How the disastrous Game of Thrones pilot nearly killed the show before it began
10 years after Game of Thrones began in 2011, we look back at how it very nearly fell apart.
Game of Thrones was a disaster. Nothing made sense, it looked terrible and the cast weren’t happy. At best, those who saw it offered backhanded compliments – at worst, they called it a “pile of sh**.” With millions of dollars down the pan, showrunner David Benioff and DB Weiss were in serious trouble.
Or, as future Chernobyl showrunner Craig Mazin told them at the time – “you guys have a massive problem.”
But of course, this wasn’t the Game of Thrones that the rest of the world was first introduced to 10 years ago today on 17th April, 2011. This Game of Thrones was the infamous unaired pilot, a production apparently so terrible that it nearly sank the show entirely, ended Westeros’ onscreen journey before it began and left a massive hole in modern pop culture.
However, it didn’t – because Benioff, Weiss and the HBO team pulled off one of the most miraculous rescue missions of all time, turning the disastrous first draft into an acclaimed series that dominated the TV conversation for the next decade.
Still, the story of the pilot has a certain fascination for fans. In another world, a very different version of Game of Thrones could have come into existence, with different actors, storylines and locations (and much cleaner costumes) bringing George RR Martin’s story to life. The Game of Thrones pilot is a fascinating testament to what might have been, and the thin line between success and disaster – or at least it would be, if anyone had ever seen it.
“I’m told I’m under penalty of death if I ever show it to anyone,” George RR Martin told author James Hibberd in the latter’s behind-the-scenes book Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon – and that diktat appears to have survived better than many of Martin’s characters. While versions of the pilot do apparently exist, no-one has ever broken ranks to show it to the world.
Instead, fans have had to pick around the details that have been talked about, leaving the pilot itself up to their imaginations. In some ways, it was a victim of the show’s success – who’d want to show their wonky draft when they can stick with a preferred, critically acclaimed version?
Game of Thrones survived its pilot – but like so many characters within the show, the pilot couldn't survive Game of Thrones.
Note: unless otherwise stated, many of the quotes in this article are taken from James Hibberd's in-depth behind the scenes book Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon, on sale now.
In the beginning
While Weiss and Benioff had been working on their Game of Thrones pitch since 2006, shooting on the pilot didn’t actually begin until October 24th 2009, with a 26-day schedule and a 10 million dollar budget – small change compared to later seasons, but a serious financial commitment from parent network HBO nonetheless.
After years of development the pair were excited to get things going , though perhaps there were already warning signs that things weren’t quite right even as they headed to their main filming location for Winterfell – Doune Castle in Scotland aka the setting for acclaimed fantasy farce Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Possibly not quite the serious, Lord of the Rings-meets-the-Sopranos tone they were going for.
Still, for younger cast members these early days were idyllic.
“I do remember it. I remember quite a lot of it very fondly,” Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who played Bran in the series, told me in 2019.
“I loved it, it was great fun. I was a 10-year-old that got to go and have archery lessons, climbing lessons, horse riding lessons...I mean it was like going to summer camp. I just loved getting to climb on all these old buildings.
“And there were a couple of shots where I actually was on a real, old castle wall, getting to run and jump and be on a wire there. And I just found that huge amounts of fun. And then getting to be pushed out of a window and fall onto a big mat - yeah, I loved it.”
Still, for Benioff and Weiss the shoot was a little less fun. Already major production, costuming, script and location issues were striking left right and centre, with the inexperienced duo (who had never really worked in TV before, let alone run such a major production) slowly realising what they’d let themselves in for.
“At first it seemed to us like it was going well, but that was because we didn’t know any better,” Benioff told Hibberd in his 2020 book.
“As we went on, the cracks turned into bigger cracks, which turned into fissures,” added Weiss.
A bad look
So what was actually going wrong? To start with, the look and costuming of the show – which would later become a critically-acclaimed hallmark of the series led by designer Michele Clapton – had come out wrong, with Benioff and Weiss realising that all the costumes looked inauthentic.
“Coming off the pilot, we realised all the costumes looked brand new,” Benioff told Vanity Fair in 2014. “They all looked like they’d just been made the day before.
“This is a period where people weren’t taking their things to the dry cleaners. Aside from maybe the queen, everyone’s clothes look dirty and sweat-stained.”
