There is plenty of catching up when Elisabeth Moss and director Reed Morano reunite for Deadline’s photoshoot for The Handmaid’s Tale at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood. After all, even before the show they made together aired, they were having respective moments on their continued ascendance to the upper echelons of film and television. Morano has recently wrapped production on I Think We’re Alone Now, a feature starring Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning, while Moss has been involved in a mess of high-profile projects this year, such as the second season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, and Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner The Square.
They both alighted on creator Bruce Miller’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale at similar times, and, as they explained over coffee after their shoot, gave each other a leg up on the project, having first collaborated on Morano’s 2015 directorial debut, Meadowland. Morano, who directed the first three episodes of the season this year, reflects on the series with only the regret that it would have been impossible to do more. Along with cinematographer Colin Watkinson, she set the tone for a show that can be, at turns, gritty and chaotic, and still and painterly.
The Handmaid’s Tale belongs to Moss’s Offred, a woman kept against her will in the household of a high-ranking commander, in a dystopian future America in which the fertility rate has dropped to catastrophic levels and a new totalitarian government has seized power. Her only crime? That she has survived the fertility lottery and can bear children. And she is but one of many women subjugated and suffering under the regime’s brutal control.
The Hulu-aired show earned 13 Emmy nominations this year, after critics wagged their tongues in the particular direction of the series’ eerie prescience in a real world in which the foothold of conservatism seems to be gaining strength and technology continues to disconnect us from reality. And yet Atwood’s work was no less prescient when it was written 30 years ago; it was and remains a cautionary tale for where we might find ourselves if we continue in our determination to look on those around us as other.
You had worked together before, on Reed’s directorial debut, Meadowland. So who joined The Handmaid’s Tale first?
Reed Morano: My agents were coming and saying, “You should do some TV.” They introduced me to what the different networks were doing; what kind of material. Hulu gave me a pilot script for The Handmaid’s Tale before Lizzie was attached to it. The message was, “Just take a look at this. It’s out to a very big director but you can see what kind of stuff we’re doing.” But if there was ever a pilot that was up my alley, it was this one. I read the book in college—around 1996, so well after it had come out. I remember it as one of the few books in college I actually enjoyed reading, and that stayed with me. So I read it and, of course, I fell in love with it. I said, “I would really love to pitch on this.” Just throwing it out there.
Months went by and I didn’t hear anything, but then I read a story on Deadline that Lizzie was cast as Offred, and the project suddenly got a whole lot sweeter, because I love Lizzie. I think she’s one of the most talented people of her generation and this role was so, so perfect for her. And I just thought, What do I have to lose? So I emailed her to congratulate her, and I was like, “By the way, I’ve been trying to pitch on that job.” And I didn’t hear back from her, because she was busy shooting. But around a week later I got a call from my agents. “They want you to come in and pitch on The Handmaid’s Tale.” I just was not expecting that. So I’m sure a little birdie whispered into their ear, and I think I know who that was.
Elisabeth Moss: [laughs] Yeah, it was very sort of copacetic. You were actually already on the list.
Morano: Right, make me feel better.
Moss: It’s totally true! There were a lot of people on that list, ranging in experience and ranging in fame, and some great people. I was shooting in Australia and I did get an email. And it just helped to know that she was interested in it. Our criteria was simple in the sense that we wanted someone obviously really talented, but also someone who wanted this and who was going to love it and be as passionate about it as we were. We, meaning me and Bruce and [executive producer] Warren Littlefield. So when Reed reached out, it made it really easy to be, like, “We should definitely be taking a look at Reed.”
Morano: Lizzie’s smart, and she has tactics where, if she wants things, she doesn’t push too hard because she doesn’t want it to backfire. She likes to plant the seeds of things that she wants to see happen.
Moss: In these situations, it can be tough because if you push too much for somebody that everyone knows is your friend, and that you’ve worked with before, it can backfire. I knew it was important that Reed be everybody’s choice, not just mine. I purposefully took a light touch with it. So you had a call with Bruce and Warren, right?
