×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Team on Crafting The Colonies as a ‘Romantic’ Purgatory

A sprawling nuclear wasteland covered in dirt that sizzles and smokes as it’s disturbed? Check. Grey-blue-clad women with no protective gear who are finding their body parts falling off and their days numbered? Check. A purgatory so far removed from society that all hope seems to be checked at the door? Check, check, check.

Margaret Atwood didn’t dedicate much ink to the Colonies in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but the few brief mentions of the place where Gilead sends its worst offenders were enough to inspire the creative team behind the Hulu and MGM re-imagining, and to make it a central part of the storytelling and world-building in the show’s second season. The wasteland was first introduced in this year’s second episode through Emily (Alexis Bledel) and Janine (Madeline Brewer), two handmaids who have been sent there to clean up the land until their inevitable deaths.

“The first thing was to capture the dehumanization. These women have already been stripped of their names and their freedoms and their economic power and their autonomy over their own bodies and here they’re stripped of their womanhood — they’re turned into nothing,” showrunner Bruce Miller tells Variety.

The scenario is one take on the Colonies, which were used in the novels to threaten handmaids and other detractors into submission. Handmaids who are unable to bear children after three placements in Commander homes are sent there, as are some gender-traitors — including men. At one point in the novel Offred worries that she could be sent there for rejecting a proposition from her doctor, showcasing just how real the threat is without ever actually visiting it. The most vivid description Atwood offers is through Moira’s own take on the place, which she serves up to Offred when the friends reunite at Jezebels.

“In the Colonies, they spend their time cleaning up. They’re very clean-minded these days. Sometimes it’s just bodies, after a battle. The ones in city ghettos are the worst, they’re left around longer, they get rottener. This bunch doesn’t like dead bodies lying around, they’re afraid of a plague or something. So the women in the Colonies there do the burning. The other Colonies are worse, though, the toxic dumps and the radiation spills. They figure you’ve got three years maximum, at those, before your nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves. They don’t bother to feed you much, or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s cheaper not to. Anyway they’re mostly people they want to get rid of. They say there’s other Colonies, not so bad, where they do agriculture: cotton and tomatoes and all that. But those weren’t the ones they showed me the movie about,” Atwood wrote.

The Colonies, as they translate for the series, are the worst of the bunch and reserved for women only. It’s the place where Emily, Janine and a slew of other “unwomen” are sent to atone for their sins before death by helping to make the land fertile and clean again — two recurring themes in Gilead as a whole.

“None of them expect to leave this place, so what kind of culture develops at the end?” Miller says he wanted to explore. “They come up with rituals of their own, they come up with justice systems of their own. We looked at a lot of work camps and concentration camps and what kind of culture developed in the gulags and all those kinds of things. What really happened, what things do people focus on, what do they forget about? How do they keep themselves from going insane or running away and getting shot?”

When it came time to procuring the actual setting for the Colonies, Miller, episodic director Mike Barker and set designer Elisabeth Williams were intent on finding a place that matched the show’s visually romantic landscape, but one that could also showcase all of the horrors that take place once you really start looking.

“As much as it is like a concentration camp that’s not what we wanted to portray. We made a specific point of making it romantic like the series but on a deeper level kind of unnerving when you consider what is going on there,” Williams says. “These women who are called ‘unwomen’ are not useful for Gilead because either they can’t bear children or are being punished for something, so they’re sent there to work until they die. It was important to us to create that concept of deadly work and set it against something that looks kind of beautiful.”

To find inspiration, the team took a deep dive into visuals from concentration camps and other repressive states, but they also looked at nuclear wastelands around the world, from Chernobyl to Fukushima. To recreate those looks, they scouted as far north as Sudbury, Ont., where there are still functioning mines. Eventually they settled on a secret quarry location north of Toronto that allowed for easier access and a lower travel budget. The spot was scouted in the summer when it was a little more lush and full of life, so the scenes weren’t actually filmed until the winter in order to take advantage of the area’s natural decay. The goal was to feature burnt oranges and an ocher color scheme that popped against costume designer Ane Crabtree’s light blue-grey dresses.

