It’s not exactly uncommon knowledge at this point that the never-released Game of Thrones pilot wasn’t just totally different to what we got; it was a downright disaster. But it eventually got reworked into something that sparked a cultural sensation is a miracle... and hoo boy, do David Benioff and D. B. Weiss know it.
The two producers were recent guests on John August and Craig Mazin’s Scriptnotes podcast, and when asked about the process behind making the pilot—and the reaction to it that saw the team mount an extensive reshooting and recasting effort—the two were shockingly candid. When Weiss and Benioff screened the pilot to Mazin and a group of friends, the reaction was not great, according to Weiss:
Watching them watch that original pilot was one of the most painful experiences of my life... as soon as it finished [Mazin] said “You guys have a massive problem.”
Benioff chimed in even further:
I was taking notes, and I had this yellow legal pad, and I just remembered writing in all caps, ‘MASSIVE PROBLEM,’ and it’s all I could think about the rest of the night... [Mazin] didn’t really have any great ideas except that he said ‘change everything.’
According to the duo, around 92% of the pilot was reshot—Weiss acknowledged “so much that a different director [Timothy Van Patten] got credit”—and there were massive cuts.
Flashbacks to the fall of the Targaryen King were lost, Jennifer Ehle was replaced with Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark (and actually spliced over footage of Ehle’s performance in some scenes to save time), and even rudimentary scenes were completely rewritten, because audiences weren’t picking up vital information like the fact that Jamie and Cersei Lannister were siblings. Mazin saw the final episodes again at the season one premiere, and his reaction was astounding:
I very specifically remember walking out and I said to [Weiss and Benioff], “That is the biggest rescue in Hollywood history.” Because it wasn’t just that [they] had saved something bad and turned it really good. You had saved a complete piece of shit and turned it into something brilliant. That never happens!
Of course, we know the happy ending. People fell in love, and Game of Thrones continues to be a massive television phenomenon to this day. But what might have been if not for that early screening? Hopefully one day we’ll actually get to see the pilot released officially and see for ourselves.