In the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale, one of production designer Elisabeth William’s challenges was to craft a dystopian version of Washington, D.C., for a nation overthrown by a totalitarian regime.
Created by Bruce Miller, Hulu’s acclaimed drama centers on June (later known as Offred), a woman who is forced to live as a concubine under a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship, who sees her family and every vestige of her former life stripped away. By Season 3, June has gotten one of her children safely to Canada, plotting then to topple Gilead, along with an escape with her eldest child to the Great White North.
But in Episode 6, “Household,” which Williams submitted this year for Emmys, June remains far from achieving these goals. In fact, she’s had to travel to Washington, D.C. with her oppressors, to participate in a mass prayer, calling for the return of her baby Nichole.
Heading into Season 3, the production designer had a slightly different sense of how the story arc this go-round would play out. “The season before ended with Offred handing her baby over and Alexis [Bledel’s Emily] going to Canada with the baby, so that was exciting actually, because of course we knew that June was going back. She was going back, at the time we thought, really with a vengeance, and to go and rescue her other daughter, as she wasn’t going to be leaving Gilead without her. So, that prospect was really exciting,” says the two-time Emmy winner, who is nominated again this year for Outstanding Production Design. “The story ended up being a little bit more stretched out than what we had originally thought it would be, and it’s more actually this year, in the fourth season, that she’s really on a rampage.”
What ended up being true with Season 3 was that it would offer “a sense of a bit of a larger world,” Williams says—showcasing aspects to Gilead that hadn’t previously been seen, and featuring new environments, Washington, D.C. being the most notable example. “D.C. was a huge one,” the production designer notes. “We were excited to get to understand what the head of this regime was going to look like, and how the Gilead that we knew was basically a soft version of the power of the regime.”
Featuring versions of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, reinterpreted and reshaped for Gilead, Episode 6’s look was informed in part by the director at hand at the time. “It’s been great on The Handmaid’s Tale, with all these different directors, many of them women, working on various blocks, each coming in from different parts of the world, with a certain life experience. The director who worked on Episode 6, Dearbhla Walsh, she’s Irish and she comes from a very omnipresent, rigid Catholic background,” Williams explains. “So, her interpretation of the handmaids in Washington D.C. was really interesting.”
Naturally, Williams’ designs for the episode’s desecrated monuments were also informed by a great deal of research into dictatorships around the world, and how they reshaped their respective nations—including Germany, Russia and Korea—for their own malign purposes. “We did this kind of amalgam of various regimes, and created our own world,” the production designer says, “which was probably a soft version of all of those.”
As dictated by the script for Episode 6, the obelisk that is the Washington Monument would be transformed into a cross. The Lincoln Memorial, meanwhile, would have Abraham Lincoln’s giant marble head and hands cut off. To Williams, the symbolism here couldn’t have been more clear. “[The Lincoln Memorial] is representative of the civil rights movement. In the United States, it’s a very sacred place, and for the regime to destroy it or desecrate it in that way…In a sense, the symbolism is, the brain and the hands—so, the power of action of liberty, of freedom—and [they were using] this monument for its own activities,” she explains. “Then, for the obelisk transformed into a cross, again, those are the American symbols of freedom and self-governance. It was transformed into a symbol of order and basically of governance—which is what the church kind of is.”
Interestingly, a number of the scenes from “Household”—including those taking place at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool—were actually filmed in D.C. “We went to Washington for one day of shooting. We had a couple of days of scouts, a few months prior, and we chose our locations,” Williams recalls. “I mean, obviously we walked the locations, and decided what we were going to do.”
What was unique about Williams’ design process, though, in the case of Episode 6, was that much of it—including the Washington Monument and the beheaded Lincoln Memorial—would need to be fully realized through the use of visual effects. Rather than designing elements for use on set, then, she was looking in this case all the way ahead to post. “When the Commander and June and Serena are standing on the steps, the flags that are around them, those are all props. But pretty much everything else that you see is a visual effect,” she says. “We had about 200 handmaids, and the rest is visual effects.
“We had a small computer model of the Lincoln Memorial and the steps, but it was all designed,” the production designer adds. “It was all then recreated in post, for the cross, and they added all sorts of different elements that we couldn’t bring. But we had planned it all in prep.”
From Williams’ perspective, the greatest challenge with this episode was that the Handmaid’s Tale team originally intended to shoot more scenes on location in Washington. “When we went to scout for the first time, we had planned for a two-day shoot, and we only had the budget for one in the end, so we kind of had to scramble and decide what we were going to keep in Washington. What we had to give up, [we had to] transfer to Toronto, where we basically shot everything else,” she says. “So, that part was challenging because it’s always better when you have all the money that you want to do everything that you want to do—and when you don’t, well, you have to reorganize.”
Looking ahead to production on Season 4, which is starting “very soon,” Williams is once again having to reorganize—this time, due to constraints on production imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. “Right now, we’re in the process of COVID friendly-ing all our offices and our studios and our shop, and we’ve got a whole team of people working on that. We’ve had to make some adaptations to our scripts, to help with some of the scenes that weren’t ‘COVID-friendly,’ I guess is the word,” the production designer shares. “So, that’s a shame, but we’re in a good place.”
What will help ease the crew’s transition back is the fact that they had already shot 15 days’ worth of scenes, before production was halted. “Today was my first official day, remotely. A lot of people are working remotely, but as we come back, since we were on top of things, we feel comfortable,” Williams says, “and we’re able to take these new safety protocols and adapt to them, hopefully before day one of production.”
A four-time Emmy nominee, with three consecutive nods for her work on The Handmaid’s Tale, Williams feels honored by the fact that her designs, and the series in general, continues to resonate powerfully, three seasons in. “In these situations, you never take it for granted. It’s normal people kind of get bored of things and move on, and new is always more exciting. So, to be recognized over again is a real gift,” she says. “I think, very humbly, that it has a lot to do with the subject matter, which continues to be so relevant. I think if it weren’t relevant, we might’ve got a pass.”
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