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Despite its dystopian future setting, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale often feels all too real — and it’s not by accident.
Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, the Emmy-winning drama sees Elisabeth Moss in the role of June, a woman better known to some as Offred, who fights tooth and nail to survive in Gilead, the totalitarian nation that stands in the place of what was once America. For June and other handmaids like her, survival is a tall order, thanks to the fanatics in charge who answer their opposition with public executions, dismemberments and assorted forms of psychological torture. Abusers like Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), not to mention survivors like June and fellow handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel), move through the world of Handmaid’s with a chilling level of reality, and that’s thanks in no small part to a crucial ally behind the scenes: the United Nations.
An accomplished journalist with deep experience covering conflict, genocide, humanitarian crises and human rights issues across the globe, UN executive producer Andi Gitow serves as a key consultant on Handmaid’s Tale, brought into the show’s orbit by one of its key themes: family. She is first cousins with showrunner Bruce Miller, who tells The Hollywood Reporter that he initially leaned on his relative’s expertise while fashioning the first season of the show — specifically, a harrowing early storyline involving Bledel’s Emily.
“There are so many things where you can guess [how it would play out],” says Miller, “but there are some things where there are too many factors to put your mind around, too many factors of trauma. What is it like to have your child taken away and kept away by the state? [For instance], in our first season, we had a female genital mutilation story, and that was the first time [Gitow and I] talked. We didn’t want to tell that story unless we could do it in a way that respected the reality and respected the people who this happens to.”
Enter Gitow, who has since lent her years of insight working with the United Nations to the rest of the The Handmaid’s Tale team, from the writers room to actors like Bledel and Moss and well beyond. As a journalist, Gitow has spoken with “thousands of people” who have had experiences similar to what’s depicted on the Hulu drama, though she knows such numbers aren’t adequate enough on their own.
“A million people is a statistic; one person is a tragedy,” she tells THR, describing her work at the UN. “It’s a notion of always bringing things back to a human story, to the individual. How do you make people understand that this is a person, not a number? What is it really like? For us, it’s about having the people who have really experienced these things tell us about them, so that we can hopefully have impact. It’s also for the UN workers on the ground who are doing that frontline work: aid workers, people trying to reunify child soldiers with their parents, and work at borders with people who are separated.”
The UN’s affiliation with Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a rare instance of collaboration, according to Gitow, who cites the UN’s Creative Community Outreach Initiative, which works directly with producers and others in the entertainment space. Their goal is the same as the one at the heart of Gitow and Miller’s collaboration: authentically representing real conflicts and real struggles, such as the ones seen in Gilead.
“There’s a scene at the beginning of season three where Emily interacts with a policeman in Canada,” says Miller. “How does that look procedurally? Andi walked us through the specific things that person would say and not say. We have him say those things in that scene. When Emily gets to the hospital, the doctor’s lines were vetted and created by our interactions with the UN. She says: ‘We’re very glad you’re here. You’re in a safe space. We certainly can’t know what you’ve been through, but we want to make sure you’re safe and make sure you’re healthy.'”
Miller leans on Emily’s arrival in Canada as a further example of close collaboration with Gitow and the UN. In the first scene after she’s crossed the border, Emily arrives at a hospital, flanked by a guard who is holding her handmaid cloak in an evidence bag. “It’s evidence of rape,” says Miller. “We don’t say anything about it, but it’s there, it’s real, and it’s what would happen.”
“That’s a great example,” adds Gitow, weighing in on how the scene represents her contributions to the story, insofar as she can weigh in personally on how something like Emily’s arrival in Canada as a refugee might play out in reality. “The writers may have their idea of what they want to happen from a story point of view, and we’ll talk about the reality from every angle: what the person’s experience would be, what somebody would say to her. What would happen next. When somebody walks into a hospital, what happens? Do they even go to the hospital first? Is the first stop a refugee center? Who’s there when they walk in? If the Canadians are trying to build a case and gather evidentiary [material], then what the handmaid comes across the border with can become evidence in a criminal trial down the road — even if it’s just [the cloak in] the bag. But who is doing that? And would this person be in a suit? Would they wear a uniform?”
The questions lead to answers that ask more and more questions, and according to Miller, Gitow and her colleagues have been invaluable resources as the writers dig in deeper and deeper into the reality. With that said, what comes first: the needs of the Handmaid’s storyline, or the real world’s eventuality? The two things work in tandem, according to how Miller describes the writers room process.
“The way we think about it, it’s not brainstorming. It seems like brainstorming, but it’s much more directed than that,” he says. “We focus very much by starting on: ‘Where does June as a character end up? Emotionally, where does she end up in her journey as a human being and as a mother?’ Then we ask, ‘What happens next?’ We’re very much driven by June. We’re very much gifted by Elisabeth Moss who adds so many layers to this story. But what that means is we write a script, we see what Lizzie does or what Yvonne does, and then you watch the episode, and then you have to take the episode and continue on, not the script. They have added so much to the episode. That’s how we figure our story. We talk about it as a group, we break it down scene by scene, and then an individual writer goes off and writes an outline. That’s usually when they start touching base in detail with our consultants. Andi has been extraordinarily generous with her full-time hobby here and her time. I think I’m straining my familial relationship.”
