‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ showrunner Bruce Miller on the challenges and triumphs of adapting Margaret Atwood’s novel

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Ofglen and Offred salvaging The Handmaid's Tale

“Showrunners” is a new podcast from INSIDER — a series where we interview the people responsible for bringing TV shows to life. The following is a transcript from our interview with Bruce Miller, the showrunner of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Listen to the episode to hear the highlights from our interview, and keep reading below for the full conversation. 

Subscribe to “Showrunners” on iTunes here so you can hear new episodes (featuring the showrunners from “The Leftovers,” “American Gods,” “Insecure” and more) first. 

How “The Handmaid’s Tale” adaptation came to be

INSIDER: First I want to talk obviously about “Handmaid’s Tale,” your newest project, and how that first came to be. Can you tell me that story?

Miller: I read the book actually when I was in college in a new fiction class, which tells you how long ago I was in college. It was one of those books that really taught me how to write. Over the years, I read it a bunch of times. I’m pretty dyslexic, so I read books over and over again — I don’t know whether that’s all dyslexics, but anyway — so I read it over the years and always enjoyed it and found it really kind of relevant no matter when I was reading it.

Then when I started to get into television and I thought “that would make a good TV show.” But someone owned the rights to it, so I thought I would just watch it as a fan, you know? I was excited that it was coming out, but they were going to make it in Showtime, and eventually through hitches and woes, it ended up at Hulu, and MGM was the studio.

The original writer that they had was Ilene Chaiken, who does “Empire,” and she was busy doing “Empire,” so they were looking for someone to write a new pilot and to run the show.

They were, I think wisely, looking for a woman. I was all for that — except I wanted the job. I thought that was completely on the right track. I was 100% behind it, but I had to wait patiently until I got my chance to go in there and speak to them about it. I went in and I just kind of presented what [I thought] the show’s going to be like and kind of the parameters and things like that, big picture stuff. I fooled them. They bought it. Then I wrote the first three [episodes], and we got Elizabeth Moss on board.

Bruce Miller Elizabeth Moss The Handmaid's Tale Hulu

INSIDER: She was the first person you cast?

Miller: Yes, she was the first person. It’s one of those projects where it’s kind of make or break — it was so central around one character. [Moss] got to read a few scripts, not just one, which is good for her as well. I know she had some trepidation. She didn’t particularly want to dive into another TV series. 

INSIDER: Really?

Miller: Well, she’s been doing this longer than there’s been rocks. She’s been doing it since she was a child actress. She knows what a commitment it is. When you make a movie with someone, it’s like dating, but it’s marriage when you do a TV show. In success it can be ten years, you know?

She’s been on a bunch of shows that had a lot of success. We talked a lot on the phone before she decided to do it. Warren Littlefield, who’s my partner on this project, talked to her as well. He was the head of NBC. For her, when she was working on NBC shows, he was like God. To me, too. We all kind of talked to each other.

At that point, Lizzie [Elizabeth Moss] was in Australia making the second season of “Top of the Lake” and I was in Los Angeles. I think there was one hour a week where we were both awake because she was working these really long hours, and I was working, and then all of a sudden there would just be this 20 minutes where […] we got this little window of time to talk every week. We got to know each other enough that she got comfortable doing it. We actually never met until costume fittings in Toronto. 

INSIDER: Oh wow. You two didn’t even FaceTime?

Miller: No, not even Facetime. The phone is hard enough. Facetime just seems to make it more complicated.

INSIDER: Sure, that’s fair.  

Miller: I know what she looks like.

INSIDER: Right. 

Miller: She’s famous.

INSIDER: Okay, so she was the first piece of the puzzle.

Miller: She was the first piece of the casting puzzle. When you make a pilot, it is very much like you’re pulling in a lot of different pieces from a lot of different directions. You’re trying to get the right director for the pilot, you’re trying to get the right pieces of performers, and once you get Lizzie you set a tone for what you’re looking for, and so it’s easier to get certain other people.

The show has a fairly large cast, and they all need to be really good. It’s hard stuff. Also, it’s kind of strange because you need people who are really good but people who are not unhappy being in one or two scenes an episode. The key there is just not to lie to them and say it’s going to be a much bigger role than it is. 

