Welcome to It’s a hit! In this series, IndieWire talks to the creators and showrunners behind some of our favorite TV shows about the moment they realized their show was getting big.
“House of the Dragon” it’s now solidified as a record-breaking HBO hit, but there was a time when it wasn’t a given. In 2015, when “Game of Thrones” was still going strong, HBO knew that a sequel to the franchise needed to be prepared. Here’s how Ryan Condal went from the creator of a failed Pedro Pascal pilot to becoming the showrunner of ‘House of the Dragon’ and creating a series filled with gory action spectacle, sexy royal intrigue, and a new suite of endearing characters.
In 2013, when “Game of Thrones” was in two seasons, Ryan Condal had nothing to do with it. He was on location in Santa Fe with Pascal in NBC’s aspiring pilot “The Sixth Gun,” based on his own comic book. (It ended up being a TV movie instead.) Condal asked his WME agents to see if local writer George RR Martin would meet him for dinner. He was an unabashed fan of Martin.
“It was very early,” Condal said over Zoom from his home of three years in London, where production on “House of the Dragon” season two was about to begin. “He was certainly a well-known person at that point in the science fiction and fantasy book community, but not the icon that he is today.”
A friendship struck up and the writers kept in touch. When “Game of Thrones” became a ratings juggernaut, Condal spearheaded his American sci-fi series “Colony” (USA) for three seasons. In 2016, it was Martin who asked Condal to pitch a ‘Game of Thrones’ spin-off to HBO.
Condal’s first instinct was to adapt Martin’s “Dunk and Egg” – the colloquial term for three prequel novellas to “A Song of Ice and Fire” which are also known as “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”. They offer an offbeat, lighter take on the world of “Game of Thrones,” but it didn’t garner interest at the time.
“I thought it would fly because it was such a great counterpoint to ‘Game of Thrones,’” said Condal. “It was just like ‘The Mandalorian’ for the big ‘Star Wars’ movies. This was a completely different flavour. HBO wanted something big and beefy in the fight for the throne. They wanted something more like ‘House of the Dragon’”.
In 2018, when “Colony” was about to end, Martin called again. “He wasn’t happy with how development was going,” Condal said. “They were trying to figure everything out. But there was one thing in particular that George really wanted to do, which was to tell the story of “Dance with Dragons”, the great Targaryen civil war, the bloodiest civil war ever fought, as the Targaryen family is fighting family for the war for the throne. It’s where dragons fight and kill each other. And they end up dying as a result later. It’s all awful.
It was then that Martin told Condal that he had written a “Fire and Blood” story about the first half of the 300-year Targaryen dynasty. “That was the spinoff that was the most important to him and he wasn’t happy with how development had gone,” Condal said. “HBO was going to shelve it and he didn’t want them to. He wanted me to try one more time.
Condal’s version of “Fire and Blood” was a violent saga of royal succession; which, HBO may fall behind. A week later, he was hired to write the pilot.
The question was where to start. After much debate, they decided to start with younger actors as teenage best friends Alicent (Emily Carey) and Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock). In episode 6, you age them 10 years. Condal and HBO took a gamble that audiences would agree with them and after nearly a year of writing, HBO “got really interested,” Condal said. When production began, HBO had ordered a full season.
Condal pulled no punches in episode 1, introducing King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) who is deprived when his beloved wife Emma dies during a horrific C-section that causes blood to bleed that also costs their baby’s life. The grieving Viserys must choose an heir, or his brother Daemon (Matt Smith), an unpopular, volatile and ruthless warrior, will take the throne. Viserys names his only surviving child, teenage daughter Rhaenyra, as his successor.
“It definitely felt like this was the right place to start the series and then take our time for 10 episodes and set all these characters up as chess pieces on the chessboard,” Condal said. “The expectation going into the show is that it’s going to offer a great escapist fantasy. George’s books take you with you into this gripping romantic story, but it turns all the Arthurian or “Lord of the Rings” tropes upside down. The rule of thumb is, if we’re going to throw these people into war and start killing them, we better worry about them first.”
