Cinematographer Gonzalo Amat has made a career out of creating fictional worlds. His latest role for the Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle is to make a world from a past that never happened. This historical drama depicts a fictional alternate history of what would have happened to the United States if the Nazis had won World War II. The series takes place in the 1960s which was a pivotal time in American history.
As you can imagine, it isn't a carefree, good time. This is where the challenge for the cinematography department come in. The Nazi swastika is ever present on the set and the scenes are mostly a dreary gray. Amat was challenged with determining what would've happened in American history had the Allies lost WWII. So much culture never would have existed. The Civil Right Movement wouldn't have happened and music we love today never would have been made. Still, The Man in the High Castle is a fascinating drama that could've easily happened. Amat discusses his cinematography background and his history in filmmaking with us as well as the challenges he faced making an America that never existed.
Keep reading to learn more!
TheThings (TH): How long have you been a cinematographer and how did you get in this business?
Gonzalo Amat (GA): My first short film shoot was before I was in college, then at the middle of my communications degree, I decided to double down on cinematography. I went to the London Film School, and then AFI, and started shooting after that. I would say that I’ve been shooting for 18 years or so. I got into cinematography because I had a passion for still photography and literature and because I was obsessed with the grammar and execution of the film language, which in the end is the responsibility of the cinematographer.
TH: Besides The Man in the High Castle, what have been some other notable projects you’ve been attached to that we may be familiar with?
GA: I shot a couple of horror movies that did well in the Box Office, like The Devil Inside, and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, I shot season 4 of Person of Interest and shot Believe for Alfonso Cuaron. I also have done a few pilots like Seal Team and Happy!, which are now on their second seasons. And I recently shot a lovely movie called Carrie Pilby.
TH: The Man in the High Castle depicts an alternate history where the Allies lost WWII and all of the consequences that come with that. What drew you to this project? Are you a history buff?
GA: I love history! I’m not the most knowledgeable, but I love to learn everything I can about the 20th Century through reading and watching documentaries. What called my attention to this project was the possibility of creating a realistic but alternate world visually, and, at the same time, the relevance of narrating a story that happens in totalitarian regimes. My parents grew up under Franco’s dictatorship, which has always given me a consciousness of how people look for freedom and hope in these types of regimes; this really made me want to participate in telling this story. I have a very strong interest in what moves people, and what makes them do evil things. Is it good and evil by itself? Or is it the conditions that push people to do evil things? This project is the exploration of that subject in a very interesting way.
TH: How did you go about depicting and filming these new fictional cities in The Man in the High Castle?
GA: We used references of films from the time, and blended as much historical iconography as we could, along with concepts that we naturally arrived at by talking about the story. For example, we depicted the rigidity of the Nazi regime in the East Coast through almost no color, and very architectural framing, to signify the power of the state. The state makes people feel small and insignificant, so we try the same through visuals. This goes for other cities and worlds: it all comes from the characters and how they see the world, and what story we want to tell about them. We give visual clues of the different approaches to each world, but in the end, everything is based on what the story and our main characters see.
TH: What was the biggest challenge you’ve had on this set? And how did you overcome it?
GA: The biggest challenge is the time limit we within the length of an episode to tell the story. It’s never enough since all our ideas are challenging and tough to execute. The way we have solved this was by preparing a lot more than some other projects normally do. Before shooting each sequence we will have meetings and meetings and then go through pre-visualizations, storyboards, location walkthroughs, tech scouting and many more steps to avoid any downtime while shooting. So, we solve this constant challenge than with an amazing crew, lots of preparation and lots of communication between departments.
TH: Obviously, with a Nazi Reich, there are many dark undertones to the series. What techniques do you use to keep everything looking gray and unhappy?
GA: I would say it’s a combination of a color design that comes from the sets, the wardrobe, and then we way we film it. Through lighting, color, quality of light, and color of light we can do a lot to make it moody or nostalgic to convey the oppression. Sometimes, however, we try to do the opposite to underline something from the story, with a flashback, or just to really underline the darkness of something that is happening. It can be very powerful to see a normal American family with a white picket fence, but with a Nazi flag hovering over the backyard. Sometimes, the most powerful approach is to make it look like these elements have invaded the real world.
TH: The series takes place in 1962 but in an alternate history. There is nothing to go on in terms of décor, clothing, and how things would actually look. How did you guys make this 1960s different from the one we all know?
GA: There are lots of conversations of what would historically have happened in our alternate story; for example, without African American culture in the American Reich or the Pacific states, there would be no Blues and no evolution of the musical influence that came to evolve into rock ’n roll. And with this type of conversation about what would have happened, we visually design a world that is coherent to those events. And with subtleties of how technology and priorities evolve in each of the areas of our story, we justify that present time. Both the costumes and the art department conduct their own research and conceptualize with our writers and producers, and we do the same for the cinematography. Our language is classic, but evolved and continuously changing.
TH: When it comes to creating this set and filming, what has been the most enjoyable aspect of it all?
GA: Collaboration. Our team is a combination of people with a lot of talent and a lot of expertise and experience. From the script to the specific shots we set up, there are hundreds of people involved, and the best ideas win. This is a project where everyone cares about the story, and everyone is doing their best work because out of respect it is a very relevant subject, so that makes it an environment where the best idea will be the one that we all work for. The collaboration aspect on this project, from start to finish, is special and enjoyable.
TH: How has production and filming changed from the first season to where you are now?
GA: As you work with the same people, communication tends to get easier and easier, and such is also the case for knowing how people work. I think you learn to get the best from people and to compensate for whatever needs improving. So, I would say we are a lot more efficient; I also think that we have refined the visual intention of the show. Everyone now is very familiarized with the visual language of the show, so that makes it easier to communicate, and to come up with new ideas because we love to challenge ourselves and not fall into easily repeatable patterns. Our filming style has evolved and has become bolder. In the way that we work on set, I think we have hit the sweet spot of collaboration and a combination of talent. It’s really a treat to hear people’s ideas and implement them.
TH: Which of these dystopian cities would you prefer to live in if you had to choose one?
GA: I would probably live in the neutral zone, where even though there is no rule of law, there is still some sort of freedom.
TH: What are your hopes for the future of this series and how it will evolve in any upcoming seasons?
GA: I would love to answer this, but I’m afraid I can’t talk too much about the future of the series without revealing too much!
Thank you so much, Gonzalo! The Man in the High Castle is a gripping historical drama that's a must-see for any history lover.