Meanwhile, specific characters’ looks hadn’t yet been nailed, including Jack Gleeson’s hateful Prince Joffrey (who had more of a pageboy haircut) and even Sean Bean’s Eddard Stark, who had darker hair in the original plans (which can still be glimpsed during the crypt scenes of the finished episode).
“I looked like a Vegas showgirl in the [original] pilot — furs and massive hair, like a medieval Dolly Parton,” Lena Headey told EW. “Not that I’m complaining, I loved it. My hair devolved.”
Worst of all, the all-important opening scene, which introduced the terrifying White Walkers…didn’t have a White Walker in it.
“For the first White Walker, we stuck a guy in a green suit and thought we’d figure out what he looked like later with CGI,” Weiss told Hibberd.
“Nobody said ‘that’s an enormously expensive approach to the problem you have.’ The thing to do was come up with [a costume], even if it’s not 100 percent of the way there, and then fix it later with CGI, as opposed to coming up with nothing and designing it entirely in CGI. That would have taken half the budget of the pilot just to do that.”
But the look of the characters was far from the only problem the pilot faced.
Troubles with tone
Exactly how to tell this fantasy story was a source of great anxiety for the production crew, as writer’s assistant (and later series writer) Bryan Cogman explained in Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon.
“Is it fantasy with dramatic trappings? Is it a drama with fantasy trappings? There was a nervousness about the pilot leaning into the fantasy too much — ultimately to a fault,” he said.
“Key exposition was cut to make the dialogue sound more ‘real,’ and as a result, the pilot didn’t make much sense. The impulse to not be over-the-top Shakespearian and Tolkien-esque was right — you’re trying to make it as grounded as possible — but this is still an epic fantasy, and if you ignore that, it’s to the detriment of your story.”
This impulse toward verisimilitude left early viewers of the pilot confused about key plot points, most notably that Jaime and Cersei Lannister were siblings – a key factor in the first episode’s conclusion – while other crucial scenes also fell flat, most notably an important sequence where the Stark children first find their direwolves.
“We made very basic, fundamental mistakes in the script for the pilot,” Benioff said in 2014. And the enormous horse erection didn’t help either.
“We’re by this little brook. They tied the horses to the trees and there’s a seduction scene by the stream,” George RR Martin recalled of an early scene starring Jason Momoa’s Khal Drogo and Tamzin Merchant’s Daenerys. “[The horse] was getting visibly excited by watching these two humans. There’s this horse in the background with this enormous horse [penis]. So that didn’t go well either.”
That horse, sadly, is not in the finished Game of Thrones pilot. And he wasn’t the only cast member to get the chop when the producers sat down to try and fix their troubled production.
Famously, Game of Thrones as a series was particularly ruthless when it came to killing off its leading lights, with plenty of big-name actors murdered onscreen across eight seasons. But for some unfortunate stars that cull started before the series even made it to air, with a whole host of stars cut between the original pilot and the broadcast version.
In smaller roles, Doctor Who and Doc Martin’s Ian McNeice was cut from the role of Illyrio Mopatis, replaced instead by Roger Allam. John Standing, who played Lord Robert Arryn had his scenes cut down until he was just portraying his character’s corpse in the background of a dialogue scene. And Harry Potter and Camelot star Jamie Campbell-Bower, who had taken the small but crucial role of Ser Waymar Royce in that opening White Walker scene was also replaced by Rob Ostlere, the scene presumably needing to be reshot following the original green suit debacle.
“I auditioned for the pilot originally, which was, I think, filmed about 10 months, maybe a year before I filmed for the series itself,” Ostlere later told me, with producers opting to pull him back in after taking a liking to him at his earlier, failed auditions for more major roles in the pilot.
But while these and other minor casting changes do set the pilot apart from what actually made it to air, more significant were two key female roles that changed between the original plan and the finished series – Catelyn Stark, originally played by Jennifer Ehle before Michelle Fairley took over, and lead character Daenerys Targaryen, with the aforementioned Tamzin Merchant initially taking the role that would later make Emilia Clarke’s name.
And after Benioff and Weiss improbably got HBO to agree to make the whole first series despite the pilot’s problems, tough conversations were had about both actors, one of whom wanted to leave and one who apparently just wasn’t the right fit.
