Showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich + Ciri Herself Freya Allen Talk Netflix’s THE WITCHER
Based on the best-selling fantasy series, Netflix’s THE WITCHER is an epic tale of fate and family. Geralt of Rivia, a solitary monster hunter, struggles to find his place in a world where people often prove more wicked than beasts. But when destiny hurtles him toward a powerful sorceress, and a young princess with a dangerous secret, the three must learn to navigate the increasingly volatile Continent together.
This past October MCM London Comic Con at London’s eXcel Centre played host to the panel for Netflix’s THE WITCHER, attended by Showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich And Ciri Herself Freya Allen and moderated by the wonderful Claire Lim.
During the panel, they showed EXCLUSIVE CLIPS that Netflix asked us not to publish, to check out the series as a whole, head over to Netflix for all 8 episodes of season 1 NOW!
How does it feel? Because this is the best place for you to be to promote The Witcher. How does it feel to be amongst the UK fans?
Lauren: I’ll let you start…
Freya: Exciting. They’re less crazy (both laugh)
May I ask, how crazy the San Diego fans are?
Lauren: San Diego was wild. I mean it was our first Comic Con for both of us and I think (Freya interrupts)
Freya: I think everything was probably more amplified because of that, because we were “oh my gosh” we’re right in the deep end, and we’d never done anything like that.
Lauren: I think as we were heading out they said “oh there’s about 7,000 people in the audience.
Oh my goodness. Okay. So this is nothing? This is fine?
Lauren: No, this is amazing. I can’t actually see the back there but it looks like it’s pretty full.
Cool. And thank you guys for coming.
Lauren: Thank you.
Tell me, the show isn’t even out yet, there’s been quite a lot of hype online. What are the kind of common questions and things that you’ve been reading online about the show already?
Lauren: I mean probably the thing that I get asked the most is about where The Witcher will sit in sort of the pantheon of fantasy shows, and I think fantasy on television right now is amazing and I’ll just say it; Game of Thrones, really great show that we’re huge fans of too. And we get asked a lot too if we’re going to replace Game of Thrones and I think Game of Thrones is irreplaceable and I also think The Witcher is it’s own exciting thing and I think it’s going to have its own place.
Absolutely. And it deserves its own place as well. There’s room for everything.
Lauren: There is room for everything.
Now, Lauren I want to ask you because you’ve worked on lots of amazing shows from The Umbrella Academy to Daredevil and everything else in between, were there any similarities or differences coming to work on The Witcher? What did you bring from those experiences?
Lauren: Well, Daredevil was my first show with Netflix, so that was exciting because they’re such great creative partners and really allow people like me to have a lot of creative freedom in what I do, which is exciting. The big thing that I learned on Daredevil, Defenders and Umbrella Academy is about adaptation and about taking something that has a huge fanbase and that people really really love in its existing form and translating it to a new form, and the changes that have to be made between a comic book and television or between a beloved book series and television. With comic books I think it’s great because they have a real economy of language so you have to kind of fill in the gaps and with The Witcher there’s eight books, there’s not a lot of gaps that need to be filled; it’s a tonne of words like 4,000 pages of them. So, you know, (we went?) straight to the books, our source material, and it was really fun to adapt because there is so much to do.
Quite a lot.
Lauren: Quite a lot to do (laughs)
Now, I’m in the same position as the audience right now, because I have seen nothing in advance.
Oh, shivers down my spine. I love a good action scene as well. So explain what’s happening in this scene because there’s some bad ass moments going on.
Lauren: Well, there’s a guy named Geralt, Henry Cavill don’t know if anyone’s heard of him, (Claire laughs) our amazing Geralt. The great thing about scenes like that is that Henry does all of his own stunts, sometimes to our dismay, (we say “just let someone else do it”?) “don’t hurt yourself”, he does everything so anytime you see Geralt on screen it’s actually him. This was a fight that was shot over, I think, about 5 days total and we’re in a wedding sequence here and, of course, there’s a hedgehog man as there is in good wedding sequences and this is Geralt’s first sort of run in with destiny in the show and it really changes his journey for the entire rest of the season.
Now, should have asked this at the very start, for those of us who don’t know, tell us what a “Witcher” actually is, let’s talk about what a “Witcher” is. Can you explain?
Lauren: We were laughing earlier because this question was asked at San Diego Comic Con and if you asked me what a “Witcher” is it is a monster hunter. Thank god they asked Henry what a “Witcher” was because he gave about a five minute diatribe about growing up and children and mutagenic alchemy (Freya interrupts)
Freya: I was like “what is he on about?”
