The Handmaid’s Tale creator, showrunner and executive producer Bruce Miller understands where people are coming from when they question his right to lead a series about injustice towards women.
But in his own words, Miller has made a point to try to “buttress his weaknesses”. That is to say, the writer’s room for the Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody award-winning Hulu series – based on the Margaret Atwood novel and starring Elisabeth Moss – is full of “smart, stubborn, outspoken” women.
This also extends to set, where Miller and team have worked to try to have women working across all departments and as HODs.
Miller has loved Atwood’s novel – set in a dystopian future where women are property of the state – since college, crediting it with helping him to develop his own voice as a writer.
However, in assembling the show he has sought to give women voice, in an explicit acknowledgement there is much about the female experience he doesn’t – and can’t ever – understand.
“This project is as alien to me as literal aliens,” Miller tells IF.
“You have to make sure that you think about it in [terms of]: There are lots of things you don’t know about this from the inside out. A lot of things you have to be told. A lot of things you have to ask of someone who really, really knows; who walks around that skin 24/7. You have to let those people make decisions that you actually don’t understand or agree with – story decisions. You leave things in a script that you don’t get.
“You have to have people whose opinion you respect more than your own at a certain point – [people] like Elisabeth Moss, like Margaret Atwood.
“The hard part is to actually go, ‘Well, I actually don’t get this, but they are smarter and better than I am and they want to do this, so I’ll go with that’.”
Miller is one of the headline speakers at this week’s Screen Forever, where he will discuss extending Atwood’s novel across multiple seasons, the influence of contemporary politics and changing gender norms, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on the fourth season’s schedule.
The showrunner has a certain affinity for the land Down Under: Among the women Miller has brought on to work on The Handmaid’s Tale are a number of Australians.
On screen, Yvonne Strahovski plays Serena Joy, wife of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) to whom Elisabeth Moss’s character of June/Offred is enslaved as a ‘handmaid’.
“I know on camera she seems so austere, but as a person, she brings such a vivacious Australian vibe to the universe,” says Miller of the actress.
“It really has played well in terms of being able to dig deep into that weirdo, awful character. I’ve no idea how she puts that skin on. I don’t know if I would have thought it would be a great match, the general effervescent personality of Yvonne and that role, but it’s a beautiful match.“
Behind the scenes there’s also Aussie directors such as Daina Reid and Kate Dennis, as well as Jessica Hobbs, a Kiwi who has worked for much of her career here, and cinematographer Zoe White.
“It means a lot to me that all those women are coming out of Australia. It’s a couple of generations that produced those of women; it’s great. We’re lucky,” Miller says.
The fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale, due to air locally on SBS later this year, was interrupted due to COVID-19 just two weeks into shooting. When it resumed months later, scripts had to be adjusted given some actors and directors couldn’t get to set.
But Miller says the strangest aspect of all, in the fast-paced world of TV, was that everyone had to hold the episodes in their heads for so long.
“That was really hard for everybody,” he says. “The work was very seamless, but it had the danger of seeming like it was done months apart because it was done months apart.”
The political climate of the last few years has given The Handmaid’s Tale a disconcerting timeliness, even though Atwood’s novel was originally published in 1985. It begs the question: has the dystopia that was 2020 influenced the already dystopian show?
Miller concedes what is happening in the world undoubtedly has an impact; he says everyone on the team, from craft service through to the network executives, are “news junkies”. But ultimately, he can’t go past the source material.
“I don’t look much beyond Margaret Atwood. I look to that for guidance, which is, I extrapolate out logically from what she did. She’s such a strong storyteller; that’s the foundation the show’s built on.
“Unfortunately, she presaged a lot of this stuff. And unfortunately, it’s the logical conclusion to stuff that she said might happen. But that’s because she’s good at guessing, not because because we happen to coincide with the time. She knew then what was going to happen now.”