Best known for rich literary work that spawned seminal sci-fi classics “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall,” Philip K Dick’s work has once again inspired a science fiction meeting of minds in the Ridley Scott-produced and Frank Spotnitz-written Amazon series “The Man in the High Castle.”
Starring Alexa Davalos, DJ Qualls and Rupert Evans, “The Man in the High Castle” is a dystopian reimagining of the past, featuring a vision of the post-war United States after the Axis powers (that is, Germany, Italy and Japan) won World War II. This outcome leaves the US to be split into three parts: the Japanese controlling the Western states, a patch of grey area in the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Nazi Reich controlling the Eastern block.
Featuring a cast and crew whose collective credits include “Blade Runner,” “The X-Files,” “Supernatural” and “Mortal Kombat,” the show was a perfect choice for a panel at this year’s New York Comic-Con, where Frank Spotnitz, Alexa Davalos, Joel de la Fuente, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and DJ Qualls sat down to discuss the first season of the show including details about the many late night phone calls, the show’s often disturbing nature and how getting drunk and googling your name can sometimes be a good thing.
On working with Amazon
Frank Spotnitz revealed the long life leading up to the premiere of the adaptation, explaining that the show has been in the works for “five or 10 years.” When first approached to adapt Dick’s book, “I said yes right away without even thinking about it, because I remembered the book from college and how much I loved it,” Spotnitz divulged. “Then I went back and reread the book and I realized it would be a tough adaptation, a bit daunting. I did adapt it, I wrote 2 hours, but then Syfy didn’t make it. It sat around two years until around Christmas time, I got a call from a friend who had recently joined up with Amazon who said they were looking for scripts to develop.”
Among the gifts that Amazon’s involvement brought the cast and crew was the breathing room allowed production. “They always say the enemy of production is money and time,” said Qualls, “And Amazon gave us enough of both, so we had the luxury to think about what we were doing, and it meant so much to me. It’s made me excited to be an actor again.”
Amazon’s newest round of pilots had to be voted in by viewers to see which shows would make it to series, an unprecedented move for any network online or otherwise, but the cast thought that the move was more generous than rogue. “The fact that the audience gets to participate makes perfect sense. It’s for you. If you like it, if you relate to the characters, if you think the script is working that’s really important for us. We are giving it to you, so to hear from you was kind of beautiful, I think,” gushed Alexa Davalos.
“I actually liked waiting too,” interjected Qualls. “I could get a little drunk and go online and read all the nice things that people were saying. And I did. A lot. Because when you do a pilot, usually some MBA from Harvard is making creative decisions. If he doesn’t like your left ear, then you get recast. And pilot selection is similarly arbitrary. The response for this pilot was so overwhelming. It felt like there was momentum behind it. It was a nice change.”
“This will be the best part of your life.”
DJ Qualls (“Supernatural,” “Z Nation”) was at first extremely hesitant to join the show, finding himself exhausted after a string of high-commitment projects. “I got the email while I was shooting ‘Z Nation,'” Qualls explained. “It had come to my email box a couple of times, but I was so tired, so I just passed. They kept coming back and asking me to come in and finally I was like, ‘Look, I need to just not work for a while.’ But the next day, I was in bed at 9:30 am and my phone kept ringing. When I picked it up, it was the pilot director [David Semel] and the first thing he said to me was, ‘What the fuck is your problem?’ and I said, ‘What?’ I hadn’t talked to him in years. He said, ‘This will be the best part of your life,’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m not in an emotional place where I feel like I can read right now’ and he said, ‘Be at Ridley Scott’s office tomorrow and read for the show,’ and he hung up on me.
“By the end of them pitching it to me, I was just so into it,” he continued. “This really was a situation where I stood in my own way. My first scene was with Alexa and Rupert, and after the camera block we sat down at this bar with our scripts and started just talking about our roles. That was such a nice thing that I hadn’t done in 10 years.”
On the terror and joy of production
“It’s really intense and dark stuff sometimes, and the high stakes of it, the high drama. It’s almost like what you imagine when you first start play-acting as a kid. Except that the costumes and production design are so much better,” laughed Joel de la Fuente. “To come to work and get to drop yourself into this world that has been created as you’re viewing it, it’s terrifying sometimes because it is so much bigger than any single department or writer or actor. It really involves a collective leap because the challenge that we are confronted with first by Philip K Dick and then by Frank, it’s the challenge of living and creating an entirely new world. It’s almost like yours but a little bit different.”
Other members of the cast were also uniquely impressed by the production, Qualls explained that working on the project with so many other great minds made him feel like “an artist,” and Tagawa described each day on the show as a “challenging and terrifying gift.”
On the show’s uniquely disturbing bent
“There are too many issues in this country that seem to be coming from us and to us,” lamented Tagawa, “and that is a little bit disturbing. It’s not so much about fighting the other, this many years later. So working on a film where the other is really at home, it becomes such a wonderful, exhilaratingly spooky place.”
Spotnitz elaborated on the spookiness of the show’s premise by discussing the “bad guys,” that is, the Japanese and German leaders on either coast. Quick to point out that the show isn’t “anti-Japanese or anti-German,” but, rather, “anti-fascist,” the show’s writer discussed the creeping feeling of empathy the series can evoke.
