Based on the best-selling fantasy books, the Netflix series The Witcher is an epic tale set in the world of the Continent and centered around famed monster hunter Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill). In a place where good and evil is not easily identified, and humans, elves, witchers, gnomes and monsters are looking to not only survive but thrive, it’s no easy task to figure out who you can trust and where you can turn, if you succeed in the battle.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich talked about why the world of The Witcher was so appealing to her, how she got hired to run the series, how much she’s thought about the bigger picture, how she’s approaching adapting the source material, what made Henry Cavill the right actor for Geralt, the strength and power of the story’s female characters, how what they learned in the first season will affect the second season, and her hope that viewers come to the show with an open mind and a willingness to be surprised.
Collider: First of all, congratulations on the Season 2 renewal! How exciting!
LAUREN SCHMIDT HISSRICH: Thank you!
This is such a big world with so many layers to it. What was it about this world and its characters that made you want to essentially let it take over your life?
HISSRICH: Thank you for recognizing that that’s exactly what it is. The central idea of fantasy, to me, is to have real and grounded people, that fans, viewers and me, as a writer, can all relate to, going through experiences that we all understand, and then take those people and place them in the most fantastical setting, facing difficulties or challenges that are bigger than what we could imagine and things that are more beautiful than we can imagine. That, to me, is the core of fantasy – real people in a crazy environment, dealing with crazy problems. That’s what I think the books of The Witcher did really well, and it’s what attracted me to them, in the first place. That’s the same spirit that we’re trying to keep in the show. People often ask me if fantasy is about escapism, and I personally don’t think it is. Sure, there are moments that you can escape, and you can sit back and just enjoy it, but one of the most fun things about The Witcher is that it reflects on our real world, in big thematic ways, in political ways, and in cultural ways. We do deal a lot with racism, immigration, xenophobia, sexism and feminism. We delve into big issues, but we also have smaller moments, where it’s just characters getting up and facing their days, being with their children, going to work, and watching the sunrise or the sunset. It really is that juxtaposition that was important to me, in the show, and as a viewer of the show, to try to capture.
How did you actually go about getting this job? Were you approached about doing it, or did you have to pitch your vision for the series?
HISSRICH: I was approached by Netflix. This is my fourth show for Netflix. I had prior done a couple of shows with Marvel (Daredevil, The Defenders), and I was working on a show called The Umbrella Academy, so I had a little experience adapting genre for Netflix. They approached me, among other people, I’m sure, to say, “What would your take on this world be?” I went in thinking, “I don’t know that I belong here. I don’t know if I’m the person that they say I am.” I like fantasy, but I don’t live and breathe fantasy. To me, if you’re gonna adapt a show, then you have to honor what that show is and you have to honor that genre. So, I stepped back and got into The Witcher and thought, “What is this to me?” And to me, it’s the story of a broken family. It’s the story of three orphans, who are all living on the margins of society, unsure where to go next, and very sure that they don’t need anyone else to help them. They’re all in their journeys, and then it’s about what happens when they come together and they realize they do need each other, and they realize that perhaps they were even destined to be together. That’s the story that I got excited to tell. To be able to tell that story, but add in monsters and magic and battles is exciting. That makes my head explode.
You’ve said that you have seven seasons of this series mapped out. Was that something you were asked to do, or did you feel that was necessary, in order to know where you were going? How did you end up thinking that far ahead?
HISSRICH: It’s a delicate dance because you have to be able to have a conceit of where you’re going. Your stories need an end point. They need a direction to aim towards. But you also have to leave room to let things organically grow and develop. There are characters, for instance, that we meet in Season 1, and we got them on the screen and they were electric, so we started writing their stories and thought, “Oh, my god, there’s so much more here.” So, you need to leave room for that to grow and develop, as well. The seven seasons thing is hilarious. I’m sure, at some point, that I said I could write seven seasons, but I’m also sure that I said I could write 20 seasons. I will continue writing this series, as long as it makes sense to write this series. That means taking, organically, from the books and allowing story to flow, but then also allowing the story to end when it needs to end.
How would you say the seasons correspond to the books? Are you drawing from any or all of the books, whenever you feel that it’s necessary for the story, or are you following it, in a specific way?