“It was entirely personal,” Ehle told The Daily Beast in 2017. “My daughter was seven months old when we did the pilot. It was too soon for me to be working, emotionally and bonding-wise … I love Game of Thrones, but it was too soon.”
“I think everything worked out beautifully,” she added. “Because clearly the show is what it was meant to be.”
Merchant, meanwhile, was in a more awkward situation. While details have always been vague executives have said that her scenes with Momoa’s Khal Drogo “just didn’t work,” leading to a very tough phone call where she learned she was being let go. Still, according to Merchant there were no hard feelings.
"Shooting that pilot was a really great lesson," Merchant told EW in 2020.
"It was an affirmation about listening to my instincts and following them, because I tried to back out of that situation and, during the contract process, I did back out. I was talked back into it by some persuasive people. Then I found myself naked and afraid in Morocco and riding a horse that was clearly much more excited to be there than I was."
She added: “I think it's a testament to Emilia Clarke for making that role iconic — she was obviously excited to tell that story, and she was epic and excellent. But for me, it wasn't in my heart to tell it."
Following Merchant’s departure a few different actors were considered to play Daenerys, with Imogen Poots supposedly in the running, but in the end it was an unknown fresh out of drama school who ended up taking on the last(ish) Targaryen.
“The part called for an otherworldly, bleached-blond woman of mystery,” Clarke later wrote in the New Yorker. “I’m a short, dark-haired curvy Brit. Whatever.”
Now, with the new cast assembled HBO were ready to go back into battle. And this time, things couldn’t have been more different.
“To be given the opportunity to do something like this one time is a pretty rare gift,” Dan Weiss said. “To be given the opportunity to do more or less the exact same thing twice is an extremely rare gift.”
Filming resumed for Game of Thrones in July 2010, and according to the cast and crew the difference in quality at every level was already palpable.
“We were very lucky to be given a $10 million-dollar rehearsal,” Harry Lloyd, who played Viserys Targaryen, told James Hibberd for his behind-the-scenes book. “Then the reshoot was bigger. There was an investment on a grander scale.”
“Every single department stepped up,” co-creator Benioff told Vanity Fair. “The great thing about that experience, as rough as it was in the moment, was that we had a chance to learn from our mistakes and go back and try to correct some of it.”
Largely, this seemed to be a success. Huge new sets were built, including the Red Keep, Castle Black and the Eyrie (the original pilot entirely took place at Stark stronghold Winterfell), the costumes were distressed and made to look more lived in, and key scenes were reimagined to better fit the tone of Martin’s original novels.
Though one thing changed that Martin has never fully been on board with – the seduction scene between Daenerys and Khal Drogo, which in the books was consensual but onscreen was depicted as rape. Odder still, the Tamzin Merchant version of the scene had apparently been more faithful, which baffled the author.
“Why did the wedding scene change from the consensual seduction scene that excited even a horse to the brutal rape of Emilia Clarke?” Martin told EW. “We never discussed it. It made it worse, not better.”
For their part, Benioff and Weiss said the pilot’s version of the scene “didn’t entirely work for [them],” noting that the actors “weren’t able to find an emotional handhold” thanks to later violent scenes between Drogo and Daenerys that were in Martin’s original text – but this was apparently the only change that didn’t go down well in the reshot pilot and series.
Even the pilot’s greatest critic was won over, with Weiss and Benioff’s friend Craig Mazin (he of the “massive problem” diagnosis) apparently blown away by what the pair had achieved.
“I said to [Benioff], ‘That is the biggest rescue in Hollywood history.’” Mazin later said on his Scriptnotes podcast.
“Because it wasn’t just that you 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.”
Game of Thrones was saved. But whatever happened to the failed pilot it sprang from?
Where is the pilot?
Obviously, the Game of Thrones premiere that went out into the world 10 years ago is the one that’s worth seeing, an opening hour that launched a franchise instead of killing it stone dead. But as the series’ popularity has grown, it’s no surprise that a certain morbid curiosity exists about the unaired pilot, and exactly what it would be like to watch.
Sadly it seems like we won’t get the chance, with the few copies that may exist lurking on private hard drives – but fans really keen to see glimpses of what might have been would do well to check out what was actually released, with some key elements of the finished episode (aka season one episode one, Winter is Coming) taken from the largely abandoned pilot to save time and money.
