The first season of The Witcher is now streaming on Netflix. Last spring, Polygon traveled to the set of the series. Here’s everything we learned.
In a musty wine cellar, a knightlike figure steps out from the shadows. His name is Geralt of Rivia, and he’s here to confront the druid Mousesack. “Where is he?” Geralt grumbles. He’s looking for the “Child of Surprise,” a young boy due to him in payment for saving a Cintrian princess and her husband-to-be from a room of envious suitors several years beforehand.
There is no boy, Mousesack tells him, because the child was born a girl: Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon, or “Ciri,” for short.
“Cut!” A voice breaks the illusion. The tunnels beneath the Cintrian throne revert back to an ordinary stone cellar in Budapest, Hungary, where Netflix is rolling cameras on its first fantasy epic. The director asks Henry Cavill, the actor inhabiting Geralt’s gruff persona, to move a bit to the left for the next take. “I knew at the start it was a little off,” the actor says. Soon the roar of “action!” echoes through the cellar. Cavill is the monster hunter, once again. This is The Witcher.
Although best known for leading a beloved video game series, The Witcher was born in a 1986 issue of the Polish magazine Fantastyka. The world took root; beginning in 1991, author Andrzej Sapkowski extended Geralt’s journey across two short story collections and six novels. While the short stories focus mostly on the coarse witcher slaying myriad beasts, the novels broaden the scope, positioning Geralt’s adoptive daughter Ciri as an equal protagonist as she becomes the most powerful, sought-after person on The Continent. Meanwhile, the world around them has been plunged into a vicious war between the Nilfgaardian Empire — a previously scoffed-at southern nation seeking to colonize the world — and the northern kingdoms who stand against it.
Unlike Tolkien’s genre-defining Lord of the Rings, The Witcher is a tragicomedy, verging on a Dickensian equilibrium that elicits every kind of tear. A Polish sensibility keeps it raw, realistic, yet steeped in an unwavering sense of warmth. Sapkowski’s books have heart, and character, and are invested in challenging what is good and what is evil — it’s often that the two are just different parts of the same coin, arbitrarily flipped with equal odds attached to each possibility.
CD Projekt Red captured the multisided nature of the books when it reintroduced Geralt to the world in the 2007 action role-playing game The Witcher. Sapkowski, skeptical of the format, famously and consistently detached himself and his literary works from the games, and The Hexer, a poorly reviewed 2002 Polish TV series, kept away other parties who might be interested in bringing the property to live action. A proper adaptation looked like it would never work out. But in December 2017, after years of trying to get a movie off the ground, producer Tomasz Bagiński hired Daredevil and Parenthood writer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich to turn The Witcher into a series for Netflix. A year and a half later, Hissrich stands on the Budapest set of the show, aware not only of the gamble of adapting The Witcher in the wake of other incarnations, but also of doing so in the shadow of Game of Thrones.
“I think when the comparison is made, everyone just wants this show to be as successful as Game of Thrones,” she says, addressing the dragon in the room. “I think it’s less about the stories that they’re telling ... and more about, can this show be as ‘big’ and as ‘game-changing’ as that — and, I mean, I’d really like it to be. But I think that when people come, they’ll see that we’re taking a different twist on things.”
Hissrich’s Witcher stepped out on the right foot before a single camera rolled: Thanks to Bagiński’s persuasion, Sapkowski came on board as an active creative consultant, and Cavill, as he would gush on set, is a die-hard fan of the series. Certainly on set there’s magic crackling in the corners of the production — the kind of effervescent ether that would make Geralt’s medallion tremble — but there’s also a sense of danger. For a fandom that knows the video game adaptation better than the source material, and a zeitgeist still reeling from the finale of Game of Thrones, a question looms large: Can The Witcher, which premieres on Netflix on Dec. 20, march into battle and survive the streaming wars?
In a remote Hungarian forest, Hissrich clutches a cup of coffee, shivering alongside a faction of medieval soldiers ordering at a food truck. Making a fantasy isn’t a day-to-day fantasy, but this was the perfect spot. Locations were a make-or-break part of separating The Witcher from things like Thrones or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and production pushed — at one point scouting 200 locations in the Canary Islands in just three days — to find the perfect perspectives that would bring “The Continent” to life.
