HBO’s Janet Graham Borba Nurtures Craft
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Janet Graham Borba Nurtures the Craft of HBO

Casey Bloys and “Game of Thrones” producer Bernie Caulfield explain the vital behind-the-scenes role of HBO’s production head.

HBO’s Janet Graham Borba Nurtures Craft

Janet Graham Borba

Lush production values often rule the crafts Emmy categories, where HBO is expected to dominate again this year. However, what’s remarkable about HBO production values isn’t that they are consistently high; it’s that they don’t come wrapped in a house style.

“Euphoria” features bold indie low-budget filmmaking; for “Succession,” it’s the globe-trotting excesses of the Roy family. “Insecure” is stylized while also being the rare program that speaks to a specific part of the real Los Angeles, while “Westworld” creates a realistic sci-fi rendering of AI. After each of its breakout hits, other networks would try to find their own “Sopranos” or “Game of Thrones; meanwhile, HBO continued to pursue series that would create their own look and feel.

“I used to call it the last of the boutique studios,” said “Game of Thrones” producer Bernadette “Casey Bloys and “Game of Thrones” producer Bernie Caulfield explain the vital behind-the-scenes role of HBO’s production head. . “Because they let us do what we needed to do without the bog.”

That said, HBO is known for a lengthy development process, not for blank checks. It’s a process of investing and vetting a creator’s vision before setting it free. For those lucky enough to reach that phase, they find an equally supportive and rigorous process with HBO production executives.

“I might replace rigorous, to HBO having a thoughtful production process,” wrote Casey Bloys, president of HBO programming, in an email to IndieWire. “In both development and production, our main goal is to have the show creator’s vision realized in the smartest way possible.”

As showrunners move from script to screen, that firm but supportive hand belongs to Janet Graham Borba, HBO’s executive VP production. Over the last two decades, she oversaw many award-winning series — “Angels in America,” “John Adams,” “The Pacific” — but the biggest and best example of her work is the decade she spent on “Game of Thrones,” before promoted to supervising production on all HBO original series in 2018.

Janet Graham Borba with the cast of “Game of Thrones”

Janet Graham Borba with the cast of “Game of Thrones”

Helen Sloan

“Without a doubt, Janet was an indispensable part of the HBO team that, season after season, pushed the envelope on the culturally-defining, groundbreaking series that was ‘Game of Thrones,'” wrote Bloys. “She worked hand in hand with the series’ producers and the massive production team to figure out how to execute the creative vision of George R.R. Martin, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Her resourcefulness, creativity and stamina helped to keep the show on track from its inception through last year’s final episode.”

The show began with episode budgets of $6 million; by the end of season 8, episodic costs were well over $20 million with battles that required up to 55 days to shoot. “You’ve got to remember, ‘Game of Thrones’ didn’t start out as the biggest show on TV,” said Caulfield. “It takes executives like Janet to also fight for us. HBO really just trusted us, and our production team, but we gained that trust.”

To support Benioff and Weiss’ driving ambition for each season of “Game of Thrones” to be bigger than the previous was what became known as the “Game of Meetings.” Throughout the season, department representatives, producers, Weiss, Benioff, and Borba would map out the enormous production. Production took place overseas; Borba was in HBO’s Santa Monica offices. She turned that physical and mental distance to her advantage by taking a long-term view toward issues that might arise in the future — a big stunt, VFX, a still-needed location, or even an upcoming labor issue in Northern Spain. This meant nothing fell in the cracks.

“Janet would definitely check on the progress of things as we moved from country to country, she was always the one that would bring you back to being able to cross things off the list,” said Caulfield. “I mean, sometimes you don’t want to hear that list from mom or dad, but there’s usually something on there that you go, ‘Oh, dammit.’ And so that was great.”

Productions often complain about executives who slow down production; for “Game of Thrones,” shooting in five countries and another time zone, the potential for corporate snafus increased by a magnitude. Borba had them covered on that front as well. “She was a great facilitator,” said Caulfied. “That sounds almost too small as a word almost for her. But if you don’t have that, it’s like if you don’t have oil in the car. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Rolls-Royce, it’s not going to go anywhere. We were the Tin Man, she was our oil.’

"Game of Thrones"

“Game of Thrones”

HBO

All great shows have visionary creators, but one reason the network can consistently walk a tonal and stylistic tightrope on a shows like “Barry” or “Watchmen” is an ability to discover the blindspots that are endemic to any production. Borba’s team wants to see issues identified or resolved before shooting starts. Insiders tell IndieWire that the rare HBO production misfire comes when a season or series is permitted to be rushed.

Borba now oversees all HBO originals production, which now looks like uncharted territory in the face of coronavirus. As HBO Max speeds the greenlight and production process to meet corporate owner AT&T’s demand that it compete with the content churn of Netflix, insiders feel it is vital that HBO originals maintain their carefully curated brand. Borba and her team will only play that much more of a vital role and of keeping standards high at TV’s last big-budget boutique.

“She drives innovation on her team, which, in the current environment, has become more necessary than anyone could ever have anticipated,” Bloys writes, “but this has always been her objective.”

Janet Graham Borba

Credits: "Angels in America," "John Adams," "The Pacific," "Game of Thrones," "Watchmen,"

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