The wait is almost over. With HBO’s Game of Thrones fourth season returning Sunday, Entertainment Weekly sat down with showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss in our annual pre-premiere spoiler-free chat. In the lively chat below, the duo talk about how they pulled off their most ambitious season yet, tease what’s to come for some fan-favorite characters and answer some burning franchise questions.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You traumatized everybody with the Red Wedding. Happy?
Dan Weiss: It feels good to make so many people feel so bad.
David Benioff: We were here in Dubrovnik scouting when somebody emailed us that reaction video, which was really fun to see.
What characterizes this season for you?
Benioff: It’s always tough when you try to figure out a unifying sentence, because the show encompasses so many different characters and different story lines. Whenever we come up with something that sounds good, it sounds like a trite reduction of what we’re after.
Weiss: As you’re talking, I’m trying to think of a good trite reduction.
I’ll ask this way: What excites you about this season?
Weiss: The thing that’s most exciting about this season is the thing that’s most terrifying about this season, and that is it’s a giant leap forward in ambition and scope. And there’s a whole bunch of things that shall not be mentioned that are tough to do.
Benioff: In the second season, we had a great battle at the end of the season and that was a huge challenge. We were really worried if we would be able to pull off a cinematic scale battle on a TV schedule, and so many of our resources went into that. In the end, thanks to Neil Marshall’s directing and the acting, it was one of our best episodes. But the other episodes weren’t nearly as difficult. This season we got a battle that will hopefully surpass the Blackwater battle — and it still might not be our biggest episode of the season. There are episodes that are just as challenging in terms of the effects demands and — maybe not the quantity of action — but the complexity of the action. We always before had breathing-room episodes. There’s just not that kind of room for relaxing this season. It’s just more intense than it has ever been before. There’s more action. The amount of effects that we have… Last year, we felt like we were starting to figure this out because it felt like things went according to plan. This season, we realized you can never actually have it all figured out.
Usually when you go off-book and add scenes that are not in the novels, it’s dialogue-driven content. But from what I’ve been hearing, this season you’re adding more action.
Weiss: Definitely, several action set-piece scenes that were not in the books.
Would it be fair to call this season the one with the most action?
Benioff: Yes, that’s an objective truth.
Weiss: The most minutes of action.
You’ve said before that some of your favorite scenes were in season three. You’re still pulling material from book three — A Storm of Swords — but the scenes you’ve specifically cited before — like the unleashing of Dany’s dragons and the Red Wedding — are done. Does it make the show more of a challenge now that the parts you were most anticipating are behind you?
Weiss: We thought of the third book as season three. But it’s more that a lot of our favorite scenes are in the third book in the second half. So it’s more balanced than we had realized.
Benioff: There are scenes in season five we’re starting to plan out and anticipate. There’s so many I’m looking forward to for next season.
Weiss: But season 12 is really going to be the one… [Laughter]
I ask you this next question every year, but in all fairness you keep improving the show every year: Are you confident this will be the best season?
Weiss: I wouldn’t say we’re too confident. I would say we’re terrified that it won’t be. Because there’s this implicit agreement you have with the viewer that as you — meaning the cast and crew — get better at what you’re doing that you can deliver more and more, in terms of character and scale and scope. It’s a challenge that we have set for ourselves that each year becomes more challenging because the pole keeps being set higher.
Benioff: After season three, which we’ve been looking forward to for so long, there’s a fear that whatever comes after the Red Wedding will be an anticlimax. I remember when we outlined season four with [writer] Bryan Cogman, I remember thinking that if we can pull this off, it will top season three.
Did you go to HBO to get more money for the battle episode, like with Blackwater?
Benioff: Yeah. It’s not just for the battle. This is the most action and VFX across the board. We did need to get down on our hands and knees once again, but it wasn’t just for the battle episode. The last three episodes are massive. We needed help and luckily they were there to answer our calls.
You’ve given the dragons their biggest growth spurt yet this season. What are they like this time?
Weiss: They’re entering their adolescence. They’re having minds and desires of their own and they’re staring to not be all that interested in what their mom has to say. And that’s difficult when your children weigh 1,500 pounds. They’re really pretty massive beasts.
