If you haven’t watched the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which just released its 10th and final episode on Hulu today, you have missed out on, arguably, the best new show of 2017. Bruce Miller’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 science fiction novel proved to have unexpected relevancy in these perilous times. Miller had already found a way to bring a modern context to the material, but the surprise result of last November’s election as well as the Trump administration and GOP’s intent on rolling back rights across the board have made the final product feel a little too close to home.
Miller is deep into writing season two, but executive producer Warren Littlefield — yes, that Warren Littlefield who was the brainchild of NBC’s ‘80s and ‘90s resurgence and recently helped bring “Fargo” to FX — took some time this week to chat about the origins of the series, how the election changed production and to tease a little bit of season two.
He also reveals that director Reed Morano, who deserves a tremendous amount of credit for setting the stage of the series after helming the first three spectacular episodes, wants to return to contribute to the next season if it can work into her now packed schedule.
And, it goes without saying, while she’s only discussed at the beginning of our conversation, the first season of ‘Handmaid’s’ would not have reached the heights of true greatness without the contributions of Elisabeth Moss. The former “Mad Men” star is so incredible in her role of a woman forced to be a slave surrogate mother in a newly authoritarian America (now called Gilead) that, if she somehow doesn’t win the Emmy, let alone earn a nomination, it will be one of the biggest awards snubs this decade.
Note: There are minor spoilers ahead if you have no seen the finale. You’ve been warned.
Gregory Ellwood: Hey Warren, how are you doing today?
Warren Littlefield: Hello Greg.
Congratulations on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I thought it was incredible. And I’ve seen the final episode…
Well you have great taste, obviously, Greg.
I think a lot of people have good taste. I hope they do, at least. How did you get involved in the show and how did it sort of come to fruition as this book that was from the 80’s, there was a movie in like 1990, and it’s sort of flown by the wayside? How did it even come to this point?
So, here’s the arch of the story. It was a 1990 a movie that wasn’t great. MGM produced the film. After numerous versions were mounted as plays, an opera, they thought there was an opportunity to develop it as a television series. A unique world based upon Margaret’s book, 32 years in print, never out of print. That’s a pretty powerful message in the world of literature. And so they went into the marketplace with Ilene Chaiken, developed it at Showtime, and ultimately Showtime passed. And when MGM showed it to other potential buyers, Hulu felt that it was a really interesting, powerful property, and said let’s just develop two scripts, let’s kind of redo this. Let’s take it from the top.
And so they interviewed many writers and Bruce Miller auditioned, as many others did, and said, “Okay, I know I’m a man, and that’s not what you should want.” And they said, “We don’t.” And he said, “But I have this opportunity, so I will cut you my vision.” And Bruce had first read Margaret’s novel in a creative writing class in college. And he had gone back to the book many times and, in fact, had investigated the rights. And it was with those two scripts, the first two hours that Bruce wrote, that they then were contemplating [and thought] “O.K., this is a powerful piece. We think it’s relevant.” And I guess the stars interlined with Lizzy Moss.
I had recently gone to WMA — they represent Lizzy Moss — and they said, “Do you know about this project? Lizzy’s interested. We want someone to be a shepherd and your name came up because of ‘Fargo’ and you should take a look at it.” And then, immediately, I read Bruce’s first two hours, and I then sat down and I read the book in one sitting. I read Bruce’s scripts again and said this is unbelievably powerful and important material. Usually I have my own development slate; I was slowly ramping up the third season of “Fargo.” On pretty much every level this made no sense for me to get involved, except I can’t throw the idea. So [I decided] I’ll do anything I need to do to try to be a part of this and bring it to life. And shortly thereafter, WMA said, ” Okay, Lizzy is in Australia doing ‘Top of the Lake 2.’ You should get her on the phone and get yourself approved, and convince her that she should do it and let’s go from there.”
So, we had a two hour conversation, and the essence of that was me saying, “Lizzy you’re at a point in your career where you’ve got great choices. And I think it’s appropriate, I can say to you that I’m kind of at a moment in my career where I can make great choices. I think that this is powerful. I think that this is a really unique opportunity. And if you do it, I’ll do it and I promise you I’ll be there at 3 o’clock in the morning if you’re out in the cold and shivering and shooting. I won’t be an absentee producer.” And she said, “I think we have to do this.” And that was it. That was my involvement. And with Bruce and with Lizzy we ramped up the production throughout last summer. Bruce ran the writer’s room and we did all the things, the thousands of things you need to do to mount a series, hire the directors and do a show.