The Witcher showrunner: “Henry Cavill changed my understanding of Geralt”

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On December 20, Netflix’s new fantasy epic The Witcher will finally grace our screens, with Henry Cavill (the titular witcher Geralt), Anya Chalotra (the powerful sorceress Yennefer), and Freya Allan (the young princess Ciri) in the leading roles. Showrunner Lauren Hissrich has been busy promoting the show through various conventions and interviews in the last months. One of her most extensive interviews to date comes courtesy of Turkish magazine Episode, and thanks to WitcherTurkey we have the translation below!

Find out what The Witcher mastermind has to say about the changes she made in her adaption of the novels, the role of magic in the show, getting the main characters right and much more…

Lauren Hissrich in Episode magazine

Episode: Can you tell us how this project started?

Lauren Hissrich: First I read The Last Wish, the first book in the series. It was a short story [collection], and it was a year before Netflix met me for the adaptation of The Witcher. It was a great book. The story is about Geralt’s adventures in the Continent. Reading about that fantastic world and its monsters gives you great pleasure, and you can also see behind the scenes of political drama. I never thought of adapting these books to the screen. I have never seen myself as a writer who produces fantasy stories. I’ve done a few comic adaptations before, but my most influential experience has always been the dramas about relationships. So when they first came to me, I told them that I didn’t think I was the right person for this project; and they led me to the story. They encouraged me to think about how to approach this story. So I read The Last Wish again. Then I read Sword of Destiny and Blood of Elves, and I wanted to visualize the whole world. Ultimately, I focused on the story and planned the series as the story of a scattered family, three characters wandering around the world on their own. I wanted to make a story about how they tried to find each other and what would happen if they found each other. I always believed that that was the story lying at the heart of The Witcher‘s world, with the characters of Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri. After constructing the story [that way], the elements of the fantasy genre remain. The things that all people who are fans of this genre expect: monsters, magic, unusual battles are all in there [to support the main story]… All of these are indispensable from the spectrum of the story and these three main characters are also indispensable.

Ultimately, I focused on the story and planned the series as the story of a scattered family, three characters wandering around the world on their own.

Episode: Adapting popular books to cinema or television excites fans. However, TV series and novels are quite different when it comes to storytelling. Therefore, I think it is inevitable to make some changes in the adaptations. Is this also true in The Witcher?

LH: Making changes to the story is almost inevitable when you move from one medium to another. The Witcher series has eight books, so we’re probably talking about four thousand pages and lots of material. It is impossible to adapt each page to the screen as it is written in the book. Even if we prepare a series that will be on air for 20 years, we cannot finish all the materials. So the first thing we needed to do was research the stories and find the best way to introduce these characters to the audience. This is probably one of the biggest changes I’ve made. When I read the books, I knew that the story was obviously about Geralt. The show is called The Witcher, and that refers to Geralt himself. But the story is also about how Geralt changed after he met Yennefer and Ciri. So the first thing I wanted to do was really get into the characters of Yennefer and Ciri and build them as characters on their own. I wanted to make this change before these characters met Geralt.

That’s why I looked at Sapkowski’s origin stories about these characters. Sometimes I came across a few sentences about the backstories of these characters and delved into them in greater detail. I thought it would be much better to give these characters their own lives, not just as flashbacks or memories, but as they really experienced it. Therefore, the biggest thing the audience will find different when compared to the novel is to see that the characters of Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri have not yet met each other at the point where we start the series. At first, they will travel on their own. We will get to know them in time and, hopefully, we will love them. Then we’ll see what happens when their paths cross. I think that makes the story much more interesting and it allows us to see the development and changes of these three different characters [on their own].

The witcher family on the official poster

Episode: The popularity of the fantasy genre is obvious. What is completely authentic and unique to The Witcher?

LH: I think this is a period when the fantasy genre really shines on television. I get a lot of questions about Game of Thrones and the impact this series has on The Witcher. I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones, and I think it opens a lot of doors for fantasy productions on television. Because, for a long time, viewers thought that this was a genre that only appeals to a particular audience and that it did not really fit them. Game of Thrones opened all these doors and invited both the fans of the fantasy genre and those not interested in the genre to see what this series was really about. The audience didn’t refuse the invitation, so I think this is an important period for fantasy. For The Witcher; the point that we think is different from other fantastic series [and we focus on our own world], is actually the concept of the “supernatural”. This was not an easy decision, because Geralt is actually a monster hunter, so it is possible to encounter many monsters and other non-human creatures in our world. Another point we stand on is magic. It is possible to see references to a fantastic kind of magic, but if you’re not literally a series about magicians, you don’t delve deep into topics like the history of magic or the rules of magic. We dive right in the middle of them. I think this is the most important point to distinguish The Witcher from other fantastic series.

It is possible to see references to a fantastic kind of magic, but if you’re not literally a series about magicians, you don’t go deep with topics like the history of magic or the rules of magic. We dive right in the middle of them.

Episode: Can you tell us about the Geralt character? How did you decide on casting?

LH: Geralt is a very complex character. Since I started working on the show, my understanding of Geralt has changed. When I read the books, I had a Geralt with very distinctive features in my mind. In the books Geralt speaks, he speaks a lot. He tells a lot, he tells many stories. He wants the reader to understand his adventures. Of course this is what you should do in a novel. Dialogue is needed to understand what a character is thinking. That’s how I started writing Geralt. Until I met Henry Cavill. When Henry was involved in the project, I learned that he was a big fan of the Witcher world. He had read all the books and played all the games. So he had incredible insight into Geralt. He also added something by himself. Geralt in our show is a much quieter character. We see him thinking more than he talks. He internalizes many things. Even one of Henry’s little gestures is enough to see that something affects Geralt.

That’s exactly what Henry thought. As we worked together on the set, we started cutting some of Geralt’s lines. When Geralt spoke, we were careful to let him say something really effective. He would speak little, but it would be effective. He hides his fragility. He’s trying to overcome his past. Geralt is also an incredibly funny character. On this point, Henry added a lot to the character, and he has a very unique sense of humor.

Fans already got a small taste of Henry Cavill’s humor in the trailer

One of the things that makes Geralt important is his work. When we meet him, we find out he’s been a “witcher” for a long time. He’s been doing this for years, and he’s good at it. What we did was question it. Is that all they [the witchers] want in life? Does he want more? Does he want to connect with people? Where is Yennefer in this situation? Where is Ciri positioned in Geralt’s life? Besides, Geralt is a very changing and developing character. Geralt in the first episode and Geralt in the last episode are completely different.

Episode: There are two main female characters, Ciri and Yennefer. What was the process of finding suitable players for these characters?

LH: It was difficult to decide which actors should play these characters because both Ciri and Yennefer are very complex characters. The character of Ciri in the books is actually quite young. So we were looking for an 11 or 12-year-old actress, but I soon realized that I wanted Ciri to play an important role in the show. When you work with child actors this is relatively difficult to achieve, especially in terms of time spent on the set. So we started looking for an actor at a much older age than we had planned. We actually signed Freya Allan, our Ciri, to play another character. We were looking for the actress we wanted for Ciri, but could not find her. One day, our casting director Sophie Holland called me, “Would you consider thinking of Freya for Ciri?” she asked. I said, of course. I flew to London and spoke to Freya again. The next day we started working with her as the Ciri of the show. It was a process that developed so fast.

Freya Allan’s Ciri

Yennefer was one of the earliest characters in the casting process. Yennefer’s casting was also interesting. In the books, we understand that Yennefer is a young woman in her 20s, but she is also a character who has been alive for many years. Therefore, Yennefer was supposed to have a certain maturity and be like someone who had seen it all. This is a very difficult feature to find in an actor. A character that looks really young but makes you feel she’s been through a lot for a long time. We met many actors, watched great performances, but something was still missing. When I met Anya in London, I had the chance to see a play she acted in at the time. The next day she came to audition. She completely internalized Yennefer. At that point, she hadn’t read any Witcher books yet, and she didn’t want to read or have any prior knowledge of the character. She auditioned just based on the audition scripts. The character of Yennefer has an incredible maturity. She has great fears in the world she was a part of, but she has the power to suppress them. Anya had it all. After I met her in London, [she was cast the net day].

