With the media embargo lifted, reports on Netflix’s upcoming hit show The Witcher keep pouring in at rapid speed. SciFiNow used the opportunity to chat extensively with showrunner Lauren Hissrich, and actress Freya Allan, who will star as Ciri alongside Henry Cavill’s Geralt and Anya Chalotra‘s Yennefer. Here are some of the highlights from their latest issue.
Hissrich who has worked on the show for a little more than two years remembers that there were many things about The Witcher that immediately grabbed her attention.
She says: “The first is that for a fantasy The Witcher isn’t completely earnest. It’s not all about big battles and big hunts and big fights and dynasties rising and falling. There are elements of that but what I found most appealing about the books is the human stories that are being told. The relationship between characters, specifically Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri. I’ve always said the story I was interested in telling was a broken family coming together, and then a broken family falling back apart again. As people do.”
For her, what makes it accessible is that most fantasy shows are really “just an allegory for our real world.” Most of all, she hopes that The Witcher will make for a riveting story that avoids making people feel like they are ‘constantly beaten about the head with politics lessons.’
“The cool thing I think what we like to do is turn turn expectations on their head. So sometimes you’ll think: ‘Oh, obviously I know how this show is going to approach this issue,’ but I hope that we approach it in a completely different way and make people on both sides of any debate question why they’re on that side and perhaps empathize with people on the other side. No one wants to sit down after a hard day of work and watch depressing political morass. But what we get to do is present those themes in an entertaining way and I think hopefully make people question their beliefs or at least look at what’s happening outside their beliefs.”
As Freya Allan is quick to respond, that doesn’t mean at all that the fantasy elements will be downplayed in the show: “I would say the escapism of it is a massive thing. There’s amazing scenery, it’s such a colorful continent, there’s so many cool places, there’s so many elements to it, it’s got monsters, it’s got magic, it’s got a lot of adventure, it’s got fighting, it has all those brilliant fantastical elements, but then it also has some real themes within it as well: loss, longing for family, discovery, lots of things that will relate to the normal world as well. I think there is something for everybody really, and that’s probably why a lot of people are addicted to it and there’s so much in there to be addicted to.”
The practical consequence of this approach is that the show focuses on establishing a grounded, realistic world as much as possible.
Hissrich said: “Obviously, these are monsters that don’t exist in the real world so we did use a lot of prosthetics and we tried to keep things performance-based, to use an actor in a prosthetic as opposed to a whole CG creation. If Geralt is fighting a monster, I would rather have him fighting something real than fighting a big empty space in front of a greenscreen.”
“Obviously there is CGI in the show but we really did use as many authentic environments as we could. We shot in an amazing castle in Poland, we did the same in Austria and then obviously most of our soundstages were in Hungary so we shot the bulk of the series there on soundstages and in the surrounding countryside”
When The Witcher was announced in 2017, one of the biggest question fans had was where the story would pick off. Andrzej’s Sapkowski‘s stories about the titular witcher Geralt of Rivia, span a total of eight books: Two short-story collections, five novels and one “side-quel”, set in between the short-stories. Hissrich’s answer was that she will go back to the roots starting with the short-stories. Even so we don’t completely know what content will make it into the first season:
“So I went through and with the writers picked out not just my favourite stories, although I picked some of my favourites, but the stories that I thought best illustrated what The Witcher is about.”
“And that’s kind of where we start off. Geralt is almost 100 years old when the series starts and we find him in the middle of a journey. Then there’s the death of a character and that’s what launches him off onto his journey and that starts to complicate things for a man who thought he’d had it all figured out. It’s a pretty fun place to start, it’s really a character on the edge of a new journey.”
With Geralt set on a course, where does that leave the other characters? While acknowledging that the show is called The Witcher, Hissrich has been clear from the start that Ciri and Yennefer will get their own spotlight:
“The biggest shift that I’ve made from the books is that I wanted Ciri and Yennefer to stand on their own legs a little bit more. In the books they’re introduced through Geralt’s lens, through his POV, and it’s was important to me that our audience get to know them individually first, see them be created and their own journeys and then see them intersect and see what happens. So that was one of the biggest shifts that I made but it was, to me, the most exciting opportunity because I also found these characters to be really compelling.”