“They took us high up in the mountains and it was freezing,” Freya Allan, who plays Ciri, tells me on set. “We did a lot of stuff here where it was freezing, and I was like, ‘Yeah, but it’s fine ’cause we’re gonna get to the Canaries and it will be nice and warm’ — and it wasn’t very warm at all.”
There are physical hardships and existential ones, too. During a down moment, Hissrich echoes a point I’ll hear from many of the creatives working on The Witcher: The Netflix show is not based on the games. Hissrich has played CD Projekt Red’s series — she admits to being much better at nursing a cold beer and watching a friend rather than being the one at the controls — and understands how their popularity aggrandized the source material. But the games take place years after Sapkowski’s introduction of the Witcher characters, and they focus on Geralt’s point of view. A TV series demands dimension, and characters require friendship, romance, and violence. “That’s the strongest way to build a story,” Hissrich explains. “Let’s build [the characters] up, give them complications, drive, passions, and then let’s have them intersect and see what conflict that brings about.”
Even before Bagiński hired her to adapt the books, Hissrich was entranced by Sapkowski’s writing, and she strived to deliver a faithful adaptation. That meant understanding not only the source material, but the author’s imagination.
“I wanted to know why, as a Polish man, he wrote this story and what it was about his past,” Hissrich told Polygon a few months after the show wrapped. “So we talked a lot about ice fishing. We drank some — OK, maybe more than a little — vodka. We just got to know each other. I pitched him my vision of the show and how I imagined the adaptation unfolding.”
There were obvious changes to make. A character like Yennefer, the sorceress whom Geralt falls hard for in the books, needed more dimension. Stray characters from the short stories were aged up to poke Geralt in conversation and draw his thoughts out of an internal monologue.
Through every change, and even on set, Hissrich asked Sapkowski for his thoughts. He told the showrunner he didn’t want to see the grocery list or what’s in the cart, but instead just wanted to “taste the soup” when the show was complete.
“And I thought it was such a brilliant way to see this,” the showrunner says. “He could either get involved in every single detail, all of the minutiae, or he could trust my vision, sit back, and be ready to enjoy it when it comes out.” To borrow an old adage of Sapkowski’s, “something ends, something begins.”
Wandering through The Witcher’s forest set, where the sound of sword sparring echoes through the trees, I bump into the show’s supervising armorer, Nick Jeffries, who’s nibbling on a raw carrot. The conversation shifts from vegetables (“I really like carrots,” he says) to swords forged out of pure meteorite.
In some fantasy tales, we see our heroes carry peregrine weapons: the curved blades of Tolkien’s Haradrim or the poisoned spear of Prince Oberyn Martell. So often the genre incorporates the sort of weapons you wouldn’t expect your average footsoldier to have access to. The Witcher saga indulges — in Sapkowski’s books, Nilfgaardian coroner Stefan Skellen maims Ciri with a slightly-out-of-place orion, marking her with the iconic facial scar we see in The Witcher 3 — but Jeffries explains that the sort of weapons included in the inaugural season of the show are very plain: standard swords in some places, but predominantly, simple polearms. Townsfolk won’t wield luxurious scimitars from halfway across the world, because the story exists in a “real” time and place.
“If we went back to real history, there’s very little reason why an English knight in 1400 would have a Chinese weapon,” Jeffries says. “The crossover possibility is so small that it’s practically nonexistent. He didn’t buy it off the internet!”
A commitment to staving off inconsistencies, even within fantasy logic, can mean sacrificing iconic looks. Take Geralt’s twin swords, a prickly sticking point for fans: The Witcher’s silver blade, famous in the game for being lethal against monsters, is far flimsier than the meteorite-steel hybrid — you can’t expect to cut through a chort’s hide with something far better suited as necklace material. Silver is also expensive, and lugging around a sword this extravagant stamps a massive red target on your back for would-be bandits looking to make a quick crown. The choice to make it a “monster-killing weapon” is something from the games, not Sapkowski’s stories. Netflix’s The Witcher needs to build a different world. That’s why in the books — and the series, by extension — that prized silver sword is more often than not in Roach’s saddlebags.
While most of The Witcher’s extras brandish fake swords, the one Cavill wields is real. The actor was heavily involved in the design process, according to Jeffries, influencing the size, the cut, and how it would move in his hands. Costume designer Tim Aslam adds to the mythic nature of Cavill’s influence, saying that not only was the actor particular about his outfit, but that during shooting, his muscles wore down the leather at such an alarming rate that replacements were constantly produced to meet the production’s needs.
