The Grishaverse is Leigh Bardugo’s baby. Eric Heisserer is the architect that helped shape the project into the show you will all be able to enjoy next week. We had a chance to talk to both of them about this immense, expansive world, what it means to bring it to life, how they strived to make it more diverse and of course, and what it feels like at the heart of the show.
Easy, casual subjects. Nothing too deep or anything.
All jokes aside, this is a big moment for Leigh. When you work so long on one thing, when you think about it, mull it over, imagine it and re-imagine it, it’s both daunting and exciting to see it take a final shape. Plus, the whole concept of an adaptation requires you to basically trust someone else with your creation.
“It’s been pretty weird, I won’t lie,” Bardugo admitted, when asked about this exact thing. “Very exciting. Also, very scary. When you’re handing over, not just the keys to one novel but to what has been the bulk of my life’s work, it is very frightening.” And yet, just seeing Leigh and Eric interact, it was clear that the decision had been the right one, something Leigh herself confirmed. “We waited to find the right partners. When I sat down with Eric for the first time, this was before he’d taken the job or before we really met with Netflix, I had such a good feeling. We were on the same page in terms of what we wanted to change, what we felt the heart of the story was, what we had to keep. And as it turns out, my gut was right, and it turned out to be a really great gamble.”
One that, as expected when you’re adapting such a large, complicated universe, didn’t come without challenges – logistical ones, to begin with, as Heisserer shared.
“One of the biggest tricks to pull in a fantasy show is immersion. So, you have to put a lot of time and attention (in) making you feel like you’re really living in that experience,” he shared, and we have to not just agree with the initial assessment, but confess that, in our opinion, they absolutely nailed this part. And it wasn’t by chance. “I spent many weekends in the art department, with them helping conquer demons of my own making, creating languages, number systems, suits for the cards, artwork and Ravkan labels on booze that would be back in the bar. We ended up inventing a board game that two players play in the back of a pub, that you don’t really ever get to see, but we made it! So that was a logistical challenge that hopefully paid off.”
The other balance, of course, was more about telling a story that’s basically Shadow and Bone with the Six of Crows characters thrown in, but without ever going into what happens during Six of Crows. Which also meant that, logistically, we had to see a different set, a different place: Kerch.
“The thing is the Kerch exists side by side with Ravka,” Bardugo explained. “They are very different nations. Kerch is cosmopolitan. It’s the hub of all legal and illegal trade. It’s a much more diverse, much more prosperous country, unlike Ravka which has been left behind by the Shadow Fold,” which is why they’re in desperate need of a Sun summoner. “But they do exist in the same universe and they do impact each other in both series. So, in some ways the groundwork was laid for the way these two cultures, these two sets of characters could be put on a collision course with one another. And it’s something we wanted to do from moment one.”
And something that, personally, we think really works to make the show dynamic, and to keep you on the edge of your seat. Even if you’re read the books, you have no idea what’s coming, because the storylines Kaz, Inej and Jesper are not following the story we know. Plus, as Bardugo shared, the characters, and themes, just really went well together.
“I think we would thought it would make for a more richer, more interesting show if we included the Crows, and that they were thematically deeply linked to the story of Shadow and Bone, because what you have is a lot of young people who the world views as expendable. And who are trying to find a way to survive together and find a place to belong.”
This, of course, meant that they needed to figure out what to adapt, what had to be cut and what needed to be added. To this extent, Bardugo seemed pretty happy with what made the cut for what, we hope, will only be the first season of Shadow and Bone.
“I actually feel like we got a lot of book 1 of the Shadow and Bone trilogy into this first season. I think it is very faithful in its big moments and its character discovery,” she shared, and having watched the show, we have to agree with her. The trick, of course, was finding a place for the Crows. “When it came to Six of Crows we were really taking on the challenge of writing prequel material. These two series exist in the same universe, so it’s very organic to have them crossing paths and it’s something that happens in the novels as well. It just happens a little bit sooner and a little bit differently in this version of events.”
Which means that if (or when, let’s see when) more seasons are confirmed, there’ll be new challenges to the adaptation, since some timelines have been moved, and some characters have crossed paths in very different ways than in the books. “There’s obviously a lot more in the series, and we’re hoping to get a chance to develop it. There’s certainly a lot of characters I would love to see brought to life on the screen. We just have to cross our fingers for that.”
