Whether you’re a fan of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone book series or you’re coming to Netflix’s fantasy adaptation as a Grishaverse novice, you’ll notice the show’s first season lays the groundwork for multiple worlds – and hopefully, spinoffs to come.
That was showrunner Eric Heisserer’s (Arrival, Bird Box) plan, anyway. He wanted to tell the story of a young orphan struggling to find her place in a time of war and learns she holds a power that could save her country. He also wanted to tell the story of a trio of thieves carrying a ton of personal baggage (and manage to pull off insane heists) in a steampunk fantasy world filled with magic and morally questionable characters. In the books, these worlds merely grazed each other. In Heisserer’s upcoming Netflix epic, they overlap and interact in fairly inventive ways.
We chatted with Heisserer about essentially writing a prequel novel when prepping for the show, how he approaches adapting other people’s work, and why it’s important to know which stories aren’t yours to tell.
It’s an interesting decision to merge Shadow and Bone with Six of Crows for this first season. Why did you decide to do that? More importantly, how do you pull that off?
Right. “How?” That’s a good question. I should have asked myself that before making the bombastic claim that it could work. I would say in part, [it’s] because [of] the way that Leigh has weaved into both of those sets of books these characters that cross-pollinate in their stories. It felt less like you could do one series and then consider a spin-off of the other. It felt more like they all lived in the same world anyway. And if we wanted to get into stories where you saw some of these people interact, later on, it felt much smarter to try and introduce them early. What I didn’t think about at the time was that I would have to come up with a prequel novel that would showcase the origins of these Crows, what they’re doing before we get to Six Of Crows, and how that would possibly cause some friction or interact with some of the Shadow and Bone storylines.
I’m guessing that means you were constantly calling Leigh Bardugo with questions?
[Laughs] We had the Grisha phone that we just picked up. We brought her in every week to the writer’s room where we’d pitch her more episodes. We’d just inundate her with questions that we’d have. A lot of the time, she of course had the answer because she’s been in this world in her head all this time. But now, and then she would go, “Hmm. Gosh, I don’t know if I’ve ventured in that spot. So impress me with something.” That would terrify half of my staff and excite the other half.
Creatives can be very protective of their work but a lot of times when you’re adapting something for the screen, changes have to be made. How do you, as the showrunner, approach that conversation?
Well, it started with me saying I wanted to do Six of Crows, the book story, as well as Shadow and Bone. And she just held up a hand and said, “I’m going to stop you right there. You really can’t introduce magic and then magic on steroids in the same season. You’re not going to get a sense of scale for your viewer. And it’s going to cause a bunch of problems.” And she’s absolutely right. So she was like, “What are you going to do now?” And I said, “What if we do a prequel?” And she’s like, “All right, I’m listening.” I had one idea that I knew, “Okay, this is either going to get me fired or we’re off to the races.” And, she loved it thankfully.
Was this your way of just ensuring that we get at least six more seasons of this universe?
I am! When I latch onto an adaptation, it is because I have more love for it at the time than my own harebrained ideas. I got into this business to write my own original stuff but now and then I come across something I love so much that I’m like, “All right, I’m going to do this.” That’s how I feel about her books. So really, what I’m doing is creating very expensive ads for her books.
When did the decision to change the heritage of the main character and make Alina half Shu happen?
It was one of the very first discussions that Leigh and I had, and it came from the lessons that she learned and what she took away as she grew as a fantasy author in her own right. To me, I saw that a core question within Alina is trying to figure out where she belongs. And that question thematically resonated for me in terms of, “I can tell that visually if we have someone who’s mixed race.” I had heard a story from a writer friend of mine who was mixed race and had that question burning in there for so long, feeling like neither family fully accepted her, and then trying to find her own identity. But beyond that, I really didn’t know the culture or the heritage side of things. I couldn’t speak to that. And nor should I. I can’t own those stories. So, my first hire was my mixed-race writer friend, who then can champion that in the room and share the experiences and imprint that on Alina so that we told her truth.
There are certain showrunners who like to have an iron grip on everything, and then there are showrunners who are able to step back and say, “Maybe this isn’t my story to tell.” Where do you fall?
Well, already I’m adapting somebody else’s work. I’m essentially just a steward of the Grishaverse. Something that I had said to Ted Chiang with Arrival, and I said it to Leigh, it’s like, “I am essentially borrowing the keys to your car, and it will have some aftermarket modifications. Please don’t be mad.” But maybe beyond that, I think that granted me the freedom to open up the playing field to people from many walks of life, and many disparate life experiences, be that racial or sexual identity, you name it. One of my writers was a refugee from Sarajevo. He and his family fled when he was a child, and that absolutely helped form some of the wartime feel of the show. It has absolutely become my job to provide a platform for these other writers to talk about these things. I don’t think of it as is my show. It is our show. This is not a singular voice kind of thing.
You’ve worked on bigger genre films like Arrival and Bird Box. What did you learn from those movies that you brought to this show?
It’s understanding that [I need] to give everybody, including our cast, who I think go above and beyond, support. To love them and encourage them in the right ways. And occasionally, give boundaries when we have to.
Speaking of future seasons, Netflix is notoriously secretive about viewing numbers and such. Have the powers that be given you a threshold to meet that gets you a season two pick-up?
Yeah. Every time they do that, there’s a buzz on the phone and I don’t get the number metrics. I don’t get to hear like, “What’s the threshold? What do I need to do here?” I’ve already called all my family members, my friend, my neighbors. What else can you do?
Netflix ‘Shadow and Bone’ premieres on April 23.