The first scribblings for the Witcher spin-off series came from a napkin in a café in November 2019. Declan de Barra, the creator, loves telling this story because it never happens like this in Hollywood. It may never happen to him again. "It was one of those rare 'David Lynch in a café' moments where the whole thing comes out in one go," he tells EW.
De Barra had joined Netflix's The Witcher, starring Henry Cavill, as a writer and executive producer. He had recently been sketching out ideas for season 2 when the conversation in the writers' room turned to the Conjunction of the Spheres, a fantastical phenomenon that merged the worlds of elf, man, and monster, creating the present-day world of the Continent fans know from the main series. There weren't many answers to how that event occurred in the original books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, so De Barra mapped out ideas on a whiteboard for how this could all have happened. More specifically, what the world pre-Conjunction looked like.
It was only after finishing work on season 2 that Netflix called De Barra about these ideas, asking if he wanted to put together a pitch for a prequel series set thousands of years before the mothership fantasy drama. "I was like, 'F--- yeah!' and then literally sat in a café and scribbled it down on a napkin," De Barra recalls.
That pitch included everything from character names like Éile, a warrior elf who gives up her life in the Queens-guard to become a traveling musician; Scian, the last of a nomadic tribe of sword-elves; and Fjall, a fighter out to avenge a friend who died in combat. Thus, The Witcher: Blood Origin, a four-episode miniseries event coming to Netflix this Christmas, was born. De Barra says the concept "hasn't really changed much" since that napkin. "It's normally months and months and reams of paper and crying and gnashing your teeth and clawing your skin off. It never really flows this easily."
De Barra and his three main stars — Sophia Brown, Laurence O'Fuarain, and Michelle Yeoh — give EW an inside peek at The Witcher: Blood Origin, which will chronicle not just the events leading up to the Conjunction of the Spheres, but also the creation of the first prototype Witcher. "I'm excited to be showing the fans something they don't know," Brown remarks. "We can create whatever we want to create. So we don't have to fit any sort of mold. We just get to play."
Lilja Jonsdottir/Netflix Sophia Brown stars in 'The Witcher: Blood Origin' as Éile, once a member of the elven Queens-guard and now a traveling musician with the voice of an angel.
The event miniseries begins at a time in the Continent when it was dominated by elves, untouched by the colonialism mankind will bring about someday in the future. It's a thriving society with various kingdoms and hierarchies. O'Fuarain maps it out: "The royals are at the top, and then the mages and sages. Then we have the warrior class. Then we have the lowborn."
It's also more technically advanced when it comes to magic and science, De Barra points out. "In a weird way, they were enlightened, but it had its problems," he says. "There was massive social stratification. There's highborn and lowborn, and you shall not pass from one to the other. That's their form of racism, and specie-ism in terms of how the dwarves are treated. It's not a perfect society at all."
"I think once the society gets to its peak, greed creeps in and cracks form," O'Fuarain explains. "It's completely an unfair society, so you're going to have an awful lot of people that are not living in the best circumstances."
De Barra wanted to tell a story about how history is told by the victors. Colonialism, as it exists in the real world, works by killing language, culture, and education. The same will become true of the elves. A fan of films like Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Eiichi Kudo's 13 Assassins, the showrunner created his own group of disparate individuals to shoulder this narrative. Brown's Éile is one of them.
Fans will meet her as the daughter of the chieftain of the Raven Clan who's been trained since birth to become part of an elite guard that protects the monarchy. Known as the Lark, she learned the way of the sword from Scian (Yeoh), a sword-elf who happened to have an instrument — a key-harp — hanging on her wall. "Éile picked it up and that was the end of her," De Barra explains. "As soon as she heard notes and what they could do, she realized she was born into the wrong profession and she took off. In the old days, in these times, you would be put to death. There was no leaving. But she's the daughter of the chieftain, and so she left. She was pretty much banished from there."
Now, Éile is a traveling musician, though those warrior instincts remain. Brown calls her "small but mighty." The actress thinks of her as "the compass" of this ragtag elven team, but she doesn't know that she's leading the journey.
"I liked the fact that, even though there was a lot of fighting and there was a lot of toughness to the character, I brought a softness to her that was crucial to the world, to her, and to the people that she interacts with," she explains. "I didn't want a woman who is tough and self-sufficient to just be seen as cold."
De Barra wrote five songs for Brown to sing as Éile, who's described as having the voice of an angel. Brown finds it difficult to perform these pieces without feeling like she is Éile. "I've got a playlist for her, as well. I can't listen to any of the songs on it," she says. "I've gotta leave it a little while [longer]."
