Interview: Bryan Cogman On 'Inside HBO's Game of Thrones,' And Season Three

This week, HBO released the official companion to their hit show Game of Thrones, appropriately titled “Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones.” You can check out our earlier look at the book here, but what we didn’t get was the skinny on how the whole thing came together. Turns out? It was almost an accident, at least according to Game of Thrones Story Editor, and author of the book Bryan Cogman.

“It started with me standing on a beach while we were shooting Season Two,” said Cogman over the phone from Belfast, where Season Three is currently on location. “We were shooting the scene where they were burning the Seven Idols, and David Benioff turned to me and said, ‘They’re doing a making of book.’ I said, ‘Oh great!’ and he said, ‘And you’re going to write it.’”

Right then, Cogman needed to jump into not just his regular - massive - responsibilities on the show, but also putting together a coffee table book that would be the essential companion to the world of the show. To that end, he tackled first things first: coming up with a book that would work for fans of the show, fans of the books, or fans of the conjunction of words “Inside” “HBO’s” and “Game of Thrones.” “It’s part making of, part guide to the mythos of Game of Thrones, and part just a beautiful display of some of the artwork,” said Cogman. It also includes location photos, and more.

Luckily, Cogman - like most of the cast and crew - is a huge fan of the series. “I read these books probably more than I do anything else in my life,” said Cogman, laughing. “It’s such a dense mythology, if you’re really going to do it justice, everyone from the actors, to the directors, to the designers have to steep themselves in it in some way. One of the exciting things about the book was engaging with the cast and crew, finding out how they feel about the experience of making the show, but also being part of something this big, this varied.”

Taking a little leap, we chatted about balancing the mythology of the show, versus the mythology of the books. For those who have read and watched, we know there’s a lot the same... But a to has changed, as well. “Ultimately, you try to honor the mythology of the books, and they’re our primary resource,” said Cogman. “At the same time, it’s important that we recognize there are two universes. They have their own separate continuities, their own separate mythologies... And their own separate rules. While I certainly think we’re faithful to the book, we’ve had to make it our own.”

Continuing, Cogman noted that the changes are sometimes determined by the actors, who will have a different physical look - and more importantly - temperament than the characters in the books, which will change how the TV show approaches their arcs. “We as writers are writing for the actors, as well as the character,” said Cogman. “It’s a lot to keep track of... Thankfully, we have a lot of charts!”

Still, as far afield as they might go, they always have the books to steer them back. “We know where we’re going in Season Four, in Season Five,” said Cogman. “A lot of shows don’t have that luxury. We have a wonderful structure that George has laid out in the books that we can always connect, and go back to.”

Given all that, what’s a Story Editor, which is Cogman’s title on the show? “It’s just a title they give you at this point in your career,” said Cogman with a laugh. This season, he’s been promoted to Executive Story Editor, which means he writes an episode a season, as well as helping the producers realize their vision. “Typically that starts with me reading the books over and over,” said Cogman, “Preparing documents from family tress to timelines, summarizing the chapters of the books and doing outlines when we’re preparing to adapt a book for the season.”

In addition, Cogman is an essential part of the writer’s room, helping “break” the stories into episodes, and put the whole arc of the season together. “Once we’re in production, I’m on set helping however I can to keep the continuity of the story straight, the mythology, and whatever else,” continued Cogman. “It’s an amazing job.”

As mentioned, Cogman has also written an episode per season, which accounts for ten percent of all Game of Thrones that’s ever been on TV. With recent talk on the Internet turning to what’s changed from Season One to Two, and then of course to Three, we asked Cogman what his take on the subject was.

“Like any show, when you start off you’re figuring out how to do it,” said Cogman. “Season Two, we became a little more confident in letting the story take shape for television, as opposed to just transcribing from the book and putting it on screen... Taking a little more risk with the storylines, introducing storylines for characters that didn’t exist before. One example in my episode is the character of Margaery Tyrell... An important character to the plot of the books, but not a huge character in terms of screen time; whereas we’ve made Margaery a much more prominent character, explored her motives, and back-story of her relationship with Renly.”

