'The Witcher' Showrunner Explains Biggest Twist: "I'm a Firm Believer in Challenging Audiences"

The Witcher with a circle inset of showrunner Lauren S. Hissrich -Netflix Publicity- H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix; Dave Benett/WireImage

[Spoiler Alert: This story contains spoilers for the first five episodes of Netflix's The Witcher.]

The Witcher is an epic fantasy series that spans eight books, three video games and, now, a television series on Netflix. The adventures of Geralt of Rivia, the titular monster hunter, have become one of the world's most popular franchises in the genre and with Amazon currently working on a new Lord of the Rings series and Wheel of Time adaptation to fill the dragon-size hole left on the small screen following Game of Thrones' final season earlier this year, Netflix is hoping to capitalize on the popularity of fantasy with its reimagining of The Witcher.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with series creator and showrunner Lauren S. Hissrich to discuss the first season's major twists and turns (including those multiple timelines), how star Henry Cavill ultimately won the role after her team met with 207 other potential Geralts, expanding characters' backstories beyond what is in the books and the surprising influence Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk had on the fantasy epic.

Henry Cavill told me it is “100 percent” him in the fight scenes for this show. Was it important to you have your actors actually be in those action scenes?

It was something that was very important to Henry, which meant it was important to me. One of the reasons I think Henry is such a perfect fit for Geralt is that he truly wants to embody this character, so much so that he wears the contacts to set. He has the wig on all the time and there are times I see him with his dark hair and I’m like, oh yeah, I now remember what you actually look like. From the very beginning, he said he wanted to be involved in the actual stunts. He didn’t want to use movie magic or camera tricks to pretend it was him. Anytime Geralt is on the screen, even if it’s just his hand reaching for something or his hair flipping through the frame, it’s always him. That kind of commitment to the character and the series is pretty incredible. Also, it’s given us great freedom. The first fight in Blaviken in episode one, we didn’t have to hide cameras anywhere. We could shoot it constantly, because it was him.

What’s the production process like for these major battle sequences?

It’s amazing. What I never thought about until I was writing an action show was all of the rehearsals that have to happen. All of those people get together for weeks on end. It all starts with the script, where the writers and myself write action scenes into the script, but the important thing really happens when we sit down with the stunt coordinator because I’m not a stunt coordinator, I’m not a fighter. I don’t know what’s coolest or what will look good on camera or what’s even possible. What I would do is sit down with the coordinator and say, here’s what I’m trying to get out of the story. That first fight in Blaviken, I knew that I wanted a fight with brigands where he basically dispatched seven of them quickly. I wanted it to be bloody, gory and fast. I didn’t want him to pause between kills. Then I wanted to flip that on its head and have him fight with Renfri (Emma Appleton) and the drive of that fight is that he doesn’t actually want to be fighting her. I thought it was fun to put a hero in defensive position rather than an offensive one. That’s what I gave them and let them do their jobs very well. What’s amazing is working with choreographers who work so closely with Henry because they are able to really highlight his best work. They know what he’s capable of.

This is true of many characters in The Witcher, but Geralt is very iconic. How do you balance making him unique in this show while honoring other iterations of the character?

We go back to the books constantly, in terms of his look, his attitude, his tone, all those things. What’s really fun is I can put all of that on a page, but then I have an actor come in who has to bring this character to life. I love that collaboration and in any process you have to leave the space for that to happen. For instance, in the first episode, when I originally wrote it, Geralt spoke a lot because that’s what he’s like in the books. People always think of Geralt as stoic, but in the books he talks nonstop. When we were on set and especially when we got in the cutting rooms, we realized we didn’t actually need all that exposition. Henry brings such a depth and layered performance to Geralt that we don’t need him to tell us everything he’s feeling. He can do it in a single look or a grunt. He grunts a lot. We immediately starting pulling back on that and by the time we shot the final episode, the script much more matches what’s onscreen because together we really learned what was working. In that way, we honored a lot of what’s in the books but also made sure it works for the guy that you see onscreen.

Was it always a goal to have a big star like Cavill in that role?

No, not at all. Henry actually contacted Netflix very early in the process. He’s a big gamer and played all the games. He found out I was running the show and said I just want to sit down with her. We had a great meeting, talked for about an hour and I said it’s so great you’re this enthusiastic, but I don’t even have scripts. I don’t have a job to offer you. We then went off and wrote all the scripts and about four months later I called him again. At that point I had seen 207 other potential Geralts. There were some really great performances, but what I realized is that I started to have Henry’s voice in my head as Geralt. When I called him I was really embarrassed. I told him I was so sorry, I had to see a whole bunch of other people to know it was you and he was so grateful for that because it really meant he was meant to be Geralt. I looked at every possibility and the truth is that he is Geralt.

Of those 207 actors who also read for Geralt, were any of them on the same level of stardom as Henry?

Oh, yes. That’s what was so interesting. I wanted to make sure that whoever played Geralt really had the soul of Geralt. Sure, someone who is famous is great, but someone who is unknown and could be famous in the future is also great. It doesn’t really matter to me, what matters is that this person wants to be this character.

You explore areas of other characters' backstories — such as Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), Ciri (Freya Allan) and Jaskier (Joey Batey) — in ways that we didn’t see in the games or are only hinted at in the books. How did you decide to introduce these familiar faces in the ways that you did?

