The Handmaid's Tale boss discusses 'strange, freaky' handmaid's underwear
Bruce Miller is basking in first-world problems: The showrunner of Hulu’s acclaimed series The Handmaid’s Tale is still putting the finishing touches on the last few episodes of season 1 while he has reconvened his writers’ room to start tackling season 2, which was recently greenlit. In between, he’s handling promotional duties for a show that’s likely to see its name in lights come Emmy nominations day in July.
We caught Miller for a brief interview that will air Tuesday on Inside Series (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105), where he discussed the fourth episode as well as season 2 and the Handmaids’ undergarments.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What has surprised you the most about the response to the series?
BRUCE MILLER: Everything we were worried people wouldn’t pick up the first viewing — everybody is picking up. All the little, tiny messages — like having a grocery store with Muzak playing — all these things we thought wouldn’t really mean much to people, have been noticed. The level of attention and care with which people have watched has really been amazing. And how people are putting it into their political lens in lots of different ways, and not just simply that it’s a world that is assailing women’s rights left and right but also lots of other ways; from men making all the decisions for women to LGBT issues. It’s amazing how much people are finding that they can relate to their lives. It’s spectacular. I’m glad people find it relevant.
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When you first came on as showrunner, did you already have Elisabeth Moss in mind to play Offred?
After I wrote the first two scripts, yes. Before that, I didn’t really think about actors. It doesn’t help me as I write. If you think of an actor as opposed to a real-life person, you tend to create a role, not a character. After I finished and could step back a bit, [hiring] Elisabeth was the first conversation we had. Now I can’t think of anybody else in the world. It’s remarkable.
For me, it’s the range in the previous roles she’s taken. The vast difference between Peggy (in Mad Men) and her part in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. She has such a long résumé and the parts are all very complicated and different than each other. That’s what attracts you to someone’s skill. But to see her face, and how complicated her emotional life can be reflected in her face. Because everyone is wearing the same clothes, you only see their face in The Handmaid’s Tale, there is not a ton of opportunity to use your hands or your costume to tell a story. It relies a lot on the faces and the eyes of the character. Lizzie has the most amazing, reactive, thoughtful stunning face and if you’re going to be living that close to somebody and she is going to be our point of view, you need someone like Lizzie — I don’t think there are that many people in the same class in that regard.
Did you always know you’d do these really intense close-ups where the camera would linger for a while or did that come from when Reed Morano, the director of the first three episodes, came aboard and set the stylistic tone for the piece?
I definitely try to think about the show in terms of character and story. When Reed and I first started having conversations, we talked about that and I let her translate that into visuals. She’s much better at it than I am. We talked about point of view and close-ups and all those things but I tried to approach it from an emotional place, a story place, and I let her decide how to tell that story visually.
You said previously that you believed in order for The Handmaid’s Tale to succeed, you had to pay great attention to detail to make it all the more terrifying. Can you talk about your philosophy here and examples of how that played out?
The philosophy is basically if it doesn’t feel like a real world, it doesn’t feel scary. And there are so many things that are different in The Handmaid’s Tale that it makes it even easier to dismiss. So you have to take the things that are the same as our world and make sure you point those out — weather, trees, etc and make them feel rich and real. But also, the things that are new, that don’t exist, like the costumes — they look like things people are forced to wear — but the last thing you want them to look like are costumes, not their own clothes. We had to figure out a way to not only age those costumes — they wear the same things every day, things wear out a certain way when you wear them everyday; to wear their shoes in as if they are being worn every single day, not changing shoes but wearing the same ones. Same thing with the dress, the cloak, the scarves, and the gloves, to have it aged as if these are real clothes for real people. Ann Crabtree and her costume designers did an amazing job. They also individualized each costume. I know from the outside they all look the same, but they are slightly changed. One of the things I was fascinated by is how people express themselves through their clothes no matter how much they are put into a uniform. People in the military, prisoners, people in concentration camps — they wear their clothes a specific way to express themselves. So we did that as well. Going down to the width of the obi belts, to the spats on their shoes. They all express themselves through their clothes. The wardrobe is a good example is how we were obsessive with detail. The shoes have no laces because that would be dangerous. Shoes, socks, underwear are all thought out. There is a scene in a later episode where we see Offred going to the bathroom and when she pulls down her underwear it doesn’t look like the underwear people wear now. It looks like strange, freaky Handmaid’s Tale underwear. To bring you into that world, you have to go all the way to the underwear and think about that in order for it to feel real all the way through.
Let’s dig a little deeper into episode 4. Can you talk to us about filming the scene when all the handmaids first learn their fate, that the government has sanctioned monthly rape in order to re-populate a dying nation? What were the challenges of creating that scene?