Morano: I Skyped with them. Or, you know, it was only Skype for the first five minutes because it never works. We saw what each other looked like, and then it was a conference call [laughs]. But there was a lot of excitement on that phone call.
Moss: They called me the next day and were like, “Oh my God, we just had the most amazing pitch with Reed.” So then, she wrote this pitch book… I want to say it was 60 pages?
Morano: 72 pages. A lot of them were pictures though [laughs].
Moss: It had a soundtrack to accompany it.
Morano: Well, music is so important to people. Music is particularly very important in Lizzie’s process, if I may say.
Moss: Absolutely, and in Reed’s. I was just like, “Yes, girl. Yes.” It was exactly what we needed to see and it wasn’t long before Warren said, “I think it would be a huge mistake not to hire Reed.” She made it impossible not to hire her with all the qualifications and the passion for the project.
The music is a perfect example of the coexisting contradictions in this project: you have a very chaste, puritan environment and then these riotous songs dominate the soundtrack. The show mixes handheld shots with these incredible, painterly vistas. Offred is so quiet when we see her, but then her voiceover has this tremendous agency. Were those sorts of contradictions central to your approach?
Moss: Absolutely. We didn’t have any rules for what we were approaching. With most films and TV shows, everyone tends to say, “It’s like this mixed with that.” We never did that. All of our references were movies or paintings, and they were all very unusual, and even the films were kind of obscure. But “painterly” was a word we used so much, with the colors, with the cinematography; we didn’t want to do anything you’d seen before.
Morano: What was so nice about everybody who was in charge was that I had some kind of wild, out-there ideas, but everybody was pretty game to go for them. Allowing the director to have that kind of creative freedom, and then trusting that it’s the right risk to take, I commend everybody in charge, Lizzie, all the producers, Warren and Bruce and everyone at Hulu and also at MGM, because I think they knew that this was kind of out-there and we were pushing the boundaries a little and they were so supportive of it. It becomes its own, new style, and hats off to them for letting us do it.
We told it more like a piece of music than a TV series, and I think the storytelling works on an episodic level, but it also allows you the freedom. The thing I was most drawn to was the writing, because even though there was so much voiceover, I felt it gave the actors a lot of opportunity to express things without words. And to be honest, there were so many moments that I would be watching Lizzie doing a scene, and everything that was in the voiceover, I found she was conveying it on her face. So we didn’t have to use every piece.
Moss: I would use the voiceover as a little personal guide to what my character was thinking and feeling. Then my objective was always to try my damnedest to not need it, and often it was challenging in that sense. It’s much easier just to explain oneself in voiceover. We really needed that voiceover to be the cherry on top that gave you something else you weren’t seeing. It had to be something that we weren’t showing visually.
Morano: Like a bit of satire, or something.
Moss: Exactly. It works best when it’s the opposite of what’s in her face. That enhances and elevates.
The voiceover also reminds us that she’s playing a part, and some times, that’s easier for her than at others.
Moss: Yes. It’s a perfect way to adapt a book that is so first-person narrative-driven. Reed and Colin did that in the visuals by making it such a point-of-view show, and Bruce did it in the writing, which is how we got Margaret Atwood’s voice in it. That’s where we’re able to hear her.
People have talked about how prescient the show has become with the way the world has turned in the last twelve months. I would guess that this particular writing was on the wall even when you were making it. This world, sadly, never seems far away.
Moss: Yes, we actually watched the election together, because Reed had come back to shoot a scene. We were on to Episodes 4 and 5 at that time. The show was already written.
Morano: We had already shot Episodes 1 through 3 at that time, and we thought then about its political significance, but I would say we didn’t change our approach based on what happened.
Moss: No. It just became even more prescient and relevant. The day after the election I went to do two scenes with Joe [Fiennes]. One was him explaining the meaning of Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum and the next was where he delivers that incredible Margaret Atwood line: “Better never means better for everyone. It’s always worse for some.” I get chills just saying it. There’s no way that’s not going to feel deeper and more grounded because of what had happened at 2:30 that morning. But I agree with you in the sense that the book was written in 1985 and it was relevant then. It would have been relevant for women in 1700s America, and it would have been relevant for many, many other countries over many years.
