Frank Spotnitz knows that his new Amazon series, “The Man in the High Castle,” is challenging TV. Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick and produced by Ridley Scott, the story creates an alternate universe where America lost World War II and now, in 1962, lives under German and Japanese control. The first season of the show features some incredibly dark subject matter, as well as some heartbreaking twists.
But as revealed below, Spotnitz’s reasons for taking those risks and taking the material seriously come from a passion for the truth — and some deep-seated patriotism. At this summer’s TCA Press Tour, he sat down with Indiewire to dig into the difficulties of knowing just how far to take things and what makes this alternate universe so very universal. An edited transcript is below.
In preparation for this interview, I started reading the book this is based on, and I think what didn’t really sink in for me until I did so was just how incredibly dark this story can get — especially when it comes to the things happening in the background. And so, for you, how deep plan do you plan to go into that?
All the way deep. All the way. But slowly. It’s pretty tough, but I think you have to [go all the way]. If you’re going to tell a story about Nazis and fascists, you’re not being honest if you don’t go to that darkness. That is the logical end result of that ideology, and you have to dramatize it.
I’m guessing that your answer to this is going to be that they said, “We’re totally cool with it…” But what was Amazon’s reaction to finding out about that?
They were totally cool with it. I mean, as you know, the TV landscape we’re in right now is so competitive. There’s so much being made and what it’s led to is a situation where they want you to take risks. They want you to do things nobody else is doing. It’s remarkable. It’s the polar opposite of when I started off in television, which was the mid-’90s, when they were afraid of risks. It was risk-averse. This was like, we must take risks, otherwise no one is going to watch our show. And so you’re rewarded for being bold and pushing the limit.
Does that mean there’s potential for going too far?
Of course. Absolutely. I mean, I think you can’t do it for the wrong reasons [because] the audience will reject it — dark for the sake of being dark or shocking for the sake of being shocking. Everyone is going to see through that and I wouldn’t want to do it either. And honestly the darkness in Episode 2, it’s not something you see, but it’s something you feel. I think, though, that people sense when you have integrity. If you tell a story and you’re doing it for the right reasons, people will know that. And I trust in that.
So, what do you use as your barometer of far versus too far?
It’s why this is such a good job — because there is no simple answer to that question. You have to feel your way forward. And just really wrack your soul. What’s the truth of this? What’s the truth of this imaginary situation? In Episode 2, there are some people who are very upset by what happens in Episode 2, and they didn’t want me to do it. And I felt like, no, you have to. It’s just not being honest unless you do it.
People involved with the show? Cast or producers?
Producers. It wasn’t Amazon, but people on my team who were so upset by it. And when it screened in San Diego Comic-Con, people were crying. But then again, that’s part of the brutality of this world. You just have to do it. If you’re going to tell this story, you have to do it.
Are there points where you personally have pulled back?
There’s no idea that I would pull back from, if I thought it was true. But I would say how you show this– What’s the responsible way to show this? And what’s a way that sheds light rather than heat? Again, it’s terrific that there’s a difference between exploiting something and telling a story about it.
Talk to me about that. That’s such an interesting point.
Well, it’s very easy to get people worked up. They’re mad and they’re angry. Twittering. That’s easy, but to make people think — dramatize something where people go, “Oh my God.” That’s hard and that requires a lot of deep thinking on your part. This is hard. I find it hard — this whole thing. It’s hard to be smart, you know? It’s hard to create this world and say something true. And that’s the goal.
So you’re getting people angry and upset — how do you see the audience taking that? What do you see the audience doing with that emotion? Because this isn’t necessarily an activism show. You’re not like, “Take a strong stand against Nazis.”
Well, in a way it is, and I’ll tell you why. I think the vast majority of people — this is going to sound like a very controversial thing, and I’m aware of this when I give these interviews. What I’m saying is dangerous because it could be misinterpreted and used against me so easily.
I’ll do my best not to do that.
The vast majority of people — the German people who were in Nazi Germany — were good people. They were good people just like us. It just so happened that they lived in a time where there was an evil government in place. And millions of them gave their lives to an evil cause and were part of one of the greatest evils ever committed in humanity. But they were good people. And they were part of a machine that did terrible things.
