Inside filming The Witcher season 3’s iconic Thanedd duel

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Last week, the final three episodes of The Witcher season 3 landed on Netflix. These episodes adapted some of the most important scenes from Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher Saga book series, including the Thanedd coup and Ciri’s journey through the Korath Desert.

Yet there was perhaps no scene more crucial for The Witcher to get right this season than the iconic duel between Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) and Vilgefortz of Roggeveen (Mahesh Jadu). And get it right The Witcher did. Few scenes were translated quite as faithfully from the novel The Time of Contempt as Geralt and Vilgefortz’s fight.

Image: Netflix. The Witcher season 3, Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia.
Image: Netflix. The Witcher season 3, Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia. /

How The Witcher filmed one of the book series’ most important fight scenes

Part of what makes the Vilgefortz duel such a huge moment is that it’s a total surprise. Up until this point, we’ve seen Geralt defeat numerous foes. Never before have we seen him lose in such a brutal manner. Henry Cavill, Mahesh Jadu, and Wolfgang Stegemann, the show’s stunt coordinator and second unit director, discussed creating this stunning sequence in Netflix’s documentary Making The Witcher: Season 3.

“Well, the fight with Vilgefortz is, obviously, something which no one’s expecting. Wolfgang and I wanted to make sure we… we built that into the story. And it’s an incredibly technical fight,” said Cavill.

“It’s very, very iconic as it’s super important in the books. For us it was a challenge to match in the best way,” Stegemann explained. “First, we separate the actors. And we train each actor, and we bring them to a level that we feel comfortable to put them together. We were very blessed with Mahesh, who’s playing Vilgefortz. He trains so much.”

Stegemann isn’t joking about how much Jadu trained for the fight. Director Loni Peristere also posted to Instagram to praise Cavill and Jadu for their work on this scene, saying that, “I don’t think [Mahesh Jadu] went anywhere without his 12kg staff” during filming. In that same post, Peristere reveals that Cavill commended Jadu for being “one of the best fighting partners he’d ever had.” There are even videos online of Jadu training with a staff which date as far back as 2019, when the show’s first season aired.

“I mean, I’ve enjoyed using the staff in the past from a tai chi perspective, but this is another level entirely,” Jadu said. “The thing’s heavy. It’s real heavy. And it’s made to break bones. My forearms are still hurting.”

The fact that Vilgefortz’s staff is so heavy wasn’t the only challenge. Stegemann broke down some of the complexities of the shoot in a recent Twitter video, including how Mahesh Jadu had to film some parts of the fight without holding any weapon at all:

"The staff is magic, and he can teleport the staff from left to right hand, or throw it away and grab it out of the air wherever he needs it. This is a challenge for [Mahesh Jadu]. Sometimes he had to fight without anything in his hand, and visual effects put the staff in his hand.”Henry, at the same time, has to fight against something that’s not there. That means, fighting with a long sword, he has to strike without hitting Mahesh’s face. And he did perfectly. Always spot on."

The Witcher’s unique camerawork allowed for more immersive combat

Obviously, none of this hard work that Cavill and Jadu did during the fight would have mattered without a top notch crew ready to capture it all on camera.

“The camera operator, he’s an integral piece, because he’s dancing with us,” Cavill explained. “He needs to know exactly where we are, we need to know exactly where he is, to sell impacts, to sell hits, to sell emotional beats. Mostly, he wasn’t even using a monitor. He was just using his naked eye and knowing where the lens would be and what it would look like. And that requires an extraordinary amount of skill.”

Cavill’s claim that the operator filmed some scenes with his naked eye is no idle boast; in Making The Witcher: Season 3, we get a glimpse of this particular camera operator, who Stegemann names only as Hachi, sliding into the midst of the Nilfgaardian checkpoint fight without even looking into the camera lens. It’s impressive stuff.

According to Stegemann, Hachi is a member of his stunt team who “specialized in putting himself in the danger zone.” Stegemann says this style of camerawork means he “gets into the fight and becomes the third fighter.” The Vilgefortz duel utilized both that style of filming, as well as a second, more stable camera to create the full effect.

For Cavill, it was all of these small touches performed by seasoned craftspeople which allowed the scene to transcend to the heights it did. “We see the defiance of Geralt. We see the… the excellence and the power of Vilgefortz. And I think it’s masterful work by Wolfgang. That’s not the sort of thing you can build with…any second unit director, just any stunt coordinator. That requires excellence.”

Stegemann’s happy to toss some credit back to the actors, though. “To get the best result, we need the perfect take. [Henry Cavill and Mahesh Jadu] know that, and they push themselves to the absolute limit to achieve the best result. And they did.”

How could Vilgefortz defeat Geralt of Rivia?

One question which many fans have had in the wake of the episode’s release is how exactly Vilgefortz was able to defeat a seasoned witcher like Geralt. The answer is that Vilgefortz really is just that powerful. In The Time of Contempt, Geralt realizes that he didn’t make a single mistake while fighting Vilgefortz. His only mistake was choosing to fight Vilgefortz in the first place, when he “ought to have fled before it even began.”

The television show played up the long game reveal of Vilgefortz’s power by having him fake a loss to the Nilfgaardian commander Cahir during the show’s first season. As Lauren Hissrich explained, “When we see [Vilgefortz’s] power really demonstrated for the first time, it is against Geralt. Again, we went back to the books as the source here. And it was really interesting to look at these chapters, because we’ve never had Geralt beaten this badly.”

This scene in particular draws a lot from the book. Much of the dialogue is straight from The Time of Contempt. Even the fight choreography references Sapkowski’s writing, such as the passage which refers to Geralt having fatal blows parried four times by Vilgefortz. In the TV show, there are four moments where the fight pauses for a beat to focus on blows that Vilgefortz parries, emphasizing Geralt’s shock at the mage’s unnatural speed or Vilgefort’z smug reaction to the witcher’s disbelief. Geralt truly never stood a chance.

“There’s a kind of a visual poetry about the way Geralt is broken. I mean, his spirit first, and then his body,” said Jadu. “The audience will not have seen him in this kind of vulnerability up until now.”

“Suddenly, we see this warrior, this monster hunter who is very skilled, and he’s leading this life of a witcher for a hundred years, and he’s defeated for the first time, and almost dies,” added producer Tomek Baginski. “And it’s… it’s shocking. It’s something nobody was prepared for. It was something which made him more human.”

All eight episodes of The Witcher season 3 are now streaming on Netflix.

Next. The Witcher producer says the show simplified the story for Americans. dark

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