As for Season Three? “I think we’re trying every year to push the boundaries of what we’re able to do in the medium of TV,” said Cogman. “It’s such a huge story, and every year we’re trying to show you something you haven’t seen before on a weekly television show. I hope we’re able to wow people every season.”

Asked about his episode for season three, Cogman hemmed and hawed a bit, before admitting that, “My episode involves some great stuff with the kids. The kids are always my favorite characters to write... Maybe it’s because I’m so fond of the actors who play them, and I’ve watched them grow up for the past four years. But I had some wonderful stuff with Arya that I was really excited to get to adapt. I think Season Three - maybe because Book Three is this way - it’s an emotionally rich season. Not that the first two weren’t, but I think we really dig deeper into the characters this year, and learn more about that, and learn some surprising things about some of them. I think it’s resulted in an emotionally riskier season. Where the last season built up to the big battle episode, this explores the family dynamic in a really rich way.”

Bringing it together a bit, Cogman noted that Season Three is a “healthy mix” between scenes completely created for the show, and those taken directly from the book - continuing the trend started in Season Two.

“I certainly loved in Season Two getting to adapt the introduction of Samwell,” said Cogman talking about the monologue Sam gives, talking about his abusive father. “On the flipside, another scene I got to write for Season Two was another monologue for Sam about his mother giving him that little thimble, this one piece of goodness he held on to through all his adventures, and giving it to Gilly as a promise that he was going to return for her one day. That’s a scene that doesn’t exist in the books, that was something I dreamed up... It was a real thrill to do that, as well.”

Next, we chatted about something TV fans might not know about, if they haven’t read the books (don’t worry, no spoilers): there are a lot of flashbacks. A lot of them. Like, a whole history’s worth that have been skipped by the TV show. So why? And how, if at all, do the TV folks plan to address these potentially important plot points?

“The decision to not include flashbacks was made right off the bat,” said Cogman. “The principle reason for that is a logistical and budgetary one... We already the biggest cast in, maybe, TV history. Casting an entire generation of players from twenty years prior would... We probably wouldn’t have had a season one if we did that.”

Continuing, Cogman said that, “The other reason is, that’s a perfect example of what works ina book that doesn’t work on TV. The book does brilliantly flash back through memory, and through people telling stories of the past. If you were just take those passages from the book and do them on screen, you would be doing a flashback every five minutes! It would be very jarring, and very difficult to sustain the momentum that you want to sustain.

“Having said that, certainly the relationship to the past is very important seam in the saga, and it’s definitely one that we’re mindful of. We have been very judicious as to when we allude to the past... We have done it, Lyanna and Rhaegar have come up several times, but we’re playing the long game here. The relationship to the past, and the circumstances around the rebellion will all be visited somehow on the show. How we’re going to do that, and the devices we’re going to use, I don’t even know yet.”

Asked whether there could be a prequel series depicting the events mentioned, Cogman pretty much laughed at us (nicely). “We have to finish this one first!” said Cogman. “Certainly that’s what’s wonderful about this property, we could probably do it for the next thirty years, between prequel series, and the Dunk and Egg stories, and any number of spin-offs. I know George has many thousands of years of Westerosian stuff he hasn’t even put into the books yet. That would be fun, but right now, we’re staying firmly in the present day adventures of the Starks, and the Lannisters. Once we tell that story, we’ll see about the rest... If we’re not all in insane asylums by then.

Before we let him go, Cogman plugged that those with some spare change could pick up a Special Deluxe Edition of the book, which comes withe the complete storyboards for Seasons One and Two of Game of Thrones. “The storyboards, they could be packaged and sold as a graphic novel,” said Cogman. “They’re also the closest fans will come to deleted scenes. The fact is, we don’t have any, we barely have time to shoot the show we have! If there were deleted scenes, they’re generally cut before we ever shot them... But in the storyboard book, you have storyboards for some sequences that didn’t make the show.”

That includes a scene meant to open the sixth episode of season one where Gregor Clegane sacks a village. “We didn’t have a lot of time, we didn’t have as much money,” said Cogman, “So that scene had to go. But the book shows you the storyboard!”

"Inside HBO's Game of Thrones" is in bookstores now!

VMAs 2018