What would our world look like if World War II had ended in a much different way? If the Germans ended up occupying one half of the country and Japan occupied the other?
That’s the general conceit of The Man In The High Castle, a pilot adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel that is contention for a series order at Amazon.
As they’ve done for several years now, Amazon takes their collection of comedy and drama pilots... makes them available to be seen by audiences... and then makes their choices for a series order based on the audience reaction.
As of now, The Man In The High Castle, is leading the pack with audience votes, so chances are good we may see more of a woman (Juliana, played by Alexa Davalos) who is seeking the truth about the reality that she finds in a film that shows a much different outcome to the War.
The project also stars Luke Kleintank, Rupert Evans, DJ Qualls and Rufus Sewell.
The project was developed by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files), who I talked with recently about creating a series for the binging audience, themes of identity that run through the pilot and when we all might be hearing whether or not Amazon picks up the pilot for series...
TV Fanatic: First of all, audiences are watching shows differently these days but is it different on your side? I mean, it’s still a pilot but is there a difference in how you approach it?
FS: I do think it’s the same thing but I think if you contemplate doing a series on this kind of platform where it’s streaming and the people will consume it in a very different way than they would consume traditional television you have to look at differently. You’re not trying to win a timeslot and you can anticipate that a huge percentage of your audience is going to watch the whole thing in a day or two, and so that affects your storytelling the same way that I’m still trying to process.
TVF: Tell me about your relationship with the Philip Dick story and you know just your history with it?
FS: I read it in college and I loved it but I guess I’d never forgotten about it and I know the people at Scott Free and they’ve been trying to get it off the ground for five years and then Dave Zucker at Scott Free said, “Hey, would you be interested?” I think I pretty much immediately said, “Yes.” Then I went back and read the book, which I hadn’t read in 20 some odd years, so it was like ‘oh, wow.’ This is a tough adaptation actually because it’s a fabulous book but it is not a TV series. I had to really think about how to adapt it [and] stay true to everything I loved about the book but giving it a narrative shape that I thought was needed for television.
TVF: Did you have to learn more about World War II and just all the elements that went into that because this takes like a different step than, of course, what history actually did?
FS: Well, yes. It occurred to me and [Philip K. Dick is] an absolutely brilliant guy, but he wrote the book in ’62 and our understanding of the war would be different at that point than it is today, so I called three different historians who specialize in World War II. I asked them a bunch of questions and a lot of the changes that I made from the scenario that he wrote down in the book were formed by my discussions with the historians.
TVF: Based on that, would you say the book then is more of a foundation for the series not a straight-on adaptation?
FS: Yeah. I tried to stay as true as I could to it but there were some pretty significant differences starting with the fact that in the novel, The Man In The High Castle was written as a novel in which the Allies won World War II. Obviously, in my show, it’s not a novel at all, it’s a film. But one of the producers of the series is Philip Dick’s daughter so I was very nervous about really changing anything, but she really felt that it respected her father’s intent and she understood that some things had to change for television and has been a huge supporter actually, so it’s very gratifying and a bit of relief.
TVF: Tell me how the look of the show came to be because it’s beautiful to look and has its own unique style from the start.
FS: I have a fantastic director, David Semel, and production designer, Drew Boughton. We had a lot of talks about how things would have unfolded if we had lost. What cars would people drive and what clothes would they wear? We thought caps would probably be more popular because JFK would never have been president and he is one of the people who sort of made the caps less popular because he didn’t wear them.
We thought military uniforms would actually change very slowly, so they wouldn't much different. We spent a lot of time on things like the flags for the Nazi state and the Pacific states and the Japanese states and all kinds of things. We were just trying to get every detail right because we were obviously hoping it would become a TV series and we knew that the decisions you make in the pilot you have to honor the rest of the show, so we didn’t want to make any mistakes.
TVF: You even come up with fake movie titles and game shows, I did Google [the movie title] The Punch Party because I didn’t remember that film. It didn’t exist but was so perfect that it was Rock Hudson and June Allyson, but even that was a nice touch.
FS: The most popular comedy in Nazi Germany was called The Punch Bowl, so I thought well maybe there was a sequel, you know for the American territory. Rock Hudson and June Allyson are appropriately wholesome stars who you could imagine would be approved by the Nazi’s but obviously Rock Hudson has a secret and I thought it just tells you so much already from the get go.
TVF: Talk to me about women’s roles during the time because the Juliana character is very involved. How did you make decisions on that aspect of the story and the times?
FS: Well, I really felt that she should be the protagonist in the series and that’s why I created the character of her half-sister, Trudy, who dies, who leaves her with a bag that has a film. Because it’s such a male world, I thought that it was really important that the woman be at the center of it and obviously, she’s an important character from the novel as well.
I was really interested in the fact that she’s studying…in the novel it’s Judo, in the series it’s Aikido and why that is and it just seemed to me that she is somebody who’s seeking answers because she knows there’s something wrong with the world she lives in but she doesn’t know how to change it.
TVF: There are so many themes going on in the show and identity is a huge one because what we see Juliana go through and you also see it with the Joe Blake character, too.
FS: That’s a huge theme. It’s identity and it’s authenticity, but there are two big militating themes, what is real and the other is what is human and I think there’s a third theme in the show, which is what is freedom. So those are the big ideas that animates the series.
TVF: There’s a real Big Brother feel to the show, which is very relevant today...
FS: Absolutely. You have to pick the elements from the past that have resonance to today and the closer it is to today the more I think disturbing it is and the more you see a reason to watch the show. I think that’s why the scene with the state trooper and that guy is so All-American, it could be us and you just take something that’s so familiar and so recognizable and just turn it slightly and it’s unsettling.
TVF: What’s the time table moving forward on the show?
FS: They're very big on fairness at Amazon. They want to treat all of their pilots the same and I think they're going to let us all know at the same time. They haven’t given me a date but I expect it to be this month. I expect it to be in the next few weeks.
TVF: Do you have the next few seasons already planned out, assuming you get a series order?
FS: Well, I obviously have been thinking a lot about it and preparing if they do order the series, so I do have a pretty clear idea at this point what the first season is and where we go beyond that. Knock wood. Most importantly, and the thing I really started out with this time is Juliana’s character journey because I think it was really important to just anchor this fantastic world in a character and her emotional life, so that’s pretty clear in my head.
TVF: Have you gotten into binging shows?
FS: The things I binge are…well, I didn’t binge Breaking Bad. I literally watched every episode the moment it came out on AMC, but with Louie, I binged a season in a day but I don’t watch a lot of TV, sadly, so I can’t say I binge a lot of shows.
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Jim Halterman is the West Coast Editor of TV Fanatic and the owner of JimHalterman.com. Follow him on Twitter.