‘The Man in the High Castle’ Creator Frank Spotnitz on Making Amazon’s Hit Drama
What if the Nazis won World War II? Amazon’s provocative new series imagines the harrowing alternate history. Creator Frank Spotnitz tells The Daily Beast how he crafted it.
For nearly a decade, Frank Spotnitz was, at least creatively, guided by a single directive: “The truth is out there.”
Now, the former X-Files writer and producer is operating under a different, arguably more provocative missive: “What if the truth was completely different from how we know it?”
Spotnitz is the creator of Amazon’s alternate history drama series The Man in the High Castle, which was released last Friday to critical hosannas, echoing the response of viewers who gave the series’ pilot the highest rating of any show the streaming service has produced. (And maybe the subject of some of Amazon’s most, um, adventurous advertising, too.)
Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, the series is set 15 years after an alternate ending to World War II—a World War II in which Hitler beat the U.S. to the atom bomb, dropped it on Washington, D.C., and the Axis powers won the war. A harrowing imagination of the question “what if,” The Man in the High Castle paints a world in which the U.S. is split into two occupied territories: the Greater Nazi Reich in the east and the Japanese Pacific States in the west.
Propaganda films now play before movies. TV shows have names like Reich Patrol. Times Square bustles under a sign that reads “Work Will Set You Free,” a slogan that, though in German, hung at Auschwitz.
For a post-9/11 audience that still has never really grappled with the reality of occupation in the United States, and the oppression that would accompany, The Man in the High Castle’s universe of fascist-controlled New York City, tortured Jewish-Americans, and the command of the Fuhrer is deeply unsettling—and epically fascinating.
Of course, raising unsettling questions and trading in paranoia is a specialty of Spotnitz, who joined The X-Files as a writer in 1994 before becoming one of the show’s executive producers. He’s seen The Man in the High Castle struggle to find a TV home for nearly 11 years, having even written a pilot of the Syfy network to produce that was never made.
So with the show finally out on Amazon, we chatted with Spotnitz about its tricky content, the risk for offense, the surprising resonance of the show now, and what it’s like to craft a version of New York City that’s occupied by the Nazis.
The Amazon pilot program must be interesting for you, after all these years in TV. How often do we not know why things were liked—nor not liked? Why do you think people responded so much to The Man in the High Castle that they gave it such a high rating?
Really interesting question. I’m not sure. I think one guess is that we still live in age of fear right now. I think we’re all still living a post-9/11 world. To see how people deal with nightmare situations and survive feels really relevant. I know writing the show, I’m always thinking about people today. It’s the 1960s but I’m always thinking of the resonance. It’s about people who are trying to stay human in an inhuman world. There’s so much going on now that is terribly inhuman? What can you do? Can you change things? Maybe those are things that played a role.
There have been attempts to make this into a TV show before, but failed. Do you have any idea why now is the time for it to have worked?
I think there were a few things. First, it’s a really tricky adaptation. It’s tricky to be true to the book and yet make it more of a narrative because it’s a TV series. There are changes you have to make and be respectful of the source material and consistent with the novel. That’s hard. I think probably one of the reasons they had a hard time getting it made all those years is that’s it’s very dangerous material. It’s potentially very offensive. You have to be careful how you execute it and I can imagine a broadcaster being wary of taking it on. And it’s super expensive. It just is. Look at the scope of it: New York, San Francisco, and Canon City just in the pilot. Then 1962—period is very expensive. Lots of visual effects. All of those things are quite daunting. These are just a fact. If Amazon didn’t exist, nobody else would have done it.
Thematically, why now? Do you think there’s something that maybe 10 years ago, the cultural climate wasn’t right for it, but it is now?
I think so. I think it’s funny, now that I say that, before 9/11 I was doing X-Files, which was about distrust of the government and paranoia. This is also about paranoia and more than distrust of the government—fear of the government in this case. But weirdly I think 9/11 is at least partially responsible for the end of the The X-Files. We wanted to like the government. We wanted to feel safe. I do think for whatever reason right now, this seems to strike a chord.
You mentioned the risk of offense. How did you navigate that? What did you specifically have to think about?
You realize the victims of the Nazis and the Japanese, those groups are very much with us. How you depict their victimhood and the way they respond to the victimization is very challenging. You have to be careful to be honest and yet not inflame needlessly. So there’s that on the one hand. Jewish people are the victims, and if you see the second episode it’s a big part of the show.
That scene at the end of episode two [SPOILER ALERT] where Frank’s sister, niece, and nephew are gassed was brutal. At a screening in New York that I went to, the revelation got a collective gasp from the audience.
It’s really awful. But I felt like you had to do that, because that’s what they did. If you don’t do it, you’re not being honest. On the other side of that, in that same episode, you see John Smith home with his children and his wife. He loves his wife and his kids. But you find out later that he’s done terrible things. Then again, the people who are attacking him in episode two are Jewish terrorists. He’s simply killing the Jewish terrorists. It messes with your head.
