1899 is a fascinating new series from the producers of Dark, launching today on Netflix. In an interview on Zoom, the Playtech team spoke to the producers and some of the cast of the psychological thriller 1899.
The eight episodes of Netflix’s 1899 follow the mysterious circumstances surrounding the voyage of an immigrant ship leaving Europe and heading to New York. With completely different backgrounds, the passengers wait hopefully for the new century and dream of a better future in another country. But their journey takes an unexpected turn when they discover another ship that has been missing for months and is now adrift, aboard which they will find something that will turn their journey to the promised land into a nightmarish mystery. What’s more, there seem to be inscrutable links between the passengers’ stories that make up a whole web of secrets.
Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese – producers
Ozana: What were the technological challenges you encountered when filming the 1899 series?
Baran bo Odar: We used new technology – it’s the first European production shot exclusively in a studio using Volume technology, the most advanced technology in cinema. Specifically, it’s a circular studio made up of innovative high-definition LED panels all around. This displays 3D computer-generated backgrounds, once traditionally composited, mainly in post-production after filming with green screens. It’s like in video games: when you move the camera, all the scenery moves with you. So we didn’t have to use the green screens that both Jantje and I hate, because it doesn’t look realistic.
This new technology also helps the actors to see the environment better, to interact with it. It was a challenge, because there aren’t a lot of films or series that have been made with this technique. We prepared almost a year in advance to use this technology, to understand it, to practice it.
Ozana: 1899 is a historical, multilingual and multicultural series. Was it difficult to select the actors for the cast as it is so diverse?
Jantje Friese: It was really very hard for many reasons. One of them was that casting was done in pandemonium, when we weren’t allowed to make physical contact, so we met the actors on Zoom. We’re used to meeting actors face to face, feeling their energy, interacting. Talking on Zoom is a whole different thing, you interact in a whole different way. Even us now, talking on Zoom, it’s not the same as the dialogue we would have had if we were in the same room. There were some challenges, really, but in the end it turned out much better than we expected. I remember the first time we all met was in Berlin and it was really nice.
And the other challenge, like you said it’s a multilingual show, was the language we each speak. But here I’ll let Baran say.
Baran bo Odar: Yeah, that’s what I thought from the beginning would be the biggest challenge: that our basic language is not the same. 1899 is a show about class, gender, nationality. And there were a lot of languages spoken on set. But in the end, it wasn’t as complicated as I thought it would be. We had a whole team of translators who helped us understand certain terms. Anyway, we all speak English, so it was easy to understand each other.
I think it was, however, more difficult in the process of writing the script, because you can’t really translate all the words from English into German, for example. It changes the meaning of some words, because sometimes you don’t have that word in a particular language or it has a completely different meaning. I did a lot of phonetic work on the filming, to figure out, for example, how to pronounce a word in Cantonese. I used a trick that helped me: I thought of words as musical instruments and I’m the composer – I listened to the tonality and that’s how I was able to figure out how a phrase sounds.
Ozana: How did you decide to release all the episodes of the show at once and not one episode a week? Was there any discussion with Netflix about this?
Jantje Friese: It wasn’t a discussion with Netflix, it was a discussion between us, because we had different views on this. Personally, I think when you have a story as complex as the 1899 scenario, the power lies with the audience. They have to decide how many episodes they want to see in one shot. My biggest fear with a story this complex is that you may forget important details if you leave too much time between episodes. The story is like a puzzle that each viewer has to unravel. So my opinion is that for a mystery series you shouldn’t let a week go by from one episode to the next.
I’m all for, in general, having series where the episodes are released weekly, to create that social spirit, friends discussing with each other what happens in the next episode, there’s debate, more suspense. But I would have set up the narrative thread a bit differently in 1899 for a weekly release.
Baran bo Odar: I like both versions, but I’m more oldschool, I like the one episode a week version better. I used to be obsessed with Lost and would “digest” every episode for a few days, start researching the internet for clues.
