‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ & ‘The Crown’ Bosses on Sophomore Slumps, Writing for Women and Pay Parity

Peter Morgan Bruce Miller Producers on Producers
Neil Krug for Variety

“It’s like finally meeting the other person who’s the only other fan of a certain obscure comic book, or the only other member of the same asylum,” says Bruce Miller (“The Handmaid’s Tale”). Echoes “The Crown” creator Peter Morgan: “Or two victims of terrorist’s hijacking. We have both been in separate safe houses.”

From the moment they first met at Variety’s offices (“Finally our captors have put us together!” quipped Morgan), Morgan was peppering Miller with “350 million” questions about process, managing budgets and working in this era of “cinematic television,” as Morgan dubbed it. The whole concept of being a showrunner is a distinctly American one, and while “The Crown” has soared critically over its two seasons, the job has only gotten harder for Morgan, who now faces working with an entirely new cast for its third outing. Meanwhile, Miller has hit his stride with the second season of his Hulu drama — impressing his bosses so much that he not only scored an early third season renewal, but also an overall deal of his own.

Here, the two producers break down their writing process, how they work with episodic directors, and the biggest challenges they’ve faced along the way.

Given the success of your first seasons, how did you approach the second seasons? Were you wary of them, excited for them?

Morgan: We shot [the first two seasons] back to back, so this is more an issue now as we’re about to start the third season. Now I’m faced with a whole new cast and I’m nervous and excited. I’m nervous partly because will I have the time to respond to the actors in the same way as I responded to the actors in the first season where you hear them and you begin to understand what they do well, and you start then rearranging material to those strengths. By the second season I was much more comfortable with that. I felt I was in a groove with I know exactly how to make this work, how to bring that character in, and he will do that. Now with whole new casts I feel like I’m at the beginning again and I won’t have any of the comfort of familiarity and knowing what works, like which glove fits, the jacket that fits that you love. The good news is it will feel like a new show. And that will either work really well or it will be catastrophic. Claire [Foy] was so spectacular, and can you find someone that will be equally spectacular, the connectivity, the way in which an audience connected with her?

Miller: I just echo what Peter said. It’s terrifying to go into a second season just because the first season you’re laboring in anonymity, and the only people you have to please are yourselves, and there’s plenty of stuff to navigate there. But all the sudden people are watching, they have very high expectations. For example in my show, the sense amongst the people watching was that I was going beyond the book, which I don’t think I was. It’s all [novelist] Margaret [Atwood’s] world. But it’s terrifying. The level of terror is usually pretty high, terror of failure. But when there’s an Emmy sitting in the middle of your keyboard, it’s hard to type around it. You’ve got to take it and throw it away and go “OK, now I’m just going to do what I do.” I talked to a lot of other showrunners who were very helpful.

What advice did they offer?

Miller: Well, everybody says enjoy it, which is impossible because it’s exhausting and terrifying. And all you’re thinking about it is slipping through your fingers. But, it was about giving yourself the time to get over the newness of this is a hit show, this is an award-winning show, and get back to just doing the thing you know how to do, but give yourself time. “Don’t expect that to just happen” was the best piece of advice. And it did. Once I got back into the writers’ room with my cohorts, and once I sat down at the computer all of a sudden it was a thousand times easier.

Morgan: Sometimes the only bit that makes sense is sitting with your computer. Just being a typewriter I’m desperately happy.

Miller: Yeah. I wouldn’t say happy, but … yeah.

Both of your shows are so cinematic. How important is that to your creative process?

Miller: When you start these projects you say “OK, am I making a show for a phone or a 45- inch television?” The answer is both. We do interesting framing for that reason because interesting framing translates up and down.

Morgan: In the first season we hired people who never made television before. They were only doing what they know. I was writing in no different way than I wrote “Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen,” or “Last King of Scotland.” I was writing like I would write for film. And I think the process is pretty similar.

Miller: Exactly. You’ve just got to hire the right people as opposed to try to bend the people you hire into a different aesthetic.

So how do you work with directors who may come in for just a few episodes to make sure they’re telling your story how you want it to be told?

Morgan: There are many ways of skinning a cat. And actually hearing the differences between how shows work is so riveting. I’ve been very indulgent of directors.

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Neil Krug for Variety

Miller: There’s a little bit of dumb luck that it’s all going to fit together. With [producing director] Mike Barker we bring him in the writers’ room at the beginning of the season when we’re talking about the season arcs. So when he gets on set and someone has a question he has a real answer, this is why we did this, this is what they were thinking about. So there is a nice consistency of vision across the board, consistency of tone. We have a weird tone so sometimes it’s hard to put your fingers on it. It’s like a really dark comedy sometimes.

Morgan: Two degrees either side can be fatal. And it becomes something quite different.

