On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, the writer and producer of Hulu’s new series based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” stops by for a chat. Bruce Miller talks about the difference between writing for movies and writing for TV, and how writing for a streaming show provides some freedom that both movies and TV lack.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, TuneIn or Stitcher.
Kara Swisher: Recode Radio presents Recode Decode, coming to you from the Vox Media Podcast Network. Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as the future leader of the Republic of Not Gilead. In my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episode of Recode Decode anywhere you listen to podcasts. We’re on Apple Podcast, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher, SoundCloud and more, or you can just visit recode.net/podcasts for more.
Today in the red chair is Bruce Miller the creator of the new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which recently debuted on Hulu. He previously has written and produced for shows like “Eureka,” “Alphas,” and “The 100.” Bruce, welcome to the show.
Bruce Miller: Thank you so much for having me.
I gotta say, I’m going to be a fan at you. I watched the first three episodes and they were astonishing. I’ve never seen such great television — and I’ve seen a lot of great television.
Just say thanks. That’s good. It just was very moving and still into this idea of how good television has gotten recently. We’re going to talk about why that is and what’s happened in the television industry. Especially since this is on Hulu, not on a network, and how you produced differently or if you do at all. Let’s talk a little bit about your background. You’ve been in regular television production for your career?
Yeah. I started in features a very long time ago, but quickly moved into TV. I like it better. You get to work with other writers, which is something you don’t get to do in the feature world.
Right, you just write the movie and move on.
Yeah, and sit at home alone in your sweats. Here you get to go to work and sit in your sweats.
You have a writers’ room and sit in your sweats and eat food with other writers.
Yeah, and eat food. Yes, with other writers.
Talking about what your experience was until this. What led to this move?
I had worked on a lot of different shows over the years. Some network shows, some cable shows. The industry really changed a lot in the time that I’ve been in it. The first few shows I worked on, I worked on “ER,” and I worked on “Everwood.” They were pretty big network shows. Then gradually all the jobs that I got, and all the things that were offered, were on some sort of cable. Then gradually I started to hear about stuff on pay cable. Then you start to hear about stuff that’s going to be on streaming services. Now that world has exploded in terms of the amount of shows that they’re making, original content. I was in a very traditional storytelling world. In fact, my job doesn’t change all that much.
Because everything’s narrative, right? Sure.
Yeah. Basically for the last 6,000 years we’re telling stories that are about one or two hours long. That’s just continued. My job hasn’t changed all that much in terms of the writing part of it and the narrative part of it. The environment has changed incredibly around me.
We’re going to talk about that a little later, about what it’s like to be a creator in Hollywood right now. Talk about “The Handmaid’s Tale.” This has been a movie, this has been a book that was written many decades ago, and has been a movie. I think Faye Dunaway was in it, Robert Duvall.
Natasha Richardson. Very strong movie, but a movie. A movie feature, and then it went away. Then when Trump got elected, voila, everyone’s buying it again and worried about the way this country is going. Even though the Republic of Gilead is pretty far down the line of what’s happening now. At the same time, people are worried. You had been making it before that. Is that correct? How did it come to fruition?
I read the book when I was in college. When it was made into a movie — it’s been adapted quite a few times, it’s been a ballet, it’s been an opera, it’s been plays, it’s been a whole bunch of different things, everything you could imagine. When I came to the project the original writer was Ilene Chaiken.
Mm-hmm, that’s a friend of mine.
Who had been working on this since ... soldiering along on this project forever and trying to get it made. I was just excited as a fan. Like, “Oh, it’s going to be a TV show.” I loved the book, and I had reread it over the years, and I listen to the audiobook with Claire Danes, which was spectacular. I was just waiting for it to come out, every year, so I would have my agents check and see what the status of it was. Half because I hoped that there was a job for me, but half because you’re just excited for it to come out. They checked and it turned out that Ilene was busy doing “Empire,” and Hulu had acquired the project. They were looking for someone to run the show. That all happened well before the election. Well before the election began. Even before people were really starting to talk about the real primary candidates.
Right, it was interesting because I remember Ilene talking about it. She was on “The L Word,” had run “The L Word,” and then had moved to “Empire.” She had always talked about this project. One of her dream projects. Explain the plot of the book, just so people who don’t understand what “The Handmaid’s Tale” is about.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” ... in the book it takes place in the near future. The book was published in 1986 and it takes place just in the near future. It is after a totalitarian theocratic coup has taken place in the U.S. The government is being run under very strict Old Testament Christianity. Kind of a perverted version of Christianity. The main character, Offred, plays a handmaid. It’s a world where fertility rates have fallen quite precipitously. Handmaids are fertile women who are gathered up and made property of the state, and given to live in the houses of higher-level people in the community in order to get pregnant, so that those people can reproduce.
Can have children.
Can have children.
And the way they reproduce is bizarre.
Yeah. It is as literal a biblical adaption as I’ve ever seen. It’s called the ceremony. In the book it’s described very specifically. We tried hard on the show to take all of that and work out the practical kinks of how you would actually do that. It involves the husband, and the wife, and the handmaid all together at the same time. One of the reviews I think called it a joyless three-way. It very much is a joyless three-way.
Yeah, or formalized. Formalized, institutionalized rape in such a weird ... but domestically. A home institution. It’s horrible on every level, but also absurdly arcane and specific.
Right, as these groups tend to be.
Our heroine, even though whilst enduring the horror, definitely keeps one eye on the fact that this is the craziest, bizarre, sad, pathetic thing that she’s ever been involved in. It’s nice that she doesn’t lose that perspective.
