Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, who also created the streamer's hit 'Dark,’ are back with another meta mystery, this time set on a migrant steamer at the turn of 19th century.
For fans who are still trying to figure out season three of Dark — who was Noah’s dad again? who wrote the triquetra notebook? — the prospect of diving into another twisty metaverse from the minds of Dark creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar likely comes with equal measures of excitement and trepidation. One may be desperate to see the world the duo has created for 1899, the team’s new Netflix series, but could also be slightly worried their brain might not be able to handle it.
The series certainly promises to be as mind-bending as Dark. The setting is a migrant steamship bound from Europe to New York, filled with immigrants all “running away from something,” none of whom, we quickly realize, are quite what they seem. En route, they encounter a mysterious second ship, the Prometheus, which has been missing for months, adrift on the open sea. When the crew decides to board the Prometheus, things take a horrific, and decidedly weird, turn.
The show is the first from Netflix shot entirely in a virtual studio, using cutting-edge LED-Volume technology with a video game engine that creates virtual sets and locations, allowing complex visual-effects shots to be done in-camera. The entire first season was filmed at the Dark Bay LED studio on the Studio Babelsberg lot outside Berlin.
Friese and bo Odar spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how the European refugee crisis inspired the show, designing meta-puzzles for hard-core fans and why Volume technology represents “a new era” in visual effects.
How did the idea come about for 1899? What was the original spark?
Jantje Friese Actually, the idea and the spark for it happened years ago. It’s been quite a process getting to here. It was originally a photo that we found. We were doing research for something completely different, I actually don’t even remember what the research was for. But we stumbled upon a picture of a man in a white shirt covered in blood, with a hammer in his hand and a really weird look on his face, standing on top of what looked like an old boat.
It was one of those pictures you’re drawn to, where you immediately start asking questions: What did he do with that hammer? Where does he come from? Where’s he going? What’s this all about?
Immediately, I had the idea that this might be a migrant on a ship. But what happened on that ship? That was the big question.
At the same time, the refugee crisis was happening in Europe [around 2015/2016] and it was a very unstable phase. We were actually really afraid of what was going on. It felt like unified Europe was slowly breaking apart, like every country was doing its own thing. There were lots of right-wing ideas bubbling up. Brexit happened. All this we sort of incorporated into our story.
We thought: We really want to take a look at Europe, just take it, put it on a ship, in a confined space, with lots of ocean around, where you can’t escape, and have like a little bit of an experiment, almost like a laboratory experiment. How do people cope with situations when they’re not able to speak the same language? What happens when you have all these different cultural backgrounds, that are put into a space like this? That’s what triggered the process. Then, of course, just like in Dark, we have a big philosophical theme at the center of it all about perception and reality.
Why set it at the end of the 19th century? Is it because it was a time of confrontation between technology and tradition?
Baran bo Odar Definitely. It was such an interesting time, that, unfortunately, was the build-up for a lot of terrible things that happened afterwards: With the First World War and then the Second World War, as people entered a new century, there was a lot of hope, but also a lot of fear, regarding new ideas and older ideas — the old world versus the new world. Science and religion clashed a lot.
It’s also an interesting time because there were such extreme points of view back then. I’m obsessed with history, seeing how everything is related to each other, seeing the reasons for things. Like if one stone starts to roll, and hits another and that ends up leading to the First World War.
We’ve heard people say it’s perfect timing because the issues in 1899 are very present today. But of course, the number is also very magical: 1899. You can do a lot of things with it. One plus eight is nine. So you have 999. If you turn that upside down, it’s 666, the number of the beast, so it’s magical too.
This series, like Dark, is a huge mystery, a mystery wrapped in an enigma. When you write, how do you plot things out? Do you have a huge board on the wall with red yarn linking up various elements? Do you first have the themes and then drop in characters and develop the mystery out of that or do you have the puzzle first and then see how the characters and themes fit into that?
Friese: There are always three key elements. One is theme, the other is character and the other is plot. Writing is really about going back and forth between all three of them. But usually, it’s the theme that starts the whole process. We need to know what are we actually talking about. What’s the fundament of it all?
