Editor’s Note: It’s The Man in the High Castle Week here at Den of Geek! For more High Castle stories, click here. This interview originally ran in August.
Exactly three minutes into The Man in the High Castle pilot there is a jarring depiction of a Nazi-occupied Times Square in 1962. Had the image flashed across a far bigger screen, we’d call it an iconic shot in cinema history.
In an alternate history, maybe the adaptation of sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick’s re-imagining of the post-World War II universe is released in theaters. Instead, our segmented viewing patterns have led one of Dick’s most beloved novels to the digital space — Amazon Studios. Outside of Golden Globe wins for Transparent, Amazon Instant Video has yet to put itself in the conversation as a Netflix competitor when it comes to original programming. Back in January, not only did High Castle survive Amazon pilot season, which allows users to vote for the shows they want ordered to series, but it debuted to widespread critical acclaim. It was also the most-watched pilot produced by the studio.
High Castle got Amazon the feedback it was looking for. Fans, however, now had to wait nearly nine months until the first season releases in full on Friday, November 20th.
The hiatus was a welcome one for Isa Dick-Hackett, the daughter of Philip K. Dick, and executive producer David W. Zucker (The Good Wife), who spent eight years trying to develop the novel into a television series. After development road bumps at Syfy and BBC, Amazon called asking for a pilot. The risk: shoot one episode and if it isn’t well received, it would essentially shelve the project for good. The reward: a green light from a studio with money to spend and ground to make up in the race for streaming eyeballs.
Frank Spotnitz, an executive producer and key figure behind The X-Files mythology arc, signed on as showrunner and Scott Free Productions, founded by Ridley and Tony Scott, is behind the project. With Spotnitz and Ridley Scott–no stranger to adapting Dick’s work as he did with cult-hit Blade Runner— serving as executive producers, Amazon set off to make an ambitious, cinematic pilot.
The visual disorientation in the first hour is bound to a stylebook influenced by works ranging from Blade Runner to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Edward Hopper paintings. The backdrop of the series is the stunning surrealness of what is formerly known as the United States–the Nazi territory of the east, Japanese Empire run-west, and the neutral zone comprising the Rocky mountains–less than 20 years after the end of WWII. High Castle introduces us to Joe (Luke Kleintank, Bones), a fresh face barely old enough to remember the war who aspires to join the resistance and Julianna (Alexa Davalos, Mob City), who seeks understanding after the murder of her sister. Julianna’s journey is a dangerous one. She’s in possession of a newsreel titled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” a collection of moving pictures leading her to believe the Allies actually won the war — a video created by someone known as “The Man in the High Castle.”
At San Diego Comic-Con, Den of Geek had the chance to sit down with executive producers Frank Spotnitz, Isa Dick-Hackett, and David W. Zucker and dig into why the adaption lied heavy for so long, how Philip K. Dick’s work stands the test of time, and what to expect in season one.
This project was years in the making. Where did the journey to bring Man in the High Castle to the screen begin?
Isa Dick-Hackett: [David and I] started at the beginning, which we’ve decided was more than eight years ago. It’s been an odyssey.
David W. Zucker: There’s been a long relationship with Ridley Scott, obviously going back to Blade Runner, so we had a meeting only a couple of years after we started the TV division [of Electric Shepherd Productions] about how to potentially undertake this and we set to the task of trying to find a writer to potentially adapt it, which was challenging enough. We had great difficulty setting it up in the US. Our development with this was with BBC. We did a full cycle there. Actually our first writer passed away. We found a wonderful second writer and ultimately didn’t proceed.
We’ve been trying to work together for some years to bring it back to the US and develop it with Frank. And then they decided not to go forward with it. That was two-plus years ago. Originally it was designed as a four-hour backdoor pilot and then we would go onward into series. Literally the conversations we were having, the options went off the book and expired. And then [Frank] can pick up the story…
Frank Spotnitz: It was Christmas almost a year and a half ago and Morgan Wandell who I knew from ABC had just joined Amazon and he said ‘do you have any script you love that has not been made?’ I said ‘as a matter of fact, The Man in the High Castle. Amazingly, that phone call lead to this actually happening.
