The producers of the Man in the High Castle TV series spent eight years trying to get it off the ground, and having doors slammed in their faces. For a while, the BBC was going to make it, but it fell through. In order to finally get it made, they had to make one crucial change, that makes it a bit less bleak.
Warning: If you haven’t seen the first episode of Man in the High Castle, there are spoilers below.
In Man in the High Castle, it’s the 1960s, and the United States of America has been under the control of the Nazis and the Japanese since we lost World War II—except for a lawless neutral zone in the middle of the country. But then Juliana (Alexa Davalos) comes across some mysterious films that show a world where the U.S. won the war, and tries to find out where these movies came from. Meanwhile, the Resistance enlists the aid of Joe (Luke Kleintank), not realizing he’s a Nazi spy.
We talked to the makers of Man in the High Castle, which premieres tomorrow on Amazon, at San Diego Comic-Con. We also talked to Davalos, Kleintank and their co-star, Rupert Evans. They told us just how hard it was to get this show off the ground, and what the most important message of this series is.
There were “a lot of passes” over the years, in trying to get this show made, says producer Isa Dick-Hackett, who’s also the daughter of Philip K. Dick, who wrote the original book.
Series creator Frank Spotnitz says that he suspects the reason why so many broadcasters passed on doing Man in the High Castle because its vision of an America living complacently under Nazi rule is so uncomfortable. We like to think that “we’re the good guys,” and that “this wouldn’t happen to us. That’s the Germans. They were the Nazis. They’re the bad guys.” But the message of this show is that “this could happen anywhere.”
That’s a challenging idea, and for Spotnitz, a big part of the show’s appeal is “making people think.” But it made the series a hard sell.
Man in the High Castle “could have lived any number of places. It could have lived on basic cable. It could have lived on premium,” says producer David W. Zucker (The Good Wife). But “unlike every other broadcaster that we appealed to, Amazon made an unhesitating commitment to it.”
But in order to make the show appeal to American viewers, they did have to make one fairly major change. “In the book, there’s no real resistance [to the Nazis]. There’s some spiritual resistance,” says Dick-Hackett. But the TV show adds a real Resistance movement, “which is kind of tricky, because you don’t want to make it seem as though it’s about an uprising, and about people getting their country back. That’s not the goal, or what we’re going to end up with.” So Dick-Hackett felt it was important to show resistance taking different forms, including spiritual or emotional.
When the BBC was making Man in the High Castle, there was no Resistance at all, similar to the book, says Zucker. “So in many ways, to make it at all palatable for an American audience, that element was essential.”
Including a Resistance movement gives the show “an element of hope in a bleak world,” says Spotnitz. But in the show, the Resistance is “pretty decimated,” and most people don’t take it very seriously. “This isn’t a show that’s going to become about the Resistance.” The Resistance is “a part of the show, but it’s not the point.”
In general, Philip K. Dick’s books tend to become thrillers when they’re translated for the screen. “I think it’s a Hollywood convention,” says Dick-Hackett. “If they’re trying to appeal to a big audience, that’s just the way it goes.”
“The challenge is to introduce these genre elements [like the Resistance], but not diminish the book by doing so,” says Spotnitz. “And to honor the ideas in the book, and keep them as rich as they are in the book. And hopefully, these genre elements create a bigger storytelling landscape, so you have some space to get to these genre elements, rather than smothering them with the action or the mystery or the thriller elements that have been introduced.”
WTF with those alternate universe films?
Speaking of which, the biggest change that The Man in the High Castle makes to Philip K. Dick’s book is that instead of an underground novel about a world where the Allies won World War II, the characters discover actual newsreel footage from our world.
Changing the books into films “was the first thing that occurred to me,” says Spotnitz (The X-Files). “That creates a much more literal mystery than the novel had. But I think the best part of the show is the reality of living in this alternate world.”
“There are themes from the novel about what reality is, and what it means to be human, that I find deeply moving,” adds Spotnitz. “And I’m always trying to find ways to steer the narrative toward those themes.”
The world that is in this book is so inhuman—living under fascist ideology, where you can be killed because of your race or your sexuality or [your disability] is so dehumanizing. Gandhi could shame the British into surrendering in India. Martin Luther King could shame America into de-segregating. You can’t shame the Nazis. [So] what do you do? What is the proper response? What would you do? Most of us would do nothing. And that’s terrifying. And that’s not that we, as Americans, like to think about. It makes us very uncomfortable.
In spite of the mystery of the films, Spotnitz insists that he sees the show as a “character journey” for Juliana. “It’s really about her, and her response to this inhuman world. And her understanding of what’s real, and really what you would sacrifice to be free—and what you should sacrifice to be free.” Those are the “big ideas” that Spotnitz keeps clinging to.
“I would be very disappointed if people looked at the show and said, ‘Well, what do the films mean?’ That’s an element of it, but it’s not the point,” says Spotnitz. “It’s the McGuffin, the films. It’s an excuse for a plot, but it’s really about who we are.” He wants people to look at the show and see how our world is similar to the Axis-dominated version.
