Warning: This article contains minor spoilers for Netflix's "The Witcher."
Netflix's "The Witcher," based on the novels by the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski about a monster-hunter for hire, is an indisputable hit.
It's the most in-demand series in the world, according to data from Parrot Analytics provided to Business Insider. And Netflix said last week that it was its second-most-popular series of 2019, behind only "Stranger Things."
A mega-popular fantasy series based on a beloved book series? The comparisons to HBO's "Game of Thrones," which concluded last year, were bound to happen. But the creator of "The Witcher," Lauren S. Hissrich, says not so fast.
"Yes, it is a big sweeping fantasy," Hissrich told Business Insider in an interview. "That's what the shows have in common. But in terms of the tone, the monsters and the magic, and how we portray our characters and story, the fairy-tale aspect of 'The Witcher,' the two shows are totally different."
Hissrich says it's that misunderstanding that led critics to give the show such harsh reviews when it premiered on Dec. 20. But the Rotten Tomatoes critic score has since shed its "rotten" distinction and is sitting at an improved 64%. Still, despite its initial "rotten" rating on the reviews aggregator, "The Witcher" quickly rose toward the top of Parrot Analytics' demand rankings.
With season two set to begin production soon (Netflix renewed it before the series' premiere), Hissrich spoke with Business Insider about what fans should expect for the second season. She also talked about her original pitch for the series (no, not the one she posted on Reddit), the grueling 178-day production, and why the show's catchy viral song, "Toss a Coin to Your Witcher," is actually "horrific."
Travis Clark: Netflix said that "The Witcher" was its second-most-popular series of 2019. What was your reaction to that? Does that put a lot of pressure on you for season two?
Lauren S. Hissrich: I was hoping, obviously, for a very big response, but I've been blown away by just how big it's been. To be the No. 2 show for the entire year after being on Netflix for only 11 days is incredible and speaks to how this franchise is resonating with fans. It's never a lot of pressure with "The Witcher." There were already so many fans all over the world [before season one], be they book fans or video-game fans, who were excited to see it adapted into a different medium.
Heading into season two, other than being more tired than I was a year ago [laughs], it's exciting to start season two right after season one aired. We've been paying a lot of attention to what fans loved and what didn't work as well. I'm excited about applying those lessons to the next season.
Clark: Like you said, it's really resonating with the fans, but when the series first premiered, the critics were a little harsh toward it. Do you think there's a disconnect there?
Hissrich: I do think there is a bit of a disconnect, which is fine and expected. I think a lot of professional critics really expected to see "Game of Thrones." That's something that's come up in a lot of other press the last few months: "Is this the next 'Game of Thrones'?"
My response to that was always the same. I hope it's as popular and resonates with fans in the same way, but, truthfully, the shows couldn't be more different. Yes, it is a big sweeping fantasy. That's what the shows have in common. But in terms of the tone, the monsters and the magic, and how we portray our characters and story, the fairy-tale aspect of "The Witcher," the two shows are totally different.
I think that's where a lot of the disconnect comes from. A lot of professional reviewers had certain expectations in mind. But a lot of the people who showed up to watch it, especially in the first 24 hours of its release, were dedicated fans of the franchise. They knew what to expect.
Clark: You posted your pitch for the series on Reddit, but I was wondering if you could provide any more details about the pitch process and how your ideas may have evolved over time from your original concept. And to bounce off of that, were you a fan prior to Netflix's approaching you?
Hissrich: I had read "The Last Wish" [the collection of short stories that takes place first in the "Witcher" book timeline]. It was the only one I had read, but I really enjoyed it. I hadn't thought about making it into a TV show, though. It didn't cross my mind, and I didn't read it for that purpose.
So when Netflix approached me, I looked back at that book and thought, What would that look like as a series? What was lacking from that particular book was the presence of Yennefer and Ciri. I dove into "Sword of Destiny" [another short-story collection] and "Blood of Elves" [the first book in the main "Witcher" saga], and that's where those two characters are much more present. I thought that's what was missing from "The Last Wish," and that informed the storyline for the whole season.
It's interesting, though, and I had kind of forgotten this: The pitch I posted to Reddit is obviously where we landed, but the very first pitch actually had a totally different storytelling mechanism. We would start with Ciri where she is in the book "The Lady of the Lake" [the fifth and final novel in the main "Witcher" saga] and have her be our narrator, telling the story of Geralt and Yennefer and eventually herself, and how this family came together. That's something I played around with for a while, but then I realized there were a lot of things she wouldn't have knowledge of [as the narrator]. So very quickly that went away, and we used timeline shifts to tell the story we wanted to tell.
