Although moderated by The Late Show host Craig Ferguson, Game of Thrones’ return Friday to Comic-Con International in San Diego was a free-spirited fan Q&A session with only one rule: no questions about the upcoming fifth season.
Instead, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss treated fans to a Season 4 gag reel before introducing cast members John Bradley, Rose Leslie, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner, Natalie Dormer, Maisie Williams, Rory McCann, Gwendoline Christie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Pedro Pascal and author George R. R. Martin.
As the cast sat down, Ferguson pointed out McCann and said he was surprised to see him among the living. "Things weren't looking to go the last time I saw myself," said the actor, who played the Hound on the HBO drama.
"I think he got off lightly," added Christie, whose Brienne of Tarth put an end to his character in the Season 4 finale.
"Rotten bitch" McCann fired back.
Talking about the origins of the television series, producers Benioff and Weiss recalled discovering the books eight years ago, when they presented to them for a potential film adaptation. They knew it had to be a television series instead. "Imagine how much we would lose if it was a film," Benioff said. They finally convinced Martin they could pull off the series during a lunch when he asked them for the identity of Jon Snow's mother. Although Martin wouldn’t reveal if they were correct, he did grant them the rights to the series.
Ferguson asked the actors with still-living characters whether they dread the next script will be their last. Williams, who plays Arya Stark, answered, "David and Dan have killed characters who stayed alive in the books and vice-versa, so I just suck it up and read."
Martin joked, "The key thing is to never ask for a raise."
Before opening the floor to questions, a video introduced some of the new cast members: Alexander Siddig as Prince Doran Martell, Toby Sebastian as Trystane Martell, Nell Tiger Free as Myrcella Baratheon, Deobia Oparei as Areo Hotah, Enzo Cilenti as Yezzan, Jessica Henwick as Nymeria Sand, Rosabell Laurenti Sellers as Tyene Sand, Keisha Castle-Hughes as Obara Sand and Jonathan Pryce as the High Sparrow.
As the Q&A began, Ferguson reminded people not to spoil upcoming plot points. "If you're the sort who comes here to spoil stuff, you need to grow up," he said.
The first fan asked whether Martin identifies with a particular deity from the series, suggesting "The Many-Faced God" who offers the gift of death. "I couldn't choose any one god, and my reputation for killing is overstated," Martin said. "Dan and David are far bloodier. I may only be the second-ranked murderer on the panel."
"I'm not about to say one of the Westerosi religions is more true than the others," the author added.
Harington, who portrays Jon Snow, fielded a question about preparing for the show, particularly on the Wall. "With Thrones, it's weird. A lot of the work is done for you by the production," he said. "For me, that's costuming. It has a certain weight to it. Once I get back into the costume, it's very grounding."
Pascal, aka the late Oberyn Martell, interjected, "And hair products."
Harington laughed, saying,"Yeah, hair products help."
Leslie, who played Ygritte, mentioned they were freezing when the characters were North of the Wall, as the scenes were shot in Iceland and exposed the actors to the coldest temperatures any of them had experienced. "We did have these thermals on under the costumes," she said, "but it's the kind of cold that wakes you up."
"It puts the actors into the same environments the characters are in," said Bradley, who portrays Samwell Tarly. According to the actor, it helps ground the scenes -- although he recalled one day on the Iceland shoot when the environment was something of a hindrance. "You can't be subtle because your face is literally freezing up,” he said. “If I'm ever that cold again in my life, I'm doing something wrong."
Ferguson interrupted with an odd question for Martin: Why do all the place names sound like artisanal cheese farms? "I like cheese," that author replied. "Naming things in fantasy is very hard. We're coming out with a map book, , and I'm drawing up maps to places thousands of miles to the east, where the story doesn't happen, and I'm running out of names!"
Pascal, Christie and McCann took on a fan question about preparing for fighting in the world of Thrones. Pascal said, "The HBO team set me up with a master of wushu, and I was on set in Belfast doing extensive rehearsals. And I had an amazing double."
Christie joked, "I was always swordy in my life." She said all the actors who fight are trained intensively. "[The trainers are] very patient. Particularly with me, who can be a bit slow," she said, adding that the stunt team works hard to make everything "brilliant."
"I grew up in Glasgow, and we used a thing called a 'chip' and it's like a sword," McCann said of his training.
Ferguson wondered whether Dormer and Turner, who play Margaery Tyrell and Sansa Stark, were jealous being left out of the fight training. The both quickly agreed. "Yeah, I want to kill someone," Turner said.
Dormer admitted she was a fan of naturalistic violence in films, particular Rob Roy. While complimenting Christie on the fight backstage, she learned the stunt team and the producers quoted from Rob Roy when the Hound grabs Brienne's sword.
"You weren't supposed to let that out," joked Weiss.
