Men may rule the fictional dystopian world of Gilead, the suffocating and misogynist setting of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but women were instrumental to the team that breathed life into that world.
Three women in particular proved foundational in translating Margaret Atwood’s prose for the screen, creating a world of subjugation meant to torture their own kind.
Reed Morano, director of the first three episodes, was responsible for setting the visual tone and establishing the style for the episodes to follow.
Production designer Julie Berghoff labored over the brick and mortar (and wallpaper and accoutrements) that brought Gilead to life.
Costume designer Ane Crabtree crafted striking, yet utilitarian fashion that created instantaneously recognizable social divisions.
These women’s contributions were heartening to those fans who were concerned when Bruce Miller was announced as the creator, writer and executive producer. To put it bluntly, some were distressed by the fact that Miller is a man.
Or rather, a boy.
That’s how Miller refers to himself in a phone interview when discussing the challenges of depicting Gilead.
“One of the big aspects of ‘Handmaid’s’ was that Offred (Elisabeth Moss) was victimized by a society that was institutionally misogynist,” Miller said, pausing. “There are aspects of that you just can’t understand being a boy.”
In the series, which some critics have deemed disconcertingly timely, the United States has crumbled and a new regime called Gilead has risen, forcing a caste system on citizens, focused solely on raising flagging birthrates. Families are ripped apart and fertile women are forced into sexual slavery and stripped of basic human rights.
Miller was acutely aware of his own potential limitations when it came to processing the full implications of Atwood’s novel, but in hiring collaborators to execute his vision for the series, he wasn’t just looking for women to fill out the ranks.
“In every case, we hired the best person for the job and part of that job was to represent a female and a male sensibility accurately and compassionately,” Miller said.
Enter Morano, Berghoff and Crabtree.
Together, with Miller steering the ship, and assists from director of photography Colin Watkinson, as well as Atwood — who served as a consultant — and Moss, the women created a world equal parts recognizable and disquieting.
“What does the ‘Handmaid’s’ world look like? What are the rules?” Berghoff recalled asking in early brainstorming discussions with Crabtree and Morano. “We couldn’t believe that we, as women, were developing these rules for Gilead.”
“It was ironic, but also really emotional,” said Berghoff.
For her creative process, Crabtree forced herself into the mind set of a man tasked with remaking the world in the way he saw fit, a challenge that afforded her logic and authority during daylight hours but took an emotional toll at night.
“I tried to be a military strategist,” Crabtree said. “I tried to plan the world from the top, looking down. What would it look like if I wanted to obliterate everything that ever was?”
“It felt karmically wrong,” she admitted, to design clothes intended to rob women of their autonomy.
Early on, talks centered on Morano’s vision for the show, from what type of house would serve as the main location to the precise color palette for everyone, including the handmaids and the wives.
“Reed had a very big and precise vision of what she wanted it to look like, especially with the color palette,” Berghoff said.
The color conversations were not contentious but definitely expansive.
For Morano, she needed to know that the colors would work on digital as opposed to film.
For Berghoff, her fabric and paint choices couldn’t move forward without landing on the characters’ signature colors.
For Crabtree, the colors just had to be right.
The answer ended up coming from a photo of red flowers against a blue background, the red -- vibrant like lifeblood — and the blue — bold and verging on peacock — were two shades that would not back down when they come in contact, much like the women who wear them.
“The look of Gilead needed to convey tension; to convey segregation and strictness of the new world,” said Morano by phone, during a break in filming her upcoming feature “I Think We're Alone Now.”
That segregation inspired Morano to opt for a very symmetrical composition in establishing shots, including the striking overhead shot featuring dozens of crimson-clad handmaids gathered on a green field, while choosing to use a verité — or handheld — camera when shooting close-ups.
But perhaps Morano’s most crucial creative choice was in how she chose to film Moss. Offred is often heard in internal monologue voice-overs, requiring Morano to devise a way to get the audience inside her head.
“With Lizzie [Moss], we had to get closer,” Morano explained. “We had a special 28 mm lens dedicated to her, a wide lens that we used for her close-ups in order to make that visual more unnerving.”
The idea, Morano said, was to get close enough so the audience felt as though they were hearing Offred’s thoughts and seeing the world through her eyes.
Unnerving was the watchword when speaking with many of the creative forces behind the scenes of “Handmaid’s Tale.”
“Whatever makes the audience feel weird and uncomfortable, that’s what we’re always looking to do,” said Morano.
Crabtree echoed the sentiment, saying “That’s what good storytelling does. It takes you out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be horrible or horrific. It just takes you out of what you know.”
A key location is Commander Fred Waterford’s (Joseph Fiennes) house, where Offred— ”Of Fred”— serves as a handmaid to him and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
Early in the “Handmaid’s” pilot, Offred stands in the doorway to the kitchen, waiting like a child to be acknowledged. But it’s not just Moss’ performance that reads that way, it’s the set itself.
The door frame is unnaturally tall, art director Ryan Halpenny explained, in order to throw off the viewers’ eye and create a sense of creeping discomfort.
“On the surface, everything appears normal,” Halpenny said, “but your mind knows better.”
Beyond even that, there is the coding that exists in the background of nearly every frame of the series. The Waterfords’ house is filled with beautiful artwork, nearly all of which are replications of pieces from the Boston Museum of Fine Art. With the fall of the U.S. came an unspoken pillaging of art, an unspoken nod to the fall of Europe during World War II.
The systematic erasure of creature comforts extends to the costumes as well, Crabtree revealed.
“There are no buttons in the show. There’s no zippers in the show. It’s all been stripped away,” Crabtree said.
And that goes for men, as well as women.
“I wanted to take control of the populace by taking away the elements people remembered. There are no epaulets for the commanders, because it’s the absence that you remember,” explained Crabtree.
For the women and the men behind “The Handmaid’s Tale,” that is the message they hope to impart. While the subjugation of women is the central story, it is by no means the whole story.
This world, Morano said, screws up “everyone and no matter how it may appear, the message I wanted to convey was that it’s not good for anyone, including men.”
‘The Handmaid's Tale’
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)