Benioff '92 embraces storytelling in ‘surreal' career

by Katie Kilkenny | 5/11/11 10:00pm

Since graduating from Dartmouth, David Benioff '92 has gone from teaching high school to writing and producing HBO's
by Courtesy of / The Dartmouth

Acclaimed screenwriter and novelist David Benioff '92 has not always received praise for his writing as a student at Dartmouth, he originally was not admitted to the English department's introductory creative writing course, English 80. He had to apply a second time in order to take professor Ernest Hebert's class.

"I couldn't understand a word," Hebert said of Benioff's original submission for English 80.

Hebert said he now teaches Benioff's first novel, "The 25th Hour," a story of how one man spends his last night before starting a seven-year prison sentence for drug dealing, in his classes because it contains exemplary interior monologue and narrative.

"[Benioff] knows how to tell a story now," Hebert said.

Since writing "The 25th Hour," Benioff has penned another novel, "City of Thieves," and the screenplays for "25th Hour" (2002), "Troy" (2004), "Stay" (2005), "The Kite Runner" (2007), "Brothers" (2009) and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (2009). He also wrote the short story collection "When the Nines Roll Over: And Other Stories" and currently serves as screenwriter and executive producer to HBO's new series "Game of Thrones," which premiered April 17.

During Benioff's final year at Dartmouth, Hebert served as advisor to his Senior Fellowship project, a novel about children growing up in the inner city. Hebert's praise and advice convinced Benioff that he could write professionally, Benioff said.

"It's a really subjective business, so if someone you respect thinks you have talent, [it] means a lot," Benioff said.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Benioff taught high school English, then received a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine.

Benioff's screenwriting career began when actor Tobey Maguire read the preliminary trade copy of Benioff's novel "The 25th Hour." Maguire signed an option a contract between producer and writer on a potential film project for the early copy of the book to become a movie, and Benioff was hired to write the script. Maguire then became a producer for the film, which was directed by Spike Lee and starred Edward Norton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson and Anna Paquin.

"Spider-Man started my career," Benioff said.

From that point on, Benioff wrote screenplays that took him all over the world from Malta, Mexico and the United Kingdom for "Troy," to China for "The Kite Runner" and to Belfast, Ireland for "Game of Thrones." In late April, Benioff went on a 10-day trip to Croatia and Spain to research locations for a possible second season of "Game of Thrones."

Benioff said the travels required for his films have been "surreal."

"Talking to Brad Pitt or Orlando Bloom and walking into a restaurant with them is at once humbling and fun because every single person turns to look at your group, but they're not looking at you," Benioff said of his experience working on the film "Troy." "You're sitting next to the two hottest guys in the world and you're like the ogre."

Working with mainstream film industry figures, however, can also be frustrating. Benioff said he works on about 20 movies before one goes into production, and studio demands often force him to change his scripts depending on projected audience reactions.

"It can be incredibly frustrating when you write something that you think is the right way to tell a story and directors, producers even actors don't think that way," he said. "Movies are collaborative. If you're not willing to be collaborative, you're in the wrong business."

Benioff also relishes the active, team-fueled work in the media industry that does not exist when working on a novel.

"Writing novels is more of a narcissistic experience," Benioff said. "You're in a room working by yourself with a lot of freedom, but at some point, you start to get a little stir-crazy and start feeling like the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining.'"

Benioff called "Game of Thrones" his most "gratifying" and "all-consuming" experience so far in the entertainment industry because the project has offered him the freedom to express his complete vision for the story. As both a writer and executive producer for the show, he has handled everything from casting to set design for the 10 episodes of the first season. Benioff said he was pleased to write without studio expectations or Motion Picture Association of America ratings.

"Now that I'm in charge of [production], I can protect my dialogue," he said.

Benioff has also been drawn to the power that screenwriting holds in spreading his work all over the world. "Game of Thrones" will eventually air on every continent, Benioff said.

"I remember being in this little town in Brazil years ago and seeing these kids watch Shrek' translated into Portuguese, and I'm thinking, I'm in the middle of nowhere, and these kids are having a great time watching Shrek,''" Benioff said. "The idea that you're creating something that will be enjoyed all over the planet is beautiful and rare. I didn't want to be a writer writing for an audience of 800. I wanted a larger audience."

While his screenwriting sends both him and his work hurtling all over the globe, Benioff indicated that he keeps a grounded perspective on the film and media industry.

"Luckily, it still feels surreal to me," he said. "When it stops feeling surreal, I'll know I've been here too long."