Frank Spotnitz wants his new series to provoke reflection. What do we stand for? What should a civilised society be? How should it conduct itself? Underneath The Man In The High Castle’s spy thriller coating runs a line of questioning that prods at the West’s self-image.
Adapted from Philip K Dick’s 1962 alternate history novel, Spotnitz’s series takes place in a world where the Allies lost World War II. What, it asks, might the land of the free and the home of the brave look like after decades of Nazi and Japanese occupation? And how might the Resistance respond to a paradigm-changing idea spreading through the ranks that things could have gone another way altogether?
“There’s nothing inevitable about good prevailing,” Spotnitz tells us, “and there’s nothing inevitable about our civilisation living up to its ideals. The only way it happens is if people are mindful of what their society is and if they act in accordance with their own convictions. Those are the questions I wanted to examine.”
If you’ve seen The Man In The High Castle’s impressive first two episodes, released ahead of tomorrow’s premiere date, you might be left wondering how much room there is for quiet reflection between all the action shootouts and world-building. Not much is the answer, but still Spotnitz manages to provoke a response with the series’ smaller moments: a family sitting down to breakfast, a State Trooper helping out a truck-driver with a punctured tyre.
I spoke to The X-Files and Hunted writer about the ideas behind his provocative new adaptation…
The Man In The High Castle is a great ‘what if’ premise, not just because it affords an opportunity for spy thriller drama, but because it lets you delve into the psychology of an America that grew up without its key cultural narratives. So, in this version, the US isn’t the saviour of the Allied Forces, there’s no Elvis Presley, no 1960s counter-culture… Would you say that exploration of psychology was as important as the genre elements?
Yeah. For me that’s the most interesting part. The ordinary scenes of a Nazi officer having breakfast with his family are more interesting than the shootouts and the fights on the tops of dams. I think that’s the thing that people are really fascinated and unsettled by: what we would be like if things had turned out differently?
That Nazi family breakfast scene you mentioned is a fascinating one, because when John Smith’s son says he wants to make his family proud, he wants to serve his country, those are familiar ideas to an American audience. I mean, squint a bit and…
Well, it’s a very interesting question isn’t it? Are your goals inward or outward? Is it about self-realisation, or serving your community and your family? To me, that was getting at a key difference between a liberal society and an authoritarian one. But yes, I think there are many, many people in the United States and Europe as well who would totally agree with John Smith’s words of wisdom to his son.
That “self-gratification is the path to moral decay”?
That whole scene is quite provocative to an American audience, isn’t it? You’ve got this all-American patriarch sat there wearing a Nazi uniform. It’s a challenge to the viewer, would you say?
That’s exactly my hope, yes. I’d like people to watch the show and think about what they stand for. Those scenes that are so close to our world—that scene in episode two, the scene in episode one where Joe’s truck breaks down and the State Trooper offers him an egg-salad sandwich—they’re very, very close, but they’re different and it prompts you to think about what your values are.
The State Trooper scene you mention, when [to explain the falling ashes of those executed by the Nazis] he talks about the “drain on society” in such a matter-of-fact way, to us, that’s reprehensible. Yet, today, there are national newspapers in the UK and US that use precisely that kind of rhetoric to talk about the unemployed, immigrants, people with disabilities…
In one way, that attitude is horrifying to us on screen, and yet, it’s right here in the modern world.
I’m so delighted to hear you say all this [laughs] This is exactly what I hoped people would get out of it. You write these things, you don’t know whether people will see those ideas in it. But, I don’t have answers. I’m not putting this in to sort of lecture people or tell them what to think. I don’t know the answer, but I just think these are questions that are worth exploring. What do we stand for? What should a civilised society be? How should it conduct itself?
One of the big things that haunted me about this book is that the good guys didn’t win, and there’s nothing inevitable about good prevailing, and there’s nothing inevitable about our civilisation living up to its ideals. The only way it happens is if people are mindful of what their society is and if they act in accordance with their own convictions. Those are the questions I wanted to examine.
So you’d say that, although this is alternate history, you see it as no different from a straight period drama, in which the period being depicted is used as a kind of veil to comment on our contemporary world? You are talking about modern America and the modern world?
Oh yeah, absolutely. You’re a storyteller and I’m telling the story to people who are alive today in this moment, so I’m absolutely looking for relevance between the world depicted in this show and the world we live in now.
One thing I’ve noted about your writing is that it always has a very keen sense of irony. In Hunted, I’ll never forget the Communist who was bludgeoned to death using a bust of Karl Marx.
[Laughs] Oh, right!
And here, you slid a fake Rock Hudson movie in, which was sneaky in the sense that on the surface, the Nazis might consider Hudson as a kind of ubermensch, but if they knew about his sexuality, he’d actually be considered a degenerate by that ideology.
If they knew, yeah. Absolutely. I just think about how terrifying it would be to be Rock Hudson in this world, to be a star in this world, knowing what we now know about Rock Hudson, the secret he carried that would get him killed if it were discovered, it wouldn’t just ruin his career, but put his life in danger.
You live in Paris, is that right?
How do you think your ex-pat status affects your approach to a piece of work that’s essentially about America?
I think it’s been hugely helpful. Having spent five and a half years now living outside of the US—four years in London, and a year and a half in Paris, I still work in London, my office is here, I still come here every week and I’ve been teaching in Berlin for the last two and a half years. When you leave your home country, you get a perspective on it and you get to see it in contrast to other countries and you see it as other people see it. You see yourself as well. It’s been a huge asset to me in the writing of this show.
Along those lines, it’s right that you were born in Japan?
Yes, I was.
I wondered what that brought to your understanding of these themes?
Well, I left Japan when I was four, and my Japanese nanny came with me to the States for a year, so I was quite young, but it has stayed with me. Obviously, it’s held a very big place in my imagination, having been born there.
