Interview: Frank Spotnitz Talks 'The Man In The High Castle', Moving Project From Syfy To Amazon & More – TVWise

It’s no secret that Amazon is making a big push into television.
They started down that path with the likes of the John Goodman fronted Alpha House, before subsequently adding such entries as the award winning Transparent, cop drama Bosch (which premieres on February 13th) and Hand Of God starring Ron Perlman and Garret Dillahunt.
Amazon Studios has been able to attract this range of A-list talent, both in-front and behind the camera, through what has been described as an “egalitarian pilot process”. That process, in which creators are given a lot of freedom, sees the company order pilots which are made available in the US, UK and Germany and are voted on by the general public, with those votes and other feedback from critics determining which projects go to series.
But it is arguably Amazon’s latest pilot season – the first of 2015 – that has resulted in one of their best drama projects yet: The Man In The High Castle, an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name.
The drama is set in the 1960′s in a world where Nazi Germany and Japan defeated the allies and won the Second World War. The US is under occupation by the Axis powers, where fascism rules and the few surviving Jews are forced to hide under assumed names. The cast includes Alexa Davalos, Luke Kleintank, Rupert Evans, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Joel De La Fuente, Rufus Sewell and DJ Qualls.
The adaptation of the iconic novel comes from some fairly heady auspices such as veteran producer Ridley Scott, director David Semel and prolific writer/producer Frank Spotnitz. Spotnitz, of course, is well known for his time on The X-Files, but in recent years has been creating and producing a lot of high end projects through his Big Light banner – including the BBC/Cinemax co-pro Hunted and Transporter: The Series for M6 and HBO Canada.
Frank Spotnitz, who in addition to penning the script serves as an executive producer on the Man In The High Castle adaptation, recently spoke with TVWise about adapting the iconic novel, how it landed at Amazon after Syfy passed on the project and much more.
Spoiler Warning – The following interview contains minor spoilers from the pilot episode of The Man In The High Castle which some readers may wish to avoid.
TVWise: How did you get involved in adapting The Man In The High Castle?
Frank Spotnitz: I know David Zucker, who is the head of Ridley Scott’s television division in Los Angeles, and he just asked me. He had been trying for five years to get it off the ground at that point. It was one of my favorite books and I couldn’t resist. I then found myself wondering what I had agreed to because I was intimidated. When you know a book so well and admire it so much… I realized in re-reading it that I would have to make some changes, because it wasn’t a television series the way it is [originally written]. [Philip K Dick’s] daughter is one of the producers of the show and she approved of what I had done, so I felt great relief. If she approved I knew I was ok.
TVWise: What challenges did you face as you set about adapting such an iconic novel for television?
Frank Spotnitz: Well, I think the thing to me is Philip K. Dick has one of the most interesting minds ever. [The Man In The High Castle] is just absolutely rich and dense with so many interesting ideas. I knew he didn’t have a traditional narrative that I could use for a television series, but I wanted to find a framework that would allow me to explore the ideas that were in the book. I kept thinking “Will this situation be true to the ideas in the book?” and “Will this situation deepen the ideas that Philip K. Dick is talking about and not conflict with them?”. I didn’t want to undermine his ideas in anyway – I just wanted to expand them.
TVWise: The opening title sequence really sets the tone for the show…
Frank Spotnitz: I think they did just an amazing job on the opening sequence. We knew we wanted something that helped you understand this world so that it literally showed a map of this world and people could grasp the concept. There were so many beautiful decisions made in that main title sequence, that was just a gift that those guys at Elastic [the company who designed the title sequence] brought to us. I think the song – which we stumbled upon because one of our editors knew of a very bizarre recording of that song – is very familiar and very uncomfortable and mournful. It sets your teeth on edge in all the right ways and I just love the main titles. It does what a main title is supposed to do; it puts you in the world of the show.
TVWise: The overall story is very big, but it is the human elements that proved to be so impressive. For example, there is a scene where human ash is falling from the sky and these are the ashes of people being burned because they are “drags on the state”. Are these the kind of human, everyday touches you want to explore going forward?
Frank Spotnitz: Yes, that’s it. That to me is more important than shootouts with the Nazis. It’s about what is the quality of freedom and what would you sacrifice to be free? If most of us lived in a fascist state, we would not be resistance fighters and we would not sacrifice anything. We would keep our heads down and get along and I think that is very moving to watch people risk their lives for an idea. The reality of that and really seeing what it takes to get people to do that and how courageous it is – that to me is what the show is about. There are also these other Philip K. Dick themes about what is real, what the nature of reality is and what is human. What keeps us human even in the face of an inhuman society. Those are really powerful and internal ideas I think.
