‘The Witcher' Slays Netflix: Tomasz Bagiński Tells All
#language & literature
default, Tomasz Bagiński, photo: MSL Group, center, tomasz_baginski_photo_courtesy_of_msl_group-2.jpg
The executive producer of Netflix's long-awaited ‘The Witcher’ speaks to Culture.pl before the show's premiere on 20th December 2019. Bagiński, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, tells us why Henry Cavill was cast in the lead role, how faithful the series will be to Andrzej Sapkowski’s books, which started the entire Witcher craze, and whether the show’s film crew broke into a Polish castle or not…
Marek Kępa: First of all, congratulations on this exciting project. I know you’ve been wanting to adapt ‘The Witcher’ for the screen at least since 2015, and now, it’s finally coming to fruition. Better yet, it’s happening on a grand, international scale. How has this project evolved over the years? I believe you were initially intent on making a feature film.
Tomasz Bagiński: Yes, but I was actually thinking about that even before 2015. I think my first meeting with Andrzej Sapkowski was in 2010, and since then, I’ve been trying to make this happen. First as a feature, that’s true. But then, after a while, we began talks with Netflix and decided to turn the feature into a TV show. It was a long process.
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Platige Image [a Polish company specializing in computer graphics and digital special effects] helped me a lot in taking the first step. Then, Jason Brown and Shawn Daniel from Hivemind joined me – I think around 2015 – and slowly, we started to make some noise around this idea. Eventually, we got in touch with Netflix, and it took almost a year and a number of meetings to get things going with them. Then, Lauren [Lauren S. Hissrich, the Witcher TV series’ showrunner] joined our team, bringing in amazing ideas how to actually tell this story, how to adapt it for the show format. So, yes, it’s a long story.
MK: We already have Witcher books (of course), immensely successful Witcher video games, a Witcher movie made in Poland in 2001, a Witcher TV series (also Polish-made), and there’s even a card game from the Witcher universe out there, called ‘Gwent’… Why does the world need a new Witcher instalment?
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TB: First of all, this list doesn’t include a modern film or TV show adaptation. The last TV adaptation was made in 2001, which was almost 18 years ago. There’s a whole new generation that’s grown up since then. And I don’t want to criticise this TV show too much, because in its day, it was good, but it got old – and now, it’s time for a new one. There’s space in the market for that. There’s space for our show, there’s space for the books and there’s space for the video games.
MK: The Slavic ambience present in the Witcher universe is said to be an important part of its appeal. Will your TV series somehow highlight this ambience? For example, the ‘Witcher 3’ video game had music co-created by Percival, a Polish band that draws inspiration from old Slavic folk music.
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TB: We’re not following exactly the same path as the video games. We do have some Slavic ambience in the show – we discussed a lot of ideas how to bring in Slavic monsters, styles and things like that, but at the same time, we didn’t want to repeat the style of the games. We wanted to go down our own path. And also, it’s kind of a myth that the stories by Andrew Sapkowski are that Slavic. He took his inspirations, of course from Poland, but also from many other European countries – he travelled a lot. He was influenced, for example, by British fantasy. We tried to be as accurate and as close to his books as possible. Of course, we have some Slavic elements, say, in the music, but they’re not that obvious, and we also use other sources as inspiration.
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Henry Cavill as the Witcher, photo: Netflix's promo materials
MK: What about Henry Cavill made you choose him for the lead role, and also, how was it to work with Poland’s Maciej Musiał, who plays the part of Sir Lazlo?
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TB: Both experiences were very, very good. They’re both absolute professionals. Henry’s story is very interesting, very cool because he actually wanted to be the Witcher even before we started to cast the show. And Lauren met with him as one of the first people she interviewed for the series. But it’s always difficult to make such an important decision so quickly. So we actually went through like 200 other names, saw some casting tapes, but we kept returning to the idea of Henry, because his voice was still with us all the time…
TB: His voice, his approach to the character, the knowledge he has about the character. He actually loved the books before we even approached him. He loved the books, he loved the games, he loved this world; he really wanted to give us a lot more than actors normally do. He came prepared – he was already there, in the Witcher world. So we started talking to him again, and he just gave us the best possible Geralt, really. After watching so many people, some of them very well-known, after seeing some great faces, some great talents, we realised that we had our Witcher all along – because Henry wanted to be him and became him.
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MK: And what about working with Maciej Musiał?
TB: Maciej was known to Netflix and loved by them, thanks to the TV show 1983. This was also quite a fast cast, quite an easy idea. Initially, we talked to a lot of Polish actors, a lot of actors from this part of Europe. And it turned out that it wasn’t all that easy to cast Polish actors to our show – in some cases because of the language, in others because of scheduling conflicts. A lot of actors were just busy with other things. But Maciej was available, and he wanted to do it. And we wanted him because he’s great. His English is great, but he’s also very popular in Poland – he’s like the perfect young actor for the TV show.
