Mon. Dec 9th, 2019

TV Interview: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ writer Dorothy Fortenberry and director Dearbhla Walsh on episode 6 – “Household”

Elisabeth Moss with director Dearbhla Walsh on the set of The Handmaid’s Tale episode “Household”
(Photo by: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

During the first two and a half seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale, we weren’t quite sure how far Gilead’s reach was, but by episode 6 of season 3, we are getting a much better idea of the breadth and scope of this authoritarian theocracy’s reach—and it’s quite chilling. 

TV Recap: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Episode 6 – “Household”

In separate interviews, I asked writer Dorothy Fortenberry and director Dearbhla Walsh about the episode that features June’s first family getaway with the Waterfords.  What about all those strange family dynamics and what’s with that new High Commander?  Are Serena and June really done?  And what was it like to shoot that scene at the Lincoln Memorial?  But, most of all, what is it like to write and direct for these particular actors and how do they, as women, feel a responsibility to accurately bring Margaret Atwood’s vision to life?  We talk gender politics, religion, acting in front of an audience, and Dad jokes.   

This interview reveals plot details and elements from the sixth episode of season three, “Household.”

Catherine Springer: Thanks again for taking the time to talk about the most recent episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, “Household.”  I love this episode because it’s got a unique tone to it and there are a few darkly funny moments that actually made me laugh out loud and I’m not used to that!

Dorothy Fortenberry: Oh, good!

CS: It reminded me a little of Get Out

DF: Oh wow!

CS: It felt like a horror movie, the way it is constructed, with the moments of levity, and kind of almost letting your guard down—with June and Lydia getting a little more comfortable, for example.  But then this there’s a foreboding undercurrent of evil.  Could you tell me about the tone you were trying to create with this episode because it just struck me as a little different from all the previous ones.

DF: Yeah!  Well, this is the first episode where June really gets far away from where she’s been, in a different direction.  She’s had episodes where she’s gotten away, in an escape context, but not away.  It was important to me that, you know, there were moments of surprise and shock and the audience was along with June for those, so that the moments when June went, “oh my god” were also the moments that we the audience were also going, “oh, my god!”

CS: That makes me think of all the times where June is looking out the window and I was wondering if that was written in because, as you say, we’re seeing it through her eyes…

DF: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s something that was in the script and then also Dearbhla, the director, really worked to bring out.   If you if you look at the way that Dearbhla chose so many moments of window reflection and there’s so many moments of reflective surfaces with June throughout the episode, trying to convey that sense of—I mean, tourism seems like a weird word, but you know she’s in a new place and she’s learning about it and I think that she has felt like she was at the worst place that there was, you know?   If anything else, she knew, “well, it doesn’t get any worse than here!”  And then, part of the episode is going, “oh my god, no!  I’ve been on the frontier, the suburbs, you know, I’ve been on the fringes of this government and this territory and, in fact, there is a center, and, oh my gosh, this is what goes on in the capital.”

CS: You totally get that when she’s going up the escalator and she sees them with their mouths covered and that look on her face, which says, “what am I walking into?”, so I really got that.

DF: The other part of that sort of slip of it is, there are things in this world that are also sort of more wonderful, like a house with a lot of children is the kind of thing that she does not ever see in her daily life.  To have one child is an extraordinary luxury and so the feeling of abundance that you get being in that household where there are, you know, kids jumping on the furniture and kids running around.  She forgets that she hasn’t been around that kind of abundance until she sees it.  So, on the one hand, there’s a degree of horror and oppression that’s off the charts, but on the other hand, there’s a degree of being full of life.   

CS: So I love the casting of Chris Meloni as the High Commander although I must admit the first thing I said when he appeared was “please, don’t make him bad!”  Is he how you imagined the character when you wrote it or did or was he already cast?

DF: He was cast afterwards and yeah, he was so great I think it was really important to me that that character has a sense of authority which of course he conveys, but then also a sense of warmth that he is who you want to be your dad.  He’s not sneering, he’s not cruel, he’s authoritative, but also seems so comfortable.  That was a thing that we talked about a lot, that, for some commanders, they can feel very insecure in their position, you know, and they are constantly worried about, “oh, am I going to be fired, am I going to end up on the wall?”  And then, for Chris’ character, that he was very comfortable and really felt like his position was his and was going to stay his, no matter what, so he can relax into it.