I think I remember reading somewhere that at its peak, only 10 percent of the German population was officially a member of the Nazi party–
I don’t know. It could be. I’m no expert on history or Nazi history. I’ve done all the research I can for the show, but I still have to consult historians all the time to make sure I’m not screwing it up. But what I’m saying is — this book and this project say to me — don’t assume the good guys are going to win. There’s nothing inevitable about that. Good guys could lose. It does happen. And we like to think of ourselves as the good guys, and we always like to talk like we’re going to win. And we may not.
But the thing is, also, don’t assume you’re a good guy. Think about what’s being done in your name and insist that it be true to your values because otherwise you could become the very thing you’re fighting against. And I think there were many, many people in Germany who were convinced they were the good guys. Now they’ve lost the war, and it’s very clear they weren’t. And in our show they’ve won the war and they are convinced they’re the good guys. But I really hope people will look at this and go, what’s the difference between us and them? And I don’t say that to say there is no difference.
There is a difference, but only if we make sure of it. I think this show has a lot of things to say to people right now in 2015. I mean, terrorists in my show are us. The people who believe in our values, those are the terrorists. I mean, think about that. We have a war on terror. Just think about if the tables were turned.
When you think about war, you don’t often think about the aftermath or the side effects of it, of life what is essentially under foreign rule. So it’s interesting, as well, how in the show you’ve integrated German and Japanese cultures into American culture.
And you see your own culture more clearly as a result. I’m an ex-patriot. I lived in Europe for the last five years and it gives you a perspective on what it means to be an American by being taken out of your culture and seeing it from afar and seeing it the way other people see it, which is useful.
I’m curious, how much fun you have creating all the cultural elements. The TV-shows-within-the-show? That sort of thing.
I love it. Actually it was hard to find the name of a game show that wasn’t real. [“Guess My Game”] was one of the few that I could come up with that never actually existed. But it is fun to think, what are the elements of our culture that would exist in that world but be slightly twisted. There’s a show on the Nazi side called “American Reich” which we’ll see and it’s like “Dragnet,” but with Nazi cops, and it’s so close it’s funny.
And it’s put against this huge backdrop.
Huge backdrop. Endless backdrop.
The idea is such a huge one.
Yeah, I could go all over the world. I really could, and as long as it’s centered around these characters, they can take you anywhere.
I was going to say, could you almost do something like where “The Wire” technically had a consistent cast over the five years, but year two was the docks…
Yep. Absolutely. And I do think this is the kind of show where no two seasons will be alike. It’s not the typical TV thing, where now we’ve got our set-up, so we’ll keep doing that for seven years. It’ll change. Every year will change.
That’s exciting. Do you know in your head what Season 2 is right now?
It’s beginning to become very clear to me because we’ve written Episode 10, so I had to know before that was written where Season 2 was going to go. So I wouldn’t say I have it all worked out, but I have a lot of it.
When an Amazon executive introduced you today [at Amazon’s TCA presentation], he kind of brought in the idea that there are good things about this world. That was something I imagine you deliberately inserted into the conversation.
I’ll tell you where that comes from; at least for me where that comes from. For another project, I toured the Stasi — the East German Secret Police Prison in Berlin — which is a terrible place. It was so creepy and disturbing. The guy giving us a tour had actually been a prisoner in this place. It’s actually two prisons. It’s the prison that they have from 1945-1962, which is really grim, a medieval torture chamber. And then it’s 1962 to the end of the regime, which is modern and scientific and kind of even scarier.
But anyway, you tour this thing and it’s a nightmare; this place where people were taken and tortured physically and psychologically. There was a woman who was with the Berlin commission who was taking the tour with me. And when it was over she said, “I have to tell you. I grew up in East Germany. And obviously all this was horrible and terrible. I didn’t know any of this was going on. I was a child. But I still miss it. I miss East Germany because everybody had a job. Everybody had a home. We knew all of our neighbors. We felt safe. There was very little crime. You knew what the price of bread would be next week. There weren’t seven types of ketchup, but there were two. That’s all you really need.” And I’d never met anybody honest enough to admit that there are things about– I mean, that’s another type of freedom. You were free to have a job. Know the price of bread. You weren’t free to say what you wanted or have whatever religion or sexual orientation you wanted, but you had these other economic freedoms, and it just– That was very important to me in designing this series was to be truthful about that.
