It’s the little details that make The Handmaid’s Tale. The sight of initials carved into a desk in a former high school – now a training centre for women who have become property of the state – or the plastered over hole where a chandelier used to be in protagonist Offred’s bedroom (removed after the room’s previous occupant used it to hang herself).
Through these small details – physical reminders of a recent past and a horrifying present – Margaret Atwood’s novel paints a vivid picture of a modern day America that has been transformed almost overnight into a brutal totalitarian state: a patriarchial, Puritan society where fertile women are forced to produce offspring for childless couples. Others become housemaids or ‘Marthas’ or are declared ‘unwomen’ and banished to a life in the ominous-sounding ‘colonies’.
The most frightening thing about Atwood’s novel is how possible it feels. Inspired by events in Europe post-World War Two (Atwood was living in Berlin when she wrote the book in the early 1980s and it was published in 1985) she presents a world where everyone is suspicious and no-one can be trusted. Women are utterly powerless – one day, they are free to work and date and have affairs or one night stands and the next, they are handmaids: housebound captives who are released only to go shopping or to have sex with their ‘Commander’ in the hope of conceiving.
Atwood’s dystopian vision was brought to life on screen in a ten-part series broadcast by Hulu in the US earlier this year and on Channel 4 in the UK. The show has been brought up to date and includes some new twists – including a plot which highlights the Gileadean regime’s brutal treatment of homosexuals – but it faithfully recreates some of the book’s most chilling and memorable scenes.
Production designer Julie Berghoff worked closely with director Reed Morano and costume designer Ane Crabtree as well as the show’s producers and art department to bring Atwood’s tale to TV. (Atwood was a supervising producer and also has a cameo role as an Aunt).
Berghoff usually works on feature films. She was the production designer on both The Conjuring and Saw so is well versed in imagining eerie and frightening worlds. She was offered the job for The Handmaid’s Tale on the spot after presenting her vision for the show to Morano and executive producers Bruce Miller and Warren Littlefield: “Before I had the interview, I read the book and I read the script and went in with my vision of what I thought the series should look like … and it all started from there,” she explains.
The Waterford house
Berghoff’s process began with talking to Morano, Miller and Littlefield about their vision for the show before scouting locations and compiling mood boards. The book and the show are set in Cambridge, Massachusetts but the series was filmed in Toronto and the Ontario suburbs.
“We started out loosely discussing the Waterford house [the house where the story’s central character Offred – a handmaid – lives with Commander Waterford and his wife] and the colour palette for the project,” says Berghoff.
Many of the key scenes in the novel and the show take place in the Waterford’s house so Berghoff had to find the right building before she could start designing sets. They discovered a Victorian house on a hill in an upmarket suburb – a house that had a suitably imposing position and period architecture – “and we fell in love with it,” she says.
On paper, the house failed to meet a lot of the desired criteria. It had a pool in the back garden, which had to be covered up, it wasn’t large enough to shoot in and it couldn’t be occupied full-time. However, Berghoff said it had the right character. It also had a lot that could be shot from various angles to highlight the fact that Offred is always being watched – not just by her Commander and his wife but by the couple’s driver and their Martha as well as the ‘Eyes’ (spies who work on behalf of the Gilead regime) – and had “treacherous” stone steps outside that would have made leaving (or escaping) difficult.
The house is a symbol of the Waterford’s wealth and status and its traditional design reflects the Gilead regime’s rejection of modern values. Berghoff says she and Morano imagined that it would have been taken over by the Waterfords after the regime seized power from the US government – in much the same way that people’s houses and possessions were seized by the Nazis during World War Two.
Several scenes are filmed outside the house but only a couple were actually shot inside. The rest were filmed in custom built sets. Sets match the architecture of the house and are based on Atwood’s depiction of the house and the show’s script. Rooms are filled with textured wallpapers, expensive paintings, period furniture and flowers – further symbols of the Waterford’s privileged position.
“The house inspired by vision of what [the rooms] should look like on the inside. I always take the lead of the house … so I did a lot of research into Victorian architecture, and read scripts and treatments, and thought a lot about the flow of the house and how the characters had to move in it, and then I made a floor plan,” explains Berghoff.
Berghoff had to build several interior sets including a hallway, a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom belonging to the Commander’s wife Serena Joy and Offred’s room – a place where she spends most of her time and often reflects on the nightmarish world she has found herself in. “Reed and I discussed a lot about Offred’s room. It’s probably the most important room of the series,” says Berghoff.
The room is sparse and has a utilitarian feel – with white walls, a wooden floor, a bed, a chair and a desk. Berghoff says it is designed to resemble servant’s quarters and is located in the attic of the house.
It is also filled with visual reminders of Offred’s previous life and the freedom that she has lost. The outline of a sink and a mirror used to be are visible on the walls (items that have been removed as Offred is no longer allowed to look at herself, wear make-up or go to the bathroom without a chaperone). A desk facing a wall is a poignant reminder of her past: Offred was a book editor before the regime took hold but women in Gilead are not allowed to read or write. “We put the desk in front of the wall as a reminder of this [of the uselessness of it] because what’s she going to do? Sit there and stare at it?” says Berghoff.
