Lauren S. Hissrich is the creator and showrunner of the biggest television series in the world right now, Netflix’s The Witcher. The fantasy epic is an adaptation of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s collection of short stories and book series, which have also been developed into extremely popular video games. Netflix reports the series is its biggest TV premiere ever, and fans are praising it for being unapologetically fantasy, and more importantly, for its complex, layered female characters.
The women in this series are complicated and vulnerable. They’re searching for a legacy, a purpose—validity in a world driven by societal stereotypes on what women *should* be. Their stories aren’t anchored by a male character’s agenda. Their conflicts are deeply-rooted in pasts they can’t escape, spiraling them into a destiny they are desperately trying to control.
As Lauren shares in this interview, when she first pitched the series to Netflix, she focused on how important it was to her that the series explore the female characters “in the same detailed, layered way as the men.” We dig into Lauren’s thought process for the character Yennefer in particular, exploring why the series chose to change certain parts of her story that are told in the book series. Plus, Lauren shares scenes that were filmed she loves, but ultimately couldn’t keep.
What makes this series even more special is that it’s driven by the female perspective. We asked Lauren how women in the entertainment industry, and fans alike, can champion each other to create more female-led series, and what experiences laid the foundation for her success today.
This interview is part of our Fierce Females series. Head to our Fierce Females section for more female-driven inspiration.
PURE FANDOM: The female characters in this series are fascinating—tackling themes centered around societal class, being in control of your body, fate, what defines you… your purpose. For Yennefer in particular, there were changes made from the books to the TV series to show the conflict of her youth and why she’s hardened, like how her father sells her to the witch Tissaia de Vries while her mother helplessly looks on (versus in the books, where her father leaves and Yennefer’s mother is abusive.) Were there any other changes you initially wanted to make with Yennefer, or were there scenes written that you had to cut? Which scenes were crucial that you keep?
LAUREN HISSRICH: When I first pitched The Witcher to Netflix, I talked about how important it was to me to explore the women of the series in the same detailed, layered way as the men — a rising tide lifts all boats, you know? Strong characters beget more strong characters beget better stories beget a more expansive universe. Specifically, I wanted to meet Yennefer as a young woman, to see the circumstances and experiences that built her into the tough, private, independent sorceress that we know and love from the books. The author, Andrzej Sapkowski, had planted small moments, flashbacks, thoughts in the books, glimpses into Yennefer’s younger life — but as a reader, what I was left to wonder was why Yen had tried to once kill herself at Aretuza, or how she’d grappled with the idea of a total physical transformation. Those were the most important scenes to me and the other writers: the why/how scenes. So we spent days in the writers room debating how Yennefer felt about “becoming beautiful” — her conflict over the decision to change her appearance, her knowledge that it could influence her power and her station, her seeming sureness about what she’d have to lose, and her unexpected realization that she’d had a strong backbone all along. We dug around the void left in Yennefer by her abusive family, and wondered whether she and her mentor Tissaia de Vries could grow and shift in both painful and good ways to eventually become family to each other. And we debated how Yennefer had met Istredd, years prior to the “Shard of Ice” story — specifically, what she needed from him and what he gave her, and how that on-again-off-again love could complicate her force-of-nature relationship with Geralt. I love these layers that we pulled from the books, and then expounded upon. But yes, there were also so many scenes that had to be cut from the final episodes, too — such is the curse of television. We had a lovely scene in Episode 103 where Yennefer, Fringilla, and Sabrina all discussed how they felt about their transformations, and looking back, I wish we could have kept it. It was such a gorgeous example of female friendship, and it also would have served to ground Fringilla a bit more before she joined Nilfgaard. We also filmed a scene of Yen meeting a very young Triss, who’d just arrived at Aretuza; it served to show how far Yennefer had come in her years at Aretuza, and created a sense of mentorship between these two sorceresses. Looking ahead at some stories unfolding in season two, I wish we still had those scenes! But I’m proud of what we accomplished in the time we had.
Being a successful producer/writer/creator extraordinaire in a typically male-dominated world (particularly in the fantasy genre), you’ve shown audiences that your perspective as a woman is a strength. What are some of your favorite female characters on screen, both past and present?
There are so many. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s gorgeous and messy portrayal on Fleabag. Claire Foy’s stoicism as Queen Elizabeth on The Crown. Kate Winslet as the eccentric and passionate Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Robin Wright as the clever and devious pencil-skirted Claire Underwood on House of Cards. Julie Andrews as the endlessly optimistic and realistic Maria in The Sound of Music. And Gwendoline Christie as the epitome of all women, Brienne of Tarth, in Game of Thrones.
Tell us about the females that inspire you (not just in the industry, all-around!), and do you have any mentors? People you yourself mentor?
