When approaching the idea of adapting a novel, especially a work of fiction that’s wildly popular and was previously adapted for a film in 1990 and an as opera in 2000, and is so politically charged, a writer may feel either intimidated or just way in over their head. This was certainly far from the case for The Handmaid’s Tale TV series creator, writer, showrunner, and executive producer Bruce Miller. Having read the novel when in college for his new fiction class, he instantly grew attached to Margaret Atwood’s way of storytelling through her unique lens. The show was originally set to be written and produced by TV veteran Ilene Chaiken for Hulu, but due to her busy schedule, she had to drop out. Obviously, because of the subject matter of the material, the streamer wanted a female writer at the helm and Bruce knew that was definitely out of reach for him, even though deep down inside, he really wanted that job.
Luckily on a fateful day, Bruce had the chance to meet with the team at Hulu and pitch his take on Margaret Atwood’s book. He had fully and completely eternalized the book, so much so that he was very committed to making the book into a show, with not many things to change. “It was almost dumb luck that I had read the book so many times. I talked in specifics and visuals; I wasn’t making anything up at all. My pitch was basically, ‘I think we should put this into Final Draft. Just change the layout.’” And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
When speaking with Bruce about his show, you have a unique opportunity to pull back the curtain on his wizardry and truly witness how passionate he is about the book and respectful of Margaret Atwood’s story, the delicate balance of writing female characters, and how much joy he’s received over the last four seasons of writing this show for a dedicated audience.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
How often do you confer with Margaret Atwood, to make sure you’re not straying too far from that source material and most importantly, the characters?
I found ways to do things in the book that just wouldn't have occurred to other people. My relationship with Margaret Atwood was always I wasn't trying to find out what else should happen in the book, she likes the story as it is, she doesn't want to tell you what else is going to happen. She wants to have someone who's thought so hard about that, that they're going, ‘Does this mean this or this?’ And also, who's trying to capture the way she thinks.
I feel like it isn't really The Handmaid's Tale I'm continuing. Anybody could continue that. I'm trying to get to know Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and her lens, her vibe, her style of writing, her certain sense of humor, her point of view, all those things are so present. She made choices in that book that I tried to maintain because I think there's so much part of the flavor of that vibe of the world. And some things she doesn't do in the book like I add music, but I feel like that's the vibe thing. That's her vibe, me trying to figure out a way to explain the fact that she writes in these little cool sentences that if you read out loud, it sounds like poetry, it's kind of musical.
Margaret and I talked a lot after I wrote the pilot, which was very nerve-racking if you can imagine that after you write the Bible and they send it to her.
But we spoke then, and we are very much in touch. I think at this point, we're talking more about the characters and their journey on the show, and we're having conversations that are about conversations that we've had that are about the book. We're expanding, and always expanding that foundation, but we've moved forward, hand in hand. I think that we're not looking far back, we're always looking forward.
She was very reluctant to even put her nose into my creative decisions because she very nicely treated me like I treat her. Who the hell am I to tell Margaret Atwood what to do? But if I wanted that opinion, not because I wanted to go to the Oracle and say, “What did you mean?” I didn't feel like that. I felt like as another writer. It's like having that conversation about ‘how would Jesus feel about gun control?’ you want to take your characters and move them into a new situation. And the only other person in this case that knows them as well as I do, is Margaret. We’re like two occupants of the same insane asylum, with the same weird disease. She’s the only person I could talk to about those things. At the beginning, it was her and continues to be because we've built on that. And with Elizabeth Moss and with the writers to a certain extent, it's not me, it's all of us. It's the show, and Margaret's relationship and working relationship with the show.
I'm happy to say I count Margaret as my friend, which I don't say lightly. And she's a really incredibly lovely human. But as a colleague, she's not just my colleague, she's everybodys.
That’s incredible she’s there with you on that journey.
She seems to be having fun.
That’s the whole plan, right?
Yeah, because usually when you adapt a classic, the person is dead. [laughs] Margaret’s not just alive, she’s very much alive. Has her own opinions and is writing, to the point where she wrote a book to tell me where to end. That’s exactly what she’s allowed to do.
The show is very straightforward. What’s happening to June is what happens to people in a totalitarian state and what happens to women in a state that has, for some reason, institutionalized misogyny and sexism.
But it's so not uncommon, everybody talks about it. This is the mildest nicest version of this life. The discussions we would have are how did Luke and June discuss when they were going to turn their affair into an open relationship, and how they were going to tell the wife. That would be what we were talking about, which is so specific, but on the other hand, that's how Margaret, keeps her lens on the show. She keeps her eye on the show because I want her to keep her eye on the show. She gets all the scripts, she sees as much of the cuts as us, and mostly nowadays she's like a fan. Like when I get one of my scripts from one of my writers. I'm like, ‘oooh!’. We're at the point where we're excited about making the show, the shows turning out really good. And Margaret feels that way too.
And also, she doesn't write like I do. She’s a novelist, I am a PT Barnum-like entertainer. That's how she kind of sees it. And she's right. I like big ends of episodes. I like big things to happen. I like strong driving plot. And sometimes I like to explore things in tiny little detail. I like things to move like a freight train.
Yeah, full speed ahead. In terms of just tapping into these female characters, what are you tapping into as a writer, you have basically your Bible from Atwood, but are there things you're finding about yourself or just relationships you've had in the past that you put into these characters?