Right, and it’s her story, of Offred. Which is not her name. It’s of-Fred, right? Who is her owner, I guess. I don’t know how to else to put it.
Yeah, I would say owner. Her name is what’s called a patronymic, which is a name made from the male person, the head of the household. There are other languages that have patronymics in it. It isn’t always considered a terrible thing. She is Offred. We do find out her name in the TV show. In the book it’s never mentioned. It is one of the most, on a base level, kind of gut-wrenching parts of it. It’s that she doesn’t even have a name.
It changes when she moves from place to place. She loses Offred and she’ll become Ofwarren or Ofsteven. It’s not just that they take away her name. They take away her concept of a name.
Absolutely. This was a book that had a beginning, middle and end. They had a movie that was the same thing. It had an end. Essentially a conclusion. This is a series that’s lasting how long? It’s individual shows.
It’s individual episodes. The first season is 10 episodes. We’re going to keep continuing the story on past there. As long as they’ll keep turning on the lights.
Is it going to have more than the book? Then it will go beyond what Margaret Atwood wrote. Which was a brilliant but not a happy ending.
I think a lot of people, including me, get kind of frustrated when they get to the end of the book, because it ends. It ends rather abruptly. Part of that is because the point of view of the main character is so strict in the book that anything that she sees we see. Anything she doesn’t see we don’t see. When her story ends our vision into the world is shut off. We expand that point of view a little bit in the show starting in little ways and then in bigger ways.
In the book Margaret Atwood creates this incredibly rich world. There are things, as I read, that were mentioned in the book that you really wanted to explore. In some ways I don’t feel like we go beyond the book ever. We’re extrapolating out from what she’s done. We’ve also explored parts of the world that she mentioned and talked about, describes, but kind of didn’t ever get us there.
Right. You’d like to go more seasons beyond what ...
Oh, absolutely. Yes.
You don’t have a “Game of Thrones” situation where the guy keeps writing like a crazy person.
No. I think there’s a dog-chasing-a-rabbit aspect to that. Luckily we don’t have that. We’re not following along with Margaret writing ahead of us. We have [enough], just by mining the book, and also Margaret’s been very involved since the beginning.
There’s all sorts of thinking that she did. There’s all sorts of stuff that’s up for discussion now that were teasing apart the book, and we try to modernize it. That brings up all sorts of question. We’ve been able to tap into ... to keep it in an Atwood world, and in an Atwood story as much as possible. We’re in a unique position of having someone ... usually when you adopt a classic the author is quite dead, and Margaret is quite alive.
She is indeed.
Also, usually when you adapt a classic, even if the author is around it was written so long ago, and there’s so much intervening work. In Margaret’s case, she’s so prolific. She has a startling memory for how she arrived at particular story decisions. I certainly don’t remember why I decided to call someone Bob instead of Steve 35 years ago. Boy, Margaret does.
Yeah, she does. I saw her being interviewed just recently in person with Elisabeth Moss, who plays the main character, Offred. Someone asked her since this is going on if she was going to write a sequel. She said, “No.” She was working on something else. She didn’t really give a reason why not. She wouldn’t say what she was working on, because she didn’t want her editors to know, because she’s changing it. Which I’m like, at this point I’m like Margaret Atwood can do whatever Margaret Atwood wants to do.
She was like, “I don’t want them to be mad at me.” I was like, “Don’t worry, Margaret Atwood, you can do whatever you feel like.” What was interesting is that she didn’t want to do a sequel when this is a perfect time to do a sequel. Correct, or no?
I don’t know. I think for me it always felt like I was dying for more, so the perfect time to have a sequel would’ve been five minutes after I finished the book. Yes, I think the world has changed. the politics of the world have gone in some directions that certainly Margaret feels like dovetail into just the feelings of having a big, impersonal, cruel-hearted government. The people who are being governed over feel completely helpless. It feels like an intractable situation. Whether they’re coming from a religious point of view or another point of view, I know that I certainly always relate to the material on that level. Just the faceless cruel government.
Talk about the timing. This book suddenly is selling like crazy as if it’s a new book. It’s ahead of the series, so you have perfect timing here in terms of people’s interest in the scary possibilities of a populist government moving into a theocratic government.
Yeah, I think it’s a populist government turning into a populist government. I think anytime that a government is taking more control and getting more involved in people’s lives that’s always scary. The thing about a totalitarian state is that, just like its name, it tries to control the total person. I find it absolutely fascinating, the moments where the state enters into your bedroom, or into your most intimate relationships between you and your significant other, between you and your children. Here you get to see that. That to me feels, and at least just personally, that’s the nervous relationship it has to the world that’s going on today.
Where we have a government that in some ways, they proclaim ...
Well, we have a leader.
We have a leader, but we also have a government that in some ways is trying to promote a hands-off philosophy and in other ways is trying to promote a very hands-on philosophy. It’s so unpredictable. Just like Gilead, they had this moral purity. Meanwhile they’re acting horribly.
Behind the scenes.
Yeah. Every practical thing they do is terrible, but all their proclamations are moral.
Right, so they’re some someone who talks about moral things, and meanwhile off to the side has a whorehouse, essentially.
Yeah, or has institutionalized rapers taking people’s eyes out.
I think that certainly jibes with some of the psychology of the way that I feel now, that you can’t put your finger on what the hell the government is doing.
