‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Showrunner Bruce Miller Talks Hiring Diversity Over Experience

Key art for the upcoming adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elisabeth Moss. Hulu

I avoided watching the screeners for Hulu’s upcoming series, The Handmaid’s Tale–based on the best-selling book by Margaret Atwood–for as long as possible. I didn’t exactly know I was doing it, but there are the screening links, sent by Hulu over a month ago, and here I am, having finally watched the first three episodes last night.

I could say I didn’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale, despite the increasingly rave reviews from other critics (the show currently has a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes) because I was busy, because I was in the middle of a major move, because despite loving the book, even I have to admit it’s kind of a downer…but that wasn’t it. I hadn’t watched the show because I didn’t want to think about the weekend in November when Hulu flew me up to the Toronto to visit the set of the show. Maybe it was because the show felt so eerily prescient: I arrived only a few days before the United States of America voted for its president a man who boasts about grabbing women by the genitals, when the world of Gilead, the dystopic future Atwood predicted 32 years ago, was closer to reality than ever. Maybe it was because of the already uncomfortable ways this particular political cycle had shown us what a totalitarian government in the US would look like.

Maybe it was because, the night before I left for Toronto, I was bitten by a rat in my own bed and needed emergency room stitches. Maybe it was because I was in the middle of a divorce; a life event that doesn’t exactly make you more empathetic to the psycho-sexual gender dynamics of THIS lifetime, let alone that of a terrifying future which also happens to look exactly like tomorrow. Maybe it was because the cast panel for THT at Tribeca Film Festival last week had trouble conceiving of the story as “feminist.” I dunno; take your pick of excuses.

The set reminds me so much of my mother’s home in Historic New Castle. Everything is precious, antiquated, somewhat austere. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mom has REALLY nailed down the aesthetic from this book!

The Handmaid’s Tale showrunner, Bruce Miller: Some of the things look exactly like you imagine them in your head, some things look very different.

The thing about Gilead is it looks perfect. So you have to everything look…not actually perfect, but like imaginary perfect. But the stuff is real! We want everything to look absolutely gorgeous.

There is also this museum quality: look but don’t touch. It’s like a museum…or a tomb.

Well, look at the pictures on the wall: these are all replicas of paintings hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston or from another Boston museum that (Gilead residents) looted and hung on their walls. 

Creepy. Like the Nazis.

Exactly. Most of these paintings are the same size, but they delineate different characters. For example, this is Serena Joy’s room. And it’s very….

Teal. Like her clothing.

Exactly. All the rooms are different, but when you go into the Commander’s study, it’s all much edgier art. Because he can handle it, because he’s a guy. So we wanted everyone to be reflected in what they would put in their personal spaces. 

Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford. Take Five/Hulu

I’m so interested in seeing how you could expand this world. Because in the book, the Commander’s intentions, Serena Joy’s intentions….everyone is very elusive.

Right! Because we’re seeing this whole world–in the book, at least–through Offred, and she’s paranoid, she’s fighting a life and death game, but the game is trying to figure out what people are thinking, what their emotions are, how they feel. That works for the novel. But in a scripted series, you realize “I can dig into Serena Joy’s world, because she’s fascinating.” The Commander is fascinating! Moira is fascinating! Where has Moira been this entire time?

You’re right, the world here is infinitely more expandable. You have the whole thing with the colonies…I could do a whole show about the colonies! What the world of the Marthas was like, or the Annes. There are all these different shows in there.

One of my favorite moments in the book was the culture shock of Offred running into those Japanese tourists, whose world does NOT resemble Gilead, and they take pictures of her and ask if she’s happy. Which of course, in Gilead, it’s like what does happy even LOOK like? But my point is that there is an allusion to a broader world; one in which some nations may not have adopted the policies of Gilead.

You know, in the writer’s room, that was one of our favorite parts as well, so we found a way to address that moment in one of the later episodes. When we first all sat down, I asked my writers “Okay, what are the scenes from the book you remember BEST?” The tourist scene was one of them. The part where the handmaids are all pointing at Janine, chanting “Her fault, her fault.” 