CS: He’s got a great physicality as well, he exudes this strength and power…

DF: Definitely.

CS: Switching gears a little bit, I wanted to say, for me, the significant relationship in the show is between Serena and June, and that’s where I really lean forward, whenever those 2 are together.

DF: Oh, yeah…

CS: It’s always been very complicated relationship, and always wavering, but it seems to have blown up for good by the end of the episode.  I’ve intentionally not watched past this episode, but at the end of this episode, it seems that they’re done.  Talk to me about building on the relationship from previous episodes and where the relationship is by the end of this one.

DF: Yeah, I really felt like their relationship was a huge theme in the episode and it’s June’s chance throughout the episode to try to reform the relationship to where it had been, you know, because I think she feels at the end of [Season 3, episode 5] really kind of gobsmacked by what Serena has done but I think she believes that look, if I can just get 5 minutes with her, I can reset us, you know, Serena had a momentary lapse, I get it, but I just need that time with her.  And June’s quest throughout the episode is “how do I get 5 minutes with Serena.”  How can I possibly re-establish this bond.  And I think Serena knows that, right, Serena knows how persuasive, how smart, how crafty June is, so I think Serena is like, “I don’t want 5 minutes with you, I don’t want to have you start spinning your yarns.”  There’s a push-pull there.  I really felt like I was writing a break up scene.  It felt like it was when 2 people with a long and rich and complicated history just got to the point where they’re like we have to end this.  I don’t want to spoil anything that’s coming down the line, but it did feel to me when I was writing it certainly was in the context of [episode] 6 that it was you know it was it was bringing their relationship to a different level and you know they say some really awful things to each other, you know?  Nothing is held back and I think because there had been that trust, because that connection made it all the more painful.

CS: When you were writing that, was it already decided that that scene would be at the Lincoln Memorial?  How was that that setting chosen for that scene? I mean obviously it ties in to the big giant prayer scene but it kind of worked out that they have the private space and was that in the script or with orders for that setting come after?

DF: I can’t remember whose idea it was to set it there.  We knew we were going to have a big Serena/June scene and then we knew we wanted to be in the Lincoln Memorial, we knew both of those two things before we knew they would happen on top of each other.  I mean, my recollection—and this is not so clear, so I could be fuzzy—was that we had this scene, and we had the location and then, as we were working out the logistics of like you know “who can do what” and what would we be able to film I think someone had the idea of well, we’re going to be there anyway, what if we put this scene in this place.  I can’t remember who said, it, but once they said it, everyone was, “of course.”  It’s one of those ideas, you know, that once somebody says it, how did we ever imagine this differently?   How could this have ever been anything other than this?  What better place to have to have this iconic scene than in this iconic location.

CS: There could have been a lot of iconic locations, why specifically the Lincoln Memorial?

DF: I think partly because, the reflecting pool and that location has been the site of so many big, mass events in history, you know, the March on Washington and so many others, that we knew we wanted to be there, because we wanted to show Gilead claiming and sort of colonizing that space—they were making it their own.   A knowing that the Lincoln Memorial has such profound meaning in terms of our country’s history and in terms of you know the kind of country that we have been, for good and evil, and what our better angels are what out better angels aren’t, that he’s just been erased felt like a way of demonstrating what Gilead is and the way that Gilead is marking what it’s going to be.  And I think something that was really important to me when we talked about the look all those spaces was a feeling of permanence, for all the Gilead spaces in DC.  We talked about we don’t want anything to look flimsy or temporary because we feel like Gilead believes they’re going to be around for a thousand years, so we really want all of the spaces to feel like what they’re saying to June is this society will be around for a thousand years, this society is strong and powerful and committed to lasting and it will do whatever it takes to hang on, so don’t think that you’re going to be able to get rid of it easily.

CS: So you know of course what that instantly brings to my head—there you there was another country that thought they’d have the thousand-year-Reich so and the you know with the very strong symbols of the flag.  I’ve seen the Nazi imagery before— how deep a thread do you guys intentionally feel in the show?   I mean obviously it’s got to be intentional.