Lauren: What is mutagenic alchemy again? Geralt’s a monster hunter and “Witchers” were created by Mages in order to solve the monster problem on the continent ad what ended up happening was they are now almost as hated as the monsters themselves. So they’re a really marginalised piece of society.
Now, you’ve talked a little bit about adapting the book to screen, you mentioned that there’s eight books right? I mean that’s a lot to get through to really squeeze into what we see on screen. So where there any difficulties or anything that was easy, like, how do you go about even bringing eight books to the screen, it’s quite a task, where do you start?
Lauren: Yeah no it was not easy. Was any part of what we did easy? I don’t think so.
Lauren: There are eight books, obviously I read all of them that’s where I started. To me, it was really about, the books start with a series of short stories called “The Last Wish” which is my favourite book of the series and I knew that’s where I wanted to start because that’s really it’s the foundation of the world, it’s where you get to understand what a “Witcher” is, the monsters that they’re hunting and really the political climate of the continent.
But there was a big problem for me in “The Last Wish” which is that Ciri, who Freya plays, and Yennefer, who Anya Chalotra plays, are not huge characters in it and I really wanted them to be big characters in the series from the beginning, I didn’t want to wait till season three to meet them. So one of the first changes that I made was that I really elevated the stories of Ciri and Yennefer and I brought them more to the forefront and what I think is great, and Freya can speak to this, is is that you get to meet Ciri, for instance, for who she is and her world and what it’s like to live as a princess in Cintra and you get to meet her before she ever interacts with any of the other characters, and she is a fully formed character by the time she starts changing again when she starts meeting the other characters.
And thinking of fantasy series like Game of Thrones and things like that, we’ve also got Vikings and all these sort of historical type shows, we did the Britannia panel yesterday. What is about these shows that you think people connect to so much, this sort of fantastical otherworldly sort of vibe?
Freya: I think the escapism of it and, you know, just being transported to a completely different world, but at the same time, they also have a lot of things you can relate to so you can have that to be able to connect to, whilst also being able to transported to a completely different world. So I think that’s what attracts a lot of people, that’s what attracts me.
Good answer. We’re going to go onto your character next. We’re going to show a clip, another clip this is the second clip, and then we’re going to ask you a few questions about princess Ciri who you play the series. So let’s line up this next clip and get it going. Thank you very much.
Another spine tingler. Another round of applause for that one please.
Freya: Every time I see that I love it. I love that scene so much.
It’s a beautifully shot scene as well, it looks gorgeous. You know, we saw a bit of action earlier so we’re seeing a little bit of drama, a bit more emotion as well, which I’m liking, because this is the first time I’m seeing it as well and I’m like “oh crap when is it out? I want to see it”.
Lauren: No I think that it’s a really important thing that we’re at least striving to do at all times. You can have all the action in the world and there is a lot of violence in the show, there’s sex in the show, there’s blood, there’s dead babies. This particular sequence had a banner across it for the longest time for visual effects (Freya interrupts)
Freya: “Make Baby Dead”
Lauren: It says “Make Baby Dead” (Freya? Laughs) because that was a live baby that we buried and in the Canary Islands.
I have a quick question, how do you make the baby dead? (laughs)
Lauren: No actual babies were harmed in the making of The Witcher. So obviously we take the skin tint out, we were blessed by an actual sleeping baby which is great, and the other thing that VFX does is take out eye flickers that happen, because if you look closely you can see they’re still breathing, there are still blinky things, so all of those are removed. So “make baby dead”. But the show has…… it was just as important to us that if you take out all of the monsters, the magic, the violence and the sex and the sort of fantasy elements, there’s still some really great moments of drama and characters struggling with things all people struggle with, and that’s the interesting part of fantasy right? Which is that normal people and….normal people in abnormal situations or in abnormal places but, as Freya said, you still have to be able to relate to them and I think that’s what we do a lot in the show.
Freya: And I think often a lot of films and TV are kind of getting slightly suffocated with CGI and constant constant action that you’re thinking “where’s actually the heart in this? Where’s those moments of silence and connection and stillness with a character?” and I think that this is an example in the show of one of those moments where you get that.
Absolutely. I think that when a show has room to breathe like that, because I think when you have lots of CGI, violence and explosions, it assumes the audience; that’s what they want, but the audience they want the heart as well. So it’s all about the writing as well. I want to talk about your character Freya; Princess Ciri. When you read the books did it affect the way you where going to play the character? How did you adapt the character for screen?