TVWise: In the novel, The Grasshoper Lies Heavy is a book but in the pilot it’s a film reel, how and why did you decide to make that change?
Frank Spotnitz: It creates a lot of science fiction questions making it a literal film as opposed to a book. I think that was my first decision in adapting it was that [The Grasshopper Lies Heavy] needed to be film. You need the power of that in this visual medium. It is so evocative and so powerful to see all those images and to realize that they never happened, In a way that you just never could if it was a book. When we decided to translate this from a novel to a television series, it demanded that we make that change.
TVWise: Let’s talk about I Ching, do you plan to explore that further if The Man In The High Castle goes to series?
Frank Spotnitz: Yeah, I completely do. I think it’s one of the really important ideas in the novel. Tagomi is the character that Philip K. Dick loved the most in the book. He represents a kind of wisdom and an understanding that there is more to the world than what we can see. That gets back to the theme of what is real and there are values beyond what you can see, hold and measure. That connects to the idea I was talking about before about what people would sacrifice to be free; that isn’t something you can hold in your hand. Togami is very connected to that more than anybody else in the series.
TVWise: Originally The Man in the High Castle was set up at Syfy as a four hour miniseries, how did it wind up at Amazon Studios?
Frank Spotnitz: Well, they didn’t proceed and it was basically dead. It was over a year and nothing was happening and I think they were about to lose the rights. Then I got a call about fourteen months ago from Morgan Wondell who I knew from my Night Stalker days and he said, “I just joined Amazon and do you have a script that you just love? We are looking for something with deep passion”. I told him that I had the Man in the High Castle. Amazingly, he loved it and everyone else at Amazon loved it and six months later it was greenlit. That is the first time in my career that has ever happened, so it was really great.
TVWise: How different was the process of making a pilot for Amazon Studios compared to the networks?
Frank Spotnitz: It was pretty much the same as working on a network pilot. The only thing I would say is that they were unusually supportive. It was one of the most painless experiences I’ve ever had making a pilot because they saw the show exactly the way that we saw it and just wanted to help us make what we wanted to make. It sounds strange that that is unusual, but it is unusual. Usually there is some divergence whether it be creative, financial or both and there really wasn’t with Amazon.
TVWise: Given this was previously envisioned as a four-hour mini, does The Man in the High Castle have the potential to be a long running, multi-season show?
Frank Spotnitz: I think it does have the potential of being a long running show because there are so many ideas in the Philip K. Dick universe and it would take a long time to unpack them all. I have not plotted it out and have no idea how many years it would go or what type of appetite Amazon would have for the show. It’s a very big show and a very expensive show, as you can imagine. What I do know is what Juliana’s character journey is. One of the things I think about first now is “what is the journey of the character?” and let that be the thing you hang everything else on, however long that show goes.
TVWise: Alternate history feels like such a rich yet unexplored genre in television, why do you think that is?
Frank Spotnitz: Well, I think it’s really, really hard. It’s mind bending, really trippy and very expensive. Television has changed so radically that you really couldn’t have found a broadcaster who would have done a show like this even ten years ago. It’s these new distribution platforms like Amazon that make it possible to have a show this out there and funded at the level you need to fund it. There aren’t many platforms in the world that would have had the courage to make this show.
TVWise: The pilot has been praised by both critics and fans, how important is that instant feedback?
Frank Spotnitz: Well, I can say now that I am enjoying it because people love the pilot. I have to admit that when I found out Amazon was doing it and they put your pilot online….it’s a very public kind of thing where you are exposed. It wouldn’t feel very nice to have people not like what you’ve done, but now that it’s doing well, I love it.
TVWise: What would you like viewers to take away from the pilot after they watch it?
Frank Spotnitz: I don’t have any answers to anything, I really don’t. The older I get the more I realize that I don’t know anything. There are questions about things that I want to ask and this goes back to my X-files and Millennium days. I want to say things that I think are true, ask questions that I think are true and get people to think about them. I want to be entertaining and if that’s all you want is entertainment, then you can walk away happy, but if you are interested, there is something else underneath it that is worth considering. Whatever people take out of if I am grateful for.
The Man In The High Castle, part of Amazon Studios’ latest pilot season, is available to stream on Amazon Prime Instant Video in the US, UK and Germany.