Following 10 episodes of Noah Hawley’s FX drama Fargo, Emmy-nominated production designer Elisabeth Williams set out to make her mark on the dark, dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale—a transition made all the harder, given that Williams came onto the show in Season 2. Working with design templates established in Season 1 by Julie Berghoff, Williams challenged herself to remain as faithful as possible to Season 1’s environments, while embracing the notion of expanding the show’s visual universe. With Season 2, the production designer had the opportunity to set the aesthetic for The Colonies—a nightmarish bucolic space alluded to frequently in Season 1—while building out Little America, and even adding new sets within Gilead itself.
Up front, the task for Williams was getting a clear grasp of the three worlds juxtaposed in The Handmaid’s Tale—those of Little America, Gilead and the world pre-Gilead—and finding a way to move seamlessly between them.
Coming into The Handmaid’s Tale, what was your take on the show’s aesthetic? What was described in early conversations with Bruce Miller and the series’ creatives about the direction in which it was heading?
What’s interesting about Gilead, and gives it that dystopic feeling that we talk about, is the contrast between something that is beautiful, visually, but very dreary, tonally. You’ll see that in The Colonies. You have this beautiful, bucolic setting where really horrific activity is going on, and that contrast was very important.
In terms of color in The Colonies, it was also important that we have these golds and amber colors, and light blues. It’s very reminiscent of Dutch paintings, and yet you have these dying women working the soil and basically killing themselves to better Gilead.
Could you expand on visual influences when it came to the design of The Colonies, and the elements we see, architecturally or otherwise?
We did a lot of research actually on the environment, on different environmental disasters. One of the ones that really affected us or inspired us, actually, was the environmental disaster in Fukushima, where these mountains of contaminated soil in garbage bags are piled up. You wonder, really, where it all went, if it was sent out to space or buried underground. But it’s quite unnerving to see those images. We wanted to integrate that, so we created these mountains of bags. The other thing was, we liked this kind of lunar feeling, and by adding those geodesic domes, we thought of filling the space with this temporary, lunar-like feeling.
What went into your work on Little America, and differentiating that space from others we see in the series?
It was important for us to basically contrast everything set in Toronto with Gilead. By making it a lot more organic and messy and lived-in, we wanted the audience to feel a sense of urgency in Little America, where people are worried and concerned for their loved ones. I think you do get that feeling, be it in the embassy or even in Luke’s apartment, where even though they’ve survived and they’re out of Gilead, they’re concerned and they struggle. We wanted to convey that. There’s also a bit of an unorganized environment, if that makes sense.
What kinds of changes or additions were made with Gilead in Season 2?
While respecting and returning to existing sets of Gilead, to make sure that the audience remembered and understood the world that we were living in, we also wanted to expand on Gilead and show the audience the strength and the reach that Gilead has in America. So we created new spaces. We meet new commanders, going into their homes; we visit two different hospitals. There’s a lot of great new sets, actually.
What’s been the key with this series, as far as scouting locations that will work for a near-future dystopian world? How much set description are you offered through the scripts themselves?
Actually, interestingly enough, there isn’t that much set description on the page. It’s a lot more dialogue than it is set description, so we end up having conversations amongst ourselves—myself, the director and Bruce—about what it is that we want to portray. It gives us a lot of latitude, actually. We try to be very careful about staying on a path, to make sure that we don’t forget whether we’re in Gilead or America. Sometimes those lines may get blurred, and we try not to. It certainly makes for a lot of interesting and creative discussions about what it is that we want to create.
Is creating an immersive space for your actors a primary consideration when designing your sets? What do you see as key in achieving that?
That’s what’s interesting, I find, [about The Handmaid’s Tale]. It’s almost like a period piece, really, even though it’s set in modern times. Everything from the costume design to the set design to the action is very immersive for the actors. Be it with colors or objects, we try to stay within a certain tone, I guess, with everything that we do. I assume that that helps the actors with their performance.
Is creating artificial weather conditions something you need to concern yourself with as a production designer?
Most of the time, we decided to deal with just natural weather—probably for financial reasons—other than creating rain and a little of snow. Sometimes for continuity purposes, we’ve had to bring in some snow, but in general, we dealt with Mother Nature as she presented herself. It just so happens that in Canada in general, a rainstorm or snowstorm always gives a very gloomy, treacherous feeling that goes very well with Gilead, so we just embrace it.
In the first episode of Season 2, we see a broken-down version of Fenway Park, as a group of handmaids are walked to the gallows. What went into the design of that set?
We actually shot the live-action sequence at Fenway Park at a small baseball park in Hamilton [Ontario]. Not that small, actually—it was the right size. We basically dressed the greens of the park with this dead grass and had our gallows set up on the greens, and our tunnel, and did all the action there, and then comped in the visual effects portions of Fenway, which our visual effects team went down to film. Then, both of the images were comped in together. It’s quite successful, I have to say. When I watched it, I was very impressed.
What has been your approach to flashback design, as we get glimpses of our primary characters’ former lives?
It depended a little bit on the character, but we have a variety of [qualities] that we brought into our flashbacks—a lot of lighter colors, brighter, more patterned, a lot more organic and messy. What I would call normal life—life that people will recognize—and the lighting is definitely different, as well. It’s a lot brighter and more natural.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced with Handmaid’s this season?
For me personally, the big challenge was to come in at the last minute and pick up where Mark [White] had left off and just kind of run with it. That was challenging for me, but we have great reference photos and a lot of research and materials that help us stay on track. Honestly, it was a great show. Somehow, it wasn’t that difficult.
How has Handmaid’s compared experientially to other series you’ve designed, like Fargo?
In Fargo, there’s a very clear, scripted style—a very clear path or aesthetic—that we follow. The Coen Brothers’ aesthetic is something that we recognize, that we almost intrinsically know—what Noah would call “the cinematic bland.” It’s something that’s actually quite difficult to do, and once you know it, it’s something that you can easily create. In The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s certainly something more dramatic about the Gilead world. Again, it’s almost more like a period piece. I’d say that is a big difference.