Since the release of Netflix’s surprise holiday hit The Witcher, two things have become clear: “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” is an absolute bop, and few showrunners know how to engage with their material, and their audience, like Lauren Schmidt Hissrich. In Hissrich’s adaptation of Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski’s book series and its attendant video games — which in December overtook the Disney+ flagship show The Mandalorian as the most-streamed show in the world — rolling abs, a fearsome warrior queen, and a woman’s right to choose take center stage against the typically machismo backdrop of fantasy stories. But this formula did not arrive fully formed; Hissrich picked up a lot of lessons along the way, from her early days working as an intern on The West Wing to discovering the role fantasy played for adult readers.
Now, as she and her writers’ room complete the second season in London, Hissrich spoke to Vulture about how she implemented those lessons in season one, and how fans’ reactions to the series — in particular, its multiple timelines — will help shape season two.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When you dropped your original pitch for The Witcher on Reddit, you said that you felt fans of television would be savvy enough to follow the multiple timelines within the story line. Do you feel like you gave them too much credit? It’s been one of the most disputed aspects of the show since it came out.
I don’t think I was giving the audience too much credit. The audience is incredibly smart. That being said, what I misunderstood was what everyone was looking for in their entertainment. For me, and this has been a huge lesson on this project, I love to be challenged when I’m watching TV. I love to not understand everything in the beginning, and to know that if I keep watching and keep paying attention that the puzzle pieces will start to fall into place. Not everyone, it turned out, wants to do that. It was interesting talking to fans who said, “I didn’t have any idea what was happening in the timelines until episode four.” And I’m like, “Yes! Exactly. That’s when it should have hit home.” And to me, that was like a huge success. And yet, that viewer felt like they wanted to understand what was going on from episode one.
It’s a great lesson to take out of this show. We are all turning up for different things. I’ve heard some people say they don’t want to watch a show about Yennefer, and I’ve heard some people say they are only watching this show because of Yennefer. I will continue to try to write television that I think is smart and challenging. I hope that fans will be along for that ride.
You’ve been very vocal online about the criticism you’ve received, accepting some critiques while expressing disagreements with others. Is there a critique you’re most excited to implement in season two?
Yes. It’s one of the broadest ones, but it’s one of the ones that hurt the most when I read it. Some people feel that because we were putting in so much story, and because it was very important to me to present Yennefer early on, they felt like they didn’t get to go deep enough into any of the characters. They were trying to follow so much story that none of the stories emotionally resonated. Not everyone feels that way, but I have heard that critique enough for it to sit with me.
We already know the stories we’re telling [for season two], but I want to make sure that we have the time to tell them appropriately. One of the biggest changes we’ve made is to make sure that the scripts aren’t too long. It’s a terrible thing when you shoot a story that you’re proud of, and then it’s 95 minutes long and you’re trying to fit it into 60 minutes of television. You end up cutting stuff that you know would be great, or would be important. Viewers are going to find that because we’re not trying to push as much story, and we’re not trying to constantly introduce new characters all the time, and new worlds, and new kingdoms, and increase the politics, sometimes we just get to sit with characters and learn about them a little bit more. And that’s probably the thing I’m most excited for people to see.
Does that mean you’ll be abandoning the multiple story lines for next season, or at least the timelines for next season? They’re all in the same space now, but is there a chance that will go back in time at all?
No. All three characters [Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer] are on the same timeline now. That’s where we ended season one. That’s absolutely where we will pick up in season two. The stories will be told in a much more linear fashion. They won’t all be one story. It’s not like all three are together and happy all the time. But, I do want to employ some different ways to look at time series-wide. I think that there is a lot that we couldn’t fit into season one. There are different short stories that I would love to highlight and focus on. We may end up doing those in the future, via flashback, for instance. But no, we won’t have things happening across 100 years at the same time anymore.
You’ve done a lot of superhero-themed work in your career, including Daredevil and The Umbrella Academy, which have elements of fantasy, but this is your first time doing a full-out fantasy drama. Do you have a personal history with the genre?
I fell in love with David Bowie in Labyrinth. That’s probably the initial fantasy movie that I saw and fell in love with. The NeverEnding Story was another one. I tried to show that one to my children. It horrified, terrified them to death. These are the things that I loved as a child.
My fantasy literature was different. I have to say it was much more of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe type of things. I didn’t have a lot of experience with adult fantasy. And that’s sort of what intersected with me and The Witcher. When I read [Sapkowski’s] The Last Wish for the first time, I didn’t know anything about the Netflix show. They hadn’t bought it yet. But it was interesting to take the tenets of this thing that I had loved as a kid, that I thought of as a genre for kids, to then read it as an adult and see this incredibly adult story. I don’t mean sex and violence. I mean about the thematics of the book, and the marginalization of people in society, and the racism and xenophobia, but also just about the grayness of morality. All of these things were packed into The Last Wish. And I was like, Oh, this is for adults, too.