I have to say it resonates. Two things, let’s talk about the show and then in a little bit we’ll talk about what it’s like to produce for something like Hulu compared to networks in the next section. One of the things that’s astonishing is it’s so contemporary. You have a yoga pants episode, or yoga outfit. The two women are running. You have a lot of flashbacks of how it got to where it got. Which was very quickly. Two of the main characters, including those with Martha, are jogging and they get looked up and down by a woman who is very upset by their yoga pants, or their outfit, or something.
She gives them the stink eye, I think it’s called.
Yeah, stink eye, yeah. Then she goes into the coffee shop which is now being run by a man when it used to be run by a woman. He insults what they’re wearing and says they shouldn’t be wearing that. Then their credit cards don’t work because there is a tech attack at the same time on women. Which is interesting. Can you talk about that? I can’t believe you did the yoga pants thing and then United did the yoga pants thing. Which is kind of funny.
Yeah, we just tried very hard to put them in ... that was consulted with Lizzy and Samira. What do you go running in? When you’re in a position of being me, a guy trying to make those decisions, you don’t want to lay over what you think someone would be running in that someone else might think is slutty. We just kind of let them say what exactly would you wear if you went out running. We had lots of different options and they had lots of different things that they wore out. We didn’t change that at all.
I think the thing that’s so startling for me in that moment is just the venom that this guy has. It seemed to me that something was happening in the world where people felt like they were allowed to say those things. That was the thing that struck me most during the political season leading up to the election and since then. The people with very dark thoughts have suddenly been verbalizing them.
In cruel ways, in ways that I didn’t think people even thought before. Certainly things that I don’t think people would have said to each other, that are all coming out. That part of it I felt really aligned with how people were thinking now.
Mm-hmm, but you wrote it before that.
I wrote it before that. Margaret wrote it before that. The scene in terms of the book is not quite the same. The turning off of people’s credit cards based on their gender was something in the book. Margaret, 35 years ago, that was possible. It was just something so scary. You feel so powerless. Just one switch somewhere at a big, I assume, some giant room full of switches, can do something ...
Yes, it’s a room of switches.
Yes, there’s a room with switches that control us all.
There is, actually.
It seems like it’s so plausible and also so terrifying. It doesn’t seem like there’s any route to undoing that. You have to put that in the context of the world that they’re living in. It feels a little like Gilead comes on quickly, but if you lived in a world where fertility at dropped 90, 95 percent, the entire world would change so much in so many different ways.
People would be a lot more open to anything. Anybody who says I have a solution, even if it’s a spiritual solution, would rise in power immediately. I think people would be terrified if something like that was happening.
That we couldn’t have children?
Yeah. I think just a world where people in general can’t have children as opposed to with the exception. I think it would be terror that grew very quickly. Like in the movie “Children of Men,” where all of a sudden you realize, “Hey, I haven’t seen a child around for a while.” There’s moments in this series later on. It’s hard to find a way to visualize falling birth rates. I think we came up with some cool stuff.
Yeah. It’s also about the tech of it. You can’t think of all the things that we are tracked on today. The ability to track is as if a government like this took power. It’s very easy to take control of the citizens. That’s what I think you depict really well. Even though it’s just a credit card, you can think of 900 other ways to figure out who was gay, who is not gay. Gay people obviously got arrested and killed and sent to the outer limits of the ...
Yeah, I think there’s a combination of things. We tried to be very practical about what would disappear if fertility became an issue, including cellphones. The idea that anything — that even if there was a rumor that it affected fertility — would be gone. There’s rumors about cellphones, there’s rumors about cell signals, there’s rumors about Wi-Fi. A lot of those things would already be gone. Not entirely, but as much as possible. Just for the idea of trying to promote fertility. We tried to track that part, but in terms of how people end up ... you’d say no one would ever register as a fertile woman.
I looked very closely at the development of World War II, and how they knew in a time where there was was much lower tech, who was gay, who is Catholic, who was this, who was that. What ends up happening if fertility rates fell and I said to you, “Listen, you’re a fertile woman. The government wants to give you better health care for free because you’re more valuable, or vouchers for food because we want to make sure ... then we also want you to come in and get an exam all the time. Then we want you to register when you get pregnant just so we know.” There’s lots of very smart ways, seemingly smart ways, that that could be happening well before it turns into something nefarious and terrible.
Of course we’re all tracked. I’m screwed at this point if a theocratic society comes in.
Yeah, we’re all tracked. There’s so much out there. Which is one of the things when we flashback that I love, is the mess the world is in. It certainly makes it easier to drive home from work in all the traffic and music playing, and people walking around.
Mm-hmm, because they Uber, they’re using their phones, they’re Tindering.
It certainly made me appreciate the messiness of life now, and the messiness of the arguments that we can have. There’s some good arguments in the show that don’t really go anywhere, they don’t settle anything in the past. Which I think is frustrating to us now, but it seems like such a delicious pleasure when you’re stuck like Offred is. She can’t even have a conversation about what color she’s going to wear that day. You can’t have any conversation.
No, absolutely. We’ve been talking about the world which Margaret created and now has been dramatized in this series. Can you talk a little bit about the look and feel of the show? Then I want to talk about what it’s like to produce for Hulu or Netflix/Amazon kind of thing in this new Hollywood. One of the things that’s really interesting about this is how first of all you didn’t binge it like “House of Cards.” Correct? You put three episodes up at once, but not the whole thing.
We put three episodes at once. It really was up to Hulu in terms of what their motto was. It certainly was the first question I asked. From a storytelling point of view, having things that are on once a week is very different than having things that you binge all at once. I tried to make decisions that I could stress people out a little more, because they had some time to recover and also I could ...