There’s been a long line of Philip K. Dick novels or short stories adapted for the big screen. Why did you purse High Castle for a TV series rather than a feature?
Dick-Hackett: Originally there was interest as a feature. It felt like this was really right for a series. It’s such a big world, so dense, and so we let it breathe. When we were first talking about it television was completely different than it is now. What we’ve done now for an ambitious show like this is really different and pretty impressive.
Zucker: When we started, Amazon wasn’t even an option. We’ve gone through quite a transformation in terms of what the business is.
Dick-Hackett: We’ve been given the resources that we need for this. You’ve seen the pilot so you know how ambitious it is.
Zucker: And the opportunity with Amazon was just to do a pilot. But the beauty of it was if the pilot succeeded, we’d get to series faster.
So you put out the pilot out there for the public, then had to wait for an official green light. What’s it like as executive producers to put your work out there like that and have to sit through the feedback process?
Spotnitz: It’s pretty scary because you’re exposed. The whole world is going to see your pilot and see whether you succeed or fail. As it turned out, the pilot has been extraordinarily well received. The advantage I had not anticipated is that everyone has seen the show. So the crew you’re able to get, the actors you’re able to get, it’s a huge benefit. It’s a huge asset because everybody knows and pretty much likes the pilot. For us, it’s been a very happy system. When we started, Amazon had committed to series, but they were on the precipice. Transparent had not gotten the award recognition yet. So even going to talent then, even as people were curious about the project, it wasn’t like Amazon was considered Netflix. That’s changed since we’ve started.
Dick-Hackett: I have to say I’ve loved reading the comments from the fans.
Spotnitz: I think I’ve read all 11,000 of them [laughs].
Zucker: It’s the only thing I’ve ever worked on where friends said I watched it and I voted for it.
Amazon Studios is open for submissions from the public. Do you have any advice for creators interested in pursuing this route of television or film production?
Spotnitz: My first piece of advice would be the same for anybody doing anything. Be as smart and ambitious as you possibly can. For the Amazon platform, take advantage of the unique distribution opportunity that this is. It’s not conventional television storytelling. They don’t want it to be. That’s what is extraordinary about being in television at this point in time. I’ve never before seen an environment where you’re encouraged to be unique, take chances, and be risky. That’s what they want because they want to stand out from everything else. There’s a thousand things out there. You need to take chances if you want to succeed. That’s terrifying, but it’s really exciting. It’s an amazing moment in our culture.
With Minority Report also coming to TV this fall, Philip K. Dick’s work is as popular as ever. What is it about his writing that still makes it relevant and ripe for adaptation today?
Dick-Hackett: He would be astounded that we’re sitting here talking about titles of 50-60 years past. Maybe people have caught up to his work. I think with every film adaptation the following grows and hopefully it brings people back to the written work. When he talked about technology it wasn’t just about the technology itself. It was about the how it impacted human beings and what it means to be human. What is reality? Those are universal questions and I think it is part of the draw.
How tied are you to the source material? How long does it take to separate High Castle from the novel?
Spotnitz: For me, adapting this was hugely intimidating. The book is a classic and his mind is so rich and interesting. There’s no question he was ahead of his time and I think he still is ahead of his time. The challenge is to honor how complex and interesting the ideas of the book are. 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 for a long time.
The gift of a television series is you can take your time. There are a lot of ideas in the book that aren’t in the television series yet. But they will be. It’s just not getting there too fast. This is serialized storytelling. Once you open this door, you can never close it again. So we want to make sure we explore every bit thoroughly before we move on to the next thing. That’s the joy and challenge of this. I think episode two is every bit as good as the pilot. Some people think it’s better than the pilot, and I’m very proud and excited about that. The challenge we put on ourselves is to live up to opportunity we have. We’ve been given great freedom to make a great show. We have amazing material to work with.
The Man in the High Castle season one drops on November 20th on Amazon Instant Video. You can watch the pilot for free here.