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On the day of The Witcher’s season 2 Netflix launch, showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich planned to not be busy at all. Following the show’s London premiere and a full press tour just weeks prior, Hissrich was finally able to wind down, hanging out at her Los Angeles home with her husband and kids.
“I’m, like, in sweatpants,” Hissrich said, laughing. “We’re just hanging out today and being a family, which is the thing I want most right now.”
As one of the few female showrunners in the fantasy space, Hissrich is paving the way for more well-rounded female perspectives in a male-dominated genre. “What I’ve heard from a lot of women, and the thing that I feel myself, is that I can find myself in this show,” she said. “As a woman and as a person who loves fantasy, I often couldn’t find myself in other fantasy shows. I didn’t see a person that represented me, and how I walked through the world and how I saw the world.”
Based on the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski and the successful video game franchise that followed, The Witcher premiered in 2019 to become, according to Netflix, the streamer’s most-viewed series until that point. Hissrich planned to go full steam ahead into season two, until the pandemic hit.
“I had this deep concern that no one would care anymore,” Hissrich said of the show’s COVID setbacks. “Just probably in the last two weeks, I’ve allowed myself to get excited about it again.”
With season three already prepped, the showrunner is excited for the current season’s storylines to dive deeper into the characters, including that of Ciri (played by Freya Allen). “I have to say that in season one, I don’t think that we paid enough attention to Ciri’s story,” Hissirch said. “It’s one of my big regrets watching that season. And so we worked really hard this season to make sure that we felt like we were on the path a lot more with Ciri.”
Read the full interview below.
There was already an early renewal for season three. What kind of talks are you in about the long term future and timeline of the show?
As soon as season one was a success, we started talking about how we might want to expand this universe. I’ve had these ideas of spinoffs and other stories that we could do, because I knew that on the main Witcher — the mothership — we were gonna run out of room to engross ourselves in Sapkowski’s tales. Immediately I started thinking: how do we pair or spin off certain concepts, certain ideas, so that we don’t have to worry about covering them in exposition-y ways? We can actually blow them up and make them more dramatic.
I have to say, COVID kind of blew a hole in all of that because we had started thinking about expanding and then suddenly it was like, you know, we’re not gonna be able to premier The Witcher season two for another two years. And I had this deep concern that no one would care anymore. You know, how do we make sure that viewers want to come back? That after eight episodes, they’d be willing to wait 700 and something days, in order to see a second season. And just probably in the last two weeks, I’ve allowed myself to get excited about it again.
We’re done writing season three, which is exciting. We will start production, God-willing, with the current state of the world, in 2022. And we’re just continuing rolling on, but the premier of this season, I think, has become really key to that and people’s excitement around it. That’s what is keeping me going forward right now.
Adapting work is tricky, especially when there’s already a built-in fan base. How do you feel you’ve put your stamp on the franchise?
I actually think my job was made a little bit easier because there is a video game adaptation already. Audiences who love the books already know what it feels like to have this thing that they’re passionate about spun into a different format, and to have stories told in slightly different ways. So I feel like I was lucky that that path was laid down even before I got here. And I always think of the TV series as just another sort of way to tell the stories of this world. So, you know, I never really think of how I put my own stamp on it. The truth is that the pure act of adapting a novel, or in this case, seven novels and thousands and thousands of pages, to television — that process alone forces us to think of new creative ways to tell those stories.
The best example I can give is in season two. I’ll be honest, Blood of Elves, which is the book that we were adapting for this season, I was really terrified to adapt because it has these gorgeous, long character arcs and chapters that are just about Geralt and Tris and their friendship. Just an entire chapter of them speaking and caring about one another. And those are all things that we wanted to keep this season. And yet, we knew that without some sort of forward-propelling engine [to the plot], that not enough would happen to keep fans engaged. So, Yennefer is the perfect example. She really doesn’t appear in the book until the final third of it when she’s more or less called into service by Geralt. Geralt needs her to come and train Ciri. And I just thought, could we actually do a story where one of the fan-favorite characters is waiting in the wings and not progressing her own life forward at all? And not understanding what’s happened to her since the battle of Sodden, her challenges and her agenda and her journey, and just have her suddenly fly into Geralt’s story? I thought, I can’t do that. I can’t do that to her character. So that’s our stamp, I suppose, is starting to take these sort of beautiful tenants that Sapkowski has set up, and then making sure that we’re crafting a really coherent narrative around it and that all of our characters get the same love and attention.
So much of the pressure on the fantasy/sci-fi genre is on the world-building. How did you approach that?
I think that’s probably why season one was hard to write and, at times, I think, hard for viewers to follow because we took the approach of “throw everyone into the deep end.” I didn’t want to spend episode after episode explaining how magic worked or what the different kingdoms were and spending enough time with each of them so that we started to understand. I really wanted those things to unfold organically in the story. When Kelly Luegenbiehl, my Netflix executive on the show, first got the pilot, she was like, “I love it. But you need to tell us what a Witcher is.” I was like, right, that has to come in the first couple of pages.
I mean, trust me, from a writing perspective, we would put things in, pull them out. Is this too dense now? Are we actually not giving enough of the world, the Continent, to allow viewers to understand what’s happening? So it’s a super fine tight rope. What I can say is that so much of that heavy lifting was done in season one, which means it was a joy to write season two because it became that much more just about the characters and their stories.
This franchise has so many beloved female characters. What is it like for you to adapt those strong female characters on-screen, and to be able to flesh out their stories even more so this season?
It’s so exciting. It’s such an honor to do, and that sounds cheesy, but truly, as a female showrunner of a huge fantasy franchise — there’s not a lot of women that have been in my role yet — and then to be able to further that by making sure that the women in the show are represented in an equally layered way, and an equally complicated way [as the men]. What’s interesting is that Sapkowski created incredibly strong female characters in the book, so I really give all credit to him for planting those seeds. The women are complicated and complex, and what I mean by that is that they’re not just background characters, nor are they always strong kick-ass women, which is false, as well. They are incredibly strong. They’re also incredibly vulnerable. They make terrible mistakes. They have to redeem themselves, and learn from things. And there are things that they regret doing. It really is a full 360 view of a woman. We don’t think about that with the storytelling of men. That’s just how they exist in storytelling worlds. The only thing that I did was I made sure that we were presenting them all equally on-screen. In the book, Geralt is obviously the protagonist, the Witcher, and we meet these characters only through his adventures. And that is the big thing that I wanted to shift for the series is that I wanted to understand who Yennefer was, what her life had been, her trauma, but also the joys of her life and her own journey long before she met Geralt. Because to me, that made their first interaction that much more interesting if I knew where she’d been and what she’d been doing.
And the same goes for Ciri. I have to say that in season one, I don’t think that we paid enough attention to Ciri’s story. It’s one of my big regrets watching that season. And so we worked really hard this season to make sure that we felt like we were on the path a lot more with Ciri, with Freya and sort of allowing her to fully explore this character. And I also think setting up the fact that Ciri becomes increasingly important in the series as it goes. Any book lover will tell you that she starts to become the center of this narrative. And we also wanted to make sure we were setting that up.
Alongside Henry Cavill as the leading character, Ciri (Freya Allen) and Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) really steal the show in a lot of ways.
What I’ve heard from a lot of women, and the thing that I feel myself, is that I can find myself in this show. As a woman and as a person who loves fantasy, I often couldn’t find myself in other fantasy shows. I didn’t see a person that represented me, and how I walked through the world and how I saw the world. And I hear that again and again from women. I mean, they love Geralt. Women show up for Geralt, too. But the big surprise is that they also find themselves really aligning with these women. And to me — again, I started with the word honor — I am so grateful that we get to do that with these stories.
I understand you guys shut down halfway through production due to COVID complications. Beyond that hurdle, what was the biggest challenge in making the second season?
One of them I already mentioned, which was just sort of my personal fear of adapting this novel. That was a huge challenge, and making sure that the stories that we came up with that were solely our own invention matched the tone of the show, so that eventually when Andrzej Sapkowski read the scripts and saw the episodes, he wouldn’t go, “What have you done?” Which he did not, thank God, he loved it.
I also think that [some of the challenges were] COVID-related. I think that we had to sort of learn how to be a production again. You come back after a five month shutdown and you’ve been told other humans are dangerous to you. Like all other humans potentially could be a massive threat to your health. And at the same time, we’re trying to tell the cast and crew, “Come on back, we’ve been working for months to make this a safe production and here’s how we’re changing things and here’s how we’re doing things.” And to me, it really was an exploration in mental health and an exploration in making sure that I wasn’t just being a leader in terms of that stories were crafted correctly, but that I could be there for the cast and crew in their concerns and their worries about leaving their homes. About coming to the UK, and what happens if borders closed again and they wouldn’t be able to get back? And sort of navigating all of those fears, and the months that it took to get to the point where everyone felt like family again. Because that’s the core of any production is everyone wanting to be there and being excited and passionate and feeling good.
It was an enormous challenge that I feel mirrors exactly what we’re going through in the real world, all the time, you know? It was big and it really brought a new appreciation for me of how to be a good leader.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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