5 things we learned from Netflix's official The Witcher podcast
Season 1 of The Witcher hit Netflix on Dec. 20, where it remains available to stream for any and all fantasy-inclined viewers. But even a month after release, there’s still more to say about the show — and that’s where Netflix’s new official podcast about the show comes in handy. Behind the Scenes: The Witcher is a three-part podcast, the second episode of which came out Wednesday, featuring interviews with cast members, directors, writers, and producers about the fantasy saga.
Here are the most interesting things we learned from the first two episodes. The third episode will be released Jan. 22.
Polish influence on the Continent
Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings took over as the dominant fantasy archetype in the 20th century (and again in the 21st with the release of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations), most fantasy realms have been based on Britain. Game of Thrones in particular is pretty explicit about this: The Wall guarded by the Night’s Watch is a fantastical extrapolation of Hadrian’s Wall, and the central conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters is based on the War of the Roses between the Yorks and the Lancasters.
The Witcher is an exception to this tradition. The show is an adaptation of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and the world of the Continent is heavily influenced by his home country. For instance, The Witcher features strong female characters as the mage Yennefer of Vengerburg (Anya Chalotra) and the heroic young princess Ciri (Freya Allan). Growing up in post-World War II Poland, Sapkowski saw women performing roles usually reserved for men, and this is what he explained to showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich when they met in person.
“Women who had been the center of their home lives had to become the center of their communities and work lives,” Hissrich says. “They were the breadwinners, they were the ones who were allowing the generations below them to survive. Sapkowski talked a little about his mother to me, but also about the other women he knew in his life. Yennefer and Ciri are based on these women he saw walking around in real life, and I thought that was such a stunning part of the story.”
The show, of course, expands even more on the story of Yennefer, showing viewers what she was like before she became the iconic dark mage of the novels.
Henry Cavill did all his own stunts
The Witcher star Henry Cavill is a longtime fan of Sapkowski’s books. In order to fully embody the titular witcher, Geralt of Rivia, Cavill made the rare choice to do all his own stuntwork.
“Every time Geralt is on screen, Henry is on screen, even if it’s just his hand. No one else acts as Geralt,” Hissrich says. To clarify, she notes, “That is not normal, for various reasons.”
Hissrich continues, “Obviously we have Henry’s safety to look out for, that’s our first consideration. Everything has to be safe, and he needs to be protected. But what I find is that Geralt’s physical job, killing monsters, is a very important part of who he is. So Henry didn’t think he could fully embody Geralt without doing that aspect too.”
Cavill’s Geralt is much less talkative than the books
Ever since The Witcher hit Netflix, fans and memes have seized on the fact that Geralt barely speaks, except to his horse, Roach, and occasionally to the talkative bard Jaskier (Joey Batey). This is somewhat in line with The Witcher videogames, which by the nature of the format don’t involve a lot of talking — but it’s a distinction from the novels, where Geralt is very talkative.
For instance, an early conversation between Geralt and the wizard Stregebor (Lars Mikkelsen) about whether someone is naturally cursed by being born during a rare eclipse is drastically less wordy than the book version.
“One of the things Henry and I discovered when shooting the first episode is that our Geralt doesn’t need to talk as much as in the books,” Hissrich says. “I had written a lot of words, a lot of words, for him. And what we realized is our Geralt is a little more stoic, doesn’t always respond. We like to make fun of his grunts. He answers in grunts a lot. That I think is one of the biggest changes. The other things we tried to stay true to. Geralt’s dry sense of humor was really important to us.”
The non-linear storytelling was based on Dunkirk
One thing that can initially be difficult for viewers of The Witcher to understand is that the stories are not necessarily being told in linear order. There are three main characters at the center of the story: Yennefer, Ciri, and Geralt. The books are told exclusively from Geralt’s perspective, so Yennefer and Ciri only appear when their journeys intersect with his. But this way, viewers can see each character’s story lines building up .
On the second episode of Behind the Scenes: The Witcher, Hissrich brings up a direct inspiration: Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-nominated film Dunkirk. The World War II movie tells three different stories set around the famous evacuation, featuring the pilots in the sky, the soldiers stuck on land, and the sailors coming across the Channel to rescue them. They’re chronologically out of sync with each other, but the movie cuts between them freely. Dunkirk’s success with this storytelling inspired Hissrich to mix these story lines from The Witcher source books from across time. This allows Yennefer and Ciri to be co-equal protagonists with Geralt rather than secondary characters in his journey.
“I hopped out of the shower and asked my husband, ‘Do you think that’s crazy? Do you think this could work?’” Hissrich recalls. “He looked at me like it was a little bit of crazy, which it was, but also it was one of the first things that made me really interested about telling this story: fooling with this narrative and making it more interesting, and being able to then create and craft all of these stories the way that I wanted to.”
Anya Chalotra had to play older and younger versions of the same character
Host Brandon Jenkins notes that while Geralt’s journey through season 1 spans 20 years, Yennefer’s spans 70 — a much longer timespan for growth and change. As a result, the Yennefer in the final episodes is much older than the hunchback novice Yennefer of the first few. On the second episode of the podcast, Chalotra explains how she matched these depictions.
“All I kept thinking was, ‘It’s a breath, it’s a change of breath,’” Chalotra says on the podcast. “That’s something I thought about a lot. I couldn’t change too much about myself. It wasn’t about affecting anything. Her breath as a 40-year-old woman would be different at that stage of her life. Because of the experiences she had up until then, she’d be calmer about some things and more hotheaded about other things.”
Not to invoke another movie reference, but Chalotra’s description of this process is very similar to what Al Pacino and others have said about making Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, another story that spans decades with the same actors playing the same roles.