Ozana: What can you tell us about the mythological elements in the show?
Jantje Friese: 1899 has a central theme, a basic idea that links all the events. Time and quantum physics play an important role in the storyline. What we tried to do was to find the right setting, the right objects, the right mythological elements, the religious and philosophical references that all lead to that basic idea. The sea also played a very important role in building the atmosphere.
Baran bo Odar: Beyond the mythological elements, what really made us connect with this idea was the concept of having a truly European show with a mixed cast from different countries. At the heart of the series is the question “what unites us and what divides us?”. And how fear can be a trigger for the latter.
The whole European aspect was very important to us, not only in terms of the story, but how we were going to produce the series. It really had to be a European collaboration, not just cast but crew. We felt that with the last few years of Europe being in decline, we needed to give a counterpoint to Brexit and the nationalism that has grown in different countries, to go back to the idea of Europe and Europeans working and creating together.
Ozana: The first show you directed, Dark, was a global success. How do you now see the production for 1899?
Baran bo Odar: We have fans who will definitely watch 1899 because they liked Dark. Maybe 1899 won’t be to their liking, but at least they’ll give it a chance. Of course, there was a lot of pressure on us, because there are high expectations from Dark fans. They’re probably expecting something much more interesting. That’s why we were a bit stressed at the beginning of filming for 1899, but then we decided to create 1899 for us in the first place. Now we’re excited again because it’s out and we’re waiting for the fans’ feedback.
Jantje Friese: 1899 is special because it’s very topical – in 1899 people had a lot of racial prejudice, class prejudice, gender prejudice and so on. Today, in 2022, we are still there. But the script tries to bring such a diverse group together and emphasize unity and humanity.
Ozana: Where did you get your inspiration when creating a script as complex as 1899?
Jantje Friese: On an aesthetic level, so to speak, we took inspiration from films of the same genre. For example, Alien or The Shining. 1899 has the charm of making you wonder about things. You go through your daily routine, you brush your teeth, you go to work, but after watching a few episodes, you ask yourself philosophical or scientific questions, you look for answers, and you interpret it, in the end, through your own reason.
Ozana: There were scenes too “dark” even for you?
Baran bo Odar: Yes, no doubt. But you’ll know exactly when you watch the show.
Jantje Friese: For a thriller series that focuses on mystery, “dark” scenes are necessary. They contribute to the cinematic atmosphere, to the shaping of the story. You just have to look carefully in the “shadows” to understand certain meanings, meanings.
Andreas Pietschmann, Emily Beecham, Aneurin Barnard – actors
Ozana: Andreas, what’s it like to be back on set with the producers of the Dark series?
Andreas Pietschmann: It was, of course, a great pleasure for me to have the chance to work with them again, because I appreciate them very much. They helped me to develop my career, we made a great team again and I hope you like the result.
Ozana: How did you manage filming speaking so many different languages?
Aneurin Barnard: It was great for us to learn from each other, but also to express ourselves in our native language. It gave our characters more originality, authenticity, and we had more confidence in ourselves when we played our roles. The dialogues were also fascinating – one character spoke in Cantonese and his partner answered in German.
Andreas Pietschmann: It was quite fun at the shoot to teach each other various words in our native languages. And besides the fact that we were all so different, we were very united, understanding, tolerant, a real creative team.
Ozana: What did you like about your characters?
Emily Beecham: Maura is a character created out of contradictions, she is vulnerable but also strong, she has secrets, and the viewer’s perception of her can change. Maura has memory loss, she’s trying to figure out who she is, she’s a very complex character that I really liked. At the time, women didn’t have a lot of freedoms and rights, and Maura was a doctor – that makes her even more complex.
Aneurin Barnard: I played Daniel, a rather rambunctious fellow. I like to play characters with different problems. I was able to play with his vulnerabilities, and creatively it was a very rewarding role. Like in real life, you really get to know a person in really difficult situations in their life, when they’re vulnerable, when they’re in a “dark” place. Living inside Daniel’s head can be exhausting and intense – he’s on a journey against time the whole show.