Yeah, you really upset me by the third show. I gotta tell you, that last visual was disturbing.
Oh, come on. That was bad.
Yeah, I know it’s horrific. Alexis Bledel is spectacular in it. It was really their decision, but having so many friends and seeing so many people go through the process of, “Oh, I wrote a show for this network, and I didn’t have any commercials, and I didn’t think of that.” Or they did have commercials, or all of them were coming out in one day. I wanted to know what that does to the audience. How do you tell a story, whether you’re really blending one episode into another. Writers have been having those conversations for a while about how that changes storytelling. I think it’s important for us to be thinking ahead. Just because Hulu initially was going to put out an episode a week and then they decided after they saw the first three that they should put the first three out ...
To get people hooked, yeah.
To get people hooked.
And to sign up for Hulu.
And to sign up for Hulu. For me it was great, but I certainly made the first three to be digested a little bit at a time. I imagine some people got a stomachache. I know my niece called me and said she hasn’t slept for a night and a half now.
Yeah, but I couldn’t not watch the rest. I wanted to binge it, which is interesting. I’m so used to binging now. “House of Cards” is now coming out in May, or June 1st, or something like that, May 31st. I’m going to watch the whole thing.
Yeah. I think you get used to ... Also especially after you see a show. This one is such a slap in the face and a kick in the stomach that there is a benefit to having a chance to breathe in between. The other thing that I found that’s been really nice is that I was hoping that the social media universe would help people fill in some of the blanks so that I could be more subtle. Especially in the first few episodes of a show like this where you have so much to establish. I think I have a moral and genetic predisposition towards not ever doing any kind of explaining. I tried really hard not to have any of that stuff. I think that it’s nice that there’s a supportive audience out there that can help picture that.
Tell me about that experience. Your shows before had social media but not like this. This one has much more of one because it’s internet delivered, essentially.
Yeah. It has a social media aspect, but also it was a book. I think there are people out there who have a lot more knowledge. I found that people, quite careful readers of the book, can really see where I made small changes and where I made large changes.
Oh, I’m sure. You’ve been Twitt-a-fied, right? Wait a minute.
Yeah, but even subtly. It’s nice because I haven’t heard too much criticism of the fact that you actually do have to turn a book into a television show. You can’t just film it. What I was hoping is that when you watch it that it’s an enjoyable, or entertaining, thrilling ride as a show. Then afterwards there’s a enough to think about and chew on and discuss that you can milk 40 percent more out of the experience. I think that’s the way that I try to make use of the week between episodes, is to have enough to talk about to fill up that week.
Right. You prefer that versus binging, or do you not? It depends? It just depends on how you’re going to write it?
It just depends. I just need to know ahead of time. I don’t necessarily prefer it, but you don’t want to create something for binging and then all of a sudden they decide to show it weekly. It’s just a different animal. Things worked beautifully. I know that I went back and binged lots of shows that had been on through the years, and they were on weekly. They certainly held up beautifully as binging shows.
Yeah, I just recently watched all of “West Wing,” because I liked that administration better. It was like 900 hours of “West Wing.” It was very funny. It was fine all at once.
Yeah, it was fine.
It worked just fine. It’s interesting, writers are always telling me, “Oh, binge versus this.” I’m like, “Watchers don’t care.”
Yeah, and shows that are put together well, it’s really interesting.
It doesn’t matter.
They really do.
Yeah, you don’t need that cliffhanger. Although it’s okay if you have that. It’s interesting, Elisabeth Moss was on that show, “West Wing.” Zoey, she was trouble. She was always trouble.
Yeah, she was great.
Talk a little bit about making something for Hulu versus a network. You’ve done all the different things. Worked for a cable network. Is it different? You’re saying it’s the same for a writer, but what is it like now when you’re thinking about your career?
Well, the way that I think about the great advantage is, we’re not shooting for an enormous audience. Not that that means we’re not going to get it, but as a writer it allows me to be more specific and just tell this story, and not try to tell this story to people who don’t listen to this story. Tell it to the people who are going to seek it out. I think that’s just better in general. I think that’s one of the things that’s made this such a golden age of television. There’s more writers being able to tell more different kinds of stories.
There’s no pressure on you. I think what Hulu’s trying to do with the show was trying to get a “Transparent,” or what Netflix has done with innumerable shows and stuff like that. It seems like that’s what they’re doing.
Yeah, it seems like they’re trying to find something that’s going to help define their network. They certainly, from the beginning, were spectacularly supportive even when I wanted to push quite far.
They don’t care. They love it.
You talked about the end of the third episode, that was tough. Tough stuff. They were very supportive. I think the biggest difference is so subtle and such inside baseball. The biggest difference is that it doesn’t have to be a specific running time. I can be anywhere between 41 minutes and 61 minutes.
Tell me about that. That’s interesting.
It changes everything.
You tell the story until it’s done.
Well, I know that my daughter, who is 12, she has older brothers, but she consumes so much media in a day, so much narrative, that she knows exactly what’s going to happen. A happens, and then B happens, and C happens. Part of that in television is because you know about when it’s going to end. You have this internal clock.
It’s the same way when you read a book. We’re so used to figuring out the story just based on how much book is left. When you read on a Kindle, if you don’t really pay attention to that, it’s kind of unsettling. You don’t know where it’ll untether. Not having a very specific running time allows me to surprise the audience in ways that I don’t think was quite as possible when people don’t generally know.
