Creator Frank Spotnitz talks the hardest scene to write in the pilot.
The Man in the High Castle has arrived on Amazon, and if you’re binge-watching the series, EW has you covered with postmortems for each episode. Creator Frank Spotnitz, who adapted Philip K. Dick’s original novel for the small screen, answers burning questions and talks in-depth about the major story beats. Read on for his thoughts on episode 1, “The New World.”
In the series premiere, we meet Juliana (Alexa Davalos), a woman in the Pacific States living a happy life with her boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans), and Joe (Luke Kleintank), a new member of the Resistance in the Reich, who end up meeting in the neutral zone. Elsewhere in the conquered and divided U.S., tensions are brewing between the Japanese and German leadership.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were your goals for this pilot? It was released alongside several other Amazon pilots back in January, and that model must have been challenging to work with while crafting a show.
FRANK SPOTNITZ: I wanted people to understand this world and the rules of this world, but more importantly, I wanted them to think about what it would be like if you were actually living in that world, the daily life, not just the spy stuff and shootouts and cloak and dagger. That was the thing that struck me the most about the novel.
What was the toughest scene to write in that pilot?
The scene in the bar with Frank and Juliana. I could not get it right. In fact, I rewrote it on set, and we actually didn’t fix it until the second take had been filmed, and then I think we got it right. That was a really tough one, because in one scene, you needed to see that these people love each other, and that there’s a tension between them because of whether they should have children in this world. And establishing the love for each other quickly was really tough.
How did the scene change?
Well, I didn’t change it radically, but just in getting the sense that Frank really loved Juliana and Juliana loved being with Frank before they start talking about her getting a job and having kids, which leads to the tension in the scene. I can’t remember what the dialogue was before, but it didn’t quite work. When we saw Rupert and Alexa do the scene, the actors and all of us, we were like, “This isn’t working.” It didn’t feel right, it didn’t click.
Looking back at writing that pilot, do you remember how it felt to adapt the book?
I have to say, this was a script that for me, I really agonized about before I wrote it. I agonized about the changes I had to make from the novel, which I didn’t want to make, but then when I wrote it, I actually wrote it pretty quickly. I think I wrote it over Christmas vacation in a two-week period.
One of the major changes from the book is Juliana’s background. In the book, she and Frank are already divorced. In the series, they’re together, living contentedly in San Francisco. What went into deciding to change that core relationship?
In the book, they’ve already split and she’s living in Canon City and he’s in San Francisco, and that just doesn’t work for a television series, because you need to have seen them as a couple to care about the fact that they split. So I did reach the conclusion fairly early on that I needed to rewind time a bit, to understand the nature of that relationship and feel the drama of seeing it threatened.
The other thing that was significant as a consequence of that is that Joe becomes a threat. It creates a love triangle, but it’s more than just a love triangle, it’s two different ways to live in the world. Frank is an intellectual, an artist living in Japanese-occupied San Francisco, while Joe is more of a working-class guy and, well, a Nazi.
Was there one change in particular that gave you a lot of pause?
I mean, the one thing I felt was I wanted to see New York. In the book, it was distant and talked about, but in the TV series, I knew I was going to have this deep interest in seeing what New York was like under Nazi occupation. I didn’t have any characters other than Joe to anchor that side of the country, so I created the Rufus Sewell character, John Smith, both to give more story time to New York and to create an antagonist because the book was lacking in antagonists.
The episode ends with the Joe reveal, but also with Frank’s capture, during which we glimpse Juliana’s friend, Doni, from the dojo watching him. Why did you include him in this already shocking scene?
So I thought that character, Doni, was just sweet. I wanted to show this sweet kid who kind of has a crush on Juliana get victimized by the state as well. He’s dismayed when he sees that film in the satchel when he runs into her outside her apartment, and then when you see him at the end, it’s clear they’ve gotten to him. He’s got a gash or a bruise on his face. They’ve made him talk. So, it was a way of suggesting how they may have gotten to Frank but also showing another side of the brutality or the cruelty of this society.
One last thing to highlight from the pilot: Joe and Juliana’s meeting. It’s shot in such a romantic way, with soft lighting and everything. How did you go about writing that pivotal moment?
That was really David Semel, the pilot director who wanted to shoot it that way. The script wasn’t necessarily so romantic, and she was probably a bit more wary of him, but I think he was right to shoot it that way. It’s like a seduction, and there’s a little sexual frisson to it, and it makes the reveal that he’s a Nazi immediately after all the more shocking and worrying.
The Man in the High Castle is available for streaming on Amazon.