“There are a couple of scenes from it, but most of that was re-shot,” Benioff told Vanity Fair.
As mentioned previously, this includes scenes between Mark Addy and Sean Bean in Winterfell’s crypts, which fans may notice thanks to the changing appearance of Bean’s hair. More notably, an extended feast scene in Winterfell’s great hall is also lifted mostly wholesale from the pilot, with Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams appearing younger than they had in other scenes in the episode thanks to the months between shoots.
In one moment, as Sansa meets Lena Headey’s Cersei for the first time, clever editing saved a tricky reshoot. While the younger Turner was performing the scene with Jennifer Ehle’s Catelyn Stark, Michelle Fairley was substituted in the finished episode. In other words the two performances were actually recorded months apart, despite appearing in the same scene in Winter is Coming.
Some continuity issues (like the changing ages of young, fast-growing cast members like Turner and Williams) were unavoidable – but for others, novel situations were included, with Kit Harington, Alfie Allen and Richard Madden given a “haircut” scene to explain the slightly differing looks for their characters in scenes taken from the pilot.
Another surviving scene is even more obscure – an explanatory flashback showing the death of Ned Stark’s older brother Brandon (killed by Daenerys’ father the Mad King), which can be glimpsed in one of the early trailers for the series but never actually made it to the series proper.
But despite it all, one sequence did make it into the pilot relatively unscathed – a romp between Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister and Esme Bianco’s Roz, now mostly notable for the striking frosted hair dye that Dinklage had been subjected to in an attempt to help him match the blonde Tyrion of the books.
“I just had a really fun day on set with Peter Dinklage, who’s a generous actor and charming and sweet,” Bianco told EW. “I think our scene was the only scene from the pilot that wasn’t reshot. Nobody had any sense of the magnitude of what was coming.”
And for now, that’s where the pilot remains – in the corners of the finished series, in half-finished shots and minor continuity details that only the most eagle-eyed of fans will watch. Other parts of the pilot that have been recounted in interviews – a “raven’s-eye” opening credits sequence, Jon Snow’s drunken night at the Winterfell feast, a sword fight between Robb and Joffrey, Cersei burning a feather, the entirety of the Daenerys storyline – don’t even have that, and are now left entirely up to the imaginations of the fans.
Though of course, there is one man who has seen the whole thing.
“I liked the pilot,” George RR Martin says in Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon. “I realised later that I was a poor person to judge because I was too close to it.
“Some didn’t know Jaime and Cersei were brother and sister. Well that wasn’t a problem for me! My great familiarity with the material made it hard for me to objectively judge. I liked that they kept a considerable level of complexity.”
Considering Martin seems to be a lone voice in his enjoyment of the pilot, perhaps it’s no surprise that fans are no closer to seeing it themselves – and as Game of Thrones went from strength to strength before its controversial final series, any chance of seeing the muddled beginnings it sprouted from seemed even fainter.
It seemed that the Thrones pilot would function as nothing more than a lesson to be learned from – a mistake to be avoided. But then again, what were the chances that the franchise would have to deal with another massively expensive failed pilot anyway?
History repeats itself
Years on from its troubled beginnings, Game of Thrones was headed to its eagerly-awaited conclusion, with HBO already looking to the future as it announced a raft of potential spin-offs (or “successor shows”) in 2018. Pre-eminent among those projects was a series codenamed “Blood Moon” or “Bloodmoon” created by Jane Goldman and shot by SJ Clarkson, which seemed far ahead of the others as production began on a pilot in Belfast.
A description released by HBO summed up the series thusly: "Taking place thousands of years before the events of Game of Thrones, the series chronicles the world's descent from the golden Age of Heroes into its darkest hour.
“And only one thing is for sure: from the horrifying secrets of Westeros's history to the true origin of the White Walkers, the mysteries of the East, to the Starks of legend...it's not the story we think we know.”
While a budget for the pilot isn’t known, HBO’s senior drama VP Francesca Orsi noted that the budget for the spin-offs would certainly be higher than they had been for Thrones in its earlier days while speaking at the INTV conference in Israel. "$50 million [per season] would never fly for what we are trying to do. We are going big," Orsi said.
