Hollywood Unscripted Ep 29 - Bruce Miller (The Handmaid's Tale): A Stuck at Home Special
Jenny Curtis: From CurtCo Media.
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Jenny Curtis: Welcome to another special edition of Hollywood Unscripted: Stuck at Home. I'm Jenny Curtis and today we are talking to the showrunner of Hulu's dystopian drama, The Handmaid's Tale, Bruce Miller. Bruce, thank you for joining us.
Bruce Miller: It's my pleasure to be here.
Jenny Curtis: Now, things have started to open up a bit which is an issue all on its own, but we do like to check in a bit, how are you doing? How did quarantine treat you or how is it treating you?
Bruce Miller: It's treating me very well. Thank you. I feel very lucky. All my children are home, some with girlfriends and so it's a very, very, very busy house and I just feel incredibly lucky. And mostly, we've been working pretty much the same as we always do just via Zoom, the writers. We've worked together for a long time, so it was a fairly easy transition, but exactly your question, which is everybody's also dealing with real life and that's probably a bigger issue.
Jenny Curtis: Before we get into what you guys are working on, let's start at the very beginning. So, when did you start writing? When did you know you wanted to be in the industry?
Bruce Miller: Well, my dad is tangentially in the industry. He's on the technical side, and so I always grew up knowing a lot about how movies were made physically, but not really much about the kind of story side of things because he sold lighting equipment to directors of photography and so you don't need many writers when you're in that house, but I always wrote. I think the time I knew when I really was stuck being a writer was I was in college and I took writing classes every semester. And then there was a semester, I didn't take one, and I was like, "Oh, well." It felt like I wasn't in school. I wasn't doing any work, so then I was like, " Okay, I'm screwed." I basically have to either be in a writing class or be a writer forever and this seemed cheaper.
Jenny Curtis: So, did you major in writing at school?
Bruce Miller: I wrote a lot in college. They had a program in fiction. They didn't have any program in television writing or screenwriting at that point, so I wrote a lot of fiction when I was in college and in high school and I didn't really write, although I was much more of a movie fan and a TV fan than I was a book fan, I'm fairly to very dyslexic, so I read incredibly slowly. So I'm very thinly read, not widely read, but movies, they're telling you the story, so that was always easier for me to kind of dissect, but I wrote when I was in college. I wrote a screenplay. I wrote my first screenplay when I was like a senior in college and that actually got me every job I got for like 12 years.
Jenny Curtis: Oh, wow.
Bruce Miller: Was that people had read and I'm shocked as anybody else, but that's-
Jenny Curtis: Did that get made?
Bruce Miller: Oh, no, never. You know the future world.
Jenny Curtis: So, then you've got your foot in the door, you've worked on some major shows. Many of them though, you were a producer on, but you would come in either after the show had started or leave before the show was finished. So, is that because you were kind of searching for something or is that kind of the nature of the game to do a few seasons of a show and then move on?
Bruce Miller: It was the nature of my game and I think everybody's game is really different. That was just because they didn't succeed anywhere. I mean, people were very nice and I got jobs and I think I contributed, but I didn't really kind of become an integral part of a staff until I found the right fit. It's just a function of the image of kind of a writer sitting at home and they bring them projects and they look at them, and then they decide what they're going to do. People have mortgages and kids in school, and I was a working writer and I took jobs, and when those jobs went away, I got other jobs, but mostly I got fired. I mean, not in a mean way, but like not working out way, and it took me a long time. I think I'm more suited to the job I have now than that job that I had before.
Jenny Curtis: So, having been fired, has there ever been a time where you were kind of standing on the ledge of quitting or did you always press forward after that?
Bruce Miller: Quitting what I'm doing?
Jenny Curtis: Yeah.
Bruce Miller: Yeah. I mean, I think that, I went through very long periods of time where after making money for years and years steadily, I would have months and months or a year of where I wasn't working and that's terrifying, especially when you do have a mortgage and children in school. I'm incredibly lucky, like most people who have skin my color, that I'd never had to worry about being on the street because my parents had money and not a ton, but they had enough that I wouldn't be living on the street, so I never really felt scared that way. So I had a way of staying in for longer, kind of keeping my foot in the pool, but it's kind of one of those things that you don't really have a choice at a certain point because it's what you are more than what you do.
So, you could go get another job and you're still going to be a writer. But yes, I went through periods where I definitely was like, " Okay, what am I going to do instead of this because this isn't working out." And everybody goes through those things. I've been doing this a long time. I came out to L. A. to be a writer like two weeks after college. It just takes... patience is the rarest of all commodities in Hollywood, so just be patient and you will achieve much more than if you are scattered.
Jenny Curtis: Your early projects from what I can tell, you did a lot of TV movies and films and a lot of them seem to be very female focused or dealing with assault or women who were strong. Is this kind of what you've been passionate about since the beginning?
Bruce Miller: Yes. I don't know if it's passionate. It just is my... I feel very comfortable and I'm fascinated by strong women. I have three very strong sisters. I grew up in a house without boys. It was me and my three sisters and my mom, so I think that they're really responsible for the fact that I'm much more comfortable kind of talking, thinking, exploring the issues of women and their lives than some people just because I happen to not just know them but grow up with them and they're all very, very different and they're very, very intelligent.
