Interview: David Petrarca (Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood)

DavidPetrarca1 By Simon Miraudo
February 21, 2013

“I look at the networks as dinosaurs standing in the tar pits; they’re just waiting to fall over.” So says David Petrarca, one of the television industry’s go-to directors. Over the past decade, he’s had a front-row seat to the medium’s extraordinary evolution. Having helmed episodes of hit HBO series Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Big Love, and True Blood, as well as more mainstream fare such as Dawson’s Creek and Smash, he is acutely aware of how the ascent of “challenging” cable television and “binge watching” on DVD is affecting the old model of TV consumption. (Netflix recently debuted all thirteen episodes of new show House of Cards at once; another move that seeks to further chip away at the networks’ domination.) Petrarca has arrived on our shores to discuss the changing face of television at the Perth International Arts Festival. Ahead of his appearance at the fest’s Out of the Box symposium, we discussed his thoughts on the televisual revolution, his experiences on the set of Game of Thrones, and why Paris Hilton would be cast in The Godfather if it was made today.


SM: With shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, as well as other cable programs like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, TV has practically overtaken cinema when it comes to ‘must see’ entertainment. You’ve been working in the industry for a number of years. Has the shift been a subtle one for you, or do you remember a sort of galvanising moment when it all changed?

DP: I think you go back to something like The Wire or The Sopranos as the two moments where it was like, “Hey, this idea is actually kind of a good one.” Before then, you had three or four major broadcast networks, which are, you know, commercials breaking up the story, that kind of stuff. When HBO decided to do original programming, I don’t think anyone knew what that meant. They obviously did, because they succeeded wildly with it. The growth of cable – the idea of telling a story in a full hour without commercial breaks – is one reason. But also because the film business kind of changed as it became global. It’s funny, because television now has become global, but when film became global, the projects that studios wanted to make had to speak to so many cultures; had to cross so many boundaries. When you do that, inherently, your storytelling becomes less and less subtle – it becomes good guys versus bad guys – and it has to translate and play in New York and Tokyo. When you do that, you’re limiting what they’re interested in. They also became these mega corporations where they have to feed a huge beast. So, a movie has to be huge, and then it has to open huge. You’re branding things at such a huge level, the subtleties of storytelling are kind of the victim in that. Television, meanwhile, saw the gap that was happening between where movies used to be and what they had become, and the hunger for great storytelling. The hunger for deeper character development and ongoing serialised drama has always been there. It’s just where it shifts; in what area it comes out in. I think premium cable in particular saw that, and it just took off from there.

SM: The Netflix model is an interesting one. They released House of Cards recently as a 13 episode block for people to binge on, and they’ve got Arrested Development coming up. Is that something you’re embracing? Do you like the idea of that, or do you still have a fondness for how it used to be?

DP: I just sold a half-hour comedy to Amazon, which is now doing the same thing. With Amazon, if that show goes, it’ll be the same thing where the whole first season will be made and then released all at once. To me, that subtlety of whether it’s pared out every week and then at the end you can decide to wait and watch the whole thing, or to release them all at once, isn’t really an artistic issue.

SM: Sure. It could kill the idea of a cliff-hanger, potentially, but not necessarily.

DP: It’s a distribution idea. Ultimately, that’s where everything ends up, right? A lot of people, it’s appointment television. You don’t watch it when it’s broadcast; you watch it when it’s convenient to you. The similar way you look at iTunes and music, you decide what you want to listen to, when you want to listen to it, and what you want to purchase for your time. The cable model is simply: instead of having networks, every human being is your own network. You are your own network programmer. You’re deciding, “I’m going to watch this when I want to watch it.” That’s an amazing development, which leads to niche programming. So, on the cable networks, you don’t have to speak to 15 million people anymore, as the networks did. I can speak to a million people, and I’m a huge hit on cable. Therefore, my storytelling can be very focused. It can speak to a particular subset of people who like purple balloons, and that’s who I’m going after, and somehow, economically, it can make sense.

SM: That purple balloon demographic: you gotta get ’em.

DP: I can’t wait to sell to them.


SM: All the buyers are there. Well, I do want to get to the artistic aspect as well, because you have directed for shows like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, and many others. Can you elaborate on what the director’s role is in TV? It’s different from film, where here you’re slipping in on different episodes.

DP: Well, I’ve done theatre, film, and TV, and I go back and forth. Again, I would have to differentiate, because directing for a premium cable show as opposed to a network show are two very different assignments. I did Smash and Nashville, and those are different than Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire. If we’re talking about the HBO stuff, you’re really a participant. You are a full-on collaborative partner. I would say theatre is an actor’s medium, TV is primarily a writer’s medium, and film is a director’s medium. But, in cable TV, the idea of it being a writer’s medium – though they are the creator – you are given a huge amount of leeway as a director to interpret that. I consider myself an interpretive artist anyway. I’m not the originator. I’m interpreting that material. Within that, I have a huge leeway of what to do. I’m also given a lot more time. A basic network show will be shot in seven or eight days. When I did Game of Thrones, I was given 22/23 days to shoot an episode on three continents.

SM: That’s almost the length of a feature film.

DP: It’s actually bigger than a feature film. That show is based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but we also shoot in Croatia and we also shoot in Iceland. It’s kind of amazing. Artistically, the palette is so much bigger. What I’m able to imagine, I’m able to pretty much most of the time make happen.

SM: On that note, you’ve mentioned a few more shows that you’ve worked on. Is there a particular set, you know you’ve got a gig coming up, and you’re sure there are going to be some anecdotes from that program.

DP: Oh yeah. [Laughs]

SM: But we’re not naming any?

DP: Oh, I don’t know. What do you want to know? [Laughs]

SM: I’m curious to know, and we can talk about positive experiences with the actors and particular sets.

