By Jack Rico
Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, Amazon’s upcoming Man in the High Castle series is set in an alternate 1962 where the Allies lost World War II. America is divided. The Nazis control the East and Imperial Japan control the West, with the Rocky Mountains acting as a neutral zone between the two world powers. The (excellent) pilot episode premiered last year during Amazon’s “Pilot Season” and the full 10-episode series will be released in its entirety on November 20th.
While at NYCC, we had the chance to sit down with the people behind the upcoming new show and we’re starting off our series of interviews with the show’s creator and Executive Producer Frank Spotnitz.
Adam: I was wondering if you could talk about the process of world building for this world. What thinking went into this alternate American culture and how it’s changed after so much war and occupation?
Frank Spotnitz: Well, the book was hugely helpful for that, because he [author Philip K. Dick] had a very clear vision of the society and I think he wrote it as bit of a parable for the Cold War. You know, the Nazis and the Japanese and the Nazis are winning as they are in our TV series. But then I called three historian before I wrote the pilot script because I thought maybe our understanding of history has moved on since 1962 and I asked them what they thought how we would have lost the war if things has gone differently. How would our society have evolved? And that is what really influences like the signage in Times Square that you see. You know, some of the early concept art I got sent was like posters for beer and hot dogs and pretzels like… No, no, that’s not—That’s not what this is about. There’s nothing wrong with beer and hot dogs and pretzels, but this is about Fascist values in our country, so what are the signs? And the Nazis would have been about agriculture and industry and state control. So you look at Times Square today or in the Sixties and it’s about y’know, Capitalism in all its glory. Right? Chaotic capitalism. And this is something else. And I think that’s the kind of thing I’m looking for in the show, like “I recognize that, but it’s different.” What’s the difference between us and them, and why does it matter? What do we stand for? Who are we? And I think that we are so polarized right now in this country. Right and Left are so angry at each other, so rigid and so far apart and I think one thing that everyone can agree upon is we don’t want to be occupied by Nazis. We can all agree we’re Nazis, right? So what’s the difference between us and Nazis? And there are a lot of scenes—That sounds like an obvious question, of course—There are scenes in this show, you’re gonna go “I almost agree with that. I almost agree with what that guy’s saying, but I don’t, why not?” And that’s exciting to me.
Adam: The Amazon Pilot Season is different than network TV and it’s different than what HBO or Netflix does. Amazon released this pilot a year before it was even picked up, how did that effect your process as a writer and a creator, especially considering you’re getting customer reviews as it’s out there?
Spotnitz: It effected [the show] in ways I did not expect. Honestly, I was nervous about that whole process because what if everybody hates it? What if the pilot stinks? It’s like the whole world’s seen it. Y’know, usually you go through this process and if the pilot’s no good nobody ever sees it. So I knew if I failed, I’d fail in public. As it turned out people really liked it, so I thought, oh I really like this process after all. The really good thing about it—there were two things. I got to reflect on why has this pilot struck a chord before I went into making the rest of the episodes. And the second thing was when it came time to hire crew and department heads and cast people, they had all seen the pilot, and they knew they liked it, they knew it had done well. It was the easiest show ever, in order to draw the best actors and the best talent to come make it with us. So that was an unexpected plus.
Adam: But were there decisions that you changed? Let’s say you wrote the pilot and thought you were going to in one direction, but having that time to have the world react to it make you decide to go in different directions?
Spotnitz: Well, the truth is when we developed it for SyFy I had written the first two hours and my friend Tom Schnauz, who writes for Breaking Bad and now Better Call Saul, had written hours three and four. And really it was designed to be a four-hour movie. It was going to be all of the novel, and if people liked it, we would continue on from there. So I had those scripts, but Amazon is a different format. They didn’t want four hours, they wanted ten. So episode two changed very, very little, but three and hour ended up having to change a lot and basically we just had to slow down a lot. And the thing about this show is, it’s science fiction which is idea driven. There are big ideas at work, but it’s also about people. First and foremost it’s about people. And so it’s best when you slow down and you really get into the texture of people’s lives. So it speeds up by the end of every hour, but there’s plenty of time to just get into the lives of the characters.
Adam: Where in this world would you like to explore [beyond the United States]?
Spotnitz: So much. I mean, I live in Europe and we don’t—[There] are glimpses of what’s going on in the rest of the planet in the first season and there are so many issues to explore. You know it is science fiction, so you know the reason to tell this story is to reflect back on the world we live in now and there are many, many things I would like to talk about.
You can watch the pilot episode for free on Amazon today.