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SFN+ | Shadow & Bone: Welcome to the Grishaverse

Shadow and Bone showrunner and writer Eric Heisserer, and star Freddy Carter introduce us to the dark, magical world of the Grishaverse…

Set in a world full of magic, complex politics and a great wall of darkness that divides the land, it’s no wonder that Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books captured the imaginations of readers when the first novel of the series, Shadow and Bone, was published back in 2012. Happily enough (for the book’s adventure onto our screens via those other magical folks over at Netflix), one of those readers was writer Eric Heisserer, who adapted Netflix’s 2018 horror thriller Bird Box. However, he wasn’t looking for another book to adapt at all…

“It was kind of a New Year’s resolution,” he tells us. “I wanted to get back to pleasure reading. I’d been doing too much work reading, where I was given something to see if I could adapt it and that doesn’t let me really enjoy or fully immerse myself. So I reached out to a friend. I was like, ‘dude, give me a book that I haven’t heard of that you recommended’, and he was like, ‘you want Ocean’s 11 in a Game of Thrones world’ and I said, ‘yes I do, put that in my eyes right now!’. I got Six of Crows and I devoured it, I just ploughed through that pretty fast.”

The Grishaverse is made up of a number of series of books, including the Shadow and Bone trilogy, which are narrated by Alina Starkov who lives in Ravka (a country inspired by 1800s Russia) and the Six of Crows duology, which is set in Ketterdam (a country based on Dutch Republic-era Amsterdam) and follows a criminal gang – Kaz, Inej, Nina, Jesper, Matthias, and Wylan.

“One of the other resolutions I had that year was: Whatever I consume, if I like it, reach out to those creators. I reached out to Leigh Bardugo and I said: “I love this world, I love these characters, they’re living in my head rent-free, and I’m going to devour the other stuff you’ve written now!” She said thank you very much and that was the end of it. Then a year later I got a call from Netflix out of the blue, and they said ‘we know you like Leigh Bardugo’ and they said they had the rights to Shadow and Bone.

“I met with them, and talked about it and I said, those are great books but I’m not going to do this unless you also get Six Of Crows for me and they were like ‘we don’t have the rights to those’. I said, ‘well, that’s it then’. Then a couple of months later they called back and said ‘all right we have the rights to everything’ and they had me hook line and sinker!”

Indeed, Heisserer was so on board with the series that he’s ensured it incorporates characters from both Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows, including criminal gang leader Kaz, played by Freddy Carter: “I think that it is genuinely the best of the books and more,” Carter tells us. “It’s everything that you’d hope a Shadow and Bone adaptation would be. It’s got adventure and fantasy and magic, but it’s heightened by being grounded in this incredible reality.

“All of us, the principal cast and Eric and Leigh, all sort of shared a vision of it, which was grounded in reality and grounded in human characters. Making decisions, not simply because it serves the story, but we wanted to find out why they were making these decisions. So it’s about real people in this fantastical world.”

Kaz is the leader of the Dregs, which is one of several prominent gangs in the city of Ketterdam. As a gang leader, it’s no surprise Kaz is pretty much up for any job, even if they are morally questionable, though he’s not the only one with a murky moral compass: “I think a lot of the characters in Shadow and Bone are morally questionable [haha]! That’s part of the excitement,” Carter laughs. “Kaz probably pushes it to the nth degree. It’s victory at all costs, it’s revenge at all costs. That dogma that he has about revenge and money, in being the top dog. That sort of utter determination and doggedness appealed to me.”

“The characters are lively and they have such different personal life experiences,” Heisserer agrees. “They’re all fun to hang around with in different ways. Some of the more tragic backstories, like Kaz’s, makes them wounded, but the book and the author know the difference between wounded and broken. It gave me just a great sense of hope in a happy ending for some of these people.”

Kaz is wounded in that he walks with a limp and has to use a cane, but he’s in no way broken, running his own casino and battling other gangs for control. “I did a lot of physical work before we started shooting to make sure that Kaz’s limp was both fully embodied and something that wouldn’t hold either me or him back!” Carter tells us. “I wanted it to feel like something that made him stronger because it does, it adds to the myth and intrigue around him. I also felt a responsibility to make it accurate because of Leigh Bardugo’s personal connection to walking with a cane. She was wonderfully supportive and we had lots of on-set discussions about the intricacies of living life with a cane.”

In the series, Kaz and fellow gang members – which in the series includes Inej and Jasper – are on one of those morally questionable jobs (that includes a big payday), but to complete it so they have to journey across the dangerous and formidable Fold; a dark, barren strip of land that is plagued by monsters called volcra. The Fold has taken root in the middle of Ravka, cutting most of it from the sea and creating a bitter divide in the country.

A giant dark wall that lasts for miles and is full of monsters was never going to be an easy task to bring to the screen: “Leigh had some idea of that, but it remained appropriately vague,” Heisserer laughs. “That helps you out if you’re a novelist [but does] not help you out when you get a visual effects supervisor going: ‘That’s not gonna work for me Eric!’

