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The making of The Handmaid’s Tale

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Kayleigh Dray
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The making of The Handmaid's Tale

Ahead of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray goes behind the scenes…

I was half asleep when
 I first entered Gilead, reading my battered copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by torchlight under my duvet. By the time I’d finished, I was wide awake.

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel focused on a woman living in the dystopian theocracy that a future America becomes. The TV adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss roared onto our screens in 2017, complete with new relevance. Writer-producer Bruce Miller updated Atwood’s story, adding in new references, new characters, new horrors – and it played out against the real-life nightmare of Donald Trump’s America as women struggled to comprehend what this meant for them.

The book itself is an A-level set text and the most-read Kindle book of 2017. Adapting a much-loved novel was always going to be tough. Even the actors were worried at first. Amanda Brugel, who plays the maid Rita, readily admits she didn’t like the new series at first.

“I was like, ‘Well, this is not my Offred,’” she said. “But it’s so well done, like a beautiful game of chess. And, once they add the cinematography, and Elisabeth’s remarkable acting, then we’re back in that lush world of Gilead.”

The second season departs further from the novel. But Atwood collaborated with Miller and told us, “They are all doing
 a wonderful job. So much thought has gone into every decision.” 

Miller added: “She read the first two outlines, and was – can I say ‘crapping her pants’? She’s been involved as much as she can be. She’s thrilled and excited.”

Praise be. 

Step through the wardrobe 

The show’s costume designer, Ane Crabtree, talks about her inspiration… 

“In front of us, to the right, is the store where we order dresses,” Offred narrates in The Handmaid’s Tale. “Some people call them habits, a good word for them. Habits are hard to break.”

Just like all of us, costume designer Ane Crabtree had a vision in her head when she first stumbled across those red habits for the first time. But, when she was asked to bring them to life, she forced herself to set Atwood’s novel aside and start from scratch.

“When you hold something too close, it almost becomes bigger than your creative influence,” she explains. “Her book was like a beautiful icon that became bigger than the project, so I had to put it aside until almost the end of season two. Only then, when I went away to the woods to come up with something giant for the finale, did I allow myself to reread her work.”

Rather than draw inspiration from Atwood’s words, Crabtree looked outwards and into the real world. “If you were to look inside my brain when I was on a marathon or visual hunt, it would look like the mind of a mad man,” she laughs. “It’s literally from everywhere.”

Significant world events influence Crabtree’s designs very often – but so do iconic fashion moments, an element which is clearly seen in Joseph Fiennes’ character, Commander Fred Waterford. “The commander is very classist in nature, but he’s also a social marketing machine,” muses Crabtree. “He utilises his clothes as propaganda. The Gilead gent is very much rooted in times of war – but also in Nineties Prada, which took its symbolism from military uniforms.”

Of course, the show takes place in two separate times: Gilead, and the America that came before it. For Crabtree, however, there is a third period to consider – that “in-between moment”, during which changing religious and political beliefs start to creep into people’s dress. “It happens throughout time, all time,” she says. “Historically, you can see it: hemlines start to get longer, silhouettes get fuller, people start to adapt and adopt to different cultural things which can conceal the body and the sex. Then you get to Gilead and all bets are off.”

Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is that Crabtree hides a piece of herself within each costume she creates. “Amanda Brugel’s scarf came from a scarf that I used to wear every day,” she says, “and Lizzie Moss’ boots are my own. Some would call that ego, and that would not be a lie, but others say, ‘throw yourself into your work and you’ll fall in love with it more’.”

Crabtree’s designs have now become a symbol of real resistance, with women wearing copies of the handmaids’ habits to protests, demonstrations and rallies, but she insists she cannot take responsibility for that. “The design isn’t mine, it’s based on an amazing novel that inspired me as a young girl and now people are riffing off the costume that inspired them in a show. But I love that this oppressive design is empowering women now. As someone who is deeply involved in these feminist movements, I can only say that is absolute pure beauty.”

