Red, Reich and Blue: Building the World of ‘The Man in the High Castle’

This new series on Amazon imagines a world in which the Axis powers triumphed in World War II and carved up America into three zones: the Greater Nazi Reich in the East and Midwest, ruled from New York; the Japanese Pacific States, ruled from San Francisco; and a derelict neutral zone splitting them, running roughly along the Rocky Mountains.
November 19, 2015
Rufus Sewell as a high-ranking apparatchik in the Amazon series "The Man in the High Castle."
What if Hitler had won?
That concept, a grim thought experiment for historians and science-fiction writers, became something more complicated for the producers of “The Man in the High Castle.”
This new series on Amazon imagines a world in which the Axis powers triumphed in World War II and carved up America into three zones: the Greater Nazi Reich in the East and Midwest, ruled from New York; the Japanese Pacific States, ruled from San Francisco; and a derelict neutral zone splitting them, running roughly along the Rocky Mountains.
Set in 1962, the series required the show’s creators to conceive and build a world that was recognizably American but reflective of its foreign overseers. This tension is expressed both in grandiose moments, like a shot of an immense neon swastika in Times Square, and in subtler signals of a dreary, occupied America that never experienced a postwar boom.
“You have to go somewhat astray, but you can’t go too far, or else it’s no longer going to feel right in our imaginations,” said Frank Spotnitz, the former producer for “The X-Files” who created this show. “It’s a period drama for a period that never was.”
The 10-episode series, which will be available on Amazon on Friday, is based on a 1962 novel by the visionary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick.
The action involves an emerging alternate Cold War between Japan and Germany and hinges largely on a young woman named Juliana (Alexa Davalos), who discovers a contraband film suggesting that things might not be as they appear.
Mr. Spotnitz and others recently discussed how they built the world of “The Man in the High Castle.”
When Mr. Spotnitz was researching the pilot script, he talked to a number of historians about how the Axis powers could have prevailed in World War II and generally freshened up the historical underpinnings of the original story, which was written over 50 years ago. In a somewhat tangential example, Hitler is dying in the series from Parkinson’s disease, which many historians believe he actually had, instead of syphilis, as the novel had it.
But more important, Mr. Spotnitz wanted to know “what kind of world would he have built if he had won?”
“That’s really what the show is about: the values of a fascist society,” he said.
The producers did not want to simply overlay superficial bits of German and Japanese culture onto scenes in New York and San Francisco, but instead sought to investigate how Axis tenets would look through a midcentury American filter.
Early production art for the Times Square sequence included billboards for beer and sausages, but Mr. Spotnitz had them changed to signs promoting the value of work and duty. A scene in the home of a Nazi Party boss emblematically named Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) was shot as if it were a vintage family sitcom, the son complaining over the breakfast table about a self-promoting Hitler Youth chum at school. His father patiently explains that his son will be a greater credit to his country, because selfishness is what ruined America before the war.
“If you squint and ignore the fact that the guy has a swastika on his arm,” Mr. Spotnitz said, “it looks a lot like ‘Father Knows Best.’”
Say Goodbye to Color
America’s actual postwar period included racial segregation and the onset of the Cold War, but on the surface it was a time of great optimism, with space age automobile aesthetics and Glenn Miller giving way to Elvis on the radio. But in a defeated America, there would be no ’57 Chevy, no poodle skirts, no rock ’n’ roll.
The producers settled on a desaturated color palette to signal the bleakness of an occupied nation as well the utilitarian values of its fascist conquerors. The washed-out look is “also part of what makes it feel like the past,” Mr. Spotnitz said.
But they wanted to “do it the old-fashioned way,” said Drew Boughton, the production designer, instead of using technical effects to turn down the color. Much of the early action takes place in dingy interiors: factories, bars, Juliana’s bunkerlike San Francisco apartment. For vehicles, the producers opted for plain sedans — there was a strict no-fins policy — and trucks in muted hues.
Audrey Fisher, the costume designer, took her cues from a trip she made to East Berlin in the 1980s. “It seemed like time had stopped 20 years before, and there was a gray haze over everything, so I used that as a jumping-off point,” she said.
For the civilian characters, that meant earth tones and very few patterns, and any newly constructed clothes were distressed to make them look old and worn. In deference to imagined modesty mandates, women on the show wear upper-arm-concealing blouses and jackets and conservative skirts; slacks were used only on rebellious female characters like Juliana’s sister, an underground operative. Men still wear hats, based on the folklore that it was John F. Kennedy who brought about the end of their popularity. “In our history, there was no John F. Kennedy,” Mr. Spotnitz said.
For the high-end attire seen on the German and Japanese elite, Ms. Fisher projected prewar trends and discussed with Mr. Spotnitz which designers survived the conflict. “I think Coco Chanel made it,” she said.
Some of the trappings, however, presented their own problems. “It’s really tough to be desaturated and still have that bright Nazi red,” Mr. Spotnitz said.
Erase, but Sparingly
Computer-generated imagery was of course a core component, fleshing out signature sequences like the Times Square scene and shots of a Japanese San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
But such effects were not as pervasive as one might think, in part because “I don’t like it,” Mr. Spotnitz said. “It always throws me out of the story when I can tell, and I can always tell.”
Perhaps 20 percent of any given big exterior shot was digitally manipulated, said Curt Miller, the senior visual effects supervisor, much of it a matter of subtraction. In sweeping helicopter shots of the Manhattan skyline, for example, technicians removed any obvious postwar skyscrapers, including the United Nations complex. The visual effects team inserted a hulking Nazi headquarters in its place. “We were very careful, in all of our shots, to make sure it was the tallest building, to make it look menacing and imposing,” said Terry Hutcheson, a visual effects producer.
In most cases, the biggest challenge was getting access to buildings that do exist. The owners of many buildings sought for the show refused to participate “when they heard we wanted to hang a Nazi swastika on front,” Mr. Spotnitz said.
The production did what it could to keep from roiling the emotions of locals during filming, covering armbands between scenes and waiting as long as possible before hoisting inflammatory flags and banners. But some awkwardness was unavoidable. During the pilot shoot in Seattle, a woman approached Mr. Spotnitz to ask about the Japanese soldiers standing outside a bus terminal. “She says, ‘I’m from the Philippines; I remember those uniforms,’” he said.
“The trickiest thing has been navigating these legitimate sensitivities,” Mr. Boughton said, “and this very upsetting idea.”
November 29, 2015