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Liz Garbus, who has built her career as a documentarian tackling true crime, voter suppression and the justice system, made her first foray into directing scripted television with the season-four finale of The Handmaid’s Tale — and was subsequently recognized with an Emmy nomination, her seventh (she’s won twice before). Garbus, who this year also executive produced and directed multiple episodes of HBO’s Golden State Killer docuseries I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, spoke to THR about collaborating with Elisabeth Moss and bringing her documentarian eye to Gilead.
What was your experience like directing this episode? I imagine coming in to do the season finale is stressful.
I’ve directed documentaries, I’ve directed a scripted feature. … Episodic television is different, right? All of these mediums are different and they have their own sort of heartbeat. What was so wonderful about Handmaid’s Tale is it’s a really director-forward set. They really welcome ideas; they say right at the beginning, “Best idea wins, share it.”
This episode centers mostly on Elisabeth’s and Joseph Fiennes’ characters. What was your collaboration like with them?
Lizzie is an extraordinary actor. She’s just one of the best actors in the world, and she is able to hear an idea and then project it through the smallest of expressions. Joe loves to dig into the material and talk it through. For instance, the scene with Lizzie and Joe in his cell when she comes to visit him and, by the end, makes up her mind that she can’t stand to live in a world where he is alive — we all dug really, really deep. It was almost like a one-act play working with those two actors on that scene.
What was it like filming those moments in the woods, where Fiennes’ Commander Waterford meets his end?
The truth about this cast is this is their fourth season; they’re able to dig deep into dark stuff and then a second later be joking around and hugging each other and having a laugh. That kind of energy is really easy to work with. It was an all-nighter, but everybody was super excited, super game. There were stunt people who also helped out in the woods, but Joe wanted to do a lot of his own running, a lot of his own stunts. It was the second-to-last night of shooting; for me, I was fresh, but these guys have been working without breaks since the new year. Joe felt that Fred Waterford had lived a really long time, probably outlived what he should have, so it was just like he understood that this character had to go and he was really just game to give it his all.
How did you balance the show’s signature look with your own style?
The show has such an incredible aesthetic and cinematic language. Of course, I wanted to draw on that and be consistent while also bringing my own perspective to it. When they were chasing Commander Waterford through the woods, I went back to the chase where June [Moss] and [her daughter] Hannah [Jordana Blake] had been chased through the woods [in the pilot] at the beginning of the story, when Gilead was taking over America. It’s such a bookend for June’s arc that I really wanted to reference her early days in Gilead.
How did your background in documentaries help prepare you for this dark material?
I’ve done a lot of work with survivors in my career, and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark obviously was a very recent experience for me. The reactions of the survivors to the sentencing of the Golden State Killer were so interesting. People talk about closure and justice and just how complicated that is for different people. I really thought a lot about that — for Moira [Samira Wiley], justice looked like one thing; for June, it looked like something very different. The trigger points for them would be very, very different. I brought a lot of that experience into the conversations I had with Lizzie. And also, as a documentary filmmaker, I wanted to honor the look and the aesthetic of the show but also wanted, particularly in scenes like when June confronts Fred in his cell, to give the actors space and freedom to move and feel free and really take the scene. I wanted Lizzie to feel free to own Fred’s cell, to move all over it, touch all his things — kind of own him in a way June had been owned. That requires a different style of cinematography.
What was the biggest difference in moving from docs to scripted drama?
The size of the machine behind you. That’s both enormously magical in that you have so many tools in your toolbox, but sometimes it can inhibit spontaneity. I want to make sure that we bring that spontaneity into the process. The question is, what are the things that really work from smaller, lighter teams? Can we bring [those] into this process to give the actors a lot of space to be really innovative and creative?
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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