Nikolai. *fingers crossed*
Wylan. *fingers crossed*
Tolya and Tamar. *fingers crossed*
Characters we love and characters we hope to get a chance to love aside, one interesting thing about this adaptation, as a book reader, was how very little the show tried to dumb down their mythology for the sake of people who might be coming into this for the first time, something Heisserer himself was very adamant about. “It was a fervid stance from me from the beginning, which I think it had to be from the beginning, because so much of the invisible war of show running can be a war of attrition. In this case, I had to continue to remind everybody in the room, the genre literacy of the arc and the audience. We have a really smart and astute audience; we certainly have a legion of book fans thanks to Leigh that would make it so the world was already preset with their expectations and their knowledge of it.”
He isn’t wrong there.
“My comparison was really like a medical show, where a doctor or House M.D can throw around a bunch of jargon that the general audience has no idea what it is. But they take it in stride, knowing that it has to deal with a patient, or disease, or medicine, or whatever the case is. And you stick with the characters. So, I felt that that was the approach to use here, of letting the audience catch up to some of these things. Let some of them be a reveal later on. And let them feel like they’re just being dropped into and get to live in a world for a while.”
This approach was one of the reasons we here at Fangirlish will be bringing you two reviews per episode – one written from the point of view of someone who read the books, and one written from the point of view of someone who hasn’t, because it’s truly a different experience, and we felt like it would be fun to compare our opinions and expectations to each other.
For example, I came into this pretty clear of what the heart of the show was – or what I expected it to be. And though some of the changes to the adaptation – especially diversity wise – altered some of what I expected to see (and in some ways, fell short of what I expected, it has to be said), in general, I got a sense that an attempt was made, and hopefully, this team of people remains open to doing better going forward.
To this respect, Eric told us, “I think the show represents the Grishaverse world, especially with the inclusion of Kerch and Ketterdam, where we get introductions to these cultures, so the DNA was already there. And it was a matter of doing our best to embrace that.”
Once the show is out there will be a lot of necessary conversations about how well these attempts really translated, but for now, it’s interesting to hear what the approach, and what the intent was, so you can all compare it to what you see on screen.
For Eric, who was bringing the world to life, the way to make diversity something intrinsic to the universe “came from the diversity of my writing team that all showed up because they all had a favorite character, they were excited about seeing some version of themselves on the screen. And it became my job to get out of their way so they could tell those stories in a way that felt authentic to their experience, and still hold true to the characters in the book. We didn’t want to violate any of that.”
Which doesn’t mean the show is perfect – or as diverse as maybe we would have all liked. Eric freely admitted that, as he ruminated on what the future could bring. “It’s just really trying to make as much headway as possible into that diversity, because it represents the real world. We don’t have a world that is just straight and white, thankfully. It’s a matter of doing whatever we can here. And honestly, there’s a lot more to do. This is basically ‘progress is made not in giant leaps, but in steps.’ Hopefully everybody, and the faces we get to see now. we can add to that if we get a second season.”
Leigh also had something to add to this important discussion.
“I think there’s this weird way that we talk about diversity in media where people view it as something artificial, when in fact it’s a reversion to reality and the way that the world does look around us. And if your world is all straight and white you should perhaps make more friends.”
“But there is a weird idea that there’s something unnatural or contrived about it. But that’s not the way that this world functions at all. It’s organic. It’s normal. And I don’t think casting is hard because there are so many actors of color who are hungry for roles; to play something other than a sidekick. And for that matter, so many authors of color who are waiting to see their work adapted. So, we’re one tiny step. But I hope that we’ll see a lot more of that in the future.”
For Leigh, in particular, this is about making the show look more like the person – the author she is now, than the one she was when she started writing.
“Shadow and Bone was the first book, and I wrote it over 10 years ago. And I think I became a very different author, a more confident author, and quite frankly a more skilled author. So, there are things I can look back on that first trilogy and say I really wish that I’d done this a little bit differently.” Which is something that, I think, happens to every artist. The more time you spend honing your craft, the better you get, the more you see. Leigh, however, had a chance not many writers have, the chance to re-do her earlier work, in a way.
Then there’s this: “I think also I’ve been very candid about the fact that when I wrote that first book I was really echoing a lot of the fantasy I had grown up on. And it’s consequentially a very straight and very white story. And I think you can see that as my books progressed, I really start to reflect what our world looks like and what my world looks like in a more realistic way. And so that was something I wanted to make sure we not only carried over but that the show could do better than I had done. I hope that we’ll get better yet.”
As always, the work is never done. There are always things the properties we look up to can do better, writing wise, but especially, representation wise. But this feels like a good stepping stone.
