“DreamLab” is a German NDR fiction podcast by Rhea Schmid and Thomas Kornmaier. The series follows Lina, a psychologist working in a sleep laboratory. When a tragic accident kills a number of the scientists and subjects in the lab, the survivors are left to navigate their new half-dreaming reality. Prior to writing the hit series, Rhea was a film set designer and worked on productions in Germany and in her native Austria. We had the opportunity to speak with Rhea about her love for creative writing, her inspiration for the series, and, of course, her favorite sound.
Hi Rhea! Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Rhea, I’m from Austria originally but I’ve been living in Berlin for 10 years now. I’ve studied costume design and production design. I started off in the costume and art department of independent and large scale movie productions but about five years ago I transitioned more towards writing.
What’s your favorite place to get coffee?
Actually, I don’t drink coffee because caffeine makes me really nervous and agitated. So I start every day with a nice pot of tea in my kitchen. But if I had to recommend a place, I’d say Brammibal’s because they not only have delicious coffee but also great vegan donuts.
You’re one of the co-authors of DreamLab, did you always enjoy writing?
Yeah, I’ve always really enjoyed writing, in my school days all of my teachers always said, ‘Oh, you have to be a writer!’ I chose a different path initially, but then gravitated back towards that.
What led to your writing DreamLab and what was your process for writing the series with Thomas?
Thomas and I met four years ago and we write a lot together. We were participating in a pitch round for a production company that worked with FYEO, the audio platform of the broadcaster Pro7. But by the time we finished DreamLab, FYEO went out of business. So DreamLab went into the drawer and it only came out again when our producers made a new deal with NDR to put DreamLab into the Audiothek. In the end I think it worked out for the better. So we had already completed the series two years ago, and then last summer we dove into the books again. We had to consider the new feedback from the Line Producer at NDR so it changed a bit from what it was originally.
Have you listened back to that piece you made back in 2015, and do you have any thoughts about it?
I listened to it regularly! Maybe once a year. I find it so endearing and so sweet. Listening back to yourself in this immature stage of your development not only as a podcast producer, but as a person is a very interesting experience. I’m happy that I can live through that again and again. The audio quality sounds worse every time, but there are some highlights and some very good jokes that still make me laugh to this day.
What were some of the ways that it changed? Were you and Thomas also looking back, two years later, wanting to make some changes as well?
Yeah, I mean, your style of writing keeps changing. And if you look at something that you wrote two years ago, you realize how awkward some sentences are and how you repeat yourself. It was also very different to work with NDR. They had some different style approaches, for example ‘less is more,’ which we agreed with. NDR wanted it to be a bit more artsy, so that was good for us.
And how did the idea for DreamLab initially come about? What were some of your main inspirations?
I’ve been an avid lucid dreamer for most of my life, and I always wanted to write something on the topic. But of course, for the sake of suspense and drama, you have to paint a bit of a darker picture of what lucid dreaming actually is. I also really recommend that everybody take a closer look at their dreams because that’s such a big playground in your head, just sitting there, and it’s so much fun to explore. That was the main inspiration.
Could you tell me a little bit about the synopsis of the DreamLab series?
It all starts with a tragic incident in the sleep lab that kills the lead scientist and two of her test subjects. The two survivors are severely traumatized and lose their minds which is where psychologist Lena comes in. She tries to find out what actually happened in the experiment. But of course, there are some shady players who want to prevent the truth from coming out. I really can’t say more, I would spoil the whole thing.
Was it like building the world of DreamLab? Was it based on your own lucid dreams?
Yeah. I actually used one of my own dreams in one of the dream sequences, which is one of the worst nightmares I ever had. If you are a lucid dreamer and you realize that what you are experiencing is just a dream it doesn’t matter how bad it is because you know nothing can happen to you. So it gets a more interesting approach. This dream really stuck with me and I wanted to use it for something because it was just so cinematic.
Adding together music, soundscapes and voice actors must have been very surreal to see it almost come to life.
I think I have to disappoint you a bit on that one because as a writer in Germany, you don’t have much of a say when it comes to other departments and especially when you have producers of a certain age and mindset, they kind of want to keep their writers isolated. And so we didn’t really get to work with anybody apart from ourselves and the production side. It’s a bit of a shame because we had quite an elaborate idea on how we wanted to transition from scene to scene, using dream sounds but it was omitted partly due to the pressing time factor in the production. So the end result, from a soundscape point of view, isn’t quite what we imagined.
That’s a shame! Do you listen to other fiction?
Actually, not really. I enjoy conversational podcasts. I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts to get inspiration from other stories, but I’m not so much into fiction podcasts. I did listen to a lot of those when I was a kid because cassettes were like our thing back then.
What are some of your favorite true crime podcasts?
I’ve discovered something from the region where I grew up in, in Carinthia. It’s called Delikt and they talk about crimes that happened in that area.
Delikt sounds very interesting. I also think local or regional true crime shows are interesting because you really get to build that world and show listeners different aspects of a place.
Yeah, that’s true. And also those rural regions in Austria always have a bit of a darker touch.
How did your previous work in film and set design influence how you went about writing the series?
It still influences me a lot, not only in the audio writing but also in screenplay writing, because I really need to envision the scene. And in an audio format, you also need scenery to help the listener. For example, in DreamLab, we had this table fountain that would make water noises all the time to characterize one setting. You need to build a world around sound. But in the screenplay writing for movies, I need to feel different flavors of the scenes to really get into the writing.
Do you have any advice for anyone who’s getting into writing fiction podcasts, whether it be world-building or the creative process in general?
I’d say don’t get too attached to your own ideas because as soon as you have a producer or a platform that wants to realize those ideas they will have their wishes and you will have to comply to a certain point. And that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes ‘killing your darlings’ just really makes stuff better. That’s one thing. And also don’t get discouraged. We even had two or three projects that were already in the developing stage, got the finances for the treatment and the pilot, even wrote half of the series already, and then the platform said they were not going to make it anyway. So it’s always good to be prepared for setbacks and also to keep in mind that whatever you have written already, you can come back to it at a later stage and get it to another producer or to another platform.
Do you have a favorite part of writing a fiction podcast?
I’d say dialogues and cliffhangers. If you write a good cliffhanger, that’s just such a satisfying feeling.
Especially when you can kind of envision how it will sound when it’s made. Must be very exciting. And the dialogue is, I think, one of the hardest parts of writing.
Yeah. It helps if you really build your characters upfront and make a diagram or a mind map of each character to really get a feel of who they are. Whenever you are stuck in the dialogue, you go back to that and check how that person would feel and what they might say. That really helps.
Lastly, what is your favorite sound?
That would be that crunchy sound that your boots make on fresh snow.
interview by Jill Beytin, for Bear Radio.