Inside ‘House of the Dragon’: The Epic Mission to Make the Next ‘Game of Thrones’
A behind-the-scenes chronicle of HBO’s years-long campaign to franchise its biggest hit of all time, featuring warring pitches, an abandoned pilot, tackled controversies and the George R.R. Martin superfan who earned the keys to the kingdom.
War is certain — or so Daemon Targaryen hopes.
The cunningly arrogant prince leads a strategy meeting inside the torchlit gloom of Dragonstone castle.
“I want patrols along the island’s perimeter,” declares the glowering Daemon, clad in all black with long, silver-blond hair. “Conscript the dragon riders, they’re capable fighters … we have Syrax, Caraxes and Tyraxes and …”
Smith, pauses. What’s the name of the fourth dragon again?
“Ah, for fuck’s sake!” Smith yells. “No fucking fuck! I want … ah fuck it!”
Actor Emma D’Arcy, who portrays the free-spirited princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, sympathizes: “All the dragons have weird names with Xes in them!”
“I literally got to the point where I thought I was naming Santa’s reindeer,” Smith admits.
House of the Dragon’s character names — and its dragons most definitely count as characters — have been a source of discussion. HBO’s highly anticipated Game of Thrones prequel series is based on George R.R. Martin’s 700-page book Fire & Blood, which chronicles the history of House Targaryen and its dragon-riding royal family. The author aims for authenticity, and real-life dynasties tend to have a lot of repetitive names and suffixes (England had 11 kings named Edward, after all). So early in the writing process, Dragon showrunner Miguel Sapochnik pointed out to his fellow showrunner Ryan Condal they were going to have, for instance, a Princess Rhaenyra and a Princess Rhaenys unless they started making tweaks to Martin’s mythology.
“You know we have to change some names,” Sapochnik told Condal.
And Condal replied: “We can’t.”
Which firmly established that the production would take a staunchly loyalist approach to adapting Martin’s complex world.
“I’ve been a fan of these books for 20 years,” Condal explains. “I was a fan of Game of Thrones — I watched the pilot the night it aired on HBO and every episode after. You can’t follow Thrones, it’s The Beatles. I’m setting out as a fan to make the thing I want to see, and I’m happy with what we’ve achieved. The Targaryens are like the Jedi in Star Wars, where you heard about this time when they were plentiful and powerful and always wanted to see that. And now you get to.”
But making the first follow-up to what was arguably the biggest hit of the 21st century was an epic struggle nearly as high-stakes and dramatic as the show itself. Just figuring out which story to tell from Martin’s numerous books about Westeros and Essos took years of painstaking effort and a slew of talented writers and executives. Hundreds of millions were spent and a few heads ended up on spikes.
And it all started the moment Game of Thrones began to end.
The War of the Five Pitches
July 2016: HBO had just announced Game of Thrones would conclude with an eighth and final season — agreeing to showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss’ creative plan. The network’s strategy discussion, led by the company’s chief content officer, Casey Bloys, immediately pivoted to which project based on Martin’s work they could make next.
The goal was obvious. The mood, anxious.
HBO could attempt to build a Thrones franchise like Disney had done with Marvel and Star Wars. Except HBO had never made a single spinoff series in its then four-decade history — let alone a sprawling creative universe — and some in the company worried Thrones might be a one-off sensation. The series launched as an underdog in 2011 and had a meteoric rise to become a ratings and pop culture phenomenon, as well as the most Emmy-winning drama of all time. To follow Thrones with failure would be highly embarrassing and expensive. Yet the rewards … well, the rewards were potentially staggering: a content stream of titles that could span decades and generate billions in revenue. It’s like that hypothetical investing question: Would you rather have a guaranteed $1 million or flip a coin for $1 billion? HBO decided to start flipping coins.
“They were understandably very nervous about failing and not living up to the original series,” one insider recalls of the early development discussions. “I don’t think there was much confidence internally [that Thrones was a franchise] because the show was so big and so seminal.” HBO’s executive vp of drama Francesca Orsi remembers, “We saw it as an opportunity to keep telling great stories, but not necessarily to try and replace Game of Thrones as the most epic show in history.”
The Santa Fe-based Martin flew to Los Angeles to meet with HBO executives. He initially pitched two ideas. The first was a series based on his relatively lighthearted Dunk and Egg novellas, which follow a knight who wanders Westeros with a young squire. The second was called The Dance of the Dragons, which chronicled the storied civil war among Daenerys Targaryen’s ancestors, an affair that tore Westeros apart 180 years before the events in Thrones. “Dance had all the intrigue, competition for the Iron Throne, murders, duels, big battles, 20 dragons — all of that stuff,” Martin says.
HBO passed on Dunk and Egg (initially, at least). Executives liked Dance, yet didn’t want to let the fate and fortune of a potential franchise ride on a single idea. “I wanted to give ourselves every chance of success,” Bloys says. “You don’t want to say, ‘We’re going to replace the biggest show of all time and it’s all going to rest on one script.’”