I’m always interested in how people become showrunners and put rooms together. What’s the backstory for this team?

I wrote a show called Alphas for SyFy, I co-ran Eureka for awhile. And I’m glad, because when you have the opportunity to jump into a new swimming pool, it’s very nice to have the experience. You can get it a lot more to look like what you want it to look like. Less chance; you can really look more ahead. 

But when they were first looking to hire somebody for this job…and I’m a boy. I think they wanted a woman showrunner, and look…I was completely on their side. I mean I wanted the job so much, but it was something I was really mindful of that when I put my writers’ room together.

You always want diversity; diversity over experience. But for this, I especially wanted people who could write strong female voices. And in general, I like smart, stubborn people. You want people to bring you things you don’t agree with, and fight for them and fight for them and fight for them. We actually got pretty lucky, we have a fairly big writers’ room for only 10 episodes. We have eight writers: one team, John Herrara and Nina Fiore, and I think there’s seven other writers. Myself, Leila Gerstein who used to run Heart of Dixie. Kira Snyder, who has worked with me for a bunch of projects and is a very good writer. Dorothy Fortenberry, who was primarily a playwright before this and Wendy Straker-Hauser who is relatively new to this world….she was actually a journalist before, in New York. Lynn Maxcy, who is a young writer. So we got an amazing group of people but I wanted to make sure it was weighted. And so far, it’s paid off in great dividends, in terms of thinking about things in great depth; the female point of view, going over all of those things…it makes the show so much better.

Elisabeth Moss as Offred and Alexis Bledel as Ofglen. George Kraychyk/Hulu

I was once talking to a new showrunner who was mostly known for his theater work, and I asked him “How is it going?” And he said, “It’s terrible! Everyone is trying to write like me!”

It’s funny because a lot of your job when writing on a show is to be a good mimic. It’s a real skill. But what I also wanted was for them not to just be able to mimic the voice of the show, but to bring their own voice to it. You really want people with different voices, because if the show goes on for six years and all sounds the same, it doesn’t matter how funny or brilliant I think I am…it’s all going to sound the same. You want them to bring their own voice and style to the show. Yes, you need people to write in the style of the show. But I like for people NOT to write like me; I want them to write like the show. That way, I’m writing like the show, they’re writing like the show, no one’s voice has more authority than the show’s.

The show is set in 2017. At the end of the novel, there’s this strange coda that takes place even farther in the future. It’s the weirdest part of the book: there’s this academic research paper or something and is supposedly answering a debate regarding the legitimacy of Offred’s narrative. Like, it was possible she didn’t exist at all, or that she was an amalgamation of people. 

It’s really interesting…I’ve had more discussions with Margaret Atwood (who is a producer of the show) about the ending than anything else. 

Which always struck me as odd, because it’s a very subtle framing device that ends rather abruptly. Of course, we know Offred wasn’t real, she’s a fictional character. Why bother having this strange ending when the story speaks as well without it?

I would argue it isn’t even a framing device, it’s half a framing device. Of course, I loved it when I read it because when you get to the end of a book you want to know a little bit of what happened to Dorothy after she came back from Oz. That stuff is fun. 

Here is another interesting thing: here’s this book, and when you read it, you get to know Offred through her own voice. The concept is–spoiler alert-– that Offred has been telling her story on audio recordings. I mean, I think 35 years and we shouldn’t need spoiler alerts, but here we are. So it’s a recording in retrospect. So the show…this entire show…is that idea.

Is there a voice-over component?

There is voiceover, but every piece of it is also part of Offred’s remembrances. Then when you get to the end of the book, you find out they just found all these tapes and someone–a man–put them in order. So the story is actually, premise-wise, being laid out by a guy. 

Right, and we don’t know where the edits happened. Maybe the guy is only putting in the titillating bits or something.