DF: Yeah I mean with everything with the show, we always try to start from the book and we always try to start with Margaret Atwood and Margaret Atwood wrote the book in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and in Berlin and I think pretty much everything you need to know about the book comes from those 2 factoids.  She was in places with histories of oppression and you know she was in places with histories of using women so I think the resonances to Nazi times and you know also resonances to what Berlin was like under communism, all of those are in the book and so therefore they are in our show.  We don’t want to overdo it, we don’t want to hit people over the head, but I think that it would be inaccurate to shy away from it because there’s an ambition to Gilead that I think does feel very reminiscent of the Third Reich:  “this is how the world is going to be from now on and we can make it so.”

CS: I mean going back to what you said about the choice of the Lincoln Memorial reminding of our history but especially our slave history so that’ll runs through it too.

DF: Absolutely.

CS: So, talking about Fred for a second it seemed like he was sort of almost a puppet almost in previous episodes didn’t really have a lot of strength going on but now it seems to be getting his footing back and his confidence back and you know and I almost feel like we don’t hate him anymore.

DF: Yeah!

CS: How important is it that we stop hating him and do you actually want us to be sympathetic to him?

DF: I mean, he’s done hateful things, so I think I would feel weird if people suddenly were like “my favorite character is Fred!”  That would feel bad.  But I do think he has his own vulnerabilities, he does feel genuine emotions, so I think it’s important that even though we understand who he is and all of the bad things that he’s done, that we don’t portray him as somebody who doesn’t have an internal emotional life, you know, he does.  He missed his wife very genuinely and I think he can feel vulnerable he can feel afraid.  What he does with those feelings is not great but it’s important to me that we portray him in the complexity of someone who has who has all those feelings.  And I think something in this episode is he, for the first time in a while, suddenly sees a possible future for himself and sort of a life that he might want to live and I think that’s an incredibly relatable phenomenon, you know, like when you go with your partner to visit another couple and then you’re like “Oh, why don’t we have their life? How do how do we go about getting their life?  How is their house so much nicer than ours?”  I think by putting Fred and Serena in that position that is so relatable to so many of us, it is a way of getting inside his head but that’s not to say that we should all be sympathetic to Fred and Fred’s choices. 

CS: You want to have the characters be complex and that’s what I love they’re starting to turn to not be black-and white.  Serena’s stopped being black-and-white, Fred’s stopped being black-and-white, and now it’s interesting how Nick is now more complicated.

DF: Yeah…yeah!

CS: So tell me about where that character is growing.

DF: I think that the Nick storyline is a really important one in this I think, for June, she didn’t know a lot about him when they got together and I think she made the choice not to ask and I think she just kind of coasted along being like okay you’re a driver that’s all I need to know, but there are a lot of things about his life that he she didn’t necessarily want to know the details of, but to find out that he was more actively involved in the events surrounding the rebellion that happened right in Washington DC, so that, to me, is also the squaring of the puzzle, that she’s in DC for the first time and realizing I’m living in the results of this—I can’t remember what we call it the show—the uprising…

CS: The crusade?

DF: That’s what they call it, yeah…forget my word for it, that’s Gilead’s word for it.  So she’s living in the aftermath of the crusade and seeing all of the results of it and then to find out that a person that she loves was instrumental, you know, that he wasn’t just sort of a bystander, it wasn’t a “right place, right time” kind of situation, but that he actually made it happen and without his participation maybe none of this would have happened— I think it’s a huge devastating piece of information for her.  And, of course, by the time she learns it, he is leaving town so she can’t go ask him and she can’t follow up on any of the details to process it on her own.

 CS: Yes, that’s exciting to see where that’s going to go. I can’t wait to see that.

DF: Yeah, definitely.

CS: So if you don’t mind, I’m very curious.  I know that it’s important to be a woman working on the show but I wanted to take it in another direction… I’m curious as to what it’s like being a woman with strong religious beliefs if you don’t mind, talking about that.  

DF: No, not at all.

CS: I know you’re quite public about it and I know that how important it is to you, so I’m wondering how it is writing for a show where religion is used as a weapon the way it is.

