A TV producer, screenwriter and story editor, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich has worked on numerous successful serials, including the award-winning The West Wing, family comedy-drama Parenthood, Marvel’s Daredevil and The Defenders, and the star-studded superhero series The Umbrella Academy.
Her latest success comes in the form of one of Netflix’s most popular TV shows of 2019, The Witcher, starring Henry Cavill as the titular character, Geralt, based on the best-selling book series of the same name by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, or more specifically The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, which are collections of short stories that precede the main Witcher saga.
The first season, consisting of eight episodes, had reportedly been viewed by over 76 million viewers on its service within its first month of release. At the press junket with Henry Cavill in Manila, August Man Malaysia took the opportunity to catch up with the showrunner and find out more about the book-to-streaming adaptation.
“I choose things that would drive the story forward. Audiences are really savvy now, they don’t need to be shocked.”
The unnamed Continent is where The Witcher events take place. How did you put together a clear vision of what this world might be and translate all that onto screen?
We have an entire department of people, the art department, headed by our production designer Andrew Laws, and his sole job is to create this world. He sources materials from the books, of which he’s a big fan, as well as from our scripts, and works on those two things together. He’s actually the one who visualises the individual places and also the geography between them.
What was your approach towards the action and adult themes of the books?
There’s nudity, but also blood and gore, which are the major themes of the show. I choose things that would drive the story forward. Audiences are really savvy now, they don’t need to be shocked. Hopefully our story-telling is good enough that we don’t need to have something crazy going on in the background to be engaged.
I want them to be able to pay attention to our story, so when we do have nudity, sex scenes, or blood and gore, it really is about pushing the story forward, and making sure that we understand what the character is going through in that moment and how it changes them.
We’ve also noticed that, amidst the carnage and brooding atmosphere, there are also some lighthearted moments. How important was it for you to incorporate that without worrying about interrupting the overall tone?
It’s really important for us. First of all, that levity comes straight from the books, which is important for us to carry over. Fantasy is a genre not typically seen as humorous because it has so many big themes. You’re talking about war and battles and a lot of people dying. When I spoke to the author, Andrzej Sapkowski, about the humour in the books, we talked a lot about how real humans deal with tragedy, and a lot of people deal with tragedy with humour.
No matter what happens, particularly in The Witcher, whether there’s a huge battle raging next door, the family that’s living on that farm still has to get up the next morning, and go to work, and put one foot in front of the other. A way to deal with bad things and tragedy is to just try to remember the good things.
How do you pinpoint a period in time to use as reference for the setting of a fantasy fiction like The Witcher?
When you talk about fantasy, a lot of people immediately think about medieval drama, and there are certainly aspects of medieval drama in the show, but we didn’t want to limit ourselves to that. In our fantasy worlds, there is no Earth, no sense of history or time; it’s fully created. So there’s no medieval period that ever happened in this world. What we try to do is look at influences; for example, we try to use a lot of real architecture in real places; we try to create a stand-alone history for the Continent.
For an epic saga like The Witcher that comes with a whole fictional universe and its own history, how much of the background story on the Continent did you have to include to make sure that your audience understands what’s going on?
Audiences are smart, so I want to drop the audience in so that they can sort of see how brutal and how big the world is. It’s not important in the first episode though for the audience to understand the names of every city, or to understand how everyone is related to each other. Those are the things that as you watch the episodes you’ll be able to start to put the puzzle together. I hope that audiences don’t feel like they are just being told a story, but they are on a journey with us.
What is your response to people comparing the show to Game of Thrones?
I think audiences are now relating to the fantasy genre in a way that couldn’t have happened without Game of Thrones (GOT). They brought fantasy to the general population. I think up till then, fantasy was often seen as something that was for geeks or nerds. GOT has made us aware that fantasy is a reflection of our real world and the problems that we go through as humans, and we can relate to things that are happening there. That’s how The Witcher approaches fantasy as well, in its own way.
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What’s it like working with Henry Cavill, and what made you pick him as your lead?
He’s a huge fan of the franchise. He knew Geralt from the games, so he knew a lot about Geralt; he probably knew more about Geralt than I did. He’s really a scholar of the material. But that isn’t necessarily the best reason; to me, it’s about portraying the spirit of the character and Henry was willing to audition for us, and that’s something not a lot of actors of his calibre are willing to do. He was so passionate about this role that we sat down together in New York and that was the first time I heard his Geralt voice that he had been working on, and we spoke a lot about the hair and the eyes, and I began to realise just how much he was already starting to embody Geralt.
What’s your secret to adapting a book to a TV show?
What I love doing in any adaptation is to make sure that I’m connecting with the material, seeing what appeals to me as an audience. The good news is I have a staff of writers, and the 11 of us would sit in a room and basically for 20 weeks all we do is talk about fake stories and characters, and use our imagination. It’s the best job ever. But it’s not just about how I relate to the materials, it’s also about how each of them relate to the materials. And they each do so in a different way, and then we try to take what everyone loves about the show, things that overlap and things that most people don’t necessarily notice, and put that all into a cohesive show.
The most interesting thing, as well as most challenging, about doing adaptations is that you just can’t do it all alone. And with a series, The Witcher for example, is that even though there’s so much in the books we had to leave behind, largely because we were limited to only a total of eight hours for the entire season, the good news is we now have a season two, so we get to start putting stuff that we left behind in season two.
“Fantasy was often seen as something that was for geeks or nerds. GOT has made us aware that fantasy is a reflection of our real world and the problems that we go through as humans, and we can relate to things that are happening there.”
Having watched the first five episodes of The Witcher, we realised that the events take place in different timelines. Is that intentional?
I was trying to solve a lot of logic problems. I wanted to tell the short stories from The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. Those books tell you how the foundations of the world were built. I felt that we really needed to have those stories in order for the audience to better understand Geralt, the monsters, the Continent, the politics, etc. But I also really wanted Yennefer to be a big part of the series even though her story is not a big part of the books. So I started to realise I had to play with time a little bit.
One of the first questions that Netflix asked was, “How do you plan to explain to the audience that you’re playing with time?” I said, “I’m not going to.” I feel that an audience can enjoy the stories that we are telling from the beginning even without realising that we are in different times. And then when you get to the point, like in episode four when you see a character who has died earlier is suddenly there, to me, that’s exciting because you get to stop and go back and think, “wait, shouldn’t I have known that already from the beginning?” The answer is “no.” If you rewatch, you will realise that there are actually clues planted all through the episodes leading up to that moment.
The Witcher is currently streaming on Netflix
This article was first published in the August Man Malaysia March 2020 print issue