So it took a bit of time to get to that version that I posted on Reddit. There's obviously been a lot of debate about whether the timelines were successful, whether they were enjoyable or challenging, but it remains one of the things I'm most proud of, and I don't think I'd be able to tell the story any other way.
Clark: You said during a Reddit AMA that season two will be more linear in its storytelling, but is time still something you'd want to play with?
Hissrich: The timelines in season one helped us deal with the logistical issue of telling Yennefer's, Geralt's, and Ciri's stories at the same time. We don't have that issue in season two. By the end of season one they're all in the same time. The Battle of Sodden has happened, we've seen Yennefer's participation in it, and Geralt has found Ciri. So they're all in the same time and place when we start season two.
The story has a lot more energy and drive [in season two] because we're not constantly trying to introduce new places or characters. So I feel like season two will be more focused and linear, but there are things we couldn't fit in season one that I will want to return to in future seasons. We'll continue to use flashbacks when we need it, or other devices.
Clark: Do you have particular storylines or characters from the books you want to bring into season two? What should fans expect?
Hissrich: You'll learn a lot more about Geralt. You'll get to know where he came from and why he is the person he is in season one. With Ciri, she's not looking backwards anymore or looking back at her family in Cintra anymore. She's trying to build a new family. And Yennefer is going to be dealing with the Battle of Sodden. She took a big risk at the end with that firepower, and it doesn't work out so well for her.
Everyone will continue to have their own challenges in season two, but we'll also fold them into each other a lot more.
Clark: What was the budget of the series like? Were there any limitations?
Hissrich: I can't go into specifics, but we always knew the show would be big — not big as in popular, but a big show that resonated with a lot of people and had international scope in that it would be shot in multiple countries.
Netflix knew we had an opportunity to make something special. That's a special kind of support for me creatively, but also in terms of the production of the show and making sure we had the tools to make the show we wanted to make. Nothing speaks higher for the investment [Netflix] made than when it picked up season two before season one had even aired.
Clark: Was there anything during production that couldn't be pulled off that you wanted to see happen?
Hissrich: All of it was intensely grueling.
A lot of the storylines take place at night, which means we're shooting in the dead of night. The snow is real. We shot in Budapest in the dead of winter.
The physical challenges of making the show were great. We shot for 178 days of production for eight episodes, which is a lot. Asking people to put in that much energy, sometimes for 12-, 14-, or 16-hour days and sometimes for six days a week, is a lot.
But that's a part of television production. We pitch the show as an adventure because sometimes we'll be on a warm soundstage in London and other times we'll be hanging off the side of a mountain somewhere in Europe.
Clark: Are you anticipating a similar production schedule for season two?
Hissrich: I think it'll be tighter because we've learned more about scheduling and availability and all of those things that are just easier the second time around. For instance, we understand Geralt's costume a lot better. [For the first season] there were a lot of adjustments and fixing the details. We don't have to do that again. It just hums along a lot better.
Clark: The "Toss a Coin to Your Witcher" song has turned into a viral sensation, and people are doing covers of it. Did you expect that? What's been your reaction?
Hissrich: I've heard so many amazing covers. One of my favorite ones is a Russian choir doing it live, all in Russian.
It's one of those songs we talked a lot about. It would start off as just Jaskier strumming the lute but would transform into a much bigger song and anthem of "The Witcher." You never know how something like that will fit into the show, and we knew we were swinging for the fences a bit. We knew there was the possibility that it would feel out of place or not resonate at all, but what's happened is the exact opposite. It gets in your ear and is so catchy.
Clark: So the song isn't from the books — it's an original song for the series?
Hissrich: Yes, all of Jaskier's songs were written for the series. [With "Toss a Coin to Your Witcher"] we were trying to tie all the main storylines of episode two together: Geralt fighting the elves, Ciri learning that her friend is an elf while elves were something she was taught to hate, and Yennefer learning about her father and her elven upbringing. The idea of the song is: Who creates the narrative, and who controls the narrative?
It's something we see in our world all the time in the media. Whoever's telling the story has the power. Jaskier has the power to tell the story that actually happened or tell the story that makes the Witcher seem like the hero and change his journey for the rest of the season. It's a catchy song, but if you step back and listen to the lyrics, it's horrific. What it's saying is: I'm going to change how history sees this entire event just because I've written a catchy song.
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