“It’s been an odyssey,” says Isa Dick-Hackett of the eight years it took to find a home for the television adaptation of her father’s beloved novel, The Man in the High Castle. She remembers a phone call with producer David W. Zucker, who had been involved on the project from the very beginning, during which they debated the merits of participating in Amazon Studios’ pilot season with no guarantee of a season order.
They ultimately chose to enter the streaming world, and along with executive producers Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) and Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files), they shot a pilot for the adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternate history of World War II. It went on to become the most-watched of the more than 40 pilots produced by Amazon Studios since 2010. High Castle ascended like a von Braun rocket from production hell to critical acclaim almost overnight, and its journey through the Amazon pilot process is a case study for the future of the television industry.
“When we started, Amazon wasn’t even an option,” Zucker recalls. “We’ve gone through quite a transformation in terms of what the business is.”
Zucker and Dick-Hackett brought their pitch overseas and back again, weathered false starts for a miniseries at BBC and Syfy, and the death of a screenwriter before Amazon came calling with an offer that would allow them to develop their ideal project.
The catch was Amazon Studios adopted a system in which the greenlight process becomes a democracy: anyone can submit a screenplay or video pitch; the worthy ones get pilots; and then fans vote for the shows they’d like to see ordered to series.
Zucker remembers pacing around a department store while on the phone with Dick-Hackett as they weighed their options. If the pilot was poorly received, the risk would essentially shelve the project for good. But the reward was a greenlight from a studio with money to spend and a desire to make ambitious programming.
“It’s pretty scary because you’re exposed,” Spotnitz admits. It was an added pressure for the executive producer since he also penned the first episode. “The whole world is going to see your pilot and see whether you succeed or fail.”
When the pilot dropped in January 2015, viewers were mesmerized by a story that imagines a world in which the Allies lost World War II, and the Axis powers—Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany—now controlled the United States. The only real viewership issue became fans having to wait until November to watch the first season in full on Amazon Instant Video.
“The advantage I had not anticipated is that everyone has seen the show,” Spotnitz says. “So, the crew you’re able to get, the actors you’re able to get. It’s a huge asset, because everybody knows and pretty much likes the pilot. For us, it’s been a very happy system.”
That the long wait to bring Dick’s novel to television resulted in the project landing on nonlinear streaming is fitting in many respects since Dick’s writing often prodded the human condition and its relationship with evolving technology.
With High Castle finding a home on a progressive media platform, it could help introduce a new generation to the world of Philip K. Dick.
“I think with every film adaptation, the following grows, and hopefully it brings people back to the written work,” Dick-Hackett says.
Many of Dick’s stories have recently re-emerged in pop culture. Most famously, Ridley Scott adapted Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg brought Minority Report to theaters. The latter also debuted its television adaptation this fall on Fox.
For as long as it took to get Dick’s source material before a camera, the people behind the lens are careful to make sure they pay ode to a classic. Spotnitz seems particularly aware of both the challenge and advantage of transferring High Castle to a new medium.
“What we’ve done, I think, is reorganized the narrative for television, because it’s a short book, and we want this to be a big canvas,” Spotnitz says. “The gift of a television series is you can take your time.”