Welcome to Running the Show, our deep dive on the top creators in television today. The showrunner signs off on every aspect of a television show, from the opening credits sequence to the shirt a character wears in a pivotal scene. If they aren’t making a direct decision, they hired the person who is. It’s a role that’s not quite director or writer and not quite producer—there is no showrunner major so how does someone become one? In Running the Show, Backstage explores how people land in TV’s top job and what you can expect when you get there.
Lauren Schmidt Hissrich got her start answering phones on “The West Wing” and worked her way up to writing some of the show’s most memorable episodes of its seven seasons. That launched her almost two decade–long television career into more network television with writing-producing gigs on shows like “Private Practice” and “Parenthood,” and more recently into the streaming world with Netflix’s Marvel series “Daredevil” and “The Defenders,” and another superhero series, “The Umbrella Academy.” So it would seem she was well suited for a gig on another Netflix genre show when she got the call to run “The Witcher,” but Hissrich wasn’t sure. Superhero and fantasy aren’t the same, and she felt someone with that experience might be better suited to the job. Netflix was eager to hear her take on it, and when they liked it, she surrounded herself with genre experts and reliable writers to bring the beloved book series and video game to life.
Find out how the cast of “The Witcher” came together.
“I started to see that in the midst of all these bells and whistles of fantasy, there was a story about people and about a family. I realized that’s something that I thought I could write really well.”
How did you go from co-executive producing another Netflix show to the showrunner post on “The Witcher”?
I had first read “The Last Wish” about year before Netflix announced that they would be making “The Witcher” series so I was a fan of the franchise already and I’d never really thought that I would be the person to write it. Then Netflix came to me over the summer of 2017 and said that they were starting to look for showrunners just to bring the vision to life. At the time, I told them I’m not a fantasy writer. I had just come off of doing “Daredevil” and “The Defenders” and I was on “The Umbrella Academy” at the time, so I had a very good relationship with Netflix. But I also think that the series should be created by people who are really in the know about the genre, and I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to be that person. The executives at Netflix encouraged me to think about what my take would be if I were to do it. I started to delve deeper into the stories. I read the next two books, which are “Sword of Destiny” and “Blood of Elves,” and I started to see in front of my eyes that it wasn’t just what I expected it was going to be. It wasn’t just elves and monsters and magic and a lot of big epic battles, that really at the core of it were these three characters, Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri, who were all alone in the world individually, struggling to find a place. Then they all started coming together and realizing that they weren’t destined to be alone. They were actually destined to be a family. That intrigued me so much. I started to see that in the midst of all these bells and whistles of fantasy, there was a story about people and about a family. I realized that’s something that I thought I could write really well.
Was this the first time that you had taken on the role of showrunner?
Yes. For those prior three shows, I’d been a co-executive producer. It’s known in the writer’s room as a number two, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the right-hand person of the showrunner. It is a role I knew really well. We’re taking the showrunner’s desires and keeping the writers’ room going or being on set and making sure that the tone of the show is coming out. That’s a role I had done, but I had never been a showrunner myself. So I knew that I was cutting my teeth on something big. Bigger than I expected, actually.
But how did that experience as a writer and a producer prepare you to take on this new role?
I had been doing television for 19 years at that point. I started out at the very bottom; I was an unpaid intern, and then very quickly I was promoted to be a production assistant, and then a writer’s assistant and a researcher, and I made my way up to being a writer, and what’s great about that progression is that you really get to experience every part of the job. Even going back to answering phones and getting coffees and then starting to take notes in the writer’s room, it instilled in me a foundation of being kind and respectful. Even now when I hire people, I have what I call my no asshole policy, which works pretty well. It’s just saying to people up front, listen, we’re going to be spending a lot of time together, and we’re all going to be away from our families, and we’re going to work really hard at night, in snow, let’s just be nice to each other. That works really well, and that’s something that I learned when I was on “The West Wing” as a very young assistant. Everyone was kind and it made me want to go to work every day, and it inspired me to do my job better and to want to keep moving up. So I try to do that same thing now for all of the people who work with me. But more than that, my bosses really highlighted the importance of training us not just to be writers, but to be writer-producers, to be able to be on set, to be able to speak with directors and with crew members and with actors, to understand not just what you’re writing, but then how that translates directly to coming to life on set. That, I think, is the most important lesson I could’ve learned. Because as a showrunner, that’s basically what you’re doing full time, is working with the writers creating this vision, and then being on set every day, working with prep, working with the crew and the directors and the actors and the other producers, and making sure that that vision comes to life. That’s constantly, in my day to day life, what I’m trying to protect. That’s the best lesson I could have learned in my entire career for sure.
