Crippling disease and pollution. Economic chaos. Civil war. Power-crazed leaders. Subjugated women. Revolution. If ever a show and its themes seemed like they were tailor-made for the COVID-19 era, it’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And the Hulu hit has achieved that rare distinction in pop culture, where timely and difficult subject matter, and massive artistic ambition, crosses over into massive ratings.
Starring a large ensemble cast headed by Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes, and based on the acclaimed dystopian and prescient 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, the show was created by showrunner and EP Bruce Miller, and has won numerous awards, including multiple Emmys (including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing For A Drama Series for Miller); the Peabody Award; the Golden Globe for Best Television Series, Drama; the Critics Choice Award for Best Drama Series; the PGA Award for Outstanding Producer Of Episodic Television, Drama; and two WGA Awards, for Best Drama Series and Best New Series.
Miller began his writing career on NBC’s long-running hit ER, and has been a writer/producer on Syfy’s
Alphas, and the CW’s
Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Miller talks about making the show, the challenges and why he loves post.
This is such a cautionary tale, and Margaret Atwood, who wrote it 35 years ago, has said that everything has now happened somewhere in the world since she wrote it, and it’s happening today. Do you think that’s why the show’s caught the public’s imagination so much?
“I think so, and I think a lot of it has to do with her book, which has always been so relevant and pressing. I think it’s much more to do with the timing of the material than the timing of the show, so I feel that no matter when we did the show, it would have seemed like the perfect timing.”
Fair to say that Atwood’s book and its themes seem more timely than ever?
“Yes, but then when I first read it back in the ‘80s I thought, ‘This is so perfect for now,’ so I really feel it’s the enduring nature of her work. I’m a bad reader, very dyslexic and quite slow, and part of that is I re-read the same books I love over and over again, and so when I re-read the book again, I see all these fresh parallels with American politics and global events, and I always feel, ‘She wrote it for just this time! She’s Nostradamus!’ And now we have COVID-19. So hopefully today is as close to what she wrote about as we’ll ever get.”
What can you tell us about Season 4? Given the crisis with COVID-19 now, how far along are you?
“When it all began, we’d started shooting Season 4, so we had to totally shut down. We’ve written almost the whole season, and we’re continuing to write and doing it all remotely and moving along, but we’re stuck in limbo like everyone else. Hulu’s been so supportive to both the cast and crew, but it’s hard as everyone’s gone from thinking they’d be employed all year to nothing — which is terrifying. But of course, our main concern right now is everyone’s health. And hopefully we’ll get back to shooting before too long.”
You have a great cast, and every character is so complex. What do actors like Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes bring to the mix?
“All the actors bring so much experience from so many areas, and they all know just how to do this as they’re so practiced in their process. No one’s trying to figure it out as they go, as they all do the hard work and prep off-stage. So while they may have very different styles of prepping their roles, there’s none of that process on set. For Elisabeth, she’s also an EP on the show and she works really hard at that role, and then as an actor she has what I feel is this main circuit cable that connects her heart to her face — and she can’t turn it off, even if she wants to. And that’s the thing I love about her so much — that she has very complex emotions that show both how strong she is and how she has faults and weaknesses, like everyone else, and it can all be happening at the same time. You see them all. And Joe brings this elegance and regal feeling to a very dark, grim character, and he’s such a sweet, lovely person, so when you combine all that it’s incongruous and very interesting to watch.”
Where are you shooting?
“In and around Toronto, and it’s a great place to shoot as we can get a wide variety of locations very easily, they have great crews and great facilities.”
What are the big challenges of running this show?
“The big one is basically time — or lack of, which is true of all TV shows. You’re always fighting to keep the audience really engaged and entertained without letting the show turn into a pablum, where they just consume it to get a quick fix. You want it to be interesting. And the other big one is the: ‘Don’t fuck it up’ challenge. Here’s a great book, written by a woman, and I’m not a woman, and I love the book so I don’t want to screw it up. Luckily it’s the same worry as the audience’s: ‘Don’t mess it up, Bruce!’ That’s my mantra."
