From executive producer Ridley Scott, and starring Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans and Rufus Sewell, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle imagines an alternate world history in which the Axis Powers took the victory in World War II. Drew Boughton was tasked with visualizing an America unlike any we’ve seen before—a dark, joyless nation divided amongst the Germans and Japanese. Below, Boughton—on set in Vancouver for Season 2 at the time of writing—discusses the world-building inspiration of Blade Runner, the challenge of researching a history that never was, and the disturbing resonance the series has in today’s America.
What notes did you receive from executive producer Ridley Scott and show creator Frank Spotnitz in your initial meetings, as far as the design and aesthetic of this series?
Ridley’s work on Blade Runner is so inspiring that it almost precedes commentary. You wait your whole career to work on a show that is in a venue, or in a world like Blade Runner. It wasn’t so much what Ridley said; it’s what he’s achieved as a filmmaker that set the table for everybody. Before we even walked in the door, it was a huge, inspirational world waiting to be discussed. And then Frank had really brilliantly taken this astonishing book that they’d been trying to produce for years and turned it into this amazing thing that can actually be shot. Frank wrote a pilot that was really just so powerful and so strong and so visual in the writing, that it wasn’t so much that he had to say anything, as much as his words kind of spoke for themselves. I think a quote that was the most influential that Frank said was, “This show will succeed when it does violence to the American dream.” That’s not so much a visual instruction as it is a conceptual assignment—like, “I don’t quite know how to do it, but you guys go and figure out how to do violence to the American dream.” (Laughs) It was a beautiful assignment.
How did you conceptualize a series set in this fictional, alternate version of history?
I think we did the usual thing you do for a period film or show, which was to research the time period heavily. In our case, we were researching the time period in different places of the world. We were researching the time period in Japan, we were researching it in Nazi Germany, and we were researching it in the United States, and then figuring it out, and doing the thought experiments and conversations to say, which things actually didn’t happen?
The thing that we landed on that’s the most interesting was when we all figured out that the things that didn’t happen (in the alternate history) were: rock and roll was never created; the 1950s postwar American commercial boom never happened. As soon as you subtract those two things from history, it changes everything about the 1950s, and therefore, the ‘60s. You can think of it like a yardstick of subtraction. And then we were able to say, OK, without those things and without the optimism, you have (a place) like East Germany under occupation. The occupied territories have a different look; there are no happy colors. You don’t have glamorous cars with big fins. It’s a different world.
The America you create feels very ‘50s, in any case, with plenty of the adjustments that you’ve mentioned. Was that the intent?
Yeah. The thing that’s really insidious, and I think where it goes back to Frank’s assignment about doing violence to the American dream…(Obergruppenführer) Smith’s house looks like an American upper-middle class kind of house, except he’s a Nazi, and he speaks with an American accent. It’s like, “What the F is that?” I think the other place where I thought we, as a group, kind of hit on it was in the pilot. You see this game show that is very reminiscent of the 1950s and early ‘60s game show, and the contestant is a Nazi, and he’s answering questions like he’s a corn-fed farm boy from the Midwest.
Did you oversee the creation of all of this faux-‘50s television content that exists within the world of the show?
Yes—for example, we had a show called American Reich. In the art department, I supervised graphic designers who create the fonts so it looked sort of like Dragnet. If anything gets filmed practically, I’m responsible for making sure we set it up in a way that feels authentic to the period. To be honest, I rely on a tremendous number of really talented people who all show up to take care of things, but I have a finger in all those pots.
Are there particular aspects of your research of Nazi Germany and Japanese imperial cultural that you can point to which turned up in Season One?
Absolutely. I think the thing that’s the most frightening is the banality of evil, that phrase which has often been discussed with the Holocaust. You really see it when you look at the images of how many people participated in the atrocities, and most importantly, how willingly average people put on uniforms and participated in genocide. I think one of the messages that the show has to offer that in recent years, we, in the United States, even, could take a good look at, is, when you have a militarized society, people fall in line, and they fall in line fast. And they salute, and they do bad things. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Germany, Japan, the United States or anyone else. People can be put in a position where they will break their moral convictions.
The series is very low-lit and gritty in style. How have these aesthetic choices influenced your approach to design?
Jim (Hawkinson) and Gonzalo (Amat) are just really super talented DPs, and the directors who shoot it are super talented. We have this aesthetic that Ridley had spoken of from movies like The Third Man and other beautiful, classic films that are very dark. We were encouraged to just go for it. In other television environments, there’s a predisposition towards over-lighting a scene or a set to make sure you can always see everything, and we’re not that show. We’re the show that takes risks. I always make sets that are a little bit dark in their color, anyway, because I want the actors to stand out.
From a design perspective, it’s successful when you’re back behind, with the actors in the foreground, and you really are watching them. I think the DPs worked in much the same way, in wanting to direct the eye towards the performer. The star of the shot has to be the actor, and darkness is a huge gift in directing your attention. It’s like a classic painting by Caravaggio.
How much were green screen and digital set extension techniques a part of this production?
We actually do a lot more real than we do digital. As a percentage, maybe ten percent of the big things you see outside are digital. In the case of Times Square, that is really all digital, except for some real cars and real people, and a real newsstand—things like that. That’s the biggest moment. In an overall percentage, we are not able to do as much big green screen work, so a lot of what you see actually is real, with extended mountain ranges in the distance, or the extended length of a building, or that kind of thing.
We don’t spend a lot of time on a green screen stage; in fact, we don’t even have a green screen stage. We just set up a green screen sometimes when we need it. It’s partly financial—people think that a visual effects universe is less expensive than a built thing, but it doesn’t necessarily end up being less expensive. I think there’s sometimes an assumption that any show nowadays has a huge amount of visual effects, and it’s not quite right or quite fair to all the painters and carpenters and set decorators who actually delivered a bunch of real stuff, so I want to stick up for them.