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True Believer

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By Hugh Hart

Published Jul 1, 2018 8:00 AM


After years of working as a newspaper reporter, X-Files executive producer Frank Spotnitz found his true calling in television.


Photo by Tom Jamieson.

Raised in Phoenix on a steady diet of books, movies and television, Frank Spotnitz ’82 majored in English literature at UCLA but spent most of his time on the Daily Bruin. His subsequent career as a reporter ended abruptly in 1994, when he joined the writing staff of The X-Files. Later, he became executive producer for the now iconic sci-fi series. Moving to England nearly eight years ago, Spotnitz created the Amazon hit series The Man in the High Castle. He now lives in Paris and commutes between his offices there and those of his London-based company, Big Light, which produces television shows for Netflix, CBS and European audiences.

Q: How did you warm up for your career as a storyteller?

A: As a kid, I spent way too much time watching television. Twilight Zone, the original Star Trek, Mission Impossible — anything and everything. And movies! I’d go to the movie theater on a Saturday and sit through the same picture three times. I was soaking up so much narrative; it was great training for what I do now.

Q: How did your experience on the Daily Bruin shape your talents as a showrunner?

A: As a journalist, you have to be curious. You talk to a wide range of people; you have to be a good listener. I loved the Daily Bruin. Every hour I wasn’t in class I spent at Kerckhoff Hall, working on the paper. I remember interviewing Jesse Owens, which was incredibly exciting and is on my mind now because he’s a character in one of the series I’m developing.

Q: After college, you were a reporter for eight years. Why did you quit?

A: I’m grateful I spent my 20s seeing the world and learning how to write, but in Paris I met this towering figure at the AP bureau named Mort Rosenblum. When I saw his dedication and how much he loved being a great reporter, I realized, “I’m never going to be that guy. I need to switch to something I love.”

Q: You met X-Files creator Chris Carter in a book club and later jumped from your Entertainment Weekly gig to join the show. How did you connect with the story?

A: From the beginning, I understood what Chris was doing with the show. His design was perfect: He’d flipped gender expectations so the woman was the skeptical scientist with the rational brain, and the man was the believer.

Q: How did you rise through the ranks?

A: For eight years, X-Files chewed up my entire life. The schedule was brutal. I ate, breathed and slept X-Files, and that’s how I went from entry-level staff writer to executive producer in three years. It was the right show for me. I got it, I loved it and I put in the hours.


Q: Why did you relocate to London a few years after X-Files ended?

A: In Hollywood, when you create a show, the studio buys your copyright. [But] in the U.K., you can own your show. After the writers strike in 2008, all the studios started to cut fees. A couple of British producers wanted me to do a show in London, so I asked my wife, “Do you want to try this for a couple of years?” She said, “Yes.” We packed up our kids and my mother-in-law and dogs and went to London. After two years, nobody wanted to go back.

Q: How has streaming technology impacted your approach to storytelling?

A: Streaming radically redefined television, because now you can watch what you want when you want to watch it. On X-Files, there was a week between episodes, so you had to repeat information. There were commercial breaks, so you had to follow a format. That’s all gone, which makes it incredibly exciting right now, and also very competitive.

Q: For Amazon, you adapted Philip K. Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, which pictures life in the U.S. in 1962 as it might have been if Germany and Japan had won World War II. How did you re-imagine it for TV?

A: When I agreed to adapt The Man in the High Castle, I hadn’t read the book in more than 20 years. I read it again and realized it didn’t really have a narrative engine that would work for TV. I needed to create more drama and conflict, while honoring the book’s themes: How do you maintain your humanity in an inhuman world? What is the nature of reality itself? Also, the book doesn’t spend any time on the Nazi side of the country, but I knew that scenario would be of great interest to audiences, so I created Rufus Sewell’s John Smith to anchor the Nazi side of the story. He’s proven to be one of the show’s most popular characters.

Q: You left as showrunner for The Man in the High Castle and are now working on Medici: Masters of Florence for Netflix. How did you make the early Renaissance period accessible to modern viewers?

A: It was not at all obvious why we should care about a bunch of 15th-century bankers. We looked for parallels between then and now, and we hit upon this theme: The Medici family often did bad things in order to do good things. Is that justified? It’s an interesting moral and ethical question.

Q: You and your partners have tailored television shows for several specific countries. How do you make compelling television for varied markets?

A: I love going into cultures that are new to me. I do it with a lot of humility and patience, because you have to recognize that other parts of the world have different ways of doing things.

Q: Hollywood is just beginning to address gender disparity in the workplace, but your company employs two men and nine women. How have you succeeded in building such a female-friendly company?

A: I wish I could say it’s because I’m a visionary, but as it happens, British television for some reason has far more women than men in terms of the scripted element. Most of the good candidates have been really talented, smart, qualified women.

Q: Diversity-themed story content is prominent in The Indian Detective series you produce for Netflix. Has it been challenging to get green lights for shows about people of color?

A: The Indian Detective, to me, is about being a brown man in a white world, and the star, Russell Peters, is brilliant at playing the differences between cultures. But when you talk about narrative point of view in television, it’s still overwhelmingly about the white male gaze. I’ve had battles royal about storylines involving people of color that I couldn’t get approved. I’ve tried to hire women directors whom I couldn’t get approved, and I’m talking about just three years ago. But I’m optimistic. I feel like 2018 is the first year where these issues are really being taken seriously. There’s a long way to go, but I do think things are going to change.

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