16 Nov 2022

The Creators of ‘1899’ Reveal (Some of) the Secrets Behind the New Netflix Mystery Series

The Creators of ‘1899’ Reveal (Some of) the Secrets Behind the New Netflix Mystery Series
The Creators of ‘1899’ Reveal (Some of) the Secrets Behind the New Netflix Mystery Series

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.