‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Transforming Washington D.C. into a Nightmarish ‘Gilead on Stereoids’

"The Handmaid's Tale" eyes its fourth production design Emmy, as Elisabeth Williams extends the dystopian look to our nation's capital.
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"The Handmaid's Tale"
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Elisabeth Williams, the two-time Emmy-winning production designer of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” was tasked with extending the dystopian look for Season 3. In fact, the transformation of Washington D.C. for the nominated “Household” episode, in which June (Elisabeth Moss) glimpses a nightmarish future, was known as “Gilead on steroids” by the filmmakers.

“It’s a pure, stark, dictatorship style aesthetic, where nothing frivolous or unnecessary is left, and only propaganda and symbols of the regime are there to be seen by the people to keep them in line,” Williams said.

Thus, her world-building became the most ambitious yet for the acclaimed Hulu series, turning the Lincoln Memorial into a headless shambles and the Washington Monument into a white Gilead cross (courtesy of Mavericks VFX). The National Mall, too, was re-imagined to herd 200 obedient Handmaids for a sea of red assembled on a tiled floor.

“We did a lot of visual research of North Korea, Russia, and Germany in their moments of dictatorship,” Williams said. “We pulled images and did a combination of that to come up with our train station, for example. What’s interesting is that it was scripted as Union Station in Washington and we tried to shoot there, which was impossible, so we found this convention center in Toronto.” They even went so far as to alter the script to call out the Gilead-style dismantling of Union Station’s neo-classical elegance.

"The Handmaid's Tale"
“The Handmaid’s Tale”Barbara Nitke/Hulu

But with only one day on location in DC — ironically on Lincoln’s February 12th birthday — the crew managed to shoot solely around the Memorial. “We had plans and drawings and computer models, and we only shot on the foot of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and inside the chamber, where June and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) have their argument,” Williams said.

For a scene in the Washington Museum Rotunda (shot in the lobby of an Ontario train station), the actual artifacts of freedom and civil rights were replaced by giant white wings as a symbol of Gilead’s authoritarian power. The wings were built with a steel frame and carved in foam and covered in plaster to resemble alabaster. However, the striking image of June against the wings came as a surprise to Williams.

“I thought Waterford [Joseph Fiennes] was going to be framed in front of the wings,” she said, “but it worked out beautifully, of course.”

The mansion where DC’s most powerful family resides, known as the Winslow House, was shot at Parkwood Estate in Ontario (the former home of General Motors Canada founder Samuel McLaughlin). The white marbled look fit in perfectly with the Washington vibe.

“We chose the house because of its grandeur,” Williams said. “The building itself almost looks like the Memorial in a way, something grand and opulent.”

The Handmaid's Tale
“The Handmaid’s Tale”Hulu

For the bedroom occupied by the Waterfords, the production designer even lucked out with the discovery of fitting pretty doe and deer relief sculpture above the bed. “It was one of those decisions you make,” Williams said. “Do you cover it up or do you get clearance to use it? Which is what we did. We built the headboard of the bed to fit and to marry into that relief. And we gave ourselves a story and felt that it represented Serena and Mr. Waterford quite well.”

Finally, the most horrifying symbol in the episode was the mouth ring used to silence Handmaids in DC. It’s comprised of three stables that pierce the skin but can be removed to eat.

“We discussed three rings and two rings; making it red, keeping it silver, having it gold,” said Williams. “In the end, we decided that the simplest design would be the best.”

“Household” ultimately puts June at a crossroads in her continued attempt to shield her daughter Nichole from the Waterfords. “She gets a good look at the beast and she needs to take this very seriously and get herself and her daughters and her friends to safety as soon as possible,” Williams said.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is available to stream via Hulu.

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