For Ciri, this journey will be an emotional one. It will push the young, sheltered princess to the very limits but also serves as testing ground for the many trials to come.
Allan said: “What I loved and I could see straight away even from the audition process is that she’d been written realistically. Nowadays we’re seeing a lot of very strong female characters who are really badass and that’s brilliant. Obviously Ciri is renowned for being a badass character but what I loved about the way that they’d portrayed it in the writing is that it’s not like she’s just born and she’s this amazing badass female character. You do see her be very vulnerable and cry and go through suffering and experience loss and at times be a little bit pathetic because she’s had no experience of certain things”
“And that jumped out at me, that they were portraying it realistically. You need somewhere for the character to grow and you need a reason for why she becomes more confident, more badass. You do see that she’s very strong through her vulnerability. The fact that she’s so vulnerable and she’s suffering and yet she continues on and that, to me, is bravery. She doesn’t have to be totally cold and totally stern and be violent and killing people. It’s a different kind of strength which I really like”
Yennefer on the other hand is a character of almost mythical reputation by the time we first meet her in the books. A very experienced and powerful sorceress, but also somewhat of a loner, who prefers to do things her own way. In the show, Yennefer’s arc will span a much longer time, bringing us glimpses from her past that were only ever mentioned before.
Hissrich said: “You hear bits and pieces about her past, you’re usually told in an offhand remark: ‘Here’s something that happened to me as a kid.’ So one of the things that I did very early on, I went through all of the books and I found all of her recollections about her past and then we crafted a story in the writer’s room that allowed us to be with Yennefer when she was actually just a child, when she is becoming the person that we know and love and see in the books. So she starts off in a very vulnerable place, she is a character that has experienced a great deal of pain in her life and then we get to see how she transcends that pain and grows from it and strengthens her resolve in this world, and I think it’s a really great origin for her”
Engaging with the audience has been important for Hissrich from the start: “I love interacting with fans; probably a bit too much for everyone’s taste around here. There’s nothing more that I love than getting on Twitter and talking directly to the fan base. I really wanted to access their enthusiasm and their excitement for this. I think a lot of people see really rabid fan bases as enemies and in fact I think that these are the people who love The Witcher, these are the people who I really want to take their enthusiasm and grow their enthusiasm and learn from their enthusiasm. I don’t find it doughting at all frankly, I find it really exciting.”
She added, that while it’s great to be able to say and show almost anything, creators and storytellers have a responsibility to the audience to make sure these things move the plot and characters forward. There won’t be shock, violence or sex just for the sake of it:
“I mean, audiences are really savvy now, there’s a lot on television and on streaming services that they can see and I don’t know if they want to be shocked anymore. I think that they would see through that ploy and they really want good stories. So if the stories involve violence or blood or nudity or sex, great, but I’m not going to have it happening in the background just for fun. I think that as creators we have a responsibility to our audience to make sure that we’re not just trying to shock them. We’re trying to make sure that they’re buying a good story.”
The Witcher‘s first season will arrive on Netflix on December 20. Stay tuned for more coverage as we count down the days.
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So, a childhood had to be invented for Yennefer? But the books mention Yennefer’s childhood. In the form of a retrospective. She is a hunchback who is hated by the father and pushed away by the mother. She commits suicide. She is healed by a sorceress who urges her to cry properly for the last time and then never again, for there is nothing more wretched than a sorceress crying. Sorceresses are chosen by the way in girl age, because the education lasts incredibly long. They are girls who are too ugly to marry. But sorceresses have to be beautiful, which is why they undergo transformation. But we’ll break that too. I’m optimistic.
Yennefer will start as a hunchback in the show too, which you can see in the teaser but also below. She will also undergo a transformation under Tissaia’s care, straightening her spine. The changes they made are more about what comes after, before she met Geralt.