But why is it such a big deal for people to find movies that show the Allies winning World War II? After all, it wouldn’t be that hard, with 1960s-era special effects and film-making, to create a fairly convincing fake newsreel. But just seeing something so convincing, that portrays this other possibility, is a huge thing for these people. “It’s earth-shattering” for Juliana to “imagine something so far from our reality, and yet so close of a possibility,” says Davalos.
It was incredibly important to show that “these films cannot be fake,” says Spotnitz. “This has to be looking at another world that’s real.”
The moment where Juliana watches the films is the scene everybody obsessed over the most, says Zucker. “It wasn’t about what the film actually was, and what it instilled in her—the possibility that the world could be a different place. That got restructured multiple times, in terms of assuring that it really registered with the audience what impact this was having, even as she couldn’t really make sense of what she was watching.”
“There are so many things wrong with our world, so many things that are terrible, and I don’t understand why people aren’t angrier. I don’t understand why people don’t demand change, you know?” says Spotnitz. “People are amazingly complacent. And the idea of this film, for me, is: ‘No, really, things could be different.’” Juliana’s sister has died for the film, so there’s a clear personal motivation for her to delve into the mystery.
In some ways, life under the Nazis is “beautiful”
Kleintank says his character, Joe Blake, grew up in New York under the Nazi regime, so “he knows nothing different. He would have been raised to be in the Nazi youth and to be a soldier. It’s just a way of life and a norm to him.”
But over the course of the ten-episode season, we’ll watch Joe struggle with the decisions he has to make and the people he meets, says Kleintank. And perhaps not surprisingly, Kleintank hints that we’ll see Luke wrestle with the possibility of changing sides, as he learns more about the Nazis and the world he grew up in.
And Kleintank defends his character, saying there’s “a lot of misconceptions” about Nazis. “The Nazi party was never meant to be bad,” he insists. “It was about bringing the German culture back... after the Depression. It was about the economy.” And then Hitler “ruined” it. “Being a Nazi is an honorable thing for Joe.” Joe takes things like hearing that they’ve been burning disabled people and other “undesirables” in his stride. He thinks Joe probably knows about Concentration camps and stuff, but everyone just trusts the Fuhrer, and believes that Hitler is the voice of God.
Kleintank watched a lot of documentaries about Hitler and the Nazis, and also went to the Holocaust Museum. “It’s very weighing on your soul to see all that and read all that, but it really does help influence your character, and I think it makes a better story.”
And life is pretty good in some ways under the Nazis—there’s an airplane that can fly from New York to the West Coast in two hours. They’re very capitalist and efficient, and they’ve made huge strides technologically. “The rocketship is pretty badass,” Kleintank laughs. And it’s a much simpler world than our own—Kleintank compares it to living in a world where there’s only one news station: Fox News. “In some ways, that’s beautiful, in a way. Because it’s so simple.” You just do what you’re told, and don’t have to ask too many questions.
Likewise, Spotnitz says he wants us to look at “the parts that are appealing” in the Axis-dominated world, and ask “Why is that appealing? What would I do if I were in that world? Would I resist? Would I go along? All the things that people don’t like to think about.”
Meanwhile, Rupert Evans, who plays Frank, says that his character—a frustrated modern artist—is pretty close to the way he’s portrayed in the Philip K. Dick novel, and he gets at a lot of the themes of the book about artistic expression. “We follow him and how he deals with art in that world, so it’s all about freedom of speech.” And Evans says he read the book, and loved it: “Philip K. Dick’s amazing.”
A Love Triangle
Meanwhile, Davalos says her character, Juliana Crain, is heavily motivated by the loss of her sister, who was already “on that path” to fighting the occupiers and looking for the truth about those mysterious films. “For her, it’s really about doing justice to the loss of her sister, and carrying on that journey for her.” But as Juliana goes on, her journey becomes about different things.
Over time, Joe and Juliana have more shared experiences, says Davalos. And they discover “a need for each other” in this grim world they’re inhabiting, adds Kleintank. As for whether they’ll connect romantically, that remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Evans says that Joe, Juliana and Frank will have a kind of love triangle, after Frank spends an entire episode being tortured by Nazis thanks to Juliana’s mistakes. Frank is pretty upset with Juliana about this at first, but eventually they are able to get past it.
“What I find fascinating is the sort of normal elements within this fantastical world,” says Davalos. “We explore the everyday elements of these wild concepts.” It’s really interesting to see a world where art and music have been frozen in time, and you get little hints of music that’s familiar to the viewers but totally new to the characters in the show. Kleintank pitched the idea of having his character walk down the street and meet a poor street performer named Elvis Presley, but it didn’t happen.
The first season of Man in the High Castle unfolds over just two weeks, but a lot happens in those two weeks.
Man in the High Castle comes to Amazon.com tomorrow.