With over 20 years of experience in the entertainment industry, Frank Spotnitz has a career that many strive for but that few achieve. Having initially built his reputation working on the classic show The X-Files and its two spin-offs, Millennium and The Lone Gunmen (which Spotnitz co-created), Spotnitz has worked on over a dozen shows in his life. A recent show that Spotnitz developed was the critically acclaimed series for Amazon Studios, The Man in the High Castle. Wanting to learn more about how Spotnitz adapted Philip K. Dick’s novel to the television and his career in general, Spotnitz was kind enough to allow me to interview him.
Nicholas Yanes: When did you know that you wanted to have a career in the entertainment industry? Was there a show or movie that you think inspired you to become a writer?
Frank Spotnitz: I knew it from a very early age. As a child I watched endless amounts of television and went to the movies as often as I could. Sometimes I would sit through the same movie two or three times in a day. And, in those pre-VHS days, I made audio recordings of the TV shows I loved. That’s how deep my passion for it was. I can’t say I was a terribly discriminate viewer – I watched everything. But the shows I was most in love with were Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, The Avengers and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I loved lots and lots of movies, but certainly the James Bond and Planet of the Apes series also made a huge impression on me as a teenager. But I devoured everything – from Hollywood movies featuring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart to the silent movies of King Vidor, Chaplin and Harold Lloyd to the great American movies of the ‘70s, like The Godfather, All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor. I draw on these references all the time in my own writing to this day.
Yanes: It is incredibly difficult to even get the opportunities needed to start a career as a writer. What do you think was your big break into writing and producing?
Spotnitz: You’re absolutely right, and around the time I got to college, I decided it was too difficult to make it in Hollywood and instead pursued a career as a reporter. I wrote for the wire services for seven years before realizing I needed to go back to Los Angeles and try to make it somehow. I was very fortunate that I met Chris Carter and he hired me after I graduated from the American Film Institute to work on The X-Files. That was my big break, and in many ways was my second film school.
Yanes: You spent years working on The X-Files. How does it make you feel to know that this show is still immensely popular and has influenced several shows that came after it?
Spotnitz: Thrilled. I remember at the time discussing with Chris our ambition that this be a series that would withstand the test of time. It’s hugely gratifying that people not only remember it fondly, but continue to watch it all these years later.
Yanes: One of your most recent shows is The Man in the High Castle – which is based on the Philip K. Dick novel. What was your first encounter with this novel and Philip K. Dick’s work?
Spotnitz: My first encounter with Philip K. Dick was Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. I remember then coming across The Man in the High Castle in the UCLA book store. It was an incredibly powerful reading experience, and it really struck me that this was a world where the bad guys won. There are many powerful ideas in the book, but that one – the realization that good does not always prevail – is what stayed with me.
Yanes: What was the inspiration for turning The Man in the High Castle into a show? Specifically, what about the story made it feel like it could work as a television show?
Spotnitz: When I was asked if I wanted to adapt it, I remembered my fondness for the book in college and said yes without re-reading it. It was when I read it again that I realized what a challenging book it was to adapt. I was stuck for a number of weeks, because I saw I was going to have to invent a narrative that wasn’t in the book in order to turn it into a television series. And I didn’t want to be one of those writers who gets criticized for not being faithful to Philip K. Dick. Ultimately I decided to identify the themes I thought were most important in the book – how to maintain one’s humanity in an inhumane world, and what is the nature of reality – and then build out the story consistent with those themes.
Yanes: A significant difference between the show and the novel is that the narrative within the story – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – is in a different medium. What was the reason for turning The Grasshopper Lies Heavy into a series of films instead of keeping it as a novel?
Spotnitz: That was the first change that suggested itself to me. Knowing that television is a visual medium, it just made sense to me to make The Grasshopper Lies Heavy a film or films instead of a book. And I sensed there would be a visceral power to the viewer, witnessing people see these newsreels that we’ve all seen all our lives.
Yanes: The Man in the High Castle was a visually stunning show. How did you go about making the show look so incredible? Given that you were born in Japan, did this influence how you wanted the Japanese Pacific States to be depicted in the show?
Spotnitz: I was born in Japan and left fairly early, at the age of 4, but it’s always occupied a big place in my imagination. I thought there were really two Japans represented in The Man in the High Castle – the fascist Japan represented by Inspector Kido, a character I invented for the series, and the more spiritual, Buddhist Japan represented by the Tagomi character. And these two Japans are fundamentally at odds with each other.
Visually, I have to give huge credit to the incredibly talented Drew Boughton, our production designer, the pilot director David Semel, and Dan Percival, a director who joined the series as a producer starting with Episode 2. And all of us were of course deeply influenced by Ridley Scott, who provided invaluable insights and advice about how to approach the material.
Yanes: The Man in the High Castle was made for Amazon Video. Given that you have spent several years working with traditional TV networks, what are some ways working with a streaming service like Amazon differs from a television network?
Spotnitz: The resources are vast and, in the first season, I felt I was given huge freedom to explore the ideas that I wanted to explore.
Yanes: Years from now, how do you hope people remember your work on The Man in the High Castle?
Spotnitz: I hope it’s a show that stays with people. One that makes them think about the world they live in and appreciate that history is made by us. We can’t assume the good guys will win – and in fact, they won’t unless we fight to make it happen.
Yanes: Going forward, what are some projects you are working on that people can look forward to?
I’m now chief executive of Big Light, a London-based production company whose credits include The Man in the High Castle as well as a very ambitious slate of new drama projects. I’m hugely proud of Medici: Masters of Florence, which just played on RAI in Italy to record audiences, and Ransom, a new series for CBS, TF1, Corus and RTL, that will be coming out next year. And we’re just about to start filming The Indian Detective, starring the comedian Russell Peters, which should be great fun.