DF: Yeah I mean I think it’s something that [series creator] Bruce [Miller] did that was really wise, was that when he put the writers room together, he got pretty much every perspective on religion imaginable from people who have a very active religious life and go to services regularly, to people who are like “I am completely an atheist and always have been,” to people who grew up in it but fell away, to people who are more spiritual, to people who identify maybe culturally and ethnically but not in practice.   I think if there’s a way of relating to religion that one can have, I think we represent all of them, which is great.  So I think, for me, when I say that means that my role in the room is sort of sticking up for ways that people might find a religious practice to be a positive thing in their life.  I certainly feel like Gilead is what happens with the worst of it.  It’s what happens when religion runs a state, when there’s no separation between church and state and when religion becomes entirely a mechanism of control.  But I also feel like something that I try to contribute is, can we also show moments where it can function in a different way, because it’s not a monolith and there are there are ways that it can bring people joy or bring people comfort as they go about their day and especially as people deal with the horrors of Gilead and sort of enormous challenges that life there presents.  It feels like some people would definitely respond to that by going, “obviously God doesn’t exist, can you believe it, look what they’re doing to us, hello, religion is ridiculous,” but I think some people would respond to it by going “oh my gosh I’m so glad God exists, I’m going to start praying 10 times a day.” We don’t all response to horror and to devastation in the same ways.

CS: That’s that’s a really interesting way to look at I haven’t I haven’t looked at it that way.  So, we’re going to end on a really weird, upbeat note.  What on earth is “a herd of dusted turtles?”

DF: [laughing] Oh!  A “herd of dusty turtles!”  That’s Bruce. That’s Bruce’s line that he put in afterwards but I think it’s just a like a really old like sort of Dad expression.  Joe had the same question because he was like, “is this an American thing?  What am I saying here?”  He’s such a smart and conscientious actor and he really wanted to know, “what turtles am I referring to?”  And what Bruce said to him it’s sort of a Dad joke and I think it was an attempt to show the Commander trying on this sort of gentler, lighter personality, that he’s feeling buoyed by the success.  Things are starting to turn around for him and so his language is becoming a little almost silly and informal and that he recognizes exactly what’s going on, but the words that he turns to are kind of the words that you turn to if you were wrangling your kids to get them in the minivan.

CS: I really got that and they were all standing there and it was like 2 siblings just glaring at each other.   So I could talk about this episode all day but I really appreciate your time.  I’m looking forward to more. Are you writing more this season?

DF: This the only one I wrote this season. But there are some great ones to come.

CS: I look forward to following your career and seeing everything that you’re going to do.  I really appreciate your time!

DF: Thank you!

CS: So, we are specifically talking about episode 306. I wanted to get into the craft and visuals later, but first I wanted to mention, you’re really lucky to have an amazing cast— obviously, you know that…

Dearbhla Walsh: Yes!

The Handmaid’s Tale — “Household” – Episode 306 — Winslow (Christopher Meloni), Fred (Joseph Fiennes), and Dearbhla Walsh, shown. (Photo by: Jasper Savage/Hulu)

CS: This episode particularly has some incredible work by Yvonne Strahovski, Joseph Fiennes, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, and, of course, Elisabeth Moss.  And you get the added bonus of Chris Meloni in this episode as well.  What’s it like to work with all of them and do you rehearse and how much do you work with each actor before shooting?

