'Handmaid's Tale' Creator on the Hulu Series' Success
The Handmaid's Tale debuted to critical acclaim when it premiered on Hulu earlier this year. The series, based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, went on to win eight Emmys, including best drama series, making Hulu the first streaming service to capture that award.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of life in the dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society in what was formerly the United States. Facing environmental disasters and a plunging birthrate, the government's solution is to treat women as property of the state to ensure that the wealthy population can continue growing.
Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred, a woman separated from her husband and daughter to be placed in a Commander's (Joseph Fiennes) household as his handmaid due to her fertility. The series also stars Yvonne Strahovski as the Commander's wife, Serena; Alexis Bledel as handmaid Ofglen; Madeline Brewer as Ofwarren; Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia; O.T. Fagbenle as Offred's husband, Luke; Max Minghella as the Commander's driver, Nick; Samira Wiley as Offred's best friend, Moira; and Amanda Brugel as the Commander's servant Rita.
The first season ends on a cliffhanger in which Offred is being escorted out of the Commander's residence following a rebellion she begins when she refuses to execute a fellow handmaid. The season finale shares the same ending as the novel, which means that the series will be going beyond the book for season two, set to premiere in April.
Series creator Bruce Miller spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Kate Stanhope about what to expect from season two, going beyond the novel and the collaboration with Atwood, how current political and social issues are affecting the show, and the series' cultural impact.
How far along are you into the production on season two right now? How has shooting been so far in Toronto?
How far along? It sounds like I'm pregnant. Perfect analogy. We are shooting episodes five and six. We shoot two at a time, so we're somewhere around halfway through the season, and the shooting's going wonderfully.
I read that the production on season two started just after the Emmys, so I wanted to ask you what it was like — what the mood was on set those first couple of days coming off of all those great wins?
Positive. We actually started literally just a few days after the Emmys. It was amazing. I mean, I think that people were really proud of the show and proud of the work that we had done before that, and that was just kind of a stunningly wonderful addition to that feeling. But also I think it was nice because everybody had work to get to go do. So there was kind of less time to think about what it means or feel any pressure for season two because, you know, you're already so deep into the process.
That's the question when you have such a success right out of the gate like Handmaid's Tale. How do you deal with that pressure going into season two?
Well, I think the big thing, just in terms of philosophically, you try to ignore it. I mean, we made the first season, and we're the same people making the second season, so hopefully we'll be able to kind of do what we did last year to make something interesting and cool. I think the hardest thing was just the idea of trying to top what you did in season one, which is a fool's errand; you're just trying to continue the story. So once I was able to get my mind out of that, [when] I stopped feeling pressure to achieve something particular, then you can just kind of tell the story, and it ended up being a lot. It ended up being the area I'm much more comfortable in and we're all much more comfortable in.
When you were shooting season one, no one could have predicted what was going to happen with the election and the Trump of it all. Now that you're going into season two and you're fully aware of the administration that we're in and the climate that we're in as a country, how much do you think that has impacted the writing of season two and production on season two?
I think it's certainly impacted all the writers and actors and directors — all the creative people — even if it's in ways that aren't so apparent. Just going through the offseason and hearing how people envisioned their world and how it has affected their experience of the show. All those conversations were fascinating because that's the perspective you can't get when you're somebody who works on the show — the perspective of somebody who's just watching it on TV for the first time. That was all very interesting. The biggest impact was it made people keep up more specifically. And the focus on the news, the political news in the last few months since we wrapped the first time, I think that it pushed everybody to pay more attention to kind of the minutiae and the story behind the story.
How do you personally juggle keeping up with everything, given how fast the news cycle moves and all of the different moving parts of the current administration?
First and foremost, when you're doing my job on a TV show, it's a complete job. It really takes up all your time and all your creative attention and all your focus because you're trying to think about a lot of episodes at the same time and the season and I'm editing one episode while shooting another, prepping another and writing another, so you really have to keep all those things in mind, and it's incredibly time consuming and it requires a lot of attention. Luckily, one of my favorite things to do is read the news and keep up with the news, so luckily that's a little bit of a diversion. I've been trying very hard to focus not just on the headlines but on how the government is changing under the current administration — how norms are being broken and things like that so you can see how gradually and invisibly things change. The thing that has struck me is how many things can change at the same time in our system of government when there's no break from those things. When you think about some place like Gilead, you wonder how it comes into being. The thing you have to remember is at least some of the conditions for the changing of your government can be put in place before the government changes.