Conversations between UN consultants like Gitow and Handmaid’s writers can start as early as the beginning of a given season, depending on the season’s eventual story requirements; for example, as Miller notes, one of season three’s endgame stories involving the International Criminal Court required some considered back-and-forth with Gitow, to ensure they were properly setting the stage from the very beginning. Typically, however, the conversations are ongoing, beginning with broad questions before drilling deeper into specifics.
“As people start to really break into the story and develop it, there will be times where I come into the writers room as they are discussing and beginning to have deeper conversations,” says Gitow. “In those instances, I’ll maybe give some touch points to continue the conversations into different directions. What’s the reality? What might not be the reality? Then as the writer who is doing that particular episode goes off, it goes deeper, and as they’re figuring out everything from structure to dialogue to how people may relate to each other and what one person might mean to another, then we have lengthier conversations as it builds out from that. They’ll send things to read over: ‘Does this make sense? Does it feel real?’ They are incredibly open to that feedback.”
Feedback aside, Gitow is the first to note that “at the end of the day, this is not making a documentary. It’s a dramatic telling of something. But the storylines are always based in something real. There’s a respect for the reality of what that story is telling, and how to best incorporate it in a way that is still entertaining and tells a compelling story.” Miller credits Gitow’s storytelling sensibilities as a key reason for why their partnership works.
“The UN went through our experience a long time ago,” he says. “They guessed what they thought they should do, and they did it. But they’ve refined it in the field with actuality. Why should we try to invent something that somebody else already tried to invent and then changed based on reality? We should at least talk to those people. In our case, the rare and remarkable talent someone like Andi brings is to see a fictionalized version of the real world and understand what that means. She casually talks about how we change some things; most people can’t do that, because their world is real. Andi knows I am a fiction person, but having been around me and around the show, she understands it in a way where it just wouldn’t work without Andi as the person where the Venn diagram overlaps between entertainment and reality.”
Miller’s opinion is shared widely among the Handmaid’s team, well beyond the writers room. Speaking with THR about working with the UN, Moss notes: “We deal with so many very complicated issues. We want to make sure that we get them right and portray them accurately, because they are really true to life.” As a specific example of how her performance benefitted from the show’s partnership with the UN, Moss points to the season two scene in which June finally reunites with her daughter, Hannah, albeit temporarily and not quite as happily as she initially expected.
“It was that feeling of how to not scare her, because of how scared she would be,” says Moss. “She remembers me, but it was many years ago. [Our UN consultant] talked to the writers, and then that was translated to me, about how, you know, you’re told that you’re not supposed to scare them, that you have to make the child feel safe. You have to make them feel like everything is going to be OK, and that fight between just wanting to grab your daughter and run away as fast as you can and what you actually should do as a good parent, was what the whole scene was about.”
Another testimonial comes from Bledel, who worked closely with Gitow specifically on crafting her season three performance, which centers on Emily’s post-Gilead refugee status.
“I can’t imagine diving into these scenes without having those conversations,” she says. “She was so helpful in describing what Emily would be going through. It’s a real shock to the system. Interactions that would be very normal, that would be everyday exchanges for you and me, would be incredibly challenging to her. She’s so far from feeling ‘normal,’ that in some ways, it’s almost worse than what she knows — to her system, that is. Mentally, she knows she’s better off. But in the scene where she’s at an eye exam and a doctor keeps checking her vision, that moment, on some level, it makes the audience think about where Emily is at in just how challenging it is to be back in society.”
“She wants so badly to feel like what she’s experiencing and what she can put forward is normal, and she doesn’t feel like she can do that, because she’s battling so much deep-seated anxiety. She’s still expecting something to explode or be threatened by a guard with a gun around every corner. She keeps expecting something to be taken away from her. That’s what she’s hardwired to expect. She has to deconstruct all of that.”
Speaking from her own perspective of working with the Handmaid’s team, Gitow credits not only the writers and the actors, but individuals from other assorted corners of the crew for wanting to consult with the proper channels on how to best convey a certain level of reality: “At the risk of sounding corny, from my conversations with the writers to the actors to the production designers to the costume designers, there’s a sense of deep importance of needing to get it right. Not just because it reflects well on them as creative professionals, but because they are on some level having a voice for so many people who don’t. The Handmaid’s Tale has that level of importance. At some level, this show represents reality for so many people. For some people, this is not fiction. This is reality.”
“People have plenty of escapism around,” adds Miller. “But this is happening all over the world. You don’t always see it. It happens in the middle of the night, clandestinely, on purpose. To bring it out and at least get a glimpse of what it might feel like…these things are happening, whether we see them or not. I would much rather see them and understand them.”
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