The network researched Martin’s collective works and compiled about 15 possible prequel concepts. Since Thrones showrunners Benioff and Weiss had declined to be involved with any spinoffs, HBO met with a diverse array of writers. “We tried everything,” Bloys says. “There were no ideas too weird.”
Well, maybe one: A series concept that sounds like a superhero team-up about the fabled Seven Gods of Westeros as if they were actual people. The premise followed a Father, Smith, Warrior, etc. as they had adventures and came to be worshipped as gods. “That didn’t get very far,” an insider says dryly.
Five concepts were eventually selected and put into development. All were prequels set before the events in Thrones. This unprecedented bake-off approach would become cheekily known online as The War of the Five Pitches.
One effort was a script about the destruction of the ancient Targaryen empire of Valyria by Max Borenstein (Kong: Skull Island), another was a take on the Dornish warrior queen Nymeria by Oscar winner Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) and yet another — like much in this story, never before reported — was about Aegon’s conquest of Westeros and penned by Rand Ravich and Far Shariat (The Astronaut’s Wife). That script portrayed the William the Conqueror-inspired figure as a drunken lout.
For Dance, HBO first approached writer Carly Wray, who had experience scripting dark fantasy dramas like Westworld and Watchmen. But Wray and Martin couldn’t agree when the story should begin amid the long and tangled timeline of Targaryen history. “Wars often begin in times of peace,” reads Martin’s book, and it was important to the author to show that transition. But such a move would mean a series that spanned generations, and how would that work, exactly?
Next came Bryan Cogman, a co-executive producer on Thrones who penned several acclaimed episodes of the original series and understood the franchise as well as anybody. Insiders say his take on Dance was good, yet HBO ultimately passed.
“At first HBO was like, ‘How can we subvert [Thrones]?’” Sapochnik recalls. “The Dance of Dragons felt like an obvious straight-down-the-line prequel. So I think they were less hot on it because it was like, “Well, who wants to see more Game of Thrones?’ And then the irony, of course, is: lots of people.”
Agrees Condal, “The desire at HBO was to not just offer up a sequel that’s about the war for the throne. They wanted to do something so totally different that it would blow everybody’s minds. I think that’s why they went with The Long Night instead.”
The Show That Never Was
In 2018, one year before Thrones was set to air its series finale, HBO announced a pilot order for a potential successor series: a show with the working title of Bloodmoon, taking place years before the events in Thrones, during the fabled Age of Heroes and the wintry apocalypse known as The Long Night. Its showrunner, Jane Goldman, had considerable success making acclaimed R-rated genre hits, with credits like Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
According to Orsi, Bloodmoon won the bake-off on merit. “Bloodmoon really stood out as different, with unique world-building,” Orsi says. “Tonally it felt very adult, sophisticated and intelligent, and there was a thematic conversation at the center of it about disenfranchisement in the face of colonialism and religious extremism.”
Except Martin had published only about eight lines of text about the time period of the show, leaving Goldman little to build from. “Bloodmoon was a very difficult assignment,” Martin says. “We’re dealing with a much more primitive people. There were no dragons yet. A lot of the pilot revolved around a wedding of a Southern house to a Northern house and it got into the whole history of the White Walkers.”
Martin made his worries clear to HBO and one insider admits, “Having a show that’s pure invention and had George scratching his head at various moments was troubling at times.”
A cast headed by Naomi Watts was assembled. Massive new sets were built. A Bloodmoon pilot was shot for a whopping $30 million to $35 million.
And the result was locked away in a dungeon so deep that even Martin has never been allowed to see it.
“It required a lot more invention; it was higher risk, higher reward,” Bloys says. “There wasn’t anything glaringly wrong with it. Development and pilots are hard.”
Agrees Robert Greenblatt, who was then chairman of HBO’s parent company WarnerMedia: “It wasn’t unwatchable or horrible or anything. It was very well produced and looked extraordinary. But it didn’t take me to the same place as the original series. It didn’t have that depth and richness that the original series’ pilot did.”
For Goldman, sources say HBO’s verdict came as a “total shock.” She was appearing confident of a series order, had assembled a writers room to break the first season and was in the middle of making changes to the pilot based on network notes when she learned of Bloodmoon’s fate. Goldman has never spoken publicly HBO’s decision, but she quickly rebounded to write Disney’s upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid.
In a bit of PR savvy, HBO’s admission that Bloodmoon was not moving forward was coupled with a far more positive announcement: a series order for an entirely different Thrones prequel.
The Rise of the Superfan
Ryan Condal admits he kinda-sorta “stalked” George R.R. Martin.
In 2013, the screenwriter was shooting an NBC pilot in Santa Fe. A self-described superfan of Martin’s books, he reached out to the author and asked if he could buy him dinner. Martin agreed, and the two struck up a friendship.