“We did some pretty intense R&D. We all came in with various ideas of what we wanted it to look like and got into some really interesting experimentation. What does the skin of the thing look like? It needs to feel like it is almost a weather phenomenon, but also creepy and supernatural at the same time. You don’t want it to be too weird that it pulls you completely out of the show, but you want it to feel appropriately intimidating.

“It wasn’t until my VFX supervisor found some amazing photography of our sun and said: ‘Look at the surface of the sun, look what happens when I do a photo negative of it – it’s all black fire! What if we do the opposite of the sun as the skin of the fold?’ Of course, our Sun Summoner is the thing that has to be the antithesis of that and so that’s ultimately where we landed in terms of the outside look at the Fold.”

That Sun Summoner is lowly soldier and orphan Alina Starkov, who’s just discovered she has the incredibly rare (mythical in fact) power to summon the light of the sun. This power could be the key to destroying the Fold, and setting her country free. So she’s sent to join the elite army of magical soldiers known as Grisha. However, as she gets more embroiled in the world of magic and politics, she realises there are things far more dangerous out there than the dark depths of the Fold. It’s a complex story that goes beyond exciting magical abilities, incorporating the harsh realities of war and class.

“I grew up with a genre that had been populated by, I would say, male power fantasy and a lot of the familiar tropes of that genre kind of hung around,” Heisserer says. “But [people] started to get clever with them and do takes on other genres in fantasy, like detective and war, but I never found something that went off into Slavic territory and spoke to Russian old history in a way that the Grishaverse did…”

Yes, even though Shadow and Bone is a magical fantasy series, don’t be expecting any grey-bearded wizards wielding wands here: “Shadow and Bone is unlike any fantasy world I’ve seen before,” Carter explains. “Rather than the traditional medieval setting of other fantasy shows, this world takes its inspiration from Tsarist Russia. So rather than magic wands and castles, it’s repeating rifles and palaces.”

“I appreciated the small science and the systems for magic,” Heisserer adds. “I have a want for that kind of stuff, combining late 1800s ballistic weaponry with magic, it’s exciting!”

With a world populated with those who can and cannot do various magics, a corrupt political and class system, a social divide with a potential civil war, as well as that great big wall of darkness, creating the Grishaverse was no small job. However, those behind the series always had the books to ground them, and their author to lend a hand. “Leigh knows this [world] better than anybody,” says Heisserer. “It’s great to have her as the historian of this world and pester her at all hours of the day and night with questions. I’m sure she gets really tired of me for that…”

Having Leigh Bardugo on board (both day and night it seems) and being a huge fan of the books meant that Heisserer was well-equipped to bring the novels’ much-loved characters to life in the series. “Eric has really brought these characters from the books to screen,” Carter agrees. “Everyone has their ideas what Kaz, Alina, Inej and General Kirigan are like, but his genius seems to be distilling that to the tiny moments and the use of visual storytelling.”

“I had a phenomenal [writers] room,” Heisserer modestly says. “Everyone paired up with their favourite character and found a way to give life into that particular character. There’s [also] a lot in the source material that you’re already attached to and looking to find homes for. You carry around with you quotes and little bits of dialogue or little behaviours that you’re excited to plant somewhere throughout the season. We had a lot of fun with that, including some very iconic lines that I’m sure the fans are excited to hear.”

The other element fans may be excited to see will be the pairing of the Shadow and Bone storyline with that from the Six of Crows. With the former having a central character immersed in magic and politics, and the latter focusing on a criminal underbelly, combining the two was going to need a trick or two. “The main trick was switching between the storyline of our criminals and the storyline of our sweeping Russian romantic adventure story,” Heisserer explains. “That was more of a directorial challenge and it came down to the type of camera moves that we would play with each side.

“When we’re in Ravka, we have armies and Grisha powers and it’s big and sweeping and would invoke a big orchestra, whereas in Ketterdam, these are thieves and grifters and con artists. These are people who don’t think much about the next day because they’re just figuring out how they’re going to get their fix right now. There is going to be a lot of handheld, a lot of quick pans, a lot of kinetic momentum there in that space because they’re always on the go. That gave you a separate cinematic language for each of these groups, and then that makes a very exciting moment for when these finally collide…”

You won’t have to wait too long for that collide Grishaverse fans, the series lands on Netflix this April and Heisserer believes the timing for the series couldn’t be better: “This is a story for so many characters that are told that they don’t belong, that they don’t fit in, that they’re outcast. These are essentially a bunch of misfit toys who find their home with each other, and find their purpose within themselves. It’s an empowering tale that I think, unfortunately, is very timely now, and hopefully it’ll be a light in the darkness.”

Shadow And Bone will launch globally on Netflix on 23 April 2021

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