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‘Game of Thrones’ Creators Look Skyward for Their New Series

‘Game of Thrones’ Creators Look Skyward for Their New Series

The “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were finishing off their hit HBO series after an eight-season run and wondering what was next. That was when the Netflix executive Peter Friedlander approached them with a trilogy of science-fiction books by the Chinese novelist Liu Cixin called “Remembrance of Earth’s Past.”

“We knew that it won the Hugo Award, which is a big deal for us since we grew up as nerds,” Benioff said of the literary prize for science fiction. Barack Obama was also on record as a fan.

Benioff and Weiss dipped in and were intrigued by what they found: a sweeping space invasion saga that begins in 1960s China, amid the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and involves a superior alien race that has built a rabid cultlike following on Earth. A heady mix of science and skulduggery, featuring investigations both scientific and criminal, it felt utterly unique. “So much content right now feels like, ‘Oh, here’s another forensic show, here’s another legal thriller,’ it just feels like it’s a version of something you’ve seen,” Benioff said. “This universe is a different one.”

Or, as Weiss added, “This is the universe.”

Those novels are now the core of “3 Body Problem,” a new series that Benioff and Weiss created with Alexander Woo (“True Blood”). It premiered on opening night at the South by Southwest Film Festival and arrives Thursday on Netflix. The setting has changed along the way, with most of the action unfolding in London rather than China (although the Cultural Revolution is still a key element), and the characters, most of them young and pretty, now represent several countries. But the central themes remain the same: belief, fear, discovery and an Earth imperiled by superior beings. Among the heroes are the gruff intelligence chief Thomas Wade, played by the “Thrones” veteran Liam Cunningham, and a team of five young, reluctant, Oxford-trained physicists played by John Bradley — another “Thrones” star — Jovan Adepo, Eiza González, Jess Hong and Alex Sharp. Can they save the world for their descendants?

In an interview in Austin the day of the SXSW premiere, the series creators discussed life after “Thrones,” their personal ties to “3 Body Problem” and the trick to making physics sexy. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

The series is quite different from the books, particularly the settings and characters, both of which are a lot less Chinese. How did this come about?

D.B. WEISS Once the long process of acquiring the rights to the books was finished, we ended up with the rights for an English-language adaptation. So if we had kept all the characters Chinese in China, then we would’ve had a whole show set in China in English. We also thought it was really important to the nature of the story that the group of people working together to solve this problem look like the world. Obviously, there’s going to be an American involved. There’s a Chinese person who was born in China, but also the Chinese diaspora. There are people from Southwest Asia. There are people from Latin South America. It just made fundamental sense to us to broaden the scope of it, because if this happened to the world, it feels like that’s what would happen in the process of dealing with it.

“Game of Thrones” was a cultural behemoth. How did that experience inform how you approached this show?

WEISS I thought we were making a show for a lot of Dungeons and Dragons players. Of which I am one.

DAVID BENIOFF And it wasn’t a behemoth out of the gate. In case anyone from Netflix is listening: It took years for that show to become big, and they had faith in it and stuck with it. But one of the things I think we learned on “Thrones” was to hire really good people who know what they’re doing, and then make sure they understand what you’re looking for.

We’ve been talking a lot about Ramin Djawadi, our composer from “Thrones,” who’s also the composer on this show and hopefully the composer on everything we ever do. Nine times out of 10, when he delivers a cue to us, we’re like, “That’s great, Ramin.” And then the 10th time — sometimes we don’t even know exactly what’s wrong with it, it’s like, “I don’t know.” And he’ll think about it for a second and say, “Let me just take another shot at it. I get it.” And that’s rare, I think, to find someone who’s such a high-level artist who’s also that open and doesn’t get easily offended. We have a number of people like that we worked with on “Thrones” that we brought with us to this show.

How about having such a fervent fan base that wasn’t shy about what they wanted, especially down the stretch of the series?

BENIOFF It was interesting. We live in interesting times.

WEISS You want people to watch what you make, but you don’t get to control people’s reactions to what you make.

BENIOFF Not yet.

WEISS We’re working on a device. I’m sure somebody’s working on it, anyway. But until they make the device, you make the story that you want to make, if you’re lucky enough to have the backing necessary to do that, then let what happens happen.

You don’t see a lot of series that look at Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The opening struggle session sequence is terrifying.

ALEXANDER WOO It’s a part of history that is not written about in fiction very much, let alone filmed. And my family lived through it, as did the family of Derek Tsang, who directed the first two episodes. We give a lot of credit to him for bringing that to life, because he knew that it had not been filmed with this clinical eye maybe ever. He took enormous pains to have every detail of it depicted as real as it could be. I showed it to my mother, and you could see a chill coming over her, and she said, “That’s real. This is what really happened.” And she added, “Why would you show something like that? Why do you make people experience something so terrible?” But that’s how we knew we’d done our job.

“Thrones” rolled out week by week and consequently received intense, sustained attention throughout most of its seasons. What has it been like working in the binge model, with the entire first season of “3 Body Problem” dropping all at once?

WEISS That was one of the biggest changes going in, but we got our heads around it. We loved doing it the other way, but there are costs and benefits to both versions. And this one, in hindsight, might be something that’s better dropped all at once, at least the first season. Netflix has given us what we need to tell a very difficult, challenging, ambitious and not at all obvious story. And the people we have partnered with across all departments have been great. I know this sounds like some kind of a “Manchurian Candidate” thing: “Ted Sarandos [the Netflix chief executive] is the kindest, warmest, most generous, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever met.”

Between your show and “Oppenheimer,” physics has become sexy. This is an unlikely development.

WOO We tried to make physics as sexy as possible. These things always come as a surprise. I don’t think anyone thought chess was sexy until “The Queen’s Gambit.” At the heart of it, it’s about people who are extraordinary at something. These are people with skills that you can’t even fathom, and there’s a kind of sex appeal to that. I think that’s what made “Oppenheimer” so fascinating and what makes the characters in our show so fascinating: They’re capable of thinking and conceiving of these things that we can’t, yet they’re still part of our world, and they still face a lot of very human challenges that the rest of us do.

The series also seems to be wrestling with some ideas about faith and belief, with a faction of earthlings seeing these aliens as godlike saviors.

BENIOFF Two characters ask in the opening 10 minutes or so, “Do you believe in God?” That’s interesting for a series that’s a science fiction show, not really a religious show. Those questions are also asked in the books, and we thought it was fascinating, that link between believing in a superior something out there and believing in the divine.

WEISS I think a lot of people who were writing religious literature or fiction 200 years ago, or in the 1700s, would have been writing science fiction in the 20th century, when the genre came into its own. The series looks at this idea of believing in something that’s so overwhelmingly superior to you, at least on the surface, that you can’t even conceive of what their motivations might be for doing what they’re doing.

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