Then you start putting characters into that idea, but they might feel a bit one-dimensional, so you get some ideas for the plot and you work it in. But you keep checking: Is it still working with the theme or do you need to shift that a bit? And then something that’s quite important for series, especially compared to movies, is the whole world-building process. What’s the space in which you’re telling your story?
Then it’s really a lot of bouncing back and forth between the two of us — at the beginning, throwing in random ideas in the beginning and trying to figure out what ideas actually stick. It’s a very long and also very complicated process.
What were some of the bad ideas that got tossed out?
bo Odar: We don’t have bad ideas. (Laughs.) No, we just forget them immediately. But we’re not afraid of putting bad ideas on the table, because sometimes there’s something small in a bad idea that’s actually good that you should use.
One bad idea we’ve definitely said is not going to happen is that 1899 is related to Dark. We get that question a lot. So for all the fans out there: Sorry, there won’t be any characters from Dark suddenly appearing on the ship.
Did the worldwide success and fan response to Dark change how you went about making 1899? Having watched the first six episodes [of 1899], it appears to be a bit less complicated than Dark. Was that deliberate?
Friese: We didn’t want to copy exactly the way we structured things in Dark. I think the two concepts needed two different kinds of storytelling. With Dark, the story is really so much about time, about using something linear and then making lots of knots, throwing it at the audience and getting them to figure out how to untangle it back into a more linear logic.
1899 just has a different structure. But it’s not like what we thought: People didn’t understand Dark, so we have to make this one easier. I think it’s a very individual thing. We’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve had the opportunity to see the first six episodes, and it’s kind of half and half. Some said: Oh, it felt more at ease, like it was easier to comprehend. Others were like: This has so many more complicated puzzle pieces, what are you guys doing? I think it’s an individual experience. We didn’t try to make it easier.
We really try to be very true to our core audience, which just loves puzzles but also knows every code and every cultural reference. They are very good at putting pieces together. We really want it to be a great experience for them and not make it too easy. If you’re in that core group, and you’ve figured it out, you should be proud of yourself, it’s an awesome experience.
bo Odar But let’s not forget that Dark was three seasons. If you just compare the first season of Dark with the first season of 1899, I think they’re similarly complex. Dark only really got complicated in seasons two and three. The first season is actually very simple: It’s a small town, with kids disappearing, and then there’s some time travel events in the cave. Michael (Sebastian Rudolph) is Michael. It’s very simple. But everyone now has seen all three seasons, and it gets really complicated. We already have ideas for a second and third season on 1899, and it gets complicated.
This is one of the first TV shows, after The Mandalorian, to use new LED Volume technology to create virtual sets. What did you learn using the new tech?
bo Odar I think we learned a lot to be honest, because it is a new tool. And we love to play with tools, because I think as a filmmaker, especially, you are like a child. Even a camera is a tool for me, I love to play around with it, or with a lens. But this is a big, new toy and not a lot of people have used it yet.
So, as I said, we learned a lot. At first, you think everything is possible, but it’s not. But those limitations are actually amazing, because it’s still a tool to create illusion. And I think, especially as a filmmaker, you love creating illusion. Even 24 frames per second, creating motion from still frames, that’s the first illusion you create as a filmmaker.
What we learned was that using the Volume studio, the mid-ground is everything. It’s a new kind of thinking for filmmaking: You have to think in layers and how you combine those layers. Usually, the foreground is the actor and then the background is what you have on the LED volume screen. But the mid-ground, the thing in between, that’s what actually glues these two layers together, and it’s the most important part of the whole process. Most people don’t understand, that, because they’ve never used it. But that’s what we learned: So okay, what do we have to put in the background so it glues these things together? Sometimes it’s just a table or a column in the dining room, or in a landscape, maybe a hill, to create depth. To create an illusion that the virtual space is a three-dimensional space — it’s fascinating. But also hard because you have to rethink how you’re used to shooting stuff.