It wasn’t in the book but it always fascinated me. There had to be a moment where their ignorance became knowledge and the show really operates in those places, where one big thing changes everything. This is a huge moment where they go from not knowing to knowing and we thought long and hard about how they would explain it and how each person would react and the idea that even half the room wouldn’t get it.
It’s June and Moira (Samira Wiley) who really understand what it means but it’s almost too bizarre and absurd to get your head around very quickly. The thing I liked about it is from an audience point of view we already know what they are doing and we are dreading it — we are a little ahead of them waiting for them to find out this terrible news and as it dawns on them, it dawns on us how weird it is, how almost impossible it is to get your head around the concept that they’ve institutionalized rape and they are going to make it part of our lives. It seems so malicious and horrific. You want to play dawning realization but it takes place after they’ve been cowed a bit, they’ve been beaten, ordered around, shocked, damaged in terrible ways, shamed by their peers. It’s an example of in our heads we are saying get up and run, but you also know why they don’t.This is also the episode where we get to see more of the handmaid’s rebellion, from the quote on the closet door from the last Offred, to Moira’s etching on the bathroom stall, to Moira escaping with the help of Offred. Repression is really not sustainable. These are also the small moments of hope that helped me get through the episode.
This is also the episode where we get to see more of the handmaid’s rebellion, from the quote on the closet door from the last Offred to Moira’s etching on the bathroom stall, to Moira escaping with the help of Offred. Repression is really not sustainable. These are also the small moments of hope that helped me get through the episode.
They are not going to cease fighting back. Sometimes I think the most American trait of all is stubbornness. As (The Handmaid’s Tale author) Margaret Atwood says, “We are an ornery people,” and I think that is one of the best things about Americans and one of the things that make us irrepressible. So here, in this episode you are supposed to realize that she is going to find ways to fight back — that is the whole show. She does it in a lot of different ways in this episode. She gets out of the house and goes to visit the doctor which it doesn’t seem like she can get out of the house. She gets out of her room when it doesn’t look like anybody is going to help her. She prostrates herself to Serena Joy and she doesn’t break. So she uses the only lever she has, the commander. And she uses it quite beautifully.
What I found in the book was a sisterhood between the handmaids. There is a little bit of not trusting each other but in the end they have a lot more friendships and openness. But they also had a community. It was a strange community, but Offred and her predecessor communicated with each other. I liked the scene when she laid that out for the commander because the commander is thinking, “I have complete control of her.” And she says, “No, no, I know what you did to her, and I know what you’re doing to me, and I’ll pass it along.” When the war crimes trials come, there will be people who remember; it’s not being forgotten. We play up a little more sisterhood in the show than what is in the book, and I’m happy about that. To me it makes it feel more natural about how they would act in that situation. That is born out of those little messages they scratch to each other. They are irrepressibly in communication even when it seems they can’t be.
This is also the first time we see that Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) might not be faring as well as expected. She’s trapped Offred in her room for 13 days but she’s also trapped herself in a world she had a hand in creating. I’m curious about your decision to cast Yvonne and Joseph Fiennes as the commander and his wife, since they are both younger than how they are depicted in the book.
That was a very big discussion among the writers and between me and Margaret. I looked at it as a decision based on the dynamic between Serena Joy and Offred in the book and what I would need for a dynamic in the show — a show that’s going to last a lot longer and the dynamic is going to play out a lot longer. My thinking is in the book, her age is never expressly given, but I got the feeling Serena Joy is much older and past her child-bearing years. For me, she was trying to recapture a role that had passed her by. What I wanted with a younger couple is they are in a period in their lives where they would be raising children. They are not trying to recapture something from their past but something from their present and it put Offred and Serena Joy not just in more competition with each other but they actually have more in common. It was a way to increase the dynamic between them: make their friction bigger, their connection bigger and also Yvonne came and read for the role and was astonishing, brought so much humanity to a role that I didn’t think had any. It certainly didn’t have anything to do with the attractiveness of Serena Joy and the Commander. That was actually a downside to make the Commander more handsome and in a sexy part of his life. It was difficult and actually made me uncomfortable. But Joe is so amazing and terrifying, it doesn’t really matter. And it does give him a few more dimensions, which helps us a lot.
What can you tell us about the rest of the season and where you’ll go next?
The things you are seeing blooming in Offred are not going to go away. Her spirit of rebellion and her careful march away from being a well-behaved handmaid and making some trouble is where the season is rolling towards. After that, season 2 is what happens after you become a little rebellious. Does that make it harder to survive, does it make harder to live in a world where you can’t affect the changes you know should happen? The seasons moving moving forward, we have so much stuff to do: the stories of the colonies, the red center, there are so many worlds to explore. We are going to stay focused on Offred and her journey through Gilead. We aren’t going to stray too far from that. The world is so rich and wide, it’s never worrisome that we aren’t going to have enough stories, the problem is choosing from the ones we do have.
Episode 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale will debut on Hulu on Wednesday.