To me, there are really two Japans. There’s the Japan of the Tagomi character, which is sort of the Buddhist Japan, the enlightened Japan, what I imagine Kyoto being like. And then there’s the other Japan, sort of embodied by the Inspector Kido character, which is unfamiliar to a lot of people alive today, which is fascist Japan, which is very brutal. The Japanese soldiers in World War II were every bit as terrifying as the Nazis. The two are not compatible, and that was really interesting to me in the show.
That’s kind of why I wanted Juliana to be, on the one hand, studying Aikido, and recognising the beauty of it, but then on the other hand, somebody whose own father was killed by the Japanese. She is somebody who has the humanity to see both and that’s why she’s the heroine of this show.
It’s interesting that the US—a global superpower which, like the UK, has historically invaded and occupied other nations—in recent fiction keeps recasting itself as the invaded and the oppressed underdog. Sci-fi-wise I’m thinking Falling Skies, Dominion, this… What’s your perspective on that? Did the US never quite get over what the English did to it around the Revolutionary War?
I actually think, when I was growing up, there was remarkably little interest in the Revolutionary War. You never saw it dramatized. The only thing I can think of is the musical 1776, which failed as a feature film.
I kind of think this is about living in a post-9/11 world and I think people are still afraid. I think these things touch on those fears. To some degree, The Man In The High Castle probably does that too, but my hope is that The Man In The High Castle isn’t just about living in fear, it’s also about finding hope, and acting in accordance with your convictions and your values, despite your fear. I think that’s kind of what the world needs right now.
[N.B. This interview took place before the horrifying terror attacks in Paris on 13/11/15] I was in Paris during the Charlie Hebdo shootings and was there while the marches were going on that Sunday and I was so moved by the solidarity of the French people, the courage that they showed, which was defiance that their values would not be diminished by terror.
You mention living in Paris and London, and teaching in Berlin. These are places that obviously experienced WWII on their soil in a way that the US didn’t. Have you felt any hostility at all from Europeans about the way the series co-opts real-world history to put America—and it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened—centre stage? Is there any sense from audiences that the fiction isn’t being responsible enough to the actual realities of WWII?
I haven’t had that. It’s certainly been a concern of mine. I’m really aware that this is really sensitive and you have to be very, very careful how you handle this material. It’s not really in the past for an awful lot of people. But it’s interesting to look at the customer reviews on the Amazon sites. If you look at the UK, US and German sites, they’re almost identical in terms of the audience response.
So you have had German viewers?
Yeah. Just go to the Amazon.de site. I don’t read German, but if you just look at the star ratings. At least the last time I checked, it was similar to the US and the UK.
How about Japanese viewers?
I haven’t seen that yet. I haven’t seen how the Japanese responded. I’m very curious because obviously the culture is so different. I’m really eager to see how it plays.
You consulted some WWII historians when adapting this. What was key in the information and understanding they provided that you then brought into the making of the show?
What they talked about were the things they thought could have tipped the war in favour of the Nazis instead of the Allies. But then even more lasting in my imagination is the type of world that Hitler would have built, versus the world that we’ve built. We all know about his racial hatred and the terrible violence that was committed against minorities, but a world in which agriculture and industry were the prime motivators in the economy, that really struck me. Then, I spent a lot of time researching East Germany and thinking about what a Nazi society would look like.
Tell us about your collaboration with Ridley Scott on this? How involved was he?
We spoke to him every month or six weeks while we were preparing the pilot and the series. He was very influential in terms of the visual approach, both in the cinematography and the production design. He gave us several references to look at, films and fine art.
Can you tell us what they were?
The two primary ones for me anyway, the directors might cite other films, but the ones I found the most influential were Blade Runner, of course, and The Conformist by Bertolucci. And in terms of fine art, it was Edward Hopper. There were Hopper paintings.
As we’re Den Of Geek, we’re obviously obsessed with nerdy details. And it’s been noted that the name of the trucking company in The Man In The High Castle is Lariat, the name of the car-hire firm from The X-Files…
Yes, that’s right!
Where else should fans of The X-Files or your other work look in this series for nods and references?
There’s aren’t too many others. There is another one and of course, I’m forgetting what it is, but if the series continues, I will continue to stick them in wherever I can. There aren’t a lot, and that’s the biggest one so far. I’m trying to remember what the other one is. I’m sorry, this is giving my memory a workout! There’s something else in season one, I just can’t recall it.
And any nods to Ridley Scott’s films?
The big thing obviously was the origami that we gave a character in episodes one and two.
Of course! Can I ask how different were the four scripts for The Man In The High Castle that went to Syfy a little while back to the ten scripts that have been made for Amazon?
I’d say episodes one and two were almost identical, we changed very, very little. But three and four have changed quite significantly because originally, we were going to wrap it up in four episodes and then, if it was popular, continue it. When Amazon came on board, that was not the design at all. For instance, originally, in episode four, you met the Man in the High Castle. That doesn’t happen now at all. So, that was the biggest reconstruction we had to do.
That’s interesting, because I read that Philip K Dick famously struggled to write a sequel to the novel, though he intended to.
Yes, that’s right.
But you’ve had less trouble than he did sketching out a continuation for this?
I think my biggest difficulty was at the very beginning, recognising that I would have to add characters and plot that wasn’t in the novel in order to turn it into a television series. My fear was that I couldn’t do that without doing damage to the narrative, so I tried very hard to do it in a way that was respectful to the novel and just kind of gave more space to the themes and ideas that he had established. Having done that, I now feel like there’s a whole world of stories that we can explore, for quite some time.
Frank Spotnitz, thank you very much!
All ten episodes of The Man In The High Castle are available for unlimited streaming on Amazon Prime on Nov 20th.