DW: Well, first of all, it was just an incredible pleasure.  And kind of intimidating, only in the “oh my god, they’ve had so much success and they’re so fabulous, I hope I’m not the person come along and mess it up.”  Because I think, for actors, it’s always challenging in television to have new directors every so often and I think Elisabeth had built up the team of directors that she was familiar with, so I was the newbie.  But it was a wonderful experience.   It was a great honor for me to work with them and of course, they’ve done such extraordinary work—they really do know their characters but they’re also trusting of the director.  So, it was a great pleasure.  And they all were open to direction and wanted to be directed.  I asked Elisabeth, to start, “how do you like to work?” and she said “I like to be pushed.  I like to work fast.  Hit me with ideas.”  and she’s really very engaged in story.  I mean, we don’t get time for rehearsing scenes, as such, but I do make sure I meet every artist before the set and that we do a page turn and go through scene by scene, just for their character alone, individually, before meeting them on set.  For Chris, I always feel for actors who come along and have to step in, you know, I think it’s much more difficult than those that are there, because everybody is in their groove, so it can be quite intimidating.  And you never quite get the same amount of time as the resident cast, but Chris and I spent time on the phone talking and he really had clear ideas.  I mean it’s great because so many people are fans, so people are incredibly ambitious for what they want to do and have strong opinions, it’s making sure all the opinions align with your own vision for the piece.  Chris was wonderful.  I hadn’t worked with him—I hadn’t worked with any of them before—he had some really interesting angles on what he was doing.  And something like that, and you only have a handful of scenes, and of course there are more scenes when you get offered the part, and then the process is that the next month you get to the shoot and the scenes disappear.  So you have to hit the ground running, and he came with some great ideas.  And of course now I see him everywhere and I’m watching everything he does and it’s so much fun.  Yvonne, as you probably know, was missing for the beginning of the season because she was having her baby,  so she arrived and had to do all of her scenes for all of her episodes in a short time, so that poor woman was kind of, you know, it was just so impressive.  My page turn with her, she had to breastfeed two or three times, to keep herself and her baby going, but that’s how the Handmaid’s Tale works, I mean they work so extraordinarily hard.  And Yvonne never takes the easy way out.  I mean, none of them do.  They’re amazing.  I found the set one of the most enjoyable, probably up there with the top two or three dramas I’ve worked on, in terms of the pleasure of working with the artists and on the script.  It’s lovely to be able to come away and say genuinely positive and great things.  I think I learned a lot about myself, and about them.  And Elisabeth is particularly inspiring, how committed she is to both how she works as an actress, but also to the story and she never takes the easy option.  She’s looking at how to keep it fresh, which is always challenging in an ongoing series. 

CS: It’s so true.  I’m such a big fan of Ann Dowd as well…

DW: Ahhh, let me just tell you about Ann Dowd.  Being an Irish Catholic, or certainly being brought up as one,  I was so scared to be found out, because she reminded me of every nun that ever taught me.  [Series creator Bruce Miller] had warned me about the artists and that Ann is the least like her character.  She’s just such a warm person, the way she even speaks to the crew in the background on set, she’s special to everyone.  She’s like somebody who feels privileged and gets such pleasure out of doing her work, but Ann, above all of the others, had more scenes in the first draft of the script and she ended up with three scenes, so I was kind of mortified meeting her, as well as scared, because her story was disappearing.  But, you know, she’s so professional you know we work with what we have and not the scenes we don’t.  But the big challenge was to get to the place for herself and June to get that mask on June and so basically that was a journey the three of us went on.  That was the only scene that, beforehand, we improvised before the day, because initially, how does Elisabeth Moss’s character, how does she tolerate anyone putting that mask on…so that was kind of, of all the scenes, the one we went on the greatest journey with.  For all of us, it was really surprising, it felt truly creative, which is a wonderful thing to be able to say, but yes, she’s a special person as well—they all are, I have to say.

CS: Absolutely.  I could talk about the acting all day, but I wanted to specifically ask you about the cinematography.  It’s already legendary, and, in this particular episode, the shots at the beginning with the women praying, the shots of the escalators, the umbrella shot and of course the handmaids kneeling at the Mall at the end— that overhead shot has been the signature perspective for the show.  Tell me why that particular angle and shot is so effective for this particular story.

The Handmaid’s Tale — “Household” – Episode 306 — Dearbhla Walsh and Stuart Biddlecombe, shown.
(Photo by: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