A show on network, the time limit is quite prescribed down to the second. You’re going to turn it in and it’s gonna be 43 minutes 22 seconds long. That’s it. Here, I don’t have that. That means that I can extend scenes out, and there’s a lot of pacing in our show. We took our time with visuals and all of those things. Also, I think you can fool people into not knowing which of the storylines is going to end up being the most important at the end of the episode. For me, I like to write that way. I don’t want to be able to track the story from A, to B, to C, to D. It doesn’t feel as real. It’s much more predictable, and also I find that your goal is to get to an end that feels inevitable yet absolutely unpredictable.
Right, which is great for you as an artist, correct? As a creator.
Yeah, it allows me to push harder and fuss harder. You can push the actors quite a bit more because you aren’t saying this scene has to be 90 seconds long, or this scene has to be 15 seconds long. They’re going to be as long as the performance takes.
And you can change it during the process, correct? As you move through it. You could if you wanted to. You can add things and subtract things.
Oh, during the shooting process.
Yes, shooting process.
Yes, and during editing. I think that the amount of time that we show that is Offred going through the house and Offred going through her life, none of those things are there by accident. We’re not trying to just indulge the beauty. What we’re trying to do is make sure that you see every single part of her story in the episode.
Which is interesting. I didn’t realize that. You really do show a lot of ... the visuals are critically important to this. The way they move. They put on these particular cloaks and hats.
The way they move is almost like a ballet. You would never have that in a television show. You’re right. They would take it out because they’d say, “Cut that.”
Yeah, because you don’t quite need it. There’s two things. How you define what you need is really the biggest decision that I, as a showrunner, make. I try very hard to say what you think we need is not necessarily what we need. It depends what you’re trying to get out the other end. The narrative drive for our episodes is Offred is trying to stay alive. That’s our narrative drive. You can do a lot of different things within that world if you’re allowed the freedom of not having to stay on a path that’s built by plot. It can be built by a character arc or built ideally by decisions that Offred is making along the way that, we along with her, we want them to be correct decisions, but boy we’re as blind as she is.
Right. That’s interesting. Are the executives at these places, at Hulu for example, more involved? Maybe they don’t know anything so they’re like, “Do whatever you want.” It seems like a lot of them have been like that, although they’re getting more professionalized for sure. Initially, a lot of them weren’t meddlesome. Everyone I talk to is like, “Oh, they don’t really bother me.” Which is a welcome thing from notes all the time and everything else.
It is. I think there’s two sides to the coin. One side is that they have made a decision to let people like me be the guiding force behind the shows. They think that way the show comes out to be more of what they need.
It’s like that with an engineer. Do it. Make what you make.
Right, make what you make. The other side of that coin, and this is just human nature, is when you’re making a show on a network that has 26 shows you get a different kind of attention than you do here when they’re making two shows. Each show is a big investment for Hulu and a big creative investment. They certainly are very involved. They certainly haven’t been meddlesome, but I think that’s personality. You know, show by show and personality by personality. The show from the very beginning blew all of us away. We were very happy with it from the very first time we saw dailies. I think that helps. Also you have a book, you’re standing on a bit of a foundation. It isn’t all just me waving my arms.
It seems like a lot of the really creative stuff is coming out of Amazon and Netflix and now Hulu, which is interesting. Did you take it to a network?
Showtime originally had the project and when they decided not to do it anymore MGM took it out, and I think there was quite a bidding war for people to get it. I don’t know who was involved in that but there were lots of people. I’m thrilled that it ended up where it ended up.
Were you worried in any way it was Hulu and not Netflix? There must be a pecking order now among Internet companies. Then Amazon is all of a sudden coming strong.
Was I worried? I’m always worried at a new place that too much of my time is going to be spent explaining how the excruciating minutia of it works, and why it should work that way always. This was not the case. They have people there who have not only experience at other companies, they have experience at this company going through this process. They we were completely professional and they knew how things worked and all that kind of stuff. MGM was the studio and they were very helpful. In the end they left me to my own devices. Once they started to see dailies with Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd and Alexis Bledel, and all these people who were off the charts amazing ...
Ann Dowd is fantastic.
The nicest woman. In real-life just the most wonderful ...
I know. She always plays mean ladies. That’s funny. It’s terrifying.
Oh my gosh, she’s a spectacular, fascinating actress. She, like everybody else, has brought sides to Aunt Lydia that you don’t see in the book and that you don’t see in that other movie, which is the great benefit of television. You get a long time to build up and get to dig around in these characters. Ann Dowd and Yvonne Strahovski, who plays Serena Joy, the wife of the commander ...
Yes, another terrific actress. Where did she come from? That’s another thing that’s great about Internet stuff. I will be sitting there, you’re like, where did they come from?
Well, Yvonne’s had a long career. She was on “Chuck” forever.
Yeah, I never watched Chuck.
She was on “Dexter” for a very memorable year. She’s done lots of stuff, but never anything like this.
Right, that’s what I mean. I just noticed her. I know who she is, but you know what I mean? Sort of very different.
Absolutely. She fought hard to get the role, but they both bring sympathy to these completely awful, cruel, just terrible human beings. They bring lots of sympathy, and you feel sorry for them, and you understand them.
I don’t know about Aunt Lydia but she’s still ...
Over time, okay.
Over time, you’d be surprised. I think a lot of that has been approaching it like I always do, but you approach ... no one’s a villain in their own story.
Yeah, that’s interesting. One more question in this section. You had a hard time getting actors to do this? It seems like not anymore. It seems like a lot of actors want to participate in working for internet companies.
