Created for television by Bruce Miller, the highly acclaimed and Emmy Award-winning Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale has returned for a second season, shaped by Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss, in a truly remarkable performance) pregnancy and her ongoing fight to break free from the dystopian horrors of Gilead. While Offred, who was born as June, is haunted by memories from her past as she tries to figure out what’s next, the audience will get to learn more about life outside of Gilead and what it takes to survive in this terrifying world.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, executive producer Warren Littlefield talked about how satisfying it’s been to have a hand in bringing this world created by Margaret Atwood (the author of the novel) to life, why scaring themselves with expectations is important, what it’s been like to work with series lead Elisabeth Moss (who is also one of the show’s producers), watching the rising success of Season 1 director Reed Morano, what he enjoys about the collaborative relationship with the showrunners that he works with (Bruce Miller for The Handmaid’s Tale and Noah Hawley for Fargo), and what it took to shoot the shocking opening sequence for Season 2. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: I am definitely a big fan of the work you put out there, so I appreciate you talking to me!
WARREN LITTLEFIELD: Thank you! Hearing feedback, especially when it’s good, feels wonderful. I don’t get tired of that.
You’re welcome! As a producer, when you have such a successful first season with a series, as you did with The Handmaid’s Tale, what do you get most excited about and what do you get most nervous about, when it comes to then having to do a second season?
LITTLEFIELD: Well, we like that we scare ourselves. I think that’s a really important aspect. First we say, “Okay, we’re the ones who did this, so now we have to do it again.” We did this. That’s the balm that we rub on ourselves. Then we go, “So, what are we going to do, that’s very much the vitamins and minerals of things that we think we did well, in year one? Now where are we going?” What you don’t want to do is, you don’t want to have the audience feel like, “I’ve already been here,” or “I’ve seen that story.” We got pretty ambitious for year two. We opened up the world of the Colonies, which Margaret [Atwood] wrote about and which was a powerful off-screen presence in her narrative. We said, “We’re ready to see what happens to young women. We’re ready to see where they go.” It was critical that we deliver on that, in a significant way. One part of that is Marisa Tomei being in that world. Also, for June, what does freedom look like? Gilead is always in you. Even if June has some freedom, a place like Gilead, you don’t get away from. Those were all things that we said. It’s definitely based upon what we accomplished in year one, but we added a lot of dimension to year two.
What has it meant to you to be a part of and have a hand in bringing this world that Margaret Atwood created to life?
LITTLEFIELD: It’s been wildly satisfying. It’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done, in my career, and I’ve had some pretty good highlights. We feel we’re aware of how relevant we are, in today’s world. We often say that we wish we were less relevant. We’re living in a pre-Gilead world, I think. Our storytelling and our journey in this world, that Margaret created on her rented typewriter in Berlin in 1984, bringing that to life in a way that critics and audiences celebrate, and they feel it’s perhaps as important as it ever could be right now, is an amazing feeling for us and a responsibility. That scares us. We keep trying to push our boundaries, of what we’re physically capable of producing and emotionally delivering with these characters. Part of year two is understanding, how did this happen? How did Gilead happen? What did it look like before? What’s it like to be at Logan Airport, as there’s an absolute sense of panic? Our storytelling devices, with the flashbacks, allow us to understand so much about the present that we’re telling, narratively, because we’re able to go to past.
It’s remarkable to hear Elisabeth Moss talk about the show because she clearly has so much passion for it. She seems to have endless amounts of energy about something that seems like it’s probably so exhausting to live in. What have you most enjoyed about watching her and what she brings to the role and the series, as both an actor and a producer?
LITTLEFIELD: First of all, we’re all aware that we’re doing a fairly dark drama. It’s a dystopian world, but we actually have a really good time making it. There’s a spirit and a comradery that is delightful, and a lot of that comes from Lizzie, but it also comes from (showrunner) Bruce [Miller]. We feel pretty blessed to be able to have this opportunity to bring Margaret’s vision to life and we carry that in our process, and then we engage in powerful drama. Lizzie really helps give that presence. When we say, “Okay Lizzie, we’re ready, then boom, there’s a transformation of either June or Offred, and we’re in it. The directors are motivated to not disappoint her and to push her. She wants to be challenged. Bruce, myself, all of the directors and our DPs are constantly aware of Lizzie wanting to be challenged. We’re all pushing ourselves. Then, we have this amazing experience of looking at what we shot. We always put our hand over our chest for a moment, and then go, “Holy crap, I think this is pretty powerful stuff.” It’s wonderful. You work just as hard on things that are not nearly as good. That is the process. But we have the wonderful joy of loving it, living it, and being very proud of it.
Along with all the attention on the story and the acting performances, the first season of this series also really put Reed Morano on the map as a director, in a pretty big way. What’s it like to see her success? Is it ever a little bittersweet that her success has made her too busy to be available for the show?