DP: Right… [Pause]

SM: How is the Game of Thrones set? Tell me about that then.

DP: Fantastic.

Scene from the HBO series GAME OF THRONES: Peter Dinklage. photo: Helen Sloan

SM: [Laughs] Well, with these HBO shows, there are all these characters. Dozens of characters. It can be hard to corral, I imagine. What is the experience like working with massive ensembles?

DP: It’s actually great, so you don’t have two or three actors who are there all the time. Every actor’s coming in fresh. They all want to be there. They all love the show. You’re already ahead of the game. They’re coming in completely in love with the material. They know their characters. They’re amazing actors. They’re coming in with strong choices already. You’re doing such a huge amount of pre-visualisation on that show because of dragons and stuff like that, that the pre-production process is extraordinary. There’s a full time storyboard artist. There’s full time pre-vis/vis-effects people. I can come up with an idea and run over to the storyboard guy and say, “Hey, let’s draw this up. Let’s see what this feels like.” I can take that over to the pre-vis department and say, “Let’s do this in three dimensions. Let me look at a little movie of what it will look like. A cartoon of it.” And they do it, and then it’s, “Let’s push the dragon over there. No, let’s move the dragon there. Let’s make it a little bigger.” The shoot, on that show, is down the road. Your imagination is allowed to run wild. There’s not a lot of, “No, we can’t do that.” It’s, “Let’s figure out a way to do it.” And that’s kind of great.

SM: With you shepherding individual episodes, I’d like to hear what you think about recap culture, which has sort of emerged in the last few years, where individual episodes do get reviewed and picked apart before the full frame of the series is out of the way. How do you feel about that when you have more of a hold on specific episodes?

DP: All publicity is good publicity. I mean, I have no problem with people reviewing episodes. It’s more like fanboy situations. People who are into the nitty gritty. Particularly when you’re doing an adaptation of a book, like Game of Thrones. So much of that criticism, episode to episode, is, “In the book it was this way, but you did this! Oh my God, I can’t believe you changed it that way!” It doesn’t really matter to me, but I guess there’s a huge crowd who loves the ins and outs, and the subtleties of what’s different. It keeps people watching. It keeps them engaged.

SM: Absolutely. One of the talks you’re doing over this weekend is ‘The Ingredients of Successful TV.’ In your experience – I don’t want you give away the whole game, obviously – what are some of the ingredients you’ve benefited most from? Or perhaps, some experiments you’ve tried that didn’t work, and have gone onto your ‘Do Not Do’ list?

DP: I think the biggest thing is working with people who actually have a strong point of view. POV has kind of gotten a bum rap for a long time, and one of the great things about these shows you’re describing on premium cable is that it’s brought back point of view. You have writers who are very much creators. They are not hired guns producing washing machines for networks. They have a vision; they’re willing to fight for that vision. I have vision as a director, and I’m willing to fight for that vision. That alone is the key ingredient: to have a strong point of view. The other is to have the best people possible. Now that you see the film business imploding on itself, the people who’ll want to work on these shows; you have an extraordinary opportunity to get amazing actors. The best writers. Great directors. I’m competing now with directors I’d rather not be competing with…

SM: [Laughs]

DP: … for jobs, but I welcome them, and their point of view. They’re raising the bar for the whole art form. Everyone’s clamouring to get into it, which creates a wonderful sense of meritocracy, rather than the kind of people getting in it for the wrong reasons. I do believe that quality is floating to the top right now. That’s a big, big part of its success. Working with great people. Having the time to do what you do best. Rather than shooting a schedule, you’re shooting the show. That’s a huge part of why it’s successful. Even things like technology has advanced to such a point that the things you’re able to do on TV in a fantasy series like Game of Thrones could never have been done ten years ago. The expense would have been out of this world. Now, you can have an in-house vis-effects department, because the technology has allowed these things to happen quicker, faster, and more efficiently. That allows the imagination to be freed. That’s a big part of why it’s working too. And you have people at places like HBO with a track record now of understanding that if you hire somebody with a vision and get out of their way, they’ll probably deliver something pretty interesting. As opposed to the old school methodology which is, “It’s my network. I’m going to develop your project, give you notes, tell you how to do it, and then I need you to execute them. If you don’t like it, well, you have to do it anyway.” It’s put the artist back into the center of the work. Even more so than film.


SM: I was going to say, it’s more reminiscent of the New Hollywood rather than Hollywood today.

DP: It’s reminiscent of the Golden Age of movies. To me, one of the many golden ages was American cinema in the 70s.

SM: Absolutely.

DP: When you had The Godfather and MASH and Robert Altman and you had these amazing movies that would never get made today. There’s no way in hell they would ever get made. It would be an artist with a point of view struggling to get The Godfather made, and someone would say,” Well, you can do it if you make it under a million dollars,” right?

SM: “And you cut an hour.”

DP: Yeah, cut an hour, make it under a million, and put Paris Hilton in it.

SM: I would actually see that version of The Godfather, I have to admit.

DP: Yeah, it may be interesting. We’ll do a remake. Television now has that moment. It doesn’t mean that moment will last forever, because it changes. The other thing about its success, is the way in which we view has changed and made things possible. I take a tablet to bed – an iPad – which is a book, right? But I can also watch Game of Thrones on it. So, the new novel – literally the technology that I take to bed – is three-dimensional technology. Therefore, that line between reading and viewing, and the experience of that – the technology – supports the cross pollination of those ideas.

David Petrarca will appear at the Perth International Arts Festival’s Out of the Box series of talks on February 23, 2013. The Ingredients of Successful TV (9:30am) / HBO and the Rise of the TV Novel (11am) / Tales from the Set (2pm).

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