Leigh Bardugo And Eric Heisserer Discuss Casting "Shadow And Bone" And How Finding The Cast Was "Magic"
"I understood that if this could work, even without the effects, then maybe we had gotten this right."
Shadow and Bone has officially arrived on Netflix, and for the fans of Leigh Bardugo's bestselling Grishaverse novels, it's like Christmas morning. For the first time, Alina, The Darkling, Mal, and The Crows have leapt off the page and into a fantasy TV show that you can't help but binge-watch in one sitting.
To celebrate the release of Shadow and Bone, we sat down with author and executive producer Leigh Bardugo and showrunner, executive producer, and writer Eric Heisserer to chat about everything — like what the casting process for Shadow and Bone was like, the breathtaking details that went into bringing Ravka to life, our love for Milo the goat, and much more. Here's everything we learned:
WARNING: There are spoilers ahead for Shadow and Bone Season 1!
First, Eric, how did you get involved with Shadow and Bone, and Leigh, what was it like bringing Eric in to adapt the Grishaverse novels?
Eric Heisserer (showrunner, executive producer, and writer): I got involved because of a New Year's resolution, actually. I had come out of a long year of reading only for work. When you read for work, you are constantly analyzing and putting your work hat on, and it gets exhausting. So, after a while, I wanted to get back to pleasure reading. So, the first thing that I was recommended by a friend was Six of Crows. I jumped in knowing absolutely nothing, and I was hooked instantly. I loved it. My other resolution that year was if I connected with something, I'd reach out to the creator and let them know. So, I found Leigh on Twitter and I sent her a tweet with essentially a bunch of hearts and saying that I couldn't wait to read more, and she thanked me. Then, I just went on and devoured the rest of her books, and I found the original Grishaverse trilogy that way. When I got Shadow and Bone, I had some basic expectation that this would be a "chosen one" story, and Leigh surprised me at every turn. It rolled into some really epic action and some phenomenally sassy characters.
I had friends that were stealing my copies of the books, and that was around the time that Netflix gave me a call out of the blue and said, "Eric, we know you like the Grishaverse." And it turned out that Leigh had shared that I had tweeted at her a year earlier.
Leigh Bardugo (author and executive producer): I love that Eric's view is like, "Leigh thanked me." But, secretly, me and all my friends were like, "That's the guy who did Arrival! And he's tweeting about Six of Crows! Oh my god! What if he wants to adapt it?!" I was trying really hard to play it cool. We had done a lot of meetings [about adapting the series], but until we came to Netflix, we didn't really feel like we were in the right place. Then, it was just a question of finding the right showrunner and the right partner to really adapt this monster. I literally said at the time, "Well, you know, Eric Heisserer — Academy Award–nominated Eric Heisserer — did tweet that he liked the book." I'm not a big fan of Twitter, but I guess I have to thank it for that.
Since this is such an expansive universe, did you pitch the whole idea to Netflix right from the start?
EH: That was the era of hubris Eric, I can tell you, because when I sat down with Netflix, I said I'm really excited about this and to spend time with Alina, Mal, The Darkling, and The Crows. And at the time, Netflix said that they didn't have the rights to Six of Crows or Crooked Kingdom. They only had the original trilogy. And I said, "Are you sure you want that? Because it's an amazing world and you want somewhere to go." And they said, "We're really interested in the original trilogy," and I got up and left. That was at a time, post-Arrival, where I thought there would be a different reaction to my career. Before Arrival, my agent would call and say, "Just so you know, this project you're excited about, there are five other writers up for it," and that actually didn't change. After Arrival, it was just "Now there are five other Academy Award–nominated writers up for this." But thankfully, Netflix called back a little later and said they had the rights to everything now, and I was completely sold at that point.
LB: It was a nice call for me to get. Netflix was like, "We want all the books!" So, thank YOU, Eric Heisserer. But I was really nervous at first. It's one thing to hand over the keys to one trilogy, but it's quite another to hand over the keys to 10 years of work. But when Eric and I sat down, we knew pretty quickly that we were on the same page and we wanted the same things from this adaptation. That was a really good feeling. You know it's always a gamble, but this gamble felt like the right one.
What was the thought process behind combining Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows for the TV series?
LB: If you're familiar with the books, these stories do crash into each other in Crooked Kingdom. So, at least to us, it felt very organic to just move that timeline a little bit and allow all of these characters to broaden the view, so we could see where [they] are to start.
