'High Castle' writer's mean streets education

frank spotnitz amazon studios

Frank Spotnitz was a young reporter when he stood outside the Brooklyn apartment building on a cold night in 1985, piecing together increasingly alarming details from cops about a crime that kept getting bigger and more monstrous.

"A lot of dead bodies were wheeled out of that house," Spotnitz said.

There were 10 bodies, eight of them children from a killing spree that became known as the Palm Sunday Massacre. It was a spasm of violence that shocked a city whose hallmarks at the time were murder, raging fires, homelessness and graffiti.

"It was pretty grim," Spotnitz recalled of that chilly night in what was one of the city's bleakest slums.

It was also a scene as dark as any of those in the "The Man in the High Castle" series that Spotnitz has brought to life on Amazon. The series, which has won critical acclaim as well as followers, is an adaption of Philip K. Dick's novel of an America that lost World War II and lives under the thumb of Nazis in the East and the Japanese in the West. It is a world populated by people who chain smoke, live in badly lit rooms, and deal with killers without consciences.

Spotnitz was in his 20s and working the graveyard shift for United Press International when he was dispatched to the far reaches of Brooklyn.

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Spotnitz, now 55 and the president of his own production company Big Light Productions, does not claim that the Palm Sunday Massacre inspired any scenes in his writing career, which extends back through eight years of the "X-Files" as well as numerous other shows that include "Millennium," "The Lone Gunmen," "Strike Back" and "Hunted."

But he credits those years with UPI as a foundation for his successful career as a Hollywood story teller.

frank spotnitz young
Frank Spotnitz when he was a young reporter in New York City.

"It was an amazing experience. I got to see and do everything from crime, fires, politics, trials. I got exposed to everything," Spotnitz told CNNMoney.

"It was a lot of writing, a lot of different stories every day... It taught me to gather information, to synthesize it, organize it and write it clearly, all the things I needed."

Not all of those memories were bloody. One of his favorites was an assignment to write about the winter's first snow storm.

"I grew up in Arizona," Spotnitz recalled. "I didn't talk to hardly anybody, but the city was so beautiful, quiet and bright. It was magical. It was one of my favorite stories to write."

Spotnitz spent a year with UPI in Indianapolis before moving to New York City and writing for the wire service from 1983 to 1986. After several years, he left the chaos of general assignment.

"What I realized was I didn't love it enough to be great at it," he said of the daily nuances of legal and police proceedings, the alphabet soup of city agencies, tribal warfare of urban politics. "I didn't understand deeply what I was writing about and I wanted to... Others knew it inside and out."

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He became a feature writer for UPI, covering rock and roll and interviewed dozens of musicians including Stevie Wonder, Robert Plant, Bryan Ferry and many others.

"They loved what they did. And I decided I've got to love what I do," he said.

Spotnitz returned to L.A. where he spent two years at the American Film Institute. During that time he was in a book club that included Chris Carter, who went on to create the "X-Files." Those connections and talent launched a career that now has Spotnitz living in Paris and commuting to London.

His current project is called "Medici, Masters of Florence," and stars Richard Madden and Dustin Hoffman. It has not yet been sold to a U.S. distributor.

But Spotnitz credits those years as a news reporter for helping to develop his story telling. He said that if he tried to go to Hollywood in his 20s, it would not have worked out, but the reporting and constant writing gave him confidence and exposed him to a lot of people.

"It is an amazing intellectual discipline to be good listener, make connections quickly and write them clearly," he said. "It has served me very well. I'm still very fast and it's because I was a reporter first."

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