Benioff: Think about the skull Arya hides in during season one — that’s supposed to be a full-sized dragon. And our dragons are still not even close to that. By the time we get to the end, season seven, that’s where they have to get to — assuming they survive.
Can you talk for a moment about Dany’s journey?
Benioff: Dany’s had a fairly easy — not easy, but in terms of her conquering — time since leaving Qarth. She’s managed to conquer every place that’s come her way with great success. In the spirit of the books, she’s learning it’s much easier to conquer a country than it is to rule it.
Weiss: Emilia [Clarke] has done a lot of really impressive work this year and things take a darker turn for her. We’re going to see how she deals with a kind of adversity that’s more troublesome than in the past. She’s facing problems that can’t be solved with armies or dragons. Emilia has to go to some places where she hasn’t gone before with this character, and she’s done them so powerfully and seemingly effortlessly that I think people are going to be moved by the results.
There’s one character we haven’t seen in the previews: Theon Greyjoy. What’s he and Ramsay Snow up to?
Weiss: Nothing good.
It can’t be all torture.
Weiss: It’s not all torture.
Benioff: Dark places. It’s hard to go there without giving it away. They’ve moved on in their relationship. Moved out of the torture room.
Weiss: It’s the next phase.
We’ve seen Tyrion in chains in the trailers, so we know he spends some time in jail.
Benioff: We’re in Tyrion’s cell something like 70 minutes this season. It’s a lot. It’s not a big room. It’s obviously not well lit. And we never thought of [the amount of time] before we were told about it because it’s so compelling. They’re some of our favorite scenes from the season, just two people talking in a little dark room. It’s a testament to Peter, who I think has gotten better and better every season, but this season is just another leap that he’s gotten even better. We’ve been looking forward to this season because so much of this season rides on him.
There’s also the Arya and The Hound storyline this season…
Weiss: If there’s going to be any breakout center of interest that’s going to blow people’s minds from a direction they never saw coming, it will be Arya and The Hound. Which is entirely on the power that [Maisie Williams and Rory McCann] bring to those scenes. Maisie is just a phenomenon. And when you have access to that, and are lucky enough to have her in your show, you take advantage of that. And Rory keeps upping the ante each year with this portrayal of a man who actually has a lot of nuance, though he didn’t seem like it out of the gate. The two of them together are so perfect it just seemed crazy not to give them a proper meaty storyline. Arya is a character who has had the core of her life ripped out of her and now exists in a very dark place for a young girl, and she’s driven largely by revenge and hate. And she’s got a great mentor in revenge and heartlessness in The Hound. It’s almost like a twisted road movie. They rub off on each other in ways that are unexpected and we hope are going to be compelling.
And we’re also introduced to the Prince Oberyn, The Red Viper, who brings both an agenda and different lifestyle.
Benioff: It’s a part we’ve been looking forward to casting for a long time. As you say, he’s so different from all the characters we’ve met before. We’ve never met a Dornishman. It’s a whole new country and lifestyle and set of values. It’s fun not just for the character, but seeing how that character with his own worldview conflicts with the characters we’ve already established. And again, this is one of those times [as writers] we’re thinking: What if [Oberyn's lover] Ellaria Sand and Cersei met at a wedding had a conversion? What would that be like? Probably not friction free.
There’s also Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) making an appearance in an episode this season.
Benioff: We were so excited when we saw him in the audition. You get the list of people coming in and we saw his name. We didn’t even know he was an option. It was probably annoying for him because we kept wanting to ask him questions about his other shows. But he’s great. We hope to bring him back next year.
There’s an 800-foot pyramid [briefly teased in the trailer]. How did you pull that off?
Benioff: It was maybe the biggest challenge [production designer] Deborah Riley faced, and was probably the stuff we were most nervous about. It’s really easy to go into a sci-fi territory. It’s really a testament to Deb … [the interior of the pyramid sets] had incredibly experienced crew people gasping. It just doesn’t happen often anymore since more and more things are done with CG. But we’ve done these lavish huge sets and there something old Hollywood about that that I love. We have an incredible VFX team, the best in the world, and we rely on them for so many things. But for the actors there’s something different about walking into a real environment and being in a room that has the power you’re trying to convey. It’s almost like the way cathedrals were designed to create awe. If you were a peasant and been working in fields your whole life and never seen a city, you’d walk into a cathedral for the first time and that’s a religious experience — because you’ve never seen anything like this before.
