On a Fascist Frontier
Artists bring an ominous fantasy to life in an Amazon Studios drama.
In a scene from The Man in the High Castle, a family eats breakfast in their comfortable Long Island home.
Their interaction seems familiar — except that Dad is wearing a Nazi uniform, a swastika emblazoned on his arm.
Set in 1962 and based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, the Amazon Studios series depicts America in a world where the fascist Axis powers have won World War II and Adolf Hitler still rules. The U.S. is divided into three zones: the Nazis rule the East and Midwest, the Japanese control the West, and a so-called Neutral Zone stretches across the Rocky Mountains.
The story's focal point is a series of newsreels — and the battles to obtain those reels — whose footage depicts the world as if the Allies had won, suggesting a possible disparate ending to the war.
Creating an environment for this alternative-reality period piece — as envisioned by creator-executive producer Frank Spotnitz — had its unique challenges; emmy contributor Libby Slate spoke with some of the artists responsible for the series' look and music.
DREW BOUGHTON, PRODUCTION DESIGNER
To create the color palettes that define the three U.S. zones, Boughton consulted with costume designer Audrey Fisher and pilot director-executive producer David Semel.
"We decided to limit the colors in New York to blacks, grays and browns," he says. "The region is very restricted, very conforming." The exception was the muted red backgrounds of items bearing swastikas, most notably a neon sign in New York's Times Square.
The Japanese-held zone is "open to other colors — water colors, blues, that put you on the West Coast. The Neutral Zone is all colors, but muted: our American life continues there, but in a muted way."
The Times Square swastika is the most striking example of what Boughton terms "the strong juxtaposition of small details and big details — you put Nazis in any image that is American, and it gives you a very disturbing visual." Cars are German; phones are European-style; household appliances are German-designer sleek.
A scene with the aging Hitler was shot in a former Nazi-controlled building in Berlin. "To know we were filming where Hitler had actually walked gave you a real sense of history," Boughton says, "and was also kind of terrifying."
BRENDA MEYERS-BALLARD, SET DECORATOR
When shooting the pilot in Washington, a schedule change meant that an apartment set planned for filming in Seattle instead needed to be filmed in Roslyn, where the company was stationed.
So Meyers-Ballard improvised: to find the period curtains she wanted, she walked through Roslyn's residential streets, hoping to spot something appropriate — then had to sweet-talk a snarling guard dog to get close enough to leave a note for the absent homeowner.
That kind of resourcefulness served Meyers- Ballard well throughout the project. "They had picked Seattle [as a stand-in for Japanese-held San Francisco] because of its wonderful casement windows and walls," says the decorator, who shipped 10 train cars of set dressing from prop houses and other sources in Los Angeles, "Then you'd walk inside, and it was all spas and restaurants."
Meyers-Ballard brought in period office furnishings and supplies, some of which had been aged; all three U.S. zones required a sci-fi-futuristic, yet also retro, feel.
"You can't just go get index cards from Staples," she points out. "I went down alleys in Seattle to see if there might be an older man still working, who had [older supplies]. We did find items that way."
AUDREY FISHER, COSTUME DESIGNER
To capture the image of oppressed Americans in 1962, Fisher tapped into the memory of a teenage experience in the 1980s, when her German godmother took her to East Berlin.
"We went to a department store, which was a gray warehouse. It was dusty; the racks had weird clothes on them that were 15 years behind — they were frozen [in time]," she recalls.
Accordingly, Fisher shopped vintage shops and flea markets and rented from costume houses in Los Angeles and Vancouver, where the series was shot. Some costumes were custom-made from vintage fabrics.
For a jacket for rebel Juliana (Alexa Davalos), "I found the perfect vintage fabric, a cross-hatch wool of blue woven with green," she says. "It has a different feel than modern fabrics. It takes you into that time more deeply. It's a lovely gift to give the actor for the time they're traveling to."
For the Nazi garb, "We all felt that the [authentic] black SS uniform was the strongest choice for the American SS uniform," Fisher says. "It's power black." The swastika design was tweaked a bit, with the black replaced with navy — reminiscent of American red, white and blue.
JAMES HAWKINSON, CINEMATOGRAPHER
When Hawkinson created the look for the pilot, it was full of gritty tones, dramatic use of light and shadow, and taut camera movements to evoke a moodiness and on-edge feeling that reflected the characters' lives.
"I like to conceive a journey for your eyes," says Hawkinson, who alternated work on the remaining nine episodes with Gonzalo Amat. One of the first scenes tracks double agent Joe (Luke Kleintank) as he leaves a movie theater and walks to Times Square, with its neon swastika.
"We start at the left corner of the frame and take a journey across the screen," Hawkinson describes. "Then bang! Your eye can't do anything but focus on that swastika."
It's not just camera angles: "A cinematographer, by his lights, should conceive the direction he wants you to look," he adds. Filters also help to set scenes: one filter produced the striking effect of a blue light horizontally intersecting car headlights, creating a cold, menacing feeling.
The pivotal newsreels in the pilot were assembled from stock footage, then re-created in black and white for later episodes. "We see Joe and the Nazis killing people," Hawkinson says. "It's a glimpse into another world."
DOMINIC LEWIS, COMPOSER
An uneasy creepiness seeps into the series from its very start. In the opening title sequence, stark American and Nazi images are underscored by a chilling rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein's ode to World War II Austrian patriotism, "Edelweiss."
"We can't take credit for using the song," says Lewis, who shared composing duties with Henry Jackman. "David Semel made a big push for it."
He did use what he calls "sound-design elements" throughout the series, "elements I came up with that you wouldn't necessarily think were music."
An app named PaulStretch, for instance, stretched the sound of wind chimes when characters were watching newsreels. "You get a warped, weird, dreamy sound," he explains, "that helps create that vibe of 'What's going on?'"
Lewis opted for a mix of traditional and non-traditional instruments; among the latter was the guitar-like Dobro, crafted from a cigar-box body. High-pitched instruments such as violins created an uncomfortable feeling. The driving thrum of drums and other percussion helped build tension.
Lewis composed themes for some characters and sometimes improvised, playing them himself. At the end of a tense scene, when Juliana starts to sob, "I set up my sound design," he says, "and I sat down and played Juliana's theme on my cello."