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‘The Man in the High Castle’ Showrunner Frank Spotnitz Talks Nazis, Philip K. Dick and Alternate Realities

Frank Spotnitz is no stranger to altered realities. As one of the core writer/producers on “The X-Files,” Spotnitz was one of the people who introduced millions of avid viewers to mutants, bizarre killers and ominous plots that may have involved alien visitation. 

Spotnitz’s new show, “The Man in the High Castle,” is firmly anchored to Earth-bound reality — but it’s a grim reality in which North America, having lost World War 2, has been split up by the Axis powers and its populace must contend with an enormous array of discriminatory and oppressive policies. In Spotnitz’s version of the classic Philip K. Dick novel “The Man in the High Castle,” the forbidden books that characters exchange have been replaced by copies of an underground film, but the themes of subversion, rebellion and compromise remain in play.

This interview with executive producer and showrunner Spotnitz, which has been edited and condensed, does not contain spoilers for the 10-episode season of “The Man in the High Castle,” which debuted on Amazon Prime today (and is reviewed here). 

Did you have to do a lot of reconceptualizing of the novel to think of it not just as a 10-episode series but as a potentially longer series?

Yes. I’ve slowed down a lot to dig into the characters and the reality of what it would be like to be living in this world. And so it’s really not about the films [that come into play in various storylines]. It’s not about the science fiction. It’s really about life and this world. I’m going to be really disappointed if people are watching for, “What are the films?” Yes, that’s part of it, but that’s not the reason to watch it. The reason to watch it is these people.

The other thing that I did think about a lot was, what’s the journey my central character is on? One of the lessons I’ve learned from “X-Files” and from [watching] “Lost” to some extent is that you can have your plot answers, and they can be great. But the audience is going to have their plot answers too, and if that’s all you’re giving them at the end, it’s not enough. This is about a character on a journey, so whether the show goes one year or 10 years – well, not one year! If this gets canceled after one year, it’s not going to have a very satisfactory ending. But whether it goes to two years or 10 years, I know how it’s going to end. I know what [the core character Juliana’s] journey is.

So what’s that journey about, in your mind?

This is a novel about alternative realities, and if there are multiple dimensions, what matters? It’s got to be an idea that has resonance to us, even though we don’t live in a science-fiction world (that we know of). What’s the human truth of this? That’s what it’s about.

The world presented in the show seems quite grounded to me. How much of it is sci-fi or fantasy?

Slowly but increasingly, it has those elements. But even after they’re introduced, it’s not like suddenly, you’re in this woo-woo science-fiction world. We’re trying to keep it grounded, even in a narrative where [unusual] things are possible.

I mean, I myself don’t care [about alternate realities]. So what if there’s an alternative? What does that mean to me as a human being? Why is the story moving to me? I don’t want [fantasy or science fiction elements] to ever eclipse the human drama, which is much more powerful to me.

Are some episodes more character-based, some are more about moving the plot forward? How does that balance work?

They’re all different. Not to be pretentious or compliment myself at all, because I don’t for a moment think I’m anything like Charles Dickens, but a Dickens novel can take you through all these different worlds and landscapes and sets of characters. It’s epic, the scope of it. This series is really the same way. I don’t think any two seasons will be alike. The characters could go in any direction. It’s just such a giant concept. You’ve got the whole world to explore. It’s really anchored in these characters that are established, and they can go anywhere. But it’s not a typical TV strategy for telling the story. Usually television sets up a set of characters in a [repeatable] situation. I know already season two will be vastly different from season one.

That’s interesting, because it may relate to this anthology format that is coming back in television. Does that have any bearing on this show? I actually think “The X-Files” was very much an anthology in that one season could contain a lot of different tones and kinds of stories.

Although the difference from the “X-Files” is that in episodic television, you can revisit Mulder and Scully in seasons one through nine. There are episodes in season nine you could have done season one, and episodes in season one you could have done in season nine.

They’re more standalone.

They’re more standalone, whereas these characters will only be in this emotional place once. And so I do feel this obligation to make sure I thoroughly explore [one part of the story] before I move on to the next bit.

So it’s pretty serialized.

It’s very serialized. You can sit and watch all 10 hours like it’s one story.

I’ve been re-watching the early “X-Files” seasons and it has struck me how sad or even tragic many of the episodes were. It wasn’t really about “Was this person that kind of mutant?” It was about loneliness or connection or grief or something like that.

I think you’re 100 percent right, and that’s why I loved it. It was about something — I mean, the good episodes were about something. “The X-Files” was my second film school and I’ve learned a lot of lessons from it, and one of them was, if you’re going to depart from literal reality, you better have a reason. [The reason can’t be to create new kinds of mutants.] It’s about what you are saying about people.