But it is funny when you look back on all this stuff, because I really do think that writing strong, realistic grounded female characters is something I've always loved to do. And I don't really notice until like, you just say you look back over your work and you're like, " Ha." But I've also been indulged a lot by women in my life help very kindly explaining what I'm doing wrong when I write about women and so I have learned along the way everybody from Yahlin Chang who worked with me on ER and D. Johnson did Rina Mamoon and then kind of now, just you have to be open to really failing big and have people around you who will gently say, " You failed big," and not be insulted, but say, " Hey, swing again."
Jenny Curtis: Do you have any examples of lessons you had to learn that way?
Bruce Miller: Well, God, like every single day. I mean, one of the biggest things on this show was in Season One, we had a story about female genital mutilation. A character was a lesbian and she was having relations with someone and they had didn't want that, so they did it to take away her sexual desire and when I came up with the idea, and I brought it up to the room, it was withering in terms of the discussion, not necessarily " Don't do it," but we worked on it for a long time and I think everybody spoke very honestly about what it means and all sorts of stuff, and also a lot about how graphic it was and whether we show it or not or what do we show. We ended up showing nothing. We don't even say it in the episode.
But the result of that was really when we sent it to Hulu and MGM, they were like, " Okay." No one bunked and that was because it had been assaulted by the women in my office. The idea had been pounded and I think that in the end, the only thing that would have allowed it to stand up is having it be rewritten and refocused and challenged by the smart women I have worked with.
Jenny Curtis: You have a writer's room that's majority female. I think you've seven out of 10 writers are female.
Bruce Miller: That sounds right, but they do 10 out of 10 of the work, so it counts (inaudible)
Jenny Curtis: What is that atmosphere like though, because Gilead is a heavy place, so I imagine the writers room must be very heavy at times?
Bruce Miller: Almost never. It is the most remarkable thing that you've ever seen. One of our consultants, a UN employee, sometimes when she's in town uses an office in our offices and consults with us about the UN and she says it's just shocking if anybody knew the peals of laughter coming out of the writers' room. It seemed so incongruous, but I actually think it's a function of how heavy the material is. The room is supportive and funny and knows how to kind of defuse tensions, but also, you have to be very comfortable in a room, not just talking about yourself, but having those things challenged and interrogated, not a bad way, but it only does you a certain amount of good for someone to tell you a story for you to understand that you have to be able to ask them questions about it.
A lot of these stories are sexual assault stories, sexual harassment stories, just terrible things that happen to people's lives, problems with their husband or whatever, and you have to know you're surrounded by people who are not asking you questions for prurient reasons. That they want to know because they are curious, because they are writers, because they need to know for the show, and you never feel like they're poking into your personal life. And that's a level of comfort that I think allows people to not feel like when you're talking about all this terrible stuff that you can't make a joke. And the set is the same way, by the way, Lizzie sets an example, Elizabeth moss has an example and everybody follows. It's shocking how much of a seventh grade giggle fest. And so, we're very lucky in that way that we have a very heavy show and quite a wonderful, joyous working environment.
Jenny Curtis: I think that's important.
Bruce Miller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jenny Curtis: To discuss The Handmaid's Tale, again, starting at the beginning, how did it come into being?
Bruce Miller: I had read the book when I was in college, actually, strangely enough in a new fiction class, which tells you how long ago, that was like a really long time and I loved it as a book. It was really one of those books that taught me a writing style that I wanted to emulate. And so, as I said before, I'm very dyslexic, so I tend to read the same books over and over again. So, I read the book a bunch of times over the years, and I always loved it and every time I read it, I thought, this is the time where it's the most prescient, this is the time where every time you read it, you're like, " Aha." Margaret Atwood really put her finger on it. She's so smart and such a witch that she can put her finger on any time period because I'm sure she travels to those times and I heard they were making a TV series out of it.
This is very early on in my career and Ilene Chaiken had the rights and she was making it at Showtime, and I
was a fan. I was just, " Oh, Ilene Chaiken. I can't wait." I mean, she's a spectacular writer and showrunner. I was on all ready to sit down and watch Showtime with my popcorn, but it never kind of came back. It never appeared, and so I would check every year with my agents and have those agents look around, see where it is. And kismet, I was out of work when they were looking for a showrunner. Showtime had sold it to, Ilene Chaiken, who was doing Empire quite handily and didn't have time to do it, so there was an opportunity, but they were looking for a woman, and I was completely on their side, except I wanted the job, so I didn't know what to do with that situation. It's like, " I 100% agree with you, but in this case I would really like it."
So, I waited and waited and waited patiently and I know they spoke to a lot of people and then they very kindly invited me into pitch and it was very nice and thoughtful of them to do it. So I went in and I pitched what I thought of the story and it kind of went very easily and comfortably by then, I think because I was a long time thinker about this book, not a short- timer. I had really thought about what kind of show this would make just because it was always one of those things that even reading, I was like, " Oh, my God. It tickles such a visual funny bone in me." So, I had thought about it a lot. The thing you don't get when you're called into adapter project is time and I like to have much more time than most people. I mean, the time that I had to think about Handmaid's Tale was just about right for me, so like 30 years is probably a good solid number.
Jenny Curtis: So, then being a fan of the book for that long, what was it like to meet Margaret Atwood?
