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“If you don't have your stories and your songs, you're doomed as a people;” Showrunner Declan de Barra discusses The Witcher: Blood Origin
08 Mar 2023 : Luke Shanahan
The Witcher: Blood Origin
We caught up with Declan de Barra, the showrunner behind the new Netflix mini-series The Witcher: Blood Origin, which is now available to stream.

Filming on The Witcher: Blood Origin began in Iceland in July, 2021 before returning to the UK to begin principal photography in August 2021 at Arborfield Studios and on location in the UK.

Set in an elven world 1200 years before the world of The Witcher, Blood Origin tells a story lost to time - the creation of the first prototype Witcher, and the events that lead to the pivotal conjunction of the spheres, when the planets of monsters, men, and elves merged to become one. 

The four part series, overseen by showrunner and writer Declan de Barra, is directed by Sarah O’Gorman (Eps 1, 3 & 4) and Vicky Jewson (Eps 1, 2 & 3) and executive produced by Lauren Hissrich, Matt O’Toole, Tomek Baginski and Jason Brown.

Extending the cast of the Witcher Universe, Sophia Brown and Laurence O’Fuarain play Éile and Fjall, two warriors estranged from their opposing clans, Michelle Yeoh takes the role of Scían, a mentor in the ways of the sword. The series also stars Mirren Mack (Princess Merwyn), Lenny Henry (Chief Sage Balor), Francesca Mills (Meldof), Zach Wyatt (Syndril) and Lizzie Annis (Zacaré), Huw Novelli (Brother Death), Joey Batey (Jaskier the bard), and  Minnie Driver plays the part of a Seanchaí

Many of the creative team from The Witcher: Season 2 have returned to design the prequel including Andrew Laws (Head of Franchise Design, Production Designer and Creature Concept Designer), Lucinda Wright (Costume Designer), Deborah Watson (Hair and Make Up Designer), Nick Jefferies (Supervising Armourer) and Adam Horton (Stunt Coordinator). Other behind the scenes heads of department include Mark Coulier (Prosthetics Designer) and May Leung (VFX Supervisor).  

The Witcher: Blood Origin showrunner Declan de Barra sat down with us to discuss the transition of writer to showrunner, and fleshing out the world of The Witcher.

IFTN: You were writing for the mainline Witcher series when you became the showrunner for Blood Origin. Was it daunting taking on that mantle?

DECLAN: “Yeah, that's a different beast. Because when you're a writer in the American system, you know, you're one of maybe eight to 10 people, you pitch your episode, you write your episode. But that's it. When you're the showrunner, suddenly you're in charge of the entire world, and all the scripts and then getting them up on their feet and hiring people. And you're essentially taking an army of 500 to 800 people to war to produce something.”

“And then of course, we were being chased by the plague. It was challenging, but that's what showrunning is, it's about putting out fires whilst trying to keep the creative tone of the scripts alive. You know, someone described showrunning as falling to protect your baby, whilst a million people stab you in the back. Or having five jobs while someone tries to murder you. And they're all kind of apt. But as long as you keep the creative vision you had at the beginning in there, that's your main job, to keep that alive.”

IFTN: The show takes an interesting spin on the Witcher concept by being set 1200 years in the past. How did the idea of exploring this period come about?

DECLAN: “It's come about from being in the writers room and loving the books. But realizing that there's very little about this pivotal moment where elves were suddenly colonized by humans, and monsters drifted into the world in the conjunction spheres. There's very little about how that actually happened, what the world was before, you get the idea that the elves had a high society before, but when you meet them in the books they’re pre-agrarian, they're barely functioning, they can barely reproduce. There's not many of them left. And the idea basically stemmed from what was that world. It was fascinating to me.  I'm fascinated by the dark ages and Rome before the fall. So it's sort of a symbiosis between those two ideas of a collapsing high culture that sort of ruled the continent.” 

“And, you know, the idea of what a pre-colonized world is like, because it's a colonization story. When a colonizer takes over a country, the first thing they do is suppress language, music, culture and stories, because stories are the key to survival. If you cut that off at the knees, you will easily subdue people. They had a very rich culture that they were very connected to and we wanted to show that. So that's where it all stemmed from.”

“I was sitting in a cafe one day and after Lauren had said to me, would you be interested in writing the prequel and I sketched it all out on a napkin, the core idea of it, it all sort of just flowed, which never really happens. It's usually a lot more complicated than that. But it had been building up from years of writing the Witcher and it just all sort of came out at once. And then from there we built the scripts.”

IFTN: It’s not really explored too much in the books so did you feel a lot of pressure in filling in some of these details particularly with the Elven race as they were at the time?

DECLAN: “Absolutely, because it's a ‘damned if you do and damned if you don't’ situation, especially in the world of Witcher, because the fans are so passionate. And we have various clubs of fans, you have those who come from the books, you have those who are TV fans, you have those who are gamers, and then you have some who are in all fields or worlds. And they all have their own idea of what the Witcher should be. You can write anything, [but] you have to be able to tie it back to the books and sort of honor the books and keep the tone of the books. I was very confident in the story that we came up with. And we just kept pushing forward and sending tendrils from that story forward into the world of The Witcher that we see on Netflix and also answering some of the stuff from the books. So you know, once you're in it, there's no going back.”

IFTN: It’s interesting to see a spinoff like this from the main narrative as Sapkowski would have these great one off stories that add to the world but function as their own pieces too. Those coming to it from the games, in particular the Witcher 3, will know that the side quests are some of the best content. Do you think this could be the start of fleshing out the live-action Witcher world in a similar way?

