UC Santa Cruz Man in the High Castle

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Kalen Egan’s life turned on a single day in Los Angeles.

Just out of college, he was doing an internship at a talent agency when one of the firm’s literary managers strode into the room and asked if anybody wanted to work as his assistant.

Kalen Egan (Porter ’05, film) is co-executive producer for one of Amazon’s most popular television series, "The Man in the High Castle."
Credit: UC Santa Cruz

The manager represented the works of Philip K. Dick, Roald Dahl and Elmore Leonard, and Egan (Porter ’05, film), who loved all three authors, immediately volunteered.

Fast-forward 10 years and today Egan is not only co-executive producer for one of Amazon’s most popular television series, "The Man in the High Castle," which is loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, but is also penning an episode for what will be a "Twilight Zone"-like anthology of short stories also by the author. 

“There is a huge amount of luck in being at the right place in the right time,” says Egan, speaking by phone from his writing partner’s home office in the Highlands Park area of Los Angeles, a room filled with books, whiteboard, and TV, and the necessary writers’ couch. But there is another part of the equation, one that’s probably even more important, says Egan.

“Steve Martin’s advice to anyone who wants to do creative work is to be so good they can’t ignore you,” Egan says. “I never really understood what that meant until I’d been in this for awhile. If you push yourself to work hard at a discipline — writing or directing or acting — eventually it has its own reward.”

Journey to the castle

Egan’s dream of working in Hollywood began at the age of 5 when, he says, he saw the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and grasped the impossibility of cartoon characters inhabiting the same world as human actors.

“I realized if that was impossible, then somebody had to have made it,” he says, “and I became focused on who that was.”

The obsession led him to UC Santa Cruz, where he studied film, and to a job slinging popcorn at the Nickelodeon Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz. There, he was introduced to Philip K. Dick by a pair of Richard Linklater films, "Waking Life" and "A Scanner Darkly,' the former featuring a memorable monologue about the sci-fi writer, and the latter based on one of his 44 novels. Egan soon became obsessed with the author.

That obsession led to the assistant’s job and now to working with Dick’s second daughter, Isa Dick Hackett, producing television and films based on Dick’s works.

One of them, "The Man in the High Castle,' which is about to film its third season, has become one of the most watched of Amazon’s original content shows.

The addictive series tells an alternate-history tale of the U.S. under the rule of Nazi Germany and Japan after it lost WWII.  The eastern half of the country, the Greater Nazi Reich, is ruled by Hitler. The other half, the Japanese Pacific States, is under the control of Japan. There is resistance among the citizens but there is also a chilling normalization of a life that includes a quashing of liberties and bone-chilling cruelty.

Egan, whose work as a producer often puts him in the day-to-day mix of writing, casting, and filming, says, “It’s a hard show to make because it’s so complicated. It’s kind of like we’re making four shows at the same time: a historical drama, a political thriller, a resistance show, and a sci-fi show, and it has to be all those things at the same time.”

Next up: 'Electric Dreams'

Meanwhile, Egan, who is married to former UC Santa Cruz student, Eve Sturges, and has two children, a 13-year-old daughter and an 18-month-old son, is finishing work on an episode for the upcoming Philip K. Dick’s "Electric Dreams" television anthology. Working with his writing partner, Travis Sentell, their episode is based on Dick’s short story, “Foster, You’re Dead.” They’re also pitching other projects around L.A.

The success of "The Man in the High Castle" has opened doors, gotten Egan meetings, and fulfilled at least one of his dreams, he says, but, as it is in Hollywood, there is the ever-present pressure to push harder.

“You can’t rest on your laurels,” Egan says. “Every opportunity begets another opportunity, and you have to move fast. As soon as you get lazy or take your foot off the gas, people will lose interest in you.”

Still, there’s a moment when the 33-year-old Egan considers his accomplishments.

“The 5-year-old me wouldn’t have been able to believe it,” Egan says and then stops. “Actually, the 5-year-old me would totally believe it because he wouldn’t have known how hard it was.

“But the 20-year-old me at UC Santa Cruz would have been impressed.”