Bruce Miller: Terrifying. Not only that, I have to meet her, but before I met her, you can imagine this. They sent the first two episodes that I had written to her to see what she thought. That was a nice weekend. I didn't go to the bathroom that weekend. Well, can you imagine? I mean, it's like, " Margaret Atwood, here read this." And so it was awful, I mean, it was terrifying for me. She really liked them. She had a question about what carpet muncher meant because that was in the second episode. So luckily, she Googled that I didn't have to explain, although I did save that email.
Jenny Curtis: Frame it.
Bruce Miller: Forever for Margaret Atwood, yeah. And then I went up to Toronto and I met her and she has gone out of her way to treat me like a writer, like a colleague, and that has been the secret to the success of the show, and I really count her as my friend. She's lovely and funny and smart and a pleasure and we get to see each other a lot. So, she's very involved in the show. I mean, I'd love her to be more involved, but the three of us are not nearly as busy as she is, like all of us put together. So, I'm always trying to squeeze more time out of her, but we get a good chance to talk a couple of times a season, a really long chat. And so, I feel like she is not only kind of the mother of the project, but kind of the ongoing caregiver of the project.
Jenny Curtis: Last year, she released The Testaments
Bruce Miller: Yes.
Jenny Curtis: And that's the sequel to Handmaid's Tale. And so, you both had to kind of work together as to not contradict each other. Is that correct?
Bruce Miller: Yes, which, even hearing that out loud is so shocking to me that there was any time I was in any way could be defined as collaborating with Margaret Atwood. So, she I was writing and we would talk and it was very funny to because it was very general things, like she'd call and go, " Okay, don't kill this person." And I'd be like, " Okay," and then, because in TV, we do a lot more of that stuff casually, like I'll make a change in a script and then just in the office, I'll say that the next three people, right, " Oh, by the way, I killed this person, so you can't use them," or something. It's all done very casually and you work together to kind of make sure everything flows.
Margaret had never worked with anybody before, but she had worked with our writing staff a lot, so she knew kind of how things changed and worked and how they bounced around, so I think that that was fun for her. She could bounce it off me, like it was the writing staff. She had written Episode One, I had written Episode Two in the middle, and she was writing Episode Three. So in that way, it was a very comfortable relationship for me, shockingly comfortable. I mean, I just never expected it to be that comfortable and she had very few requests. She was a big fan of the show. She liked where we were going with the show. She was happy to kind of fit her puzzle piece into mine, but honestly, when you're adapting a classic like Handmaid's Tale, most of the time the author is long gone and certainly they're not writing books that cover the same ground again.
Basically, she's saying you started here and now, I want you to end here because I'm going to pick up the ball, and so it's hilarious. It just makes it so much harder, and it was so hard to begin with and I was so terrified of screwing it up, and then she's like, " Oh, here's something where you could screw up." But we've been very lucky on the show. I think the people who liked the book like the show, which was really what I was trying to do, because that was me. They're not uncomfortable with the fact that there are differences in those two universes. It's not canon once a novel and it's certainly a novelist that deserves to build her own world and I'm building what I hope is a nice little set of DVDs to sit on the shelf between the two books, so they add something. But you are kind of doing Oliver Twist, The Series and Oliver Twist is going to be around long after your series is gone.
Jenny Curtis: At the end of Season One that's the complete book of the Handmaid's Tale and then you kind of depart into your story and Margaret has said that the characters really should have been killed by now, in that world. They're getting more outspoken, they're growing a lot, but also that that's not really possible in TV because you need your characters to stay alive, so that you can tell a story. So, how do you navigate that in keeping true to the world you're building, but also making sure your characters are growing?
Bruce Miller: It's very difficult that Margaret's write in one way, but in the other way. I think a lot of times especially this book has a particular construct that allows you to believe exactly what I'm selling, which is this is a story told in retrospect, so you know she survived, by definition because The Handmaid's Tale exists. The Handmaid lasted long enough to tell that tale. So yes, but with the construct of the show the fact that it is a story told in retrospect, a collection of tapes that someone found, the fact is, we know she lives until that point. So, in terms of off- read the conceit of the show, and I'm not going to break that is, this is her story. She lived to tell it and she's not going to die before she gets to tell it.
It may be unlikely that you live, but almost all stories that come out of a situation like that, that are as singular and notable as this would be the story of someone who did something unusual and survived. That wouldn't be the normal story, so she's right, they would be killed. We're trying to stay true to the world. What I tried to do is make sure that more often than not, I just do it. If someone should get punished, they're punished. I mean, everybody is protected by their fertility more at times than others because fertility rates are going up and down. But I have to get some buy in from the audience in order to continue and not pass the baton to another group of actors, and I would rather not do that. I feel like the big thing in TV is you're very connected to these people.
You know there's a difference between TV and movies. TVs in your house. You're bringing those people in your house, it's very different. I think it's harder to change your point of view and your guide in the TV show. You can have a movie with a horrible antihero, who you don't want to spend more than two hours with. But June Osborne's been holding your hand for years, you have to kind of make some concessions, so that she retains her position as your guide.
Jenny Curtis: Yeah. I think we all like inviting Elisabeth Moss into our house.
Bruce Miller: I certainly like it. She's delightful.
Jenny Curtis: How did you find her? How did she come on board and Has she affected the development of June?