Freya: So when I found out I got the role it was the day before my birthday and I said “oh I don’t really want anything this year” and then I found out I got that role and I went “I know what I want. I want to get one of the books”. So I got The Blood of Elves and I read it in sort of two days, probably not very effectively because I was just kind of so excited to see what Ciri was like. But that’s the only book that I’ve read, but it did give me a really really nice essence and it immediately got me so excited to play her, because you can see the kind of feistiness of her and how stubborn she is and I thought that was going to be really fun to play.
So how do you develop that, you’ve mentioned feisty and stubborn, how did you develop that through the first season, her character?
Freya: Well it’s interesting because you really see at the start how stubborn she is, how feisty, how driven, but she’s in a far safer environment then to be able to feel that way, and then…. that’s still very much a kind of a strong part of herself, but you do also see, when there’s a shift in her environment, how vulnerable she really is and how naive she is to the world and how she’s not the best at defending herself yet. But it’s interesting to get to still carry that forward to get that she’s stubborn and feisty but also bring a layer of vulnerability and suffering and loss to her as well. So that was fun to get to kind of explore.
An interesting one to explore. Lauren, when you were casting the actresses of the show, what qualities were you looking for in the female characters? What made you go “yes Freya is Princess Ciri”?
Lauren: So, Freya knows, Freya was not immediately Princess Ciri, Freya was actually a character named Marilka first, we cast her, signed her deal, it was a part in just the first episode and never again, and we could not find Ciri. We looked really hard, we looked at all different ages, really had an entirely worldwide search and still just couldn’t find the essence of who we wanted. Sophie Holland, our amazing casting director called me and said “I have an idea and sorry you’re going to have to find a new Marilka, but I think Freya could really be Ciri”, and I flew to London and (Freya interrupts)
Freya: So they call me up and are like “so Lauren and Alik [Sakharov] and the Producers are flying to London to see you for Ciri” and I’m like “wait a second I just got another role, am I kind of playing…..” and then I found out I got Ciri I was like “cool so I got two roles in this show” (laughs)
Lauren: “No we’re taking one back” (Laughs)
On the other female characters Lauren, what qualities were you looking for, because you’re putting them at the forefront a little bit more than what we (were?) expecting from the books and things. So what made you decide to do that?
Lauren: You know, when I first spoke to Andrzej Sapkowski, the author of the books, I actually, I told him, I was actually surprised by the strength of the women in these books and he pointed, actually he said something fascinating; that I’ve never met his mother.
He basically explained to me the role of women in post-war Poland and said that most of the men had died off in conflict and women really became, not just the centre of the family, but the centre of society, of culture and of the workplace. And so, you know, it’s interesting because people ask me about the female characters a lot and the complications of them, but it’s really what real women are like anyway, right? I mean it’s strong in some circumstances, vulnerable in others, occasionally bold, occasionally bitchy, occasionally silent. It really is, to me, what I wanted to capture is these women before they were seen through the lens of anyone else.
In the books all of the characters are met through Geralt, so you get Geralt’s impression of them and then you get to learn to meet them and I wanted the world to see Ciri first. So when I was looking for them, I really wanted to, to Freya’s point, I really wanted to see a depth of character in all sorts of different situations, we’ll actually see in the next clip I believe, the scene that you (Freya) auditioned to with a character named Dara, and it’s Ciri at both her most stubborn because she has been a princess for a long time, she’s always gotten what she’s wanted, I love what Freya said, she’s been feisty and brave because she’s been really protected and then suddenly she’s out in the world and you see her vacillating back and forth between being brave and strong and being f*****g terrified about what’s about to happen and who’s after her.
Freya: That’s how it realistically would be, you know, in this situation she’s put in she’s not going to be like “oh cool yeah” with the things that she sees she just wouldn’t, you know. She does have a heart, she’s a real human, so yeah.
I like a segway, thank you (laughs)
Lauren: Let’s introduce our next clip (laughs)
I’m like “oh this is great, easy” (laughs) Let’s introduce the next clip.
Oh. I’m really liking these clips it’s getting me quite excited about this. (To audience) You excited?
Yes. Now we see another character there with you; Dara. Tell me who Dara is and what is the relationship between both of you?
Freya: Dara is very much a kind of crucial part of her story this season, because he is the main source for her, a different perspective, a different viewpoint, and he’s vital at keeping her going, they really do become a team.
And what’s so interesting is that they are from completely opposing backgrounds and they have completely, you know, they’ve been brought up in totally different ways and yet they find a commonality and it doesn’t become important any more where they’ve originated from, because they’re going through very similar emotions, loss, and so they really do become a good team.
I suspect we’ll see that relationship develop as we move through the series. But I want to ask Lauren actually from a creative perspective, how do you go about creating these very intricate relationships and keeping them very real and very solid from a creative perspective? How do you do that?