Do you like being a showrunner?
“Very much, surprisingly, as when I got offered my first showrunner job, I had a very candid talk with the executive who was offering me the job, and said, ‘I don’t know of many happy showrunners and I don’t know if I want to live that way.’ And he agreed with that. And over the years I’ve seen so many people doing this job, and luckily I’ve been fired many times, so I’ve worked with a million showrunners, and so over time I’ve had a chance to decide how to do the job as opposed to being just thrust into it and having to figure it out.”
What are the best parts of the job and the worst?
“I love the writing and working with the actors and crew, and I both love and hate the fast pace. It’s an extremely time-consuming job, with lots of other jobs attached to it.”
Where do you post?
“We always do all the post at Take 5 Productions in Toronto, and they’ve won a lot of awards for their great work, and they do all of the editing and finishing. I love post and I love our post team and spending time with them creatively. To me, post people are the unsung heroes of TV shows. And I love editing, which I approach from an emotional, storytelling angle. I never say, ‘Cut three frames here,’ I just say, ‘Make it funny.’ I’m a fussy person, and fussing over post seems more reasonable than fussing over a script. So polishing a moment and making it great just serves the show and makes it better.”
Talk about editing. You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor? How does that work?
“It’s like the cast — we have a great group of four editors who’ve all been with us since the very start of the show, and they’re all so talented. We block shoot but edit one episode at a time, with an editor assigned to it. I don’t talk much to the editors during shooting unless there’s a problem and they call me. But that’s very rare. So the director does his cut with the editor, and I don’t see anything till that happens, and then I get involved and start working off the director’s cut. But often I’ll go back to the assembly and earlier versions of the cut to see what they envisioned for the show. Basically, I really like to empower the editors and encourage them to make decisions that’ll impact the show. There is no ‘undo’ button in production. You have to keep going. But you have that option in post, so I encourage them to be bold and even add music they feel is cool, and be as creative as possible.”
This show has a great score and great sound design. Talk about the importance of sound and music to you, as I hear you’re very involved.
“I am, but like with the editing, I want all the sound guys to be empowered as storytellers and to really be creative and imaginative. And I often feel that sound doesn’t get the full attention and recognition it deserves, and I love the fact that Gilead has its own sound. We try to extrapolate Gilead out to a sound level that fits the story. We’re not just adding sound for fun or scares, but adding sound that tells story. For example, I want to hear more birds in Gilead than actually live in Massachusetts now, so we bring up the levels in the mix. And the whole concept of the book and show is that it was a found recording, so at the very start of the whole thing you hear the ‘click’ where June presses ‘record’ to tape her voiceover. And it’s that attention to detail that I feel today’s audiences, who watch and re-watch episodes, and stop and start, really appreciate, along with all the craft that goes into it. And Adam Taylor, who scores it, is a genius. It’s his first TV gig, and he was Emmy-nominated last season, and he doesn’t read the scripts or watch dailies. So the first time he sees it is at the music spotting sessions, and I just let him get on with it.”
What about VFX — what’s involved?
“We do a lot of them — everything from fixes to creating big set pieces, like a huge graveyard for handmaids, and Mavericks VFX does them and we have an on-set VFX supervisor. We use VFX and post work for two big areas; first scale. We shoot for scale and then add or take out stuff. Second, we use them for location specificity, like when we created Fenway Park. They let us shoot there, but we couldn’t build huge sets there, so we had to combine plates with CGI to create that reality.”
Where do you do the DI?
“At Deluxe Toronto, and from the very start there was a lot of talk about the look I wanted, and we did a lot of color work and camera tests, with input from all departments, and I really love the way the show looks.”
Where do you see the show going? Are you already planning Seasons 5 and 6?
“I have a shape of the overall story, but I don’t want to box myself in yet.”
Will you be adapting and incorporating Atwood’s latest book 'The Testaments'?
“I hope so. It already has been a big influence, in that we spoke a lot while she wrote it, so I knew what to do and what not to do — who not to kill, basically.”