Bruce Miller: To answer the end first, absolutely 100% in a zillion ways and I'll talk about them, but of course, it's the great benefit of television, which is in a movie, you write a script you give it to someone else and then you see it, you go, " Wow. Okay, they didn't really have chemistry," but in TV, you watch the day's work and you go, " Whoa, those two people have chemistry, let's get together. And for Lizzie, Lizzie is a spectacular professional. She's been doing it a very long time. She could not be a better number one on the call, in terms of professionalism and welcoming other actors. She's also an EP on the show and does that job in total, in full. She's done it from the beginning and she didn't want it to be a title and I wanted to help and we work very well together.
So, I think that Lizzie would say that June inspires her in her real life. I've heard her say that, to be more brave, but I think it's the other way around. I think what is Lizzie comes out in June because I get to know Lizzie and just the way someone goes to the world and thinks and talks and how their jokes are. I mean Lizzie is a very strong positive force in the universe, very, very intelligent, very committed and all those things have become more like June. June has grown I taking on pieces of Lizzie, I feel like more than the other way around. By the way, she's one of my favorite people and everything you hear about her is true times a thousand. She really is a great collaborator. I feel very lucky.
Jenny Curtis: So much of the show is told in imagery and reaction. You see June or Offred or whatever her name is at that time.
Bruce Miller: Ofjoseph.
Jenny Curtis: Ofjoseph. She will walk into a space and you'll just let her look at the space for minutes on end and it's so effective.
Bruce Miller: Yeah.
Jenny Curtis: And it's rare that that something that happens in TV because you really have to go, go, go most of the time.
Bruce Miller: Yeah. I like slower stories. Our show is scarier when it's slow anyway, because there's a looming countdown of something terrible going to happen, so every time anybody pauses, you're like, "No, no, no, keep moving. It's coming back at you. Something's going to happen."
Jenny Curtis: "You have to go."
Bruce Miller: Yeah. There's always that feeling, but it was something I put in the pilot script. One of the things I really wanted was kind of to have that pace and part of it is because the character isn't free to speak. So, a lot of her conflict is June verses Offred. Like Offred has to be quiet and Offred has to keep your eyes down or Offred can't be snarky and Offred can't roll their eyes, but June wants to do all those things. So, you've got June saying to Offred, " Why are you such a fucking wimp? Why don't you stand up for yourself?" And then
Offred saying to June, " You're going to get us killed. Shut up."
So it's really that conflict, and that's why you can have all that silence because you're seeing those two things fight each other. You're seeing here, she wants to June. She wants to go, " What are you crazy doing this?" But she has to be Offred and she doesn't want to be Offred, so I think that that's why those silences work. And also I like movies with those kinds of things. Dialogue is just another action, like running or punching or making love or kissing or anything. It isn't what they say that matters as much as the fact that they're doing it. It's like if you punch someone in the face, that's an action. If you say, " Hi, I'm here," that's an action. It's not necessarily means " Hi, I'm here."
And on our show, I would say comically 90% of the things that people say are absolutely the opposite of what they mean. " Blessed be the fruit." They don't mean like, " Good morning." They actually mean, " I would like you to drop dead right now," but they're saying, " Good morning." So, it's one of those shows and I think that that's one of the things that Lizzie and I work very well together is I write incredibly spare scripts and she likes that.
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Jenny Curtis: So, Season Three, it appears for the first half that June has snapped.
Bruce Miller: And she has.
Jenny Curtis: Yeah.
Bruce Miller: Yeah. No, but at the beginning, you kind of think, " Oh, my God. She really is kind of a beaten thing, at the beginning."
Jenny Curtis: But it clicked so much for me when they were in the hospital and the doctor said to her, " You're not homicidal, you're suicidal." She didn't even know that's what she was doing, that gave me chills. One line ties your whole series together.
Bruce Miller: Yeah. One of the things about not having much dialogue is that a piece of dialogue can be very thoughtful and that they cause June to ponder them for a while because you kind of dangle them out there, the doctors doesn't say very many things to her, but that's the one thing that lands. I'd like to see when she puts her hand in the sharp box to try to get something out and she comes out with the needle and then she puts her hand back in? That's like, " Okay, that's a crazy person." After you put your hand and finger in and get the needles and she goes-
Jenny Curtis: She literally has it like sticking.
Bruce Miller: Yeah, So, that to me is like, " Oh, okay." And then I was worried after about when someone says, " No, no, you're suicidal. I'm telling you." That makes much, much sense.
Jenny Curtis: And then on the other side of character who is more reserved, but trying to come to terms with it is Emily who's landed in Canada, and oh, my God, I cry every time there's a scene with her.
Bruce Miller: I do, too.
Jenny Curtis: Alexis Bledel was fantastic.
Bruce Miller: Alexis Bledel is an astonishing actress at the peak of her skill. It's such a thing to watch, because like you said, she is very subtle, and it is very, very quiet, but wow, I mean, I'm blown away every single time and honestly, the first day she was working, the very first day, I kept thinking, she's not doing anything. This isn't going to cut together and then you watch it, you're like, " Oh, I'm completely wrong. She's completely right. Look at that. That's fantastic." Like, it's so subtle. It's so much about her posture and the kind of the sound of her voice and everything. She's remarkable and her character has kind of drawn from the fact that she's a scientist. She's a molecular biologist, so she sees the world in a very, very different way.
