The Secrets From Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' Set Revealed

Examining everything from the mysterious art to the Waterfords' household.
Courtesy of George Kraychyk/Hulu

There's a reason Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale filmed in Toronto even though it is set in the U.S. The highly anticipated series is based on a book by famed Canadian author Margaret Atwood that is studied in schools across that country. 

Picked up straight to series, the 10-episode drama stars Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss and takes place in Gilead, a futuristic but simplified world in which fertility issues abound and women's rights are a thing of the past. In order to keep the population up, government officials in a totalitarian society send young and fertile women — the "handmaids" — to affluent families, where they are forced to help couples procreate via sexual servitude.

 
To create the specific look of the series, production designer Julie Berghoff worked with producers to conceptualize and build the fictional world of Gilead. That included transforming exterior downtown Toronto location shoots into a Massachusetts town. Add in the intricate Waterford household sets in Mississauga, Ontario, (which were based on a house the production found in the province's town of Hamilton), and there are plenty of extra details that even the camera might not pick up.

"This house is Gilead," showrunner Bruce Miller told THR during a set visit. "The commander is the patriarchy. The women in the house occupy the different statuses. You kind of reduce Gilead to one place, but what you have to be able to then do is extrapolate. You have to be able to build a whole world out from the house otherwise. So we're constantly putting little hints and details into it to get a bigger world."

Below, The Hollywood Reporter breaks down some of the biggest secrets on the show's elaborate set.

The Art

Almost all of the pieces that are shown in the series are re-creations from the Boston Museum of Fine Art. Producers say they felt that if the state was falling, those in power might hoard some of the famed pieces — so it made sense for Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), a painter, to have some of them in her house. The addition of the paintings came with further discussion though: Did the designers then get rid of famous signatures like Monet, given that no text is allowed in this world? In the end however, they made the decision to leave the names on most of the pieces.

The Commander's Office

It's no secret that those in power don't always abide by their own rules, and The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) is no exception. His office is what Berghoff jokingly referred to as a place where “books go to die.” The ceiling is an intricate and detailed map of the world; Berghoff pictured The Commander sitting below and throwing darts up at where he would conquer next. Meanwhile, there are plenty of available seating areas because Berghoff wanted to give the cast and crew a few different options when it came to the infamous Scrabble games between The Commander and Offred (Moss).

Serena Joy's Room

By far the most beautiful room of the house, Serena Joy's bedroom is full of art. All the shades of blue within correlate with the shades of blue from Serena's costumes (the color-coordination was a huge one between Berghoff and costume designer Ane Crabtree) and the four-poster bed was purposefully designed with one thing in mind: The Ceremony. In fact, there's a play on blue during Offred's opening voiceover in the second episode in a scene that takes place in that very room.

Offred's Room … and the Closet

Unlike the other rooms in the house, Offred's room is bare and minimalistic. The off-white colors were selected to help make the red of her costumes pop even further, and the adjoining bathroom is completely old school. Meanwhile, the infamous closet where Offred finds the Latin message from a previous Handmaid is actually not a closet at all; it's a door that leads out to the sound stage but is built out when needed for special scenes.

The Kitchen

It isn't exactly the heart of the home, but plenty of scenes take place here as Offred and Martha (Amanda Brugel) exchange words and tokens for food. Berghoff designed the kitchen to feel modern but rustic. With no appliances or modern trinkets, she had the tough job of making it feel like a space that would exist in 2017, but one without cookbooks or other such texts. So she loaded it up with fresh herbs and other puritan items one could picture people using and needing in a time like this.

The Symbols

Perhaps one of the biggest jobs of all was creating a world with no text. It took months for an art department of more than 100 people come up with all of the different aspects, and in the end they came up with more than 500 different symbols and labels for the common goods found at the various marketplaces and such.  

The Exteriors

Berghoff and her team sourced plenty of modern public spaces for some of the location shoots because they wanted to give the feeling that this is a world that could surface tomorrow — not in the past or in the distant future. They also had to make sure the locations they selected fit in with the show's color scheme and that the costumes didn't look out of place. In the end, they included exterior shots at Toronto's City Hall, where some of the hangings take place, a wall by the water found in Cambridge, Ontario, street shots in Hamilton, Ontario, and various downtown Toronto locations like Front Street and The Harbourfront Centre. In one episode, as June (Moss) is being let go from her job, sharp-eyed viewers can even see the black-and-red Canadian Broadcasting Corp. building.

How appropriate.

The Handmaid's Tale premieres its first three episodes April 26 on Hulu. What are you looking forward to seeing? Sound off below and bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

comments powered by Disqus