Lauren Schmidt Hissrich knows expectations are high for her latest series, The Witcher. The medieval fantasy series starring Superman himself, Henry Cavill, comes complete with a legion of dedicated fans who’ve grown to love the complicated characters and intricate world created by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.
Hissrich can handle high expectations. She’s brought other massively popular franchises to life for Netflix: Daredevil, The Defenders, and the wonderfully weird The Umbrella Academy to name a few. But The Witcher — which sees Cavill picking up his sword to play Geralt of Rivera, a monster hunter with superhuman abilities who lives a lonely life that’s upended by the fickle hand of fate — feels different. Bigger, somehow.
It might be the sheer scope of the story Hissrich is trying to tell. There are dozens of short stories, comic books, anthologies, and video games. It might be because a big name like Cavill is attached. Or it might be because The Witcher feels like a show that could fill the void of Game of Thrones, another fantasy series that it’s already earned favorable comparisons to. We spoke with Hissrich about venturing into the world of The Witcher, its procedural roots, and yes, that stuffed unicorn.
There’s so much material to work with from the books and the games. As a showrunner, did you have an “Oh shit” moment after taking this project on?
[Laughs] The words, “Oh shit,” definitely came to my brain a lot. It’s such a plethora of riches, right? So the big stress was figuring out where to start: what book to start with, what characters to focus on. Obviously, I don’t want to bore existing fans of the franchise. They’re big proponents of the show. I want them to love watching it, but we also need to roll it out slowly enough that people who are new to the franchise can come in and understand what’s happening. So it was a really interesting dance to find the right place to start and that’s why, having watched the first five episodes, you see that we do some fun stuff with time. We jump back and forth between timelines because I really wanted to involve viewers in multiple points of view from the very beginning.
The various quests Geralt goes on are a big draw for fans, and you’ve found an interesting way to weave those into the bigger story. It almost feels like we should call this a police procedural in a fantasy world. Would that be fair?
Well, yes and no. I love that you said, police procedural because it’s actually something that we talked a lot about in the writer’s room.
I’m not joking. We talked about the tone of the show a lot, and the fact is, The Witcher isn’t just one thing. I hesitate to say that because when you start saying like, “Oh, there’s a little something for everyone,” it feels like we’re diluting the material. It couldn’t be further from the truth though. There are short stories that read like a mystery, there are short stories that read like horror or epic ventures or romance novels. There are so many different things wrapped up in this world. So it was important to us to make sure that we represented all of those and it’s important to me as a showrunner, that the writers that were writing the episodes got to write in their own voices as well.
One of the things that I encouraged was for writers to really take their subject matter and run. If it felt more like a suspense story, I wanted them to lean into that. If it felt like we want to lean into a bit of romantic comedy in the episode where Geralt and Yennifer meet, do that. I wanted the writers to really be able to flesh out their episodes and make them tonally responsible for them. That’s how we wrote the entire season. It all had to leave in the world of The Witcher but then episodes could be their own little stories. As a viewer, that’s exactly how I want to watch.
I know Henry Cavill is a big fan of this series. How committed was he to embodying Geralt and bringing him to life?
Fully committed. Henry was a huge fan of the games and had played all of them. He’s quite a gamer. When he found out that Netflix was making a series, he went out and bought all of the books as well. So one of the things that I loved about Henry was his passion. I mean, he’s just so excited by this world and that passion is translated into how he embodies Geralt. He does every stunt. He does not have a stunt double or stand-in. Every time you see Geralt on the screen, even if it’s just his hand or his shoulder, that’s Henry Cavill. He wants to be there representing this character.
I heard he even slept in those leather pants.
Yeah. I think he’ll tell you that he occasionally slept in armor, made breakfast in his armor. He really wanted it to fit his body the way it would fit someone who’s been wearing it for 30 years.
One of the biggest changes from book to screen was how you handled the introduction of characters like Yennifer and Ciri. Why have fans meet them straight away on the show?
Thank you for asking this because this is one of the major changes that I made to the books. In the books, you’re with Geralt for the first two books, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. You do meet Yennifer and Ciri, but you meet them through his lens. To me, as a writer and even as a viewer, I wanted to meet Yennifer and meet Ciri and allow them to become their own fully formed individuals with backstories, with layers and lives of their own. And then I wanted to intersect them with Geralt. I wanted to see how they changed each other once they intersected. I wanted to see how they pushed each other in different directions or what they brought out in the other one. And to me, you had to have a foundation for all three characters, not just Geralt, but all three of them. You had to have the same strong foundation built, in order to see those changes once they met.
Talking about Yennifer, she may be the most interesting character on this show and she feels like a true anti-hero. It’s hard to decide whether she’s good, evil, or somewhere in-between. How much did you focus on her characterization?
Villains don’t typically think of themselves as evil. This isn’t Austin Powers, you know what I mean? They’re not Dr. Evil. I really wanted to have characters that had shades of gray. One of the things that I personally love the most about Yennifer is she’s really learning what power is. Her entire journey is about trying to get more power. What she must start to learn, is that this thing that she keeps striving for, it doesn’t actually complete her. She’s trying to fill a void in herself that can’t be filled by being powerful. That puts her on a journey. What else does she need? What is she looking for? And I think it’s a great place to put a character. In addition, Yennifer really owns her body. She owns her sexuality. It’s something that as a woman, it was important to me to have a character who could be sexual but could be sexual for her own purposes, not for the purpose of the male view or the male lens.
This is a medieval fantasy, which means sword fights and some of the battle scenes have already been compared to Game of Thrones, so no pressure. How much thought went into crafting the action of this series?
We started with Henry because Henry wanted to do all of his own fights. We had to one, build a style of fighting for Geralt but two, make sure that Henry could accomplish it. He’s an amazing fighter, so the fights are choreographed around his ability. Then we let our stunt coordinator, our action designers, and our directors really take ownership of these fights to fit them into the tone of their episode. So, there are fights that seem to center much more from the heart and then there are fights that are really just about swords and blood.
Now, finally, the most important question: Should we be expecting any scenes with a stuffed unicorn?
[Laughs] It’s funny, [for] season two, we talked a lot about the stuffed unicorn. I’ll leave it at that.
Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’ begins streaming on December 20.