How did the actors react to working in this new virtual space?
Friese: I think it’s a relief for them compared to green screen, just because you can actually look at something. It isn’t just a big green screen where you have to imagine a ship in your head, but you actually see the waves, you actually see the ship. It creates such a powerful illusion that, in the beginning, the crew and actors were actually getting seasick because the horizon was moving on the volume screen. It’s really weird and interesting technology, but it’s very helpful for the actors.
In terms of the working process, what was good for us was to talk to the people who worked on The Mandalorian and find out how they did it. They’d shoot in one direction on the first day, and then basically turn the whole set around overnight and shoot the other direction. What we did is construct a turntable so that we can spin the set around in a few minutes. So you didn’t have to really change the way that you’re shooting; you can do the shot and the reverse shot in one day, which was really helpful.
bo Odar: When we spoke to the guys behind The Mandalorian, we asked them what worked and what was really complicated. They said the most complicated thing was actually the logistics, scheduling when you can shoot what, how to get sets in and out and the reverse shots, all those sorts of things. When we started, it was about what is the next step? Because I’m a very traditional filmmaker; I like to give the actors a lot of space and not limit them by saying, “We just have this angle. You can only stand here. You can change anything. I need 360 degrees.” That’s when the idea came to use a turntable so you can swap things in easily. It takes 60 seconds to spin and it’s a huge turntable. Netflix took over that idea and build another Volume set in Mexico using a turntable tool.
It’s nice that this is built upon something that we created and someone else will come up with a new idea and so on. So I think it’s really fascinating because this is just the start. It’s like it was with the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. This, this Volume technology, is the beginning of a new era of visual effects.
It definitely has a new look: Not like green screen but also not the same as a classic set, something very much its own thing. 1899 also has a unique sound because, fitting with the theme of Europe you were talking about, you decided to have all your actors speak in their native languages.
Friese: I think it’s something about growing up in Europe, or growing up as a German, when you consume entertainment, which, at least in our experience, is coming largely from Hollywood. There’s just an underrepresentation of the different European cultures, the different narratives from around the world. For a long time, even already in film school, we had this urge to change that, to really have characters from particular countries speak in their own voices, because language really defines character. If you want to have an authentic performance, it’s just better when actors perform in their own language.
How difficult was it for you, Baran, given that I assume you don’t speak all, what, 10-12 languages your actors do? How difficult was it to interact with the actors when you’re performing in a language you don’t understand?
bo Odar: It was a bit tricky at the beginning. I had phonetic scripts, and I was constantly looking at the monitor and reading along, trying to follow the dialogue, which is hard in French, because they’re so fast, and is super hard in Cantonese, because that language feels like it’s from some other world. Then one day, I told myself: Let’s forget about what they’re saying and listen to how they’re saying it. Let’s look at them as music instruments. It’s not every word but you learn how a language sounds and, especially if you do a lot of takes, you get really used to it. And then, looking at expression and body language, and all these things, you get an understanding of the performance. But that simple trick, listening to the music rather than trying to follow the words, that helped me a lot.
Was it a challenge for the actors themselves, who are often performing opposite someone whose language they don’t understand?
bo Odar: Yeah, they really didn’t understand each other. That was the beauty of it. It was so easy for them to just react.
Friese That was the whole point of the show. We can see that even if you don’t really understand what words are being spoken, you understand what the other person is trying to communicate. You know it by the emotional state, how they are addressing you, their body language and everything. You know if something is urgent or not important. In the end, the whole language thing was much easier than we all thought it would be in the beginning.
We really wanted to get every culture, all the languages, right and not have people speaking in clichés. Speaking how we think French people would speak. We put a lot of effort into getting things right. But in the end, it turned out to be way easier than we thought, because there’s a sort of universal language, without words, going on while you’re communicating with someone.
How did the script work — did you write in German and then have things translated?
Friese: Our scripts look like Frankenstein monsters. The entire script was in English, but everything was dual dialogue. So, you would have the English dialogue on the left side and then the translated dialogue for that character in their language on the right side. And every dialogue portion had a script note. And in that script note, there would be a meta-conversation about language.