And it's funny compared to her character on Gilmore Girls who is very talky, this character very much reminds me of what an academic is like. She's super- duper smart. She's a little slow to get a joke. She's not humorless, but she's a little slow, and kind of her emotional life, she holds it very close and when she lets it out, sometimes she like shatters. It's a magical performance. It really is and Clea DuVall, who comes in once in a while to play her wife, the two of them together, I find it so convincing. And in Season Three, that story is pretty remarkable.
Jenny Curtis: When you had originally started writing this, it didn't reflect society as much as it suddenly did moments later?
Bruce Miller: I started to write before the election in 2016, before the primaries, so before anybody was in the race. I didn't know who was going to run.
Jenny Curtis: And then suddenly it felt incredibly relevant.
Bruce Miller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jenny Curtis: Are you following that path? Because talking about Emily being a refugee and there was the scene with all of the women in cages, is that a reflection of our society or is that following the story?
Bruce Miller: It's always following the story, but I think you're influenced by society just because we have a very news junkie group, cast, crew, writers, everybody. So, I think you can't help but be kind of influenced by that. But two things. First of all, I think a lot of it goes back to the construct that Margaret built. That one of the things that makes the show so prescient is that she's fictionalized it in a way that she taps on a bunch of things that are going on and continue to go on. And so I think that unfortunately, misogyny or racism, rape, obsessive, gross masculinity, all of those things are perennial problems, so I think that that's why it kind of seems consistently relevant.
We don't do anything in terms of trying to predict or come up with, we don't even think about the stuff that's happening. Sometimes when they shoot. If they're shooting and something actually has occurred, we sometimes look at those visuals that kind of influence you, but the rule of thumb for the book was that Margaret didn't put anything into it, that wasn't happening to women or didn't happen to women at some point in history. We have the same thing and it mostly is almost all what's happening to women now.
We're not in the business of inventing cruelties. I mean, anybody could sit around and come up with horrible things to do to people, so we try to keep it grounded in that way. And I think that it allows you to be a little more scary and broad because it is tied to the real world. I'm not coming up with female genital mutilation, but we can tell a story about it and it is a story that feels different because it's not about a brown person.
Jenny Curtis: In the book, there were no people of color, and you chose to go against that. Can you talk about that for a little bit?
Bruce Miller: Yeah. It was a very interesting part of the book where they said they had relocated what they called the Children of Hand, which I think where, it's hard to tell because people of color had such a wide definition but the idea I think was that it was mostly African Americans who had been sent off to somewhere in Nebraska to farm and it was just the most horrible story and the way she tells it is like, she assumes all those people were just sent off and didn't make it.
I made it for two reasons, and that was a long time ago, and it was at the beginning of the show. The first was it's a lot easier to have an all- white world in a novel because you don't see it all the time, it's not in your face. And although it makes a great statement, you're still making a TV show without the black actors. You're still making a TV show that doesn't tell anything about the black story. You're just saying, " That story is off- screen and we're going to watch the white girl." I understood the idea behind it, but it's hard to make a TV show about racism without being a racist when you make it, by not casting people, by not telling people certain, so I just, I thought it seemed to adapt better to our time.
And then once we started casting, it became kind of a nonissue because as soon as we found O- T Fagbenle who plays Luke, he was so delightful. And then Moira who, we weren't looking for anybody of any particular color, and then Samira is so and she was Moira, she was so spectacular. So, once that started, you're kind of like, " Okay. Well, we have to change that conceit in the book, and let's just not do it."
And also our conceit was, " Fertility trumps everything." People might be racist and certainly are racist, but probably in a society where over let's say 10 years, the birth rate drops 90%, 95%, I think that there might be a movement of people not being as tweaked by color as they would have been because they're more interested in having children and that's the more important thing. I'd much prefer this way even though in that way, it'd be easier to address issues of race because it would be much more apparent and cruel.
Jenny Curtis: Yeah. So, I want to jump over to the cinematography for a minute because it is always stunning, along with the art direction and the costume design, the art for this show-
Bruce Miller: It's breathtaking.
Jenny Curtis: What is the process of developing that? How did you come up with the look? Colin Watkinson was your original cinematographer and he's done most of it. You've also brought on Zoë White and Stuart Biddlecombe.
Bruce Miller: Isn't that a great name?
Jenny Curtis: That is a great name.
Bruce Miller: And he's British, so yeah, it's even better.
Jenny Curtis: Did the look start with the cinematography? Did it start with art? How does everybody work together to create the look of this world?
Bruce Miller: There was certainly a look that I had in my head and that's how I was so attracted to Reed Morano as the director, redirected our first three episodes. She was also a DP. She had been a Director of Photography. I think she was one of the first women to be allowed into the American Society of Cinematographers, which is a crime that it took that long. Anyway, when she brought in Colin, they spoke a certain language about cinematography that I was very, very new to.
But one of the things that we did at the beginning is we chose our color palette and did camera tests and fussed with that forever, and every department was in on. So, it wasn't a decision by the Wardrobe Department to choose the color of the dresses and that's continued on. And I think the biggest thing that we do is we have a cohesive look, so the color palette is thought through. There's lots and lots of mood boards and all these kind of things. I think the first thing is, is there's a ton of communication between the departments and most of those departments we try to be as a female- driven show as possible, behind the scenes as well. So, Elisabeth Williams is our production designer. Julie Berghoff started the show. The amazing Ane Crabtree did
the wardrobe, so a lot of this is women driven as well.
