'The Man in the High Castle' producer Frank Spotnitz on his Amazon pilot
Last week, I published an interview with Shawn Ryan, producer of one of the two best pilots from Amazon's latest batch. Today, it's the turn of the man behind the other top pilot: Frank Spotnitz of "Man in the High Castle."
"X-Files" alum Spotnitz (who most recently produced Cinemax's "Hunted" and TNT's "Transporter: The Series") and director David Semel adapted Philip K. Dick's novel set in a world where the Axis powers won World War II, and America is split into an Eastern region governed by the Nazis and a Western run by the Japanese. The pilot looks fantastic (and has an opening title sequence that perfectly sets up the premise and tone) and does a good job of creating this alternate reality. Not surprisingly, it's not only the highest-rated pilot of this round, but has by far the most votes.
As I did with Ryan, I emailed Spotnitz some questions about the pilot and his plans for the story if Amazon picks up the series.
Let's start with the basics: How did you get involved in adapting the book, how long was this in development, and how did you wind up at Amazon?
Frank Spotnitz: I was approached by David Zucker at Scott Free about two years ago. They had been developing the project for about five years at that point and another broadcaster was interested in taking a crack at it. I wrote two episodes, but they didn’t get greenlit. The project was really in danger of never getting made when I got a call about 14 months ago from Morgan Wandell, who had recently joined Amazon. He asked me if I had any scripts I really loved, and I told him about “The Man in the High Castle.” To my delight, he and his colleagues at Amazon loved it, too, and it was greenlit about six months later.
I've never read the book, so correct me if I'm wrong on this, but my understanding is that the pilot covers about half the plot of the book, and that the book only takes place in the western part of the country, and doesn't show us Nazi-occupied New York. How did you approach adapting Dick's work for a TV series, and how much are you going to have to expand on what's in the novel to make this work as an ongoing show?
Frank Spotnitz: It was one of my favorite books in college. I was thrilled to have the chance to adapt it, but frankly a little intimidated by the thought of changing Philip K. Dick’s narrative in any way. But I knew that if I was going to make it work as a television series, I was going to have to do just that. While I had to change the narrative, I was determined to stay as true as possible to the themes and ideas that mattered to him. He has one of the most fascinating minds of any novelist I’ve ever read, and I didn’t want to dilute or corrupt his insights. The joy of turning this into a television series is that we can not only explore the themes in the novel, but do it on a very large canvas.
Following on that, do you have a sense of how long the story could run? Is this a 2 or 3-season show, or do you think the alternate America is rich enough to fuel a long run of stories?
Frank Spotnitz: It’s incredibly rich – and challenging. You never know how long a series will last, but I could easily see this story progressing for many seasons.
How much of the alternate New York and San Franciscos were created practically, and how much digitally? Is this the kind of show you could have produced on a TV budget at the time you were on X-Files? And what did you learn from making the pilot about how easy or difficult it will be to maintain this sense of quasi-period going forward?
Frank Spotnitz: I try to avoid digital effects wherever possible, but for some moments – like the reveal of the Nazi Times Square or wide shots of Japanese-occupied San Francisco – you have no choice. My favorite CGI elements are the ones where the audience has no idea they’re CGI at all, and there are quite a few of those.
The budget for this series is quite high, and I was amazed and impressed that Amazon was prepared to make the investment. It certainly dwarfs what we spent on “The X-Files,” but there would have been no way to depict this world properly without it. Having said that, I think people will watch this show for the characters and the human drama that unfolds, and I would never want spectacle to overshadow any of that.
Your pilot is not only the highest-rated of this round, but has by far the most votes of this round at the time I'm doing this. I know that isn't the only thing Amazon takes into account ("Transparent" was their lowest-rated pilot of the second batch, and look what happened), but are you feeling pretty good about your chances? I know some other pilot producers in this and previous classes have had the chance to start hiring writers and breaking story even before the pick-up decisions are made; are you doing any additional work on the project yet, or just waiting for a decision?
Frank Spotnitz: We are certainly hoping and preparing for success, but don’t have any official word yet. I have been disappointed too many times before, and know not to count on anything in this business until it’s really real.
For that matter, how has it felt having access not only to instant audience feedback, but largely positive feedback like this? Are you just constantly hitting reload on the show's Amazon page to look for new reviews, or are you trying to tune that out and focus on actual work?
Frank Spotnitz: I have always read all my reviews, the bad along with the good (although you remember the bad much more than the good!). I am just too curious to see how it’s playing with the audience, and I have a thick-enough skin to handle the less charitable assessments. It has been really nice to see how warmly this has been received, but I can’t say any of it would particularly change the way I would proceed with the series.
Having worked in broadcast and various levels of cable, how different, if at all, has the process of making this pilot for Amazon been? Did you make any different decisions with the crowd-sourced pilot process in mind, or is a pilot a pilot, no matter who's judging it?
Frank Spotnitz: I think a pilot is a pilot, no matter who’s judging it, but I will say I am thinking a lot about how to tell stories for the series in a streaming environment where you can anticipate a huge portion of the audience will consume an entire season in the course of a day, two days or a week. It’s a very different thing when you know you’re competing to win a time slot and your audience is going to have to wait a week for another installment.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com