Netflix’s wildly popular series “The Witcher” has everything you could want from a fantasy adventure, including terrifying beasts, magical feats, sword battles and power plays. In the first season, we watched as the destinies of the title character, a monster hunter named Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), became inextricably linked with that of the tormented sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) and the young princess Cirilla (Freya Allan) — whose role and powers begin to emerge in the long-awaited Season 2, which was unveiled on Dec. 17.
But the show, based on a world created by the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, also has a sense of humor that often borders on the wacky, and it has even generated a pop-rock cult earworm, “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.” The series’s stylistic range is as unpredictable as it is wide.
To keep the inspiration flowing, the showrunner, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, tapes ideas and references on a door. She was still a writer and executive producer on the Netflix superhero show “The Umbrella Academy” when she landed her new gig, back in August 2017, so the door did double duty for a while.
“When it was opened, it was all ‘Umbrella Academy,’ and when it was closed I could start delving into ‘The Witcher,’ ” she said.
Schmidt Hissrich, 43, spoke by video from Los Angeles about some of the inspirations behind “The Witcher.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Schmidt Hissrich has long loved the Jim Henson film “Labyrinth” (1986), in which the teenage Sarah is lured into a strange world of goblins and fairies.
“You have live action, you have songs, you have fun, and you also have these creatures, and they all feel of the same world,” she said. “For ‘The Witcher’ we struggled at first with, ‘How do you have people take a story seriously when there are monsters flying left and right?’ I loved how ‘Labyrinth’ wrapped all these things together.”
The showrunner singled out the scene in which the Junk Lady dangles the lure of material possessions to distract Sarah from her mission. “There is that sense of, ‘If only I could stay here, if only I could believe this,” Schmidt Hissrich said. “And yet [Sarah] knows it’s not real.”
She compared the scene to one in the new season in which Ciri must make a decision between the past and the future — “and that’s really also what ‘Labyrinth’ is.”
When she started on the series, Schmidt Hissrich felt it was important to understand where Sapkowski came from. Her research included going on a two-week trip to Poland and following Polish photographers on Instagram. Among them was Michal Koralewski, whose image of the Old Town in the medieval city of Poznan has been on her wall for a few years now.
“Fantasy is often represented as dire and dour and gray, and it’s all dusty because it’s the worst time in the world,’ ” she said, laughing. “One of the things that I wanted to bring to ‘The Witcher’ is a sense of light and color, so I was immediately attracted to the colors, the buildings, the brightness in the photo.”
Schmidt Hissrich also liked that the photo does not look like a Middle Ages cliché. “The show doesn’t take place in our conception of the medieval world — it’s a fantasy world with no boundaries of time and space,” she said. “A lot of times our characters speak with a little bit more modern language than you would expect. I know that’s a lot for a photograph but to me it hit all of those things.”
Schmidt Hissrich does not seek out scary movies (“They give me nightmares”) but she makes an exception for Robert Eggers’s period shocker “The Witch,” from 2016. “The idea of telling a horror story by what you don’t see deeply informed how we approach things in ‘The Witcher,’ ” she said.
More specifically, she draws parallels between the film’s heroine, Thomasin (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) and Yennefer. “Thomasin is going for acceptance of who she is in Puritan New England, and independence and power against societal restraints,” Schmidt Hissrich said. “Their journeys are really interesting to me, and also, more generally, the blurring of good and evil. Temptation versus resistance: That theme from ‘The Witch’ directly informs Yennefer’s story this season.”
Schmidt Hissrich’s association with Netflix began on the “Daredevil” series a few years ago, and she wrote the episode introducing the slinky Marvel assassin Elektra Natchios in Season 2. Pulling a copy of Michael Del Mundo’s “Elektra: Bloodlines” comic book from a shelf, she flipped to a couple of pages.
“Visually, she goes from being a dancer to being an assassin and all of those ribbons become the blood,” Schmidt Hissrich pointed out. “It’s a character who is forced to let all other parts of their identity fall away, to become this one thing, an assassin. Geralt is a witcher and we see what happens when that facade has to start to break down.”
The choreographic element seeped into Geralt’s fight in a library in Season 2. “It is such a beautiful dance, and it’s a very environmental fight — he is picking up a stool here, a lamp there, because he does not have his weapons,” Schmidt Hissrich said. “There is something that evokes ballet in it.”
Sitting on Schmidt Hissrich’s desk is a lovely little teacup — with the word “poison” printed on it. “I love to write about contrast,” she said. “There’s a scene in Episode 6 that’s very quiet; the music is kind of lovely and nice. And then something very violent happens. Presenting those contrasts is a way to keep our audience on board.”
Clearly, “The Witcher” has its share of sex and violence, but it does not uncomfortably linger on either, unlike other series that may come to mind. “It’s an adult show — kids should not be watching it,” Schmidt Hissrich said. “But it doesn’t mean that every time we see someone get their head cut off, we should stay on the head and see everything spurting out.”