A version of this story about Lauren Schmidt Hissrich first appeared in the “Race Begins” issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. It is one in a series of conversations about the effects of the coronavirus on the TV industry.
Netflix’s Henry Cavill-led adaptation of “The Witcher” was watched by 76 million households in its first month after launching last December, according to the streamer, marking the platform’s biggest series debut to date. But before the fantasy series premiered to those record numbers, showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich and her team were already mapping out Season 2, which received an early renewal. Production began in February in the U.K., only to stop due to the coronavirus.
In an interview last month, Hissirch revealed that Season 2 will welcome newcomers “Killing Eve” vet Kim Bodnia as Vesemir, “Game of Thrones” alum Kristofer Hivju as Nivellen, Yasen Atour as Coen, Agnes Born as Vereena, Paul Bullion as Lambert, Thue Ersted Rasmussen as Eskel, Aisha Fabienne Ross as Lydia and Mecia Simson as Francesca. They’ll join Cavill as monster hunter Geralt of Rivia, Anya Chalotra as sorceress Yennefer, and Freya Allan as Princess Ciri and several other returning cast members.
“Probably my favorite additions for Season 2 are the new witchers,” Hissrich said. “Really, in Season 1, we got to know Geralt and he’s our prime example of a witcher. And then there is one other witcher, Remus, who we meet in Episode 103, who quickly dies (laughs). So it was, for us really, about getting Geralt back to his roots and sort of learning where he came from and what his story is and what his sense of family is.”
“When I talk about ‘The Witcher,’ I always talk about how these three characters coming together — Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer — they come together as a family. It’s the most important part of the series for me,” she added. “And when you start to imagine someone’s family, you also need to understand their family of origin. Sometimes that’s a mother and father, sometimes that’s blood relatives. For Geralt, it’s his brothers, it’s the brotherhood of the witchers. So I’m really excited to get back in and meet Vesemir, his father figure, for the first time and all of these men that he was raised with since he was seven years old. And one of the benefits of quarantine is the public has gotten to know these actors a little bit, because they are very present on social media and we’ve been doing bakeoffs and we’ve been doing danceoffs. And I think everyone has really gotten to know these actors a little bit better, too. And it’s exciting, because I think that sort of energy will be coming into Season 2.”
Some fans of the original “The Witcher” novel series, written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, criticized the show’s use of multiple timelines to tell the individual stories of Gerlat, Yennefer and Ciri, a storytelling device that led to confusion for viewers who were not familiar with the plot. Hissrich said Season 2 will move away from that approach — but not because of complaints.
“Obviously, it was one of the most controversial parts of Season 1 and I didn’t expect it to be as controversial as it was. But it’s something I still stand behind, in terms of storytelling,” Hissrich said, adding that the “goal was to get to know each of these characters individually, and the only want to do that was to separate their timelines.”
“What’s great though is they have intersected now. So what we’ll see in Season 2 is that all of our characters are existing on the same timeline. What that allows us to do storywise though is to play with time in slightly different ways. We get to do flashbacks, we get to do flash-forwards, we get to actually integrate time in a completely different way that we weren’t able to do in Season 1. Because, if you can imagine, if we were in three different timelines (in Season 1) and then flashed forward or flashed back, we would have been in four or five or six timelines — even I know that’s too much. So I think it will be a lot easier for the audience follow and understand, especially a new audience coming in. But there are still going to be some fun challenges with time.”
Watch TheWrap’s interview with Hissrich above and read more highlights below.
How has “The Witcher” been affected by the pandemic?
We were shooting in the U.K. and were about six weeks into our season when we shut down. We were literally in the middle of a big sequence we had been preparing for months. But we have a very international crew and it wasn’t just about the health of our crew and our cast, but also getting them back home to their families. So that was at the forefront for us.
And we had a cast member, Kristofer Hivju, who was diagnosed with coronavirus. Obviously, first we wanted to make sure he was OK. He was tested as he flew back into his home country of Norway, and he was completely asymptomatic at the time. He had no idea he had it. So, of course, we had to follow up with everyone who came into contact with him and let them know what they should do if they start feeling sick. But thank God, knock on wood, we had no other illnesses spiraling off that one.
What changes do you expect you’ll need to make in the future?
Right now, it’s a lot of production meetings, a lot of talking about how to keep people safe… A lot of it is just about flexibility, not just in the planning phases but when we get back on sets. It’s about personal comfort and personal safety. So, the government may say it’s OK to do X or Y, but an actor may say they don’t feel comfortable doing that. And that’s always going to be our first concern.
So we’re making all sorts of plans and accommodations and waiting for various governments to weigh in with their recommendations. And film commissions and Netflix. And yeah, it’s going to impact story. It will have to. But one of the best things about being a writer on set is that I’m there to make those changes as we need them.
Really, in terms of writing, we just been honing a lot over the last eight weeks. Really digging back into scripts, making some big shifts, especially in the emotional journeys of our characters and making sure that everything we’re writing feels really grounded and true.
The Season 1 finale featured the long-awaited meeting of Ciri and Geralt. Where will we find them in Season 2, now that they’ve finally been brought together?
What I think is really fun about Geralt and Ciri is they are the most unexpected family you can imagine. You have a witcher whose sole job is to kill things for money and you have a little girl who is trying to escape her past and it’s like, how do they come together? And to me, one of the most fun things we get to explore in Season 2 now is how they get to change and shift each other. Coming out of Season 1, you have a pretty good sense of who Ciri is, you have a pretty good sense of who Geralt is. And now we get to throw that all in a blender and see what happens when two people who are completely different have to be forced together in circumstances. And I think it’s really fun. It’s not always pretty. They will argue. They will fight. It will be two strangers coming together for the first time and being told, “Nope, you’re gonna be together forever.” I think that their growth together into being a father and daughter is one of my favorite parts of the series.
What do you see as TV’s role in this time of isolation?
As a person who is struggling through this quarantine like everyone else and trying to find ways to entertain my kids and keep them from having stress and anxiety, and bring the family together over something that isn’t homeschooling or reading the news — television is a huge component for everyone right now. Fantasy television can perhaps fill this hole that people are looking for, which is a world outside their own.
Obviously, when “The Witcher” was written and when we adapted it, we never thought about a pandemic. There are some cool themes about isolation and what it feels like working your way through the world alone — but at the same time, you could just watch “The Witcher” and enjoy the songs and the humor and the monsters and not think at all about what’s going on outside.
What does it feel like to have this level of success for a new show?
It’s still kind of incredible to me. You spend so long pouring all of your energy and brain power and creativity into a show and you never have any idea how it’s going to be received. I was incredibly proud of what we did with “The Witcher,” but of course there were a lot of unknowns out there. Everyone kept comparing it to “Game of Thrones,” for instance. I’m a huge “Game of Thrones” fan, but I also knew that people would show up and see that “The Witcher” was something different, and would they like that or would they dislike that? Would people be able to understand some of the fantasy and the lore of the show that a lot of the book lovers and video game lovers have? We hoped to attract them but also a new audience.
There’s so many variables. I knew I was going to be proud of it, I just hoped the world was going to watch it too. And the first couple of weeks after the show rolled out were just incredible. It reached a lot of parts of the globe, and it’s a credit to Netflix having such a broad reach across the world.
Read more from The Race Begins issue of TheWrap Emmy magazine.