It's not by accident that the aesthetic and worldview of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale feels so personal and intimate. Whether it's a frame-filling view of Offred (Elizabeth Moss) in her Gilead-imposed bonnet or a room of women being indoctrinated abusively by the aunts, there's a female point of view that permeates not only our impressions of Gilead, but what the world was like before everything changed. While the first person point of view is the spine of Margaret Atwood's novel, translating that perspective so successfully to the television series comes in great part from the visual template established by director and executive producer Reed Morano in the pilot and two subsequent episodes of the series.
Earning her stripes for more than two decades as a camera operator and then well-respected cinematographer, Morano recently transitioned to directing with her theatrical debut, Meadowlands, and helming episodes of TV series like Halt and Catch Fire and Billions. When Hulu announced their plans of turning The Handmaid's Tale into a 10-hour series, Morano made a diligent point to at least be considered for the gig. In doing so, she made a clear impression on executive producer Warren Littlefield, who was charged with finding the right person to direct the pilot.
About what made her vision the right one for the show, Littlefield told us, "Reed has amazing DP [director of photography] credits but not a lot of directing. But she has an incredible eye and she's so connected to the material. We met with a lot of people who had stronger resumes, but Reed brought a passion. She's a warrior."
Morano's fierce intelligence and passion for this story come off immediately, and we spoke to her about the decisions she made framing this story for the audience.
Let's start with Margaret Atwood's book. When did you first read The Handmaid's Tale and did it impress you at the time as a story you would ever want to visualize?
I read it in college as an assignment. I didn't think about it at the time. But when I heard there was a The Handmaid's Tale pilot, I freaked out. People were like, "You're not going to get the job, so don't even try it." And I was like, "Anything you can do to get me in to pitch, I'll do anything." I kept bothering and bothering everybody to get me in to pitch and eventually I made it in the room. And I made the most detailed "lookbook' I could possibly make so there was no way they could say no.
Was it just the content of the story, which remains so potent to this day, or something else?
Another reason I had the need to do it was when I read [executive producer] Bruce Miller's script, and knowing the book, it's an opportunity to make a show that is more visual than it is verbal, and that's my background. As a cinematographer or director, I'm always looking for projects that are able to say a lot with the actor's expressions. And the dialogue in there was great dialogue. Plus, I knew Lizzie (Moss) was in it, and she did a small role in my movie [Meadowland] that I directed. I got lucky.
Once you won the gig, who did you bring in to be your cinematographer and why?
I have the amazing cinematographer [Colin Watkinson]. I picked him because I'm a huge admirer of his cinematography and also because he's very different from me as a DP. He's more polished. I thought together we could migrate each style and create something unique. What was great about working with him was that we were like brother and sister on the show. He knew I had a need sometimes to operate hand-held shots and be with the camera crew. Whenever there was a hand-held shot with [Offred] or one of the characters that I wanted to operate, he said, "Yeah, go for it." There's no ego involved. So a lot of the hand-held shots in the first three episodes are 98% of them me operating because it's a direct connection with the actors. I think if more directors could operate, they would.
Explain why you decided to go with so much close-up photography for the women, which is initially disconcerting but then feels vital to the storytelling.
We stuck to a rule where we would only shoot Offred with the 28mm lens for her close-ups, or we wouldn't use that lens for anything else. It was for moments of extreme intensity. There needs to be something more emotional with the camera in order to get into her experience, and make it feel human.
Was there inspiration for the overall visual aesthetic you were going for?
I thought it would be an interesting challenge to make the show feel as real as possible. We had this mixture of doing two completely different things. There were looks that were inspired by Kubrick and Terrence Malick. It's a lot of very graphic compositions mixed with a more free-flowing, hand-held, emotional, impressionistic camera. It gives it a naturalism, but heightened.
Did the almost blinder-like bonnets for the handmaid's create a problem for you in shooting them?
What we realized once we finally decided on the wings, which is the bonnet that comes out so far, I immediately started to think from a director's and DP's standpoint, is that going to bone me and be a problem? (Laughs) I took a lot of photographs of Lizzie in the bonnet even before we started shooting, in all different light conditions to determine the issues. Really we found the benefits outweighed the issues. It's an automatic soft box over your face most of the time. From a performance standpoint, we realized that she can be who she really is sometimes inside that bonnet. There's the scene where Offred's walking with Ofglen (Alexis Bleidel), and she's rolling her eyes at her but Ofglen can't see her because they are both wearing the bonnet. It makes it a little playful. Also the challenge of trying to find their face was we couldn't do a lot of profiles with them outside. So it challenged me and the DP to come up with other ways to cover the scene.
How did you develop the visual distinction between the past in flashbacks and the Gilead reality?
In order to accentuate a difference between the flashbacks and the present day, I didn't want to do anything too gimmicky like change colors or any of that. Colin and I decided to keep the color correction for the whole piece. There's a little bit more of a rigidity to Gilead so there's a lot more formal frames and compositions. In the past, I wanted it to feel like a fleeting memory. Sometimes the flashbacks or more impressionistic and sometimes more literal but they are always shot in a vérité style so you do feel the immediacy. I wanted the audience to feel like, "Oh my God, this is me now. So in three years could this be that?"
It's interesting that you had your own struggle to get on this show, which makes telling Offred's struggle seem perfectly tailored to your own experiences?
To clarify, nobody from Hulu or MGM were saying no, but the word on the street was that they were looking at very big directors and I'm new on the scene. But I had to go for it. So there is a little bit of a parallel between Offred's story where her situation seems impossible but she keeps pushing and pushing. Having shot a lot of TV and watched a lot of TV, I wanted to push boundaries as well, in a way that serves the story and makes it stronger. We do things on the show that are a little unconventional. We might hang on a shot longer when there's no dialogue and not cut. I really appreciate when I, as an audience member, see shows doing things like that. I didn't want us to be scared as a team to let the moments in between breathe. It only will help in putting you closer to the character's journey. In TV, every moment is filled with people talking, and in this show, it's a quiet place. The other challenge is making the show dynamic in terms of tone. Everybody is like, "It's a very dark story," but actually there is a lot of satire in Atwood's book and Bruce's writing as well. It's a very fine line between making things consumable, but not lightening it too much because the whole point of the story is that it's a serious matter. But one of the things I appreciate is that in life, no matter how morose things are, not every moment is awful. A lot of TV and film commits to one tone. I wanted it to feel real, so yes, she's in Gilead, but sometimes this s*** is funny. We can laugh at it with her as the audience.
The Handmaid's Tale is available on Hulu.