Season 4 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” streaming on Hulu, finds rebel leader June (Elisabeth Moss) on the run and striking back against tyrannical Gilead. Going northeast with other handmaids in search of the resistance movement, Mayday, she plotted her revenge at a safehouse farm. Then, after being captured and returning to Gilead, June and Janine (Madeline Brewer) escaped to the Chicago war zone to join the resistance in last week’s Episode 5 (“Chicago”).
Thus, the dystopian series opened up its location shoots in Canada for a new kind of world building from Emmy-winning production designer Elisabeth Williams. “We were previously constructed as a studio show,” she said. “Being on location was really tough because we didn’t have as much crew as we should have. But it makes the show more dynamic because being in a studio all the time starts to feel claustrophobic, even if we have all these big, beautiful sets. It’s always nice to get outside and be on the road and have all that movement.”
However, after only two weeks of production in March 2020, they were immediately shut down by the pandemic. “We planned for a late winter, spring, almost summer show,” Williams added. “The story was built with that temperature in mind.” When they resumed production after the lockdown, the first location was the farm where June recovered from near-death. They shot at the Scottsdale Farm in Toronto, boasting a beautiful estate.
“We had full reign of the location, so when the pandemic hit we were actually able to leave everything in place,” she added. “We kept it with the vibe already in place, but we wanted to bring more of our Gilead kind of aesthetic. Instead of American rustic, we gave it a European farmhouse flair, with references from British country houses. It was out of time, out of space, an old world aesthetic.”
Forced to find a safer place, June flees to the mansion of the Jezebels. They shot at an old estate in Cambridge, Ontario. Again, the rustic appeal evoked comfort, while the greenhouse added natural beauty. “This is a luxury bed and breakfast and the greenhouse is part of the location,” Williams said. “We dressed the inside of the greenhouse, brought in plants and a water spray system. The old house is from the early 20th century and all of that is original.”
For June’s interrogation at the Gilead detention center, they shot at the University of Toronto Scarborough with its concrete and glass and split corridors. They matched some of the studio sets to the university architecture. “We thought about Guantanamo and the CIA and other buildings where enemies of the state are brought to be questioned and tortured,” said Williams.
But wartorn Chicago proved to be the production design highlight of Season 4. Given limitations of time and budget, they decided to portray more of an abandoned city than a destroyed one, while remaining true to the historically iconic look of the city. “We had this thing about Chicago,” Williams added. “What would it look like? How far would we take it? How long has the town been fighting with Gilead? How many people are fighting back? What is their ammunition, their tools?
“We tried to be as realistic as possible, which is hard, and we wanted to do it as much as possible in camera. But, in the end, VFX was used a lot more than we had originally planned when they didn’t get enough in camera.”
They shot at the Ontario town of Brantford, which stood in nicely with its two- and three-story buildings of the sort that you can still find outside of Chicago’s urban area. “We were able to dress the facades to add to the architectural elements that Chicago is known for: the little turrets, the front of the building fire escapes, signage. It’s a visual richness that it still has today. We added all of that and provided our post team with some models of the rest of the buildings, and we built them in SketchUp and gave them to [Mavericks VFX] to insert in post.”
For big explosions, the art department did a combination of real and constructed streets “and the set extension added more of an explosion site,” Williams said. “But the explosion site where June and Janine are running from the planes and the bomb falls was done in camera, so we had to have the pre-explosion street and the post-explosion street prepared for that.”