'Game of Thrones' team on series future: 'There is a ticking clock' -- EXCLUSIVE

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“We can’t wait too long because of the kids,” Benioff says. “Issac’s [Hempsted Wright] voice is changing. Everyone is getting bigger. We have this wonderful cast, but we don’t have an infinite amount of time … We don’t want to become a show that outstays its welcome and tries to turn each book into three seasons. Part of what we love about these books and the show is this sense of momentum and building toward something. If we tried to turn this into a 10-season show we’d strangle the golden goose.”

Or behead it. Another potential hurdle is salary negotiations with the cast. This is normally not a huge deal, but Thrones has an extremely large cast (roughly 25 series regulars) and is very successful. If the cast held out for large raises once their contracts expire, their demands could shorten the show’s eventual lifespan. Lombardo is confident the production will clear this one.

“We’ve managed this before with successful shows like The Sopranos,” Lombardo says. “That’s a journey we’re ready for. When there’s great storytelling, actors will continue to want to perform their roles. The challenges here are more in the storytelling.”

If the production does reach a crux point — if the fifth or sixth season wraps, say, and there’s no new book on the shelf, well … you might then see some maneuvering that would impress even Tywin Lannister. Martin has told the showrunners his top-secret end-game plan for Ice and Fire, but wouldn’t be thrilled with the TV series progressing into that territory before he published his books. “I don’t think I’d be happy with that,” the author says. And neither would the producers. “We still have our fingers crossed that George will get there,” Weiss says. “That’s what’s best for us, it’s what’s best for the fans. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” Adds Benioff: “Ideally the books come out first.”

There are alternative possible tactics to keep the show on track, too.

Thrones could take a hiatus to let Martin catch up. That would be very expensive, or very risky — TV shows are like sharks, they have to keep moving forward to survive. You either have to pay actors or release them from their contracts (showrunners too, for that matter). Once released, there’s no assurance HBO could book the show’s talent again (Josh Holloway as Jaime Lannister, anyone?).

A better option: Thrones could segue to periodic movies released into theaters. HBO would strongly prefer to keep Thrones on the small screen, however. “I would never say it wouldn’t make sense to explore it because that would be foolhardy,” Lombardo says. “We’re always open to a conversation, we’re always open to a smart way of doing something that’s true to the show and honors the fans. It would have to make sense for everybody — for HBO, for the fans and for the show. At this point, there’s no plans to do that.”

There’s been one report quoting a producer that Thrones aims for seven seasons, ultimately. That’s a nice number, but it’s by no means decided at this point.

And so everything comes back around to the person who started this saga — Martin. You feel reluctant to ask the author how far along he is on his new book. It’s such pestering question, one he’s asked constantly. Martin was besieged by fan impatience for years leading up to the publication of Dragons. Now that Thrones is a worldwide smash, that pressure has only magnified. Every online story posted on anything the man says is accompanied by fan comments demanding he get back to writing Ice and Fire. It’s like having an impatient editor who is pressing you to meet a deadline — only there’s millions of them.

Still, fair or not, you must ask too: So …. how’s that next book coming?

“I’ve given up answering that question,” says Martin, with only a hint of terseness. “I’m working on it and it will be done when it’s done. Hopefully it won’t be as long of a wait as the last book.”

Martin sounds pretty confident the saga will finish with the seventh book, though he still leaves open the possibility of an eighth. “I have a story to tell; the number of books is almost irrelevant,” he says. “I’ll do that in as many books as required. I’m still projecting it as seven.”

Keep in mind, as all point out, this books vs. seasons hand-wringing is still not an issue, and may never be one. Thrones has a good two or three years before any discussions along these lines would even need to hypothetically take place.

As of today, only one thing is certain. Ready or not, winter is coming.

Thrones finale full coverage plan:

‘Game of Thrones’ season finale recap: A Sort of Homecoming
‘Game of Thrones': Theon’s mysterious tormentor speaks + most evil villain poll
Finally: Why HBO greenlit Game of Thrones
‘Game of Thrones’ finale ratings up from last year

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