what the procedure of a trial there is.
The trick was to make it enough like a familiar courtroom drama that the audience could engage with it, but also just have it be otherworldly enough. That’s sort of the trick with all the scenes that we write for the show; that they’re rooted in some kind of reality and some sort of relatability, but also have some kind of an otherness to them that makes them fantastical. But yeah, it was a ton of fun to write. You give something like that to Peter Dinklage and just let him rip, and Alik Sakharov, who is such a wonderful director and who is so terrific with all our actors.
We shot that trial sequence over four days. It was immensely rewarding and really exhausting, because for those actors to keep their energy up and their focus up, having to sit all day, is in some ways more tiring than shooting a huge action scene. And the amount of coverage you have to get — you have to get every single actor reacting to every single line in a 20-page scene. It was a lot of work, but I think it really paid off. I think all those looks between the Lannister siblings — from my part — are some of the juiciest part of the sequence, and they don’t even have any dialogue.
It’s nice that you guys have just let these scenes play out, like Joffrey’s wedding as well, instead of constantly intercutting with other storylines. These scenes really get to breathe, and it makes that climax with Shae all the more impactful.
I watched it with a bunch of friends, and when she came on and that beautiful music cue that Ramin [Djawadi] came up with for when she enters, it’s just awful. Oh god, it’s awful. We generally make these decisions when story demands it, and thankfully there are a lot of episodes this season that really called for these quasi-bottle episodes or half bottle episodes where you really just zero in on one storyline.
These characters, they’ve been sort of far-flung, and now that the storylines are starting to merge you have more opportunities to have more of your cast be in these kinds of ensemble scenes. [They’re] great fun to write, and also ultimately a lot more rewarding because you can really delve in a bit deeper, and not worry so much about plot and a little more about character. What’s nice about the trial is it’s a lot of plot and also a lot of character, and you get a bit of both.
When I talked to Sibel Kekilli at the Season 4 premiere, she said she really didn’t think Shae should implicate Sansa. Why was it so important that plot point be kept in the show?
That’s interesting. It’s a tricky thing, and I hesitate to comment on it too much because I sort of feel like you want the viewers to not be totally sure. I don’t want to give a definitive answer about why Shae said what she said, because it kind of affects things later on. It was important in terms of what Cersei wants out of this, and “Tyrion and Sansa did this,” she wants that narrative out there — and I think she believes it. But she’s not above manipulating the trial to make sure that the guilty verdict is rendered. Assuming Cersei had something to do with Shae popping up as the witness, and I think that’s fair to say, that is certainly something that Cersei would be interested in making sure was spelled out.
One fan wanted to know how viewers are supposed to read Hizdahr lo Loraq’s story that he tells Daenerys about his father. Is that genuine, or is he just trying to get a read on her?
I think it’s both. I don’t think he’s lying because his father was crucified. I think he’s genuinely appealing to Dany to give him this opportunity to bury his father in the way that he sees fit. But also in a way he’s seeing what it will be like to work with this woman, or if she’s even someone he can work with. I mean, he is a scion of one of the oldest families in Meereen — and now the head of the family because his father’s gone — and this is the new reality that this woman is the ruler of his city. He has a place of importance in the city, and he needs to know if he can come in and express his point of view and the point of view of his faction of the people — and he gets an answer. She does compromise.
As a fan, not as a writer of the show: Do you think Dany made the wrong move crucifying the masters?
Not for me to say. I really try to not view any of the actions any of the characters do as right or wrong. I mean, obviously Karl was wrong in raping and imprisoning Craster’s wives, so I’ll give viewers that, but even when you’re writing someone like that you try to, as a writer, figure out what’s gotten that character there. … In terms of Dany, I think she does what she feels she needs to do in the moment, and it’s a lot of fun to explore this new path for her; this idea of her learning how to be a ruler as opposed to a conqueror. It is something that world leaders have wrestled with and continue to wrestle with even today. I think we’re all really enjoying exploring that through Dany.
Back in Season 1, the show borrowed a lot of dialogue straight from the books. It seems like the writing team has deviated from doing that as much this season, like in the trial scene for instance. Is there any particular reason for that?
But the trial also had quite a lot from George’s book. That Tyrion speech at the end is almost entirely [from the books]. I think it’s just a mix. It’s what we feel in the moment as we’re writing it, what works and what doesn’t for the purpose of the show. There weren’t any conscious discussions of we’re going to make the trial our own.
