Frank Spotnitz on lessons to be learned from The Man in the High CastleThe Red Bulletin met up with the famous show runner at the TV Festival in Monte Carlo to talk about his life after The Man in the High Castle, his new TV series and if he might be back on board for the new X-Files
The X-Files producer Frank Spotnitz’s latest series on Amazon Prime - The Man in the High Castle - is turning heads. His “What if the Nazis had won WW2” premise, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, was a huge success for the streaming juggernaut. Now he is up for a new challenge involving one of the most powerful families in European history.
THE RED BULLETIN: You left The Man in the High Castle as a showrunner.
FRANK SPOTNITZ: The reason I left The Man in the High Castle was a true case of creative differences. There were things I wanted to do that they didn’t want to do, which I respect. But I think it will still be a great show.
Were you scared to adapt a novel by Philip K. Dick? He has a cult following that’s hard to appease.
I remembered loving the book, but when I read it again I thought, “This is a really hard thing to adapt because it is not really a narrative.” I didn’t want to be one of those people who butchers Philip K. Dick. I spent weeks trying to figure out how to do it. Then I realised I am going to have to change things. I am going to have to invent a story that wasn’t in the novel, but I tried to identify the themes that the book was about.
What themes did you come up with on your own?
There are two big ones. One is: How do you maintain humanity in the face of inhumanity? Like, if you are living in a brutal society, how do you keep from becoming brutal yourself? How do you respond in a way that preserves your own humanity? And the second one, which is really tough to identify, is: What is reality? What is the nature of reality itself? That kind of crosses all of his work that I have read anyway. So I tried to construct the plot in a way that would further explore those themes. In the process of that, there is a third theme that I felt emerged, which was: What is freedom? How do you define it? People have different ideas of what freedom means.
Who chose the title song “Edelweiss”?
The editor of the pilot had heard this really weird recording of “Edelweiss” by some Japanese singer. And it was so perfect, because “Edelweiss” is actually an American song. It was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for a musical about Austrians escaping the Nazis – actually that is an alternative reality right there. I thought it was so eerie and unsettling and worked on so many levels, but we could not find the Japanese woman who sang the song to get the rights. So we did our own recording of it.
With The Man in the High Castle you wanted to show the consequences of a hate-filled ideology. Is it a commentary on the current state of political affairs?
I think that is absolutely my agenda. To make people uncomfortable. I think the thing that we like to do on the winning side of the war is say, “well, that was then. They were the bad guys. We were the good guys!” It is like: “No! That is not the way it works.” There were plenty of good people in Germany and Italy and all these countries who got seduced by an evil ideology. That could happen to anybody. All of us have to fight against it. It is something unfortunate in humanity—this instinct to hate, to be intolerant, to act violently. That is something we always have to guard against.
Can you tell us a bit about the second season of The Man in the High Castle?
It is not like the first season. It enlarges the world. The characters change position dramatically. Which I think this platform demands. Traditional television is sort of the same thing, but different every week. This is more like a novel form and in a novel people change through time and space.
Your next series is Medici: Masters of Florence. Why do you think period dramas appeal to modern audiences so much?
This is my first historical drama and I realised I like it for the same reason I like science fiction. Because when you do history, you must interpret it. History doesn’t record everything so you have to invent things to fill in the gaps. The Medici saga is an incredible story – so rich and interesting and unique - unlike anything else, I think has been done. At the beginning of our show we ask the question: What if Giovanni de Medici – who was the founder of the largest and most respected bank in Europe – was murdered? We don’t know whether he was murdered. He may well have been. There were attempts on his life, but history doesn’t actually record what his cause of death was. But if he was murdered, that creates a question for his sons. And it created a frame for our story, a way to organise it.
Were you happy with the new run of the X-Files?
I was thrilled. I never stopped being in contact with the X-Files fans online. I was supporting them and trying to get this going, and they were raising money and had all these events for years trying to bring the X-Files back. I was so happy that it finally happened. I was just disappointed that I couldn’t do it because I was doing The Man in the High Castle. But now it looks like they will do it again.
Is there a chance that you will work on that?
You never know. I am emotionally attached to it, so …
What do you think about the cliff-hanger on the X-Files?
Ah, I don’t know what he was thinking. I want to see it resolved. I didn’t know. I was watching and was as surprised as you.
Which shows are you watching at the moment?
The truth is I have very little time to watch TV. The only shows I watch religiously (because Vince Gilligan is a friend of mine who worked on X-Files) are Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.