Meanwhile we’re writing scripts and we’re looking at directors. Lizzie had worked with Reed Morano before, and we […] talked to her, and she was fantastic, but there’s always a little bit of a trepidation. She had directed one movie at that point, but she was a very famous and experienced DP, director of photography. I think she was the youngest woman ever to get into the American Society of Cinematography.

It’s a very male-dominated field, so she’s a badass basically. She’s like 92 pounds of terror. She came on board, and so […] then you start hiring kind of the heads of the departments, and in this case that was very important. One sour note in a show like this, one thing that seems out of the world, it ruins the whole thing. Once you see something that doesn’t quite work for you, you’re out, and it doesn’t feel real, and then you don’t feel scared.

Offred leaning over The Handmaid's Tale Premiere Elizabeth Moss

Our production designer was a woman named Julie Berghoff, who just did an astonishing job, and Ane Crabtree (who does “Westworld” and did “Masters of Sex”) did our wardrobe and designed the Handmaid costumes and the Wife costumes.

I’ve never been on a show where there’s been more discussion about [color]. In the world of “Handmaids,” people are divided by color.

INSIDER: Right. It’s very striking.

Miller: It’s very striking, so you have to be very careful. If you pick the wrong red for Lizzie, she’s stuck with it. I cannot tell you how many discussions we had about red and shades of red and taking pictures of cars, saying “that’s the right red,” and trying to have those over the internet where everybody’s red looks different on their monitor. Finally, we came up with one.

Miller on meeting Margaret Atwood and making changes to her novel

INSIDER: How involved, if at all, was Margaret Atwood from the beginning, or at what point was she brought into the process?

Miller: Margaret Atwood was involved from the very beginning — besides writing the book.

INSIDER: She’s the very, very, very beginning.  

Miller: For the show, she had been involved in the project with the previous writer and with the previous incarnation. When I got the project, we spoke via email. Then as I was writing it, as I was thinking about things that I might change in the world, the book versus the television show, and how I might try to update it, we had lots of discussions about that. She was very involved.

She’s in a unique position, because I’ve adapted a lot of books and usually when you’re adapting a book, the book stinks. You’re just taking one cool part of it out and saying, “Oh, I really want to do this.”

That’s not the case here. I was working very hard to recreate the experience of the book on television. Also, when you do something that’s a classic, usually the author is long gone. We were in a very good position of having a book I wanted to emulate and a person to speak to about emulating it. It was a great benefit to me, but also this book’s been adapted a lot of times before. It was an opera, it was a ballet. It was a play. There was a movie. It was all sorts of things. In fact, she was an expert on having this adapted — she knew how to give it over.

Margaret Atwood 2008 Handmaid's Tale author

She, in fact, had so much more experience in giving over her work than I did trying to make her change things or asking her to change things. For things that I thought would be difficult conversation, she was like, “sure, whatever you think is going to work on TV.”

Then when I finished the first two scripts, I sent them to her. That was the worst weekend of my life.

INSIDER: Why?

Miller: Because she was reading my scripts. It was Margaret Atwood. What do you think? I didn’t go to the bathroom all weekend. It was horrible. She loved them, but I didn’t know that ’til Monday. It was terrifying. Imagine — she’s a writer, and I’m sending her stuff that I wrote.

INSIDER: What was it like when you met her face-to-face for the first time?

Miller: You mean Canadian national treasure, Margaret Atwood?

INSIDER: Yes.

Miller: I met her in Toronto, and she is just lovely to speak with. She’s so intelligent and so thoughtful about the stuff that we were talking about in terms of making a television show, but also she had terrific recall of what she was thinking when she wrote the book.

The questions I had as a writer were so picky. “Why did you choose the King James Bible, not the Geneva Bible? Why did you pick that?” She remembered all these decisions that she made and why. I can’t remember why I made decisions on shows I was on last year. That was incredibly helpful.

I was very nervous to meet her face to face. I thought I would blow it and say something wrong. She was very relaxed and over time, she’s come into the editing room with me. We show her episodes. She’s been so welcoming.

She loves the way the show’s turning out and loves the conversations that I bring her, which are, “Okay, what if this one sentence that’s in your book, [what if] I took that and made an episode out of it, it would turn out like this. What do you think?”

