A few years ago, Miguel Sapochnik thought he was done with “Game of Thrones.”
“I’m unfortunately caught on tape on the very last day of shooting,” he recalled recently, “surrounded by burning Westeros and hundreds of people covered in blood, saying, ‘This was great; I hope I never come back again.’”
And yet, here we are and here he is. On Sunday, the franchise returns to HBO with “House of the Dragon,” a prequel series set nearly 200 years before the original. Westeros isn’t burning, but there is plenty of blood, among other clear reminders that viewers are back in the deeply TV-MA world of HBO’s biggest-ever hit.
So is Sapochnik. A director of many of the most spectacular “Thrones” installments, he is a showrunner on “Dragon” and directed several episodes, including Sunday’s series premiere. The other showrunner is Ryan Condal (“Colony”), who created the series with George R.R. Martin, the literary mastermind of the “Thrones” universe.
Of the various proposals for “Thrones” spinoffs discussed and developed, “Dragon,” based on Martin’s prequel novel, “Fire & Blood,” was in many ways the safest choice, with obvious parallels with the original. (A pilot was shot for an earlier spinoff that was ultimately spiked by HBO and WarnerMedia, then the network’s corporate owner.)
The series involves an earlier war for the Iron Throne waged largely among members of the ruling Targaryen dynasty, the ancestors of the dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke in “Thrones.” The core cast includes Paddy Considine as King Viserys, the ruler of Westeros; Matt Smith as his tempestuous brother; Emma D’Arcy as the king’s headstrong daughter; and Olivia Cooke as a courtier at the center of things.
The stakes are undeniable: As a test of viewers’ appetite for more Westeros stories, “Dragon” will perhaps determine whether “Thrones” can emerge as another lucrative pop-culture universe à la Marvel. (Several other “Thrones” shows are in development.)
A few weeks ago, in a video interview shortly before the series’s world premiere in Los Angeles, Condal and Sapochnik broke down the new series, brothel scenes and domesticated dragons. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why was this part of the “Game of Thrones” history the best basis for the first follow-up series?
MIGUEL SAPOCHNIK The decision was kind of made for us: George really wanted to tell this story. Of all the stories that were kind of bandied around, it’s the closest one to the original show in tone. It deals with the Targaryens and their dynasty, so it’s accessible in that respect. It has more dragons in it. People will say they don’t like dragons and they’re not watching it for the dragons, but they do like the dragons, they help.
RYAN CONDAL This one had the most resonance with the original series, when we see Daenerys after the fall of the empire. She’s running around the East relying on the kindness of strangers, or perhaps the greed of strangers who want to put her on the throne to enrich themselves. Her memory, the stories that she’s been told of the Targaryen height, the shining city on the hill — that’s this story.
In what specific ways did you want to reflect the original series?
SAPOCHNIK We wanted to replicate its success. That was first.
SAPOCHNIK No, I mean, we need to be so lucky. We specifically set out to start the show as “Game of Thrones” and not to try and deviate. It seems very important that if you’re going to evolve beyond “Game of Thrones,” first you have to pay respect to it. Also it worked, so why try to reinvent it? But to just replicate the original show would be a big disservice to the story because we have what is effectively a soap-opera kind of quality to it. The perspective is the thing that’s different, in that it’s a female perspective.
CONDAL There’s 172 years of history that happened between these two series. Much had to be the same because it’s still “Game of Thrones,” it’s still the same universe. But things also have to be different to communicate this massive passage of time. So those were the opposing forces that we were always weighing.
What were some of the things that you didn’t want to replicate?
SAPOCHNIK It’s a radically different world from what it was 10 years ago. Certainly our industry has changed and shifted substantially: The #MeToo movement came in, and then there was cancel culture, there was Black Lives Matter. Then Covid just slapped everything down.
We have to reflect the changes in the world before us — not because somebody told us to, but because we actually feel like there’s a point. We’ve done that in front of and behind the camera. It’s actually really hard. Like, trying to find experienced female B camera operators — it’s a very specific thing you’re looking for, and they don’t get the opportunity, so they don’t get the experience. So you have to take on less-experienced people. Because otherwise we’re never going to break through this glass ceiling that we have.
What about onscreen? For example, there’s a big brothel scene in the premiere, which is synonymous with “Thrones,” but that show also received plenty of criticism for its handling and overuse of sex and nudity. Was that a tricky balance to strike?
SAPOCHNIK The problem in doing a brothel scene like they used to in “Game of Thrones” is what we would do is hire adult entertainment actors. Because that was the best way of getting people who understood what they were doing and there was no issue surrounding nudity and intimacy with other people, and then you would pair them up and film it. With the advent of intimacy coordinators and Covid, that’s no longer possible. So suddenly that simple brothel scene is far more complicated, and as a result, at some point you start going, “Well, why are we doing this?”
Why did you decide to do it?
CONDAL I mean, that scene is right out of the book. I don’t think we ever got that granular about the original show. It was more caring for the tone, the voice, the look and feel. We took the approach of this is a much more decadent period in time — it’s after a long period of peace, so people are wearing their wealth, they’re dressing in their house colors. That was more of the spirit we brought.
This series is more immediately fantastical, with soaring dragons from the earliest moments. Do you worry about alienating the fantasy-ambivalent people who watched “Thrones” for its grittier aspects?
SAPOCHNIK I would argue that we are standing on the shoulders of the previous show, which got people to see dragons as being part of this world. We had White Walkers, direwolves, giants, ice spiders, all that stuff. As this show progresses, the only bit of fantasy are the dragons and prophecy — and the dragons are kind of domesticated, they’ve got saddles. If anything, it’s probably more grounded.
CONDAL If you can accept the dragons.
SAPOCHNIK Yeah, exactly. Making those dragons feel real, especially in those opening scenes, is paramount. If you can’t crack that then you’re in trouble, because what you want people to do is say, “Oh, cool, they can do dragons,” and then move on.
Are you nervous about the shadow that the conflicted reception to the end of “Thrones” will cast over your show?
SAPOCHNIK Why would we be?
CONDAL I don’t think so. It was such a generational event — people had a lot of expectation for where that series was going to end and what it was going to be. I think it was a grieving process for a lot of fans who had spent a decade with that particular story line. I think a lot of them struggled with having to say goodbye, and the response indicated how wide and strong that fan base is.
Frankly, I think that grieving process probably led them to want to re-enter Westeros, even if they’re coming in sort of unsure: “Am I going to fall in love again only to get hurt when everybody’s dead and has to go away?” But we have an extraordinary gift because we have a pre-existing fan base, which did not exist when the show originally launched in 2011. That is certainly a responsibility, but I’d rather have it than not have it.
SAPOCHNIK I went back and rewatched the whole show from start to finish, and you can see the setup for Dany’s turn early on. So that wasn’t surprising. I found it quite hard, when we were making it, that we had this weird epilogue happy ending.
It wasn’t just the fans that were struggling with ending it. The people making it were struggling. It was their livelihood for a long time, and then suddenly they were coming to an end. Everyone hates endings.