Anya had it all

Anya Chalotra’s Yennefer

Episode: How did you relate to the readers of The Witcher novels? How did they react to the visual world of the show?

LH: I think we got incredibly strong feedback, especially after sharing some images from the series. There are many novels that I admire, too, and when some of them are adapted to television or cinema, I get worried because I know the story will be changed. There is a natural mistrust that this new medium cannot be given the right to adapt what you love. So I can understand this fear very well. I think that fans of The Witcher novels will approach it with an open mind, knowing that there will be some changes.

Fans of the novels will see some changes when they watch the series, but they will still find something from the novels during every second of the series.

There have to be changes because there is a limit to what we can do on TV. We may have to give up on something in order to discover smaller things. We add new characters to the story, or we show events differently than they are told in novels. Fans of the novels will see some changes when they watch the series, but they will still find something from the novels during every second of the series. We’ve worked really hard to get the novels right. When we published some images from the series; when we presented Ciri, Yennefer and Geralt to the audience, and especially when we released the first teaser of the show at the San Diego Comic-Con in July, we received intense and positive reactions from The Witcher fans. I believe that hardcore fans of this world are relieved. A work they love is in safe hands. We want people to watch. Even though we’ve made some changes, we don’t actually drop what they like. We are just introducing a new version of The Witcher.

Episode: For audiences who don’t know anything about The Witcher‘s world, can you tell them what to expect from the show?

LH: I can tell the audience; come and watch in anticipation of encountering really authentic, layered, sometimes damaged but still quite real characters. There is a very important point for me and for other screenwriters; we do not look at anything from a purely black and white perspective. You will see many nuances in the series. You can see that a character you meet in one episode and who you think is bad actually has a heroic mission two episodes later. He may not be the perfect character, but he’s trying to do what he thinks is right. We tried to blur the line between good and evil.

The Lesser Evil (adapted in Episode One) is a prime example of The Witcher’s morally grey characters

One of the most important things that audiences will find are fun and engaging visuals. Our production designer, Andrew Laws, has done an amazing job in creating the world of The Witcher. He read [the books] over and over again, focusing on certain chapters. While creating the visual element, he often referred to novels. The visual element of the series is really impressive. I hope this is a series that people will want to watch over and over again. I want all viewers, those who know the world of The Witcher or do not, to watch the show in anticipation of a great adventure. In these eight episodes, we meet many characters and go to many places. It is really worth this journey.

In these eight episodes, we meet many characters and go to many places. It is really worth this journey.

Episode: What do you think The Witcher says about the world we live in? There are some gray moral areas as well as themes of “good” and “evil”.

LH: This is actually what the audience expects from the show. The other screenwriters and I have taken care not to impose our own beliefs using the world of The Witcher. In The Witcher, you will find highly relevant political issues; racism, xenophobia, sexism… It’s all in the books, so it is in the series as well. What we’re trying to do is never take sides. The characters that audiences identify with themselves will take a side; sometimes they will believe in something completely different. We hope that audiences will be able to apply it to their own lives by taking examples from the moral aspects of our fictional stories. It may be a bit naive, but we hope that audiences will be able to empathize with other people as they return to the real world after watching the show. What would they do if they were a character in the show? I think that’s what fantastic shows should do. To become a reflection of our own world.

Episode also held some excellent interviews with composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli as well as costume designer Tim Aslam. Do check them out if you haven’t had a chance, and stay tuned for our upcoming coverage of their Q&A with The Witcher’s leading ladies, Anya Chalotra and Freya Allan.

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