Lauren: I mean, this is a great clip to intro that too because Dara is a character who is not present in the books, and I get asked a lot in terms of changes that I’ve made with the books or changes that the writers have made and why, and this is a perfect example, which is Ciri’s journey this season she’s really on the run and she’s bouncing from place to place and meeting a bunch of different characters and we actually wrote, this is from episode 102, episode 2 of the season, and there was a version written without Dara but it was basically just Ciri wandering through woods by herself and it was not very interesting because she didn’t have anyone to talk to.
And immediately it’s like we needed to create a character who could, exactly as Freya said, mirror her experience in so many ways but also broaden her experience in others. And that’s constantly what we’re trying to do with all of our characters which is allow them situations where they feel familiar and they can be their normal selves and then constantly challenge them and make them re-think things. And yeah I think this season, this particular season, skips through a lot of space and time as well so I think they’ll be a lot of fun pairings of relationships that, some that the fans will be really looking forward to and expecting and some new fun ones.
So we’ve got this last clip here, it’s a teaser and I’ve got a few more questions, if there’s time I’ll open it up to the floor. So let’s play this next teaser clip and get on. Right, let’s go for it.
Now watching the clips and watching that teaser, there’s a definite pallet and style I’m seeing running through the series. How do you…..did you have a distinct vision at the start of how you wanted this to look in terms of style?
Lauren: Yes absolutely. Again we went back to the books for just sort of architectural inspiration and guidance. The big thing we wanted was to have the world of The Witcher to not be too dire, because the world of The Witcher is not constantly miserable, it’s not people just preparing for death.
There’s a lot of fun in the show, there’s a lot of love in the show and genuine affection and family, so we also wanted to introduce colours and, you know, when we’re in Cintra for instance, it’s beautiful. Also, I wanted to point out, it’s obviously not in the teaser clip, but in the clips you guys saw, the three previous clips, you’re also hearing our music for the first time, the music that will be in the show by our amazing composers Sonja and Jonah, and it brings so much to the world in addition to the look that we’re going for, it has…..let’s just say they’re constantly presenting me instruments, things like Hurdy Gurdy’s and things they’ll be like “this is what was used in Ancient Poland in the year 300 to make timpani sounds” okay great. It brings so much to the world and gives so much flavour to the world in addition. So, I realise we haven’t given a lot of music away yet but I think it’s going to be a really really big part of the show as well.
And when author Andrzej Sapkowski came to set, what did he make of it, because he must have been like “oh my goodness this is my creation come to life”. Was he really excited, what was his thoughts?
Lauren: I mean, yes, he was super excited. Anyone who knows Andrzej, excitement for him means maybe you get like half a smile, just maybe you get half a smile. He actually was wiping tears away at one point, he was so excited I think to see his world come to life, but also to see how dedicated we were to bringing it life. It’s a really big show, it’s a lot of sets, a lot of locations, we have cut no corners trying to bring it to life and I think he was super excited. He’s not seen any of the episodes yet, he told me, he has a great analogy that he used where he was telling me that he doesn’t want to see the ingredients of the soup, he just wants to taste the soup at the end. So he has access to all the scripts, I pitched him the series, he gets dailies if he wants them, but he actually, as soon as he came and visited and saw that we were dedicated to his vision, he stepped back and wants to see the show with the rest of the world.
Are you excited about his reaction when he sees it? (laughs) Straight on the phone.
You mentioned at San Diego Comic Con the relatable themes of the show, and you’ve actually said today that there’s actually a few relatable themes as well. Explain what kind of themes we can expect to see that we could relate to in watching this series?
Freya: I would say; loss is a big one, coping with that I think that’s a definite for Ciri’s journey, that’s a huge thing that she’s going through. And as for the whole show, I would say family is a massive theme, you know, whether you’ve lost family or whether you’re searching for family or whether your destined for a certain family, is definitely something that’s a crucial part in all the characters I would say.
Lauren: I think too, our tagline in that initial teaser is “The worst monsters are the ones we create” and that’s a big thing that we try to do in the show is really…..there’s not….anyone whose not read the material, the “Witcher” world it’s not black and white, it’s very grey, and we try to stay true to the idea that just because someone looks good on the outside or may have good intentions doesn’t mean that they don’t have a darker side inside, and the people that you would typically watch the first season and say “obviously that’s the villain” it was really important for us to get into his brain and understand why he’s doing what he’s doing and that he actually thinks that he’s doing something for the good of the continent. So I would say one of the main themes is really about, I was going to say not judging a book by its cover, but I should be able to come up with a better analogy (Freya laughs?) than that as a writer, no it really is about looking deeper than the skin.
