Highly-anticipated fantasy series The Witcher dropped on Friday, December 20 to mixed critical reviews, but unrestrained fan enthusiasm; the Netflix show has a 93% Audience Score on over 15,300 votes compared to its Fresh 60% Tomatometer score on 65 reviews (score updated Jan. 1, 2020). It’s just that kind of series — a fantastical story with a rabid pre-existing fanbase.
Premiering during awards season, Netflix’s The Witcher risked being measured against recent Emmy winners and Golden Globe nominees, but it’s more appropriate to ask how it ranks alongside critically-acclaimed superhero and fantasy series like Watchmen, The Boys, and Game Of Thrones. Its first season’s Tomatometer score is now higher than the final season of GOT, which won this year’s Outstanding Drama Series Primetime Emmy if you must compare. And The Witcher has already been renewed for a second season.
Based on the best-selling fantasy series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski, season 1 follows monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia, played by Henry Cavill, as he fights his way toward his destiny. In two other story lines, his destiny, involving exiled young princess Ciri of Cintra (Freya Allan), stumbles through unfamiliar terrain, relying on the kindness of strangers and trying to avoid the villains pursuing her, while sorceress Yennifer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) discovers her abilities and then trades a precious part of herself for more power.
We spoke to showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich (Daredevil, Umbrella Academy) ahead of The Witcher’s premiere about monster-making, wooing gamers, and fine-tuning the sexy.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: I have to confess, first, that I am a gamer, so I am coming at this from that perspective; I’m so excited about the monsters, and I’m so excited about all of the characters! The series is based on the books, so what do you have to say to us enthusiastic gamers?
Lauren Schmidt Hissrich: Welcome, gamers! I love that you admitted this from the very beginning because you are exactly who I want to win over. I think the gamers will come and find obviously familiar characters and familiar stories. I think in some ways that it will be nice to sit back and watch stories unfold, without participating in them, and stepping back and enjoying the pure entertainment of it, and going “Where are these characters going to go?” without me deciding where they are going to go.
I hope that there is fantasy fulfillment that happens for gamers here, which is, “If I myself was not involved in this universe, what would it look like?” What I think is really fun and how I describe this series to people these days is: If you are familiar with the book — obviously the series is based on the book, but even if you are just familiar with the game — I think what we do is we take the stories of The Witcher and then we sort of pull out the details, that are sometimes just a single sentence in a single chapter, and we bring that sentence to life and create a whole story around it as well.
It is like the stories’ plot. The stories will all be familiar, the characters will be familiar, but sometimes there will be new additions, or things that are in the books for instance, or even in the game, things that are done in flashback, or things that are referred to that happened in the past, you will actually get to see brought to life, on screen. That is where I think honestly the fantasy for some of it comes in.
For example, Yennifer, we actually get to see her from her childhood now. You’re going to get to see her grow up and see her become the woman that you were already familiar with, from the games or from the book, and see everything that happened to her that made her into that character, and then what happens when she meets Geralt, then how does she start shifting when she meets other characters in this universe? I think that there is a lot for gaming fans to come to and discover in this world.
Have you played them?
Hissrich: My confession to you: I have played them. I am horrible. My kids make fun of me — I have two sons. I’m not good. So my best experience with The Witcher games, is drinking a beer and watching other people play.
That’s fun too. It’s kind of like backseat driving: “No, go there. Go over there.”
How did the monsters come together in your adaptation?
Hissrich: Basically, the writers break down the monsters into two groups, which is sometimes there is just a monster who is integral to the story. There is a monster that is standing in the way of Geralt getting to something that he needs, so he has to kill or deal with that monster to get to the next thing.
My favorite monsters are the ones that are either sentient somehow or actually not monsters, they are cursed or there is a deeper story there that Geralt gets to learn and that we get to learn as they fight. Because that is where, to me, the stories really come alive. I think audiences these days are incredibly savvy, and especially knowing that we will get some of the video game audience to this — monsters are done incredibly well in the video games — so what we want to do is add this additional layer of, it is not just a monster fight. It is Geralt having to prove something through the fight, or in fact, trying to save the creature instead of kill it. Those are some of my favorite stories: the unexpected twist that Geralt does not want to kill this creature at all, but wants to save it from a curse or wants to reunite it with someone that it needs to be reunited with. To me, those are the stories that allow why Geralt is interacting with these creatures. It allows there to be more thematic ties to the stories we’re doing.
What’s really fun about doing monsters in a television show is we really challenged ourselves, again because there’s a video game that does it so well. We challenge ourselves to not fully rely on CGI and to try to create monsters practically at times as well, especially those that are cursed, especially those that have a sort of humanoid form. So we have a really fun blend of the effects, prosthetics, costumes, and makeup that make these monsters all come to life. One of my favorite photos that I took on set … is of a monster who’s in full prosthetics as a monster, and we ended up not needing him that night of shooting. So he’s wearing a bathrobe over his prosthetic and he’s just leaning against a tree, bored, waiting for us to move on to his scene. And it’s so great because it’s like, “Oh these are just humans, they just want to be used.”
Who is heading up your effects team?
Hissrich: We have a huge team. Obviously, we shot in Budapest last season, so we ended up pulling from Budapest talent, as well as London talent. It’s really expansive because we have several of the effects houses that are with us and then they also work with our prosthetics person … It’s quite a department I have to say.
From the standpoint of managing something that huge, how did you do it and keep in touch with the creativity behind building the story or building a world?