Berghoff used a tactile relief wallpaper to add texture and depth to the room. “It doesn’t have any colour, so I could create whatever colour I wanted on it [in some scenes, it appears grey or light blue],” she explains. She also added layers of paint to give the impression of a room that had been painted over many times.
Colour was a key consideration throughout the process and the colour of costumes informed much of the production design. In Gilead, colour is used to signify someone’s status and their role. Handmaids are dressed in red floor-length gowns and white bonnets while wives are dressed in blue.
Morano wanted to ensure that colours would look vibrant on digital screens. “With Reed being a DOP before she was a director, she really wanted it to be cinematic,” explains Berghoff. “We took [Morano’s] lead and Ane [Crabtree, the costume designer] and I really focused on colour…. The shade of red used for the handmaid’s costumes was in contention for a month – red often vibrates on camera, so we had to find the perfect red and the perfect fabric [to stop this happening], and once that was established, we went through each character, deciding what blue does Serena Joy wear [and so on]?”
“Putting red and blues together can be tricky, so we went for a peacock blue and then [selected] the green for the Marthas, grey for commanders and black for soldiers and once that process was figured out, I was able to start working on the treatments and the design of the house.”
In scenes set in Serena Joy’s bedroom, for example, Berghoff applied several paint colours to ensure that the walls would complement the costumes worn by actress Yvonne Strahovski. Berghoff was also forbidden from using the colour red in any of the sets, which posed a challenge when sourcing vintage carpets. “My decorator was going crazy,” she adds.
With exterior scenes, Berghoff says she was keen to capture the antiquity of Cambridge (Gilead HQ is housed in a former university and many of the key exterior scenes take place outside old red-brick buildings). She also had to find locations that weren’t filled with advertising and billboards.
One of the most memorable sets from the TV series is the grocery store where Offred and the other handmaids go to pick up supplies. With women not allowed to read – and brand-name products banned in Gilead – Berghoff and the art department had to create labels for dozens of different goods, using symbols on labels for canned and packaged produce.
The shop is filled with fresh handmade items including candles and soaps as well as fresh vegetables – “for me, the grocery store became a storytelling point for how the war was going in the country. For example, if we had oranges, then Gilead had won the battle in Florida. If we had artichokes, that meant it had taken California,” says Berghoff. These facts are never mentioned explicitly but the presence of different produce as the series unfolds hints at the spread of Gilead’s power.
The store is reminiscent of the supermarket featured in Ben Wheatley’s High Rise with its bespoke packaging. “It was so much work – we created every single label in there without words, with a symbol system for grams and ounces, and to show where it was from,” adds Berghoff.
“The graphics team worked tirelessly putting thousands of labels together. We also made sure some of the shelves are half empty, as that’s the way it was in the 1940s and 50s. We have so much produce now but if you take away all the things that are unhealthy or aren’t made farm to table, it really diminishes the quantity you can get … and that was another philosophy of Gilead, the idea that overabundance is killing the planet,” she says.
Astonishingly, Berghoff had just nine weeks to prepare for the shoot. “I had a lot of sleepless nights wondering if we were going to be able to pull it off but I had a really great construction team that worked tirelessly with me,” she says. (A short break in filming also allowed her more time to work on sets for episodes three to five).
Having a tightly knit team that understood Berghoff’s vision for the show was crucial to the success of the design – and Berghoff worked closely with set decorators as well as the graphics team to oversee each aspect of the production design.
“I’m very detail oriented … I create a website where I pull images for each episode and all of the locations so everyone can see it, and I pull images of what kind of furniture I would like, how I see details like light switches, what windows are going to look like. I hand picked everything with my decorators from the curtains on Offred’s windows to the bedding in Serena Joy’s room … to make sure the palette is working together cohesively,” she explains.
In any film or TV show, the production design is key to both our understanding of the story and our belief in it. In The Handmaid’s Tale, it had to help tell the story not just of what is happening now but what has gone before – the story of the pre-Gilead era and the violent events that took place when the regime seized power. The show’s art department also had to create a visual system for a world without words – even creating an official symbol for the regime – making it a much more intense and complex process than your average TV drama.
“We had many conversations with Reed, Bruce, Warren, and Margaret about ‘what is the language of Gilead? What are their morals, their ambitions?’ That also brought us back to looking at World War Two and Hitler and Puritan societies, taking elements of those and creating our own Gilead language and rules,” says Berghoff.
The premise of the Handmaid’s Tale might sound far fetched but both the novel and the TV show are frighteningly believable. Brilliant writing and strong performances coupled with Berghoff’s attention to detail combine to create a world that feels all too real, so much so that even the actresses were frightened at times.
“I remember when we would go in and visit the Red Centre [where handmaids are ‘trained’ or indoctrinated] and the actors were terrified. They were sitting there with their hands folded on the desk … the scenes were so powerful,” says Berghoff. The show has now finished its run on Channel 4 – but Hulu has confirmed it will be returning for a second season. Praise, be.