I’ve always pitched the story of The Witcher as three characters who are basically a broken family. They are each on their own individual paths, are orphans living on the margins of society, are determined they need no one and want no one and then their paths start to find their way toward one another. We learn that destiny has a role there. I wanted them all to be fully fleshed-out characters before they met. The story is much more interesting if it’s not told through one single lens but multiple lenses. I wanted to get to know who Yennefer was before she becomes the most powerful, beautiful mage in the entire Continent, which she is in the books. But we also see that she’s hiding something, there’s some kind of damage there. I want to see what that is and be on that journey with her. Same with Ciri, she’s a spoiled princess and eventually is going to become a warrior, but what is in her? How do we see that strength early on? I very quickly knew that I wanted to elevate them up to the top and to basically just made sure we knew who they were before they started interacting.

Did those decisions lead to the multiple timelines?

Yes. There are a lot of details in the books, but they’re all presented as this thing that happened a long time ago. As a writing staff, we went through and pulled them all out and looked at the story that Yennefer presents of herself in the past and we began to flesh that out. What is she lying about? What is that damage that is causing her to act the way that she acts now. It started organically from the novels and then we added onto the story to make it clear.

Why did you opt for that approach, with the disparate timelines?

It started out purely as logistics. Two factors were at play: I knew that I wanted Yennefer and Ciri to be more important in this series and I wanted to understand their backstory and I also knew that I wanted to tell the stories from the first book, The Last Wish, and some of the stories from Sword of Destiny. These two things cannot co-meet, because in the short stories in The Last Wish, Ciri isn’t alive yet. So, I either had a choice to just tell those short stories and meet Ciri in season three or skip the short stories and have Ciri in the story now. I want it all, so I started thinking about how I could mess with time. I played with a lot of different things. Originally, I was going to start the series with the final book, The Lady of the Lake, and have Ciri telling the story and have it be her perspective, but I realized that wasn’t fulfilling everything I wanted to do. Then I watched the movie Dunkirk and I read the most amazing interview with Christopher Nolan where he was talking about the various timelines in that movie. He was talking about the three individual rescue missions and they all took a different amount of time. He said if he had told them linearly, in order, the first mission would take up most of the movie and the last mission would only take up the last 10 minutes and thus audiences would think it was less important. It’s just as important. I realized that was what I was trying to do here. I want to tell Ciri’s story but I want to flesh it out and make sure it feels important to this world. I had, no kidding, a shower moment where I hopped out of the shower and said to my husband, can I make this work? It was one of the most challenging aspects of this show. We had to track out timelines and figure out how old everyone was at every given point, but I think it’s what’s unexpected about this story.

The Witcher games and books are very popular, and yet there are still many people who are unfamiliar with this world. How do you make this accessible for new audiences?

The most important thing that I set out to do was make the show surprising enough for existing fans but also I didn’t want to dumb it down for fans who have never experienced this world before. I am a firm believer in challenging audiences and I think that they can keep up. Audiences are incredibly savvy. One of the very early decisions we made is that we don’t subtitle anything, we don’t add chyrons in, we don’t tell you where you’re at every moment. I think it’s much more fun to watch the first few episodes and not realize you’re on two separate storylines until someone who is dead is alive again and much younger. To me, it’s just about telling the story in the best way and having faith that people are going to hang in and be there for it.

You have a lot of material to draw from. How many seasons of The Witcher do you have planned out?

I think that I could write for 20 years and not run out of source material. I will be old and retired then, though. I would love the show to go as long as the source material will sustain it. I don’t feel the need to go beyond it. As a writer, I respect the author (Andrzej Sapkowski) and the fact that he ended the stories where he ended the stories. That doesn’t mean that we’re not pulling in new adventures — or side quests, to use a video game term — those are fun to do, too, but I really think we have the spine of the series in the books and I go to those as my map.

Did you consult with Sapkowski?

Yes, he’s a consultant on the show. I met with him very early in Poland when I came on to adapt and really dug into his life and why he was writing these short stories in the first place, what drew him to the character and how his own experiences in Poland influenced how he wrote it. What’s so amazing about him — and what has been great for me personally to learn from as a writer — is that very early on he had all the scripts and came to the set in Budapest to visit and when I asked him if he wanted to see the cuts in the editing room he said no. He said he didn’t need to see the ingredients, he wanted to taste the soup when it’s done. I thought that was such a brave thing which meant that he trusted what we were doing and he doesn’t want to micromanage it. He wants to sit back and enjoy it. That’s the best seal of approval I could ask for.

Perhaps unfairly, new shows in specific genres often get compared to past hits in the same genre. The Witcher isn’t all that much like Game of Thrones, but that comparison has been made. What makes The Witcher unique to you? What is it offering in the fantasy genre that hasn’t been done before?

A couple of things. One, I think the humor. I’ve never seen humor in a fantasy show like this. The other big thing we’re doing is that we are going back to tell the stories of these three characters, but we’re not shying away from the monsters and the magic. I think up until this point it’s been something that people are afraid to do on television, whether it be budget or logistics or are people going to be turned off by this many unrealistic creatures or places. Those are such important hallmarks of The Witcher, we knew we couldn’t do the show without them. Let’s figure out how to knock it out of the park. I think people should come in expecting great characters and believable journeys, but also be expecting some fun visual surprises, too.