THE HANDMAID’S TALE Producers Bruce Miller and Warren Littlefield Talk about Creating Gilead and What to Expect in Season 2
— April 24, 2018
Going inside the world of Gilead from Bravo’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE is as beautiful as it is horrifying. The series, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, brings to life a broken society that resonates with audiences as the themes of the dystopian drama echo today’s headlines.
Ahead of the Sunday, April 29 premiere on Bravo, Writer and Producer Bruce Miller and Executive Producer Warren Littlefield dive deep into how they set the tone of the series and created Gilead in Toronto.
On filming in Canada:
Warren Littlefield: We get great value in Canada, and Toronto has such has a robust industry. Our world for Gilead and the time before is kind of New England, Cambridge, Boston-esque. So, in pre-production, as we looked at what Toronto had to offer, we really found that we could create both our world and create the best possible show we could here. At the end of the day, it just made sense for it to be here. It’s been a great experience for all of us.
Capturing the beautiful environment of Gilead in the real-life cities they film in:
Bruce Miller: Collin Watkinson, who's our DP, and Reed Morano, who directed the first three episodes, had very long and thoughtful discussions about the light and making things in Gilead beautiful and connected to nature. The angle of the light is important to us and has to reflect the time of day it is. It gives it so much more of a feeling of being connected to the real world.
We also asked the question, “What would happen if you took away 60, 70, 80 percent of the pollution? How would it look different?” Our light in the real world is a slightly different color because it's coming through more pollution. It's the same thing when we add sound to the episodes. There's a lot more birds in Gilead then there are in current day Cambridge.
All of these things add up. There’s an intense contrast between Gilead being such a gross, unnerving place and the beauty of the setting itself.
Warren: That contrast is also true when we go to the colonies, which is where women are sent for disobedience or defiance. It's a toxic waste land but it's magnificent to look at. It's beautiful, it's seductive, much like the rest of Gilead. But the closer you get, you realize just how horrific an environment it truly is and what it can do to the women who are laboring there.
About setting the tone of the show through realistic-looking sets:
Bruce: The thing that I think Julie was most interested in when creating the set, was to have enough distance so you really feel like you're in a house. There's a scene in Season One where Offred unfortunately has to tell Serena that she isn't pregnant and Serena grabs her arm and pulls her to her room and throws her down on the ground. These stairs were built for that moment so that there's a nursery down on the first level and you can actually follow all the way up the stairs and into Offred’s room in one shot.
Those are the kind of moments that if you think about the story ahead of time, you think about how you want it to feel. We wanted to show that Offred feels powerless. Someone's dragging her through the house. What do you have to build physically with nails and wood to make that story come to life?
We have a set that feels like a house. We have ceilings. Most sets don't have ceilings. It allows us to shoot in a different way. It allows us to shoot in a way where we can have the actors act and we don't have to pay so much attention to what we're seeing. We don't have to get in their way and say, "No, no. You can’t stand here, you have to stand here." Here, you can turn around 360 and you're still in Gilead.
Why the show needs to be connected to the real world:
Bruce: In the book, the Colonies are mentioned a couple of times and we just expanded on that and asked, “What are countries that actually have slave labor camps where they're cleaning up the environment? What do those look like?" Because when Margaret wrote the book, everything in the book was taken from the real world. She didn't make up cruelties to women. She took them from the real world, unfortunately. We've tried to keep the show grounded in the same way.
When we were envisioning the colonies, we started with, "Okay, well what's the environmental disaster they're trying to clean up?" We looked at Fukushima. After Fukushima they had to (and I think they’re still in the process) take away three or four centimeters of top soil over a 60 square mile area.
What to expect in Season 2:
Warren: In season two we show where the Econo people and their families live. They are all of the people who work in Gilead, just the normal families that are also talked about in the book. The Econo class is much, much bigger than the class that we have predominantly spent our time with, which is the Commander’s. We also expanded our world in Season Two by bringing the colonies to life. We delve into understanding, "How did Gilead come to be?" using our flashbacks.
This season we show the moment when a population in Boston realizes the terror that is arriving with Gilead. In this sequence, we’re at Logan airport and there is a mass exodus. These kinds of moments from the past help inform how this world came to be and give us a better, deeper understanding of the world that Bruce created.
Bruce: And the world that Margaret Atwood created.
Margaret Atwood’s involvement in the television series:
Bruce: The good thing is that usually when you adapt a classic author, they’re long gone. Here, not only is Margaret Atwood very much around, she has a spectacular memory about what she was thinking when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, considering how many novels she's written.
I can actually have those conversations with her and say, "Okay. Why did you do X? Why did you do Y?" And she remembers. The conversations that I have with her are so picky. I asked her, "The Puritans used the Geneva Bible." She uses the King James Bible in the novel, so why did she decide to do that? She said that the Geneva Bible is an awful translation, it's terrible, and that was why. Because the King James Bible is prettier.
But you can't ask Dickens question like that.
The brutality of the show, and what they want to show the audience:
Bruce: We never show anything that we don't think has value to the story and tells us about the people of Gilead. That's how we make decisions about what cruelties to show. In the end, the show is often a lot less graphic than it feels.
Warren: The narrative can make the show very challenging to watch, but we try to walk the edge between hopeful and hopeless. We're carried through the series by June and her loss, but also her determination to survive. The feeling we hope that the audience continues to carry forward is, if June doesn't give up despite all of this, then we won't either.
Bruce: It’s such a brutal world, June surviving is a victory every week. That's the whole point, that it is actually a hopeful story. Just the fact that June is still alive and she's sane and she's still funny and still subversive. When the horrible stuff doesn't beat her, it makes her stronger and more aggressive.
How the 2016 US Presidential Election and the #MeToo Movement has impacted Season 2:
Bruce: As the world changes and as people change, you want the show to change, but I try to let the audience interpret how it fits into their life and the relationship between the show and the real world for them. It's not my job to make an argument.
That was one of the things I think that the writing staff brought to the table this year, was that because of the more polarized discussions that are happening all over the world, but especially in the US, including the "Me Too" movement, you're starting to hear people verbalize things on sexism, misogyny and racism that you didn't think people thought anymore. As horrible as that is, if it's being expressed it's a lot easier for us to understand how those people think. The more open people are across the board, the more easily you can get yourself into their head space, which is kind of the whole job, you know, of writers.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE premieres Sunday, April 29 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, on Bravo.