New York City never takes center stage in the Philip K. Dick novel on which Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is based, but the Nazi-occupied metropolis opens the upcoming small-screen adaptation with a sweeping sequence that culminates in a shot of what production designer Drew Boughton calls a “perverted, corrupted Times Square.”
The 33-second, mostly CGI creation was important to establishing the cinematic look of the series, which sees the United States 15 years after the Allies lost World War II. During that time, the country was split into three sections (the Nazis occupy the East, the Japanese the West, and the neutral zone acts as a buffer between the two). In this nightmarish alternate history, the East seems more imposing, as Nazism rules the region. And to get that opening sequence right, Boughton, executive producer Frank Spotnitz, and the pilot’s director David Semel paid attention to every detail. “It was an attempt to fill out the world of the novel,” Spotnitz says of the choice to begin with Times Square. “That’s the real power of this show, the desecration of our public symbols by foreign occupation. Everybody responds to that on a really deep level.”
To envision the shot (which can be seen in the pilot available on Amazon), the team first researched the era of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Semel remembers looking through old photos of New York, as well as images of German cities like Munich to get a feel for the architecture that may have survived during Nazism’s 15 years of unfettered victory in the world of High Castle. EP Ridley Scott also contributed a visual style guide, with photos from films he thought matched the tone of Dick’s book, including his own Blade Runner, which was itself an adaptation of a Dick novel.
That research led to the first sketches of a twisted Times Square. Boughton produced this sketch below of a neon-drenched intersection where billboards gleamed prominently and one theater boasted a film starring Cary Grant and Doris Day. Both of those elements would make it into the final shot above, but the blimp in the sky would later be erased, as Spotnitz didn’t want the shot to evoke too much of a wartime feel. (For a closer look at the full sketch, click here or open the image in a new window.)
And then came shooting the sequence. Production decided to shoot in Seattle instead of New York, because “Times Square of today is so much more than the Times Square of that era,” Semel says. There, the team scoured for an intersection that mimicked the New York landmark; when they didn’t find the right location, they chose to film in an empty parking lot just south of Seattle.
On the scene, the actors walked among a few German pre-1950s cars that production had placed on the set. Red lights were perched above them, steeping them in a reddish glow. A newsstand filled with English- and German-language newspapers and magazines stood as a marker for the visual effects team. Luke Kleintank, who stars as Joe, strolled out of a theater and across the lot, past the newsstand. And from there, VFX took care of the rest, seamlessly adding the CGI sequence — everything after the camera pans past the newsstand — to the practical sequence filmed with the actors.
Months after finishing the opening, Boughton still recalls how difficult it was to pull off. “I mean, it’s easy now for Frank, David, and I to explain how we did this,” he says. “It was very bare bones and it was a bit frightening, to be honest, because you had to trust that all of this work was going to be created and it was going to be amazing.” Here, the team tells EW what to look out for in the shot:
Boughton and his team designed each of the nearly 40 billboards in the scene. At first they included mostly German products, but Spotnitz wanted the ads to evoke ideology instead. “There was some early concept art done that showed ads for beer and sausage and pretzels, and I thought, ‘That’s not the point.'” he says. “I wanted those billboards to reflect a society where agriculture and industry are the driving economic ideologies.”
When Boughton decided to replace the red-and-white Coca-Cola ad that anchored Times Square in the 1960s (above) with the glaring Nazi symbol, he wanted to show how American ideology had adapted to Nazism. “There’s just something very American about a neon sign,” he says. “The truth is, it isn’t as simple as, ‘The Nazis conquered New York and put up a sign.’ It’s really the Nazis conquered New York and joined with American collaborators and things became a mixture.” Spotnitz immediately approved of the idea. “It just hits you on so many levels to see a symbol of New York and American energy and optimism and vibrancy defaced with a swastika,” he explains. “It’s like a punch in the stomach.”
Pay close attention to the names written on theater marquees, including the ones you see when the sequence begins: Rock Hudson and June Allyson, starring in a film called The Punch Party. The title is meant to sound like a sequel to The Punch Bowl, the 1944 film that became a popular comedy in Nazi Germany. “We used actors like Rock Hudson who would have survived a transition to Nazi America,” Semel says.
Semel smothered the scene in Nazi-American insignia as well as the swastikas. “Typically what an invading country tends to do is give deference to the conquered country. So we made an amalgamation of a Nazi armband and the American flag,” Semel says. As Boughton explains it, “The more familiar it is, the more terrifying it is.” The director says being meticulous was necessary. “Because it’s streaming and available for people to watch over and over again, we just wanted to make sure that what they did see stood up to that scrutiny.”
RELATED VIDEO: ‘The Man in the High Castle’ teaser trailer
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The Man in the High Castle hits Amazon on Nov. 20.
Check out our interview with the cast and Frank Spotnitz below.