It’s fun to have someone digging around, pulling things out. It’s like going for a makeover and someone saying, “Oh my god, you have great cheekbones.” You don’t think about your cheekbones until someone else looks at them. That part of the process continues to be spectacularly fun. 

On modernizing the book and hiring a diverse cast

INSIDER: One example of a change you made is Ofglen (played by Alexis Bledel). We don’t see what happens to her in the book.

Miller: In the book you don’t know that she was formerly Rory Gilmore. It’s a secret. We actually did toy with the idea of having her backstory be that she was a child actor and she was on a show.

INSIDER: Really?

Miller: Yeah because everybody has a story. That would have been lifelike.

INSIDER:  You also brought a lot more modern references into the story. What was that decision process like, and talking with Margaret Atwood about it?

Miller: Across the board, I think we wanted to just make sure that it felt like “now” because it’s scarier … I look at the show really as kind of a thriller. [One of the] things that detracts from the scariness is they’re all walking around in funny costumes. Everything else has to be very grounded and real because you’re got a few things that are really whack-a-doodle. We wanted to update it or make it current in any way we could. That at first, there’s just the normal references that people make have changed over time.

INSIDER: Like people calling an Uber instead of a cab.

Miller: Right, there’s a reference to Uber. There’s a reference to Tinder.

INSIDER: Craigslist.

Miller: Yeah, Craigslist. We just tried to have what normal people would think about and talk about but not avoid those things. That played into a million decisions. The decision to make the world not an all white world was part of that decision. A pretty complicated discussion between me and Margaret about that.

INSIDER: Why was it complicated?

the handmaid's tale hulu

Miller: The world of Gilead in the book is a totally white world that sent everybody of color away. In the 30-something years [since Atwood] wrote it, a couple of things had happened, and this was all just kind of my thinking. I’m not going to the Census Bureau and finding out whether all these things were true, but my sense was that the Evangelical movement had gotten a little more diverse in terms of race. So that there would be more diversity within a group like the Sons of Jacob, which is the group of very religious people who take over.

But also I don’t think anybody knows someone who doesn’t have a child of another race these days because international adoption become so much more common. I think the discomfort of raising a child of a different race has almost vanished in our lifetime.

It seemed like if […] the way people think about races had changed and diminished over time, and you were in a world where fertility rates have fallen so low, that fertility would trump everything. That that would be the one important thing.

the handmaid's tale hulu

The show takes place now — 2017. The people have the racial attitudes people have now, you know? It’s couched, and you always remember at some point early on way before Gilead happened, the birth rate fell to the point where everybody lost their shit. I mean, it got really, really, really scary.

For example, there are no cell phones. The reason there’s no cell phones is because there’s a theory that cell phones can cause infertility. I think anything you read in the deepest darkest corner of the internet as possibly causing diminished sperm count or infertility they would completely adopt.

If the birth rate all of a sudden fell 95%, they would cut down every cell tower the next day. They wouldn’t care. You wouldn’t care. Nobody would care. Things like that, the world that became Gilead was slightly different. Anyway, but making the decision about updating it, race was a big discussion that we had and people ask a lot, “Why do that? Why change that part of the book?” It was because it did feel a little bit dated.

The other thing is honestly, in this day in age, what’s the difference between making a TV show about racism and making a racist TV show? I really didn’t know. It’s a distinction without a difference. They look the same on television. It’s white people’s problems. In addition, Samira came in and auditioned for Moira, and she was so fucking great that it was like, “How do I not hire Samira?” After that, it was like, “I’ve got to figure out a way to have Samira be Moira,” because she was Moira.

INSIDER: Another change you made was giving Elizabeth Moss’ character Offred the real name of “June.” Margaret Atwood recently wrote a New York Times column, and she mentions that she never intended for June to be her name, but it was something that fans had picked up on and started kind of theorizing.

Miller: People had theories about what her name was. There’s a scene in the book where people exchange names, and the one name that isn’t accounted for was June. I had read that so long ago that I had always assumed her name was June. I didn’t really think about it. I just thought the character’s name was June. In the movie, it wasn’t, and in the script that Ilene Chaiken wrote it wasn’t, but I just thought that was her name, so I just used it not knowi
Source: http://www.thisisinsider.com/handmaids-tale-showrunner-bruce-miller-podcast-2017-4

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