It wasn’t hard to get actors doing it.
Well, they need a job, right?
Yeah. A job is a job. That’s certainly part of it, but that wasn’t the case here. We had people who, Joseph Fiennes, and people who are taking what are small roles in terms of screen time, but are hugely important in the canon of literature, and who they were dying to do these roles because it was the commander in “The Handmaids Tale.” Having the book helped. Certainly, Elisabeth Moss, once you sign up Elisabeth Moss, any worry that it’s not going to be good slides down a little bit on the scale.
Then as we pulled our cast together we were getting directors in line and Reed Morano, who directed her first three episodes, whereas she wasn’t that experienced or that well known her work is amazing. I think some of the actors knew her from that. Also, Warren Littlefield is my non-writing executive producer and my very close partner on this. That brings a lot of cachet and comfort for a very long time.
For a very long time, very long time. Yeah, absolutely. Bruce, do you mind being on the streaming platform and not a ... does it matter anymore for you as a creator?
Most people like you. How do people feel?
Do most people like me? I hope most people like me.
No, no, no, I mean most people like you, do they care if they’re making something for Google or Apple? Apple is just starting to make stuff.
I don’t think so. As long as the process runs in a logical fashion. A lot of the producing part of what I do, as opposed to the writing, there are decisions you have to make well ahead of time but that seem like things, decisions you have to make well ahead of time. You have to go to people who are not used to being pushed to make decisions. Say, “I know it seems like six months from now is the time you’d have to make this decision, but if you don’t make it now ... now is six months from now. Today is the day.” There’s a lot of deadlines where uncertainty causes a lot of problems on a TV series.
Well, they’ve never done it, right?
Yeah. It’s a big train. I think there’s, not a stigma, but there’s so many platforms that are coming quickly. I think there’s a lot of confusion about what might be a more or less legitimate one just in terms of distribution. If a company is willing to put the time, effort and money into a show and I feel like it’s a show that you could you go for that time, effort and money, then it really doesn’t matter to me how it’s going to get into people’s lives.
Interesting. In previous years, this kind of show would’ve gone on HBO, absolutely. In fact, I wrote Richard Plepler. I’m like, “You’re an idiot for not taking that show.” I can’t believe he didn’t pay up for this.
Yeah, I was surprised too. I’m very happy with where we ended up. This hadn’t been made into a series for a long time for a reason. It was a little tough to crack. Every writer is told never use flashbacks and never use voiceover and ...
You do both.
I break every rule. You have to find someone who both has the right angle on writing television. I try to make things very grounded and very realistic. In this case, that’s what makes them scary.
Is there anything different you do for writing when you’re streaming versus ... or not? It’s just the same people are watching it the same. People could be watching on tiny little devices.
Yeah, that’s the thing. Nowadays we have to make television that works on a 45-inch television and on a phone. That’s a cinematography challenge. Mostly we try to ignore all those things and just make something beautiful and effective. We kept going back to the book and trying to bring the book to life. That’s what I wanted as a fan of the book. I wanted the book to come to life. I think that there are a lot of cinematography and technical challenges with that kind of a thing.
I think the other thing is, we can use language. We don’t have to worry about using bad language. In this case I don’t like pussyfooting around. You don’t want to worry about language and you don’t want to worry about nudity, even if you have no nudity and no bad language. You just want it to be a natural world. Certainly it’s not explicit sex. It’s very explicit, but it’s not nude-y. For this show, in order to be unblinking about what this world is like, there’s a scene in Episode 3 where we show a trial and then the aftermath of the trail.
And a hanging.
A hanging, yeah. It’s horrible. Once again, as Margaret Atwood said, “There’s nothing in the show that doesn’t happen in the world.” We took those images right from ...
Yeah, it definitely has a documentary feel to it in a lot of ways. It’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful documentary. That what’s interesting.
Your show looks great on a phone. I watched one episode on a phone. I watched another one on a computer, and I watch a third on a television. They all looked beautiful although I did go back and watch the one I watched on the phone. The one where they had all the handmaids kill that guy. It was beautiful. It was like a ballet even though it was a murder, essentially.
I know, a ballet of violence.
Yeah, and I wanted to see it on a bigger screen. It was beautiful.
From the very beginning I was thoughtful about what I wanted it to look like. It took me a while to find ways to articulate it or examples. I didn’t think I was being so revolutionary. I just wanted it to look real. I wanted it to look real and I wanted it to look beautiful, because Gilead is beautiful. Our dystopias are usually dusty and full of robots. One of the novelties about it is how gorgeous it is.
Also, you want to feel like, “Wow, it would be — without all of the ritualized rape and terrible misogyny — a nice place to live.” Without all the executions.
Except it’s without any interests. I was thinking that when I was watching it. It’s quite clean. It’s very clean.
Oh it’s exceedingly clean.
Yeah, that’s a good word. It’s perfect. You feel like you’re walking through a painting. I think that we want it to be beautiful, but the whole point of a thriller is that if you can imagine yourself in that world, this is a world with weird hats and weird cloaks, and weird language, if you can imagine yourself there it loses a good chunk of its fearsomeness. We tried very, very hard to make it seem like the real world on every level.
And on every screen.
In every image. Also, what you’re seeing and the backstory of what you’re seeing would make sense to get that thing there. Why are there particular foods in the grocery store? Why are there particular cars on the street?
That’s right. They want oranges, right?
They want oranges, yeah.
They want oranges, but they can’t get ...
The oranges are exciting. The grocery store itself is this beautiful ... it looks like Ralph’s.