“My bosses really highlighted the importance of training us not just to be writers, but to be writer-producers, to be able to be on set, to be able to speak with directors and with crew members and with actors, to understand not just what you’re writing, but then how that translates directly to comin”
So you decided to take on this role after initial uncertainty, then what’s next? How do you start to adapt these stories?
I pitched my vision to Netflix, how I would approach the show, and they signed off on that. So that’s great. They were basically like go off and do it. I was working mostly on my own at the beginning. I did hire a researcher named Haily Hall, who was fantastic and is now a writer on the show. She basically read the novels, I had read all the novels by that point, and I knew kind of how I wanted to start. I knew that I wanted to start with the short story called “The Last Wish.” I basically used Haily as a sounding board, and it was just the two of us in those early days. I would constantly be pitching her different takes on what Geralt’s arc could be or would be, and how to incorporate Yennefer and Ciri into the story from an earlier time. It’s a lot of hitting your head against a wall, trying things, and realizing what doesn’t work. I had a completely different vision for the series and that fell apart very quickly. It’s really just a lot of trial and error.
Once I landed on the current structure that we have in the show, it’s the fastest I’ve ever written a script. I wrote the pilot, I think, in about four days. After that process, it starts moving really quickly. I handed it over to Netflix, they liked it a lot. We started talking budgets and directors and how we’d actually want to shoot the show, and are we all on the same page? Are we all able to see how the show could come to fruition, and do we all want to be on board? Netflix was incredibly enthusiastic about the show, about how I wanted to treat the show, and it was very exciting. I went to Poland for a research trip to gather all of the inspiration that I wanted. Then at that point, I got to hire a writer’s room, and that’s when things really kick off.
I hired the writers in May of 2018, and it’s a fast and furious race at that point. We had 20 weeks to write the next seven episodes of Season 1. I’m a big believer in schedules. I’m really detail oriented. I want everything to be on time. I want to be able to give the scripts to the production team and give them the best opportunity they can to then do their job. If we take too long, then they can’t do their jobs. At that point, then, that summer of 2018, it was full throttle. It was casting and hiring department heads, deciding that we were shooting in Budapest, and starting to build our stages there. Then I moved to Budapest in October to prep and we started shooting at the end of that month. Once you put your foot on the gas, you can’t take it off. You have to keep going. But that was super exciting. As a writer, you constantly are developing and creating shows that don’t go anywhere, so to have a show that actually goes somewhere feels incredible.
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“despite the fact that in a script we described what characters look like, at the end of the day, what we have to do is cast for the spirit and soul of a character. It doesn’t matter what an actor it looks like; if they can’t embody the role then it’s not going to work, even if they’re a carbon copy ”
Describe the casting process and assembling the ensemble.
Casting was a long and stressful process. When you’re dealing with a franchise that has a ton of fans, be it book fans or game fans or fans of the Polish TV show 20 years ago, all of these people understand what “The Witcher” is, and all of these people are coming at it with their own expectations of what it looks like, including the cast. Very early on I felt a great amount of pressure because everyone has their own ideas of these characters, and a lot of them are based on illustrations from the books or on video game characters that aren’t real people. They’re animated people so you can give them any color of eyes or any color of hair and they can look any way you want. That was stressful to me. But I have to say, Sophie Holland, our casting director, I have never met someone who is so open. We had tons of conversations, and what I loved is that she understood that despite the fact that in a script we described what characters look like, at the end of the day, what we have to do is cast for the spirit and soul of a character. It doesn’t matter what an actor it looks like; if they can’t embody the role then it’s not going to work, even if they’re a carbon copy of what someone imagined. We had to go back and ask who is Geralt inside? He’s quite stoic, and he can be quite terrifying, but at the same time he’s got a heart that he wears on his sleeve a little too often. We needed to be able to capture both of those and embrace that dichotomy within him. Same with Yennefer. Yennefer is a really tricky character because in our show she goes from being a teenager to being a 70-year-old sorceress who’s a powerful mage in the Continent. So again, how do you cast one actor who embodies both of those sides of the persona? We saw several hundred people for each of the main three roles. But at the end of the day, you also kind of know when you’ve found it. I would say for all three roles, there was a series of callbacks, there was a series of me flying to London or me flying to New York to be there in the room, and at the end of each of those sessions with Henry Cavill and Anya Chalotra and Freya Allan, at the end of it I would look at Sophie and say, we’ve found our person. That’s the best possible feeling, of course, to say we’ve got it.
