Amazon's 'Man in the High Castle' too 'expensive and dangerous' for TV networks, creator says
Former "X-Files" writer Frank Spotnitz says his cinematic new Philip K. Dick adaptation found financial and creative freedom at Amazon.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Amazon's dark new sci-fi show "The Man in the High Castle" is too "expensive" and too "dangerous" for traditional TV broadcasters, according to the show's writer and producer Frank Spotnitz.
"The Man in the High Castle" is a 10-episode series funded by Amazon and available exclusively to viewers of Amazon Video. Based on a 1962 novel by Philip K. Dick, the story explores an alternative history in which the Axis powers won World War II, leaving America divided between the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. As resistance fighters scheme to topple their oppressors, a mysterious item appears that shows a world in which things are very different.
Like Amazon's other original shows, "High Castle" began as a pilot episode that was voted on by viewers. A slow-burning and achingly cinematic vision, it's easy to see why it was Amazon's most-watched pilot so far, earning high ratings from viewers, despite the uncompromising subject matter.
The man behind the "High Castle" is writer and producer Frank Spotnitz, known to geek audiences for his work on conspira-sci-fi classic "The X-Files". He discussed the new show at a screening this week with cast members and representatives of Amazon, the company that picked up the show after conventional TV broadcasters -- the BBC in the UK and SyFy in the US -- passed on earlier versions.
"SyFy didn't give us the reason why they passed," said Spotnitz, "but I can think of two [possible reasons]. One is that it's massively expensive. It's a really expensive show, and there aren't many places that can spend the money to mount it properly. Amazon has [the money]."
Russell Morris, marketing and merchandising director of Amazon Video in the UK, refused to say at the screening how much the show cost, except to say that, "We're banking on this show." With the feedback the show has received, Amazon is confident "Man in the High Castle" will be worth the outlay. "All the data points to this being our out-and-out success," Morris said.
And Spotnitz's second reason for conventional broadcasters passing? "The subject matter is really dangerous. I think you can really offend people. We tried really hard not to, but I expect we will [offend people]," he said. "The things we're talking about are still really relevant and raw and mean a lot to people, so I can imagine broadcasters being afraid. But I think in the case of Amazon they're looking to make a statement, they're looking to stand out in a very crowded marketplace."
Morris pointed out that several networks passed on "Transparent", which centres on a transgender character played by Jeffrey Tambor, before Amazon produced the show and saw it go on to win two Golden Globes. Of course, it would be wrong to say all conventional TV broadcasters shy away from pushing the envelope. Networks such as HBO, AMC and FX are pushing the boundaries of violence, sexuality and controversial themes on shows such as "Game of Thrones", "Boardwalk Empire", "Breaking Bad" and "Sons of Anarchy".
But with programmes such as "Transparent" and "Hand of God" exploring themes of identity, mental illness and religion, it's clear Amazon isn't shying away from politically charged subjects. One recent pilot funded by the company was "Cocked", a black comedy about a conservative gun manufacturer attempting to market handguns to an untapped gay demographic. Morris said that the pilot process and feedback from viewers gives Amazon the confidence to pursue such potentially contentious subjects.
'There's a lot of freedom in this format'
Spotnitz noted other differences in the experience of creating a show for Amazon. He revealed he had "much more freedom" than on previous shows, particularly when it came to "notes", the industry term for suggested changes. "I've never had more money or fewer notes than I had on this show," he said. "I don't think it's that they didn't have more notes; I think it's that they wanted to leave it with me to sort it out.
"There's an interesting psychology when you do that," Spotnitz said. "If you give a writer 24 notes, [the writer says] 'Right, one, two, three, four -- done with the 24, I'm done.' If you give a writer three notes, but you know there's 24 things wrong with the script, [the writer is] just going to keep working on it and working on it. Which I think is a very brave strategy. I don't know if that's what they were thinking but that's the effect it had on me!"
The streaming format, which lends itself to people binge-watching several episodes or even a whole series in a short time, comes with its own opportunities for creators. "It's not the episodic model that I'm used to," say Spotnitz. "There's no format for an episode. Each episode can take its own shape. You're not having to repeat information because you can assume that most people are going to watch all 10 hours in a fairly compressed period of time, so there's a lot of freedom in this format.
"It's terrifying as well," he smiles, "because traditional television dictates the shape."
Morris added that in the streaming format, there's no need to fit into TV schedules or advertising breaks. "If episode one is going to be 40 minutes long and episode two needs to be 65 minutes long," he said, "go for it."
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"The Man in the High Castle" is produced by filmmaking legend Ridley Scott and Isa Dick Hackett, daughter of the original book's author Philip K. Dick. In 1982, Scott adapted Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" into the noir sci-fi classic "Blade Runner".
Spotnitz described it as "very daunting" to adapt such an iconic writer. "When [producer] David Zucker asked me if I wanted to adapt it, I said yes -- and then I read it again," he said. "It was a really hard thing to adapt, because it's a wonderful book -- if you haven't read it I recommend you do -- but it's not an obvious narrative. It's not an obvious television series. I struggled with it for a little while, and then I realised you have to change things. I'm not honouring [Dick] if I don't change it, I need to create a narrative and I needed to add characters to create conflict -- principally the antagonists were missing. So what I tried to do was build it out in a way that gave more opportunity to explore the ideas and themes that are so fascinating in the book."
One of the biggest themes is the question of what we would do as a normal person living in an unjust world. "As I was writing this all I'm doing is thinking about the present day," Spotnitz said, "and what the show has to say to this audience today...I think the real power of this show is not really about the Nazis or the Imperial Japanese, it's really about us and where we are surprisingly close to these people in this show."
Amazon's pilot process and the feedback it brought from viewers wasn't Spotnitz's first experience of listening to fans. He explained that "The X-Files" "really grew up with the Internet, and even then, 20 years ago, when the Internet was the baby Internet, I would go in the chatrooms and the message boards. I feel like as a writer you're trying to communicate with your audience and I wanted to see how that communication was perceived.
"I don't look at it as gospel, I look at it as a tool that I can use -- or not. I would never write to those people, but I take into account what they're saying and sometimes it's useful and sometimes it's not."
On one occasion that feedback proved very useful. "Agent Scully's sister got killed at the beginning of one season," he recalled. "I was reading the comments, this is three months later, and [people were saying] 'Agent Scully's sister got killed and they never did anything about it!' And I said, 'They're absolutely right.' I was boarding a plane and on that flight I outlined an entire episode that was dealing with the death of Scully's sister. That was the one instance I can think of where by reading the message boards I corrected a mistake."
"Comments count," he said, adding with a laugh, "especially the nice ones!"