Lilja Jonsdottir/Netflix Laurence O'Fuarain stars as Fjall, part of a clan of warriors now on a mission of vengeance after a loved one dies in battle.
Brown found commonalities between Éile and Fjall, played by O'Fuarain. Both characters are on the same level in the elven hierarchy, just living in separate clans. Similar to Éile, Fjall guards his royal family in the Dog Clan. Unlike those in Raven Clan, the warriors in his don't use swords. They use axes.
"They're in well-respected jobs and communities, but they are also service people and they're still used in ways," Brown remarks. "I think the show explores what happens to people when they have been used. When there's disparity between people who are being used and [people who are] using people, what happens when that clash finally meets?"
O'Fuarain sees a bit of hypocrisy within Fjall at the start of Blood Origin. He's someone who enjoys his station within the hierarchy, so even though he sees the injustice toward the lowborn, he doesn't do anything to stop it. Then, by circumstances that will become clear in the series, Fjall is cast out of his clan.
Emotion, especially love, isn't encouraged in Fjall's line of work. But soon, Fjall becomes consumed by emotion. "He has, in battle, lost a loved one who he was trying to protect, and he just can't get over that," O'Fuarain says. "It's eating him up inside an awful lot. He can't make peace with himself or the world around him. So when he gets cast out of his clan, he's trying to find his place in the world. While that's happening, the Continent is in total turmoil."
O'Fuarain took the physicality this role demanded very seriously. He points to Cavill, who headlines the main Witcher series. "He's literally Superman," O'Fuarain says, referring to Cavill's role as DC's Man of Steel. "So I knew I needed to really put the effort in." Most days on set he didn't need to hit the gym. The axe Fjall wields is pretty darn heavy, the actor admits. "Obviously, when we're using it to fight, I'd have to use the fake one. The normal takes where you're not actually fighting, it was always good to just react to the weight of it."
The weapon, too, gives us some clue into the character of Fjall. "When Fjall goes out into the world, he comes across this axe," O'Fuarain says. "I don't think I can tell you how he does, but he liked the fact that it was quite big. He loves some big axes. He jumped at the chance to grab that."
"Fjall is quite adorable, but Scian would never say so," Yeoh says. "He is impetuous and emotional. He gets very angry before he understands why and does things without thinking first. Scian believes if he learned not to be so temperamental, he could be a very good warrior."
The mistress of swords
Susie Allnutt/Netflix Michelle Yeoh's sword-elf Scian jumps into action on 'The Witcher: Blood Origin.'
Yeoh's Scian is a different breed of warrior than the other two members of her troupe. An expert of the sword, Scian was a member of the Ghost Clan until the old King of Xintrea sent the Dog Clan to poison her entire tribe for refusing to fight for his kingdom. "I was saved by Raven Clan, who adopted me and I became the sword mother of Éile, who is the Lark, and that was our bond," Yeoh says. "Unfortunately for the Queen of Pryshia, I taught Éile more than swordsmanship."
Scian is living as a hermit out in the Black Sands when we meet her. "It is totally her choice because this is where she finds peace, she communicates with her ancestors to find out what the future holds," the Shang-Chi and Everything, Everywhere, All at Once actress says.
Scian's body is covered in distinct tattoos, and all of them have special meanings. According to Yeoh, the one on her forehead translates as "promises made shall not waiver." The one on the side of her face translates as "born of black sands, cast by fire, shaped by the sea." It speaks to how the elves of Ghost Clan lived by the ideals of promise and integrity.
"She is very spiritual," Yeoh adds. "This existence is only interrupted because Éile has come looking for her."
Vengeance seems to be a common thread that binds the three figures. Scian is on a mission to find a lost ancestral sword of her people that was stolen, while Yeoh mentions how Éile witnesses the death of her sister, prompting her to embark on a journey. Brown disagrees. She sees grief as being the binding agent. "Each of them are searching for a closure of something from their past," she says.
O'Fuarain believes "each of the characters are carrying a bit of weight." He says, "I think that a lot of them have a scarred past or there's something that they want to get redemption for. They all can see each other in one another due to their shared trauma."
"This will be a really exciting ride because it is so magical and it's an epic journey about love," Yeoh says. "It's not just a quest for getting back a blade or finding peace, it is a journey within, a journey with each other and a journey for love."
The Witcher: Blood Origin premieres on Christmas on Netflix.