Game of Thrones ended, and David Benioff and Dan Weiss had to figure out what to do next.
The writer-producers had made the biggest TV hit of the 21st century, and the most Emmy-winning drama of all time — and it was their very first show. HBO’s Thrones had a spectacular eight-season run, a global phenomenon that was reputationally marred by a 2019 final season that fans loudly considered disappointing. In the online space, at least, Benioff and Weiss’ obsessive, day-and-night efforts to pull off a production that was unprecedented in its difficulty were shrugged aside. Psychologists call this the “peak-end rule” — how people feel about the end of something tends to color how they feel about all of it. And many fans felt raw about the end of Thrones.
After the finale, Benioff and Weiss, who never participated in social media and only reluctantly gave interviews, even when Thrones’ was at its pinnacle, did what they naturally do: They went almost entirely media silent. They didn’t talk about Thrones. They didn’t talk about their joint attempts at other projects (such as a Star Wars film). They didn’t talk about their $200 million Netflix overall deal, and they didn’t talk about their upcoming sci-fi series, 3 Body Problem — which is arguably an even bigger and wilder gamble than Thrones ever was.
Now they’re ready to talk — about all of it.
1. “WE WERE ACTUALLY SCARED”
3 Body Problem is an adaptation of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past book trilogy, which debuted in China in 2008 to enormous popularity and acclaim. Six years later, when the saga was translated and released in the United States, The Three-Body Problem became the first Asian title to win the Hugo Award for best novel. Fans range from Mark Zuckerberg to Barack Obama to Thrones author George R.R. Martin. A short description goes like this: Remembrance of Earth’s Past chronicles humanity’s efforts to survive an impending invasion from an alien race that’s fleeing a dying planet. The story opens in 1967 during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and stretches to, well … to a very, very long time from now.
It’s a saga Netflix’s head of scripted, Peter Friedlander, had been wanting to make for years when he convinced Benioff and Weiss to take a look at the material. The duo read the books while returning from a Thrones promotional trip to Tokyo.
“We finished within 10 minutes of each other and Dan came over to my seat and said, ‘What do you think?’ ” Benioff recalls. “I said, ‘Well, that ending is amazing.’ And Dan says, ‘We’ve got to do this, right?’ ”
Says Weiss: “What excited us about Thrones when we read George’s books was that this was something we had never seen onscreen before. In a lot of ways, this couldn’t be more different from Game of Thrones, but it had that in common.”
Benioff concurs. “It was the first thing we’d come across since Thrones where we were actually scared. We knew this is going to be hard.”
In 3 Body Problem — or 3BP, bowing March 21 on Netflix — the aliens are not traveling at Star Trek-ian warp speed. It’s going to take them 400 years to reach Earth, which gives humanity quite a bit of time to strategize for their arrival — and to fight amongst themselves about what the invasion means and who might benefit. Much of the show’s first season follows a fractious group of physicists who come together under the leadership of a shadowy British intelligence chief as they spar against a murderous cult that wants to help the aliens colonize Earth. The spy chief is played by Liam Cunningham (who was Ser Davos Seaworth on Thrones) and the cult leader is played by Jonathan Pryce (who was the High Sparrow on Thrones).
“It’s much less about fighting tentacle monsters and much more about how does humanity respond to this great existential threat?” Benioff says. “And, sadly for us, in the last few years we’ve seen that mankind doesn’t respond particularly well to existential threats. It’s hard to be idealistic and think we’d all come together if we had to. The aliens appeal to certain people who believe they’re superior to us — and, technologically, they are.”
The drama has a sprawling ensemble cast, locations around the globe, sequences set in a mind-bending virtual reality world and enough physics to fill a season of Cosmos. “There’s so many locations and none of them stick around — they’re so many one-offs,” says executive producer Bernadette Caulfield. “There’s not one regular ‘Throne room’ in the whole show.” During the cast’s first table read, actress Jess Hong (Inked), who plays physicist Jin Cheng, says, “Everyone was going up to [the showrunners] asking, ‘So what genre is this?’ And they were like, ‘I dunno.’ There are so many things happening that the blurbs you hear about the show are only the tip of the iceberg.”
