Interview: Emmy Nominated Production Designer Drew Boughton on ‘Man in the High Castle’

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With so many players in television today, it was only a matter of time before someone went down the alternative history rabbit hole. Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle” did just that last year. In its two seasons, the series has proven to be one of technical brilliance. One of the men responsible for this brilliance is Drew Boughton, the Emmy nominated production designer. He has been nominated for both seasons of “Man in the High Castle,” and received production design nominations from the Art Director’s Guild as well. We discussed his role in crafting the unique aesthetic of the show, and what the series can mean in our current political climate.

AF: How did you first get into production design?

DB: I grew up in a theatre family and was building and painting theatrical stage sets from the time I could be put to work. So in a way I have always been on a path toward Production Design. I went to Umass Amherst Art program for four years then three years at Yale School of Drama studying Stage Design. All of that was great training to prepare for moving to Los Angeles.

AF: How do you approach a show that is both a period piece, but also an alternate reality?

DB: Our show is “Alternative Period” or “Retro Futurism” and it’s a terrific challenge. With a period piece, you can research all the photographs and films of the period and get a clear map of what you need to do. In our version of the world everything turned out differently. For example, there is no post World War Two American consumerist society, no rock and roll etc. so it’s a matter of subtracting a lot of things and changing and restricting what kinds of automobiles the world has. More Mercedes Bens for example.

Working with Jim Hawkinson, our Emmy winning Director Of Photography, last season we pulled color feel from the Kodachrome photographs of the 1950s to give an overall color tone to the show. We also divided the show into three color palettes to reflect the three zones. Greys and Nazi uniform colors for the “Greater Nazi Reich” part of the world, warm greens of the uniform Imperial Japanese military and watery blues and aquas for the “Japanese Pacific States” and for the “Neutral Zone” all colors but faded to represent the freedom of diverse people to be safe in that zone.

AF: How do you approach designing a show featuring Nazis, especially in a post-Charlottesville United States?

DB: Philip K. Dick was condemning Nazis with this show way before most of these present day white supremacists were born. I am sure many of them are too poorly educated to even know the books Dick wrote, much less learned the cautionary lesson he intended with this piece. A quote from him seems appropriate right now: “Fascism, wherever it appears, is the enemy.” That is what the show is really saying, and the show is showing how easily Americans fell for and were defeated by Nazi ideology. It can happen anywhere and society had better deal with it. So here we are now, and as we are filming we are having very active discussions about how to show that all Nazis come to a well-deserved bad end.

AF:  How can your show shine a light on the current political atmosphere, yet remain within it’s own world?

DB: Our show like Arthur Miller’s “Crucible” will succeed best if is not too direct in reflecting current events. But instead shines a light on the underlying immorality of the unjust Fascist world. Besides the current events are so spastic and erratic that my head spins when I read the news every single day. We are truly in a whole different world with the present Administration.

AF: What was your favorite set to design for the 2nd season of “Man in the High Castle?”

DB: It’s hard to pick favorites so I think a short list is better. Hitler’s Volkshalle and Office, that was fun. The Nuclear War Room set was great. I had a great time collaborating with Jim Hawkinson, our fabulous DOP on that set. One of favorites was coming up with the alternative appliances in the Smith Kitchen set.

AF: How much freedom do you have to design? Can you discuss the process of working with Amazon and your showrunners?

DB: I have been blessed with a lot of freedom to pitch ideas to the Directors and Producers of our show. But it’s very important to point out that it Is truly a collaborative process with a lot of voices involved. Some ideas come from me, some from the Director, some from the Producers, some from the Cinematographers, so I personally like it when it’s really not any one person’s idea but instead everyone’s ideas in a blender.

AF: How much research is used as you design the world? How do you incorporate real world research into a fictional timeline?

DB: We have thousands of historical research images on the walls of our offices that we periodically examine. We base everything off of some type of research. The fictional time that has been created by the writers and producers is an amazing behind the scenes document that helps us keep our alternative history straight. That document is the result of many consultants discussing the show over a period of years to create a “Bible” of understanding. Also, an awe inspiring piece of work in itself.

AF: What are some of the challenges in designing for the Greater Nazi Reich versus designing for the Japanese Pacific States?

DB: The key distinction designing for the two Fascist Regimes is one of them is the Nazis… It’s just a reality of the content that the level of offensiveness of the iconography of that horrible period is profound. As a matter of policy, the entire production covers the symbols of the swastika throughout lining up the shots and setting up the sets until the last possible moment. We take great care when working on city streets and in locations to recognize the gravity of the symbols involved in the making of our show.

AF:  What’s next for the 3rd season, and what are you most excited for audiences to see?

DB: Season 3 has some wonderful new sets we are excited about. The Smith Family has moved and we have given them a Manhattan apartment in our never existed before alternative modernist architectural style. So that is something we hope the viewers will enjoy.

Seasons 1 and 2 of “Man in the High Castle” are currently available on Amazon Prime.