But the thing that I really like to know and I think that this helps is I try to let the DP, be the DP, make it look cool, not tell them how to because I don't know how to, I don't know what lens to choose. I don't know those things and so I think that I try to give them the creative freedom to tell the story with pictures. And when you're telling a story this complicated in this weird with pictures, the pictures are kind of interesting and it's all on purpose. That's the other thing. Nothing in any scene, I mean, the Handmaids wore different OBs, different belts, because they're a little bit different in terms of their style. It's just something to show their style. Nobody ever sees that. The level of detail, for example, in the Waterford house. Do you remember there was paintings on the wall in the Waterford house?
Jenny Curtis: Yes, but I don't remember what they were.
Bruce Miller: All of those paintings are our paintings that hang in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and they were all looted, just like the Gestapo looted the museum. So, all of those pictures are not only copies of the pictures, but they are the right size. They are the pictures that they took. Also, the living room has very different pictures than the Commander's office, which has kind of more edgy, there's like a (inaudible) in there and stuff like that. It's a little more edgy and wild and degenerate. And so that level of detail, and you can do it in the show because it's a very curated world.
Gilead wants to curate it. They want it to look a certain way, so it doesn't look the way it looks by accident. Gilead wants it to look that way, so the way the lawns are, the way that houses are, so it's very, very beautiful, because they want to make it beautiful, not because it happens to be beautiful, so because they're doing it on purpose, we can do it on purpose. But if you see something in the show that you really don't like or you think is stupid, you could be pretty sure that I did it on purpose, that you don't like something I chose to do. So if you think it's a mistake, it's probably not. You probably just don't like it and I chose different.
Jenny Curtis: Do you have people who tell you things like that? And you have to say, "This is why."?
Bruce Miller: I try not to say this is why, because in some ways, I got my shot. I had my 43 minutes or 63 minutes of show and if they got it or didn't, then it's not mine anymore. I don't want them to think what I think. I want them to think what they think, so I try not to guide them at all in that. The nice thing is though that for me, people can extrapolate from the details. If you see this, that's there on purpose. There's a reason why it happens exactly that way. We took off someone's hand in the first season. Took off the hand of a man that would touch the Handmaid and people asked why the surgery was done that way. They did this weird cut on his arm and everything, and it was because instead of hiring an extra, we hired a hand surgeon and the way he drew the line of what you cut is so that if you have the choice of how to cut, you leave something that you
can comfortably make into a flap over the person's leftover stuff.
And so that's why that was that way, but that means that it's not like they take an ax and chop it off. They do it in a way, so then it's kind of both uncivilized and super high- tech, so that was a weird combination. So that was a question that people ask us, " Why did you do that?" It's because there's a medical reason. It's a big difference in Gilead between bringing out a circular saw and cutting off someone's hand and sending them into surgery.
Jenny Curtis: In Season Two, you introduced Bradley Whitford's character, Commander Lawrence, and then he became a major player in this season. The bad guy who's also the good guy?
Bruce Miller: That's my stocking trade.
Jenny Curtis: What was the process in bringing him on?
Bruce Miller: I knew that Bradley wanted to do the show. He had been, not just a fan of the show, but someone who had inquired about being on the show, but I didn't really think about kind of who I want Brad would fit into this role. We had been thinking about the role for a while. And I think what we wanted to do was create a character who was looking at his own ideas in practice and what does that feel like? What does it feel like to be the intellectual Father of Gilead? Not the practical, not on the ground? Because I think everybody's asking "What the hell are they trying to do?" And this is the guy who can tell you that. Also, he's the guy who says, " We can still do it and we are kind of doing it," and he was always defending what he did.
But with him, I just loved how everybody is an experimental subject to him, so the way he treats June is as a curiosity and that was fascinating. I also loved the fact that he could see through her. Fred was so easy to manipulate. She smiled and undid her button and he fell to pieces. She tries that with Lawrence early on, kind of tries to flirt with him. He's like, " Wow. Did that work with Fred? He's such a simpleton. You're so transactional." So, that presented her with a big problem of how do you change, she wants to manipulate someone, so she tried it this way.
She tries all these different ways, and in the end, she doesn't manipulate him. She just kind of goes front and center and kind of makes the intellectual argument to him that, " This is what we have to do." But she's pretty straightforward and that's how she changes. She stops being cagey and she starts saying to him, " Do you really still believe this is your house, really?" So, she starts being a lot more direct and for him, that's a much better strategy.
Jenny Curtis: It was fun to watch him. He's a very complicated character. Also, everybody in Gilead has a complicated character. Nick, who we find out, " Oh, no, Nick is not the boy we thought he was."
Bruce Miller: Did you think he was a nice guy?
Jenny Curtis: I mean, I didn't think he was a nice guy, but I thought that he would be on June's side first and foremost, no matter what.
Bruce Miller: Well, I think he is on June's side, no matter. He went to talk to them. She asked him to go talk to these people and he did. They realized who he wasn't didn't want to work with him.
Jenny Curtis: Oh.
Bruce Miller: He did what he did for June.
Jenny Curtis: Well, I missed that.
