“For me, what’s interesting is the stories that societies tell themselves—and that people tell themselves—in order to live, in order to get on, in order to survive, stories which make them the central figure, the hero, the victim,” The Man in the High Castle star Rufus Sewell said Friday night, at an Amazon panel moderated by Deadline’s Damon Wise. “It’s a process that we go by.”
A dystopian series loosely based on the novel of the same name by an icon and pillar of science fiction—author Philip K. Dick—The Man in the High Castle presents an alternative history of World War II, honing in on a 1962 America in which the Axis powers won the war, subdividing the East and West Coasts of the United States into territories controlled by the Nazis and the Japanese, respectively.
With this perturbing and thought-provoking series created by Frank Spotnitz (Medici: Masters of Florence), which has consistently broken streaming records for Amazon, the studio proved to be ahead of the curve, propelling the return of speculative fiction as a format capable of providing a much-needed and distinct perspective on our current times.
On hand with Sewell and Wise to discuss the second season of The Man in the High Castle on Friday night were executive producers David W. Zucker and Isa Hackett, actors Rufus Sewell and Stephen Root, Emmy-nominated production designer Drew Boughton, costume designer J.R. Hawbaker, and cinematographer James Hawkinson.
Given the dystopian nature of the series, which has bumped up against unfortunate present realities—both in the United States and around the world—a discussion of the series’ political resonance was inevitable.
“I never imagined that our reality would catch up to the show. The world’s changed, and unfortunately become more like the world of the show, or the threat of it,” said Hackett—daughter of Philip K. Dick— echoing the words of so many showrunners and creatives whose works of art have taken on a new, more dire immediacy in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.
Producing a television series, one might think that there is an imperative, first and foremost, to entertain—self-policing, when it comes to tackling challenging or dark material, under the assumption that audiences have more than enough darkness to wade through before arriving at their laptop or television set. And yet according to Sewell, this notion of self-policing is a dangerous one.
“If you’re talking about Nazis, if you try to steer away from the horrors, that is the most dangerous and irresponsible thing you can do,” the actor said. “I think you have a responsibility to show where this goes, and if you try to steer away from the things that will offend people, then you’re in dangerous territory, I think.”
With this somewhat serious discussion, addressing moral questions about the responsibility of the entertainer, the night’s conversation also put a spotlight on the work of the below-the-line artists behind the series, who confronted the challenging task of creating an alternate American history, diving deep into the implications of what that actually means.
“It was such an intense research period, because you have to know our history, inside and out, and then you have to do the really hard task of holding up a mirror to yourself, and trying to identify all those things that we really take for granted,” costume designer J.R. Hawbaker said. “This world is a world where, when that fork split, you start to think of 1962, and the index for modernity can no longer be that Mary Quant miniskirt, because the free-spirited optimism that we so well know, and the kind of Rock and roll influences, they just never happened.”
Discussing their approach to the project, actors Rufus Sewell and Stephen Rooted stressed the importance of their below-the-line colleagues’ contributions, when it came to their own processes, providing guideposts to complicated material, which anchored them in a very different physical reality.
For Sewell, in the role of Obergruppenführer John Smith, what was interesting to watch in Season 1 was the visceral response his costume generated at first—for himself and for others—but also the way in which the visual power of this iconography quickly waned. “The first time I ever tried on the SS uniform, I stepped out of the room, and a couple of people saw me and went, ‘Jesus Christ!’ It was a very powerful reaction, and you would walk down a hall or whatever, and you could see people kind of back off,” the actor shared. “A couple of days later, you walk down the same hall, and people are like, ‘Hey, Rufus.’ Then after a few weeks, it’s your clothes.”
While Sewell spoke to the creative responsibility inherent to a series like The Man in the High Castle, he also found it critical to disengage from the Nazi iconography and its power, in order to do his own job properly. “I’m used to having a picture of Hitler over my shoulder now. It’s not a good, healthy thing; [but] it’s very good for the show, because the clothes become clothes, your seats are seats,” he said. “It has to be that way, that you’re not walking around being a Nazi—you’re walking around being a human being. People forget, and it just becomes normalized, which is what the show is about.”
Friday night’s panel for The Man in the High Castle at the Hollywood Athletic Club marked the conclusion of an all-out, two-week FYC event put on by Amazon Studios, featuring panels with the stars and creatives behind a number of series on the studios’ awards-worthy roster, as well as an intimate look at the artistic and imaginative worlds behind the series.
For this special event, Amazon set up ten rooms within the two levels of the Sunset Blvd. facility, each designed to recreate the experience of a particular series, with various set pieces flown in—most notably, from the dystopian world of The Man in the High Castle—and some series represented through artistic recreations. In addition to The Man in the High Castle, the series represented on site included Z: The Beginning of Everything, Goliath, Sneaky Pete, Patriot, Mozart in the Jungle, Catastrophe, Transparent, I Love Dick, and two awards-worthy children’s television programs, Just Add Magic and An American Girl Story – Melody 1963: Love Has to Win.
Season 2 of The Man in the High Castle was released December 16th on Amazon, with a Season 3 renewal coming the following month, along with the announcement that Eric Overmyer (Bosch) would come on board as executive producer and showrunner for the series’ third season.
To view Deadline’s conversation with the cast and creatives behind The Man in the High Castle, click above.