The Witcher

Season of the Witcher: Inside Netflix's rapidly expanding cinematic universe

Between a live-action spin-off, multiple anime films, and a WitcherCon fan convention, Netflix is moving fast to build out this IP.

Lauren S. Hissrich vividly recalls sitting in the lobby of Netflix HQ, staring up at a mural of The Defenders while grazing on a bounty of free candy. (Netflix apparently has some "amazing snacks" at its Hollywood offices.) That was August 2017, just after the writer-producer finished working on the Marvel miniseries, and she was anxious to pitch a new show she felt was "completely out of her wheelhouse."

Four years later, Hissrich is in awe that her fantasy drama The Witcher — inspired by a popular book series and video game franchise — now has its own cinematic universe, with multiple anime films and spin-off series in the works, as well as a fan convention that launched earlier this year.

"It's full-on, in the best kind of way," Hissrich says.

According to Hissrich, it all comes back to "the mothership" — what she calls the main Witcher show, which stars Henry Cavill as monster slayer Geralt of Rivia and returns for season 2 on Dec. 17, with a third season already on the way. "Without that being the core of this franchise, I don't know that all the other pieces work," she says.

So, why does it work? Hissrich didn't have experience with big fantasy properties when she first pitched The Witcher. "I was a fan [of the genre]. I could enjoy it from the outside, but I wasn't quite sure what I would bring to it from the inside," she readily admits. "That being said, I feel like I know how to tell a story."

Kelly Luegenbiehl, the Netflix executive who championed the series, saw the creator's ability to tap into a tale that appealed far beyond the preexisting Witcher fan base. Hissrich, for one, was "pretty stunned" to see how many women ended up watching when her series premiered in December 2019. A shirtless Cavill sure helps, but the showrunner credits the complex performances from Anya Chalotra as the sorceress Yennefer and Freya Allan as Princess Cirilla.

"I have a bit of Ciri in me. We're in a similar boat," says Allan, whose character joined up with Geralt at the end of last season and will train to become a monster hunter (and attempt to tame the mysterious power brewing inside her) in season 2. "I wanted to do all the [stunt] tricks and get to fight every person I came across," she explains of filming. "But unfortunately, I'm not allowed to do that." You know, for insurance reasons.

In many ways, Allan exemplifies the series' mission: She wasn't a fan of the source material at first, and still can't pull intricate details of the mythology from her back pocket, but nonetheless awaits her next chance to pick up a sword now that she has a taste for it. Luegenbiehl believes it's the "broad approach to fantasy" that allows The Witcher to expand to new audiences and mediums. "In each subsequent season, we're really able to pull back more layers of the onion and get to know this world and these characters at a deeper level."

The Witcher
Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia in 'The Witcher' season 2
| Credit: Netflix

Those layers now extend far beyond the main show, an expansion that began in August with Nightmare of the Wolf. The anime film was announced in January 2020, slaying two monsters with one sword: helping Luegenbiehl with Netflix's goal of beefing up its anime offerings and introducing Geralt's mentor, Vesemir (voiced in Wolf by Theo James) — a character Hissrich was hoping to bring on in Witcher season 2.

Clearly the experiment paid off, as Netflix is already working on at least one more Witcher anime feature along with a family-friendly animated series. The latter came with its own questions. "If we do a kids and family show, is it going to be The Witcher at all? How do we do The Witcher without all of the gore, all of the violence?" Hissrich thinks. "The truth is though, those things to me are the bells and whistles of this world. If you peel away those layers, you come back to basic tales of morality. That's what all of Sapkowski's short stories are. They're based actually on a bunch of folklore and mythology, the exact sort of tales that Grimms' fairytales do, that frankly Disney movies do."

The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf
The Theo James-voiced Vesemir in 'The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf'
| Credit: Netflix

Then there's Blood Origin, the live-action prequel miniseries chronicling a pivotal event in Witcher history: the Conjunction of the Spheres, the phenomenon that brought humans, elves, and monsters together in the same world.

That's already four pieces of entertainment spun off from the main series announced in two years. While the source material amassed quite the fan base, crossing over from literary fantasy readers devouring Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's books to gamers playing through the popular CD Projekt titles, it's somewhat surprising to see not just how far the Witcher-verse has expanded, but how quickly. Luegenbiehl points to Sapkowski's novels for answers.

"It's two things. First, it really starts with the audience. Are they excited to dive deeper into this world and pull back those layers?" she says. "The second part is, do we feel like there's enough there to do that? It's not just doing story to do story but that there's really enough soul behind it. Sapkowski created this very rich world, but in some ways only hinted at the potential of it."

There seems to be a third component at play: fandom crossovers. The concept that would become Nightmare of the Wolf, which was being discussed as far back as The Witcher's season 1 green light, rose out of Luegenbiehl and Netflix's hope that there would be "some audience overlap" between the Witcher and anime geekdoms. The Witcher proper marks another convergence. Hissrich calls it "a family story" at heart that broaches "monsters and magic and big epic battles."

Declan De Barra, a writer and producer on the flagship series, became another piece of the puzzle — one that Luegenbiehl says unlocked "a whole world of additional stories." After finalizing The Witcher's premiere season, Hissrich and the Netflix exec asked if he had ideas for a prequel. It turns out, he had a take inspired by just "a few lines in the books," Luegenbiehl recalls.

The writers room assembled to develop the story for The Witcher season 2 and they hit a plot hole. "We were trying to understand what the world was like for elves right before the Conjunction of the Spheres," De Barra remembers. "It's very vague in the books as to what happened. I got out a whiteboard and sketched out this plan of what I thought: what elves wanted in this world and what the society was like pre-colonization. That kind of stuck."

Blood Origin came together through "one of those rare sort of David Lynch in the cafe moments." De Barra is referencing how the Twin Peaks creator once scribbled notes for stories on the back of napkins at Bob's Big Boy in California. De Barra dreamt Blood Origin in his mind, and the next day pulled a Lynch on the back of a cafe napkin.

"This whole time in [Sapkowski's] books, he reinterprets folktales and history," the showrunner says. "And when you look at our own history, societies that had been at their height, like the Roman Empire or the Mayan Empire, would be right before the fall and then we're in dark ages again. That fascinated me to wonder what that [elven] world could have been and what society would have been like. That's what we're going to explore here."

De Barra feels there's a definitive end to Blood Origin (which stars Michelle Yeoh and Lenny Henry) but says a second season would be "up to the fans." That's how Luegenbiehl feels about the Witcher franchise overall. "With shows of this size and scope and scale, you really do have to plan years and years in advance," she says. "So I think in best execution — and as long as people are still loving the stories — there's a lot more that we can do in this world."

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's December issue, on newsstands Friday and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Related content: