Handmaid's Tale Fenway

Emmy Contender: How The Handmaid's Tale DP recreated Fenway for a brutal key scene

Contributed by
Aug 10, 2018

Colin Watkinson stood on the field of Boston's Fenway Park and looked around. He and the creative team behind The Handmaid's Tale were at the ballpark to size it up as a site for a mass execution – well, a mock mass execution. Gilead's handmaids were going to be strung up on a gallows as a way to scare them straight and extinguish any glimmers of resistance. And since fascist regimes often used stadiums for torture and executions, showrunner Bruce Miller thought Fenway might be a good spot.

"When you read that in the script, you go, 'Wow. Okay. Fenway Park. How do we do that?'" Watkinson recalled.

As the show's director of photography, Watkinson composes the shots. (It was this sequence that would score him an Emmy nomination for Season 2, following his Emmy win for Season 1.) So along with the episode's director, Mike Barker, Watkinson took a Fenway field trip to decide where to place the gallows. It was near the end of baseball season, and the grass was perfect – for baseball. But for Gilead, the ballpark would need to look overgrown and abandoned, as if it had been in disuse for several years. "And we couldn't screw up their grass," Watkinson said.

So together, the two men came up with a Plan B — use another stadium, but use visual effects to superimpose parts of Fenway on it. The production picked Bernie Arbour Stadium in Hamilton, Ontario, which was on top of a hill and didn't have any surrounding buildings, save for a few houses in the distance (which would be blocked out by a screen).

"Once it was dark, you couldn't see anything around the baseball park," Watkinson said. "I don't think it was in the script to be either night or day, but we chose night, because we thought it would be a bit more harrowing with the stadium lights." Bernie Arbour's lights matched Fenway in size and position, save for one, which was also blacked out.

When the handmaids arrive at the stadium, during this nearly wordless 11-minute sequence, they have no idea where they are, or what's happening to them. They're dropped off in a carport by the Eye vans, all flashing blue lights and blinkers – without those lights, Watkinson felt the warehouse looked "a little bit dead," but they also added to the fear factor. "Just imagine coming out of the van," Watkinson said. "It's another form of torture, to confuse the senses."

Next, the handmaids are herded through a dark tunnel into the blinding stadium lights. "We didn't have the stadium yet when we shot the tunnel scenes," Watkinson said, "but I knew how frightening that would be. You're coming down a dark corridor and there's really bright light coming at you. It's all about the anticipation."

As the handmaids were forced onto the gallows and nooses were dropped around their necks, Watkinson kept three cameras rolling, so they could get individual close-ups of the various handmaids' reactions as they experience the shock of seeing the gallows and try to comfort each other. "We tried to create connections," Watkinson said. "We were always looking for who's really emoting, like Alma, who wet herself. I've seen it 30 times, and it still makes me choke a little bit."

Stage two of the handmaids' punishment ritual is when they are forced to kneel on asphalt, while holding out an arm, with a rock in their fists, in the rain – a callback to how they once refused to stone one of their own to death. Watkinson positioned one camera about 50 feet above the roof of the building on a crane to get the top shot – one of his favorites in the episode.

"We drenched the handmaids every time, every take," he recalled. "It was brutal."

Handmaid's Tale season 2 episode 1

Another iconic shot in the episode took place when June managed to escape but had to cut a tracker from her ear. The scene was shot in a real mechanic's garage, but the garage didn't have any windows in it, so the production had to install them along the top of the garage doors. The bit of light they afforded, along with the light from the fire in the stove, helped Watkinson to illuminate the scene of June's bloody resistance. "There's so much blood," he said, laughing. "I love it when Mike Barker wants to push it, and he really wanted to see the scissors cutting her ear."

Well, a fake ear, of course.

"It's amazing when everything comes together, and you can really believe it," Watkinson said. "You're thinking how fun it is to do it. And then you realize what you're depicting, and you're like, 'Oh my god, this is disgusting!' It really makes you squirm."