In terms of those scenes that expand upon or deviate from the books, how much do you need to run those by George R.R. Martin beforehand — if at all?
George is and always has been very supportive of the idea that the show is the show and the books are the books, and that the needs of the show are different from the needs of the story of the books. He writes an episode a season and, while he’s not in the writers’ room with us, he sees the outline. We have a strong back and forth between us and him about these various changes. If he has questions, we explain things, and he gives us his ideas, and so it’s a very healthy working relationship we have with him.
The changes manifest themselves in different ways and for different reasons. A production reason will necessitate a change that then means you need to alter something even a season later. When the show is this intertwined, there’s a lot of ripple effects. And then in some cases, again, we’ve had to pace the storytelling out in a different way than the books do. One example is the fact that much of “Storm of Swords” is split into two seasons, so you make decisions like including Theon and Ramsay in a bigger way as opposed to leaving them for two whole seasons.
And also the Bran and Jon stuff, which gave them something to do in the middle of Season 4.
Sure. The idea there was to put Bran into some jeopardy beyond the Wall that wasn’t involving the supernatural, and to really dramatize in a very visual way his choice to see his destiny through and not to reunite with his family. You got a hint of that in the scene in Season 3, but it’s much more different when Jon is right there and he’s looking at him. I think Isaac [Hempstead-Wright] played that scene so beautifully. We also wanted to explore — and I can’t talk too much about this — but the other reason for that subplot north with the mutineers was it was a way to get back into the sacrifices that Craster, and now the mutineers, have to make to the White Walkers.
[We’re] peeling the curtain back a little bit on the Walkers and reminding you that that threat is still there — but also giving the viewer something new, because we are in Season 4, and we’ve been teasing these entities since the first scene in the first episode. There are a lot of reasons that some of those narrative changes happen, but what’s great about having the source material and about having George is you have these goal posts, is one way to put it; these major story events that you know that you want to get to and you can sort of play with in the structure of that and explore some characters that might not have explored as much in the books. It’s fun. It’s a challenge when you have to come up with those scenes, but I think it paid off this season.
Speaking of that scene with the White Walkers, were you at all prepared for the way that people — especially book readers — lost their minds at that reveal?
Yes, I thought they might. [laughs] What’s funny about it is, to me, the big reveal we already did in Season 2 when we showed Jon Snow witness a White Walker picking up the baby. That to me was the bigger, “What the hell?” moment because that’s what really confirmed what was happening to them. The actual process of what the Walker is doing to the baby, my first reaction was, “Well, what did you think they were doing with them?” They weren’t raising them and taking them to daycare.
I would love that as an alternate plotline.
Yeah, right? You suddenly see them and they’re all having a great time. I mean, frankly the baby might be better off than being raised by the Craster mutineers. I thought it might get some passionate response, and it did. [laughs]
Well I think part of it too was there was that synopsis that went up afterward referred to the character as the “Night’s King,” and then was later changed. Can you clarify that situation at all?
Oh, yeah. I can’t comment on that, unfortunately.
Another fan question was about the way that the history in the books is represented in the show. Can fans who love some of those key moments from the past — like the Tourney at Harrenhal — expect to be satisfied with the way they are depicted, or will they not be as important to the show?
I have no way of knowing that. [laughs] I mean, I hope so. There was a conscious decision made early on that we weren’t going to do flashbacks, because to do flashbacks in this show, we would have had another cast of 200. The narrative would have made no sense. It’s one thing in the books, especially George’s books with the POV structure where you can just live in the character’s memory and get information from the past there. But if you’re doing “Lost”-esque flashbacks on this show, it would have collapsed under the weight of all that information.
So we made a decision to sort of tease that past, and certainly let it inform the show. And it does. The past is a very important element of the show, even if you’re not getting the full depiction of some of the scenes. In terms of having characters tell the stories, we’ve done that a fair amount, but there’s also a danger there of, this is a TV show, and having a character sit and tell a five-minute-long story might not be the best use of the medium again.
That said, show’s not over yet. There’s still a lot of information that may or may not play out in whatever device we see fit, whether it be flashbacks or dreams or whatever. I obviously can’t comment on when and if we’re going to do that, but certainly the past and the rich history of Westeros and Essos are hugely important to the story and we’re definitely mindful of that, even if it doesn’t necessarily play out the same way as it does in the books.
“Game of Thrones” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.