Cool. Now, before we hand it over to the floor, if you guys have got some questions just stick your hand up, I want you to tell me in just a couple of words or one sentence; why people should watch the show. Go for it. (laughs)
Lauren: Because we think it’s really good (laughs)
(laughs) That’s good enough for me. I’m into it. Freya, do you want to add anything?
Freya: I mean we spent quite a while doing it, so it would be great…..(Claire interrupts)
If someone watched it (laughs) you’ve worked really bloody hard, so watch the show it looks absolutely incredible from what we’ve seen, absolutely beautiful.
Lauren: Thank you.
Guys if you’ve got questions, stick your hands up now. We’ve got some here, some there and we’ll come over with a mic.
Lauren: Be nice to us
Be nice and no spoilers obviously, there’s to be no spoilers here. Right go for it.
Hi. So Lauren, you’re obviously pulling a lot of really good bits from the book and (the games?) have brought through a load of really incredible stories as well. Going forward (into?) further seasons, do you think you’d pull stories from the games as well or are you going to stick strictly to book material? Thanks.
Lauren: It’s a great question and one I’m asked a lot, so I’m glad we get talk about it. I’m a huge fan of the games, I will admit that I suck at video games, I’m better at drinking a beer and watching my friends play video games, I love them, they’re beautiful and it was really inspiring for me to watch them at the beginning. That being said, the books provide plenty of source material, Netflix could keep us streaming for 20 years and we’d still wouldn’t be able to cover it. The simplest thing that I always go back to is the video games are an adaptation of the books, so I don’t want to do an adaptation of an adaptation of the source material. For us, the source material is everything that we need.
Next question please.
Hi guys. The clips look great. As the titular character, Geralt is obviously a big draw for a lot of fans, but it’s great that you’re expanding the other characters a lot, but if you had to pull apart a percentage, how often is Geralt on the screen? Thank you.
Lauren: I’m a writer, maths not so much my thing. (audience laughs?) I would say we’re not quite equal thirds. Geralt’s on the screen a lot, don’t you worry. The big thing for me was also making sure that Yenefer and Ciri get their due and that we understand them so that when we put all the characters together, which we eventually will, that’s not really a spoiler, maybe it is, when eventually we will, we’ll understand each of them individually so that we can understand their dynamics together.
So I personally watched the episodes, there are definitely episodes that are more Geralt heavy, there are some episodes that are more Yenefer heavy and there’s episodes that are more Ciri heavy.
Hi, my question is for Freya. As a young actress, what do you think has been the greatest challenge for you in such a big production?
Freya: Thank you. I think my challenges where mostly definitely at the beginning of filming because Ciri goes through a lot at the start. So it was quite daunting that that was going to be the first scenes that I was filming, so I’d say my biggest challenge was some really kind of tough emotional scenes that I really had to get into a head space that I hadn’t really experienced having to get into before. So that was definitely a challenge for me, but it was something I was really excited to get the opportunity to get to play and we had a fantastic director and it was….I’m really proud of it now.
That’s a good question. Thank you. Got another one? Okay we do have another one, this lady here in the tiara.
Okay, this is for Freya. Do you see any traits and qualities in Ciri in yourself at all? Thank you.
Freya: Yeah, I see a lot of Ciri in me. She is not afraid of voicing her opinion and (laughs) she’s very stubborn and I’m very very stubborn too and she’s not going to let the fact that she’s a girl or a princess getting her way, she’s got a lot of people who could potentially dictate her future for her, but ultimately she makes the decisions and the choices herself of which I can definitely relate to. So yeah, there’s a lot of similarities between us for sure.
Lauren: And you wonder around in the snow by yourself all the time.
Freya: (laughs) of course (laughs).
Lauren: Freya, what’s she’s not saying, I thought about this when you answered your earlier questions, for almost all of Freya’s scenes were outdoors, in the middle of the night, in the snow, in the middle of Budapest. And how she survived (laughs)
Freya: I think the biggest difference between us is she’s got bleached eyebrows and (laughs) bleached hair and I didn’t. But yeah I agree we’re very similar (laughs)
Thank you. Good question. Now guys, I’ve very bloody excited about this. Thank you very much for being here with us today, thank you. Guys, did you enjoy the panel.
(Audience cheers and applauds)
And are you excited about The Witcher?
(audience cheers and applauds)
Cool. I’m glad. Lauren, Freya, it’s been an absolute bloody pleasure to sit here with you. Thank you very very much.
NETFLIX’S THE WITCHER HITS THE STREAMING SERVICE ON DECEMBER 20