Watch out for…

While the red habit is the most famous of Crabtree’s designs, the handmaids’ black-and-red funeral costumes (seen for the first time this season) speak to her far more. 

“This design came from a pop-up exhibition at the Paley Centre,” she explains.

“I wanted something super-abstract, so I covered them in black, with a piece of red fabric stretched over their faces. It’s a means of keeping the red, the life force, even though they’re in mourning.
 I hope it will become as iconic as the red-and-white handmaids.” 

A daughter of Gilead

New character Eden is a “pious and obedient” 15-year-old girl who represents the next wave of true believers in Gilead. Here, we speak to actress Sydney Sweeney about the role…

Sydney Sweeney as Eden in The Handmaid's Tale

Sydney Sweeney as Eden in The Handmaid’s Tale (image provided by Sweeney’s agent)

Your character isn’t referenced in the novel. Where did you draw your inspiration from?

I really studied the laws and structure of Gilead in order to work out the daily life of Eden, and what she would learn growing up. She’s still a teenager, so I wanted to keep that sense of curiosity, but she’s been raised to dream and aspire to be a good wife or a mother and doesn’t really know anything else. She works on blind faith alone: others may judge the regime, but she doesn’t know any different – and I wanted the audience to be able to see that.

What was the audition like?

I actually hadn’t seen the show when I got invited to audition, so I figured I’d watch one episode to get a feel for it. I ended up watching the entire first season in a single day and I quickly realised this was the sort of role that would only come along once in a lifetime: I had to get it. So I taught myself how to put my hair up in a braided bun (which is actually how Eden styles her own hair, I later learned), dressed like a child of Gilead, re-read the book – and got a callback!

What hidden symbolism should we watch out for?

You’ll see Eden’s costumes play with the symbol of innocence and fertility: one of her dresses actually symbolises a fertile egg. Performance-wise, I memorised the different prayers Eden would’ve learned in Gilead to have with her throughout different scenes, reciting them in my head during key moments. I also played with her posture, eye contact, and threw in some hidden movements that some viewers may catch: for example, you’ll see Eden observes Serena Joy [Yvonne Strahovski] – a woman she greatly admires – and starts to clasp her hands just like her.

Who is Eden to you?

To me Eden is innocence. She has unwavering faith. I don’t know if viewers will relate to her, or feel any sympathy, but they’re guaranteed to feel for her in some way – and recognise that she has been defined by the world within which she was raised. 

Is it exciting working with
 a predominantly female cast?

Lizzie [Elisabeth Moss] makes you want to strive to always do better: she’s so captivating to watch. I really am so lucky to be able to have her as a role model.

The series has become a symbol of real-world resistance – how does that make you feel?

It’s incredible to be a part of something inspiring change and female empowerment in the real world. 

A world without words

The graphic designers on the set of The Handmaid’s Tale were faced with a very specific problem…

Sean Scoffield and Theresa Shain had a very difficult problem to solve when they joined The Handmaid’s Tale – arguably the most difficult of all the crew – and the problem sprang from the state of Gilead’s attitude to women.

“Gilead’s edict restricts women from having access to any written language,” explains Shain. “Margaret Atwood’s reasoning was that words, the ability to read and write, were too empowering for women, so they were forbidden to even lay eyes on any word ever again. The consequence of doing so was having an eye removed.”

The graphic designers had to figure out alternative solutions for street and road signs, shop fronts, packaging, grocery lists, recipes, recycling calendars and more.

“The grocery store that appeared in season one was probably the biggest challenge,” says Shain. “We had hundreds of different product labels to create, all without words. We created
 an entire lexicon of symbols to describe things like ‘chopped’, ‘diced’, ‘sweetened’, ‘bake for 
30 minutes’; all the information 
a handmaid or Martha would need to know when picking out products. After this, the icon aesthetic of the lexicon was woven into any other product
or document created by Gilead that would be seen by a woman.

“It’s these little details, so seemingly insignificant, which provide opportunities to make the world feel more real.”