It’s been quite the learning curve — getting in and learning more about fantasy, and learning more what people love about it. I would have thought that it was a lot about escapism, and, in fact, what I’ve learned is that a lot of people turn to fantasy for a reflection of their real lives, just with cooler shit.
You began your writing career on The West Wing, and a continued theme throughout your career has been chosen family. I wonder where that came from?
It’s something that I adore writing about. When I was 20, I picked up and left my entire family, who were in Ohio, and moved to Los Angeles on my own. I didn’t have family there. Obviously, I met my husband. I have two kids. I have grown a family there. But it’s something that we talk to our kids a lot about. Family isn’t necessarily just the people that you are related to; it’s the people that you choose to have around you, and you choose to turn to for support, or love. That’s big in my life, because it’s something I had to go through.
The other thing, too, is, and this is reflective of The West Wing but also, oddly, The Wicher, is I love workplace drama. I love what happens between colleagues. It’s just another facet of family to me. That’s certainly what we explored all over The West Wing. I was an intern in my first season between my junior and senior years of college. Then, I worked on the staff for the next six years. All of my friends were from The West Wing. It was all I did. We worked 16 hours a day, and it was my entire life. It was an interesting thing to bring to The Witcher because, of course, we have a character whose job is his entire life, too. I find these really interesting connections between a, frankly, liberal political show based in America, and a fantasy show about a monster hunter. Spiritually, they’re not so dissimilar.
You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of story-driven violence and nudity in your storytelling, and Anya Chalotra spoke about how she felt it was important to perform Yennefer’s nude scenes for herself and for the character. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of actresses walk away from very popular TV because of the way their nude scenes were handled on set. How do you, as a showrunner, try to address those concerns and create a safe environment for your actors?
It is the first and foremost concern. You know, when we write scenes, we write scenes as we see them. For instance, Yennefer’s transformation, we imagined her as she ended up on the screen, wearing no clothes, because that’s what made sense for us. As her skin was going to split open, we wanted to see the visceralness of that process. It made sense to us that she wouldn’t be wearing anything.
The first thing that happens is we sit with the actor, and we have a conversation [about the scene]. If the actor is not comfortable, that scene is rewritten. There is absolutely no way that we proceed forward unless everyone is comfortable. Of course, if at any time someone does feel uncomfortable, not even just the actors themselves, but anyone else on the set, we stop immediately and reassess.
As a showrunner, it all has to be actor-led. And that’s how we have proceeded with it. This is something that I know Anya has talked about a lot, because she is the one that has the most nudity this season. But she felt like it was very integral to the transformation of her character. She described it as a sex-positive portrayal of the body. That was something that we jointly agreed on, and that’s what ended up on the screen.
I’m a black person who enjoys fantasy a lot, and I’m still getting used to seeing characters who are black outside of very heavy makeup. The Witcher has a lot of black secondary characters, but my favorite was Fringilla. Is there any chance we’ll get to see more of that great villainess in season two?
You will absolutely get more Fringilla. What is interesting, referring back to your earlier questions, Fringilla is one of those characters that we’re going to delve into even more. One of the things that I did hear is that she seems like a fanatic or a zealot, which is interesting. I’ve never seen her that way, perhaps because, even by the time that we were putting it on the air, I knew where we were going with season two. We’re digging deeper into her past and how she ended up at Nilfgaard, who she is as a person, and how she and Yennefer ended up on such different paths. She gets to do a lot more. I’m so excited. Mimi Ndiweni did such a fantastic job portraying her.
There’s a lot of great feminist storytelling being done within the series, from a woman’s right to choose to the confined conditions women are often put under in order to be seen as successful in society. But I think one of the most feminist aspects of the show are the changes made to Jaskier, who in the book is pretty creepy and gross. How did those changes came about?
This is something that Joey Batey and I spoke about a lot. How do we take a character who loves women and not play him as a womanizer? We didn’t want to play him as someone who is just trolling around, taking advantage of helpless women. The solution was to not surround him with a bunch of helpless women who are standing around waiting to be taken advantage of.
So as soon as you up the strength of the female characters in the show, then you will immediately up the strength of the male characters as well. This is something that is so misunderstood. Many think that if you have strong female characters, then obviously the men are weak. No. It makes men stronger too. Jaskier loves people. He loves women, especially. But what he loves is women who love him as well. It was easy for Joey to portray. Joey is someone who has a lot of natural joy in life. That’s what we tapped into for the character. What I love about this decision the most is that it’s taken away this idea of a sleazy, womanizing guy, and made him into someone that you root for. You root for him to find his true love … if that’s what he’s looking for.