EH: And it really helps showcase the world early on. Like, you have the sweeping Russian-inspired epic that goes on in one space, but the world is big enough that you have the scrappy Dickensian criminals and grifters on the other side of the world. The fun is to see how those two worlds cross-pollinate early on. So, we just started to do what the books naturally do a little earlier and seed some of those stories sooner. It's also fun to talk about: What were these characters doing before you find them in Six of Crows? And how can we help showcase these origin points for those beloved characters?
I love that we aren't getting the Six of Crows storyline in Season 1, but rather a great prequel for those characters. Leigh, how was it bringing origin moments that we'd heard about in Six of Crows to life?
LB: It was something we had to talk about fairly extensively. If you were to just slap together Six of Crows and Shadow and Bone, it really wouldn't work. It messes with the stakes and there's a lot of road that gets blown up by that. So, we sort of had to step back and talk about being in prequel territory. This is a prequel that sits adjacent to the flashbacks that are written in Six of Crows. So, with Nina and Matthias, you are seeing things that you saw in the book, but with Inej, Jesper, and Kaz, we had a different opportunity to ask the question, "Who were they before Six of Crows?" They're not quite the same characters. You recognize them fully, but I think they are evolving into the people that you encounter when we hit Six of Crows. That, to me, was very compelling. Not just from a plot perspective, but from a character perspective as well.
BuzzFeed: And I'm assuming the prequel aspect is one reason why we didn't see some characters from Six of Crows in Season 1?
LB: Is somebody missing Wylan?
BuzzFeed: I mean, I might be missing him a little. Clearly just a little though.
LB: All I can tell you is if we're lucky to get a second season, you will not be missing Wylan for long.
When adapting a popular book series, casting is always super important. What was the casting process like for Shadow and Bone? Was there a character that was particularly hard to cast for the series?
EH: We had some that we thought would be very hard that wound up being early finds. Jessie [Mei Li] is one example. She was in the first batch of auditions and wound up being the one we could not stop thinking and talking about. Then, there were others that we thought would be a lot easier to cast and it wound up being an excruciating process. It would be that we found people who worked so well, but at the very last minute. So much so that they were getting fitted right as they got on the plane [to go to set], those kinds of situations. It was either end of the spectrum. There was certainly a lot of agony and a lot of frustration, but then a great sigh of relief once we got all the cast together and saw the chemistry that this group of kids had.
LB: I feel like it's like childbirth, like you forget the trauma. Looking back, I'm like, "And we found Jessie and it was magic!" Meanwhile, Eric is like, "Excuse me? We were texting each other being like, 'We've got to get her! What if we lose her to another show?'" I literally forgot all of that. There was a period where I would wake up every morning and check my texts and be like, "Eric, have we heard anything about Jessie?" I somehow blocked from my memory the anxiety that went with the casting process. After seeing Jessie, it was like when you fall in love and you know there's not going to be anybody else for you. We got very lucky.
EH: Another example is Amita [Suman]. Amita was audition number three for Inej. I went to Leigh after and I was like, "This is Inej. We found Inej."
LB: I, very skeptically, was like, "Already? Okay, sure." And then when I saw Amita, I was like, "Oh my god, it's her! It's Inej!"
EH: And then, we had to sustain another two months and 280 auditions with other potential Inej candidates just so that everyone else in the chain, beyond me and Leigh, were fully convinced that we had found the right person so early. I remember we were sweating and being like, "Ugh, Amita is gonna get cast somewhere else. Something's gonna happen." It was so stressful.
This cast has such incredible chemistry. How was it seeing these characters interact on screen for the first time?
LB: With The Crows, each of these characters, you feel this, like, crackle, right? It's like a storm coming on. When we put all three of them together for a chemistry read, and they weren't in costume, and it was like here's the storm. There were these moments that had nothing to do with the dialogue where Amita and Kit [Young] would share a glance. At one point, Kit put his hand on Freddy Carter's shoulder, and Freddy gave him a look that was just pure Kaz Brekker. I had never been through the casting process before, so I didn't understand that it would be like this. Where suddenly you get this spark that you've found the perfect people. I didn't understand how emotional it would be to find the right person. It really is a strange and mysterious process.
BuzzFeed: I love that it was the moments between the dialogue that really made you realize that these actors were these characters.
