Turning Philip K. Dick’s dark, dense novel about an alternate 1962 (in which the Axis powers won World War II and carved up the U.S.) into a 10-episode thriller intimidated even Ridley Scott—who famously turned Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into 1982’s Blade Runner. The Man in the High Castle, however, works as both a science fiction drama and a period piece as it follows two charactes: a man (Luke Kleintank) in the Nazi-occupied east U.S. who tangles with the Resistance, and a woman (Alexa Davalos) in the Japanese-controlled West who discovers a film showing an alternate history where the Allies won.
Scott, who serves as an executive producer for the series, talked to EW about the challenge of crafting a show that has to transport viewers to the post-war era, albeit a changed one, as well as immerse them into a distinctly unsettling atmosphere. For him, that world-building meant creating a visual language just for the series in a “house book.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve obviously worked with material by Philip K. Dick before. When did you first consider The Man in the High Castle as your next foray into Dick’s works?
RIDLEY SCOTT: I think it probably goes all the way back to my dealings with him [while working on Blade Runner]. I met with him at the time, and he hadn’t seen much of Blade Runner, because I just wanted to get the thing done and shot and to put in my special effects. At that point, I personally thought it was turning out so well I invited him to see the operation, particularly the opening shot, and he said he was kind of stunned. I don’t think he expected that. He said, “Have you read The Man in the High Castle?” And I said, “In fact, I haven’t.” He said, “Good lord, this seems to be very derived from High Castle.” So with that, I read the book.
Why did you want to turn the novel into a series?
I thought it was kind of a really challenging thing to do. I’d seen a film done by a man called Kevin Brownlow. He’s quite an important early filmmaker in England before my time, and he had done a film called It Happened Here, and of course, it was precisely that notion of, “What if they had won, and we’d lost?” And so you suddenly had Piccadilly Circus full of German SS officers walking arm-in-arm with the local girls. It was bizarre to see that, because remember, I’m a bit of a war baby myself. When I lived in up north [in England] at that particular point [after the war], we had German prisoners integrating into the local farms up there, and interestingly enough, not one of them ever wanted to go back to Germany. So I was kind of steeped in it a little bit, because [The Man in the High Castle] happens about 17 years after the war, and so it’s not very many years after, and I always had it in mind. When the time arose, David Zucker [a producer for the series] and I were approached and asked “Would you consider this?” I said, “Absolutely.” It was a natural, an open door, you know?
Making The Man in the High Castle requires building a believable world, a U.S. that looks and feels like a place that’s been taken over by the Axis powers. As a director, you’re known for your visuals—you’ve storyboarded entire films of yours, like Alien. Did you do any of that for this series?
Oh no, no. I’m busy. I’ll leave that to the director and to the producers. I just make sure to establish the benchmarks, the thresholds for the way it must look.
And how did you go about establishing those benchmarks?
I have, fortunately, a photographic memory, and with that I’ve got a good eye. We made a kind of “house book,” where we took stills from my and others’ favorite films, stills from movies that might relate to some of this. It includes The Third Man, inevitably a bit of Blade Runner, maybe some of the great films of the 40s and 50s and [Vittorio] Storaro, The Conformist… We made these stills into a book to say, “Okay, this is the house style,” which the other directors and cameramen will take.
So it’s like a style guide with images you thought should influence the show’s look, like a photo album?
Yes, exactly. It’s quite thick, with probably about 50 or 60 pages, quite a lot. You could open it and say, “There, there it is. There’s the universe. That’s what we want.”
Were there visuals you drew from anything other than films?
Yes. My influences [for The Man in the High Castle] were, at the time, from kind of the loneliness of Edward Hopper. He’s one of the great American 20th century painters, but I think he paints a very strange sense of time in his stillness. He paints stillness, doesn’t he? I had used him to envision some of Blade Runner, way back when.
Let’s move back to the story of The Man in the High Castle. How much of a challenge was it to turn that story into a 10-episode series?
Well, there’s a lot. It’s a hell of a book to break down. There are about 19 stories in the first 20 pages. How do you make that work? How do you get it down to the bottom line? But that was the way that Philip [K. Dick] worked. He was a very complex man with a multi-faceted brain that hopped and skipped everywhere. One of the biggest problems I had in trying to adapt Blade Runner down to its fundamentals was to squeeze it into three hours. And now we’re into 10 45-minute or 50-minute episodes, so you have a lot more space, a lot more area to move around in and tell the story. In a funny kind of way, it’s a perfect ideal density for Philip, so it was a much easier adaptation over 10 episodes than it would be for one movie.
You first read the novel in the 1980s after directing Blade Runner, but you didn’t get started on making this series until about five years ago. How does this story about an alternate 1962 relate to our world today, if it does at all?
That’s quite a question. I think that today, we’ve got such access to global contact that we never had before. When I was doing Blade Runner, we had to call across the Atlantic on a telephone, there were no cell phones. The way the world works today, we’re in tune with every nation. The Man in the High Castle is only 17 years after the war, and 1962 is the advent, the emergence, the being clear of the wars. We’re staring at success, and looking into the future with a can-do attitude, and we, today, are so far from that point, in a funny kind of way.
In other words, The Man in the High Castle is a twisted reminder of where we were in the ’60s?
What are you most excited for viewers to see or take away from the show?
Everything. I’m a director who thinks everything’s important. It’s the story first, the actors second, the presentation third, but it’s all relative, one should enhance the other. I make films that way, and I want to make sure television goes that way. I think the visual side for this is the huge proscenium that makes the story credible, [that creates] the unease of how quickly the characters gave in and integrated within the Nazi and the Japanese presence.