Last season the nude scenes seemed to get more story driven than before — more crucial, in general, than they have been previously. Was that a conscious tweak?
Benioff: I think people think we have content discussion before each season that determines how we’re going to allot it. But it’s really a case-by-case basis. It’s about where characters are in their story lines. Jon and Ygritte, that’s where they are and where that scene is. There’s not a nudity document at beginning of season and we portion it out through various episodes.
Weiss: There is one nude scene, seven jokes and five stabbings in every episode. And if you steal one from another episode you need to add it later. You need to maintain the average violence of sex and violence.
Ratings have gone up each season. With the numbers well beyond point the show needs to survive, do you still care about the ratings? Does it matter?
Benioff: We always get reports from HBO the day after the episode airs and we get this document at end of the season dissecting the ratings. It’s important to them so it’s important to us.
Weiss: On a human level, those are people who are watching the show because somebody else most likely told them about it. So it’s people responding to what you do and that’s a big part of why you do what you do.
Is there anything about your show that you think is not good enough?
Benioff: Yeah, a lot of things.
Weiss: We’re not telling you. Because once we say it, then you’ll look for it and go, “Wow, that IS terrible, I didn’t realize how awful this element of the show actually is.”
Benioff: We always think the writing could be better, whether it’s the structure of entire seasons or an episode. I think the writing would be the main thing that’s a constant act of refinement.
Weiss: Every year there’s a couple horrible Monday morning quarterback moments. Oh, if we’d only done this we could have saved ourselves time and made it better and everybody would have been happy.
What’s the scene you’re most proud of?
Benioff: The Red Wedding. We were anticipating it for so long. To actually get that far [in the story] and then it’s [a question of], “Is there any way we can pull it off in such a way to have the same emotional impact that it had on us in the book?” We’re very proud that actually seemed to work for most of the audience.
Is there any possibility of deceased characters from previous seasons showing up in flashbacks or dreams this season?
Benioff: Watch and find out.
You know [Thrones author] George R.R. Martin’s master plan. Is there a character on this show whose loss would really zap a lot of the life from the series?
Benioff: There are some characters who will die that I won’t think people will predict. And as George has said, we’re killing off more characters than in the books and will continue to do so.
Weiss: There are several characters whose loss will do that. But it doesn’t mean they won’t die.
EW’s Game of Thrones Pre-Season 4 Coverage. Catch up on what you’ve missed:
‘Game of Thrones’ handy snarky season 4 map explains where everybody is
‘Game of Thrones': This showrunners Q&A will get you really excited for season 4
‘Game of Thrones': Jack Gleeson reveals the meanest thing he’s ever done
‘Game of Thrones': Lena Headey on Cersei’s twisted love life
‘Game of Thrones': Sophie Turner takes six Sansa questions
‘Game of Thrones': Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on Jaime’s season 4 women trouble
‘Game of Thrones’ season 4 is Jon Snow’s biggest, talkiest yet
‘Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams teases Arya’s dark season 4
‘Game of Thrones': Ygritte is super pissed in season 4
Peter Dinklage talks ‘Game of Thrones’ season 4: Tyrion’s journey, ignoring Twitter, nude scenes
‘Game of Thrones’ two more ‘final’ trailers
‘Game of Thrones’ showrunners sign on for two more seasons — EXCLUSIVE
‘Game of Thrones': How Pedro Pascal landed season 4’s coolest, sexiest new role
‘Game of Thrones': See Jaime Lannister’s new golden hand — EXCLUSIVE
Game of Thrones’ producers: George R.R. Martin’s secret ending is ‘absolutely’ satisfying — EXCLUSIVE
‘Game of Thrones’ team: 7 seasons is the plan
Still to come: Once the season starts we’ll have our popular recaps (find them here) and post-episode interviews with cast or producers each week.
For ongoing Game of Thrones intel, follow James on Twitter:
Keep up with Game of Thrones news: Sign up for EW’s new email Thrones newsletter.