Whether the writers consciously knew it or not, they were touching on some human truth. I think the same is true of this show. If you’re going to present an alternative history, how does it speak to people living in our world in 2015? What’s the relevance of that to where we are today? There better be a point. Honestly, that’s sort of the challenge in marketing the show. It’s not a war story. It’s not a resistance story.

It’s not action-adventure.

It’s not action-adventure. It’s got those genre elements in it, but it’s about being human in a fallen world and how difficult it is to be a good person and to hold onto your humanity when you’re in inhumane circumstances. And what you’d be prepared to sacrifice. Because most of us wouldn’t [do anything]. Most of us would just do our best to protect our families and get on with our lives. We don’t like to think that. We all like to think we’d be the heroes of the story.

In a lot of the histories I’ve read of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, so much of how they got people to do terrible things was by controlling the flow of information and creating a narrative. That’s a lot of what is going on in this show as well.

Absolutely. There are scenes with the Rufus Sewell character, [Nazi official] John Smith. There’s a scene where he’s having breakfast with his family and you’ve got to listen very carefully to figure out why there’s a problem with what he’s saying.

It sounds so reasonable.

It’s so reasonable — it’s like, “I almost agree with that.” Why don’t I agree with that, in reality? What’s the difference between him and us? All of that is very much by design. Because it’s presented so reasonably, that did work to a degree. You know, Nazi Germany worked socially and economically for a long time, before the war and before it all fell apart. Some people wanted that.

And in our show, the Nazis won in 1947, not 1945, so it’s 15 years after they won. They’ve had a lot of time to refine their messaging. It’s a lot more sophisticated. The anti-Semitism is not the gross caricature they had in the ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s much more “scientific,” and they’ve thought out all their intellectual reasons why this is okay. And it’s chilling.

Does Russia figure into this story at all? Because if Hitler hadn’t invaded Russia, the war most definitely could have gone another way.

In season one, by design, you don’t know much about what’s happening outside of North America. But [other countries] start to creep in, and you start to get a sense of the larger geopolitical landscape. And then you’ll see a lot more of that in season two. But in [the show’s] version of history, Hitler didn’t make the mistakes he made in the history we all know.

Sometimes you see a pilot that looks great, but then clearly they didn’t spend the same money on subsequent episodes. How did you manage to avoid that situation?

The first answer is, Amazon is spending a hell of a lot of money. It’s the biggest gamble I’ve ever been associated with. [Subsequent episodes don’t cost] as much as the pilot, but it’s still an awful lot of money and we have the same creative team as the pilot. We’ve invested a lot in the look of the show and the one good thing about world-building is, once you’ve established it, you have it in your library and it is amortized over time

I can’t really believe that you read all the comments left on the pilot on Amazon.

You know, the honest answer is I used to read all the “X-Files” comments too.

That way lies madness.

Well, but I did realize things, especially with the “X-Files.” You realized things were playing clearly or not clearly. There was one episode I actually wrote because somebody said online that we dropped [a story thread] entirely. In season three, Scully’s sister had been killed, and we hadn’t dealt with it at all. And so I wrote “Piper Maru” with Chris [Carter].

What surprised me about the [“Man in the High Castle”] comments was how well-received the show had been. I’ve never done a show like this before, that really resonates with people and feels personal in a way I hadn’t anticipated. It’s like, “You’re talking about my country.” People take this kind of history very personally and, you know, we’re dealing with things like the Holocaust. You’ve got to be very careful how you tell these stories. How you deal with Japanese characters — you have to give it a lot of thought and really be mindful about what you’re saying, because [if it’s badly done] people are going to be quite upset.

I’ve had a real issue with how little idea-driven science fiction is on TV. Really meaty shows like that are almost impossible to find.

That is my biggest complaint. It’s not about anything. [There are shows with] science fiction, but they’re not about anything. The whole idea of science fiction is, there’s a reason you’re telling the story. That’s why Philip K. Dick was this giant science fiction writer — because he had such a fascinating mind and his stories are always about something.

I went back years ago and watched an interview that Rod Serling gave to Mike Wallace. It was like 1959, 1960. He had been doing all these dramas, hard-hitting social documentary dramas and getting all kinds of criticism and complaints and had advertisers pulling out. He said, “I’m just going to do this show called ‘The Twilight Zone’ and it’s fantasy so nobody will be offended.” And of course he was disguising [the same ideas] as fantasy so he could make the same points without losing advertisers. That’s science fiction.

“The Man in the High Castle” is available on Amazon Prime now. 

For a discussion of “The Man in the High Castle,” “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” and “The Expanse,” check out the most recent installment of the Talking TV podcast

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