So far on The Fourth Wall we’ve spoken to, among other creatives, an author, a transmedia expert, and a composer; now it’s time to add a production designer to our list. Drew Boughton has served in that capacity for The Man in the High Castle for all three seasons of the show so far on Amazon’s Prime Video network, and his vision has earned him two Emmy nods for seasons 1 and 2 and an Art Director’s Guild Excellence in Production Design award nomination for season 3. With production recently wrapped on season 4, we spoke to Boughton about the unique look of this alternate history series.
The world of The Man in the High Castle is a version of 1960s America that lost World War II to the Axis powers, and the Nazi-occupied Eastern half of the former United States displays a mixture of architectural styles. “We looked at 1960s Eastern bloc Soviet countries… and compared the modernism of those rigid, totalitarian states to the modernism that of course we were experiencing in the West,” Boughton told us. “And one of the things that was very noticeable in looking at the photographs of those places is that people living under totalitarianism are much more apt to be conformist and to not want to stick out in a crowd and to not choose strong colors for their clothing or their cars or their houses because the rigidity of the state diminishes the individual. Individual freedom is not something that you want to express because it can put you in a gulag.”
The vision for the show, both for the production designer and the executive producers, is to make The Man in the High Castle close enough to our reality to make the alternate history a believable scenario. “In researching these things, we looked at the balance of mixing that extreme grayness and drabness… [of a] state-sponsored look for everything with our own American history, and we figured out which things we were going to subtract and take away,” explained Boughton. “One of the jobs that Frank Spotnitz, our creator and showrunner at the time, was very interested in was to strike a balance between a familiar American 60s and this alternative version so that it was familiar deliberately to be more upsetting and to cut closer to the idea of holding up a mirror to how easy it would be for America to drift towards fascism.”
The area of the country west of the Rockies is occupied by the Japanese in The Man in the High Castle, and Boughton had to bring a completely different sensibility to that aspect of his design. “Historically, the Nazis were very much brand-oriented in the overall design of the entire ideology and also just the look of every single thing that was being done,” Boughton said. “The Imperial Japanese were more tolerant of people of different cultures, and so in our story there are people of different cultures who are allowed to live and exist. In that way, we created that world to be a little more open, a little more flexible but still essentially a totalitarian and fascist world.”
In between the two occupied territories is a lawless buffer zone, which was Boughton’s favorite part of his overall design. “The part of the show that I’m attracted to is the Neutral Zone and the Resistance; those are the worlds where I’m happy,” he admitted. “I enjoy designing the other areas, but I’m not attracted to hanging out in them. For example, I love visiting the Smith set, but I don’t really want to sit down. But when I go to the Denver Palace bar, I want to sit down… I’m at ease and I’m comfortable when I’m sitting in a rusty pickup truck where Julianna and Wyatt might be hanging out. Those are the places that I want to be.”
Boughton also told us about how The Man in the High Castle, like any Philip K. Dick adaptation, provides a wealth of inspiration for a set design by its very nature. “I’ve always been a fan of any Philip K. Dick material, Minority Report and Blade Runner the two most notable examples in terms of production design, historically,” Boughton said. “There’s something about the author’s work that has a kind of baked in visual juxtaposition in the very writing of the material that sets up these kinds of large visual ideas. And if you’re fortunate enough, as I am to come in contact with that material and be allowed to pursue it, you’re way ahead in terms of visual opportunity because the material itself is demanding it. So it’s easier for me to find ways to stand out from the crowd… it’s sort of a visual gold mine no matter what.”
Find out what else Boughton had to say about his work as the production designer for The Man in the High Castle by listening to The Fourth Wall podcast. You can subscribe via the Acast app or wherever you get your podcasts, or simply listen below! The Man in the High Castle season 4 returns this fall to Prime Video.
Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and voices much of our video content.