HISSRICH: So, I knew that I wanted to start with the short stories, mostly because they really feel like a great foundation to the Continent. The monsters that he meets, the creatures that he has to kill, and the moral dilemmas that he’s up against, are the foundation of the Continent. That is what the Continent is, and that was really important for me to portray. But I also wanted to have the freedom to bring up other moments and other characters, and introduce them in a new and fresh way, to make sure that we are setting the dominoes up correctly. There’s a character, Triss, that we meet much earlier in the series than we do in the books. It’s because I actually know what’s happening with her in Season 2, so I need to make sure that those building blocks are in place, so that story can happen. And for us, that meant moving a piece of the story up earlier. So, to me, it was about starting with the foundation of The Last Wish, but then having the flexibility of going in and out of moments from the different novels.
When you’re telling a story that you know has the potential to go for many seasons, but you don’t actually know how many seasons you’ll get to tell it, do you also then want to make sure that each season feels like its own complete story and that there is some sort of closure, at the end of every season?
HISSRICH: Well, yes. That’s a great question. For all of television, you have to think macro and micro. So, for instance, I’m creating for Netflix, where there is a binge model that you have to consider. There will be people who sit down and watch eight hours of this, in a row. I couldn’t do that. That’s not how I watch television, but I need to keep them in mind, which means that I can’t constantly be repeating things ‘cause that would be really boring for them. I have to trust that the audience is on that journey. But I also have to know that people will just maybe sit down and watch one episode, and then go have their Christmas or their holidays, and come back two weeks later and watch the next episode. Each episode needs to feel close-ended and satisfying, in and of itself, but it also needs to be a building block for something much bigger. And then, a season has to feel satisfying, in and of itself, and be a building block for something bigger than itself. To me, that’s the chemistry of all television. I’ve only written hour-long television, so this is what I love doing.
Getting a major star, like Henry Cavill, to be at the center of this series could either be a big attraction or a major distraction. Having seen the first few episodes, I think eh’s doing some really interesting work in this, but what was it about him, for you, that made you seem him in this role?
HISSRICH: Henry is a huge fan of the video games. It’s the first thing that attracted him to the world of The Witcher is that he’s played all of them. He’s quite a gamer. When he found out that Netflix was making a series based on the books, that was his first time he learned that there were books, and he went out and bought all of them and read them, in quick succession. So, Henry, to me, was a huge fan. Aside from being a big movie star, he was a fan of the franchise that I was adapting, and that is of big benefit to me because he’s coming in with his own ideas. He has his own thoughts about who Geralt is. And then, we obviously have the script, that myself and the writers have written, where we have our ideas of what our Geralt is. Magic in television happens in collaboration, so it’s my ideas and his ideas, and we sit down and hash it out. In our very first meeting, we were talking about the color of his eyes, how we would accomplish his white hair, and what that process would be. He would so immediately in, and that’s what I took from our first meeting. His passion and his desire to do Geralt justice, that’s all you want from an actor. In addition, Henry’s a real leader, and that’s something that you need, on a show of this size and scope. That person who is number one on the call sheet, needs to be looked up to and needs to be a leader of the cast and the crew, and that’s something else that Henry embodies. He has the best work ethic of anyone I’ve ever met, and he is kind and polite and respectful, to no end. He really sets the tone on set, and that’s another amazing thing. I don’t think of him as Henry Cavill, the movie star. I realize that there are a lot of people who are like, “Oh, my god, Superman!” That’s great. If you wanna come see what else Superman can do, wonderful. That’s great for us.
I love that we get to see him stretched, in a way that we haven’t seen him like this, and at the same time, he’s surrounded by a whole bunch of other actors that I haven’t seen before, but who are really great.
HISSRICH: Well, exactly. There’s a lot of newcomers on this show. Both Freya Allan and Anya Chalotra are seasoned actors that haven’t done a lot of television, and this was very new to them. So, be able to have Henry’s name, and people recognize his name and go like, “I’m gonna see what he’s doing next,” and then get those viewers to have a broadened vision of our show and the other actors in it, it’s amazing.
The stories of the female characters in this show come from their need to find their inner strength, in order to survive in this world. Can you talk about the place of women in this world and how they survive in such a brutal and violent environment?
