TV - 1899

With the series now available to watch on Netflix, find out more about the drama 1899 in this interview with showrunners Jantje Friese and Baran Bo Odar ...

Press Release

The eight episode series, from the makers of Dark, follows the mysterious circumstances around the voyage of an immigrant ship from Europe to New York in 1899. The passengers, all of different backgrounds and nationalities, are united by their hopes and dreams for a new century and their future abroad. When they discover a second ship adrift on the open sea that had gone missing for months, their journey takes an unexpected turn. What they find on board will turn their passage to the promised land into a nightmare-like riddle, connecting each of the passenger’s pasts through a web of secrets.

What is 1899?

JANTJE FRIESE: To really distill it down, it's an eight-part mystery that unfolds before the viewer, like a tantalizing puzzle. We're playing with ideas and expectations. And the most important thing is that 1899 tells a thoroughly international story and was also a thoroughly European show in its creation. It’s about immigrants on a ship bound for America. Immigrants from so many different countries, all speaking different languages – English, German, Spanish, French, Polish, Danish, Portuguese, Cantonese.

What was the starting idea for your new series?

BARAN BO ODAR: We had the idea quite a while ago. The original inspiration was a photo that we found a few years ago – it’s the photo of a man in his underwear on the deck of an old ship with a bloody hammer in his hands. This immediately sparked something in us. You had to ask – When was that? What happened here? How does it make us feel?

JANTJE FRIESE: We created the series in a really organic way, playfully. After these initial general questions, we found answers just kept coming to us, each one more precise than the last.

BARAN BO ODAR: It was that photo that really sparked the idea to tell a story about immigrants. The concept was that people of various nationalities, some of whom only spoke their own languages, find themselves on a steamer heading for America. My own family story is one of immigration. We were always traveling around the world, we never really settled. We don't have any one home.

JANTJE FRIESE: It was also the moment that Brexit really came to the fore; it felt like Europe was faltering, as if the idea of a unified Europe was hanging in the balance. So, we wanted to also tell a story about Europe, about ideas and problems that we’re facing at the moment. And we wanted to tell it in the way we do best, in the form of a mystery – exciting, dark, intense, action-packed, full of twists and turns.

What are you most looking forward to when the public can finally see the first season of 1899?

JANTJE FRIESE: I hope that the viewers have real enthusiasm for the puzzle, to discover the world of 1899 and hunt for all the tiny hints and clues that make up the whole. The series is full of secrets and surprises. But more than that, I hope that the viewers enjoy the many different languages. The cocktail of different cultures is totally unique, and I find it very, very inspiring. We think this is something both fans of DARK and new fans will enjoy.

Was there anything else new that you wanted to try out with 1899?

BARAN BO ODAR: We didn’t want to repeat ourselves. It’s something we’ve managed so far, so from the very start of 1899 we knew we didn't want to make a second DARK. DARK was an almost melancholy series. 1899 has a wildly fast tempo. The ship is always moving and that translates onto the whole show. It’s about a journey; the characters aren't standing still, and on the ship itself, everything is always moving. The plot has so much energy. We like it. We were really impressed with even the first draft. It’s like a sort of polar opposite to DARK.

How did you start creating the screenplay? And how did you approach filming?

JANTJE FRIESE: Nothing about it is easy, it’s a pretty intricate construct. We knew from the start that the languages were going to be a big challenge but we didn’t really know how complex the actual realization would be. We didn’t just have authors from various countries, we worked with an entire language department who translated the various drafts and versions of the screenplay, with all the changes, into each of the relevant languages. The first thing was finding a means to communicate. And, of course, we communicated in English because that's the language that everyone knows. But when you really dive into this work you quickly realize that language is something very subjective. That’s before you even start talking about cultural differences. You notice first with the individual things like what you think is a nice turn of phrase. Which sentence best expresses the character’s core? As a head writer, you soon start to run into barriers because you can’t say whether a sentence in Polish is really expressing what you wanted it to, when you wrote it. So, alongside our authors, our language department also included translators, editors and language assistants who were all constantly in discussions with one another. There was a whole dialog about language happening in parallel to the screenplay creation. In Final Draft, a screenwriting program, we had such intense discussions in the script notes about the subtleties of the language that the program kept crashing.

BARAN BO ODAR: We had to develop our own system to understand what was being said at any moment, whether what the actor was saying in front of the camera was convincing or not. We were still really focused on this in post-production, when we had to decide which takes were best. But it was also fun too; it’s enriching and inspiring to be surrounded by so many languages, different nationalities, cultures and people. We are united because we are different and that is wonderful. English was the main language while filming, but there were also days where I heard nothing besides Cantonese – a language I don't understand. But I did know what was being said, because we tested every scene and we’d written out the dialog phonetically. But most of all I knew because I’ve spoken lots to the actors and I trust them. In the end, emotions are universally understood, they are the key.