“We added to that by bringing in some little trees that we had spray-painted brown and different dead branches and whatnot to give it that contaminated look,” Williams says. “Then a lot of it was also done in visual effects. It was important to Bruce to have these women in a natural setting. The idea is that Gilead is going to reclaim the contaminated earth and turn it back into something that is farmable, so basically they’re using existing buildings that would be close to the quarry.”

She adds that the particular barn where the characters live was selected thanks to its perforated walls, which allowed natural light in through the wood slates. The crew then filmed many of the scenes at sunset or sunup to take advantage of that detail and add to the romantic tone.

“We wanted it to be beautiful. Startling but beautiful because that’s one of the things in Gilead and the way we shoot the show: beautiful and awful often go hand-in-hand. Gilead is very into appearances so they want it to look like a romantic kind of work camp,” Miller says. “It’s a church of redemption where people are earning their place back into the good grace of God by performing labor, where in reality that’s bullshit and they’re just being worked to death. It’s cheaper to use disposable humans.”

The beauties of this fictional world never seem to end.

New episodes ofThe Handmaid’s Tale” stream Wednesdays on Hulu.

 

More TV

  • Jeremy Sisto, Ebonee Noel, Dick Wolf,

    Dick Wolf Plots 'First-Ever' Cross-Network Crossover

    Veteran television producer Dick Wolf, best known for creating the “Law & Order” franchise, is eyeing what he believes will be the first-ever cross-network crossover. The crossover would be between his CBS freshman procedural “FBI” or its in-the-works spinoff “FBI: Most Wanted” and one of his NBC shows, such as “Law & Order: Special Victims [...]

  • Prince Albert II of Monaco (C),

    Jessica Alba, Gabrielle Union's 'L.A.’s Finest' Opens Monte Carlo TV Festival

    Prince Albert II of Monaco opened the 59th Monte Carlo Television Festival on Friday at a glittering ceremony at the principality’s Grimaldi Forum attended by Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba. The Hollywood actresses presented the French premiere of their action cop series “L.A.’s Finest,” which has just been renewed for a second season. “You typically [...]

  • Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba'L.A.'s Finest'

    Jessica Alba, Gabrielle Union Speak About Horrific 'L.A.’s Finest' On-Set Accident

    Actresses Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba spoke about how the horrific accident on the set of their action cop series “L.A.’s Finest” affected them and the crew at the 59th Monte Carlo Television Festival Saturday. They also paid tribute to the main victim of the incident, executive producer/co-showrunner Brandon Sonnier, whose leg was amputated below [...]

  • Emmys: How a Social Media Campaign

    How a Social Media Campaign to Game the Emmys Led to This Week's 'Block Voting' Scandal

    The Television Academy’s “block voting” controversy has quickly become the talk of Emmy season — and that appears to have been the org’s point. According to multiple insiders, the number of people disqualified from voting in this year’s competition is believed to be small, only around three members (out of nearly 25,000 members overall). But [...]

  • No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No

    TV News Roundup: Hulu Drops Trailer for 'Veronica Mars' Revival (Watch)

    In today’s roundup, Hulu dropped the official trailer for the “Veronica Mars” revival and HBO revealed more cast members for “Lovecraft Country.” FIRST LOOKS Hulu has dropped the official trailer for its revival of “Veronica Mars,” set to premiere on July 26. The series will bring back most of the original cast, including Kristen Bell, Jason [...]

  • Dan Stevens

    'Legion' Star Dan Stevens Says His Character Would Fight Thanos, 'Wreak Havoc' in MCU

    Dan Stevens said his powerful, telepathic mutant Legion would do some serious damage if he ever crossed over from the eponymous FX series into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Legion would wreak havoc. He’d probably take on Thanos, let’s see that,” he told Variety on the red carpet at the premiere of the trippy, mind-bending superhero series [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content