Martin was asked whether writing the series had taught him anything about himself, or if any of the characters are more like him. "You draw on yourself. You may base the characters on people you know, but to make them alive, you have to delve into yourself," he said. "'I'm large, I contain multitudes,' Walt Whitman said. I'm different from many of the characters, but I think the common humanity unites all these characters."
Harington and Leslie were asked about their final scene together during the Battle of the Wall. "It was an important moment for us," the actor said. "Jon is happy to see her again. He doesn't really care if that arrow is loosed and he dies. He got to see her one more time. It's quite profound. "
"It's very true," Leslie said. "Sadly, for Ygritte, she was on a ruthless mission to [get] revenge on Jon, and she didn't anticipate how much she loved him. The hesitation threw her, and that was her last breath, as it were." She also mentioned she and Harington didn’t spend much time talking about the scene, preferring to shoot it and see what emotions came out of it.
The producers told a fan that Stannis will get his time to shine now that he's reached the Wall. "He's a fascinating character, and he's well drawn by Stephen Dillane,” Weiss said. “We'll be taking advantage of the character and the actor in Season 5.”
Alhough it nearly entered the territory of the forbidden question, Martin did offer an answer to those who might stop watching the show when it catches up to the novels. "I encourage everyone to watch the show," he said with a laugh. "I also encourage people to read the books. The question of experiencing the story in its true form is a difficult one."
As an example, he offered "The Scarlett O'Hara Riddle”: How many children does Scarlet have? In the original novel, she had three children, in the film, one, but Martin said the correct answer is, "She has no children because she never existed." The riddle illustrates the murky notion of fictional realities. Even within Thrones, he considers Jane Westerling and Talisa as both valid characters and wives to Robb Stark, just in different mediums.
He also teased that Westerling, Robb's wife in the novels, will be seen in The Winds of Winter prologue.
When a fan was curious about how the show is actually produced, Benioff gave the broad outline of their schedule. "We shoot it like a 10-hour movie, out of order with five directors shooting two episodes each,” he explained. “It's called crossboarding." The method means elements from Episode 8 might be shot the first week during Episode1 or vice versa. Pascal's first scene was his pivotal encounter with Tyrion in the cells.
McCann's last day was the fight and apparent death of the Hound. "Luckily, I was with Maisie and she knew what was going on," he said.
Much to Leslie's relief, her last day was Ygritte's death. "I didn't have to turn up in two days’ time saying, 'Oh, hello!'" she said.
Christie and McCann were asked about their fight as the Hound and Brienne. "It was really good fun,” McCann replied. “When she punched me, it was connecting. When she bit my ear, it tickled, to be honest.”
The cast all agreed with Harington's previous in-print request for more male nudity, with Dormer shouting "Equality!"
For Harington's part, he sheepishly said, "I'm going to shut up, so I don't have to get my kit off."
"The thing with me," Bradley said as the crowd cheered at the thought of Sam stripped out of his black. When the roar died down, he finally delivered his punch line: "With me, it still gets the boob count up!"
Asked to choose between dragons and dire wolves, Pascal said, "snakes."
One fan of Sansa asked Turner how she envisioned the character's journey from Winterfell to the Eyrie. The actress said, "I never really thought like that when I was younger. I kind of grew with her as an actress and it's really down to the writing." She did admit it was relief when the past year's scripts got her out of King's Landing. "The past three seasons, she's been deceiving [herself] with the façade of her former self and now she can shed this skin and become this manipulator. It was freakin' awesome."
Following up on that, Turner admitted she was sad to see the end of Sansa's marriage to Tyrion. "They were getting to know each other, and in the spirit of Game of Thrones, they cut that off. I'd like to see them reunited. They'd make a great power couple. It was a lovely relationship."
Considering the identities Arya has taken so far, a fan asked Williams if, now that Arya is in charge of her journey, will she still feel attached to who she is. Williams enigmatically responded, "She is no one."
When the producers were corned on the lost plot to find Benjen Stark, Benioff passed the question to Harington, who simply said, "I got distracted."
The producers were also asked to justify a major change to Tyrion and Jaime's final conversation. "In an adaptation, there are certain things your going to lose," Benioff explained. The novels use interior monologue of the viewpoint characters to deliver a lot of detail and emotion. The show lacks that narrative device and must reveal story through dialogue and action. According to Benioff, setting up all the backstory for that conversation to mean something would a major time sink for the show. "That was something that fell by the wayside," he continued. "These cuts are incredibly difficult because they're often the moments we love the most."
He added that the series is essentially in process throughout the year, with the next season's preparation beginning as soon as the final episode is delivered to HBO. The breakneck pace is another reason why they can only produce 10 episodes a year. As a side effect he said, "We hope people are drawn to the books. Unfortunately, we can't match the detail of at 1,200-page book."
Weiss had the final word on the topic, and the panel, by saying, "Jim Thompson was asked what thought of what Hollywood did to his books. Thompson, looking at his novels on a shelf said, 'Hollywood hasn't done anything to my books.' They will always be there."