Five years later, Martin sent Condal a life-changing message. “He just said: ‘Hey, I’m in town for the Emmys, let’s grab a beer, I have a job for you — if you want,’” Condal recalls. “And I lost my mind.”
The meeting was about The Dance of the Dragons. Martin was still determined to get his Targaryen epic made. “George was frustrated because this was the story he really wanted to tell,” Condal recalls.
“I wasn’t ready to give up on it,” Martin says. “And I liked Ryan’s writing and he really knew my world well — which was a big thing.”
The next day, Condal received a call from his agents. “They said, ‘Did you have a meeting with George R.R. Martin yesterday?’” Condal says. “‘Because HBO just called based on that and made an offer.’”
The swiftness of HBO getting on board with Martin’s desire to hire Condal was the beginning of a pivot in the author’s relationship with the network. During the latter seasons of Thrones and the early years of HBO hunting for a successor series, Martin sometimes felt out of the loop. But after the original show’s season eight backlash, when many fans protested that the storylines felt rushed to conclusion (Martin had long advocated making Thrones 10 seasons long) and around the time HBO produced and rejected Bloodmoon, all agree Martin’s influence rose within the company. Put simply, HBO thought, “Hey, maybe we ought to listen more to that guy who created all this.”
In 2021, the company signed Martin to a massive five-year deal worth in the mid-eight figures. Every subsequent project HBO has put into development based on his work has received his approval and the kind of close involvement he hasn’t had since the early days of Game of Thrones.
Martin selecting Condal ended up further demonstrating the author’s acumen: Condal’s take on the Targaryen war idea, now given the punchy title House of the Dragon, was considered the strongest Thrones prequel script yet, besting efforts by more experienced writers.
The second critical piece of the creative team was Sapochnik. The Emmy-winning director helmed some of the most acclaimed — and difficult — episodes of Thrones (such as “Hardhome,” “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter”). Sapochnik’s talent was almost legendary on the Thrones set, with the director having endured 11 weeks of consecutive night shoots during a freezing Northern Ireland winter while retaining a preternaturally sharp command of the cast and crew.
Sapochnik was, to put it mildly, reluctant to get pulled back into the world of Westeros. “Miguel said, ‘I’m never doing Thrones again,’” Condal recalls.
Once again, a fortuitous relationship played a key role. Sapochnik was already friends with Condal and had agreed to help develop Dragon, giving guidance as somebody who knew the original show’s “secret sauce.” Along the way, Sapochnik gradually became entwined with the project.
Sapochnik met with Bloys, and the executive had a key question: “What would you do directorially?”
Sapochnik recalls replying: “‘If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.’ And Casey said, ‘Good.’ I think season eight had been divisive, Bloodmoon hadn’t worked out for them, and they wanted to retain their fans. They wanted to come back to what they knew.”
With Sapochnik on board, Condal would focus on the scripts and Sapochnik on directing the pilot and episodes six and seven. Both worked on the show’s broad story and editing. The idea was to emulate Benioff and Weiss’ tight partnership that had been so effective managing the day-to-day decision-tornados of an immense production.
“The first year of work, we refused to take separate meetings,” Sapochnik says. “It was a good way for us to get to know each other. So when we started to take meetings separately, we were able to take a bit of each other into them, as we were more in each other’s head.”
When HBO ordered House of the Dragon in October 2019, Benioff and Weiss — by then at Netflix with a massive overall deal — emailed Condal and Sapochnik congratulations and best wishes, but otherwise stuck to their decision to move on.
Instead of shooting a pilot for Dragon, HBO opted to go straight to series. It was a daring move, considering that the two previous attempts to film a debut episode of a series based on Martin’s work had failed. (The original unaired pilot for Thrones required a nearly top-to-bottom reshoot and is locked in that HBO dungeon next to Bloodmoon.)
Orsi says it was the combination of Condal’s writing, Sapochnik’s experience and Martin’s enthusiastic support that boosted HBO’s confidence in the project. Plus, the clock was ticking — the company was preparing to launch its do-or-die streaming service HBO Max and could really use some Thrones magic.
“I put a lot of pressure on everybody for this to happen as soon as humanly possible,” says Greenblatt, who emphasizes that Bloys made the decision to greenlight and is the network’s “expert” on the franchise. “We all knew Disney+ launched with The Mandalorian. We didn’t have any big piece of IP that would be ready, but at least we’d have Dragon coming down the pipe and that would be important to the world at large. And I couldn’t think of a better piece of IP almost anywhere that deserved to be developed and multiplied.”
Now Condal and Sapochnik just had to make a series out of Dragon that could actually fly — and somehow get everything right on the first try.
Continue reading with Inside House of the Dragon Part 2: “It’s a Powerful, Dark, Shakespearean Tragedy.” The cast opens up about their characters, the showrunners solve a key problem and explain how the new series tackles sensitive parts of Thrones‘ legacy, and Martin looks ahead to the franchise’s future.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.