“Messes with your head” is the understated way to put it.
I think there’s a bit of the Tony Soprano DNA in that character in that you can forget how evil he is if you’re not careful. Because we’re making an effort to humanize and show that people who do terrible things are not cartoons. They are people with families, and that doesn’t make them any less terrifying. I thought that was one of the unique opportunities of the show was to see the Nazis, who are usually the bad guys over there, the bad guys in Indiana Jones movies, and bring them close and see the real people and how they justify the things they do.
Living in the U.S. today, many people do have a real fear of being occupied or oppressed the way the characters in this show are. What was it like to create that world and that mood?
I wanted it to feel like the New York we know, or at least the New York we imagine at that time period, and yet not. And just push it into this totalitarian caste. This experience I had three years ago, I was in Berlin and I was touring this East German prison. This woman went with me on the tour from the Berlin Film Commission. After the tour she said, “You know, that was horrible what I just saw in there. But I grew up in East Germany. I didn’t know any of those things were happening when I was a girl. But if I’m honest, I still miss it. You knew all your neighbors. Everybody had a job. You always had bread. I felt safe. And since the wall came down, I never felt that safe. I always feel anxious.”
She’s saying that it wasn’t all bad?
I never thought of that. I always thought that Nazi Germany just feels like gray. But then I thought, that’s probably true. There were people at the time—if you look at newsreels of average Germans during the Nazi period, some of them look very happy. Before the war starts, especially. They’re having a good time. They’re not free. But people can define freedom in certain ways. “OK, I don’t have freedom of speech. But I have freedom of housing. I’ll always have a home. Freedom of employment. I’ll always have a job.” There are different ways you can define what it means to be free. I thought that’s an interesting world. That’s the world of this New York.
The “what if?” question that goes throughout this season is always a terrifying question, whether it’s “What if the bomb was dropped in the U.S.?” or “What if I left my house earlier in the day?” Crafting this, did you ever have a visceral reaction to the “what if” question? Taking a step back from the creative process, and just thinking as a human?
I feel it all very deeply. I care about it enormously, or I couldn’t write it. I think the situation that is closest to me is the Frank character in episode two. I am half-Jewish. I was never raised with religion, but it’s always struck me that if you live in an anti-Semitic state, it doesn’t matter. There’s a line where he says, “Jews don’t get to decide if they’re Jews.” It doesn’t matter what you say you are, we’ve decided we’re going to kill you.
Is there a scene from the first few episodes that you felt the most pressure to get right, because you thought it was the most pivotal?
Well, in the pilot you’re trying to convey so many rules of the world without being expository. So tucking in information, especially in the first half, is always really hard. There are scenes that deliver information, hopefully seamlessly. Juliana brings her mother tea and you realize, oh, her father died in the war. Stuff like that. That’s always the hardest part about a pilot to me, establishing the rules without the audience feeling they’re being talked to and explained to. The scene in the pilot I was actually most surprised by was the scene where he’s got the flat tire and the trooper comes to help him fix it and ashes are falling from the sky. It’s not even a plot scene. You can take that and it doesn’t even change anything. But it’s so normal and that trooper is so everyday all-American and I think that more people have talked to me about that scene than anything else.
You mentioned Tony Soprano earlier. What are the challenges of working in that realm? Especially in a situation like this, where people enter with preconceived notions of whether a person is good or bad because they are called a Nazi?
For me, it comes very easily. It comes easily for me to imagine these bad people have humanity, because that’s what I believe. That these are people with humanity, and not cartoons. The other side of it is that Nazism is a real thing. Fascism’s real. Racism’s real. I don’t want humanizing these characters to be mistaken for endorsing these characters. That’s what I mean by this is a risky show. I don’t want people cheering for John Smith. I know you may like him or empathize with him, but he does terrible things. I remember reading an interview with David Chase and he said once in a while he’d have Tony Soprano do some brutal murder, just to remind people. Because you liked Tony, but remember who he is, he’s this guy who does terrible things. That’s a danger of it for me.
Any coverage of this uses the word ambitious, pretty much uniformly. When you’re making something like this, do you feel that ambition?
I think it is ambitious. It’s ambitious in every way. The truth is, I wrote this thinking, “Who’s going to give me the money to make this?” I wrote it originally for Syfy and just thought, “How will they ever find the resources to mount this properly?” And they couldn’t and they didn’t. Because I don’t think anybody would’ve but Amazon. The truth is, my first job in television was The X-Files, and that’s one of the things I learned on that show: Be as ambitious as you can. You can’t be smart enough. No matter how smart you are, the audience is smarter than you are. So I’ve always tried to do that. I’ve always felt that it’s so hard to do anything even good, really. Your ambition has to be so high. You have to aim up there in order to land here.