There’s this amazing quote from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” where one of the matrons tells the women subjugated that they used to have “freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.”
That’s right. That’s absolutely right. And that’s an interesting argument. My desire as a storyteller is not to tell people what to think because I don’t know the answers to all these questions. I just think the more I can get people to think, the better. And just think: What do you stand for? What does America stand for? I think America is one of the most beautiful ideas ever. But it’s up to each generation to realize that idea, or honor it, or not. We always fail. To some degree we fail. And there are times in history when we get closer to the ideal and sometimes we fail way back. But the more mindful we are of what’s involved, and what it takes to reach that idea, the more likely we are to succeed.
This all makes it sound like “Man in the High Castle” is going to be extremely patriotic.
Well, I would say I think that there is patriotism in it. Because it’s about what does freedom really mean, and what are you going to sacrifice for it? And really. Not in kind of shallow way, but in a real human way hopefully. That’s what it’s about. That’s one of the things it’s about.
In terms of the cast, how do you feel like they’ve come together?
I think we did really well with our cast and they love it and it shows. I mean when I’m watching the dailies, you feel like these are all people who want to be there or are giving it their all and finding what’s in there. It doesn’t always go that way. It’s been great. It’s been really a very happy, dedicated group.
How real is the danger? How many actors on your team are afraid for their lives?
Well, I suppose they all should be. It is the kind of show where anybody could die. It is that kind of show. But you know what’s happened now is there could be a predictability to that too. I would never kill somebody for the sake of surprising people or shocking people. It starts to lose its power. Obviously, there are shows– “Game of Thrones” kills people to great effect. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, but I’m not in a rush to kill people off, even though it may well happen.
Can you tease any new cast members that you’ve got coming up?
It’s not so much that they’re famous actors. I mean, there will be a famous actor, but not in Season 1, but in Season 2… I’m acting like I already have a Season 2. If there is a Season 2. But there are all kinds of actors for these smaller roles that are not easy to get and we pretty much got who we wanted.
There’s something to be said for casting really great talent as opposed to stars, because with a world like this, you don’t necessarily want, “Oh hey. Tom Cruise versus the Nazis.”
We kind of deliberately didn’t want to do that. And so really, the most famous names in the case are Rufus Sewell and Cary Tagawa. But we were very, very happy to pick actors that weren’t as well known, for that very reason.
This is something we’re talking about more and more, as things get flexible with episode orders. How are you feeling about 10?
Good. Ten is good. I mean even 12 would be alright, but I wouldn’t go beyond that. It’s big. It’s really heavy lifting — intellectually, it’s heavy lifting. It’s not an easy show.
So, even just for you as a writer it’s exhausting–?
It’s exhausting. It’s hard. It’s really hard. But rewarding. I love stories that are about something, but the challenge in this is keeping it about the characters and being emotionally true and also making sure that it’s serving these ideas that are inherent in this world. Because if you forgot about the ideas, it becomes a less interesting show and it needs to both at the same time.
In terms of that: Taking out the ideas makes it less interesting, but is there also the pressure to make sure you’ve got a ripping yarn going?
Of course. My first job in television was “The X-Files,” and that was very good training in making sure there’s narrative and you’re entertaining. I believe in that. Even with the freedom of streaming television and variable program length, I have that sort of self-imposed discipline of making sure I’m entertaining people. But there is a benefit to slowing down and not going too fast and making sure you’re really getting into who these characters are before you move onto the next bit of plot. So, I think this series starts out with a lot of plot and the season ends with a lot of plot, but in the middle it allows you to breathe and really feel the texture of life for people, and the reality of it — which is the most interesting thing.
The first season of “The Man in the High Castle” premieres November 20 on Amazon Prime.