Of course, the written word makes frequent appearances 
in flashbacks, taking the form
of graffiti, women’s rights posters, newspapers and protest posters. The latter were all created by hand to keep them feeling “spontaneous” and “authentic”. Shain and Scoffield used a huge variety of fonts and colours to contrast with the “clean and precise” aesthetics of Gilead.

They gave just as much consideration to the few times
 we do see text in the Gileadian scenes. “Because the only real ‘fonts’ we see in Gilead are, by their nature, government-related, we use a lot of standard western government-looking material,” shares Scoffield. “Times New Roman or Garamond for the
body of the text in documents. Helvetica or perhaps Arial for the signage – all of which feel familiar, in some way. This is because the government in Gilead wants there to be a continuity with the past, to present what they are doing as normal. Nothing to see here!”

Shain adds: “The aesthetic
of Gilead’s graphic design is very utilitarian and almost sterile. When it’s there, it’s not there to be enticing; the little that
women have is controlled
and void of pleasure.” 

Soundtrack to a life

How the music in The Handmaid’s Tale leads us into the world of Gilead…

The Handmaid’s Tale has used songs from our world, the pre-Gilead era in the show,
to great effect. And, if you shivered when you heard Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work or Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me, you can thank music supervisor Maggie Phillips.

“Like the voiceovers, the music gives us an insight into June, before Gilead, before Offred,” she says. “I often ask myself what Offred would be listening to if she could press play in a scene. It helps the audience relate to her and reminds us that she came from our world – but it also helps illustrate the not-so-distant past during the flashbacks, amplifying the freedom felt in pre-Gilead times.”

The female voice

Phillips has strived to ensure that the show’s soundtrack remains “almost exclusively female”.

“Frankly, the men are mostly there to inform the women and their stories,”
she says. “How many times has that been reversed? Almost always. It was important to me that we feature female artists because, while I am watching our female characters show their quiet strength and fortitude, their tragedy and triumph, their fight and humour… well, most songs by male artists simply didn’t feel right.” 

A new sound

At the end of the fifth episode of the second season, Phillips uses a song by an artist named Julianna Barwick for “a significant and intimate moment, when June speaks to the baby growing inside of her”.

She says: “Using a song that not many people know keeps us inside of this moment. If we had used a song that everyone knew, the audience would’ve been pulled out of the moment – a song can spark some serious nostalgia or memory.

“Using a relatively unknown song keeps the audience in this intimate moment with June and her baby. Perhaps when people hear this song again, the first memory attached to it will be watching this scene of The Handmaid’s Tale.”

A room full of symbolism

The bedroom belonging to Offred is full of significant detail – which many may have missed on their first viewing. Here, we take a look at all the symbolism hidden under our eye…

Exploring the hidden symbolism of Offfred's room in The Handmaid's Tale

1) The desk

Offred was a book editor in her past life, but Gilead’s repressive societal codes mean that she is no longer allowed to read or write. The unused desk in her room is intended as a reminder of her past – and a staunch reminder of all she has lost.

2) The white colour scheme

The stark whites and creams feel incredibly clinical – more suited to a medical facility than a bedroom. It serves to remind us that Offred is a ‘medical asset’ provided to the commander as an infertility ‘cure’.

3) The textile design

When Offred is trapped in her room for 15 days, she encounters a number of tactile elements – including the Chantilly bedspread and textured wallpaper – all of which were deliberately placed there by set designers to add depth to the enclosed space.

4) The ‘waiting’ area

From the armchair to the deep windowsill, Offred’s room
is filled with plenty of spots for her to sit and await instructions – because, as we know all too well, her entire existence is determined by the demands
of the commander and Serena Joy [Yvonne Strahovski]. It’s
a clear throwback to the book,
in which she states: “I’m waiting, in my room, which right now is
a waiting room. When I go to bed it’s a bedroom.”