“The reason the book struck me in the first place is because the good guys don’t win. You go back into history and there are many stretches when the good guys didn’t win, and as Americans we don’t like to think that’s possible. What’s interesting about this show is the bad guys are not over there, they’re here. If you look at the bad guys on the coast, they’re not psychopaths. They’re people doing evil things with a rationale. The scenes on the show that make me the most uncomfortable is when a bad guy is saying things that actually make sense, and you find yourself questioning like ‘why do I disagree with him?’ It’s what Cary’s talking about, the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ That’s essential to me.”
On the sprawling vision of the source material
“There were some characters that I felt I needed to add to the world to use more of a narrative structure that could be maintained across a season and to build out in order,” Spotnitz explained. “Part of me didn’t want to touch the book, but in order to better explore its ideas and to create more room to move around, we added things that would help us do that. Philip K. Dick was so far ahead of his time, we’re only now starting to catch up.”
Not all of the cast were as knowledgeable about the source material as the show’s writer, though Alexa Davalos explained that she had read the book before. “I encountered ‘The Man in the High Castle’ when I was very young, but I don’t think that I really absorbed it,” she said. “When it came back around, I read the script and I was so struck by how beautiful it was and how strong my character was that I was taken with it again.”
Qualls still hadn’t gotten around to reading the book. “After I was cast, I immediately bought the book and started to read it. But the pilot director asked me to stop reading it because my character was apparently quite different in the book and so I stopped and when I got to the set I realized I was the only actor on set that hadn’t read it. We finished the show and I was going to read it then, but now I’m sad that we’ve wrapped. I have to put a wall up until we hear that we’re picked up for another season. Once we’re picked up, I will read it, I promise,” he chuckled.
“It’s very intimidating.”
With a project so rife with “big names,” including the producer and author of the source material, the weight of the project was not lost on anyone. Isa Hackett Dick, daughter of Philip K Dick had an enormous impact on the show, being what Spotnitz called, “profoundly involved in every single decision.”
In addition to being listed as executive producer, Spotnitz explained that, “She’s had many conversations with the cast and she’s been to set many times. She reads every treatment, watches every cut. She’s an excellent producer. What I really respect about her is she wants to protect her father’s work but also understands that it’s a TV series. Sometimes she has ideas that aren’t from the book but are ways to faithfully extend the narrative into a series-length arc. So she’s been an amazing partner.”
Not just “partner,” Qualls added, “She’s mother, she’s psychiatrist. She’s played a lot of roles for the actors on the show. We want the show to be the best that it can be and she’s right there with us.”
Ridley Scott, who has recently been treated to a new round of reverence since his critically lauded “The Martian,” was a name that popped up many times during the talk. Referred to with nothing but utmost respect, Spotnitz explained what it was like working with the cinematic “giant.”
“It’s almost like he’s the Man in the High Castle, he’s the oracle. We get on these calls with him and he gives his thoughts and we obviously take meticulous notes, and then go from there. He’s a visionary. You realize when you work in this business, how hard that is, there are so few people who have the talent and the vision that he has. It’s a huge gift, we’re very grateful.”
On the Underlying Humanity of the show
Spotnitz explained that even though the show is based in a reality that doesn’t bear much resemblance to the one we know, so the success of the show really depends upon creating characters that are easy to identify with. “The look of the show is enough like early 60s America that you can recognize it, but it’s off. I think the biggest shock of seeing the show is realizing that, ‘oh yeah, that’s how things would feel and how people would behave.’ That’s the beautiful thing about Alexa’s character is that she was brought up under the occupation of Japan, but she doesn’t hate them. She studies aikido and understands the beautiful parts of the culture. That’s why she’s the ideal one to bring us through this.” Davalos added, “There’s a very fascinating duality to her for me. She’s embracing this elegance of the Japanese culture, like her intrigue with the aikido. She’s incredibly layered. We love strong female characters, but naturally with that comes vulnerability and all of those things that we all feel and she’s a very beautiful tapestry of all those colors.”
Joel de la Fuente plays a distinctly unpleasant character, but he insisted that perhaps his malevolence is a bit misunderstood. “What really thrilled me about my character was making who he is and what he does something you can empathize with. Because it’s really the equivalent of someone in our reality playing someone like Churchill or General Macarthur. If things were reversed, we’d have an actor who would be saying, ‘I need to find some way to make Churchill seem more human.'”
Tagawa added his satisfaction with his character by sharing an anecdote about his work on the film adaptation of “Mortal Kombat”. “I wrapped that film when my daughter was in first grade and that scared her bad. I couldn’t walk into a room without seeing her scurry out of it. It took almost a year for her to recover. But I’ve been really trying to bring an image of Asian men onscreen that underlines that we are like everyone else: we are men, we’re tough. This has been one of the most fulfilling roles in terms of Asian manhood that didn’t require me to pull a gun or draw a sword. It’s been great.”
Spotnitz concluded that he insisted the cast shouldn’t look at the show like a genre piece but more as a character drama, “We worked on making people who are truthful and three-dimensional, and I think people can see that.”
The full season of “The Man in the High Castle” will be available on Amazon on November 20. You can stream the first episode now.