Story wise, this also came into play. As Eric shared, “Half my team in the room is mixed race and a lot of the time they brought their voice and their experience to these characters, and it was my job to get out of their way.”
“One of things they felt was important was representing the kinship of how marginalized Alina and Mal felt at such an early age. It bonded them. And how that relationship grows organically out of a sense of protecting one another.” Talking to Eric and Leigh, it was clear they felt this was at the center of the Shadow and Bone story, these two orphans, and the way they feel about each other, which “can turn into sort of an unrequited love, where both sides are really reluctant to take the plunge, because they need each other so much in other aspects of their life.”
This all helped them to build out Mal, a character that, I, for one, didn’t care for in the books, but came to truly appreciate watching the show. “We built out someone, honestly, (who) at the end of the day could be the perfect boyfriend that a lot of us would love to have. But for all this, he feels a bit of trepidation. For all he hunts, and he tracks, there are times where Mal himself can be a woodland creature. And we felt that helped accentuate the strength in Alina as a protagonist.”
Leigh was quick to praise Archie’s performance, too, because as much as the writing helped, he makes the character shine. “Archie is an exceptionally great actor,” she told us, “and finding him was really this incredible stroke of luck, because we knew right away that this guy could play this character in a way that made him feel real and raw in a lot of ways that a lot of actors could not.”
While we’re on the subject of these amazing actors, and the way they step into these characters, and have, in some ways, become a reference, at times people have compared Kaz Brekker’s vibe to that of Peaky Blinder’s Tom Shelby, something Leigh Bardugo is well aware of, but that is purely accidental, because, as she shared with us, “When I started writing Six of Crows there was no Peaky Blinders, at least not in the US. And if it was, I wasn’t aware of it, because I started writing that book in 2014, I guess. And sure enough, as soon as the book came out, people started saying, “Have you seen this show?” And I didn’t watch it until the pandemic because I didn’t want to be influenced by it.”
But once she did, “I definitely see in the vengefulness, in the idea of surviving a world that does not care about you, I can definitely see some similarities in there. And I think the word “swagger” is right. I had a playlist when I was working on Six of Crows. I had certain songs for certain characters. I would queue up “Sinister Kid” by The Black Keys every time I was writing about Kaz. So, I definitely see that.”
However, for all the superficial similarities, Bardugo also remarked, “I see some pretty radical differences, particularly in the makeup of our crew, the experiences of some of the characters, and the fact that they don’t have this actual kind of institutional support that the Peaky Blinders do. Also, Kaz’s plans work out more. I think Peaky wants to be more realistic, and I want that more Ocean’s 11 satisfaction.”
This is not a knock on Tommy Shelby, who I absolutely adore, but I’ll take Kaz Brekker, okay? I’m not even sorry.
Finally, we closed off our interview talking about inspiration. And since we started with Leigh, it was only right to end up with Eric Heiserrer, the architect behind the show you’ll get to watch in less than one week, who, feet planted firmly on the ground, told us, “I hired everybody that was a lot more talented than I was. That was plan one,” he confessed, and then he started naming some people, like “costume designer Wendy Partridge. We gave her essentially the blueprints of the costumes that came from Leigh’s books, in terms of the kefta and the colors and all of that. She would come back and say, “What if I used the embroidery with this material, because this is the same material that is used for military insignias on uniforms, and it lets you essentially know that these are officers in that kind of space?” So those choices that were made by the experts in their fields, really helped, informed, and improved on ideas that just had previously existed in our imaginations.”
The beauty of letting people do their jobs. And the examples just kept on coming.
“My VFX supervisor Ted Ray, he and I had been going through a number of iterations of what the Shadow Fold would look like. We had some very passionate opinions at the start. And most of those passionate opinions got quashed early on because we realized it didn’t work. So, we had a mourning period and then we went back at it. And he finally got two close ups of solar photography that just shows the raging surface of the sun. I went, “That’s interesting. What am I looking at?” And then he gave a photo negative version of that and said, “What if this is the skin of the fold, essentially the opposite of what Alina is?” And I leaned into that and we ended up sort of using that texture for when you’re looking on the outside of the fold. It’s actually mimicking the behavior of our sun.”
If it sounds like the amount of love and thought put into this show by everyone involved, from the people behind the scenes to the actors and creatives, might just match that of the fans, then the show is worth watching. And this one, in our opinions, absolutely is. Which is why we’ll be here, ready to join you for every step of the Shadow and Bone journey to come.
Are you excited to finally get to see Shadow and Bone? Share with us in the comments below!
Shadow and Bone will be available to stream April 23rd on Netflix.