5) The door

There are no locks on the doors to Offred’s room: some might suggest that this is a good thing, as it means she is not imprisoned. However, it seems more likely that Offred is so fearful of her captors, and of what they might do to her if she tries to escape, that a lock is completely unnecessary. Additionally, she cannot choose to shut others
out and be private.

6) The outline on the wall

What’s missing from the room is every bit as unsettling as what’s included: the outline
of a now-removed mirror. It reminds us that handmaids are not allowed to be vain about their appearance. It also prevents any handmaid from using smashed glass to commit suicide. 

7) The absence of any personal touches

The commander’s home is an opulent treasure trove, filled with brimming bookcases, warm lamps, house plants and paintings – all save for June’s room, that is. Puritan in style and incredibly sparse, it feels more like a prison cell than a bedroom. Something that was completely intended

Venturing into new areas

This time around, the location manager for The Handmaid’s Tale had to take the show out of Offred’s bedroom and into the Colonies and beyond. Here, Anne Richardson tells us a little about what her unique job entails…

How do you break down all of the locations you need to find? 

Basically, I spend a lot of time reading the script in detail and paying attention to the writers description of the location – as well as any specific logistics that are involved, including special effects and stunts involved with the scene.

Did Margaret Atwood ever offer her opinions on what you should be looking for? 

I have read the book a lot of times – it most definitely helps on a whole with the visual. And  I have had the pleasure of meeting Margaret Atwood twice, as I was also the location manager on Alias Grace. You feel inspiration immediately upon meeting her.

Once you have a list of what you need – be it a bridge for an important encounter, or a house, or a sparse landscape for the colonies – how do you go about finding them? And how early did you begin scouting? 

Typically we have approximately 16 days of prep for approximately a 16 day shoot. This is block shooting for two episodes at a time. As soon as the scripts are distributed on our prep days, scouting will commence immediately. I have a fantastic team and between all of us we have quite a large rolodex of locations and an extremely good knowledge of where to scout.

What do you consider to be most important when securing the ideal filming location?

Many factors must be considered: is it the right look, cost (location fees), proximity to union zones, can we get our unit (equipment/trucks) close enough. If it to be used as a potential re-ocurring location - is this feasible, can we go back numerous times throughout the season. We have many meetings to ensure that every single detail, whether it be minor or major, is covered. Absolutely nothing is overlooked. This helps to ensure that we are all on the same page prior to filming each episode.

Where is June’s mother?

The show’s graphic designers talk about their inspiration for this vital new character.

Fans of the book were surprised Offred’s mother wasn’t mentioned in season one.
 But Holly, as she’s named in the show, will appear in season two.

And, just as she was in the books, Holly (Cherry Jones) is a staunch women’s rights protestor – a point which is underlined by the posters Offred finds emblazoned across her mother’s apartment. 

“The research was incredible,” says graphic designer Theresa Shain. “I dug around for photos from the Seventies to the Nineties, looking at protests fighting rape, unequal pay, abortion laws, homophobia, racism. There was so much energy, passion and anger… it’s insane we’ve been protesting the same issues for decades.” 

What to look out for in season two of The Handmaid’s Tale?

The hints and clues we’ve picked up so far…

Is Mayday dangerous?

Resistance organisation Mayday will be a focal point of the second season. “Mayday is not the handmaid rescue organisation – it’s the anti-Gilead organisation,” director Bruce Miller told the New York Times. “If I was going to try to hurt Gilead, the first thing
I might do is kill all the handmaids. You’re trying to weaken the state.”

A significant act of terrorism 

The second season will dive into “terrorism” and “what it feels like to be a country in transition”. “When you have this kind of world with these kinds of rules, there will be an uprising,” executive producer Warren Littlefield told Entertainment Weekly. “And the consequences will be devastating for both sides.”

There’s a very specific theme

While careful not to give away anything too specific about the story arc, Miller has revealed that series two does have a running theme. “At the end of season one we find out that Offred was pregnant […] so the theme for the second season really is motherhood and what it means to be a good mother,” he teased at the TCA press tour

“So much of Gilead is about having children and the weird way they deal with parentage. So it’s [looking at] the way we mother our good friends, the way we mother the people in our lives.” 