I look close to home for my mentors. My mother, Marky Adams, stayed home for a bit to raise my brother and me, and then she started a small business, went back to school, got two more degrees, and changed the lives of hundreds of kids in Ohio, before retiring to travel and be a grandmother and drink good wine. She didn’t “have it all” all the time, that’s for sure, but she has continued to live her life with grace and bravery, constantly striving to redefine what fulfillment and happiness mean to her. She is the best model I can ask for. Professionally, my mentor is — yes — a man, a fantastic writer named David Schulner, who single handedly taught me about the work-life balance I wanted. I was going through IVF when I joined a show he created, and I was terrified to tell him just how much work I would have to miss for appointments. But when I did, he didn’t run away, shrieking, feeling like I was a waste of his allotted writer budget. Instead, he hugged me and told me that I was free to escape to my office and lay down on the couch if I ever felt nauseated. He saw me as a person first, and a writer second, and he trusted that I could manage that balance. I’ve never forgotten that lesson, and I try to pass it on to every young writer I meet. If we don’t live life, we don’t have anything to write about.
It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a female fantasy fan! Series like Charmed, The Magicians, Westworld, Legacies, and of course, The Witcher are all helmed/co-ran by female showrunners. As one of these industry leaders, do you feel a responsibility to champion female-led stories? What do you think is crucial in keeping this progress moving forward?
It’s an interesting question, because I’m honored to be in such amazing, talented company — but at the same time, I don’t think of myself on a daily basis as a “female fantasy writer.” I’m a writer. My sole responsibility is to tell great stories. Great stories revolve around fascinating and imperfect and layered and relatable characters — both male and female. That’s the thing I started to get into above, right? It’s not that all stories should be about women; it’s that the women in those stories should have the same careful thought and development as the men. The good news is, I truly believe that the storytellers I know — the writers I came of age with, those with whom I’ve been in writers’ rooms for years — feel the same way I do, regardless of their sex.
“It’s not that all stories should be about women; it’s that the women in those stories should have the same careful thought and development as the men.”
Bouncing off of the previous question, what advice would you give to female creators, and what can we do collectively as women to empower and champion each other to create more opportunities for behind-the-scenes work?
Speak up. It’s what I tell all writers on the verge, but I think it’s especially apt for women, who generationally have been told to be seen and not heard. Tell everyone you want to write. Tell them what you want to write, ask them to read what you’ve written, ask them for feedback or advice, or to be your mentor, or to keep their eyes peeled for job opportunities. Speak up about what you want. You deserve to be heard. I also think that we need to do more to encourage women to join the industry early in their careers, and to offer opportunities for hands-on training in writers rooms and on sets. I’ve seen, in the name of equality, the promotion of women into positions they’re not properly prepared for — and it backfires, and then suddenly “women aren’t cut out to do this.” Trust me, we are. I am. But only because as a young woman, I was given the opportunity to be a production assistant, then a writers’ assistant, a researcher, then before I knew it, I was rising through the ranks of writing and producing, and voila, I had amassed the education and experience to run an enormous fantasy show. It’s important to me that I provide other young women the same opportunities that I had. I guess, if I have one responsibility as a “female writer,” it’s that.
“It’s important to me that I provide other young women the same opportunities that I had.”
Several of our readers are parents and students, balancing home, work, and creative life—like everyone! You’re running the most popular TV series in the world—how do you do it?! Do you follow any practices or use any tools to help organize your day/life? How do you prioritize (everything)?
This is important. My life right now is a complete whirlwind that spans two continents and eight time zones, and encompasses two kids, a husband, a cast and crew of four hundred ridiculously talented people, season one press, season two production, playdate scheduling, parent-teacher conferences, book re-reads, script re-writes, and occasionally a little sleep — so I won’t dress it up and pretend like I have it all figured out. I just do my best. In Los Angeles, I have an amazing village of people who keep life moving forward, who love on my family in my absence, who keep me in their hearts and send me texts and leave me voicemails and aren’t mad if I don’t respond immediately. In London, I have an amazing village of people who keep work moving forward, who are just as passionate about the show as I am, and who are also there to have a glass of wine with me at the end of a long day. My only daily consistencies are that I FaceTime with my kids every single day over their breakfast, no matter where I’m at in the world, so that they know that their mom really loves what she does. And I drink a lot of coffee. I love what I do. It keeps me going, always.
“…I FaceTime with my kids every single day over their breakfast, no matter where I’m at in the world, so that they know that their mom really loves what she does. And I drink a lot of coffee. I love what I do. It keeps me going, always.”
In season 1 we saw a Djinn, Striga, and mages galore! What fantasy elements can you tease for season 2?
Oh! That’s a good question! Without spoilers, I will say that there’s a crop of new monsters, a new cost to magic, and new and unexpected pairings of our favorite characters.