The Game of Thrones pilot episode was the first episode of the series filmed, but has never been aired.
The pilot was directed by Thomas McCarthy. A heavily re-shot version of the pilot, with new material directed by Tim Van Patten, serves as the actual first episode of Season 1, "Winter is Coming". It is not known if the original pilot will ever be publicly screened or released.
Because several scenes shot by McCarthy remain in the finished episode, and because McCarthy helped cast several of the regular cast, he was given a "Consulting Producer" credit on the first episode.
The pilot was shot between October 24th and November 19th, 2009, on location in Northern Ireland and Morocco.
The pilot episode was the culmination of about four years of work by scriptwriters David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to make an adaptation of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels as a TV series for HBO - including all of the time spent negotiating, pre-planning, designing and constructing sets, props, and costumes, casting, and writing.
Benioff and Weiss never anticipated having to refilm the pilot episode. After they finished, however, they showed a rough cut to their friend and fellow scriptwriter Craig Mazin (known for writing the scripts to The Hangover series's sequels and Identify Thief). They expected Mazin to give them a few written notes on points to refine, but instead the only thing he wrote on the notepad he handed back to them was "MASSIVE PROBLEM" spelled out in capital letters.
Both Mazin and HBO felt that there were massive problems with the pilot episode, which devastated Benioff and Weiss - even years later, after Season 5, they explained that this had a massive emotional impact on them, and they considered it the low point of their careers, only regaining their mood when they decided to take the unorthodox step of outright re-filming almost the entire first episode (about 90% of it by their guess) and learn from their mistakes.
Benioff and Weiss therefore took several of Mazin's criticisms to heart, among which was that the exposition was too clunky. Unlike a novel, TV audiences only have a finite attention span for information during a live episode airing: some scenes had too much exposition that a new audience unfamiliar with the novels couldn't possibly hope to remember, while other scenes didn't have enough exposition. Particularly, a major criticism Benioff and Weiss have frequently noted was that many people at private screenings of the pilot such as Mazin didn't even understand the familial relationships of the major characters - specifically, didn't even realize that Cersei and Jaime Lannister are brother and sister, or that Tyrion is their brother. In reworked scenes for the new first episode, "Winter is Coming", Benioff and Weiss therefore made it a point to emphasize this: in Jaime and Cersei's first scene he goes out of his way to say "as your brother I need to tell you..." etc., and also dubbed in off-screen voiceovers have characters shout "It's Tyrion the imp! The Queen's brother!" etc. Benioff and Weiss also discussed this in the Blu-ray commentary for Season 1, in which they chuckled and acknowledged that this exposition was broad and obvious, but they had learned from painful experience with the pilot episode that it was actually quite necessary.
Differences between pilot and series
The pilot episode has a notably different cast than the rest of the series. For a number of reasons, HBO replaced several actors, major and minor, between the filming of the pilot and the series itself:
- Tamzin Merchant originally played Daenerys Targaryen, but she was replaced by Emilia Clarke.
- Jennifer Ehle originally played Catelyn Stark, but was replaced by Michelle Fairley.
- Ian McNeice originally played Illyrio Mopatis, but was replaced by Roger Allam.
- Richard Ridings originally played Gared, but was replaced by Dermot Keaney.
- Jamie Campbell Bower originally played Ser Waymar Royce, but was replaced by Rob Ostlere.
In addition, the role of Grand Maester Pycelle was originally planned to be in the pilot episode in a new scene and the role was cast with Roy Dotrice. The scene was cut but Dotrice was retained for the series itself. Shortly before filming began Dotrice fell ill and was replaced at short notice by Julian Glover (Dotrice later joined the TV series in Season 2, cast as chief pyromancer Hallyne). It was also announced that Bronson Webb would also be recast in the role of Will due to a scheduling conflict, but the producers were able to work around the issue in order to retain Webb.
Another change was that the pilot featured scenes shot in Scotland, using Doune Castle to stand in for Winterfell. Other footage was also shot in Morocco for the scenes featuring Daenerys. In the series itself Winterfell was created through several locations in Northern Ireland and filming on soundstages, while Malta and Croatia were used for the majority of the scenes involving Daenerys in Essos in the first two seasons. However, the producer later returned to Morocco to film the Slaver's Bay scenes for Season 3.
In the pilot, author George R.R. Martin himself made a cameo appearance. He played a Pentos nobleman in the background who wore a gigantic hat. However, his appearance was ultimately cut out of the finished episode.
In the novels, at one point during the royal visit to Winterfell, the young boys from both groups have a sparring match in the yard, using blunted tourney swords. Even Bran Stark and Tommen Baratheon spar with each other - though because they are both only seven years old, they use only wooden swords and heavy protective gear. Tommen gets repeatedly knocked down by Bran, though Tommen shows great sportsmanship, keeps getting up, and is appreciative that Bran gave him the opportunity to spar with another boy his age (Cersei apparently coddled her sons and prevented them from engaging in martial training, like most other boys their ages). A brief shot seen in one of the behind-the-scenes production featurettes actually does show one of the small boys in protective training gear and armed with a wooden sword, so apparently such a scene was originally filmed, but in later drafts was cut for time.
Also, the German folk band Corvus Corax appeared as minstrels at the Winterfell feast. However, their scenes were completely removed in the finished episode.
A minor change was that in the pilot, Alfie Allen retained his natural blond hair in the role of Theon Greyjoy, but for the series itself he adopted a dark wig more in keeping with his character's appearance in the novels.
In an interview at the Season 7 premiere in July 2017, George R.R. Martin said that in the original pilot, the Daenerys/Drogo wedding night scene (with Daenerys played by Tamzin Merchant) was filmed exactly as it was written in the book, with Daenerys ultimately saying "Yes!", etc. - the aired final version, with Daenerys played by Emilia Clarke, changed this so she never says "Yes" but freezes in terror and cries, which Benioff and Weiss explicitly describe as "rape" in their Blu-ray commentary. Speculation at the time is that this change was made to bring it closer to modern sensibilities - in the books Daenerys is basically an unwilling teenaged bride and her wedding night could in a sense be seen as statutory rape, so it is possible the showrunners simply thought it was less controversial to honestly present it as "rape" instead of showing her ultimately enjoying it. The TV show invented several rape scenes for characters who don't have rape scenes in later seasons, however, so it is now uncertain exactly why they changed the Daenerys/Drogo wedding night between the pilot and final versions. When Martin himself was asked in this interview why the change was made, he only said, "You'd have to talk to David and Dan about that".
Material retained in the first episode
Several scenes shot by McCarthy were retained in the finished episode. These scenes are shot on film rather than the digital recordings made for the rest of the series, making them appear slightly different (most notable in the scene in Winterfell's crypts). These are known to be:
- A few brief shots during the Prologue scene, when the Night's Watch rangers are fleeing from the White Walkers through the forest, were retained for the pilot.
- Inside Winterfell's crypts where Robert Baratheon asks Eddard Stark to become the Hand of the King.
- The scene at the Winterfell feast where Ned and his brother Benjen Stark discuss the Night's Watch ranger that Ned executed.
- Sansa's scene during the feast at Winterfell when Catelyn introduces her to Queen Cersei. Because Catelyn was recast between the pilot and the finished episode, Catelyn's appearance had to be re-filmed with new actress Michelle Fairley. However, because one camera angle is pointed at Catelyn and Cersei, and the opposite camera angle is pointed at Sansa, the original footage of Sophie Turner in this scene from the pilot was simply intercut with the new footage of Michelle Fairley as Catelyn. Notice that in the finished episode, in this scene Sansa is never in the camera frame with Catelyn and Cersei at the same time (only a stand-in wearing her dress, of which the sleeve is visible).
- The scene in Winterfell's courtyard where Tyrion Lannister and Sandor Clegane exchange a few words before Robert and Eddard ride out to hunt. A blond-haired Tyrion can briefly be seen. In the regular series this was changed to a more dirty blond (in real life, Peter Dinklage has dark brown hair, thus the pure golden blond in his original look didn't match the actor very well). More notably, Theon Greyjoy is shown in this scene with blond hair rather than the brown hair he sports for the series proper. Also, the makeup design for Sandor Clegane's facial burns is somewhat different in this scene than what we see in subsequent episodes.