On Friday, 20 December 2019, the first season of The Witcher arrived on Netflix. Before then, international audiences may have been familiar with the successful computer game of the same title. Both the TV and computer series are, in fact, adaptations of the iconic Wiedźmin saga, written by Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski. The novels follow the fascinating character of Geralt of Rivia, a genetically engineered monster-killing machine on his journey to fulfil destiny. In Poland, Wiedźmin has quickly risen to the legendary status of fantasy classics like The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, and with the global success of the computer games series The Witcher’s universe became popular all over the globe. Tomek Bagiński decided to take this phenomenon one step further and introduce it to an even wider audience in the form of a high-quality TV series. Tomek, a BAFTA winner, Oscar nominee for this early work in animation, an acclaimed director, writer and producer, enjoys similar popularity among fans in Poland as Geralt himself. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that when Netflix took interest in producing a high-budget adaptation with Tomek as an executive prouder, the hopes (and expectations) for the series rocketed through the roof. CEEL contributor Iga Szczodrowska sat down with Tomek to talk about his approaches to the related pressures and his personal journey working with The Witcher.
CEEL: How did your adventure with The Witcher start? Do you remember the first time you read Sapkowki’s works?
Tomek Bagiński: It was quite a long time ago. In fact, I’d been reading The Witcher when the stories were just being written and published. I think the first short story I read was “Ziarno Prawdy” (“A Grain of Truth”), published in [the legendary Polish sci-fi, fantasy and horror magazine] Fantastyka in 1989, so we’re talking about the dim and distant past, a completely different era. But from that moment onwards, together with the rest of Poland, I was looking forward to each of the stories, bit by bit. The Witcher series was rising in popularity. I felt like we have such an amazing character in Polish literature, one of the very few who is perfectly adaptable to the silver screen so to speak – and yet we haven’t got a fully satisfying adaptation of the series. [The Polish TV series Wiedźmin came out in 2002, receiving very mixed reviews, and a lot of criticism regarded its quite amateurish-looking special effects.]
CEEL: How did the idea turn into action?
TB: Few years passed and CD Projekt, a Polish games developing company, started to work on their The Witcher games and I was involved in making short movies for them. The thought of making a new adaptation was growing inside my head to the point that I knew I must do something about it. I decided to meet up with Andrzej who wasn’t keen on another TV version of The Witcher, partially due to the disappointment after the 2002 attempt. However, from word to word, letter to letter, he finally said yes and – fast forward 10 years – here we are: we’ve got a fantastic Netflix series being distributed on a global scale.
CEEL: You’re a very versatile artists and creator and have won many prestigious awards for animation and illustration early in your career before moving on to directing and producing. How is the experience on set different to working by yourself?
TB: Well, animation was 20 years ago, and I’ve mostly been working on film sets for the past ten years. Of course, I didn’t have a chance to work on such a major production as The Witcher before and that was extremely interesting. It was a huge undertaking and a very complex one in terms of logistics. It was a difficult yet extremely rewarding lesson to learn. You know, to get good at this kind of stuff you must simply go through the whole process. Film production skills can only be tested and assessed in action, in the heat of everything. What’s interesting is that my digital visuals background was very helpful with all the monster-related issues. With The Witcher being a fantasy show, we had lots of monsters, magic, and spectacular-looking battles, which found quite natural to navigate.
CEEL: What’s the biggest challenge with this type of work?
TB: This question pops up a lot, actually. I can’t pin it down to one thing, because when working on such a big project almost every day brings some kind of new challenges. Sometimes, the challenges happen to be more on the creative level – i.e. we had countless conversations with the show runner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich and the scriptwriters on the general tone of voice of the narrative. We really wanted to capture the original nature of Sapkowski’s novel. We knew we’d have to alter certain elements of the plot, but it was important for us to do so without damaging the unique tone of voice that you can find in the books. Sapkowski’s writing is absolutely exceptional. It’s a mixture between darkness and humour which constantly intertwines. I think it’s quite natural for us Poles to understand it, but to translate that into English for an international audience is extremely challenging. Fortunately, it worked out thanks to our amazing team of screenwriters.
But that was just one of the challenges. Every day there was a new one. The last month of shooting was probably the wettest month in Budapest of all times. It rained so heavily that the trucks with lightings kept sinking in mud, as did the portable loos – something that may seem quite mundane but is rather important for the crew after all [he laughs]. Shooting in darkness, the cold and the mud is simply physically exhausting. These sorts of incidents slow down the production, fixing it takes time and the lost hours accumulate very quickly.
CEEL: Is this when the pressure starts kicking in?
TB: Sure, there’s pressure but you work with such a well-prepared team and incredibly experienced people who are very resilient to pressure. One of the rules Lauren introduced was the so-called “No Assholes Policy”, meaning that we’d be trying to be nice to each other no matter what. And this worked really well – we had a very solution-orientated team. In case of any problem, everyone tried to keep their cool and find a solution rather than blaming each other or creating unnecessary drama. This type of attitude is something I value the most among people I work with. It’s impossible to avoid failures and obstacles, there’s always going to be something that goes wrong. The question is how you react – you can panic or calmly find a way out of it. It’s all about professionalism, basically.
CEEL: One of your previous projects was Polish Legends, which explored the most famous Polish folklore stories. A fascinating theme in The Witcher is also somehow neglected traditions of Slavic pagan mythology – something that’s still quite undiscovered in the global context. Why is it an important source of inspiration in your creative progress?
TB: Because that’s where I was born. I believe it’s very valuable. There’s no shame in our culture – quite the contrary, it’s an amazingly interesting and rich one. And it’s still quite exotic for the rest of the world. I believe it deserves to be broadcasted. Our adaptation, as well as the original books, draw from many other cultures, too. We’ve got legends coming from all over Europe, but obviously there are noticeable elements of a Slavic tradition – in the music, the choice of monsters, some costumes… We live in a world which has become so unified – there are the same coffee shops in every city nowadays, the same stores. It’s refreshing to offer something different, some new tones, a local flavour and to embrace that uniqueness. There are Northern European Vikings, Japanese Samurais and we’ve got Witchers who are our input to world culture.
CEEL: That smooth intertwining of different influences is one of the best qualities of the series.
TB: Poland has always constituted a borderland between world powers of East and West. And that’s very important to remember to understand the “Polish spirit”. We don’t simply belong to Eastern or to Western Europe. Similarly, The Witcher is not just a dark fantasy or comedy fantasy, or some other pure genre. The Witcher is The Witcher, and it has its own distinctive style.
CEEL: The whole saga gained legendary status in Poland. How do you deal with fans’ high expectations? They can be the hardest critics…
TB: To be honest, you don’t enter this amount of pressure and anticipation over night. I’ve been working for this moment for a very long time, and I was lucky enough that the projects I’d get involved in would usually be successful. I managed to climb the ladder step by step. My approach is always analytical rather than emotional – I tend to look at challenges as puzzles that need to be solved. I’ve noticed that most of the veterans I collaborate with share a similar mindset – the calmness coming from experience. We’ve seen the drama, we’ve been through failures and we all had to act fast to overcome the obstacles. Keeping your head cool is the best piece of advice you can get.
CEEL: That stoicism kind reminds me of Geralt…
TB: I’m naturally quite resilient to stress, but I’m definitely not Geralt. If anything, I’d say that you can find a lot of Andrzej in Geralt’s traits. I think of myself more of a dwarf on a production line, manufacturing things. The most rewarding element of this work for me is to see the physical result of the creative vision I had two, three years ago. To transmute the words on paper into something real, something on the screen is extremely satisfying.
The Witcher is available on Netflix now.