When you go back and read the book again, you realize “Oh, if we just moved some parts around, we’d get a completely different story.” And you just don’t know, they could be differently arranged since it’s just some guy who arranged them. 

Like her relationship to Serena Joy, which has a lot of starts and stops and shifting power dynamics.

Right, or who knows? Maybe she was taken by the Eyes, but then brought back? Who knows? That could have been the beginning of the story, instead of the end.

I remember that from loving the book so much and just by chance my son got it assigned for summer reading this year. So I got to talk to him, go in, talk to his class. And I found it really interesting that I’m in the same position: that I’m a guy taking a story by a woman and re-ordering it. I have to be very mindful that this is what I’m doing because I can’t take the “guyness” out of me. I think the way I look at it then is NOT a story about men or women; it’s a story about Offred. It’s a story about a person.

You are what we might call a “woke man.”

(laughs) Actually, the more we can get it to be about her, the more gender becomes just one more thing on her list of things that she is. She is a mom, she’s a young woman, she’s a prisoner. She’s all of these things. But the more specific we can make it about her. So over time, I’ve gotten over second-guessing myself. It’s about giving Offred her story.

This idea of the narrative lens is that Offred is so paranoid that we don’t actually KNOW what happens to her at the end when she’s taken away by the Eyes.  She thinks everyone is listening, that everyone is out to get her, but the more interesting idea here is that everyone in Gilead living under that intense scrutiny. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman or a commander or a Martha. You still live in this 1984-esque, hyper-vigilant state. 

A lot of the book, when you read it now, is interestingly not that different but is of the time. And rightly so, as Margaret Atwood was writing specifically like all good writers do. So what we tried to do is make it feel a little more of this time. 

So that brings me to another point: the book was originally set several decades in the future. Why not keep up that idea and have this be a futuristic-looking series? Why does it have to be set right now?

Because it’s scarier. The more it feels like real stuff, the more it feels like today, the more you can relate to it. The more it feels real, the more this feels like a real room, the scarier it is. The Shining is scary because it takes place in a hotel, and we’ve all been to hotels. Anything that separates us from the immediacy of it makes it less scary, so everything on the show has been under the dictate, “It should feel like the real world.” The costumes, the cars, the props…we’re changing enough things that I want to keep anything I could the same as it is in our world, I wanted to keep the same.

Also, that’s what Gilead did. They didn’t go around and change everything; they changed the things that bothered them. But the world is still the world. A lot of stuff they left!

I remember from the book that when the Commander and Offred go to the costume party at the Jezebels, everyone is dressed up in essentially some version of the “slutty Halloween outfit” look. Like a Playboy Bunny, etc.,

The Jezebels! That’s a whole other fantastic series. The costumes, how do we make them so they’re not costumes, but they’re also not these women’s clothes? They are uniforms, so what do uniforms look like, and how do they wear? Because the fact is, they wear the same shoes, every day. And the kind of shoes you wear every day, you wear them differently. They get wet, they dry out, they age differently than when you have twenty pairs of shoes.

So we worked very hard across the board to make this seem grounded in the real world, and all of that is in our connection to Offred. If Offred isn’t in a real world, we’re not scared for her, we’re not connected with her. The more she’s in a world we understand and feel, the better we’re off as audience members. And then when we got Lizzy [Moss], it all started falling into place.

When I originally read the cast list, I was so psyched to see her as the lead. She is perfect for Offred: we identify her mostly as Peggy from Mad Men, but Moss has played a lot of strong, self-contained, self-reliant but ultimately vulnerable female characters.  Like even as early as playing the burn victim Polly in Girl, Interrupted. Or her Australian detective character Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake.

It’s an amazing cast and they’re doing spectacular work. I couldn’t be any more excited for all of it. Lizzy is just off the charts amazing, I mean, she’s just incredible.

One thing I’ve noticed in walking around set and seeing the costumes and remembering the book…it’s not JUST the women who are conscripted into this awful new world. History is written by the winners, sure, but I don’t think the men of Gilead consider this alternative world any more of an improvement over the way things were before. Not even the people who created it. Gilead was born out of necessity, and as we see in the first episode, there have been SOME improvements. I mean, rapists automatically get murdered in this world. Is that an improvement?

