“The Handmaid’s Tale” executive producer Bruce Miller was an aspiring writer, living in Los Angeles, when the landmark medical drama “ER” premiered on NBC in 1994. The show’s pilot upended almost everything he had been taught, up until then, about writing a script.
“You never know what’s going to happen, you never know how it’s going to resolve, and you don’t know how long it’s going to last,” he said. “That lesson taught be a lot about ‘Handmaid’s.’ If you lay out the story in the first scene, people are going to be bored. They’re too good at predicting, and they’ve seen a lot of drama. Tell the story the way it should be told.”
IndieWire recently sat down with Miller to discuss the success of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and the pressure that comes with so much attention — and Emmys — in its first season. We began by discussing Miller’s favorite episode of TV ever: the “ER” pilot. Listen below!
Warner Bros TV/Amblin TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
The two-hour pilot episode of “ER,” titled “24 Hours,” first aired on September 19, 1994, and was written by Michael Crichton — who had dusted off an old script of his — and directed by Rod Holcomb. The biggest star on the show was Anthony Edwards, but it soon also made household names out of George Clooney, Julianna Margulies, Noah Wyle, Eriq La Salle, and Sherry Stringfield.
“The thing I noticed about it, and over the years I’ve been so impressed at how good of a pilot it was, because it doesn’t feel like it’s explaining anything, and it’s on the run the whole time,” Miller said. “All of the relationships are done on the run. I just loved ‘ER,’ the pace of it, the visual style, the acting was so grounded and realistic… you get to the end and feel like you’ve been through an experience.”
Miller eventually got to write for “ER,” and he said he now still applies a lot of skills, as a showrunner himself, that he learned under “ER” executive producer John Wells.
“I thought he did things so well,” Miller said. “And after I left ‘ER,’ I was on a lot of other shows so you end up working with a lot of other showrunners. John Wells used to delegate producing duties to his staff, and twice a week he’d have producer meetings. That organization system I lifted directly from him. John Wells was always interested in training the next generation of showrunners.”
Miller and his team on “The Handmaid’s Tale” are now busy at work on Season 3 of the Hulu drama, which is based on the Margaret Atwood novel about a dystopian future in which the United States has been overthrown and replaced with a harsh theocratic kingdom known as Gilead. Elisabeth Moss stars as June, also known as Offred, and we follow her journey as she survives and powers through this reality.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” made history last year as the first streaming series to win a best series Emmy, picking up gold for Outstanding Drama Series, as well as a statue for Moss as Outstanding Drama Actress, among 8 wins overall. This year, the show is aiming to repeat in those categories and more, picking up a whopping 20 nominations.
“When the second year you’re trying to write and you have a big Emmy sitting on your keyboard and you’re trying to type around it,” Miller said of the pressure to duplicate the show’s success in Season 2. “Eventually you have to throw away the Emmy and sit down and write.”
Asked to pick his favorite episode of the series, Miller chose the Season 2 premiere, “June.”
“The thing I like about it is it’s all Lizzy,” Miller said of Moss. “Lizzy drives it, it’s all her point of view. Coming back after the hiatus, it was difficult to settle down and get back to the work. I was thrilled the way it worked out. And so thrilling to see Lizzy back in that suit. Watching it, being transported by Lizzy, I’m blown away and swept away. I really feel like she’s feeling those things. Lizzy’s performance and how focused she is, is what makes it my favorite.”
Miller also discussed how the premiere opted to utilize “This Woman’s Work,” by Kate Bush, and how executive producer Warren Littlefield helped pull off that pivotal scene shot at the Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park.
As for the common concern that the show may be too bleak, Miller argued that “I feel like any episode that comes out with June alive at the end is incredibly hopeful. She’s struggling to survive… I find it inspiring, her strength, her ability to keep her sanity and belief in what seems impossible.”
IndieWire’s “TURN IT ON with Michael Schneider” is a weekly dive into what’s new and what’s now on TV — no matter what you’re watching or where you’re watching it. With an enormous amount of choices overwhelming even the most sophisticated viewer, “TURN IT ON” is a must-listen for TV fans looking to make sense of what to watch and where to watch it.