Bruce Miller: They said, " This is not a guy who we are willing to deal with. We know who this is." So yeah, certainly the people outside Gilead think of him as a villain and people inside Gilead think of him as a hero, and the people who fall into that category are not really our friends generally. But we've seen flashbacks of him. We know he was in a very different mindset at the beginning and he had very big hopes for Gilead. He is a person who when he's committed to something, he follows it through and he has not wavered at all and his affection for June. He's a pretty stalwart fellow and that is both good and bad. And that's I think what I was trying to say is the same really loyal guy who's really loyal to June, is also a really loyal guy who's really loyal to Gilead and you're going to get one with the other.
And also, I like the fact for us for in the audience, you sort of want to believe that he's like everybody else and learning someone is like everybody else, I think is that big step you take at some point in the relationship learning that the person you love has regular feet. So, anyway, those two actors together are so remarkable. And Max Minghella is a brilliant director and a great writer and he comes and acts on my show once in a while, which was just spectacular. So, part of the reason the character is the way it is, is because of the way that Max, you really do feel like he's always struggling, that he's always struggling. He wants to do the right thing, but he doesn't want to make waves. It really is the personality of someone who's a fighter and then turns into a driver.
Jenny Curtis: Yeah. Talking about he wants to do the right thing, the scene where he goes and talks to Luke. Oh, it was heartbreaking.
Bruce Miller: Oh, that was so good, that was so good, and it was so good by both of them because those scenes are kind of avoided generally. It's like it's hard to write, like when finally, those two people meet, what's going to happen? And I like to write those scenes because I like to take the mystery off of it. It's like, " Okay, it's just a conversation." It is. They're just talking to each other. And it's a conversation like you have with people. So, it takes the mystery out of these big scenes. You keep thinking, " Oh, when they connect, it's going to be this huge moving, profound thing." And it just two guys fighting. And that's what most things are.
I think I'm trying to lower the expectations of people in their life. I think the TV sells such false expectations. June if she just puts her mind to it can change the world and it takes putting your mind to it, and getting back up when you're knocked down 25 million times, and that's the part they leave out.
Jenny Curtis: So, you've said they're quarantined. You guys are still working. How far along are you in the development of Season Four?
Bruce Miller: We were about two weeks into shooting, so we had written almost all of it. And now, I'm writing the finale now during quarantine, which I would have been doing during the first few episodes of filming, so we have our complete fourth season all figured out. We had it figured out at the beginning and we've taken this opportunity to get a little bit further ahead on scripts and it's a great advantage to be able to have the whole season to look at and go through and make sure everything tracks because there's always some things that bump and some things you miss that don't track with the characters and you end up having to change them or take them out and post.
We don't make any mistakes like that, just because we have people who their job is to track the characters and people have different characters assigned to them, so they're very mindful of that. But this affords a great opportunity to kind of polish it and sculpt it a little, so that it runs one episode into another.
Jenny Curtis: Do you guys do table reads before they get to the actors?
Bruce Miller: We don't do table reads before. I read my scripts, I read them out loud to me, then that helps me find... if you use a safety word like " Well" before every sentence, you start to notice that in the dialogue. Every script I have some weird tick. I'm constantly using one word or another, so reading it out loud helps that. It's also I think, for me, because I'm dyslexic, it isn't the reading, it's the hearing, and so, I'm kind of reading it out loud to myself.
We did table reads at the beginning. It's complicated logistically. We have a very big cast and I don't want to do a table read without everybody and they're almost never all there at the same time. So, in order to do a table read, you have to bring in people specifically and then also you have to get Elisabeth Moss who works, I mean, it's hard to imagine anybody working harder than her on this show. There's episodes where she's in every shot, much less every scene. And so, it just didn't seem practical to do.
I love read- throughs. I learned a ton mostly about polishing dialogue. The way things sound in people's mouths. Sometimes it's harder than others. Joe finds his character doesn't have a British accent and he does. Yvonne Strahovski, she's Australian, and she has a really thick Australian accent, and so I can't really hear her voice as Serena. I mean, Serena's voice is so very, very different. But read-throughs are incredibly valuable and I think maybe if we could do it on Zoom, now that everyone is a little more comfortable with that, that'd be great, but scripts are written for such a limited audience.
I write a script. The only people who reads it are executives and not even many. A few executives and actors and crew. Nobody else gives a crap about my script. So the only people that matters that they understand it are the actors and the crew. It doesn't matter if you get it, you don't have to do anything with it. So it's a communication device between me and them, but it's not a communication device between me and the audience. They're communicating to the audience, so the most important thing is that I see in a read through or any of these meetings that we have a zillion of them, is that they're seeing the script the way that I want them to see it, because if they don't, it doesn't matter how clever I think I am. So, that's kind of it's a good reason to do read-throughs.
Jenny Curtis: Is there anything you could share with us about Season Four?
Bruce Miller: It's 10 episodes.
Jenny Curtis: Thank you.
Bruce Miller: June's in it.
Jenny Curtis: Oh, good.
Bruce Miller: I would say the biggest piece of advice I could give you is don't try to predict. I'm very proud of this season. I'm proud of all the seasons. This one I'm proud of just because I never get a chance to be proud of it before, so I'm proud of the story itself. But what I would like to say about Season Four is really just hold on tight. It's quite an emotional and physical ride.
Jenny Curtis: Awesome.
