ADG-Nominated Designer Behind the Approach to a Dystopian World in 'The Man in the High Castle'

Exclusive interview with Drew Boughton, the production designer of Amazon's The Man in the High Castle

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Drew Boughton, the production designer of Amazon's The Man in the High Castle, was recently nominated for an Art Directors Guild Award for this past season. The series, which just released its third season, takes a look at what the world might be like had the outcome of World War II turned out differently. In this dystopian scenario, the Axis powers won the war, resulting in the United States being divided into three parts. 
Drew received Emmy nominations for outstanding production design for the show's first two seasons. We talked to Drew about his approach in designing this dystopian world. Instead of building the optimistic mid-century America that was prevented, he brings us a stilted fascist version, while keeping the environment familiar enough to properly hold up the mirror to our present day society.
PH: How did you become involved with The Man in the High Castle?

Drew Boughton: I had just done a big pilot for David Zucker and Jordan Sheehan in Utah, and they were talking with director and good friend David Semel about the show. And my name came up. They all decided to offer the opportunity to me.

PH: For a "what might've happened" project like this, what was your approach? What did you do in pre-production? 

Drew Boughton: We had a lot of conversation about the starting point research of WW2 and projected forward from that using research of eastern bloc countries in the 1960s. That gave us a window into “modernized” 1960s version of fascism. We analyzed the look and feel of all those images and began making lists of things that did not happen.

PH: What is designing a dystopian world like? What challenges did you face? 

Drew Boughton: I think the biggest challenge is to avoid the common tropes that are common in so many dystopian worlds builds. One of those is an over-reliance on visual effects. In our discussions, we emphasized small simple ideas directly connected with the actor’s hands or immediate surroundings. Things that are simple and mundane, but so profoundly different. For example, a sign for a telephone booth that features a weird banality of evil feeling version of the iconic phone sign.

PH: Can you talk about some of your favorite shots? 

Drew Boughton: My favorite shot from Season 1 is the Times Square opening sequence shot. It was photographed by James Hawkinson who won an Emmy for his work as Cinematographer. The set area had some real fully built newsstands and subway entrance set pieces and period cars in it. We set those up in a giant parking lot and the VFX team added the rest in CG based on sketches by me and concept art created in the art department. I think the thing I most liked was using the historic Coca Cola neon sign which had been a fixture in Times Square as the basis of a giant, hideous version of a swastika flag with flickering neon. Again, the idea was to underline the banality of evil.

One of my other favorites is in Season 3 when test subjects are sent through the “multiverse portal.” The set is primarily a giant ellipse-shaped concrete tunnel with a Houston mission control like room at the opening. We built this huge set on a soundstage in Vancouver. It featured also an impressive custom-made ground of control consoles and tape drive computer banks that are just a lot of fun. I like the minimalist sculptural qualities of how the set was lit and photographed by Gonzalo Amat, our Director of Photography for that episode. I think it was one of the most iconic shot sequences of the show so far.

PH: How do you feel that this measures modern society? What elements are infused? 

Drew Boughton: Our intention was to mirror how simply western society can drift into fascism. Very sadly, during the time we have been making the show, western democracies have drifted to the right. And a rise of fascist leaders is indeed undoing the hard-won work of my parents' generation who defeated the Nazis. We had attempted to show how historic 1940s through 1960s America can be turned, manipulated. And what happened in real life with the election of the current president, literally eclipsed the warning of the show.

PH: Congrats on your Emmy nominations! What does that feel like? 

Drew Boughton: It feels wonderful to be included in such impressive company. The work of all the other nominees is impressive on every level, so it’s very gratifying to be included.

PH: Have you always been passionate about production design? How did you first start in the industry? 

Drew Boughton: I started working as a child helping my parents who ran the Weston Playhouse when I was a child. It’s a now famous and widely-respected theatre company in Vermont. It was a great place to grow up and I worked my way up from Carpenter to Painter to Set Designer there. I was always more fascinated by the stuff behind the movie stars than the stars themselves. I just thought it all looked so cool.

PH: What are you looking forward to working on this year? 

Drew Boughton: I love new challenges and creative problems, especially really hard ones to solve. I hope this year will provide some unexpected giant opportunities.

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