Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Game Of Thrones (TV)

Genre: Fantasy
Premise: The death of the king's right hand man results in a reclusive knight being recruited to replace him. Not only is the world he’s about to join filled with backstabbing and murder, but is threatened by the looming reemergence of a mysterious ghost-like species to the north.
About: Game Of Thrones is the new series debuting on HBO this April. A sort of weird hybrid of knight-ly tales mixed with Lord of The Rings like influences, the series is based on the novel of the same name. The pilot was written by the ultra-successful pen of David Benioff, who makes more on a three week rewrite than most of us make in five years, and D.B. Weiss, whose bounty hunter spec script “Kashmir” sold a couple of years ago. (note to Thrones fans: I do not know the vernacular of this world well.  I apologize in advance if I misappropriate titles and such.  It was hard enough to keep track of the 30+ characters and dozen storylines).
Writers: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, (based on the novel “A Game Of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin)
Details: 59 pages – 3/27/09 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

You asked for it. You’re getting it. A teleplay! Lots of e-mails from writers wanting me to cover more TV. The reason I don’t is because I don’t know the TV world nearly as well as I know the feature world. I’m not as familiar with how a series gets made. I’m not as familiar with how a show is supposed to be structured. But dammit if I’m going to let that get in the way of me pretending like I do! Truthfully though, the reason I decided to review this was because HBO creates some of the best programming on television, and since they’re heavily promoting this, I wanted to take a look. Okay, that’s a lie. I’m reviewing it because it’s 60 pages.

Game Of Thrones is packed with TONS of characters, and the first half of the script is pretty much an introduction smorgasbord. The most important of these people seems to be Lord Eddard Stark, a 40 year old knight who mans the northernmost castle in this imaginary land, a few short miles from “the wall,” a sort of “Great Wall of China” but bigger. Way bigger. What’s beyond that wall remains a mystery for this episode, but we get hints that an 8000 year old species of…human once lived there, and even though 8 millennia have passed, nobody has any interest in taking the wall down. Man, talk about a legacy. People are still afraid of you 8000 years after your extinction!!??

After an unexpected death by the king's hand, King Robert takes a trip up to Eddard’s northern fortress to ask for his help. He wants Eddard to replace his enforcer and help manage his kingdom. While this would up his family’s profile quite a bit, Eddard is noticeably reluctant. He likes hanging out up here in the middle of nowhere – living the simple life so to speak. This would change his world considerably, and he’s not sure the pros outweigh the cons.

The rest of the script is a series of tiny subplots setting up a multitude of characters. We have an angry sex-crazed dwarf named Tyrion who's so much like Charlie Sheen you wish Mr. Tiger Blood himself could turn into a dwarf so he could play the role.  We have a young woman being forced into a marriage for political gain by her evil power-obsessed brother. We have the beheading of a prominent knight for deserting his duties after supposedly seeing a clan of ghosts. And we have the king’s 8 year old son accidentally seeing something he should not have seen, resulting in a shocking “guaranteed to get you back for a second episode” finale. All in all, a very jam-packed episode of TV.

Okay, there’s a secret being whispered about in the back rooms of Hollywood screenwriting channels. It’s one of those things you tell your feature-loving friends behind closed doors, but not dare say in public as doing so would be admitting a horrifying truth – that TV has become more interesting than film. I was watching The Walking Dead marathon this weekend on AMC and it hit me: This is really fucking good. But more importantly, it was different. It was challenging. It was unique. It took chances. Does any of this sound familiar? Of course not. That’s because movies stopped doing any of this stuff ten years ago (some would argue even 20 or 30 years ago).

This is a particularly interesting conversation as we were just debating this with last week’s Amateur submission, Glastonburied. Sean argued, soundly, that writers shouldn’t always follow the rules and should instead take chances and let their instincts guide them. But therein lies the rub. Just being different does not equal “better.” In fact, the large majority of the time, different means much worse, and that’s because most of the people being different don’t even know how they’re being different, cause they never learned how to be the same. It’s an ugly confusing state us cinema lovers are in right now because we need vision, we need to take chances like these television people do, but I’m not sure enough people know how to take good chances that pay off. The reason The Walking Dead is so good is because it’s produced by Frank Darabont, one of, if not the, best screenwriters in the business. He knows how to be different because he understands all the rules he’s breaking.

Getting back to Thrones, this show is indeed a unique shifty story that could only be made on TV these days, and that’s a crying shame, as it ambitiousness is exactly what the feature world lacks at the moment.  But is Thrones different good?  Or is it different bad? 

Maybe it’s because I’m not as familiar with TV, but holy moses smell the roses there are a TON of freaking characters introduced here. The first 30 pages consist entirely of characters being set up. Ugh, I felt like I was swimming in the La Brea tar pits. What made it even worse was that everyone was a “Ser” or a “Lady” or a “Lord,” There were so many damn sers and ladies and lords I felt like I was at a Dungeon and Dragons convention. But if you stick with it, if you push past this early portion of the script, Game Of Thrones starts to get good.

It starts with Eddard. There’s something broken about this man that we want to know more about. He’s given this great opportunity to change his life. So why is he so reluctant to do so?  We also get a large dose of conspiracy, as we find out that the king's hand might not have died, but instead was murdered. Hmm... And don’t get me started about this strange mythical species on the other side of the wall. Who the hell are these guys? What exactly did they do to have a kingdom keep a wall up 8000 years after their extinction? We have emerging nemeses with studly knights. We have beheadings. We have forced marriages. We have incest. There’s a lot of interesting fucked up shit going on here.  It kind of feels like Tudors on steroids.  And acid.  Lots of acid.

One of the reasons I believe reading TV pilots is important is because the medium depends more on its characters. Story is important, but not nearly as much as the people who populate that story. For that reason, all of the characters tend to be richer, more detailed and more interesting.

For example, Eddard’s oldest son must bear the brunt of being a bastard child, born from one of his father’s whores. This reality clearly eats away at him every second of every day, to be a lord’s son, and yet not be one, and we can already tell that at some point, this situation is going to explode. In its short running time, Game of Thrones introduces tons of characters like this, all battling some inner unresolved conflict, and when reading features, I rarely see that attention to detail in what's going on INSIDE of everyone.  Not every character hits in Thrones, but a lot of them do.

The one thing I do know about TV is you need that last minute cliffhanger to bring the audience back for week 2, and while I wouldn’t call what happens at the end of Game of Thrones a “twist,” the way they used to throw around shockers on Lost, it’s shocking enough that you won’t believe it happened, and I guarantee you that you’ll be checking in next week. I’ll be checking in for Week 2 of Game Of Thrones and I haven’t even seen the first week yet.:)

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: A great reminder that your characters should be battling some inner conflict.  Whether it's with their own identity (being a bastard son), with a belief in themselves, their commitment to family, selfishness, obsession with power.  The characters in Thrones are all fighting battles inside, which is why they all feel a cut above normal movie fare.