How HBO cleaned up the original, messy Game of Thrones pilot

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The series premiere of Game of Thrones isn’t the one that HBO initially made. That one had to be completely retooled before it made it to air.

Before Game of Thrones achieved monstrous success in its later seasons, it started off as just another gamble for HBO. With an unprecedented budget of $10 million, an expansive pool of source material and two inexperienced showrunners that somehow won the faith of executives, the original pilot episode of Game of Thrones — featuring different actors playing Daenerys Targaryen and Catelyn Stark — is remembered as an infamous disaster. Although this version of the pilot will likely never see the light of day, we know who HBO brought in to help stabilize the series before it even began.

This information comes from an excerpt from the book It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO published by Vulture. After considering cancellation, former head of HBO Richard Plepler decided to give Game of Thrones a second chance. But changes would have to be made. Plepler started by calling an experienced HBO director named Tim Van Patten, who had directed 20 episodes of The Sopranos and worked on other hit shows like The Wire, Rome and Deadwood. After being shown the pilot, Van Patten was hesitant to come aboard and did not think the story was easy enough to follow for audiences.

After some convincing, Van Patten agreed to reshoot the pilot with some cast changes, removal of flashback scenes, and a general focus on simplicity. Carolyn Strauss, an executive producer on Game of Thrones, stressed the experience Van Patten brought to the table:

Shooting a pilot is really hard, and getting into a series is really hard. If you haven’t done it before, it can overwhelm. Timmy had so much series experience, and so much series experience at HBO, they had a lot of trust and faith in him… What I think works well in television is instinct and taste that’s formed by experience.

While we will probably never be able to directly compare the two versions of the pilot, Van Patten’s version was likely immensely better.

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