Antiseptic, though, and no fun. Zero fun.
They have muzak.
Yeah, they do. When you’re thinking about building this for an audience, you do have a limited audience. The people who are subscribed to Hulu, who go and sign up. Is that a problem for you, or blank the people who have Netflix, blank the people who have Amazon Prime?
It always is. You never want to restrict your audience by something that they’ve had to do before the show. Hopefully people find the show. I don’t know, after it’s on Hulu, where does it go after that? Shows have quite a long life these days.
Which is kind of wonderful. Five seasons from now people can find the show and start watching from the very beginning, which certainly wasn’t the case when I was a kid.
Yeah, I’m just watching “Stranger Things,” but it was last summer, right?
I just didn’t get to it.
Yeah, yeah. I think that part of it ... you really do have to think about the fact that everybody’s not going to be watching it at the same time.
Right, that’s the other thing.
There’s no community aspect to that.
Well, there is on Twitter or Facebook.
Yeah, but people don’t sit and watch ... when “The 100” was on TV for that hour, people were all talking on Twitter and you get people’s reaction in the moment.
Interesting. Right, that’s true. Do you monitor that as a creator, what’s going on?
I monitor it lightly. I want to hear what people have to say. I don’t want it to be knocking around in my head while I’m thinking about the next season.
Yeah, interesting. The guy who created, I can’t think of his name, “Modern Family,” he’s wonderful. He’s very tech-y and he’s quite a nerd. They get on there during “Modern Family” and watch what jokes hit and which don’t, which is interesting. That’s broadcast. It was interesting how he did that and he said it does affect him. He likes that it affects him. He also settles fights with other writers about what’s funny and what’s not.
Things I didn’t expect to land in certain ways have. One of the big things is people were very, very, very, very well versed in the book and watching the show. What bumps them is really interesting to me. Mostly I’m finding that from the beginning I just decided the audience is going to be smart and they’re going to pay attention. I’ll just give them a show for smart pay attentioners.
Is that a group that network executives ...
Yes, that is. They have. They pick up absolutely everything, which is wonderful for me because I feel like I don’t have to do any exposition, don’t have to explain.
Right, you don’t have to explain anything.
Tell me, do certain of the visuals really hit online? Do you guys all think of that? I’m thinking of Alexis Bledel, where she’s wearing those white tights and has just been ... she had a clitorectomy, correct?
That’s what happened. You know what it is, but you don’t say it. It’s a beautiful image, actually, of her like that. Do you use that to get the people to watch the show? The visual images, I’ve seen so many beautiful ones online of the hats, especially the hats. I know it sounds odd, but it’s interesting. Do you think about that a lot?
Absolutely. We went into it very much from the beginning, wanting it to be lyrical and elegant and pretty. A part of that was my goal from the beginning that you want it to be ...
Yeah, but tableau. You want these iconic images because they’re from a book that people have been thinking about for so long. The hats, people have been imagining forever. We had a four-month discussion about the color red for the handmaids’ cloaks. When we started looking for an actress — Elisabeth Moss, besides her incredible talent, that face. I love that face. That face is a lot of the show.
You’ve used it a lot in social media. Just a plain face.
Yeah, and no makeup at all on her. Then the same thing when we started to look for a director. I wanted to hire someone who could really make you feel like you were in this world even when this world got a little swirly, crazy, absurd, whatever. Reed is a remarkable director and an excellent cinematographer, although she wasn’t that on our show, and really can tell a story visually. I wrote that. A lot of it is just storytelling that’s visual with no words ...
It is actually important for streaming. Think about it. The visual is much more important. How much do you participate in social media for this? I’ve noticed your trailers are everywhere. You guys are doing a very heavy job using ... and what works for you? I don’t see a lot of Snapchats on this one, but maybe you are on Snapchat.
I don’t think there’s Snapchats. There’s a lot of Instagram pictures.
No filters here.
There’s a lot of all the actors in their individual approaches to social media. I’m not super active on social ... I read a lot on social media. I do feel until the show’s completely out there, I don’t want to get in the way of people experiencing it. You don’t want to be man-splaining how someone is supposed to ...
It’s never stopped other men.
You don’t want to be saying, “This is how you should react to it.” That kind of takes away the whole fun of it. It’s like saying, “I intended it to be funny. I intended it to be serious. I intended it to be scary.” It doesn’t matter what I intended. It matters what you experience. You don’t want to get in people’s way. Especially when a show hasn’t been on yet. After that there’s plenty of time to discuss.
I tend to read a lot on social media and listen a lot. Also, we’ve been out doing quite a bit of press and it’s fun to hear the questions that you get.
You’re getting great reviews.
Oh, they’ve been lovely.
It’s almost polar opposite to “The Circle.” You’re getting all the great reviews and it’s sort of the dyspeptic storylines. Which is interesting.
Yeah, the ones that make you need peptic.
Yeah, exactly. Do you feel worried about tech as a creator in Hollywood now? Hollywood’s had this sort of weird relationship with tech as more and more of these companies fund these things. Again, Apple just recently did. You know Google’s going to get down here. They are on YouTube but in a larger sense they are just starting, too. Both Apple ... the richest two companies are starting to really ... You can see Facebook entering the picture onto the side. They’ve talked about episodic television and things like that. Is that a welcomed thing for you? You’re a creator, so more the merrier, I would assume. How do you feel about Hollywood right now? I see you wearing an Apple watch right there. Can you imagine watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” on that?
No, I would rather not.
Good for you for wearing it.