Exactly. Everyone is a prisoner. Men and women both. If you put them all in the same clothes, you start focusing on the person, because what else would you focus on? The only difference between Ofglen and Offred and Ofwarren is their faces, and the rest is the same. So you look at their faces.

When you see the show, you’ll notice some of the most haunting imagery is just two handmaids walking, in these red cloaks with these hats on that make it so you can’t see their eyes. There’s something about taking two actors…they walk in sync after a couple steps.

I used to think the cover of this book made it seem like Margaret Atwood wrote an adorable story about anthropomorphic mice.

Are you trying to tell me this is a book about HUMANS? Ugh! Anchor books

Well, you know what drove me crazy? How we were going to pull off the “wings” of the Handmaids’ bonnet. You don’t want it to look like Little House on the Prairie. You don’t want it to look like Holly Hobbie. It’s a weird thing, but our costume designer Ane Crabtree designed these wings that are just so beautiful. They are elegant and graceful-looking. And once I saw them on our actresses, it was transformative. Even while Lizzy was getting used to the sensation of “Well, I can’t really see, and I can’t really hear,” we were discovering this element of “Okay, they’re blinders. They make it so you can’t see people. But that also means they can’t see you either. You can roll your eyes, make gagging noises, be a little subversive when no one can see your face. And Lizzy as an actor has been using those wings very expertly, like “When do you let the audience see your eyes? When do you turn enough that the audience can see your reaction, and when do you not?” As Offred, she’s using the wings as a means to get a measure of control; of revealing herself.

One of my friends went as Offred for Halloween last year, and I can only imagine this show is going to create an industry boom for this year’s holiday. There will be a run on XL Little Red Riding Hood costumes from Ricky’s.

Here’s hoping!

I imagine maybe the hardest part of adapting the novel to fit the present day is how to incorporate modern technology into the world of Gilead.

I tried to make a couple logical assumptions about the way they ran their world, and one was that fertility trumps everything. If you think about a world where the birthing rate falls precipitously–Children of Men is obviously a good example of this–the world would fall into abject panic. Just the idea of not having any children around would change the whole world for us.

So my sense was, proven or unproven, a lot of people in this world would feel like there’s a lot of effects on fertility by cell phones and cell phone towers. So they took them out a long time ago…well before Gilead came along. Everything that could have possibly affected fertility is gone. And it’s been gone for awhile.

So the food, the clothing….

Yes, everyone in Gilead is proud of the fact that they eat completely organic. Because I think anytime you can relate to Gilead and think of it as something we’ve strived to do and that they have achieved and it’s positive? It makes you go, “Ewwww.”

So it’s not just men controlling this world. As we see in the first few episodes, with Offred remembering her time with the Aunts in the Red Center…women inflict cruelty onto each other all the time in this world.

Yup, women against women. Women using violence against women. It’s the history of the Jews who worked in the concentration camps. Jews being used to oppress other Jews. It’s sick.

But for Offred, the only connection she has most of the time is with the Commander. And people need to connect, everyone in this world needs connection so much.

It does make the Commander more of a complex, empathetic character in the books.  Especially to have him played by a young, handsome actor like Joseph Fiennes. There’s a humanity to him, and maybe the scariest idea is that he’s not a monster.

There’s a humanity to him just like there is humanity in all of them. Serena Joy wants a baby more than anything in this world, and she’s willing to do almost anything to get one. But there are lots of things I don’t think she would do. But you see that she’s thrown her lot in with Gilead, but you can see her logic: if she does these things, she may have a chance at having a child.

One last thing that I found super interesting in this world is how Offred and her husband and child try to escape and flee up to Canada. And they almost make it, except for guards at the border.

Right, well…in the world of this show, they HAVE built a wall, it’s just on another border.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Showrunner Bruce Miller Talks Hiring Diversity Over Experience