The Econowives

This season will introduce us to a new class of women in Gilead: the Econowives. Aside from Unwomen, they are some of
the lowest ranking members of Gileadean society, and must fill the function of all the other
‘kinds’ of women, including Marthas and Handmaids. 

“Are there any questions?”

So reads the celebrated final line of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – and disturbed readers certainly had plenty. Now, though, the author has done her best to answer them with an “enhanced edition” of the novel’s audiobook (narrated by Claire Danes).

The original text ended with a disturbing epilogue set in 2149, long after the fall of Gilead and the ‘Mayday’ Rebellion. Offred’s fate and whereabouts remained uncertain, however, as the role of the narrator was taken up by a Professor Pieixoto, who has just presented a paper, titled Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Explaining that Offred’s story was uncovered via a series of recorded tapes, Pieixoto at first appears sympathetic to the plight of Gilead’s Handmaids. However, his casual jokes about the story’s title (“all puns were intentional,” he says, “particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail”) soon prove otherwise – and the professor’s insistence that his audience not take Offred’s claims of sexual assault at face value feels all too relevant in the #MeToo era.

“We must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans,” he says, all but wagging a finger at his audience. “Our job is not to censure but to understand.”

In the new Audible book, though, Pieixoto finds his own claims being challenged by a female reporter (played by Atwood herself) – particularly with regards to the uncovering of Offred’s story.

“Newspapers and magazines do so love their stories of adventure and discovery,” he chuckles indulgently, before confirming that the secret audiotapes were found behind a false wall in an “ancient house”. The hidden cavity was exposed when the Gilead Museum began excavating the property, as part of the institution’s research for their ‘Gilead Village’ (aka a Salem-esque town where visitors can go to learn about past mistakes).

After more probing, Pieixoto adds that he doubts Offred was ever reunited with her daughter – and hints that the situation for Gilead’s women grew even worse before it get better. But, when an attendee asks the professor if Offred was a secret member of the Mayday Rebellion, he pauses. Admitting he can’t be certain, he reveals he believes Offred did partake in her own resistance efforts, but that she hid all evidence of it – even from her own confessional tale – in a bid to protect herself from the repressive habits of authoritarian regimes.

Perhaps the most intriguing addition to the epilogue, though, is one which sees Atwood’s own political leanings made very clear indeed. When asked what circumstances might cause a turning back of the clock to Gilead-era practices, Pieixoto enumerates a potential “perfect storm” of conditions – almost all of which can be ascribed to Donald Trump’s America.

“Environmental stresses that lead to food shortages,” he muses, “and economic factors such as unrest due to unemployment, a social structure that is top-heavy, with too much wealth being concentrated among too few.” Under such circumstances, Pieixoto warns, “there is pressure to trade what we think of as ‘liberty’ for what we think of as ‘safety.’ ”

As if that weren’t intriguing enough, Pieixoto then lets slip that he has some brand-new material about the Mayday Rebellion, but that he won’t be ready to share it for “a year or two”.

Instead, he claims he wants to verify their authenticity, concluding with, “Give us a year or two and I hope […] to be able to present the results of our further Gileadian investigations to you at some future date.”

Speaking with Nerdist about the rewriting of her celebrated epilogue, Atwood explained that expanding on the text made sense considering the origins of the story.

“The roots of my original book are in audio,” she said. “Offred’s story was recorded, not written, and even the ‘Historical Notes’ are a voice, so I was excited to extend the story with additional material meant specifically to be heard.

“The time is right for this Audible edition, with a stellar performance by Claire Danes and a continuation of sorts that can’t be found anywhere else. The Handmaid’s Tale is alive, it seems – and like all living things, it grows and multiplies.”

The Handmaid’s Tale season two airs on Channel 4 this month.

Artwork: Lauren Dicioccio

Photos: Channel 4/Hulu