So, a very simple example: In French, you can address someone in a formal or an informal way. And, in 1899, even spouses would have addressed each other in a formal way when in a public place. So that is like five pages of conversation between the writer, the translator, the language expert: “Here should they say ‘tu’ or ‘vous’?” It became a really complicated process. Just opening Final Draft took like five minutes because of all those script notes.
bo Odar: That’s a message to Final Draft: Work on that script notes function.
Did you learn anything surprising working across so many different languages?
Friese: Oh, absolutely. I think what was the most surprising thing was that there are actually some words that you cannot translate into certain languages, or they have a different feeling or nuance to it. And what I just found so interesting about that, or what became even more clear to me, is that through language you’re actually expressing culture.
Because if you cannot express certain emotions through your language then they’re almost non-existent in that culture. I think that’s really interesting. Especially working on Cantonese was interesting, because they structure the language completely differently. They have something almost like emoticons at the end of every sentence, in order to understand how that sentence is meant. So there’s always a tone in the end, which all mean something different. It could be a crying smiley face, or it could be a winking smiley face. And because of that tone, you understand how the whole sentence is meant. I was like, “Wow, it’s such a cool concept. Why don’t we have that?”
Speaking as someone with a German wife who doesn’t get irony, I’d love to have an emoticon to end my sentences.
bo Odar: Another good example is the word ambitious. It’s the same word in English and German. But in English, it means something positive. In German, it’s so negative. [The German meaning is closer to “unlikely to succeed.”] When we got the notes back from Netflix on Dark, they said: “Such an ambitious project.” We thought they hated it. Then they were: “No, no, we love it.”
Well, then how ambitious are you with this series? Do you already have the world of 1899 built out in your mind for the potential next two seasons?
Friese: Yes. We always like to have an ending before we start. We want to know where we are going. We’re moving through a story, and we want to know how it will be resolved in the end. In the middle, there may be some ideas that are more loosely thrown in. And as we go through the process, the ideas can shift and move into a different position. For example, on Dark, the idea of the parallel universe was always planned to be in the second season. And then while we were working on it, we decided to move it to the third season. Stuff like that always happens. You just trying to be flexible, to really allow the process to surprise you while you’re going through it, but still kind of knowing where you’re sailing to.
What stylistically are you going for with this show? It evokes images of the 19th century but combines them with almost science fiction technology and pop tunes on the soundtrack. What were some of the touchstones you used when designing the series?
bo Odar: We always think any piece of pop culture should be a reference to some other element of pop culture. We had a lot of photography from really weird people with very strange lighting setups that created a very interesting isolation of the figures in the images. Those were a key reference.
But of course, movies like The Shining or Alien, where you have a contained situation like a ship or hotel where people are stuck and they can’t escape it, that creepy feeling of corridors and how much you can see or not see, that was definitely a major influence visually.
In Dark, we wanted the images to be almost like still photography, which is why we have these very blocked shots, very much like photos. With 1899, because we’re on a ship, and it’s constantly moving, the camera is too. I think 95 percent of the shots are handheld to make it feel alive and wild. People are constantly moving in the frame than rather the very stiff mise-en-scène we used in Dark.
One reference we did not use, and not because we don’t like the film, because we loved it when it came out, was Titanic. We said from the start that 1899 should not look like Titanic. It should feel different, because you have this image of a big steamship going from Europe to America and immediately you think this must be the cube version of Titanic. That’s not what we wanted.
The song White Rabbit plays over the opening credits. Is that a Matrix reference?
Friese: It’s more a reference to the brain, to psychology and the science of perception. The quote in the song from Emily Dickinson’s poem, in the beginning, is really about experiencing all this weird shit going through your brain. In the Eliott Sumner version we use in the title sequence, the line that features so prominently is “feed your head.” That was such an important phrase for the entire show that it felt like the absolute right fit.
1899’s full eight-episode first season streams on Netflix starting Thursday.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.