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Awards Contender: The Witcher showrunner teases Season 2's emotional fallout and explains the trouble with timelines
Welcome to Awards Contenders. This awards season, SYFY WIRE is talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movies and TV offerings of 2020 (and that extra period of 2021 which allows them to qualify), and who are now the leading awards nominees. Today, we're speaking with showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich of the Saturn Award-nominated fantasy show The Witcher.
The Witcher was a big deal from the very beginning. When the show launched on Netflix in 2019, it lured in 76 million households — the channel's biggest series debut to date. A second season was guaranteed, but then the global pandemic kicked in, and shooting had to be paused last year due to illness and injuries.
Fan anticipation is at an all-time high by now, so SYFY WIRE tracked down showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich to ask what lessons she learned from making Season 1 and how they're shaping Season 2. Also: Will Jaskier ever age? Will Ciri ever stop running? Can we get more Fringilla? Read on.
Has the show's success changed anything in terms of what you're able to do now? Did Netflix toss a coin to their Witcher?
[Laughs.] The truth is, by the time the show launched in December of 2019, we were already immersed in Season 2. But in terms of the production, the renewal gave everyone permission to take a lot more chances, bigger gambles. It just gives everyone that sense of confidence they need to find new levels. Some of the things we're working on right now are just beyond comprehension in terms of size and scope. I could not be more excited.
What were some of those gambles? One of your concerns in the first season was that episodes would come in at more than 90 minutes long, and you would have to trim them down to 60. Do you feel like you can super-size episodes now?
Oh, I love parameters. Give me a tight hour. We did make some shifts though. Instead of saying, "Hey, maybe an audience is going to want to tune in for 90 minutes," I thought, "How do we make this process better and more efficient? How do we not overshoot things?" So one of the things is that we shortened the scripts. That's just about better, tighter storytelling.
Is there anything that ended up on the cutting room floor that could fit later on, as a flashback? You cut some Aretuza scenes with Yennefer and Fringilla — wouldn't that footage be useful if you wanted to show more of the path Fringilla took and who she became at Nilfgaard?
Yeah, absolutely. In that case, it was more about looking at how stories worked in the balance of other stories. Fringilla is a perfect one to bring up, and I've been thinking, "OK, what do I want to see more of there?"
One of the things I always like to do in the writers' room before we start writing is to watch the old season together. We talk about what we love, what we could have done, which stories aren't as complete as they should be, and how to bring those stories into future seasons. How do we make sure we are telling the best stories for all of these characters? It's a constant process of revising.
What popped out at you during the Witcher rewatch?
Wow, Ciri is running away a lot! It's something Freya [Allan] and I would laugh about. So looking at Season 2, how do we get this character to stand still? To fight back? Where does she find this tenacity that is so clearly inside her? We need to pay a little more attention to that.
What other feedback did you find instructive?
I feel very strongly that you shouldn't read criticism — even positive reinforcement — and start to twist your storytelling all over the place. No one story is going to make some 70 million people happy. Trying to achieve that is just going to water things down.
What I tried to take instead is what resonated with audiences, and what didn't. Did they think that the show referenced its Polish origins enough? How do we make sure that the right folklore is in our storytelling? Did we honor the books in the right way? How can we step away from the books, and make sure we're building out our show's characters?
You got a fair amount of criticism for the way time was handled in the series, with three different and sometimes confusing timelines. But there is another aspect of time the show also deals with: How it affects characters who do not age, who outlive most people in their orbits, who do not have long, enduring relationships. It's a big leap to suddenly play happy families...
I love this. Time is more than just a vehicle to tell these stories. Part of the reason I wanted to futz with the timelines is because I wanted to tell a lot of Geralt's adventures, and he doesn't meet Yennifer until halfway through, and he doesn't meet Ciri until the end. I didn't want to have characters that we only meet through the lens of one other character, so there was a practicality to it. But exactly what you're saying — we found that time itself became a huge theme.
Take Yennifer and Geralt's relationship. When they meet, they have a lot of life experience, and a lot of near-death experience, too. But it's the life ahead of them that is interesting because what would you do if you had endless time? It would change a lot of the decisions that you would make. "How badly do I want to be with you? How are we going to navigate our next 100 years and still love each other? Is that even possible?"
Then when you factor in Ciri, her story only covers about two weeks. For Freya, she had to slow down Ciri's experiences. If you learn how to do something at the end of one episode, you can't suddenly be great at it at the beginning of the next one. Only two hours have passed!
Ciri is going to be learning a lot in Season 2. But as we've seen, there'll be a cost. How does magic or Witcher training change when the people teaching her may not want her to suffer as they did?
It's a great question. Obviously, I cannot give anything away about Season 2, but what I will say is that we're really focusing on emotional costs. The eels were a great representation of the physical cost of magic, as were the Nilfgaard mages, who were willing to die to create fire.
This season, we're really starting to think about how does magic impact us as humans? What decisions do we make for power? What do we sacrifice? More importantly, how does it hurt the people around us? This is the type of storytelling I'm really excited for because it becomes less about the mystical, magical world, and more about what happens when you start caring about other people.
We have three separate characters who have been living their individual lives, refusing to admit that they need or want anyone else, and you start to see each of them grappling with how their decision making impacts everyone else and thinking about others before themselves. That is the biggest shift in Season 2.
Have real-world events impacted how you tell these stories?
Real-world stuff constantly impacts how we tell our stories. The best thing about fantasy is that it's innately political. It's about a world that reflects our own. It's about the real issues that plague our society. We're constantly dealing with racism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny, and classism. It just goes on and on and on. So 100 percent, what continues to happen in the real world absolutely impacts not just what we write, but how it's directed and how the actors portray it. We're all living in the same world, so we're all bringing our experiences into it on a daily basis.
Last question: Why does Jaskier not age?
Because he's too beautiful! [Laughs.] Why would we want him to age?