Seeing that on the news and taking that away, how do you think that might impact your direction for season two? Has there been anything so far? I remember reading that there was something you had to cut from season one that was a little too close to "Make America Great Again." Has there been anything where you had to change direction in one way or another because of what's happening right now?
So far, no. We follow our characters and their stories and our own curiosity and try to follow along the thread that makes sense for Gilead and makes sense for The Handmaid's Tale. We brush up against things that are happening in the world. But there are lots of parallels and lots of things that are not connected at all. We'd have to get very specific about something that was going on in our show, and then that specific thing would have to happen [in real life] for me to cut it. If we're getting close to stuff, that's fine. The reason we read the news or keep up on current events so aggressively is because we want to use those things in our show. We want to use the world around us in our show. It does turn comically if you do things like last year with something almost exactly like "Make America Great Again" in the script. And it was well before Trump. We had to cut it out because that was a phrase that got a completely other meaning, but we kept the scene and we kept the story. We didn't change our story. We just changed the way we were presenting it because we had stumbled upon a phrase that the meaning had changed between the time the scene was conceived and when the scene was about to be shot. There's a lot of that, but I think that kind of just the same way people have been thinking differently and paying attention to the news, you can't help but have it influence the way you build the show, but I think it's very unconscious. It's very foundational. I don't think we're saying, "We're going to do this because of the way things are today." More it's kind of, looking around, what would happen to Offred, what would happen to the people in Gilead, and how can we connect that to things that are happening today.
How do you think working on a show that's so culturally relevant impacts your own personal feelings about what's happening in reading those headlines of what's going on with the current administration?
When I first read the book it certainly terrified me, the snippets of information you get about how portions of Gilead took over and how this happened kind of within the system of America. Those things were completely terrifying, and that was really something Margaret Atwood brought to the project in the very beginning. Something I've tried to hold on to, I think is one of the most powerful effects of the book, is the terrifying realism of it — the possibility of it. We tried to keep that going on the show as much as possible because the book — part of its power was its relevance and its potential reality — that makes the show scary. And I don't think we're trying to be predictive, but what we're trying to do is say, "We're here, and if you look at certain things that are going on in our world right now, you can see a line toward things happening in a way like they did in Gilead." I'm certainly not predicting that they will, but it's being able to look around our lives today and see the things that are happening that are forces pushing us in certain directions. I think the structure of the show, having flashbacks can kind of focus on those things in a unique way, because what we're doing is showing what happened in Gilead, and this is the first hint that it was happening in the world before, and, boy, can't you see those things around us now?
Going into season two, you're going beyond the book. How does that change your conversations and your working relationship with Margaret Atwood as you're expanding into new territory? What do those conversations look like now as compared to season one?
We had extensive conversations during season one about season two. Four or five episodes in, you start thinking about, "How do I want to end season one in a way that gives me an opening to season two?" So those conversations came a long time ago; they began a long time ago. And I think me and the writing staff were much more reluctant to change anything or invent anything than Margaret was. Margaret's incredibly encouraging in terms of our creativity. She really is excited by the stuff we change and the stuff we come up with. I think it's more additions than changing things, but going into season two, Margaret and I have had lots and lots of conversations about what she liked about season one, what I like about season one. She's very much a storyteller, and continuing the story on from the end of the section of the book that we decided to tell in season one, I think she's just as excited as we are to ask those questions about what comes next. Writers react to adaptations in a million different ways. Margaret really embraces the difference between television and novels and is thrilled by the potential possibility of it.
Was there one particular change or addition that wasn't in the book that really gave you confidence moving forward of being able to kind of adjust the story for TV?