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MK: Part of your series was filmed on location in Poland – in the picturesque ruins of Ogrodzieniec Castle, which dates back to the 14th century. What was that like and what part does the Polish castle play in the story?
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TB: I can’t say what part the castle plays in the story because that’d be a big spoiler. But I can say that filming there was great. I love this castle. I visited it for the first time as a teenager. I must’ve been 18 years old or something like that. I actually broke in there with my friends, because at the time, the castle was closed to visitors – it was too dangerous to go in. That was before the renovation.
MK: Did you break in again this time, during the filming?!
TB: No, this time it was all legal. But the first time I went there, we just sneaked in with a couple of my friends. We travelled there to do some climbing – the castle’s in a great, well-known climbing area. So my relationship with this castle is longstanding. and I’m glad that we were able to go there to film a quite important part of the story.
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MK: Although Andrzej Sapkowski, who created the Witcher universe through his books, didn’t work on your series’ script, he’s visited the set and is said to have reacted very positively to your work. You’re known to be a big fan of his books – was his reaction important to you?
TB: Of course, he’s the father of the Witcher world. He created this world; without him, we wouldn’t have any material to work with. Also, he was the most crucial creative mind behind this world. Of course, Lauren did an amazing job at adapting his short stories, and she also brought a lot of great writers who did a lot of amazing, creative work. But without the foundation, without the base from Andrzej Sapkowski, everything would’ve been way more difficult, so…
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I’m Andrzej Sapkowski’s fan – I like him not only as a writer but also as a person. I know him; I even met him last week. It’s one of the greatest relationships I have. You know, a lot of people see Andrzej Sapkowski through, so to say, media glasses. They don’t really see him – they see some sentences taken out of context, which usually are just put in the wrong context. And in reality, he’s much different. He’s an amazing, sweet guy who has a great sense of humour.
MK: I myself have read only one Witcher book, back in high school (quite enjoying it, if I remember correctly). Do you believe that people like me, who aren’t highly dedicated fans, will find something for themselves in your series?
TB: Yeah, I’m pretty sure of that. It’s not a TV show only for hardcore fantasy fans. The performances are great; the story is fabulous, fun, and it’s not that dark. Usually when people think about fantasy, they think, ‘oh, it’s super dark and gritty’. And yes, we do have some grittiness, some darkness, some thrill – and we have monsters and magic, all the elements of the fantasy world. But the show’s also quite fun and entertaining. Plus, it’s very emotional. So, I think it was one of our goals and certainly one of Lauren’s goals to make this world, which is already loved by the fans of the books and the fans of the video games, accessible to as wide an audience as possible.
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MK: What about the hardcore fans? What special treats can they expect?
TB: I think that if they loved the books, they’ll find plenty to enjoy in the show. Of course, it’s an adaptation, so we had to change some things – we had to add some storylines, characters and things like that – but at the same time, we took a lot from the original material. So if you love the original material, you’ll see familiar storylines, moments, dialogues. I believe viewers will really enjoy this. Simply because it’s well-done.
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MK: I’ve heard complaints that some of Netflix’s original content could use a ‘little less conversation and a little more action’, meaning that some of Netflix’s stuff is overloaded with dialogue. Can we expect that your series will have enough action-packed scenes?
TB: It’s a very fast-paced show. I think people will be pleased with it. There’s a lot of character drama, a lot of character work, there’s plenty of emotions, but we didn’t forget about the action. It’s the core of The Witcher. Our show is fun and entertaining – it talks about deep stuff, but it’s entertaining.
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MK: What was the most fun part of working on a TV series based on some of your favourite books?
TB: It was a lot of fun, but fun comes only at certain moments. It was also a very demanding, difficult, challenging period of time. Those eight hours we have in our show correspond to seven months of work on set and many months of work on post-production and in editing rooms. It’s very important to maintain the energy all the time. You can’t get too excited too early, because you’ll burn out. You have to keep the fire going throughout the whole production. The production itself is really, really demanding, difficult. But at the same time, with difficulty comes fulfilment. You feel happy because you challenged yourself; you tackled the obstacles on your path. This is where you find the fun. So, not everything’s fun. If a film production were to be purely about fun, then it probably wouldn’t look all that great. You have to accept challenges, fight for quality all the time. Despite the weather, the physical limitations of your body, despite everything.
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One more thing: the fun part, the thing that keeps you going, are the people around you. It’s never one person doing a TV show. There’s a big crew – a lot of people who are actually super talented and hard-working. It’s not a nine-to-five kind of job. During the shoot, you’re basically working all the time. And the relationships and friendships you start on-set stay with you, and they stay forever. And that’s a very nice part.
Interview conducted in English by Marek Kępa, 21 Nov 2019. 'The Witcher' launches on Netflix on 20 Dec 2019.