Watching on your phone ... I think it’s a beautiful screen on an Apple phone. I certainly watch lots of ...
Wait till you see the new one.
Yeah, I’m dying to see the new one. I’m not worried about it. I feel, like anything, it’s a universal good putting more interesting things out there for people to see. I think one of the funniest things is that you realize how we’ve been building up this huge catalog of television for how many years? For 60 years.
People have burned through it in a couple of years. Not everything, but certainly people are starting to say, “What else, what else, what else?” I like that. I like that people are enjoying serialized storytelling. The only problem is that in order to do it, it actually takes a lot of time, money, thought and care. It just does, to do it well. A lot of the things people are reaching back into the archives to pull out are things that took a very long time and a lot of care. When you watch it in two days it doesn’t feel like that.
My only concern is that people are expecting high quality a little too quickly. If you look at “The Handmaid’s Tale,” one of the reasons it is beautiful, and one of the reason’s the stories do work in a subtle way, and Lizzy’s performance — all those things require a lot of thought and prep. It just takes time.
Right. We want it now, Bruce. Bruce, come on. I literally was screaming for the fourth episode. I felt something was wrong with me. Then I didn’t care. It was really interesting, but it was a weird feeling. Why is Hulu and this man keeping me from this?
Yes, exactly. “Why is this man keeping me from watching ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’?”
Watching women being badly objectified in the future. Why?
It’s funny, it’s a show that’s about objectification of women who doesn’t really objectify anybody. There’s no model to it. You can’t do it in Gilead. More is more and you want it to be good. More doesn’t ...
Are you worried about the business plan of Hollywood? That writers are about to strike? Did they go on strike?
At midnight tonight.
Midnight tonight. That’s right. You have to stop writing, right? Is that correct?
Yes, I would have to stop writing.
Have you written a second season already? Can you do anything or not? Nothing.
No, if the writers strike happens I have to pencil down.
Can you film what you have? No, because you can’t change it, right?
No, and we are ready to start doing that.
It would be frustrating. The business model of Hollywood is so elusive to me. Also, it always seems to be a few clicks behind the times of what people are actually doing and how they’re enjoying media, and consuming it. I don’t know how it should respond, because certainly I cultivate a great ignorance of Hollywood in general.
Right, maybe some of the executives will be gone.
Yeah, I just think it ends up offering smaller players a role in the industry, which is wonderful. For me it’s wonderful. The thing that’s amazing is how much has changed just in the time that I’ve been doing this. I think the generation before me didn’t change that much.
Certainly the few generations before that, TV was ...
Soon you’ll be fighting with Apple and Google. They have a lot of money, though.
Yes. It will be the same arguments that I’m having now.
Oh, yeah. Maybe.
Like, “No, no, no I would like to do the clitorectomy.”
Probably they’ll let you do that.
Yes, well, it will be whatever the next clitorectomy is.
I’ll have to argue for it.
What’s interesting is they do give more free ... I do think they’re more, “Let’s see what works,” and a little bit algorithmic what works and stuff like that. Although they’re not always right.
I know that Hulu gets a ton of information about how people watch.
Absolutely. Where they stop ...
And exactly what moment they turn on, and off, and all those kind of things.
Do you get a list of any of that?
They haven’t offered anything and I’m sure if they had a problem they would let me know.
Would you be interested in knowing at that scene people stopped watching?
I’d be interested to know if there was something that seemed very strange. If there was an anomaly, but I don’t know enough about when people usually turn off. You know, when do people turn off the “Golden Girls” reruns or anything else?
Right, but now you can know.
Since I don’t have any context ... my context is really writing in a show, in a story. It seems at every turn, when something else really interesting comes along that I could devote my life to studying, the important thing is to recommit yourself to ...
I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I’m just starting to figure it out.
I certainly have a lot of work to do in that area.
Yeah, and they could also tell you what people like, too, which is interesting.
Yeah, which would be really fun. Although you really need to sit and talk to people.
Yeah, well some people like it, some people don’t. It’s really interesting. You want to be informed. I spend a lot of time looking at the data of our site and what people are doing. It’s helpful. Although I don’t know. Maybe it’s not. Maybe I should just go with my instincts.
I feel like you’re always looking at what people liked, not what people like.
It’s always the past.
Also, I don’t know that I’m looking for people to ... I’m looking for people to experience something, and feel something, and think about something. Not all those things immediately would get the check box of “I loved it.”
Right, exactly. Although pasts are made by clicking. I think in the future. We’ll see if that works. Anyway, this has been a fascinating discussion. They’re coming out every week now. There’s the first three are out. The fourth is on Wednesday. Then 10 episodes until the next season. As long as you’re not on strike.
Yes. Well, I think these episodes will come out regardless.
Oh, yes, I got that.
Wednesday first thing in the morning. It comes out midnight Tuesday night or midnight Wednesday morning. Whichever you want to call it.
You hope to have it ongoing. I hope so too. It’s really fantastic.
Yeah, I know, it seems like it’s so juicy that I would love to keep going.
We don’t even need happy endings anymore after “Game of Thrones.” Everything can just end badly every season.
I don’t know. I would feel terrible if I broke everybody’s heart over and over again only to leave them with a broken heart at the end.
That’s true. That’s all right. We’re good with that anymore. Thank you so much Bruce. This was Bruce Miller who’s the creator of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I highly recommend it. I sound like a fan for somebody. It was incredibly moving and it does prove that narratives still, no matter where you watch it or where you experience it, narrative is what counts.
Thank you so much for having me here.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.