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‘Handmaid’s Tale’ production designer on bringing dystopia to life

“It has to feel real, like it could happen to you.”

“She should feel like a mouse in a cage,” says production designer Julie Berghoff of the handmaid Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss.

Warning: Spoilers abound! If you are unfamiliar with the plot and don’t want the surprise ruined, bookmark this story for later.

It seems oddly fitting that the production designer for The Handmaid’s Tale television series has a background working on horror films. Julie Berghoff was tasked with bringing the repressive, theocratic society of Gilead, which has replaced much of the United States, to life. Adapting Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel, and depicting the suffocating experience of the protagonist, would be a difficult job at any time. In today’s charged political environment, that task became even more of a challenge.

According to Berghoff, her approach was to turn the setting into a storytelling device, even a character in some cases; to “take architecture and make it tell a story within itself.”

The 10-episode series, which just debuted on the heels of some creative ad campaigns, takes place in and around a fictional post-revolution Boston. In the midst of a worldwide fertility crisis, a violent overthrow of the U.S. government by extremists has brought a male-dominated caste system to power. The series focuses on Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a slave called a handmaid, who is kept by Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his barren wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), and forced to bear children for the elite. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff calls the show a “extraordinary adaptation of an enduring classic.

Using Toronto as a stand-in for New England, Berghoff and her crew were able to both recreate the puritanical streak that defines Gilead society and maintain enough worn-but-modern touches to serve as a chilling reminder that this narrative takes place in a contemporary time period—one too close for comfort.

Curbed spoke with Berghoff about how she approached adapting Atwood’s work, the symbolism and storytelling hidden in the background, and how to make the story seem real to viewers. Some mild spoilers ahead.

Offred (Elisabeth Moss) with Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in his office.

Maintain modern touches to make it poignant, not a period piece

In addition to consulting the original text, Berghoff and her crew studied New England architectural history to gather influences and scout out accurate-looking locations that gelled with the story’s puritanical themes. The designers also created a long list of questions for the author about what different symbols meant and how certain aspects of the world should look. Via discussions with director Reed Morano, Atwood offered feedback that helped Berghoff shape her vision.

Translating this world to the small screen was particularly challenging because of the nature of the politics and power relationship in the story—and the unique blend of contemporary and old-fashioned design elements. One of Berghoff’s greatest challenges was finding exterior locations, especially areas where the handmaids could walk through town, that offered a modern feel without a deluge of advertising and other media that would be banned in the show’s world. For a scene where the handmaids sort through items at a supermarket, the crew built a store from scratch, seeking to recreate a form of commerce before plastic bags and branding.

The exterior sets also communicate the power and presence of the military, as do the so-called Guardians, who patrol the streets. Their Orwellian symbol—the wing of a dove, the bird of peace—suggests they see their mission as a benefit to society, even though it’s more about keeping people caged than guarding them from danger. The gray, drab exteriors, the backdrop for scenes where soldiers hang victims labeled enemies of the state, appear suddenly, underlining the brutality and brashness of state power.

“I wanted viewers to remember that this isn’t the past or future, it’s now,” she says. “It has to feel real, like it could happen to you.”

Servant’s eating quarters in the Commander’s home.

Turn the sets into characters and vehicles for character development

For Berghoff, the settings and scenery of the Commander’s home, where much of the story takes place, gave her the opportunity to develop characters and send subtle signals. Flowers and plants envelop some of the living and dining areas, symbols that Serena Joy, the commander’s barren wife, is doing anything she can to bring life into the world. Her painting communicates the same message: They’re filled with colorful flowers when she feels hopeful about a potential baby, and dark and angry during times of disappointment.

Offred’s room was designed to look like servants’ quarters, and shaped to communicate her feelings of abandonment and lack of agency. It couldn’t have artwork, and needed to be puritan in style. Berghoff felt it was the hardest room to design.

“She should feel like a mouse in a cage,” she says. “There’s no lock on her door, because she’s so fearful of being caught leaving that it’s not necessary.”

Berghoff used dormer windows to help shape the light coming into the room, and created a slight relief on the walls, layering plaster over textured wallpaper, to give Offred something to trace with her fingers during her few moments of private contemplation. The hallway was made to be extremely narrow, so when Serena Joy throws Offred to the ground in a fit of anger, she appears to bounce off the walls.

This spartan, cell-like space is the opposite of the Commander’s private study, a dimly lit library of books and artifacts that stands apart in a world barren of information. It’s a showcase of the Commander’s power. Berghoff created this space with a classic, almost clubby air, using lighting and objects to create something akin to the Harvard library; an elite space in Gilead filled with knowledge.

“What’s more provocative for a woman who hasn’t read for five years to see than a room full of books?” she says.

Play up the colors of the story’s caste system

In a world of very specific roles, where color functions as a source of social control, shades, tints, and tones carried extra significance. Berghoff played off the costumes created by Ane Crabtree, using those specific tones as a baseline for a lot of the setting and backdrops.

The Commander’s office, for instance, is textured, layered, and navy blue, to contrast and envelop his gray suit. The kitchen and workspace of the Marthas, the older female servants in Gilead society, reflect the green of their uniforms, but are dingy and fading away.

Berghoff took a different tactic when portraying some of the state’s power structures, such as a gynecologist’s office and a prison. Both of those spaces are washed out in bright white—the gynecologist’s office seems to reference the penultimate scene from Kubrick’s 2001—so they feel controlling, like a combination of the faceless future and a clinical, 1920s-era hospital. In such a stark space, the individual seems set apart, a metaphor for this society’s twisted mindset.