How did you cast the actors from the various European countries?

BARAN BO ODAR: Lucy Bevan from London did the casting for 1899. Initially, we were very skeptical, because it wasn’t possible to meet the actors in person and get an immediate feeling or sense about the actor. Because the coronavirus restrictions meant we couldn't travel, the entire casting took place over Zoom. I was really surprised about how well it worked, and how quickly everyone adapted to this new situation. We perhaps had a few more rounds than usual, just to be certain, but also because we had to enter markets which were totally unfamiliar to us. When you think about German characters, you instantly have a few faces spring to mind who might be suitable. In the other countries it’s not so immediately easy, so we were even more pleased by how exciting and rewarding it was for us to discover new faces.

The way that you tackled the languages isn’t the only revolutionary aspect of 1899. It is also the first European production to be filmed solely in a Volume facility. How did that come about?

BARAN BO ODAR: That actually stems from our original idea to make a European series with an international cast and crew. Of course, we wanted to travel and film in the respective countries but then came the coronavirus crisis and it was patently clear that travel wouldn’t be possible for the foreseeable future. Kelly Luegenbiehl from Netflix let us know about a new technology which had just been used for The Mandalorian. At the start, we didn't take it too seriously, because we’ve always seen ourselves as traditional filmmakers. Personally, I don't like working with green screen and wherever possible I like to film in camera. But eventually I made myself watch the series and what can I say? I was gripped immediately. So, we swotted up on it, read articles and blogs and spoke with colleagues who'd worked on The Mandalorian who told us very honestly what was and wasn’t possible in a Volume. There’s a sort of myth about a Volume being a wonder-tool – you simply push a button and you can switch between any number of backgrounds. But this idea was quickly quashed. The preparation is boring and time-intensive and can be frustrating too, because it feels like you have to relearn everything you know about filmmaking. It took almost a year for us to understand the basic use of the technology and internalize that knowledge.

Who were your most important comrades for that process?

JANTJE FRIESE: Cameraman Nik Summerer and set designer Udo Kramer were crucial. They know us and know how we work and what's important to us. We can rely on each other. When you're treading new ground, it’s always good to be surrounded by people who know you inside out, people with whom you've already overcome many challenges.

BARAN BO ODAR: And it was important to us to work with a crew who had as much enthusiasm as we did to try and learn something new. Everyone was ready for the challenge and excited to break new ground. With Framestore we found a visual-effects partner who stood by us to assist and support as we used the new technology. Of course, they didn't have any experience with working in a Volume either, but we learned together and rose to the challenges together.

Did using the Volume technology affect the work on the script?

JANTJE FRIESE: Completely. It was an immense learning curve for us all. You quickly think you've understood what needs to be done but then you really need to see it with your own eyes before you can understand what narrative freedoms it opens up for you. The decision to film in a Volume facility was made right in the middle of working on the first draft. So, we had to learn really quickly how to write scenes for it. Actors move differently in the space. And of course, the world which the actors occupy changes completely. You have to adapt to the fact you can think more freely, because you have an insane palette of choices open to you now. I personally learnt a lot about this technology during the writing process.

How did your perception of yourselves as filmmakers change while working on the three series of DARK?

DARK was a trial by fire. After that, we knew what we could do and where each other’s strengths lie. We learned to distribute and focus our resources and responsibilities more cleverly. I see myself as a strong preparer, I take care of writing and working on the screenplays, the first edited versions, before Bo comes in and tidies up my chaos.

BARAN BO ODAR: Well, I wouldn’t say it like that...

JANTJE FRIESE: I find it so useful that we work as a pair. It’s been that way on everything we’ve worked on up until now, but especially for DARK. That's where we first thought how much we respect showrunners who do everything alone. I have no idea how they do it.

BARAN BO ODAR: It’s good to have a partner at your side who you know you can always rely on, especially when you're exhausted, fighting with yourself and doubting everything you do. It’s good when someone can say “I understand, but trust me, it’ll all work in the end.” Or when they're totally honest and say, “You're right, you've totally made a hash of it!”. Sometimes it isn’t easy because we're also a couple outside of work, so you take every problem home with you. But we’ve known each other for 19 years now, so you can’t hide anything from each other.

JANTJE FRIESE: Together, you can think bigger. You trust yourself to do more. You dare to be crazier, take bigger risks. There’s so much we don’t have to actually say, because we know each other inside out. And we push each other too.

Images - Netflix

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