Rod Lurie is a writer-director. His films include Oscar-nominated The Contender and Straw Dogs. His TV series include Commander in Chief. He is a sexual God.
Game of Thrones has me rethinking my career. And it all began with what happened to poor Ned Stark, hand of the King, at the end of Season One.
In the final minutes of Episode 109, Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean, is about to be beheaded on the orders of the child King Joffrey Baratheon. The sequence is tense and tragic, shot, it seems, to evoke Christ’s trial before Pilate. What I was going through as I was watching it, what I assume anybody unfamiliar with the novels was going through, was more excitement then dread. The tension wasn’t if he’d survive, but just how he would get out of this mess. That’s what heroes do in action films, right? Get out of messes. And Ned Stark was the undeniable hero of Game of Thrones, right? Up until now, Game of Thrones was literally the saga of the Stark family. Ned was their leader. He was the shit.
But there would be no deus ex machina. The gigantic sword comes down – the slicing and thudding sound made the deed clear, the severity of it acknowledged by editing cuts to the Stark daughters watching on in horror, and then a smash to the symbolic scattering of a school of birds.
Ned Stark was no more.
Now, of course, important characters have been killed off in popular shows before but –
Just a quick aside – as an insider to all of this, I can assure you that most of the killing off of series regulars on television is not the result storytelling integrity. In fact, even more likely, the deaths of characters come from actors wanting off of a show or their becoming so intolerable to the production that the powers that be want to get rid of them. Killing them prevents the producers from having a change of heart and making the mistake of inviting them back. Sometimes, as in a case I know of personally, the network had to choose who to kill off between two actors who had just acrimoniously ended a love affair.
Okay, back on point, important characters have been killed off on popular shows before. But rarely does it happen so soon into a show’s run and, more importantly, much more importantly, does it happen to a show’s moral compass. Stark died in a way so unexpected and brutal that it threw the show and its fans off of its equilibrium. Audience be warned, the showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss and the novelist George R. R. Martin were saying. Nobody is safe. Least of all those of us watching at home who become attached to a character. Doesn’t matter how nice the actor or actress playing them is. Even if the Dalai Lama was playing a role, he could be whacked.
This doesn’t really happen in the films.
Not in the first act anyway.
There are a couple of exceptions, I suppose – Janet Leigh in Psycho is the most obvious. But tell a studio head that Leonardo DiCaprio or Ryan Gosling or Angelina Jolie are going to be executed in the first third of a film and then never to be heard from again. That’ll be the last conversation you have on the studio lot. Or any lot. Ever again. I have killed off two of my heroes in the last two minutes of their respective films (Samuel L. Jackson in Resurrecting the Champ and Robert Redford in The Last Castle) and, in both cases, the financier/studio and I went into seemingly endless discussions about somehow keeping them alive – especially when audiences predictably expressed their outrage over their demises.
Another side note – when you absolutely have to kill off your lead character, the movie bosses will force you to keep them alive metaphorically. In the case of The Last Castle, Redford’s followers build a statue to him. In Resurrecting the Champ, we see Sam Jackson’s character alive in a montage; in a film like Titanic, we see DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in heaven – reunited as a couple. You get the idea. Find a way not to depress your audience!
Anyway, and I know I have taken a long time to get here – the death of Ned Stark (and the death of half the Stark family at the Red Wedding, and then this season with the death of Joffrey) is why all I think about these days is longform television.
TV used to be a graveyard of constraints when it was relegated just to broadcast networks: Language, length, sex, violence, political correctness. But mostly, the bigger problem was that storylines were aimed toward pleasing everybody – and when you have to please everybody you come up with The Waltons or Cagney & Lacey. Those shows got numbers and made their creators rich as the good Lord – but they did not become part of the literary landscape.
But not anymore. Not without FCC regulations. Not with audience’s thirsting for honest-to-goodness darkness. There are literally no more rules.
Final sidenote. I was in a meeting with another cable network where an executive explained to me that they only once cut something out of a show. It was a scene where a man had ejaculated on a woman’s face and she was wiping the residue off. Then the very next night exactly the same thing happened on Game of Thrones. Go figure.
But there are more reasons why television is where it’s at as evidenced by Game of Thrones. I am not sure, pound for pound, that you’ll find any film, or even novel, where there are as many characters on GoT who are all so deeply constructed. Every regular/ recurring character could be the lead of their own very interesting, very involved show. From the little monster king to his incestuous mother to his king-slaying father/uncle to the other uncle, the integrity-filled, sexually invigorated dwarf, to his power avaricious grandfather to the two Stark daughters, one a mini-warrior and the other an innocent girlie-girl, to Ned Stark’s bastard who looks poised to being the leader of Westeros to his red-headed warrior lover to the mother of dragons to… well, you get the point.
Game of Thrones, over three and a half seasons, meaning 35 hours, has created a Swiss watch of a character show. Plot-wise, the show has to be viewed as a battle itself – simultaneously deploying infantry and cavalry and field artillery and so on. But this is made easier when the character motivations, weaknesses and strengths, tell us so much ahead of time.
In the film world, if you have six, seven, eight storylines – something has to suffer. Not so in television, not so with Game of Thrones.
All of this is helped when you have the kind of money HBO has – to spend on great actors and directors (for my money their best two are Alik Sakharov and Michelle MacLaren), authentic period set pieces and costumes, and, most importantly, the time and patience to let a show grow. Nevertheless, GoT is the plate tectonics of my professional world. And, as a filmmaker, I’m probably not alone. All my life I have ether been making movies or dreaming of making them, or scheming to, or begging to… and, now, all of that seems to have gone away. Because as great an art form as it has been, it has become secondary to what is possible with television. And, more specifically, by what this brilliant show has demonstrated. This is especially true if you are a showrunner – the most powerful creative job in all of filmed entertainment.
Now if I can just become as talented as the people who make this show, I’ll be all set.