HISSRICH: It’s interesting because the women in the books that [Andrzej] Sapkowski wrote are very, very strong and very independent. It’s actually one of the first things that I asked him about, when I met him. The women were much more powerful, much more centered, and much more independent than I ever could have imagined, for a fantasy book from the 1980s, and Sapkowski said, “I just based them on the women that I knew.” Especially coming from Poland, and Central Europe, when he grew up, a lot of the men were killed in war and conflict, and women really had to be at the forefront, not just of their families, but of their communities and the workplace. These were the women that he knew, so they’re the women he wrote, and that’s one of the big things that I tried to honor. That being said, I also don’t wanna put the women up on pedestals and make them perfect specimens of beauty, sexuality and morality. They are just as flawed, and they live in just as much of the gray area as Geralt does. That’s been one of the most fun things to explore because all of our characters, male or female, are really just trying to make their way through the world and survive. There are moments of coldness from each of them, and there are moments of warmth and connection between them, too. You get a little bit of everything, and that’s really the human experience.
How far are you into the planning of Season 2 are you? Are you shooting yet?
HISSRICH: We’re not shooting yet, but we have a pretty good idea of where we’re going with all of the stories.
Do you know when you’re going to start shooting the second season?
HISSRICH: Sometime in the spring.
With a show like this, you can’t know how it’s all going to work until you’re actually making it. Now that you’ve done a season of this show, with what you’ve learned from making the first season, how will that affect Season 2 and beyond?
HISSRICH: Oh, my god, what a good question. With any job, there is the experience of writing it, and then we shoot it. Sometimes when you’re shooting something, you’ll be like, “Oh, wow, I am way too clever when I write. I’m trying to do little jokes, and I just need to let the words be themselves and stop trying to be so clever.” Then, you get into post-production and you’re like, “Wow, okay, not only am I trying to be too clever, but I’m also trying to be way too long-winded.” You learn by doing and you learn from the rhythm of your own show. That’s the important thing, every show has its own rhythm. Every show has its own internal ecosystem, of what works and what doesn’t work. We took a lot of lessons out of Season 1. For me, personally, I took a lot of creative lessons. This was my first time doing this job, as a showrunner, and it was daunting. This is a really big show to cut my teeth on. But what I brought into it was a certain amount of, “Okay, I’m here, let’s get this done.” So, I personally feel like I’ve learned a lot and, creatively, I feel like I have a better understanding of what worked and what didn’t work, from the script. We also have a better idea of what’s working on set. Scheduling is a lot easier. We’re returning to similar locations, and we have some sets already built and costumes design. It feels more like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers, as opposed to a new pair of shoes. There’s something about returning to the family that we’re all really excited to do
Because this is such a big world and such a large scale production, up until you started shooting, what were you most nervous about, and when did you actually get to breathe a sigh of relief?
HISSRICH: I have not breathed any sights of relief yet. I’ve been working non-stop on this since September of 2017, so it’s been a long, long, long time. This is a personal thing, and not a show thing, but I’m married and I have two young children, who live in Los Angeles, and most of my life, last year, was spent in Budapest, where we were shooting. I had a lot of doubts that I, myself, could, could commit to this and could do this, in the right way. How was I gonna continue to do it, while my family wasn’t there? The truth is that I made it work, with a lot of help, from my family, from my support staff, and from the people in Budapest, who saw me cry when I missed my kids so much. It really was a sense of, am I strong enough to be the wife I wanna be, be the mom I wanna be, ad be the showrunner that I wanna be? It was not perfect and it’s never gonna be perfect, but at the end of the day, I can look back and think, “Okay, I made it out alive. Everyone’s alive.” I succeeded, in that way, and I’m stronger than I realized.
With a show like this, that’s in a world that’s already popular and where there’s already a lot of fans of its story and its characters, what have you heard most often from fans, as far as what they’re hoping to see, or the questions they might have about the series?
HISSRICH: It’s a great question because there is no single thing that I hear. I actually always try to point that out to fans, who are concerned that I’m not gonna adapt the books perfectly. Everyone has different ideas of what adapting perfectly would look like. There are people who are here for Geralt. The show is called The Witcher, and they feel the show should be all about Geralt and everyone else should take a back. And to those people I say, I promise you, you are gonna see so much Geralt in the series. There are other people who are like, “Geralt, who? Just let me pay attention to Yennefer or Ciri. I’m a young woman finding my way in this world, and I relate to her.” What I try to tell people is, come and check it out. What a viewer thinks they’re going to be looking for, may not be what they end up liking most, in the project. Some of the things that I was most excited about exploring, I was excited about, but then I discovered new things, along the writing process, or along the shooting process. I just want viewers to come with an open mind and a willingness to be surprised.
The Witcher is available to stream at Netflix right now.