Hissrich: The best way to stay on top of it, is actually always be there. I ended up basically moving in and being on the ground in Budapest for almost eight months last year. I take my job really seriously, I’m in love with this universe and so the first thing I did with almost all departments is to make sure they love the universe too. It’s not necessarily that everyone had to have the most fantasy experience, the most genre experience. It was, “Are you as excited about this material as I am? Can you show up every day and want to make this world bigger and better than the day before?” I think that enthusiasm pervaded until the very end.
Everyone will tell you that shooting a television show is hard and especially television shows that take place in the dead of winter in central Europe, and a lot of nights. The enthusiasm was almost always unflagging. I think the people that worked on the show really believe in what they did and even towards the end; they got tired obviously, but I think everyone still really wanted to come to work at the beginning of the day. I know that I did.
How did you get involved with the title in the first place?
Hissrich: I had read The Last Wish myself about a year before Netflix came to me to ask if I would be interested in adopting the show. I had worked with Netflix before on three different projects, so I had a really good relationship with them and I had just come off Umbrella Academy, which was a comic book adaptation.
But I was really enjoying adapting things to television that had not been done before. So there was part of me when I first got the call from Netflix was, “I don’t think I’m the writer that you’re looking for, I have never done this big, sweeping, fantasy world before.” In fact, I think part of the reason I was hired and the thing that I continue to try to bring to the show is, if you strip away all the elements of fantasy, what you are left with is three characters who are destined to become family, and that is something that I understand really well.
To me those are the relationships that we have to come back to again and again, in terms of Geralt, Yennefer, and Cirilla: How do they relate with each other? How did they grow before they meet each other? Who were the other people that come in and out of their lives that send them bouncing in different directions, and how do they come back to each other at the end of the day? These are things that I think every human can relate to and so that is what we’re trying to do with the show. I think that my biggest hope is that people who think that they’re not fantasy buffs or fantasy geeks, I hope that they come and see that this is for them as well.
How much of the writing did you take on yourself? I noticed there are a lot of writers listed.
Hissrich: There were seven writers on the show and support staff of four. One of the things that I believe really strongly in, is giving every writer the opportunity to conceive, develop and write their own script. I’ll come in at the end for a polish if needed. But I don’t have a lot of ego in doing this, I think that television shows are best when they showcase the skills that a diverse group of people can bring.
For instance, I love writing. I love writing characters, I love writing romance, [but] writing monsters was new to me. So there was another writer, Beau DeMayo, who wrote a sort of monster-heavy episode, and he’d come out of a world of sort of CW monsters, and he had a lot of experience working in the genre, and it was really cool to see him come to life writing these monsters.
There are other writers who wrote more adventurous scripts, and someone who wrote more of the heist one. Allowing writers to shine in their script, I think makes for a richer tapestry. So I wrote the first episode of season 1, and I wrote the last episode of season 1, but everything else was handled by the staff.
I think people had already taken notice of Yennefer’s big transition in the trailer, and so that’s something that’s not really a big secret.
Hissrich: Setting it up was something that at the very beginning I wanted to keep secret, and then I realized right about the time of Comic-Con that, I was like, “But I just want to talk about this.” Especially with Yennefer, I want to talk about the sort of new sides of Yennefer that audiences will find, be they fans of the book or fans of the video game. I feel like Yennefer gets a new dimensionality to her character in the show and it’s something I’m really, really proud of. So yes, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut on that.
Can you talk about building Geralt for the screen? Is he an anti-hero?
Hissrich: It’s so interesting, the ideas of hero and anti-hero. For me, we approached all characters, but Geralt first and foremost, as a character that I’ve never wanted to be called good or bad. I think Geralt has very good sides to his personality, and I think that he makes decisions that people might think are bad decisions.
When we are writing all of the characters, even down to the Nilfgaardian, I ask the writers to dig down and think, and even if you think about the worst people in the history of our world, think about their motivations. Because very rarely does a character come and say, “I’m going to do this thing, I’m going to take over the world, because I’m evil.” Even the worst people in our historical context wanted to take over the world because they thought they were doing something good. I may not agree, and history may show us that obviously that was not true, but I do think that characters are motivated from their own sense of good, no matter what.
That applies to Geralt as well. We’ll see him make decisions to kill creatures or kill humans, and we can see him make decisions not to. What I don’t want to do is ever end an episode with someone saying, “Obviously the writers thought that Geralt was a hero in this episode.” What I want audiences to ask is, “Do I think Geralt is a hero in this episode, or do I think that he made absolutely the wrong choice, and I don’t understand why he made it?”
I hope that audiences will be able to reflect back into their own lives, and why they make specific decisions and whether they think that they made them for good or for evil. I think bringing that moral grain into television is really interesting, and Geralt is kind of the best example of that. He is quiet, he is pensive, he does not always say what he is thinking, so we just have to trust that he is acting from his gut and sometimes I think he is wrong and sometimes I think he is right.
Do you see Geralt as much of a sexual character in your adaptation? You’ve got Henry Cavill, and he is definitely handsome.
Hissrich: I think that all of our characters have a sexual side to them. My personal goal, when I set out to develop this and we started writing the script, is that I only wanted sex, sexuality, sexiness to be used when it furthers the story. I think audiences are really savvy now and they know, and hate when we’re just dropping in nudity, or graphic sex for the sake of shock value. I think audiences are really used to that now, with all of the pay cable and streaming services and everything that they are able to see, the influx of imagery that they’re able to see.
So for us, there’s absolutely sex in the show, but I think the sex in the show always shifts the story in another direction. It’s the vulnerable effects that you didn’t think were going to happen, it’s the sex that happens between two people who are alone and lonely and just need to connect in a sense of humanity and to reaffirm that there’s something else alive out there. It’s always about building out or changing character dynamics. I think people will enjoy what they see, but I also hope it helps them understand the stories that we’re telling.
The Witcher is now streaming on Netflix.