DW: First of all, thank you so much it’s lovely when people notice, because you do a show and you’re going, how can you improve on what’s already there.  It was a new DoP, Stewart [Biddlecombe] from England, and I was new and we were the only two newbies on the show and we jokingly said, okay, you know we’re the only 2 new people.  So we worked to find some iconic visuals, drawing on images and iconography of Nazi Germany because so much of the show is about propaganda  We only shot for one day in Washington, but we had to make it feel like we were in Washington, and I had never been to Washington before.  And I was blown away by it—it reminded me of my first experience when I visited Rome—I was so stunned by its grandeur and the idealism of the founding fathers and how that’s reflected through architecture, and one can forget these things about American politics today.  So I used a lot of my own reaction…how the architecture and design can show scale.   But the overhead shot, that’s a really interesting question.  Emotionally and dramatically, the power of the series, particularly is in the title: “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It’s about an individual point of view.  It’s the personal beside the political.  It’s always going at the story from the handmaid’s—from June Osborne’s—point of view.  So we’re literally going into a room with her, the camera is with her.  It’s always remembering to be subjective with emotions in the story.  And because Elisabeth is so powerful and emotionally intense and holds the show, sometimes when you hit those overhead shots, it’s obviously not a personal point of view, it’s very objective, like an odd point of view and such, you know, this epic seeing from above.  So I think in this show in particular, it’s very striking because it’s sometimes like an emotional release, but then you get struck by how epic it feels, so it kind of intensifies the emotional piece of the show.   I’m always looking for the macro and the micro:  what’s the emotional, what’s the intimate detail and then what’s the scale.  When you juxtapose those, and often TV doesn’t allow you to quite do that because you’re in set and you’re in control there, so you can’t go.  And there’s just something that this show;  I’ve done two dramas, one set in London right after the war in 1945 and then in Paris in 1947, I had to shoot both of them in Wales, in Britain, where you could never shoot more than 20-30 feet wide, your camera is forced to be so small, so it was such a relief to be able to go big, you know?  To have that emotional, intimate detail and then be visually epic.  And then, of course, I was incredibly lucky to be given that my show was set in D.C. and I got to shoot the Mall.  And in front of Lincoln’s Memorial.  I’d only ever been able to see those visuals at inaugurations and in the movie Lincoln.  But to stand there, as a mere mortal, almost as a tourist instead of a director, as a human being, and then to go and convert what you’re feeling.  How can this be visually dynamic?  Which isn’t hugely difficult, in fairness, but I was so struck and in awe of being a tiny detail in this mass place.  I asked Yvonne and Elisabeth to meet there the night before, so they could come and feel the power of being tiny individuals.  We don’t normally film in public places, and I could see the people gather the next day, and they weren’t aware until I actually had them in Washington that it was a public park, so the public were allowed to come and go, so when I was shooting in front of Lincoln I could only have the place for four minutes at a time.  So there were people staring at them while we were working out the scenes, which is intimidating.  When a director is doing a rehearsal normally, not even the crew is standing around, so it was really kind of a shock and a new experience for them, but I wanted them to experience the intensity of being a lone individual standing beside Lincoln and to look down the Mall and to experience as I did, and experience it as a mere mortal, as opposed to as a character or a kind of superstar, which they would be the next day.  We shot on the 15th of February, the last day before Trump threatened to close down the government again, so we started at 7 in the morning and people started to gather because what they thought was happening was a protest.  They didn’t realize it was The Handmaid’s Tale.  We actually had struggled to get extras down there, because we go by the name “Raucous Woman” when we’re filming, not The Handmaid’s Tale, for obvious reasons.  The opportunity to be dressed as a handmaid on the Mall for this scene, it’s so iconic and so powerful…to be with June as she walks out from the Lincoln Memorial and to see that for the first time, from her point of view.  And of course the one shot I did want was a drone shot over the Mall, so you could see all these red handmaids as little ants, and this massive prayer meeting, but, of course, for obvious reasons, you can’t fly a drone over this public space in D.C.  But, hopefully, we still managed to communicate a sense of scale.

CS: Absolutely!  And, to that end, the last shot, obviously, is the full reveal of the Washington monument, as the cross, and I see that twice before in the episode you would sort of almost previewed it, once at the very beginning as she’s looking out the train window you see it from afar so as an audience member you’re like is that…?  It sort of plants the seed.  But then you see it in her eyeball right before the big reveal, so it was sort of a building up to that gut punch…very effective.

