Game Of Thrones goes boldly where its novels have not gone before

Stakes are sky-high for the new season of Game Of Thrones as it overtakes books that inspired it

The rule around the Game Of Thrones set when The Straits Times visits last November during the Season 6 shoot is: "No spoilers."

For the first time, the show is going "off book" - the series has overtaken the George R.R. Martin books that inspired it in story progression - so the stakes are now sky-high.

It is a cold, damp day in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the show's crew have taken over a castle to shoot a scene for the new season. In between takes, some cast members meet the press one by one.

The wariness with which they answer questions feels as if infringers might meet the same fate as a deserter from the Night's Watch - a sword to the neck.

Screenwriter Bryan Cogman, 36, brushes off a question about how the show's writing team works with Martin to see how similar the show would be with the novelist's books or if they would diverge.

 
 
 
 

The nudity is organic to the story. It's not there if it doesn't feel right. It's not as if we say, 'Oh, we haven't had breasts in two episodes, we'd better put them in'.

SCREENWRITER BRYAN COGMAN on nudity not being dished out on a fixed schedule

All he would say is that writing without the novels to guide him is "a huge challenge, but fun".

But an insider says that for major story threads, the show and the books would be in agreement, so consultation between the author and the show's producers is necessary.

There is one myth about the show that Cogman wants to dispel - that nudity, especially female nudity, is dished out on a fixed schedule, in a sort of titillation time-table.

"The sex has to do with the genre and the press love to write about it," he explains, sounding a little irritated.

"The nudity is organic to the story. It's not there if it doesn't feel right. It's not as if we say, 'Oh, we haven't had breasts in two episodes, we'd better put them in'."

The scenes of sex and violence - or both at once, as in the rape scenes - are there to serve the story and not, as some think, based on the need to shock viewers every now and then.

"We don't think about it as much as everyone else does," he says of the show, which English actor Ian McShane has said is about "t*ts and dragons".

Another frequent point of fan debate is over the show's portrayal of magic, as seen in the dragons, White Walkers and wights, in the telekinetic act of warging and in the elf-like children of the forest.

For Cogman, it makes sense for magic to enter the show slowly and to ensure that magic, when used, is never cheesy or unearned.

"What attracted me was that at the beginning of the series, magic was at the periphery, but it slowly creeps in," he says.

"The human element must never be overwhelmed by the magic element. The human element is what brings people to the show, no matter how much people talk about the dragons."

In Season 2, for example, the writing team had to pull off a scene in which the red priestess Melisandre (played by Carice van Houten) goes into labour before giving birth to a spectre.

"We were a little nervous about the shadow-baby. This was the weirdest we had gotten and we wanted to see if people would still hang on after this," Cogman says.

One character for whom magic would play a major role in Season 6 is Cersei Lannister. Following her naked walk of atonement through King's Landing in the last season, the disgraced maester Qyburn (Anton Lesser) uses his skills in the dark arts to revive The Mountain so he can serve as her bodyguard.

British actress Lena Headey plays vengeful, ambitious Cersei. Season 5 ended with the death of her daughter Myrcella. Her brother and incestuous lover Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) had been sent to Dorne to protect her, but had failed to keep her alive.

The new season opens with her receiving the bad news about her daughter's death, an event which muddles her feelings for him.

"Their relationship is complicated anyway. They are in an odd place, but it's also the strongest place they have been in, in a long time," says Headey, 42.

Myrcella's death adds weight to the prophecies told to Cersei by a witch when she was a teen, which states that the deaths of her three children would precede hers.

The new season will see Cersei "at her scheming best" but, at the same time, "she's weirdly also surrendered to the prophecy", says Headey.

Her walk of atonement in Season 5 was the focus of much Internet chatter. It was revealed that a body double had been used in that scene, with Headey's head digitally superimposed.

"Someone wrote, 'I had so much admiration for her, but when I found out it wasn't her body, I felt contempt for her'," says Headey.

"I was befuddled by that, but everyone has his own opinion."

Some might see Myrcella's death as retribution for the wicked deeds committed by Jaime, the Kingsguard who crippled Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright).

Coster-Waldau, 45, the Danish actor who plays Jaime, does not think the character deserves punishment.

"I don't think he's a bad guy. He pushes Bran off the tower because he loves Cersei. Ned Stark takes the head of the kid who runs away from the Night's Watch. Daenerys thinks she is doing good (by taking over cities), but the families she burns with her dragons might think differently," he argues.

Another actor who enjoys the series' murky moral structure is Lesser. As Qyburn, the former maester who puts his potions into the service of the Lannister family, the 64-year-old plays a man whose behaviour implies he knows much more than he is letting on.

"I love that complexity," says the British actor.

"I love that you can't tell if he's a good or bad person or whether he has a raging ambition or is just fascinated by what he does. I can't say with certainty what his secrets are, though. But the audience will say it with its imagination."

•Game Of Thrones 6 premieres in Singapore on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Monday at 9am and 9pm. It is also available on HBO On Demand.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'No longer a game'. Print Edition | Subscribe