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Interview: Cinematographer Gonzalo Amat Talks Challenges, Lessons, and Shooting ‘The Man in the High Castle’

Amazon’s dystopian series, “The Man in the High Castle,” imagines a world in which World War II ended very differently and Germany and Japan have divided control of the United States. Based on the work of Philip K. Dick, the series has been nominated for ten Emmy awards in its three seasons.

One of those nominations came this year for Director of Photography Gonzalo Amat. Working in film and television for a number of years, Amat has honed his skills with such projects as “Person of Interest” and “The Devil Inside.”

As the fourth and final season approaches, and the Emmy Awards loom, I had the opportunity to speak with Amat about his work on this series, some of the challenges he has faced, and the biggest thing he has learned about himself.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: First, congratulations on your Emmy nomination.

Gonzalo Amat: Thank you so much.

KP: How did that feel when you found out you were nominated?

GA: It was great. There’s so much good TV around and I got a nomination for the ACE awards, so I thought probably nothing is going to happen. But it’s all good. Then I was going to be shooting a project, so I just kind of forgot. Someone wrote me on a random day and said, “Congratulations!” I had no idea what they were talking about, and then I remembered it was around the date [of the announcement] and I thought, “Is this possible?” Then my agent called me and a lot of other people. But I confess I had to go and look it up on the website. I thought, “I think this is a mistake.” I didn’t believe it.

But yeah, it felt great. It feels like an achievement. I’m very happy the effort of everyone that worked in my department gets recognized. I don’t feel it so much a personal victory as much as the team gets recognized along with all those other awesome projects. We’re very excited.

KP: What is it about this show that is so special to you?

GA: It feels very personal to me because I didn’t do the pilot. I started in episode two. But that was sort of the visual transition from the world that was established in the pilot to make it a little more with the notes from everyone that was involved, like Ridley Scott. So it feels very much like my project. Of course with the whole team. It feels like it’s ours. Sometimes you work on projects and you have someone else’s vision and you get a vibe for it and you try to make it work, but it’s not your own vision. This I feel is pretty much my vision together with the team, the creators. It feels very much like it’s my baby, so I’m very proud of that. And there’s the fact that it’s all the same team for four years, it really feels like a family.

KP: What are some ways you have made this your own?

GA: I think finding the visual style at the beginning. It took us awhile to know what kind of look we wanted it to be based on the pilot and what they wanted to say to make it more personable. Lots of meetings. Lots of conversations about the show. Every time there’s a new location, like a new world, we all sit down and talk for weeks. What is this place? What does it look like, what are the references? Every time there was a new event like someone traveling, how do we photograph that? It was literally finding it, doing research about it. Just really making it unique. A lot of conversations and then trying to put everyone’s best ideas to work based on that. Maybe this looks like this or maybe this world looks like that, or what if we go the other way? Brainstorming.

KP: What was something that, when it worked, you were really excited?

GA: I guess every episode is probably an idea that you think, “Oh this turned out really well,” or “this didn’t really work.” For me, it would be something that has to do with talking about characters and emotions and how we relate to them. Almost every episode has a little moment where everything comes together and shows the concept of what the writers wanted to say. It comes together and works. I think about it like a cinematic moment. In the movies, you get completely caught in the story and the music is working on an emotional level and you kind of forget that you’re watching a project. So I think every time we achieved that it was surprising because there’s a lot of work behind it. The fact that it ends up working on an emotional level, it’s great. The color that we use or the lens and then to see it together with everything, it’s very rewarding.

KP: Over the seasons, you’ve been to some interesting places and settings. Which location was particularly challenging?

GA: The coal mine where we shot half of episode ten in season three. We shot inside a real mine. It’s a mining museum in Vancouver so it’s closed in real life. That was really challenging because we shot the scene in multiple locations. Part of the mine is a real mine and another part was a set mine we found, and another we built. So it’s three separate sets for one scene. We had to match the set that was built to the existing mine. The columns, the walls, the colors, the amount of smoke that we had. It’s super challenging because there’s only one way in, one way out.

And then the fact that we shot with flashlights. We decided for some reason to shoot with real practical flashlights for almost all the lighting. It looks so real because of that. But the conditions, shooting in there, it’s super cold, the floor is all wet, it’s all minerals on the walls so you can’t really lean because you’ll get lead in your clothes. Just a lot of really difficult working conditions that made it difficult executing the shots we wanted. That was the most challenging. We even joked about it all season. “Let’s all go back to the mine and do some filming!” and everyone said, “No, please!”

KP That sounds challenging and it does ultimately look so amazing in the context of the episode. It’s such great work.

GA: Yeah, it worked for the story. You can’t really recreate locations like that entirely. The shootout we had to do on a set because we can’t do that inside the real mine, or shoot any blanks or special effects, so that we ended up doing on sets. It worked nicely.

KP: What’s something you have learned about yourself through the time you’ve spent working on “The Man in the High Castle?”

GA: I think with this project, I’ve found that I can basically do anything. It’s such a challenging experience and the ideas were so expansive, talking about different things like time travel, but based in reality. It does feel like after doing this I can do almost anything visually. The way that we worked made me really secure in the methods that I use and I learned for myself that I’m really capable of shooting anything. Whatever style, I’m really not scared to go to a project. I feel very confident in what I learned from everyone there.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Gonzalo Amat for speaking with us.

Amazon will release the fourth season of “The Man in the High Castle” this November.

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