LB: Yeah, and those were the things I didn't see coming. I think there was a certain amount of grief in me knowing that the image that I had of my characters in my head was going to be replaced by this cast, and knowing that that would be true for readers too. The people who are new to the books after seeing the show wouldn't be free to imagine the characters for the first time, they are going to have the actors in their minds. But that grief faded very quickly when I saw everyone perform together, because what I didn't understand was the way that their experience and their spirits were going to imbue these characters with a completely different life. I loved seeing that transformation.
Okay, we have to talk about Milo the goat. I came to this show for my favorite book characters and fell in love with a goat. Was he meant to have such a starring role?
EH: Milo the goat was a new star that emerged from our show that we never saw coming. So, we had to give him another appearance. We had such a fun time with him early on, we thought, "What if he is the key to helping Mal escape in Episode 7?" The extra excitement about that was Milo was a diva on set in Episode 3. He was constantly trying to invent his own lines, he would "BAAHHH" right over somebody, whether it was Amita or Freddy. They had a hell of a time with him. So, Freddy, Kit, and Amita all showed up on the night that Archie [Renaux] had to do his scene with the goat in the tent, and Milo was the best. Kit, Amita, and Freddy were laughing and screaming because the goat was so calm with Archie. Archie was like, "I got the touch. I'm the goat whisperer." It made us all laugh so hard, and Milo the goat became such a fan favorite with everyone on set.
LB: I was in the writers room and they were pitching me the episodes, and I remember getting pitched Milo the goat. I thought it was the funniest thing I've ever heard. I was like, "It's amazing. It's hilarious. I love it. There's no way Netflix is gonna go for this random goat." But, bless Netflix, they were full steam ahead with the goat.
You are also bringing an entire fantasy world to life for the first time with Shadow and Bone. Are there any details that you loved when creating the world?
EH: The Crow Club example that I give often is that we originally put a Hoyle deck of cards out on a felt gambling table, and it just immediately stood out as a relic of our world and not of their world. It meant going back to the art department and saying that they needed to invent a deck of cards, which means you're not only inventing new suits, but we now have to figure out a new numeric system. Figuring that out also passed along to when we thought of currency. We have four different currencies in the show that all have to have a different language for it, so that meant bringing in a language expert to invent Ravkan, old Ravkan, Fjerdan, and all of these other elements.
What that bore out was some remarkable set design. A great example is in the First Army encampment in Kribirsk, you can go into tents, like the one you see Mal in early on, and our art department wrote letters — love letters from family members to soldiers — in Ravkan. So, there is handwritten Ravkan on a table next to old Ravkan coins we had to create. That is how wild it all was. I went over the deep end and invented a board game that two members play in the back of a pub that you can't even see. We even know the rules to this game. That's how nuts we went with the details.
LB: So, the language expert is actually David Peterson, who I met years ago, even before I was published, through the Game of Thrones fandom. [Editor's Note: David created the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for the Game of Thrones TV show]. So, to then have him work on this was pretty extraordinary. I would say, I don't think I understood the scope of all the details. I had never been on a set. I didn't fully understand how many people were involved and what the operation would look like. The first day on set, when I could actually walk the streets of Ketterdam, that I could walk through the First Army camp, that I could stand next to a full-scale sand skiff, really was absolutely breathtaking. It was also frightening because I suddenly understood how much money was being spent on this show.
To speak more to the details, we had gone to see a scene they were shooting at night with Kit as Jesper. I was walking across the square and I saw this big monument, and I did a double take. I was like, "That looks like Ravkan." They had built a monument with all of the names of the dead from the Fold. It looked like it belonged there in the square. We were walking around it and tapping it being like, "What is it made of?" because it looked like marble and it looked like it had been there for 200 years.
BuzzFeed: I am such a nerd about details in shows and production design, so this is all just the absolute coolest thing to hear.
EH: Oh, so you'll love that the memorial that Leigh is talking about actually has all of the names of our crew on it in Ravkan. Also, it ended up being one of Leigh's favorite moments in the show too, but we [myself and the writers] were so tickled with the idea of David throwing a book at Jesper and having it be the Ravkan version of Shadow and Bone.
LB: And I still have that prop. That was my one request. It's on my bookshelf.
I absolutely love the Shadow and Bone score. I remember hearing part of it for the first time at your New York Comic Con panel in 2020 and being amazed. How was it creating the music for Shadow and Bone?