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Jenny Curtis: Is there a moment in your career you would go back to either to change because you want to fix it or to pick up from where you left off and continue something that you feel is unfinished?
Bruce Miller: I have two answers. One of my first jobs was on ER, one of my first TV jobs and I was so unqualified to be a producer and a television writer that I feel like I owe them. I was there for two years. They taught me everything. I don't know that I contributed anything. So, John Wells and all those other writers, I owe them a couple of years of work, so I feel like that's kind of unfinished. It was a great learning experience and I love all those people, and I still work with them. The moment I thought I wish things had gone differently was it's very simple. I was in a writing room and someone and I had a jerky boss and he was screaming at someone and I did kind of pull his attention to me, but what I should have done is say, " Don't treat her that way. You know you can't treat people that way," and left.
And our businesses getting away from having kind of the totalitarian government that exists in television be completely autonomous with a showrunner that can be a tyrant and abusive and horrible, and no one can stop them. But that would have been a time to speak up, that would have been a time to say, " Don't do this." I mean, it's like want to call the person's mother and say, " Listen to how they're behaving. This is horrible." So I really wish I had done more there. And it was bad for me and everybody else but I mean, certainly by the time I left. That show, when he fired me a few months later, it took me forever to physically recover from that. I mean, I don't think I am physically recovered from that. Those kind of people screaming at you and your face, so that you get spit on your nose. That's just something you don't recover from and it's not that person's place to ruin your life like that. They actually don't matter that much and you shouldn't be able to do that to someone.
So, we live in a business where people because they are artists are giving indulgences and I think there are certainly some indulgences that everybody deserves in their job, artists or not and lots of slack, but I think that we give indulgences to bad behavior, excusing it by saying that person is a good artist when the two things are completely unrelated. There's a point in this business where someone does something horrible to you when you're young and they say, " Oh, that's just the way the business works." I know that like they do something immoral or they are amoral, or they're just horrible to someone.
I'm 55. I've been doing this a long time. It's not the way the business works. Those are assholes and the business works poorly, because they're in it, but I've met plenty of people who are normal and lovely and loyal and responsible and smart, and they're a lot more talented and successful than those people. But when someone tells you, " Oh, this is standard operating procedure," don't be so quick to believe that. Be pretty skeptical.
Jenny Curtis: So, if you were talking to someone who was looking to be a showrunner, what would you tell them is the job, based on what you just said of how people say some things are the job and they're not?
Bruce Miller: I think the job is to encourage and manage your team to create a great show. Most of it is encouragement and management. Some of it is writing yourself and creating, but most of the job of a showrunner is artistic management, not art. And so I think that if you want to be a showrunner, don't jump ahead of the line, go through the steps as a staff writer, because absolutely when you get to the job of showrunner, the more of that stuff you've seen and the more stuff you know, the better. I was lucky, I know I said it, but I saw 25 show runners because I was fired from 25 jobs, so that's how 25 different people do it well and poorly and in very, very different ways.
But I think there's two things that I try to do in my job. One is I'm a shock absorber. The stress of the staff and the cast, I absorb it, so it doesn't get to the studio and network and the stress of the studio and network, I absorbed their stress, so it doesn't get to the cast and the writers and the crew. So, I am constantly trying to give people the space to be as creative as they can be, but my rule of thumb really is I cultivated Greek laziness. I would very much like to sit on the couch all day. So, if you bring that into your work ethic, it works quite well, because my theory is being a showrunner is a very difficult time- consuming job that requires a lot of multitasking.
All of those things I'm bad at. I'm bad at difficult things. I'm better multitasking. I have learned to do that, but at one point, you're breaking the season and writing and you're also doing post production and you're also on set and you're also casting. So, those four jobs are yours and they're full time. So, what I tried to do is, I think about at the beginning of every season, I'm going to get bronchitis at some point. It's not going to be like, " Oh, I'm a little sick. I can take calls." No. On Thursday, I'm fine. On Friday, I'm in bed and I can't talk to anybody for a week. Everything I do is to make it, so that nobody knows. That the studio, network, the cast, the crew, nobody knows that I'm gone. Everybody is so comfortable taking over and doing their jobs.
So, I think as a showrunner, your big job is to make yourself absolutely dispensable. That's what you're shooting for. You're pushing for the machine to run beautifully without you and make art without you and do incredible things without you and then you can add and make it better. Basically, I want a group of people that they can make a fucking much better show than I can. You want to hire a whole bunch of people who are much better at their job than you are. And then just assume that you have to put the pieces in place that when you parachute out for a week, it all works perfectly, so that's kind of how I look at it.
Jenny Curtis: Bruce Miller, thank you so much for joining us.
Bruce Miller: It was a pleasure to be here.
Jenny Curtis: And I am so looking forward to The Handmaid's Tale Season Four whenever it's able to be finished.
Bruce Miller: It will be a laugh riot. Well, I'll get it finished as soon as possible. Thank you for having me.
Jenny Curtis: Thank you, Bruce.
Hollywood Unscripted is created by CurtCo Media. This special episode of The Stuck At Home series was hosted, produced and edited by me Jenny Curtis, with guest Bruce Miller.
The executive producer of Hollywood Unscripted is Stuart Halperin. The Hollywood Unscripted theme song is by Celeste and Derek Dick.
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