A Working Screenwriter Never Stops Learning The Craft by Erik Oleson of The Man in the High Castle at the USC Scripter Awards
Erik Oleson: Hi, I’m Erik Oleson. I’m here from THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.
Film Courage: Erik, how many years did it take to get this television show made and how did it finally happen?
Erik Oleson: I was hired to join the show for season two. Well, I know from the novel which was written decades ago [author Philip K. Dick], the original producers of the series struggled for many, many years to bring it to the screen. It was a long development process, over a decade. So I was fortunate enough to be brought on in season two.
Film Courage: Had you already watched the show?
Erik Oleson: Oh yes! I’d watched all of season one. And I came on board and ended up being the head writer of season two.
Film Courage: Do you remember when you sat down to write for them? I don’t know if you prepared a spec script for them or what the process was? What was the first presentation of your work to the show’s developers?
Erik Oleson: Well, I had written on 15 other television shows series prior to THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, so my work was kind of known. I’m also an executive producer so they knew I could handle a lot of the other aspects that go along with writing a big television show like this. But the thing that I’d written that probably put me most in contention, I’d written a pilot about Nazi occupied Paris, which was a historically based pilot. So I think a lot of the folks read that and said “He knows how to do a Nazi show.”
Film Courage: What are your first steps for writing a screenplay? Do you have a set of tried-and-true set of rules that you use? Or is every script different?
Erik Oleson: My process evolves every time I do another job. I realize how much I didn’t know in my prior job. So I’m someone who reads pretty much every trick, every screenwriting book, every script that I can get my hands on and I’m constantly trying to evolve as a craftsman. I am also fortunate enough in this job to surround myself with really talented people and you learn a lot from other writers. There were writers on THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE that won Emmys, or Martin Scorsese’s best friend…you really want to kind of learn from the people around you and that makes you better. So I can’t say that I have any set process, although right now I have to say I’m a big fan of the John Truby stuff. I think he kind of hits the sweet spot for me. But I’ve taken them all. I’ve taken [Robert] McKee. I’m one of these guys who likes to learn new stuff about the craft and think if I can learn something from any book, if I can learn one thing from it and it makes me a better writer, I’m all for it.
Film Courage: Have you ever written a screenplay that has no structure?
Erik Oleson: I am more of a planner than a “pantser.” Obviously like Stephen King will say he swears by the seat-of-your-pants approach. But I’m much more of an outliner, an engineer when it comes to that. And you throw that out and you let the character speak to you and gather the moment and things change. But I’m also a big fan of structure I have to say. So no, I haven’t sat down and tried to write a final product from page one. I kind of construct it over time. I’m a grinder I guess you could say.
Film Courage: When you begin to write, are you envisioning the people watching the final product or does that not even enter into your mind? You’re so involved with the beginning and what’s in your own head?
Erik Oleson: You want to keep the audience in mind somewhat but you also don’t want to pander. Like, if you’re in the moment, much as an actor is in the moment, you’re trying to find the humanity and the truth behind what you’re writing about. And whether you’re doing a superhero show, whether you’re doing a big, deep, socio-political show like THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE you actually find yourself lost in the moment and how the characters are speaking to each other as real people and that’s the joy of discovery that happens when you have enough (for me) of the structure figured out that you have the correct characters in the scene. You’re in the moment and they start to talk to you when it works.
Film Courage: Well speaking of talking, this will be my last question but with dialogue, how much are you refining the dialogue and making sure that you’re researching it for that specific time period and trying it out on other people?
Erik Oleson: Constantly. There is a constant polish process that goes on for dialogue. Also, we had researchers who were making sure that we didn’t use words that didn’t exist and sometimes they would catch us making an anachronistic, modern kind of “Oh yeah. That doesn’t work. We have to change the line.” Because we all are creatures of pop culture, as well. In THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, which takes place in the early 1960’s, I had to avoid references from some of my favorite superheroes.
Film Courage: Any other terminology, I mean definitely not using the word “Bro.” That’s become part of the culture. Were there certain things in the 1960’s that we don’t even realize it wasn’t part of the vernacular?
Erik Oleson: Correct. In the case of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE it’s an alternative world also where history has turned out differently from the tale of World War II, so a lot of the language that we would use in a first draft kind of would be slightly different like given the way the world turned out and cultural experience. And in THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, white people are not the overclass in the Pacific States. They are kind of treated as an oppressed minority and so there are all sorts of textures that seed into the language when you have that kind of story. So it’s an alt-history storyline and language was very important to us and we had a lot of very smart people making sure that we were polishing it up right to the moment the cameras rolled.
Film Courage: Excellent! Thank you, Erik.
Erik Oleson: Thank you!