And such a budget brought in some big names, with the likes of Naomi Watts, Miranda Richardson and John Simm joined in the cast by Jamie Campbell Bower, Joshua Whitehouse, Georgie Henley, Marquis Rodriguez, John Heffernan, Richard McCabe, Josh Whitehouse, Naomi Ackie, Alex Sharp, Denise Gough, Toby Regbo, Sheila Atim, Ivanno Jeremiah, and Dixie Egerickx.
“I’ve loved the storytelling in [Game of Thrones], and the wish and the will is to continue that with a totally different set of elements and people,” Richardson told Digital Spy. “The work has been phenomenal throughout and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
“I do know when I got [the part] I had to watch all episodes of Game of Thrones… in about a month,” Simm told Chris Evans on Virgin Radio in September 2019. The Life on Mars star also confirmed rumours that the series was set about 1000 years before the main Game of Thrones series, before joking that thanks to the details he’d just revealed he’d probably be killed off imminently.
“I’m just in the pilot!” he said, little knowing how right he was.
Because to a largely baffled world, it soon became clear that what had almost happened to Thrones itself had happened to its first spin-off – somehow, the pilot had sunk the entire show. This time, despite the knowledge that a huge Westerosi series could be saved from a tricky start HBO decided not to let history repeat itself, dropping Bloodmoon despite the time and money already spent on it.
Instead, they announced on the same day that they were moving ahead on a different successor show called House of the Dragon, which at time of writing is about to start filming with Matt Smith and Paddy Considine in major roles.
“I do not know why HBO decided not to go to series on this one, but I do not think it had to do with [fellow spin-off] House of the Dragon,” Martin wrote on his website.
“This was never an either/or situation. If television has room enough for multiple CSIs and CHICAGO shows… well, Westeros and Essos are a lot bigger, with thousands of years of history and enough tales and legends and characters for a dozen shows.”
“This stuff happens…things get put down,” Naomi Mackie, who played a role in Bloodmoon, told Metro.
“I’m just really excited about what is out there for me now. That was a great project, it didn’t work out. I’m ready to look for more stuff. [I’m] taking it in my stride. This industry will throw you about left, right and centre so you’ve got to take it in your stride!”
So what made this pilot not worth saving, while the original Winter is Coming was? No-one knows for sure. Perhaps given just how many series options HBO had for a Thrones follow-up, it was easier to go in a different direction. Maybe, when everything almost came crashing down on Benioff and Weiss in 2009, they were just lucky.
Or maybe it’s just a curse on the unfortunate Jamie Campbell Bower, the young actor unlucky enough to star in both the original Game of Thrones pilot and the Bloodmoon pilot, only for neither performance to see the light of day. While the actor didn’t comment publicly on the cancellation, Campbell Bower succinctly tweeted his opinion on the 29th October 2019: “WHACK”.
The content of the Bloodmoon pilot is, of course, even more mysterious than the Game of Thrones pilot, and even less likely to see the light of day – though rumour has it the series had a controversial take on the origins of the elf-like Children of the Forest, along with storylines featuring older versions of the Stark and Lannister families.
Sadly, we’ll probably never know for sure – though if the lost Game of Thrones pilot offers a glimpse at another version of the smash-hit series that might have been, perhaps Bloodmoon offers another timeline. Specifically, a timeline where Game of Thrones really was just cancelled after everyone hated the pilot, instead of becoming the sort of world-beating cultural artefact that has its 10-year anniversary marked across the world.
“Heartbreaking as it is to work for years on a pilot, to pour your blood and sweat and tears into it, and have it come to nought, it’s not at all uncommon,” Martin wrote on his blog.
“I’ve been there myself, more than once. I know [showrunner Jane Goldman] and her team are feeling the disappointment just now, and they have all my sympathy… with my thanks for all their hard work, and my good wishes for whatever they do next.”
Whether it’s a curse or just bad luck, the world of Game of Thrones clearly doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to pilots. Perhaps it’s no wonder that when HBO announced new spin-off House of the Dragon, there was an intriguing footnote included – for the first time, they were going straight to series, with 10 episodes filmed before they unveiled it to anybody.
In other words, they were skipping the pilot stage entirely. Given their track record, you can hardly blame them.