Yeah, there were plenty of them. Some of them were bigger, some were smaller. There's something in the very first episode where the handmaids execute a man. And in the book, Offred wasn't part of that. She stood back and let everybody else do it because of where she was in the book. It happened very late in the book. I moved it earlier, and Offred's right at the front of the gang. That may not seem like a big change, but there's a big difference between following your main character whom you're supposed to be sympathetic with, whom you're supposed to follow through 10 episodes — does she witness a murder or commit murder? We decided she commits a murder. That's a very different decision and we certainly talked to Margaret about it. It was mostly me alone, and I had lots of discussions with my partners and MGM about that. What seemed like little changes are huge character changes when you think about it. I think the story that really made me most comfortable was what happened to Alexis Bledel's character, Emily. She just vanishes in the book, and we hear that she committed suicide but we don't know. And also the story of Luke's side of the escape. In the book Offred is pondering all sorts of different futures for Luke, and there's memory and belief and loss and all of those things, but she doesn't know what happened. And even in the postscript of the book we don't find out what happened to Luke. We decided that we were going to try and tell that story, and it was remarkable. Our audience was very open to it and curious about it, and so that was a wonderful experience. And we found that the world itself carries a lot of drama with it, so you can move a little bit to other characters' points of view. The show, very much, is from Offred's point of view. It is the handmaid's tale. But it's nice to know you can slide around when you need to.
When you were talking with Margaret Atwood about what you liked about the first season and what she liked, what were some of the things that stood out to you as the biggest strengths that you wanted to lean into more or write to more as you were going into season two?
Honestly, I think the two biggest things are that it's entertaining and that it's dramatic. Drama isn't necessarily in a novel, so we had to make sure that we told the story in a dramatic way but still kept the flavor of the novel. In that way we were trying to thread a line, which was we wanted to make sure that it felt like the book but felt like a TV show [too]. So being dramatic — it seems like not something you'd think about very much considering all the things we're juggling politically, sexually, religiously, crafts-wise in this show — but the most important thing is that people have a satisfying dramatic experience. It's a television show, and I think one of the great strengths in Margaret's novel is that it's incredibly satisfying as a story, and all the other stuff always springs from a strong story. The same thing has to do with being entertaining. It's sometimes looked at as a pedestrian part of our job, but it's the most important part of our job. We're trying to entertain people, and by that, you can pull them in, make them feel what other people feel, have empathy for humans where they didn't have empathy before. If it's not interesting and compelling and you don't have a rooting interest in what happens, there's no reason anybody's going to watch and get any of the other interesting elements. The biggest structural and narrative changes that I made were focusing really hard on the more pedestrian, kind of bare, dramatic things that the script needs to do.
Another big conversation right now is about sexual harassment and sexual assault, and given that you deal with that on the show, how do you see that impacting the second season?
One is just the broader conversation, and then there's something that strikes closer to home, which is the way that people have been victimized in my own industry. So you're bound to two things. You want to make sure you address sexual politics in a way that makes sense for nowadays and, you know, women's sovereignty over their own bodies and all of those issues. But you don't want to be pulled. You don't want it to become the center of the show just because it's focused a lot in my industry. You want to make sure that the show is so much about misogyny and so much about how men think about women and how they kind of fabricate these women out of what they want or need to see. It so much lives in that area anyway, except for the fact that we've had more people talking about it, and all those conversations have been fascinating and illuminating about how the kind of abuse that Offred is going through, how that all changes your life and affects you going forward, and then how it lingers and how that lingering is expressed and all of those ways. We've got characters who are survivors of sexual slavery — Moira is a good example — and how does that person go through her life? In what ways does it express itself and in what ways does it control the choices that she makes? I think for us, for me at least, hearing the voices of some of these survivors of all different kinds of assault, hearing how it's changed their life, how they deal with it, what they feel like are their strongest moments — they become these things that happen to them — I think that really affects the kind of stories you're going to tell about your own characters in the show because they are those type of survivors.
People have been showing up in handmaids costumes to talk about bigger issues. Showing up on Capitol Hill and in Texas and things like that. Do you remember, looking back, the first time you saw people using the show in that way — wearing the costumes and that kind of thing? What was your initial reaction?
The first time I saw the costumes take on bigger issues was in Austin, Texas at the statehouse and I was just stunned. I was thrilled that Margaret Atwood’s masterful vision and the world we all adapted for the screen was being used beyond both the book and the show. You can’t help but feel a wave of responsibility – like you want to do your job well and think through the things you’re doing and try to be as honest and open as you can because people are watching and reacting to what you’re doing. They’re inspired by you, and you’re inspired by them.