Thus the machinations of the plot unfold, within the ruthless universe characteristic of “Game of Thrones”, from the two rival queens (Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy) to the estranged brothers, Viserys and Daemon, who “breaks Viserys heart Condal said. “It’s a tragic love story between two people who truly love each other and then can’t help but hurt each other. Daemon is heroic at times. He is the vilest of villains and loves his family. He sometimes even tries to destroy them. He’s a devoted husband, except when he’s not.
Because Martin sees the story he’s created as a nonfiction narrative, he “doesn’t have access to the private chats in the kings and queens’ apartments, where a lot of these storylines are held,” Condal said. “We had to invent a lot of that stuff. The delicate balance in making the adaptation is satisfying George and satisfying the lyrics of “Fire and Blood.” And that will hopefully satisfy the fans, but also offer something that will work for this huge worldwide audience that probably won’t read, as George calls it, “a fake history book.” It’s this constant tightrope walking.
One advantage of a medieval saga is how mythic and violent it can be. “George based this period heavily on The Anarchy, which was a very, very bloody period in medieval English history. At one point I picked up a great book on the period called ‘The White Ship’, about this shipwreck that happens off the coast of England and kills the heir to the throne and hundreds of others as well, this terrible, terrible event which upsets the whole order of things. The horrific nature of the violence perpetuated by each other on this extended family, you gasp in places, you can’t believe these things actually happened and the cruelty involved.
“As brutal as ‘Game of Thrones’ often is, it’s definitely told and written through a more modern emotional lens, in terms of how parents look at their own children and each other’s children,” said Condal. “But with the period pieces, you can play around with these bigger elemental themes.”
The challenge was to take the audience on a dense and complicated journey without leaving them behind. “He’s definitely walking a line,” Condal said. “If it’s layered and deep and complex, people will extract things from it. The approach we have always taken with this show is to provide as much as possible without getting lost in its explanation and exposition.
Condal said he wasn’t concerned about how the series would be received even as its premiere date approached. “I knew the actors were great,” Condal said. “I knew the drama was working. And it looked gorgeous. It seemed to me that it was what audiences had come to expect and hope for – a high quality, complex and well acted successor to ‘Game of Thrones’. I wasn’t buying an island in French Polynesia, but I was confident we had something pretty good.”
An HBO screening for critics and tastemakers showed “that there was a buzz,” Condal said. “But we didn’t know that either. It had been three years since the end of the original series. You are following the Beatles. It’s a brand new cast. It’s not this thing of good versus evil and the coming of the long winter and White Walkers and shapeshifters and direwolves. We had dragons.
But when HBO told him the pilot broke day one records, he had no idea what that meant. “HBO called and said 10 million people watched live last night, which seemed like a lot to me. I knew the audience for the last season of “Game of Thrones” was around 40 million people, but that was the total audience that has built up over time. They tell me, ‘No, it’s very good, our biggest premiere ever’.
He had his work done, along with co-showrunner, “Game of Thrones” director Miguel Sapochnik, who spearheaded the hiring of department heads and cast and set the show’s look, mood and tone. . Said Condal: “Those partnerships when they work are great because they’re two people with a similar goal, which is to make a great TV show, but coming from different ends, the writer and then the visual artist.”
But when the show aired, Sapochnik was ready to move on. “It was something that he had in mind throughout the entire production,” Condal said. “He had done ‘Game of Thrones’ before and felt this was his chance for him to do something as co-showrunner. I knew it was something he struggled with or argued with the whole time. So it wasn’t a big surprise when he decided to step aside.
Next: For eight episodes of Season 2, solo showrunner Condal is collaborating with “Game of Thrones” veteran Alan Taylor and other directors. “This second season is about the kids that we only saw for a couple of episodes at the end of the series who have now grown into young adults who have dragons, who are old enough to ride and fight, who have their own opinions and a desire to go out and stand up for the family’s claim,” Condal said.
How many more seasons? “There are more than two,” said Condal. “It’s part of the discussion we’re having. Where do you appropriately finish the series in a way that doesn’t feel cut out, but also doesn’t feel dragged out?
And now he’s helping HBO develop another Martin spinoff, “Dunk and Egg,” as an executive producer — the one he wanted to write in the first place.