“Hair and makeup stuff has become an essential component of becoming the character in the morning,” Cavill tells me on location. “One, because it takes so damn long, and two, it’s such a particular look. I wanted to make sure Geralt looked like a witcher who was a badass and still remained raw.”
Hissrich asked her costume designer to bring an air of high fashion to The Witcher — slim trousers and a fitted doublet for the men, slim dresses for the women — but without losing the practicality. “They were saying to me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t make it look like the game,’” Aslam says, “ and I looked at a few images and said, ‘That isn’t gonna happen because, actually, it looks a bit tacky.’”
“We had to make sure we could have something that stayed true to the books but [was] also very practical,” Hissrich says. “We have something that books and video games don’t have — actual actors who have to wear these things and perform in them on a daily basis.” Cavill took the lived-in practicality of his costume to the next level; Hissrich even caught her star making breakfast and occasionally sleeping in his armor to imbue the costume with a sense of bespoke history.
There are touchstones for making swords and armor look real. Monsters, like the slobbering, winged, multiarmed beasts Geralt encounters over the show’s first season, are a different story. The Witcher doesn’t skimp on the razor-sharp fangs or bloody showdowns, and it’s on visual effects supervisor Julian Parry to pit them against Geralt. Parry, whose two decades of VFX work include Aliens and 29 episodes of the Witcher-like Vikings, says that each episode will feature at least one monster sufficiently threatening to hazard a call for a witcher. But it’s not a “big green screen romp” either, he says.
Even for a blockbuster series like The Witcher, fully realizing the kikimore, a grotesque insectoid creature that appears in one of Sapkowski’s early shorts, “The Lesser Evil,” is a matter of time and money. Meeting the highest of contemporary standards happens under tight time constraints. Although Parry doesn’t mention it, the evident imprint Thrones has left on fantasy testifies to this: If you’ve got two days to make a monster so oozily putrefying that it’s on par with Drogon, you’ve got quite the task ahead of you.
“[But] it’s not like this is being done by some backroom shop somewhere,” he says, pointing to the companies Cinesite and Framework, which are leading VFX on The Witcher. “This is being done by the guys that brought you the latest Avengers.”
As far as monsters go, Parry draws from every odd living creature in our own world. “The kikimore is probably an aquatic arachnid,” he explains. “That sounds bizarre, but ... as I’ve gone through life. I’ve seen really weird, strange, sick things, and I think, ‘How can I get that into this creature?’”
The monsters of the Continent speak to Geralt’s philosophy that humans are often the greatest monsters of all, and just because the witcher looks different from humans, or behaves in a way that may seem strange to them, doesn’t make him the bad guy. It just means he has the potential to be good — that’s the kind of warmth that allows The Witcher to subvert fantasy tropes of salad-nibbling elves and bullheaded dwarves. At the end of the day, it is the hearts of sentient beings that should define who they are, not how close they are to humanity.
Back on the set, Cavill and actor Adam Levy, who plays Mousesack, go take after take on the wine cellar scene. The confrontation is slow and tense, as Geralt is not a man of many words. The Witcher has such a reputation in fantasy circles that he’s become the subject of many a meme (“Looks like rain” and “C’mon, Roach!”). “I’m constantly peeling words away from Geralt,” Hissrich says of her protagonist. “He wouldn’t talk that much.”
“He’s not a utopian character at all,” Cavill explains later in the day. Though he floats through the underbelly of life, Geralt’s gnarled psychology also results from his superhuman state. Witchers are said to undergo the “Trials of the Grasses” — experimental tests that subject young boys to violent mutagens in order to increase their speed, strength, and sensory perception — and one suspected, pernicious side effect is a stunted emotional spectrum. However, the entire crux of The Witcher serves as a foil to this: The point is that Geralt of Rivia is not devoid of emotion, that he finds his own family despite being born without one. “He’s the best you can get from a very harsh world, and he’s incredible at surviving in it,” Cavill adds. “He’s not all chocolates and cuddles.”
The idea of survival is essential to understanding the world of The Witcher, which is teeming with racism, prejudice, misogyny, and colonialism.
“The plight of the elves, that’s something we can all relate to,” Hissrich says, commenting on The Witcher’s portrayal of real-world politics. “How do we treat refugees? How do we treat immigrants?”
