‘Archive 81’ Showrunner Unpacks Complex & Terrifying First Season
[Warning: The below contains spoilers for Season 1 of Archive 81.]
If you were offered $100,000 to restore some damaged tapes housed at a secluded compound, would you take the job? In the new supernatural thriller series Archive 81, Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) says yes, discovering pretty quickly that this is not your typical assignment. Footage filmed by student Melody Pentrist (Dina Shihabi) and salvaged after a 1994 fire from the Visser apartments reveals its mysterious tenants are more than meets the eye.
Dan, whose family seemingly died in a house fire, uncovers his late dad is also very much involved. This further motivates him to clear the cobwebs of the past in order to learn what really happened in the Visser and explore his growing connection to Melody. Archive 81, which counts James Wan among its executive producers, is an early frontrunner for the most terrifying show of 2022. It has Baldung witch covens, societal occult rituals, otherworlds, and a nightmare-inducing demon named Kaelego.
“The show is supposed to be a fun mystery box for people,” Rebecca Sonnenshine says. “It’s very dark and a little bit scary. It also asks some pretty important questions: How do we come to believe in the things we believe in?… It’s very much a show about faith and art and identity. But it’s also about being scared a little bit.”
We sat down with the first-time showrunner to further piece together the insanity of Season 1, streaming on Netflix.
Here you have this complex story surrounding two characters’ lives somehow intertwined. The way it’s presented really draws you in as a viewer.
Rebecca Sonnenshine: This project was definitely different than anything I’ve done before because it is very POV-driven. We’re with Dan and with Melody, but we don’t bounce around in the storylines. It’s a very intense singular POV.
That really dictated a lot of how we structured the episodes and how they came together in the end. We didn’t do a lot of revising in structure in the post process. We had to nail it [during filming] because we wanted it to unfold in a very particular way that the audience is along for the ride with Dan before tumbling into Melody’s story and back out. Trying to end every episode with something that bounces you into the next episode: whether it’s a question or cliffhanger or something that draws the audience along in hopefully an organic way.
There are some deep themes touched on as we find out more about Dan and Melody. Among them are trauma and mental health. There are some similarities in what they’ve both gone through.
Even if it’s the same trauma, they can process it in different ways. Melody’s way of coping is to be outgoing and friendly and put on a good face. Dan may retreat a little. They have similar depths of hurt about what has happened to them. They use different ways of coping, but still have a deep connection when they talk about it. I don’t think either one of these characters necessarily projects that trauma onto the world. They internalize and are boiling inside. I always wonder what is going on inside people. What is really going on? It’s fascinating.
Before the opening, there is what appears to be random video footage that leads to clues of what happens in the episode. What was your reasoning behind including those?
Those teasers were, from the conception of the series, something we wanted to do because a lot of this show is about media and what kind of media is captured. There are old tapes lying around everywhere of random things. You can see evidence of that on YouTube. All of those clips had references found online that we used as visual and stylistic references. I think it is an interesting spin of found and archival footage, that you’re not totally sure what it means until later on in the episode. It’s a true cold open. They provide you with an exposition without it having to come from a character. They were so fun to do.
We’re all in our homes more right now. One of the things that can scare us, in general, is the idea of mold. You add another layer to that terror tying it into a demon coming into our world.
I personally am allergic to mold, so mold is a big part of my life. I’ve gotten allergy shots for mold. It’s my nemesis. I also find it fascinating by the way it blooms and is tied to particular places, dampness when it comes to the real world. It also has these properties. Mold can also be psychedelic. To me, it’s this creature or this organic material that is both God and demon. You have this organic material, but it’s not this black mold we find in our shower; it’s something more geometric or patterned and deliberate. If you look under a microscope, I always say it doesn’t look like mold. It’s more crystalized. It’s a scary thing and can have good and bad properties.
At the center is the summoning of Kaelego. What went into creating him?
We had to create the monster of Kaelego very early because we needed to make a statue of him. It was the first thing we did actually. I wanted to make a monster that was scary but sexy. One of the inspirations was this pose that Hannibal Lecter had. He would look up at Jodie Foster’s character Clarice, tilted head down, and be still. We also wanted to have a deity or regal quality to it, which is where the crown on his head comes from.
Toward the end of the season, Dan ventures into this otherworld to rescue Melody. Instead, Dan appears to be stuck there while Melody makes it back even as Samuel (Evan Jonigkeit) grabs a hold of her. Why doesn’t he come through to the other side too?
I wouldn’t count him out. It’s definitely open-ended. We wanted a really big cliffhanger in many ways. I would say stay tuned.
What are some of the other things you would want to explore in Season 2? There are a lot of unanswered questions.
On a personal level for the characters, they’ve both been on this quest to find out who they really are and who their parents really were. They find out, but what do you do with that? This is the emotional setup for another season. Having the answers comes with good and bad. The fallout from that is something to explore. Also, how does Dan get back to the time he is supposed to be in? Everything we mention and think, “Is that a clue?” Yes. Anything you may ask if it’s an Easter egg — yes.
Archive 81, Season 1, Streaming Now, Netflix