Andreas Pietschmann: From the first moment I fell in love with Eyk, because it was different from what I’ve played before. He’s older, he’s broken by events in his life, he’s mysterious, but he’s still powerful, he has authority on that ship, being the captain of the ship.
Ozana: How did you decide to go into this project? What was your first reaction immediately after you first read the script?
Emily Beecham: There were several reasons I agreed to be part of this project: the script is fascinating, extraordinarily written, with many twists and turns. Then, obviously, the wonderful team that worked on 1899, and the complex character that I played, which challenged me.
Andreas Pietschmann: As soon as I read the script, I realized that it was an interesting story, full of mystery, with twists and turns that keep you in suspense. I also really liked all the characters – they are so different, have secrets, different motivations. Not to mention the setting and atmosphere. It’s like a book you can’t put down.
Aneurin Barnard: For me it was like a rabbit hole story. I tried to unravel the puzzle of the story that captivated me, with the characters having an inner agony on this journey to a better life that turns into a nightmare.
Miguel Bernardeau, Maciej Musial – actors
Ozana: You used a new and rarely used technology in filming – Volume technology. How was your experience as actors? What challenges did you face?
Maciej Musial: I liked the fact that unlike green screens, where you have to use your imagination a lot, because the scenery is not there, with this technology you interact much better. You don’t have to imagine, you experience the moment.
Ozana: Miguel, you’re best known for the Elite series, which is a real hit all over the world. What’s it like to act in a science fiction series, after tackling a totally different theme in a teen series?
Miguel Bernardeau: It was a great honor for me to be on this show with an outstanding cast. Yes, it’s really something different from what I’ve played before, but I love the challenge.
Ozana: Can you describe a little bit about your characters and what you found interesting about them?
Miguel Bernardeau: My character’s name is Angel and is a young gay man from elite society who is very traumatised by his past, from which he tries to escape. What I found interesting were his sensitive and vulnerable points behind his toughness and the traumas he has, which sometimes surface in strange ways.
Maciej Musial: My character is Olek and is the complete opposite of Angel. Olek is working class, a ship’s worker, trying to find his own way in life. And Olek, like Angel, is sensitive and empathetic – even when he has no food or is going through difficult times, he tries to care for others.
Ozana: Being a historical series set in 1899, did you do any kind of research before filming?
Miguel Bernardeau: Yes, we consulted with the manufacturers first, and then went on to research each one individually. We read books, we watched films, we read articles from that time, to get up to speed with the characters.
Ozana: What was it like for you filming in so many different languages?
Miguel Bernardeau: It was both difficult and fun. We taught each other words in our languages, I think in Danish we learned the most words. You could simply hear five languages spoken at once, just by walking through a room where a scene was being filmed.
It’s interesting to experience this mix of cultures and languages. I really enjoyed the experience, it was a real opportunity. Also, when you play a role in your own language, you have a different kind of posture, intonation, you are more confident in yourself and what you want to express. I think I got the message across better than I would have in English, for example.
Maciej Musial: Sometimes as an actor you tend to focus more on yourself when filming. But when your scene partner doesn’t speak the same language as you, you try to pay more attention to him, to pay more attention to his lines, to what he’s trying to express, when he pauses, when he finishes his line and so on. For us that was a challenge.
Ozana: Do you think streaming services help actors promote themselves better?
Miguel Bernardeau: Indeed, it’s a new era of streaming platforms creating new jobs for actors, directors, producers, writers, etc. Yes, I think Netflix and other streaming platforms help promote artists.
Ozana: What’s the deeper meaning of this show, besides being a sci-fi thriller?
Maciej Musial: We all start on that ship as strangers, we are reluctant towards each other, maybe even scared. But to face what is to come, we must unite, be one for all. We all have the same hope, but also the same fear in our eyes. That was also the main idea the producers told us at the beginning: the idea of unity, in a world so divided.