Benioff and Weiss feel the heavy weight of expectation surrounding the project. And given the industry’s recent extensive belt-tightening, the bar for earning a second season for a lavishly produced sci-fi series is likely higher than it was a few years back. “It would be hard for us to feel more pressure than we already do,” Weiss says.
Because 3 Body Problem isn’t just about launching a new show, of course. It may be odd that two guys coming off a blockbuster hit with so many Emmys would need to prove themselves, but they do, and they know it.
“It’s great we won a bunch of awards, but that was a while ago,” Benioff says. “You have to keep proving yourself.”
To help adapt the books — and to properly incorporate the novel’s Chinese pedigree — the duo brought aboard a third showrunner, Alexander Woo, who was also a writer-producer on a hit HBO genre drama adapted from a series of books (True Blood). “One thing that really attracted me as someone who’s Chinese American, as opposed to Chinese from China, is that I’m the child of immigrants, and this is kind of an immigrant story,” Woo says. “The aliens are looking for a safer place to live, and the people who live there don’t want them.”
Yet before signing on, Woo had a chat with Thrones co-executive producer Bryan Cogman and asked him what it’s really like to work with Benioff and Weiss. “Bryan said, ‘You won’t find a single person who worked on Game of Thrones with a single bad thing to say about either of them. They’re genuinely great, decent people,’ ” Woo recalls.
It’s a quote that’s likely to rile those who snark about Benioff and Weiss on Twitter and Reddit, and, to be fair, not all the online acrimony is about their creative decisions. Benioff and Weiss can sometimes come across as dismissive of fan feelings. Even if they privately agree with a Thrones criticism, they feel it wouldn’t benefit themselves, HBO or the thousands of others who worked on the show to say so.
“You always hope everyone’s going to love anything you do and it would’ve been great if 100 percent of people loved it, but they didn’t,” Benioff says of season eight. “You can get so bogged down in public opinion that you spend your whole life googling things and trying to find people who felt one way or the other way.”
Adds Weiss, “Even super positive feedback makes you feel weird and teeth-grindy and on edge. There’s a drug quality to the feedback, and as soon as we went cold turkey — the last time I googled myself was in 2013 — the ambient stress level in our lives dropped by about 50 percent overnight.”
The duo have run into fans in real life since Thrones ended. These encounters, they say, have gone fine. “There’s an underlying decency when people acknowledge you as a person and vice versa,” Weiss says. “There’s something that happens in the transition from human interaction to online that pushes things in a specifically aggro direction.”
When Benioff and Weiss wrapped Thrones, many fans assumed they deliberately rushed the show to an early conclusion. They had actually said since season two that they planned on making roughly seven seasons (whether this was ultimately the best strategy or not). Another common assumption is that they ditched Thrones to make more money elsewhere. One of their little-noticed decisions goes against that idea: As the creators of Game of Thrones, Benioff and Weiss were contractually guaranteed producer credits on all future Thrones spinoffs — a lifetime of franchise mailbox money for doing nothing on House of the Dragon, for starters. And they turned it down. Nobody does this.
“HBO was kind of confused,” Benioff says. “I remember their lawyer saying, ‘But it’s just money, we’re just going to pay you.’ ”
Adds Weiss, “I don’t think there is such a thing as free money. For us, if our name is on it, especially that, while being completely detached and uninvolved, it felt like the strain that would come with that hands-off approach — with its success or failure or anything in between — was not worth it.”
No, they haven’t watched Dragon. Weiss recently rewatched Thrones with his family but resists efforts to get him to reflect on the result. Benioff hasn’t watched a Thrones episode since the finale. (He’s currently enthused about Max’s animated series Scavengers Reign.)