'The Man in the High Castle' Creator Frank Spotnitz on Creating Alternate Histories

The Man in the High Castle Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Amazon

The Man in the High Castle Still - H 2015

Amazon's ambitious new drama, The Man in the High Castle, will premiere on November 20 after being in the works for nearly a decade.

Producers Isa Dick Hackett and David Zucker brought the project to exec producer Ridley Scott some eight or nine years ago but were unable at the time to find a home for the dark drama, which tells the story of what 1960s America would look like if the United States lost World War II. "Obviously eight or nine years ago Amazon wasn't even an option," Zucker said at the Television Critics Association summer press tour on Monday. Series creator Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) added that after attempts to adapt the series for BBC and SyFy failed, he got a call from Amazon head of drama Morgan Wandell who asked if he had any projects he wanted to get made. 

The decision to take the project to Amazon has paid off. The Man in the High Castle became the most-streamed and highest-rated pilot in Amazon history after its premiere in January of this year.

"It's a little scary, this Amazon system of having your pilot voted on because if you fail, you fail in a big way," noted Spotnitz. "But it makes it a little easier if you go to series because everybody's seen the show. The fact that it was so well received has opened a lot of doors to us." 

The hour-long drama is a sweeping story that takes place in Japanese-occupied San Francisco and German-occupied New York City. Turning author Philip K. Dick's vision for this alternate history proved no easy task. "The biggest challenge was defining the visual alternative history," said Spotniz, who noted that pilot director David Semel and series director Daniel Percival were instrumental in determining the look and feel of the series. "What would Times Square look like if we didn't live in a corporate capital society? Would there be cars with fins or space-age optimism in the design of home appliances? There's literally thousands of props and set design and costume design issues." 

For the actors, there was a different set of challenges, including learning Japanese martial art aikido and playing characters who are considered part of the underclass. "We spent a lot of time talking to Frank about the world," said Rupert Evans, who plays Frank Fink, a factory worker who must hide his Jewish ancestry. "This is a world where Elvis didn't happen, The Beatles didn't happen. We had to get an understanding of popular culture in this world." 

Meanwhile, Rufus Sewell (Hercules) studied up to play John Smith, a Nazi investigating a New York resistance group. "You see that there's another side to this person that I became interested in," he said. "We have an idea of Nazis and it's based on truth and the horrors of everything that they did, but I wouldn't be interested in playing that for an especially long period of time. I read as much as I possibly could about Nazi history." 

Spotnitz said he hopes the series causes audiences to similarly adjust their expectations about people. "You can't assume that the good guys are going to win," he said. "I hope this show makes people think about that." 

The Man in the High Castle premieres November 20 on Amazon's Prime Instant Video.