Margaret says, quite wisely, that the constitution is very young. There have been older documents that have been toppled far quicker. So in the scale of things, it’s quite recent that we decided we were going to have this kind of a country, and it could be undone so easily.
Morano: I think you have to remember also that in those weeks after the election, it felt like every day, something was getting undone. That’s frightening to everybody, but the automatic thing I think everyone working on The Handmaid’s Tale was remembering was Moira’s line, where she says, “We didn’t look up from our phones until it was too late.” That’s America in many ways.
Moss: Everything just started to strike you right in the face. Even up to today; I was just reading articles about men’s fertility dropping. Have you read those?
Morano: Yes. Someone sent me a message and was like, “What is happening?”
Do you think you accidentally stirred the pot?
Moss: [laughs] I wish! If we were that powerful we could turn it around.
Morano: Yeah, we would use our power for good and not evil. Unfortunately, we are just a television show.
It must have been rewarding to feel the reaction from people when the show aired.
Moss: It’s been amazing, and very different from anything I’ve done. The reaction has been so very personal—people saying things like they were inspired or strengthened. Just last night, someone commented on an Instagram photo of mine saying they were going through a really dark time and this show had helped them get through it. You hope to create something entertaining and beautiful, and at the end of the day we’re all just doing something we love to do. You don’t necessarily expect for it to have this kind of effect.
Morano: It’s pretty amazing. Also the subject matter and the story; I mean, the book is universally loved, but it could be polarizing if it’s not done right. But every aspect of it seemed to go together in such a way. And maybe it is partially timing, but I think to have so many people universally identify with it, there’s nothing more thrilling.
And also, how difficult is it to take a character who is not herself—who has been stripped of her identity—and she’s the main person whose eyes you’re seeing through? How would the audience be able to relate to someone like that? This person can’t be an individual, but there is no character you identify with more, and I think that’s obviously credit to Lizzie and her performance, and Bruce’s writing and Colin’s cinematography, and how we choose to shoot from her perspective. It’s almost like piecing together a mystery. You’re peeling back the layers of the onion throughout the whole of the first season, and that’s a ballsy move.
Moss: We used that phrase, “balls to the wall”, over and over again. We felt like the only mistake we could make was in not going far enough, or not going dark enough, or using less interesting musical choices. We felt like there was nothing to lose. Because if we didn’t go far enough, we wouldn’t have been loyal to the book. We were like, “F*ck it, what’s the worst that can happen? We do 10 episodes and then we’re done, but we’re proud of what we did.”
Fortunately you aren’t done. The show is coming back for a second season. How do you continue this journey?
Moss: We’re pretty far into it right now. We’ve got outlines and I know what happens throughout the whole season. We took quite a few departures and liberties from the book in Season 1, but what’s so amazing about what Bruce and his writers’ room did was that it felt so seamless. In the book, Luke and Moira die, and you never hear from them again. Ofglen 1 dies, and you never hear from her again. They all disappear. So we took these really important, big characters from the book and gave them all entirely new storylines. We changed the Serena/Commander dynamic, and their whole story, quite a bit. We made them younger. But we always stayed loyal to the tone of the book. That’s why I think it works. We didn’t change the tone, we just made it work for a longer-running story.
So for Season 2, there isn’t as much concern about that, because we had already changed a lot of shit. There’s also so much stuff we haven’t done in the book. Things we never got to explore, like the colonies and the histories of some of the main characters. I think we feel less beholden to Season 1 than you might imagine, and we’re more just excited to extend it. It shouldn’t feel like a second season. It should feel like 13 more episodes.
We’ve learned a lot too. Some of the concerns we had, like, is the voiceover going to work? Is it too dark? Is this musical choice going to go over like a dead weight? Are people going to be like, “What the fuck? Why is an ’80s song playing?” They worked brilliantly, so now we know we can go further in those directions.
Talking of direction, Reed, will you be back?
Morano: There’s been a lot of trying to shift major schedules to make it happen. I’m always never say never, because you never know, and it sort of depends on whether a few things align. I’m doing as much manipulation as I can to try and make it so.