Oh absolutely, all the women but especially June, the women more than the men. I normally don't have a great affinity for any male characters, I don't do it very well. But I think that whenever you work in fiction, you're coming to every character with some similarities and some differences. And you have to buttress those differences, whatever they are, some things are easier. If it's a person like me, but they're an architect, that's OK, but I really don't write very many 56-year-old white guys with three kids from Studio City, it doesn't come up that much. [laughs] Honestly, I worked in a bookstore, and other than that, I've been a professional writer my entire life, I don't have any idea what anybody does for a living even, so I have to buttress my kind of connection with reality all the time.
I think the first thing you do when you take out a project is really studying the source material and understand that it is from a woman's point of view and what does that mean? What is a woman's point of view mean? Is it something you can mimic? Or is it something that just needs to be explained to you by someone who experiences it? Or is it both? Is it good to have someone who's looking at it from the outside but doesn't see it and some from the inside and when you don't see that this is what's going on behind the scenes. So, what you have to do is hire writers that you respect and who are comfortable talking about uncomfortable things. And also, honestly, the most important thing is it's not a support group. In a support group, you'd mention something very painful and the whole idea, as you said, you have to be able to be interrogated about things a sensitive professional way. If you bring up some problem that you're having with your husband sexually, it's not going to go beyond that room, but don't bring it up if you don't want to, because we will tease it apart in a way. No one’s trying to get into your personal business at all, but you have an experience we need. So that's the kind of room you need to have. I've learned so much about that and start to see the world in a completely different way and certainly see every friggin’ TV show in a different way. I'm so careful in every moment you see, I try to look at it through that lens of gender.
In the pilot of The Handmaid's Tale, it starts with a car driving, it stops, it crashes off the road, this guy gets out. I spent two weeks trying to figure out if I was making a mistake by having him driving by default. That's because I knew I was so scared, I was making sexist decisions just off the cuff. And now I have made a million other decisions about this. And then I thought, well, she would probably at that age with a kid, sit in the back with the kid. It's a gender decision. So, even at that level, in the very first scene who's driving the car, you have to think about that. And because I did feel so much pressure to try to represent the book accurately, I thought that, well, anything I'm adding to the book, like who's driving, I should make a decision with Margaret Atwood’s lens in front of me, so.
I think that kind of the minutiae in which I recognize those kinds of things has increased, because it's been part of my job now, to recognize all those things. I feel awful that I didn't recognize it all before.
There’s that dynamic of power between men and women, and how we shift it and how we manipulate it. And as you as the writer, how do you approach that in a scene? It's a very delicate balance. And it's definitely a thread that I've seen through all the seasons. I don't know how you do it, you're definitely a wizard, in that sense.
Well, thank you. I think that the wizardry part of it is I've been trained well by a million showrunners and how to write TV and all that kind of stuff. The wizardry part of it is how Margaret gets you to focus on all of those tiny little things. And so, for 30 years, she was like beating me over the head with it and it worked. It actually changed the way that I thought about things so that when I got the opportunity to tell the truth, I was like, “Oh, she's educated me all of this time.” It’s really that care that Margaret takes in the book, the care, and observation that like I said she kind of taught me how to write so it's a confluence of things that make it easier for me to pay that much attention to detail. And I like attention to detail in television.
And also, keep watching over and over again I do as much stuff on purpose as possible. If you hate something, I probably really did it on purpose. That's something I really thought about for a long time to decide to do.
What is your writing process like, especially with your writer’s room?
I think our writing process has always been both collective and singular, you know, in that you work together and then you go off and work on your own. And you keep using both of those aspects. We work in big groups and small groups. I always think about how a newspaper works, sometimes people are doing things together, someone's doing research for this. And so I think that we've used to be probably 70% together 30% alone, and it's flipped, and the 30% together was online.
I think we were very lucky. We were in the fourth season of a show, we knew each other very, very well. We had all been working together the whole year. And we were only breaking the end of the season, we had also done some dry runs and practice with Zoom before. So, everybody had the technology and knew how to do it, we had Muro board so that we could all work together on that. And those things kind of worked and kind of didn't work. But at least we limped our way through the end of the season.
Most interestingly, though, I have found it very, very, very difficult. I had a few scripts left to write I found it very difficult to write quickly. I think in the end, I'm curious to see how you and everybody else who watches this show thinks. The finale, I wrote stem to stern, entirely in lockdown entirely around the election. We're entering the part of the season that always surprises me, which is the part where I show the show to people. I always forget that's part of the thing because it's so hard to write and then you make it and you do post it and then you're done. And when people start watching it, I'm like, ‘oh, shit I forgot.’ There's another thing that happens, it's so funny because it hits me every year like such a big surprise - I've been reeling a little in like, ‘oh my god that people are talking about it on Twitter,’ it's like, ‘Oh shit, I forgot the there is a point where everybody does get this.’
I'm definitely interested in seeing that last episode, especially because you wrote it during the pandemic and lockdown, it’ll be more universal in that we're all going to be able to kind of be on board collectively and either hurt a lot or rejoice. Bruce, thank you so much for speaking with me about your show and above all else, writing! I think it’s incredible that you have Margaret Atwood to lean on when needed and that she has you.
Yeah, thank you. Across the board, I’m really lucky.
The fourth season of The Handmaid's Tale is currently streaming on Hulu.