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Emmy Contender: The Handmaid's Tale gallows were unnervingly real

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Aug 17, 2018, 1:20 PM EDT (Updated)

It's not every day a production designer is asked to create a functioning gallows, even for a show as dark as The Handmaid's Tale. But for Emmy-nominated production designer Mark White, figuring out to hang someone turned out to be a lot of fun, once he got over some initial discomfort.

"I read that scene," he says, "and I was like, 'Oof.' But then it became, 'Wow. How are we going to do this? What's it going to look like?' And everything started clicking."

White, who left the production after working on the first two episodes of Season 2, told SYFY WIRE what it was like designing the mock mass execution scene, what he imagined America looked like as it was on the cusp of turning into Gilead, and how he added some personal touches to the Boston Globe memorial scene.

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How did the idea for the gallows evolve?

There were a few different incarnations. For me, it always starts with pulling reference images, in this case, very current Middle Eastern gallows still being used today and also early America and medieval times. How were they were made? And we were playing with this idea of circles because of fertility and the ovum, that womb-shape circle. We do that in a variety of spaces, and initially, there was talk of making the gallows a sort of circular, spiral shape, so from above, you could follow the women in red creating this circle. That didn't work, for various reasons, but mainly because we wanted them sort of presented as if an audience were watching. The Fenway bleachers, I always envisioned, would actually be filled with spectators for a very important hanging.

There was a time where we talked about using a poured concrete sort of thing, to make the gallows seem more permanent, to imply that this had been going on for a long time. As creepy as that was, that felt wrong. Gilead embraces the simpler times of the past, so we went with using wood instead.

We just kept playing with it until it felt right, and we did a rendering of the gallows with the handmaids on it, Aunt Lydia coming out, and the lights on at Fenway. I sent that out to show everyone, and everyone got the chills. We just knew that was the look. It was just too creepy!

The nooses are put around the handmaids' necks, and they think they're about to hang — but then they don't. But could they have? Was this a functioning gallows?

It absolutely had to function. The director wanted to have that moment where it starts to drop and they think it's the end, and then it triggers and doesn't actually drop the whole way. It does drop a few inches. And so that all had to be rigged and made to work. When they're first being put up on the gallows, the drop platform has to be cranked back up into place, so all of the motors, all of the gears had to be figured out, and then done in a safe way for the actors.

During one of the flashbacks, we see what things looked like in America on the day the Sons of Jacob attacked the Congress and the White House, via a glimpse of June's earlier life. Her daughter is taken to the hospital when she has a fever, and June is given the third degree. What was it like creating a space which isn't quite America anymore, but not quite Gilead either?

The trick with Gilead is that there is no writing, no words, so that always has to go away. Sometimes you have to come up with new graphics that look like symbols. So this hospital, while pre-Gilead, was on the cusp of change, and so we created graphics that sort of hinted at things changing. This was a closed wing that was sort of rundown, so we had to bring it back up so it looked like a functioning children's hospital and make it a real world.

Then we just took it a step further with heavier security — more cameras, extra locks on the doors — like the beginning of Gilead is happening. There was already a decline in birth rates, and children were already being treated more preciously. Questions of whether or not you were a proper parent were already starting to creep into society, before the actual takeover.

While the Boston Globe scenes aren't in your nominated episode, they're especially poignant.

Yeah. It was very powerful, I thought. I think it was an important part of the story. It was a really big deal for me. It was an actual newspaper office and an actual printing press, the Hamilton Herald, and they were so great to us. Although you don't see a lot of it, we had the last paper that was printed on the printing press, which was forewarning the takeover. It was vague about what was happening in the world but told enough of the story that you could see how this all happened really quickly. They came in, and boom.

The Handmaid's Tale

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Where did the personal items for all the reporters come from? Did members of the crew donate their own things?

We spent a lot of time collecting and making all the personal items to really sell that idea for June that these are people who were massacred here. A lot of our own crew brought in things that their children had made, like paperweights or things like that, for the reporters' desks. I believe the shoes — June finds one and then the other, and puts the two together at her makeshift memorial — belonged to a crew member. I know somebody's sunglasses were used. The coffee mug from my desk is in there. And then we made a lot of stuff. We had to make a lot of the mugs to keep it Boston-related. We had workshops where we were framing family photographs and making additional artwork from the kids.

There was a Walter Cronkite quote that I fought really hard to get cleared, and it's on the wall of the office, but I don't know how well you can see it: "Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy." I knew the quote wouldn't be focused on, but it was important to have. We all knew what was going on in the country, in real life, but we had no idea, even in Season 2, how poignant this would be. So when June finds that execution wall, that was heavy. That was a heavy thing to work on, I have to say. Something like that does affect you. I'm getting all melancholy now!