The Witcher saga doesn’t delve too deeply into the motives of Nilfgaard’s conquest, but readers do know what drives its emperor, Emhyr var Emreis: He’s after Ciri because she is a descendant of Lara Dorren, meaning that Elder Blood flows through her veins and allows her to manipulate space and time at will. Geralt tries to steer clear of the international conflict, though his vow to protect Ciri at all costs often puts himself at odds with the vindictive emperor — who, interestingly, is one of those people who gave himself his own nickname: The White Flame Dancing on the Graves of his Foes.
“When we go to Nilfgaard, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just evil music and people in black stomping around wanting to take over the world,” Hissrich tells me. She explains that this is the “superhero trap,” where antagonists are evil for evil’s sake — but that’s not believable, nor is it affecting.
Hissrich started her career as an intern on The West Wing, and that show’s knack for interrogating political moments seems to have made its way to The Witcher, especially in regard to writing for villains. “I don’t believe Hitler went home at night, twisted his mustache, and said, ‘I want to take over the world and make it evil and full of hatred.’ Sitting at my desk in 2019, I see [Hitler’s] journey like that, but it’s less about real-world and more toward any person who does something people disagree with — what were they thinking when they did it? In all of history, bad guys don’t see themselves as bad.”
The showrunner emphasizes the reality she wants to bring to Geralt’s world, but also the genre at large. As much as she loves the source material, there are facets of it, specifically as it pertains to female characters, that are outdated. Nor is it solely her perspective on the world that’s filtering through every character and every ethical quagmire faced by her heroes. “It’s not written from the perspective of an American white woman,” she says. “There is an entire writers room of people of different sexes, races, cultures, upbringings.”
Hissrich says her team put together mood boards for each individual episode in order to arrive at a communal understanding of location and tone, which mixes action and comedy and the sociopolitical strife that gives Sapkowski’s books a backbone. And she looks to her writing staff to bring and inject their own interests alongside the cohesive vision shared across the team. “Always ask a writer what their Google search history looks like,” she says. “I probably have quite the FBI file at this point.”
Though The Witcher will earn obvious comparisons to Game of Thrones, the HBO show also taught future fantasy showrunners lessons about what does and doesn’t fly on TV. The subject of “mature content” is a sticking point for Hissrich. “Violence always needs to serve the story,” she explains. “Sex needs to serve the story, nudity needs to serve the story. Audiences are much smarter than that. If you’re not telling a good story, it doesn’t matter how many naked people you have or how many heads you have chopped off.”
There’s a clear confidence in the collective vision for The Witcher; just a few weeks before release, the series earned a second season order from Netflix. Hissrich was already thinking along those lines back in May. “I’ve done [the planning] for, like, the seventh season,” a plan that would leave plenty of time for the characters to grow into what the fans of the books and games know.
Sapkowski provided a roadmap. The novelistic saga that follows the short stories largely shifts protagonistic duties to Ciri, often called the “Lion Cub of Cintra” by her fellow royals. As the story progresses, she is gradually pulled toward its center, the most important piece in a macrocosmic puzzle. Freya Allan says that her character isn’t as prominent as Geralt this season, but should have a much bigger part to play in the future. Having a locked season 2 helps.
Whether we’ll see the entire show Hissrich has scribbled down somewhere, if the new adaptation survives past the increasingly common three-season Netflix cap, depends on if The Witcher can justify itself in a sprawling TV landscape. Game of Thrones sticks in the memory (or perhaps the craw) of the collective audience, while 300 other shows fight for attention. So what really makes a Witcher show a necessity in 2019?
For Hissrich, it’s the core values of Sapkowski’s source material. If Thrones depicted a family dissolving, uniting, then becoming individuals traversing the scorched earth of battle, The Witcher is about the forming of family from the very start. The path can be grimy and turbulent, but it’s also rich and meaningful.
The making of The Witcher took a similar path. On the phone weeks after my visit, Hissrich explains that the heavens themselves opened up in Budapest during the final days of the shoot. “I’ve shot all over the world, and it was like a giant mudslide,” she says. “I actually have pictures and videos of my assistant walking through the mud, because it came up over her ankles.”
The description feels in tune with her series. “It was a perfect way to end The Witcher,” she continues. “There’s nothing glamorous about it. It was hard and tough but, oddly, kind of beautiful.”