LB: Joe Trapanese did our score, and when he was first brought on to the project, he and I met up at a coffee shop. I remember just being like, "I have many files for you." So we sat there and just exchanged our favorite tracks like the nerds that we are. I subjected him to me singing a Ravkan folk song that is actually in Rule of Wolves. So, I'm sorry, Joe, that I subjected you to that. But I had such a deep investment in what this world would sound like and what this music would sound like. When we first heard Joe's sample tracks, which he recorded in his house, it sounds so trite to say I got chills, but I genuinely felt the hair on the back of my neck rise because I was instantly in Ravka. I should've known the way he could transport you based on his other work, but I don't think I got it until I heard those tracks.
EH: Joe had so much heavy lifting to do in order to give a different voice to the Ravkan storyline vs. the Ketterdam one. Beyond that, it was so amazing to find character themes that stuck with each character. The reason why that was important to us was because in Leigh's original trilogy, which is in Alina's POV, you know exactly what she's thinking. So, instead of bombarding the show with voiceover, you can do a lot musically. I spoke to Joe a lot about how there are moments when one character is thinking about another, and their heart is with somebody else. So, Joe got the job of really showcasing that by bringing in the other character's theme when we're focused on somebody else's face. So there are some Mal and Alina moments where you understand what is driving them by listening to the music.
Was there a moment taken from the book that, when you watched it in the series for the first time, you were completely amazed by it?
LB: Alina with the stag. I lost it. I think it's one of my favorite moments in the show. I can't explain how purely that scene embodies everything. When I was writing Shadow and Bone, I really had no confidence as a writer. I had never finished a book before and I desperately wanted to finish a book for the first time. I remember writing that scene, and there's a line where Alina thinks, "The woods were silent in their grief," and it was the first moment that I thought I can do this. I can actually finish this book. So, to see that scene brought to life so beautifully and to see Jessie play the moment. ... And poor Jessie was playing it to, like, a tennis ball.
BuzzFeed: I was gonna say. Jessie's giving this incredible performance to something that had to be added in later.
LB: It's a testament to how great she is because I never thought about it until we saw some of the behind the scenes, and I was like, "Oh, the stag actually wasn't there." But it was a really poignant moment for me.
EH: I had such a good and trusting relationship with Ben [Barnes] throughout the show. In part because he is an actor who derives all of his inspiration and character from the words, and the words extended far beyond this script. He had highlighted and Post-it Note flagged copies of Leigh's books, and he would show up and he would say, "Eric, there's just a line here that I'd love to find a way to use. Can I just say this here instead?" First of all, how can you say no to Ben? But second of all, he was so right. I understood how committed he was to the moment and to the character. One of those moments was between him and Alina, when The Darkling says, "Fine, make me your villain." It resonated with a lot of us.
LB: By the way, when I wrote that scene in the book, it was entirely in service of that line. I was literally like, "I want to say this line and I need to figure out how to get there." So, Ben came full circle in that moment.
And finally, was there a set piece or moment from Shadow and Bone that you loved or are most proud of?
EH: Oh jeez. In terms of practical design, I lived in The Crow Club for a while. I loved being on that set. To the point where we were running behind schedule at one point, and I remembered a second unit was trying to come in and do pick-up shots, including inserts, like we needed a close-up of Kaz's pocket watch, for instance. Well, because we were shooting a Kaz scene, we had Kaz's double over in The Crow Club handling the close-ups. So, it's the one time in the show where I managed to make a cameo as the gloved Kaz hand holding the pocket watch. It was a bucket list moment I can finally check off my list.
Beyond that, visually what I got most excited about was the moment of Alina's nova where her powers finally awaken and she obliterates the Volcra in the pilot. It was a very visceral experience for me to see that realized in a great way, considering how so much of that had to be a digital build.
LB: For me, watching Episode 7, when I saw the rough cut of that. Even though there were temporary VFX throughout the whole episode at the time, it was still so emotional. It was such a compelling episode. I think it's still my favorite episode of the season. But watching this rough cut of Episode 7 was one of those moments when I understood that if this could work, even without the effects, then maybe we had gotten this right.
Also, I got to have a cameo. Initially, my cameo was just going to be me opening a door for Alina, and the way the timing worked out, I got to be in this scene in the palace with hundreds of extras, the king and the queen, and all of these Grisha. I have a very clear memory of writing that scene too. For whatever reason, I remember writing the choreography and thinking about the colors. So, to then stand there and be in it was...you know, it felt a little bit like I was experiencing an incredibly intense hallucination. I had to keep dabbing at my eyes to avoid smearing all the beautiful makeup they put on me. It was very emotional.