Sometimes, all it takes is a ribbon. When Emmy-nominated production designer Elisabeth Williams was figuring out the logistics for a mass funeral to take place midseason in The Handmaid's Tale, she originally designed a cemetery to be the final resting place for all citizens of Gilead. The Commanders, the wives, the handmaids, the Marthas, the Aunts, the Guardians, the Econopeople — all the different classifications, so regimented and color-coded in life, would finally be equal in death, their gravesites scattered about in no particular order.
"At least they would have that, once they were in the ground," Williams tells SYFY WIRE. But on the day of shooting, director Kari Skogland decided not to use the multicolored ribbons Williams had devised for the various designations, and to stick with colors meant only for women. The result, though subtle, is a scene in which the red ribbons on white crosses help us see that these women can't escape Gilead's stratification, even in death. (This is reinforced when Aunt Lydia recites their assigned names — Ofryan, Ofleo, and so on.) "In the end, it had more of an impact," Williams says, "because it tells a different story."
Production design can enrich a show on multiple levels. It can create a believable world for both the audience and the actors, enhancing their performance. It can integrate sources of light that the cinematographer needs to shoot a scene. And of course, it helps tell the story. Even the way in which Aunt Lydia conducts the funeral ceremony with the handmaids and coffins in concentric circles gives us useful information. If the production had gone with the way the scene was originally scripted, Aunt Lydia would have been at a pulpit in the front, with the handmaids simply seated in rows before her. But the way in which that scene was changed lets us know that this ritual has been taught to these women; it's something they rehearsed during their training at the original Red Center.
Williams packs a lot of detail into her production designs (especially in her three nominated episodes). Some of it may register only on a subliminal level. The mass wedding of the Guardians and their child brides? It was shot in a Masonic temple, and Williams designed the room — with its long red banners and Gilead logo prominently placed — with Hitler's Third Reich in mind. "It's not something we're proud of," she says, "but that's what Gilead is, a very segregated dictatorship that eliminates the un-chosen. We based our design on that philosophy a lot."
No one is more un-chosen in Gilead than the Unwomen of the Colonies, and Williams amped up the toxic horror of their situation by giving the Guardians and even their horses protective masks — but not the women living on and working with the contaminated soil. "It tells us that it isn't worth it for Gilead to provide any protection, to waste any resources on these women," Williams says. "These women are just tools, and they're dispensable." This proves to have been a short-sighted move when Gilead is forced to recall some of these now-contaminated women and reinstall them as handmaids, following the bombing of the new Red Center.
In reality, not many owners were comfortable with the idea of their buildings being bombed, even if it was only an effect. The production wanted to do just a partial physical effect and then make the rest of the building explode in VFX, but the first building they planned to use turned that down "at the last minute," Williams says. Naturally, this meant they had to scramble to find a new spot. Luckily, the authorities in Vaughan were happy to offer their city hall — although, being a functioning government building, it could only be offered on weekends (which meant one day for the art department to do its prep, and then one day for the shoot itself). And there was one small problem: The city hall was a rather modern structure, not Gilead's usual style.
"There was a lot of debate about that," Williams says. "We can modify and dress the building to suit our needs, cover up their signage and give it a Gilead flavor. But Gilead is old-fashioned, and likes recycling old buildings. So we decided that now that Gilead is more established, more in control, they're actually building new sites, to show that they've succeeded." This is why we see the site under construction in an earlier scene.
"They can justify it because even though it's a new building, glass, steel, and wood are noble materials," Williams says. "And any new state has to create an economy, and put people to work."
Unfortunately, the shoot was taking place during the holiday season, and the city hall had Christmas ornaments up inside and a Christmas tree out in the courtyard. These had to be hidden, either by keeping them out of the frame where possible or by eliminating them with visual effects. However it was managed, the absence of such religious symbols tell us even more about Gilead — that its purported theological basis is just a sham.
"Unless it's something to do with upholding the regime, such as a birth or a marriage, any kind of celebration is deemed unimportant," Williams points out. "It's outlawed in a way. I don't think they have any holidays, or at least no commercial ones. They're all about the dogma, and not the faith."