Preparing to launch his new series The Man in the High Castle, based on Philip K Dick’s 1962 Hugo award winning novel of the same name, series creator and executive producer Frank Spotnitz was kind enough to take a few minutes out from his busy schedule on the morning of Monday 9th November during his London visit to talk about the challenges of the bringing the show to the screen, his plans for how it will develop, and maybe a word or two about his former associates Special Agents Mulder and Scully…
Geek Chocolate – There have been many attempts to bring Man in the High Castle to production; what do you think was different about your approach that got it greenlit, or was it just that the television zeitgeist was finally ready for some Dick?
Frank Spotnitz – Well, I’d like to think that I did something right in adapting the novel. It is a tough adaptation, if you’ve read the book you know it’s a fabulous book but it’s not a television series. So that was the most daunting thing about it, trying to turn it into a television series while still preserving what was so great about the book.
But having said that, I wrote these scripts well over two years ago for the SyFy network and they passed, and the scripts sat there and the show really wasn’t going to be made, and Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s company, which had the rights to make the series was about to lose those rights when I got a call from an executive I know who had just joined Amazon and he said “do you have any scripts that haven’t been made that you love?” and that was these scripts, and just by luck he rescued them from oblivion.
I do think, were it not for Amazon it’s very unlikely the show ever would have been made because it’s extremely expensive. There just aren’t that many buyers out there that have the deep pockets to make a show like this, and it’s also subject matter that’s pretty risky and could offend a lot of people if it’s not handled carefully, so I think those two things make it tough for television.
GC – In the novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a book, but in the series it’s a reel of film, making it much more physically real which changes the nature of people’s relationship with it and reactions to it, and the nature of the story as a whole. Is that pushing your vision in a different direction from the novel?
FS – I think it does change things somewhat because, as you say, a film is a real physical object, it’s not just a novel that the Man in the High Castle has written, but I actually think it allows me to go deeper into some of the themes and situations that were in the novel. If you’ve read the novel, you know it’s a lot about alternate realities and the films, for me, are a very natural way to get into that part of the story.
GC – Anti-semitism isn’t often portrayed so explicitly on screen, but by extension that can be paralleled with other forms of racism, equally irrational. Was that a specific intention, or is it a serendipitous but sad truth that unfortunately remains current?
FS – Yeah, unfortunately it does remain current, and I think looking at anti-semitism, looking at all kinds of hatred, was something I was very eager to do, and I think what’s interesting to me is that this is seventeen years after the bomb was dropped on Washington DC, so the European and the American holocausts have happened in the world of this series, so the language the fascists use to describe their racism and their hatred has changed.
It’s not the crude anti-semitism that we know the Nazis had in the nineteen thirties, the nineteen forties, they’ve dressed it up in different language which makes it even more dangerous and unsettling, and I think that has a lot of relevance to the world we live in today. I think the haters and the fascists of today have learned to disguise their rhetoric in a way to fool people and you have to be on guard against it, and I think this show really helps dramatise the dangers of that kind of speech.
GC – Obergruppenführer Smith is presented as an intelligent and considerate family man; despite his actions, you’re not presenting him as a monster. Is it difficult to balance those aspects of the character?
FS – I think that’s exactly my goal with the character of John Smith, to show how so many people do evil things but rationalise it intellectually, because I think there are a lot of people in the world who can be very loving fathers and wonderful husbands and then do terrible, terrible things in their job.
We like to think that the two things are inconsistent and can’t exist side by side but in fact they do and they always have, and that was one of the things that I thought was a real opportunity about this show, was to show Nazis up close. In this series the Nazis aren’t just Germans, people with different accents and a different language, most of the Nazis that you meet in season one of Man in the High Castle are Americans, and that’s very unsettling to see fascism with an American face, but totally credible to my mind.
GC – We’re only two episodes in; both Alexa Davalos and Rupert Evans, you have put them through the emotional wringer already. It’s not a subtle show! How can you keep that momentum without wearing out your cast and your audience?
FS – Yeah, I think those first two episodes are meant to launch them on an epic journey, and that’s what happens, those are life changing events in those first two episodes. I don’t think there’s a need or a desire to have life changing events every episode, but now that events have forced them out of the comfort they were in at the beginning of the series the proper drama can begin, because they’re both on very different odysseys that we will track for as long as the show goes on.
GC – You’ve got New York City and San Francisco all done out in gloriously twisted period detail and a passage across classic Americana; where do you actually film?
FS – Well, believe it or not, the pilot was shot entirely in Seattle, and then the series, with some exceptions in later episodes, was shot entirely in Vancouver.
GC – Always Vancouver!
FS – Yes, always Vancouver. But it’s sort of the magic of brilliant art direction and production design and computer graphics that makes you think you’re all these different places.
GC – I read an article online which I am not informed enough to comment on, but the thrust of that was that the writer was disappointed with what they felt were uninformed cultural appropriations and badly translated signage in the Japanese controlled Pacific States of America; Frank, you were born in Japan.
FS – Yes!
GC – How important is it to you, how hard to make it accurate and authentic?
FS – Oh, it’s extraordinarily difficult. In fact, yes, there were a number of signs which were completely wrong, and some poor translations of German, but we’ve fixed those now, so the version that streams on November 20th, all the signs should be corrected, all the German should be correct, so that’s one of the benefits of a streaming environment that you can go back and correct your mistakes.
Even though I was born in Japan, everything about the culture still continually surprises me. Every time I assume something about Japanese culture, once I do the research I find out my assumptions are wrong, it’s never what you expect. It’s so different to a western way of thinking which is why it’s so endlessly fascinating.
GC – Although never written, Philip K Dick had said that one day there might be a sequel to the novel. Obviously a television show is intended to be an ongoing proposition and you have the support of his daughter Isa Dick Hackett. Do you have any insight into where he might have gone or will you be charting your own course?
FS – A little insight, because he did write two chapters of the sequel which I was able to read, and I do use one of the characters who was a real Nazi named Reinhard Heydrich, I do use him in the series.
I think what’s really exciting to me is that we’ve been able to take the themes and characters and themes of Man in the High Castle and set them in a television series where we actually have a bigger landscape to explore them, so thanks to this narrative landscape we actually can explore more than Philip K Dick was able to explore in the novel.
GC – Looking back on The X-Files and Hunted and now Man in the High Castle, there is a recurring theme in all of them; is paranoia going to drive all your major works?
FS – I don’t know why that is! For some reason paranoia comes very naturally to me. It’s very easy to access, I don’t know what that says about me, but yeah, I am drawn to that for some reason. But I also think another thing that unites them all is also distrust and fear, but ultimately hope. I think that’s what keeps me going and what I really believe in, and I think that I am hopeful despite my paranoia and dark suspicion.
GC – And speaking of The X-Files, even though you’re not involved, what are your hopes for the revival and have you stayed spoiler free?
FS – I have stayed completely spoiler free. I saw Chris Carter when I was in Vancouver in July, we had dinner while I was making Man in the High Castle and they were shooting, and I saw Gabe Rotter, one of the producers of the reboot, but I just cannot wait, I’m so excited. I never stopped wanting more X-Files after the movie in 2008, I never stopped believing it would come back, and I just feel so happy for the fans and for myself, counting myself as a fan.
GC – Thank you so for your time.
FS – A pleasure. Thank you so much, it’s nice to speak to you again.