Behind the Scenes of Netflix's 1940s Spanish Mystery Series 'High Seas'

High Sea - Alta Mar - BTS 1 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix

The Hollywood Reporter visits the set of Netflix's ambitious Spanish original, an upcoming eight-episode 1940s murder mystery set aboard a ship traveling from Europe to South America.

Fans of the mix of melodrama and period style of certain Spanish series popularized by Netflix would instantly recognize the telephone switchboard of Cable Girls, the Art Deco entry of the fashion showroom on Velvet or the elegant interiors of Grand Hotel.

Ramon Campos, executive producer at Bambu Producciones, the Madrid-based outfit behind all of these series, says a single image or artistic style can serve as the reference point for the look of an entire series. For Grand Hotel, it was the paintings of Joaquin Sorolla. On Velvet, the main hall of the Chrysler Building in New York. Cable Girls was Modernism.

For High Seas, the new eight-episode 1940s-era murder mystery set aboard a transatlantic ship traveling from Europe to South America, which Bambu is producing for a spring release on Netflix, it was the “Streamline” style of the Art Deco era, heavy on curved lines and rounded edges. High Seas is the most expensive set design of any Bambu production to date and the biggest and most complex Netflix has undertaken in Spain.

“It’s very important that when the viewer start a series, even if it's the same or similar genre as other series, they feel there’s something completely different in the aesthetic that is never going to take them back to the same world,” says Campos, the co-creator of the series with Gema R. Neira.

Campos is sitting on the bench of a long table in the fictional ship’s third class dining hall, surrounded by plates of chorizo and crusty bread perfectly arranged to look like the remnants of a modest yet festive meal, giving The Hollywood Reporter a behind-the scenes look at the multifaceted set.

Months of research and documentation went into the creation of the High Seas aesthetic and design — the most for any Bambu series to date, Campos says. Set decorator Regina Acuña worked hand in hand with production designer Carlos Bodelon to recreate the look and feel of ships from the era. They were especially inspired by two Art Deco luxury liners from the 1930s, the SS Normandie and the Queen Mary, Acuña says.

One of the most eye-catching adornments of the fictional ship, called the Barbara de Braganza, is a wall-sized mural of a map crafted in warm earth tones to illustrate the ship’s route from Vigo to Rio and Buenos Aires. The map was modeled closely on an original on the Queen Mary. The rectangular shape of the studio building where the series was filmed, located about 45 minutes outside Madrid, allows the 2,700 square meters of the High Seas set to mimic the ambling corridors and curved decks and cabins of a Streamline passenger ship.

The designers incorporated authentic era pieces from England and the north of Spain to recreate the control bridge of a four-turbine ship, including the steering helm. Specific wood was brought in for the panels embellishing the walls of the columned two-story grand salon in first class, which is lush with wall-to-wall carpeting, gold trim, signs in minimalist Art Deco font and golden-arched door handles. The liner’s original logo, designed for the series, adorns the cloth napkins folded on round tables and the pristine white cushions covering wooden lounge chairs on deck.

Quite different are the third class and crew quarters “below” (actually around the corner on the set), characterized by light blue wall paneling, clunky wood furniture and scratchy-looking blankets. One of the main characters, a nanny, shares a small cabin cluttered with two beds, stacks of suitcases, clothes and, in the middle, an ironing board from the era that Acuña says was made by hand when they couldn’t find one exactly like it. The designers researched how people made their beds in the 1940s because, Acuña insists, sheets were tucked differently back then.

Most impressive is the multi-utility of many of the spaces on set. With furniture and decor shifted accordingly, one deck serves as both sides of the ship. A single stateroom doubles as several different characters’ cabins. Depending on where the characters are standing in a scene, the walls and light sconces all the way down the halls of some areas have to be snapped off and replaced with others to differentiate sections of the ship, which is said to carry 1,400 people on board.

“We need each space to serve as many spaces,” Campos notes, admitting that every time they make changes to the script — Campos is also a co-writer on the series with Neira, Daniel Martin Serrano, Curro Novallas and Jose Antonio Valverde — the decorators are the ones “who suffer.”

Still, this attention to detail is sure to show onscreen, and it is a sign, Campos says, of the enhanced possibilities that come with Netflix backing, as well as the creative liberty that stems from the “very trusting relationship” that has consolidated between Netflix and Bambu, which partnered on the streamer’s debut original series in Spain and only its second in Europe, Cable Girls, now in its fourth season.

High Seas is directed by Carlos Sedes (Cable Girls, Velvet, Grand Hotel), who also executive produces the series with Campos and Teresa Fernandez-Valdes. It will premiere on Netflix this spring.