DW: I’d sort of planned all of that to just kind of tease, again, the notion and point of view of the mind’s eye. To be in her experience and then to see it.  At one point, we wondered whether we should show it, and then hint at it, so then, when we do reveal it, it would have such a strong impact.  And of course for it to communicate the notion that Gilead and its power has spread to here and if it can do this to the center of the seat of politics in D.C., then who knows…it’s so frightening.  And to see icons that represent such grace and ideals at one point in history, that these are then turned into such dark forces is thrilling.

CS: This episode is pretty unique, it’s written and directed both by women which is unfortunately all too rare and obviously significant.  Tell me how you think the show needs to have a female voice and perspective.

DW: Yeah, you know that’s an interesting question but I don’t know whether I’ve just been lucky or I’ve done a lot of shows…I feel like I’ve worked with a lot of female writers.  It’s obvious in a way that you’re coming from a direct experience, none of it is theoretical, none is intellectual, it’s real and it’s a very anchored point of view.  I have to say that my experience of working with all of the men on the show, like [executive producer] Mike Barker, it’s really interesting.  Even though the show screams and it’s obviously all about gender and point of view, …I don’t come up against, certainly in the crew or the writing, any tension between points of view.  I remember reading Margaret Atwood’s book initially and it depicts such a frightening view of the world in the future that I have the same experience watching the first The Handmaid’s Tale, going “Oh my gosh, this feels really real and terrifying”  and the series feels so much more contemporary instead of in the future, which was really quite frightening.  The show allows us to actually speak less about our experiences in the abstract and to explore each little link in the chain of experiences.  There’s an accumulation of effect from them and I think the show allows such an emotional point of view.  I think it’s so challenging—the men she’s created as well.  Like Joseph Fiennes’ character, we should despise him.  And yet, we find we are empathizing with him.  And that’s a credit to Joe, and how he plays him, and to the writing.  I think Elisabeth, as the handmaid, she has all the strengths and weaknesses as a fully formed being, you know, in that she can feel both anger and shame but also empathy and pity.  I think it’s interesting, in this series, how much she plays almost like marriage counselor between these two people who have ruined her life.  And the new stories, like Emily’s story being back in Canada, looking at post-traumatic stress.  We’ve seen so many dramas about the soldiers returning back from Iraq and how traumatized they are, not able to fit back into the family, their relationships, intimacy, back into contemporary society, and I find it so fascinating.  Her discomfort with her partner, with her child, with her ability to accept kindness, I find that really it shows how thought-provoking it is and the drama and the point of view, it was so emotional.  That we get all of that was a great honor.  In fact, it’s really lovely speaking about it so many months after, sometimes it’s like childbirth.  You’re in Dublin 4 months later, having been in the freezing cold snow of Toronto and the sunshine of Washington, it feels like a distant continent, but it also feels like coming home, talking about it. 

CS: I hope I’m not reminding you of the labor pains!

DW: No, well, you know, with pain comes pleasure and beauty, and I think what’s really nice is that the episode has resonated for people, it’s sometimes bad luck getting a middle episode, so it’s really great that people are responding to it. 

CS: Are you directing any other shows this season?

DW: No, I got the orphan, I’m just the foster mother of the one child, maybe if it goes down well, I might get more next year. 

CS: That would be great.  Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

DW: I’m working on a new series from Amazon called Tales from the Loop, which is a really interesting, a very different series, written by Nathaniel Halpern.  It’s set in Ohio in the early 80s and it looks at characters who live in a town where they’re brought all together by working at this particular factory and my episode is a love story.  Beautiful writing, very low key, very patient, very soft, well, not soft, because it’s got all the highs and lows of falling in love, it’s got all the intensity of first love and experiences that maybe can last forever.

CS: I can’t wait to see it!  I look forward to following everything you do.  Thank you so much for your time!

DW: Thank you very much!

The Handmaid’s Tale is currently airing on Hulu with new episodes released every Wednesday. Read my weekly recaps of the the third season here.

1 thought on “TV Interview: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ writer Dorothy Fortenberry and director Dearbhla Walsh on episode 6 – “Household”

  1. Such a brilliantly shot episode! I was thrilled to find this publication and satisfy the itch I got from wanting to know more. (The Waterford’s very first scene, standing in the high-commander’s waiting room with the double focus on the caged finches… brilliant!)

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