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A Winding Road to the 'High Castle'

Writer and producer Frank Spotnitz landed in television because of a phone call.

Shortly after the end of Season 1 of The X-Files in 1994, Spotnitz rang up series creator Chris Carter on behalf of a longtime friend, writer André Bormanis. Spotnitz had met Carter through a mutual friend’s book group, and Bormanis requested an introduction.

Carter said no to Bormanis (though he went on to work on the Star Trek TV series Voyager and Enterprise). But Carter did say yes to Spotnitz, letting him pitch ideas for X-Files and eventually hiring him as a writer.

“I was extremely green,” says Spotnitz of the job, which was his first staff gig after film school. “X-Files was really my second film school, and I learned an enormous amount.” After three years with the hit Fox show, Spotnitz had risen to executive producer and has stayed in television since, writing and producing series including ABC’s Night Stalker, Cinemax’s Strike Back and most recently Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle.

One of the reasons Spotnitz has been successful in TV is his ability to understand complex worlds and translate them into characters and narratives viewers can relate to. High Castle, based on the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel, is a case in point. High Castle, which proposes an alternate 1960s reality for the U.S. based on the idea that Germany and Japan won World War II, has had a long and checkered development history. Spotnitz first boarded the project in 2012, when it was a miniseries at Syfy.

The boldness of the novel’s premise, like that of many works by Dick that were the basis of films including Blade Runner and Minority Report, made the adaptation daunting. “It’s a wonderful book. It’s a classic book. But it’s not a narrative for a television series,” Spotnitz says. “And I was really stuck for a little while because I didn’t want to touch it.”

Ultimately, though, Spotnitz realized one of the previous adaptations had completely changed the book and when he looked at it from that new angle, he says he felt “a little liberated.”

David W. Zucker, High Castle executive producer and television president for Scott Free Productions, believes Spotnitz cracked the code. “He’s found a way of both honoring and incorporating so much of what many people believe was an unadaptable novel and finding a way of making it incredibly compelling, but most of all relatable,” Zucker says.

Syfy passed on High Castle (BBC had rejected the project previously) and the project lay dormant for nearly two years. Cut to more recent times, with more content platforms launching more ambitious original shows, and Spotnitz got a call from Amazon Studios head of drama development Morgan Wandell, who “rescued it,” Spotnitz says.

But with Amazon spending lavishly to make its mark in original dramas, Spotnitz had more work to do. The streaming service wanted 10 episodes with an open-ended story structure that would allow for additional seasons. Initially, he had developed the story as a four-hour mini.

Amazon released the first two episodes of High Castle earlier this year, with the remaining eight landing on Nov. 20. The company says the pilot is its most-viewed and best-reviewed ever, and the show met with a buzzy reception at last summer’s TCA press tour.

Spotnitz hopes the series, beyond getting tune-in, will leave an impression on viewers.

“I hope this show reminds people of what a great country this is and how it’s worth fighting to change things to make it better, to make it live up to what it’s supposed to be to the idea of what it’s supposed to be,” he says.

Spotnitz has “a huge appetite” for storytelling.

“I feel like there are more stories I’d like to tell than I’m going to have time to tell in my lifetime and part of why I started Big Light was because it allows me to do more,” said Spotnitz, who will be celebrating his Nov. 17 birthday over the weekend receiving a Camerimage award for achievement during the Caeraimage Festival in Poland.

Coming up for Big Light is Medici: Masters of Florence, a historical drama about the powerful Medici family in Renaissance Italy. Spotnitz also revealed that he is working on a Sigmund Freud project and Ransom, about a real-life hostage negotiator.

Spotnitz knew he wanted to tell stories from an early age and had to convince his Army doctor father it was a good idea.

“I became very clear I think by the time I was 16 that I was not going to do that [science],” he said. “And then they decided to support me and were very supportive.”

The Japan-born showrunner first intended to go into movies but by his first year at the University of California, Los Angeles he had other intentions.

“I was just so excited by the opportunity to understand the world and make a difference in the world,” he said of his discovery of journalism. “So I was very, very idealistic and that’s what got me started.”

After graduation, Spotnitz went to work at United Press International and then the Associated Press. But he realized the more he covered, the less he liked the field.

“My understanding of what I was writing was very superficial and I didn’t really feel like I was making the difference that I had set out to make,” he said.

Flash forward and the industry vet has been able to dig deep into his stories, something he feels he can especially do with science fiction.

“I have to say I think I find science fiction the easiest genre to know why I’m writing it, which is to say when you’re writing science fiction it’s always about something,” he said. “There’s always an idea. There’s always a reason why you’ve chosen this apart from literal reality and I like that. I like stories that are about something.”

Jessika is content engagement director of Broadcasting + Cable, Multichannel News and NextTV. She has been with the brands in various roles since 2013. In her current role, she works primarily behind the screen, keeping an eye on the website and fixing any site bugs. A graduate of USC Annenberg, Jessika has edited and reported on a variety of subjects for NextTV, including profiles on industry leaders and breaking news.