Interview with Bruce Miller, Writer/Showrunner for The Handmaid's Tale
Q: Can you just talk about the premise, the basic premise of the Handmaid's Tale?
A: The Handmaid's Tale is based on a novel by Margaret Atwood. It takes place in kind of an alternate present, a dystopian present, where a totalitarian theocracy is ruling the U.S. and has taken over in a coup. Because of falling fertility rates, the few fertile women that are left are dealt out to powerful families as property in order for those families to have children by them. Our main character, Offred, is a handmaid in that system. Even her name connotes ownership, she's "of Fred." She belongs to the commander of the house. It's a world where women have no independent rights. The premise of the book creates a whole world radiating out from that idea.
Q: What attracted you to this story initially?
A: I was assigned to read the book in a new fiction class in college, which tells you how long ago I was in college. I went to the bookstore and purchased what I later found out was a first edition of the book. I read the book and loved it. I loved the story. I was always a big fan of books that built the post-apocalyptic world. After school, I read it a couple of times over the years. Margaret Atwood was really one of the people that taught me how to write and how to think like a writer. I always thought, "Oh, it'd make a great movie." Then someone made it into a movie. As my career moved into TV, I thought, "Oh, this would make a great TV show."
The world was interesting, and I thought it would be endlessly fascinating to go beyond the little hints that she gives in the book to all the different places that could be created. Honestly, it was Offred who I really connected to because at the end of the day the book is Offred’s story. She's a woman, she's a mother, she's a human being trying to survive in this world. That's really what attracted me to the project. There are all sorts of political implications and religious implications, and those themes are all interesting, but for me it all goes back to the people who live in this world and how they survive and how they're trapped by their own choices. I wanted to tell the story about how these people lived through the experience and how they came out the other side alive and with some of their identity still intact.
That was the thing I loved about the book, realizing by the end that Offred has kept herself alive. She may have endangered her life, but she didn't endanger herself. I've loved this story for 35 years, thought it was amazing and I am lucky and privileged to be part of it now.
Q: What are the major themes of the story?
A: The Handmaid's Tale has a lot of big, broad themes of control, biological sexism, misogyny, and cruelty, but the biggest theme is hope and survival. That's what the story is about. The goal of our main character is to survive in this situation, reunite with her daughter and get back to what we would consider a normal life.
Our lives are messy, annoying, busy and overwhelmed, but we don't appreciate all of that until it is taken away. One of the things that Offred is always going through is just such incredible boredom, trying to keep herself from going insane from boredom. Another one of the big themes for me is appreciation. In order to appreciate what you have now, you have to strip things away.
For Offred, the central conflict is between surviving and living. Those two poles are always pulling at each other. She could sit in her room very quietly and probably survive, and may survive to see her daughter again, but what would be left of herself? At points she's offered chances to live more of a full life, even if it's just to make a friend, which is dangerous in this world, to take a chance, to flirt a little bit. All of these things are opportunities that she's offered to live a little bit more, but reduce her chances of surviving. For Offred she must decide at what point to take a chance and try to live your life a little bit more when you are thinking you're taking away your chances of surviving long enough to see your daughter. Do you live for today or do you live for the future?
Q: What is the tone and view of the show?
A: The tone of The Handmaid's Tale is very much drawn from the tone of the book, which is an unquestionably a dark world, but it's not a dark show. The show is about hope and perspective. It is about not losing the hope of getting out and getting your life back and never losing the idea that this is not the real world. This is not the way that people really are in their hearts. They're acting in a certain way. There is a great amount of optimism in the show. In fact, one of the things that is very hopeful in the project in general, is that she's always running into people that help her.
Almost everybody that she runs into offers some sort of help. There are very few people who go out of their way to be cruel. There is the idea of hope and humanity. Humor is also injected into the show through Offred’s personality. She has so much personality, strength and courage and that will never be stomped out of her, not matter what happens. That personality points out the absurdity of the situations. These situations are so terrible in some ways that they are almost unfathomable, but watching Offred’s story, you come away with a great amount of hope for what we can endure.
Q: Please talk a little bit about the creative collaborations.
