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There aren’t too many TV pilots that are remembered as the best of the best. Pilots mostly just need to be solid enough to warrant a season order to make good on all of plots introduced in that first episode. One series that managed to craft a pilot that remains one of its best episodes to date is HBO’s Game of Thrones. As it happens, however, the pilot wasn’t always particularly great. In fact, according to executive producers Dan Weiss and David Benioff, the original Game of Thrones pilot was such a disaster that most of it needed to be reshot.
The producers recently dropped by the Scriptnotes podcast to share the story of the first screening of the first Game of Thrones pilot. Luckily for them, the screening was confined to a small group off their friends. Less luckily, the screening did not go over well. For Dan Weiss, the memory of the experience has not grown less mortifying with time.
Watching them watch that original pilot was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I mean, it’s probably like appendicitis and that. As soon as it finished, Craig [Mazin] said, ‘You guys have a massive problem.’
David Benioff recalls the rather blunt comment as well.
I was taking notes, and I had this yellow legal pad, and I remember just writing in all caps, ‘MASSIVE PROBLEM,’ underlining, and all I saw from then on that night was just ‘MASSIVE PROBLEM.’
Rough as “massive problem” must have been to hear for Weiss and Benioff after spending nearly four years crafting the pilot, they took the words to heart. Weiss recounts that they ended up reshooting a massive amount of the episode.
We ended up reshooting the pilot. 90% of the pilot was reshot. I mean, that’s like 92%. Literally so much of it was reshot that a different director got credit.
Reshooting any pilot has to be an intimidating prospect for producers, but reshooting the Game of Thrones pilot had to be terrifying. This was not a cheap pilot for HBO to produce, and there’s so much that needed to be introduced right away that the plot had to be dense. One hour of airtime had to cover enough of the history of the Seven Kingdoms to explain why Robert was king, introduce the political intrigue of the court, and touch on the magic in the world of Westeros.
Basically, a lot of the original pilot had to be pretty awful to warrant a total retooling. As fans of the A Song of Ice and Fire novel saga, Benioff and Weiss fault themselves for failing to translate what worked in the source material to what can work on the small screen. By reshooting most of the pilot and recasting major roles such as Daenerys Targaryen and Catelyn Stark, they transformed the hour of television that was so awful even their friends couldn’t find any kind words for it into an event that kicked off one of the most compelling and immersive shows that would take the world by storm.
Dan Weiss and David Benioff are able to joke about the failings of the original pilot now, but it’s clear that the first episode was no laughing matter at the time. Considering how remarkable the final product turned out to be, however, everybody is probably better off for how terrible that first episode really was.
Season 6 of Game of Thrones will premiere at 9 p.m. ET on April 24 on HBO.