What was unique about this project?
I’ve now done shows that take place almost completely on sound stages in a police precinct or in a detective agency, and those are great, but I got to hang off the sides of mountains and be on black sand beaches and travel all over the world. You can look at it as a pain in the ass, or you can look at it as a challenge and an adventure. To me, it was the latter. In fact, we’ve been picked up for a Season 2 now, and when I’m hiring new talent to come in, new directors, new department heads, I actually always talk about the adventurous spirit of the show. We don’t say no a lot. We like to push ourselves and see what we can accomplish. To me, that’s a dream come true. Who else gets to say that they get to make a television show in Hungary, and in Austria, and in the Canary Islands of Spain, and in Poland. It’s been such an incredible adventure. I would take that challenge any day.
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I know that there’s probably not a standard day, but as much as you can give me, what’s your typical day as a showrunner while the show is in production?
You’re right, there is no real typical day, but I can tell you what sort of the foundation of my day looks like. It is very important for me personally to be on set at call, which is basically when the day starts, and I stay on set until wrap at the end of the day. I feel like if I can’t be there and do what I’m asking every other crew member to do, then I’m not setting a very good example. My day is always crafted around that. When I’m onset, my job is basically just to be there, frankly, as quality control. By the time that we’re there on the day, everything should be done. We’ve chosen the location. We’ve approved costumes and hairstyles. The actors and I have already spoken if they have any questions about the scenes or about dialogue or what we’re building toward. The director and I have already combed the script. All of that prep work should be done. I’m just there to basically make sure it’s all coming to life. Sometimes that’s just answering questions. Sometimes that’s approving things last minute. Sometimes what you saw in your brain, what you planned with the director, doesn’t work at all, so it’s thinking on the fly and changing things up. But a lot of times, it’s also just sitting back and being a cheerleader for the people who are physically doing the jobs there. I’m not carrying any camera equipment or wielding a sword in a sword fight. I’m not doing the physical work. So part of my job there is just to make sure that everyone else feels good about what they’re doing. Then in addition to that, you’re always prepping the next episode, too. So there’s always casting for the next episode. You’re also in post on the prior episodes. So I’m always watching dailies and cuts and making suggestions to the director of the prior episode if a scene is not working. So it’s a really nonstop process and you’re constantly working at something, but I like it that way.
“I feel like if I can’t be there and do what I’m asking every other crew member to do, then I’m not setting a very good example. My day is always crafted around that.”
What advice do you have for an aspiring showrunner?
It has to start 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago, whatever your age is. The worst thing that you can do is drop any writer into being a showrunner if they don’t have the experience to help them succeed. As far as showrunners need to start, this is my path, but I am so happy I started at the bottom. I am so happy I started as an assistant, that I was given the time to not just learn how television is made, but to then hone that and see how good television is made. It’s not enough just to put out something that’s decent. I got to, over the years, learn about television, learn about all the parts of television, even the things I wasn’t involved in at the beginning, like prep and post production. Editing and mixing and color. All of the things that as a writer you aren’t initially exposed to, I got to learn about those parts of the process. So get a position. I don’t care what the position is. Get in a position, let people know what you’re interested in doing, tell them what your dreams are, tell them that you want to run a show someday, and really work your ass off and be a good person. Be someone that people want to be around.
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What don’t you think people know or realize about the job of being a showrunner?
It’s interesting, because I work mostly out of Europe right now, and a showrunner is a very American conceit, and I didn’t actually know that until I moved here. I think that it is the idea that television is oftentimes a writer-based medium. It’s the writers that come in and not just craft the script, they don’t craft the script and step away, they craft the script and then they stay with them in a way that in features, directors actually really take charge and they’re the ones seen bringing a creative dynamic. So I would say what people don’t know is that we are more than writers, and that we want to be involved more in the process, and we are we are actually there to make sure that the show that started as the tiniest kernel in our brain comes to life. How I do that is to hire people that I trust, and then actually trust them to do their jobs. I’m not big into micromanaging or having my ego drive everything. I really believe that the people making the show are passionate, they are fans of the show too, and that they are doing their best work. So a lot of being a showrunner is being in charge and then stepping back and letting other people run with a creative baton, too.
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