A: This project requires great attention to detail. Margaret Atwood created a book and I think the biggest creative collaboration for all of us has been between us and Margaret Atwood. Her book is our guiding star, our inspiration, our template, our spiritual advisor. Margaret herself has been incredibly helpful and generous in terms of guiding us along.
We were incredibly lucky to get Julie Berghoff to do our art direction and her whole team, they've done an astonishing job. We're talking about creating a world from the ground up, a world where there is no visible language because women aren't allowed to read. We had to create a place where there is a society that is very present, the society of Gilead, where there are no words, only symbols. There are symbols for fertility, for every cast in the society. Every aspects of life in Gilead had to be considered. For instance, in our grocery store, there are labels for every single piece of food, but not one word. There are symbols everywhere.
Gilead is a world that's very environmentally sensitive. It takes place in a present, but in the past fertility rates had fallen very precipitously, so anything that they thought might affect that, from cell phone towers, to chemicals, to chemicals in food had to be taken out of society. The depth of the change is quite extensive and really visible on screen. In the show you recognize our world, but are transported into a new version of it.
In addition, Julie was tasked with bringing iconic places and objects in the book to life, such as the Red Center and Commander Waterford’s house and the cattle prods used as punishment for the Handmaids. Julie weighed every aspect and seamlessly integrated them into the show.
We thought of every detail in the show. For instance, the show’s color palette was debated, discussed and planned, extremely carefully by Julie Berghoff, Wardrobe Designer Ane Crabtree, and Director of Photography Colin Watkinson, and Reed Morano, our Director of our first three episodes, and the entire production team. Everything is drawn from that color palette. We had more discussions about the color red than you ever want to have in your life. Everything from umbrellas to gloves to sweaters, it's all the same red. Every character in the show has a certain color that is ascribed to them in the book, but we've gone beyond that. We've tried to give them a color and a style that is their own. There is something that you can never take away, which is people expressing their personality through clothes.
We wanted to make sure that our costumes didn't look like costumes- that they looked like clothes that people were wearing, but very alien. Because Gilead believes in traditional values the costumes have a classic feel to them, yet they look modern. The Handmaids costumes are incredibly iconic in the book and Ane has masterfully brought them to life, making them beautiful, graceful and sensual.
The dresses for the Handmaids are all designed by hand, sewn by hand. The capes, the boots, all the way down to their underwear, they have handmade clothes that go all the way down. It has made, not just an incredible impact visually ... I think the world, in our costumes is breathtaking, but I think the characters, once you put on those clothes, you feel transported to that world, for our actors.
Reed Morano (Director of Ep. 1-3) came in on the project very, very early as a director and we were thrilled to have her. She has a background as a director of photography and understands the camera quite well. She operated the camera quite a bit during our pilot and is a spectacular creative force, and has really been the driving force behind the look and the editing style, the music, everything from our first few episodes. She really took this show to heart and held it very close. The Handmaid’s Tale wouldn't be what it is without Reed Morano.
Also, our production team, Warren Littlefield and our partners at MGM and Hulu (distributor in the United States) have all been there since the very beginning and it's been a very open, creative conversation.
Q: What are you excited to share with the audience?
A: I'm excited for the viewers to see Elisabeth Moss’ performance, more than anything else. How she's brought her character to life, a character that's a beloved character in literature, a revered character. She’s really taken this character and made it come alive with depth and detail, beyond what the character that was created in the book. I'm beyond excited for everybody to see the world that we've created, but it really is about the people in that world. We've been so lucky to get a terrific cast, not just actors with amazing talents, but intelligent, caring people who collaborated to bring this project to life. To see the story come to life with Elisabeth, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, Samira Wiley, Madeline Brewer, Max Minghella, O.T. Fagbenle has been incredible. I'm blown away.
For the people who are familiar with the book, I'm very excited for them to get exposed to this world, the complexity of it. I think that the political climate of today lends itself to these kinds of discussions, but I think that's always true. The political climate of any day lends itself to these discussions. And yes, it may seem like we're coming out at a time where that conversation is being had is front and center, but the stuff that we're talking about in The Handmaid's Tale is nothing new and it happens every day. It happened before Donald Trump got elected and it'll happen after he's long gone. That's one of the beauties of the book.
The Handmaid’s Tale: 9pm, Channel 4, 28th May