"The Witcher" showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich tweeted an innocent celebratory tweet in May 2018 announcing that her writers were beginning to work on adapting the beloved Polish book series for Netflix.
But despite her credentials as a veteran screenwriter and producer on shows including "The West Wing," "Parenthood", and "The Umbrella Academy," Hissrich found herself mired in controversy. After she posted a photo of the writers' room, online trolls began questioning whether staff members — the majority of whom are women and include people of minority backgrounds — were chosen for diversity rather than accuracy to the narrative.
In response, Hissrich pointed out the writers include someone born in Europe, someone who spent half her life in Central Europe, and another person who is actually Polish.
"But no one actually asked that — they simply took note of skin color and assumed I was filling quotas," she tweeted in response to a fan.
"The Witcher" isn't just a bet for Netflix to see if it can be home to the next big fantasy drama. It's also a chance for Hissrich to make her mark on the genre, which has mostly had male executive producers helming the franchises. About 80 percent of showrunners are men, according to a 2017 study from UCLA.
"It's about opening the doors to let everyone tell their story," Hissrich said to Cheddar during a press event. "I was able to walk into the room and give my pitch, and I think that's where we need to focus: Can everyone get in the room? Once everyone's in the room, it's all about the stories that you want to tell and are you are the right person?"
But despite trying to pick and cast the best people for her series, the controversy caused her to leave Twitter for a few weeks. She needed to focus on writing the finale rather than paying attention to people trying to get a rise out of her, Hissrich said. While she has returned, her detractors still remain - but she isn’t letting it stop her.
"Obviously there are trolls on Twitter," she explained. "There's also a lot of people who really care and want their opinions to get across. That's why I always choose to delve in and talk to people. If you were rude, if you were an asshole, then I would just not talk to you. But if you were just concerned I was going to mess up what you loved, hopefully I could give some reassurance around that."
Thanks to HBO's success with "Game of Thrones," many are looking to see if "The Witcher" can garner a similar die-hard fanbase when it is released later this year. The property, which is based off a Polish book series by Andrzej Sapkowski, has already built a cult following in America thanks to an adventure game of the same name. The series will star Henry Cavill as Geralt, a monster-slaying mercenary with supernatural powers.
But despite being 2019, the issue of race and sexuality in casting choices and behind-the-camera roles still is a hot-button topic. Recently, some online commenters took issue with African American singer Halle Bailey being cast as Ariel in "The Little Mermaid." Idris Elba has found himself in the middle of several controversies, including whether it was okay for him to portray Heimdall in the Thor series as well as be a potential James Bond. Others have argued it was inappropriate to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead role in "Ghost in the Shell" because of lack of minority roles in Hollywood. The main character is supposed to be a Japanese woman.
While "Game of Thrones" casting director Nina Gold said the descriptions of the characters made them seek out cast members of certain races, Hissrich took a slightly difference stance for her fantasy series. "The Witcher" never specified the races of the characters, she pointed out. Skin or hair color didn't matter as much to her as whether the actor could embody the role.
"We never cast with an eye to inclusion," Hissrich said. "We cast with 'Anyone's welcome to come and prove yourself to us.' In terms of 'The Witcher' itself, I came at it from the very beginning that the continent is a huge place, and it's not our world. So I think when you watch it you'll see a lot rules being bent in a lot of ways."
While this is the first time Hissrich will be the lead producer on a series, she is no stranger to Netflix. In addition to the "The Umbrella Academy," she's worked on "The Defenders" and "Daredevil." To prepare for this project, she read "The Witcher" books and played the games. The first season will be based on the prequel stories told in "The Last Wish." Hissrich hopes this will help build out the world for viewers throughout the eight-episode arc.
"I never think of myself as a female writer," Hissrich said. "I just think of myself as a writer. All this proves is that women can be in these roles. It has been a traditionally male genre. I think women have a place in this world. It doesn't really change how I tell stories."