Twenty-seven students and several professors awaited the arrival of author, screenwriter and director David Benioff in the small, warm conference room in Poucher Hall on April 24.
Benioff’s novel City of Thieves was chosen as SUNY Oswego’s Oswego Reading Initiative book for the fall 2012 semester. Many of the EOP students in attendance read the book as part of the EDU 101 class. However, many students were also excited to be in the same room as the man who wrote the screenplay for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Troy and Kite Runner. Not to mention Benioff co-created a little HBO series called Game of Thrones, which is based on George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
Nervous and excited chatter broke out within the students. Benioff was running 15 minutes late; he was giving a speech in the Campus Center auditorium to screenwriting and creative writing majors. Students grew anxious. But he finally arrived, fashionably late at least.
He nervously and slowly walked to the front of the crowded room, accompanied by Elyzabeth Wengert, Educational Opportunities Program director. He placed his sweater on a small side table next to him and sat down in the lone chair.
“He is all about etiquette,” said Wengert as she introduced Benioff. She explained that he opened doors for her.
“I had a grandfather who is one of the greatest men I have ever met, but he’s very strict about manners, especially when it comes to a woman. If I ever forgot to open the door for my grandma or something then it would be the back of my head,” he said, as he motioned a strict wave of his hand. “He had quick hands.”
Students laughed. The room filled with relaxation at the sound of laughter.
“Can we just do a Q and A session instead of a speech?” he said.
“So let’s talk. What should we talk about?”
Hands shot up quickly. Benioff sat back in his chair, relaxed and ready to talk about his career, family, and Game of Thrones.
He picked on a student and she asked him, “What was the first screenplay you wrote?”
“The first screenplay that I wrote was with my good friend Dan, who is now my partner in Game of Thrones. It was 16 years ago and I had never written a screenplay before. He had already written ten scripts already. I didn’t know how to format [a script], I didn’t know how to edit it, I didn’t know the structure so I asked him if we could write a script together,” he said as he leaned forward, getting ready to unleash perhaps a hidden tale that 20 sets of fresh, young student ears would devour quickly.
His first screenplay was called The Headmaster.
“It was a horror movie set in a school where the headmaster was Satan,” he said as he rubbed his palms together. “It was terrible, it was so bad. But the act of writing the script with my friend Dan, even a really bad script, it taught me how to write. I learned much better than I would have from reading a screenwriting book, the act of doing it, at least for me, was much more useful than reading some book.”
He continued his answers by often referencing a quote once uttered by writer Samuel Beckett: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”
That’s Benioff’s writing mantra.
“I was never a good writer,” he explains. “In high school, my poems got rejected by the literary magazine and a story I wrote in college got rejected by the college literary magazine.”
He was also rejected the first three times he applied to a creative writing class in college. “I finally got in my fourth try,” he said with a smirk.
Bottom line: “I never gave up.”
With this message, students began asking more questions about his work, especially City of Thieves.
Benioff said he spent seven years researching content for City of Thieves before he began writing the book. But his writing process didn’t go as smooth as he had hoped.
“Halfway through writing the book I just thought, ‘This is a mistake. No one’s ever going to read this book. I’m writing a book about two kids looking for eggs. It’s the stupidest idea. No one’s gonna buy it and no one’s gonna publish it,’” he said. The book later appeared on The New York Times bestselling list.
Benioff admits to be a terrible title-writer. He had a tough time deciding what the title of his finished book would be. He wanted the title to be Truth for Young Pioneers, until a friend told him it was the most pretentious title. His editor then suggested the title A Dozen Eggs.
“You really want me to call the book A Dozen Eggs,” he recalls the argument between him and his editor to the students. “I told her that anything with the word eggs in the title I wasn’t going to do. So I settled for City of Thieves because it seemed like the least offensive title on the list of choices,” he said. Everyone laughed.
He touched on working on Game of Thrones with series co-creator Dan W. Weiss as well as the novel series author, George R. R. Martin, who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, which the TV series is based on.
“It’s great,” he said, with noted enthusiasm in his voice. “I go to some pretty strange places with the show, you know, in Iceland, in little towns in Croatia, in a country called Malta which is like a little rock in the middle of the sea. It’s great, but it’s really weird because I never imagined working on something that appeals to so many people in the world. The best part is to be in a world that George Martin created.”
Benioff happily mentioned how Game of Thrones takes up most of his time. He said he spends six months at a time in Ireland filming and writing the show alongside George R. R. Martin and D.W. Weiss. He also mentioned how his wife, actress Amanda Peet, often visits him in Ireland with their two children.
“How do you find a balance between your marriage, and keeping that away from your job?” a curious student asked. He laughed and said, “Well, you’d have to ask my wife if I’m doing a good job.”
The forty-five minute session felt like it was only five minutes. Students were left with questions to ask, but Wengert advised them to ask their questions at his official speech in the Campus Center arena that night at 7 p.m. He took a few pictures with some lingering students and shook a couple of hands.
“Be as true as possible to the story being told,” he said before students erupted with cheers and claps.