DECLAN: “Yeah, that's what I loved about Sapkowski's books, especially his early stuff, it's all self contained little stories, that sort of all got strung together, almost accidentally, and became the series that we love. And that was a comfort for me. Going back to the previous question about whether this was daunting, I felt like it fit very well in the style of Sapkowski telling a self-contained story. So that just seemed very natural to me.”

IFTN: Do you have any other ideas for how you could expand the world with more stories that are set in the world but can stand alone?

DECLAN: “Oh, yeah. There are so many characters, it's like a backlog of story, this thing that Sapkowski came up with. All these wonderful worlds and characters and so much of it is unanswered. So there's absolutely a space for prequels and side quests. But also inside the main story that follows the books, I think there's more room there to branch out and explore. It doesn't have to be full episodes, there can be scenes here and there that fill out some of the stuff from the book and answer some questions. But you know, that will be up to Lauren and her team of wonderful writers on season four and five coming up.”

IFTN: There’s another Irish element in the mix with Laurence O’Fuarain playing Fjall. There’s one line where he says something like “Good elves of Inis Dubh. Are ya well? 'Cus you're lookin’ well'. I was wondering if you and he had some discussion about bringing in some Irish colloquialisms for his character or was it just a bit of fun?

DECLAN: “It was a bit of fun. I wanted the actors to play in their own accents. It wasn't actually cast this way deliberately. When I realized that they were doing it was a nice kind of flip to the traditional fantasy thing of high elves always speaking in high RP, and all the lower dwarves and stuff having Welsh accents, Scottish accents, Irish accents or whatever. So it was a nice flip on that, it was accidental but I enjoyed it. “

“And then as for the colloquialisms, they were in the writing naturally and I didn't discourage Lawrence. I think that particular line, he improvised on the day and asked was it too much and I said that it was awesome. It's coming from the heart and feels natural. But you know, in terms of an Irish connection to the stories, Sapkowski himself dips heavily into European folklore and he uses a lot of Irish stuff as well. Even down to naming some of the characters: there's like Skellige, from the Skellig islands, and there's lots of lore that he dips in there. So I felt very comfortable. And of course growing up in Ireland, you're primed with that, with the fantasy in terms of our own mythos like The Táin and Cú Chulainn.”

IFTN: The Original music is once again brilliant. As a musician yourself, and with the Witcher being well known for its surprisingly catchy songs, how much of this do you feed into? And what is it like creating the world in musical terms?

DECLAN: “It was almost all accidental. In that season one, Lauren, who was the showrunner on the Witcher was not as clued in about music as perhaps myself. And she said, 'Look, you’re a musician, help me pick these composers.' And I picked two wonderful composers in Sonya and Gianna. I was at their studio because I wanted to look at their gear because as a musician, I was all excited. And then they put a microphone up. And they said, we saw your singing on YouTube, get up there and sing a few bars for us. And we ended up writing a lot of songs together. And that became a lot of the songs used like Song of the White Wolf on season one, and Toss A Coin to Your Witcher, which was written by one of the other writers. And then the album became like a number one album, and we were like, 'Holy shit, this is amazing.' But it was all kind of accidental and organic, it wasn't forced.”

“When it came to writing this, I hadn't intended to write any songs for it. But quickly realized that Éile as a musician was atoning for her sins with music. The songs sort of grew into their own character. And the idea that words and song are essential to survival and that they're more powerful than armies developed as we're going along. I knew I had to write these songs, but I waited until the last minute to write them, like a week or so before we started shooting. I needed to know how Éile would feel on screen, what kind of soul and character she gives off. We got so lucky that the actress, Sophia Brown, was a brilliant singer. She'd never done it professionally. The scene in the cave where she sings for the first time, and everybody looks shocked, is because the cast had never heard her sing. She nailed it in one take. When she finished, the entire set was silent for a second. And she looked up and there was this huge roar of applause. I knew that music was going to take over. It always has a way of finding its way and I tied it back to the central core story of if you don't have your stories and your songs you're doomed as a people.”

IFTN: What are you most excited for Fans of the Witcher to see in Blood Origin. Is there anything in particular you think will surprise them?

DECLAN: “There's lots of little easter eggs that are set in there right down to the little lines like Meldof talking about her lover who always smelled of winterberry and lilac, which is a throwback to the books and an alignment about Geralt always sensing that about Yennefer. So little things like that. And then meeting characters who are hugely important in the books later on, like Aboch and Eredin and meeting them when they're babies, their innocent stages before they have had the world turn on them and they become these dark multi-layered characters. We meet them at their inception where we're starting to see them go through the shit. So we understand the sort of genesis of the characters.”

“And then just showing a world that we don't know about, that's almost on its head about what we know about the elves in the world of The Witcher. We get to see them at their height of their culture with magnificent buildings and music and art and science. And that was really what was exciting to me about showing that world, and then we could see conjunctional spheres and how it happened, and the arrival of the humans.  We set up some questions that people will be arguing about on Reddit, 'Is that person, this person? Is that bloodline this person?' Then for people who don't know The Witcher from a block of soap, they will be able to watch it because that was part of the idea as well, that we create this self-contained thing that would honor the books and satisfy the fans, but also be something that you could just walk into and enjoy it.”

The Witcher: Blood Origin is available to stream on Netflix.

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