Miller: It becomes the “Saturday Night Live” skit version of our show. Which we’re always just brushing up against.

Peter, without a producing director, how do you maintain a consistent tone?

Morgan: I reach final cut in a private conversation with each individual director, so no executives are involved. And I do it in a closed room with each director. For the most part you narrow it down to the last bits, and then there’s the “I’ll give you one” and “you give me that one.” But where it became problematic and where I really want to change what we did is in things like music where each director was steering the musicians. I describe us as a moving bus, one of those English buses you can hop on and hop off. You come and join us, and hopefully you can then pick us up again in a season’s time. And you try and build up a community of kindred spirits that have are all on that journey together.

Have you gotten the creative freedom from Hulu and Netflix to tell your stories the way you want to tell them?

Miller: Yes. Absolutely. Every time I think they’re going to balk, I mean our show’s rough stuff, so every time I think I’ve pushed a little too far they’ve been incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging. They’re excited to get the cuts; they’re excited like fans. So in that way it’s totally a good match for them because it seems like they genuinely like the show.

Morgan: When you hear of how many shows are being made and the toughest thing is to emerge from the clutter, to have something as distinctive and strong as signature and as unmistakable as “Handmaid’s Tale,” that would be any of these people’s dreams. So, of course they’re lucky to have you.

Miller: That’s what “The Crown” does so well. It doesn’t feel like the daunting idea of “Game of Thrones” that expands forever. It’s this very intimate understanding of a woman, and her process. So I think a little bit of simplicity helps you rise above the fray, because a lot of things are just everything and the kitchen sink because you don’t know what’s going to catch.

Morgan: Netflix has been sort of dream partners. And I think we’re blessed by two things. One, the fact that they’ve been expanding so quickly that they haven’t got enough people to stalk and harass us, and secondly there’s an advantage I think of doing something that’s so specific to a culture that’s not theirs. I got the impression when I met them the very first time that it was the right idea and the right people bringing that idea at exactly the right time. I say that as someone who’s walked in with the wrong idea at the wrong time so many times in my life. This was the first time that I’ve ever come in at a moment when Netflix was probably thinking it was about time for them to expand. And someone walked in with a story which, even if you just count the countries of the Commonwealth, that’s 53 countries and 3 billion people. I’ve never done that before and that was accidental. Had you said to me come up with a commercial idea, I would have made a complete mess of it.

With all due respect, you’re both men, but your shows are about strong female lead characters. How do you get into the head of women?

Miller: “Who do you think you are?”That’s the nice version of that question.

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Neil Krug for Variety

Morgan: I just hear her voice and I can’t think about it anymore than that. I never expected to be able to write her. It was never a goal to write her, it was always an accident. I happened to write her for Helen Mirren, and I wrote her in exactly the same way as I wrote her for Claire. So I’ve been spoiled in that way, really spoiled. But for some reason I hear her voice. I don’t know if it’s her voice at all, but it’s my version of her. I’m not sitting here going, I’m now going to write a woman. It feels like I’m writing a human being with the same emotional conflict and problems. She has a very alpha husband and I’m quite conscious of his masculinity. But half of her is also the crown, and the crown is not a gender-related thing. It is a concept. I think maybe, maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to do it because it’s not something that’s either specifically male or female in that regard.

Miller: For me, it’s about specificity. I’m not trying to write a woman, I’m trying to write June. And that’s kind of what we do as writers, you try to lose yourself in another person and their point of view. And, all the time there are big differences between me and the characters I’m writing. There aren’t too many 53-year-old guys from Los Angeles with three kids on TV. I would very much be restricting my job prospects. But, so I think that it very much is about first being very specific, and second, at least for me, surrounding myself with people who can check me to make sure that I’m not going in a direction that isn’t true.

How much can you tune out the world around you, given recent headlines about the show’s feminism or the pay-parity dispute?

Miller: I don’t tune it out. It’s part of how you understand how your show is doing. But you just don’t dwell in it. It’s an aspect of how the show’s being received. I tend not to read reviews, not because I don’t find them valuable, but because I forget all the good stuff and I only remember the bad things. So I don’t tend to do that for personal sanity reasons. But, I think at least for me, I don’t ignore that stuff but I try not to dive in deeply and try to understand what’s going on. Because that could be your full-time job, and it’s not my job, it’s someone else’s job.

Morgan: I think it’s all part of it. It’s all part of the whole journey that you go on. You don’t get a sense of it here, but back home, because of what the show’s about, we are in the newspapers every single day, and I actually make a point to warning actors coming into the show. I say to them, “nothing that you have ever done up until this moment will prepare you for the level of speculation. Because people in our country are hysterical about it, they don’t know what to make of the royal family, they don’t know whether to torture them, or revile them, or abuse them, or abolish them, to worship them. And so the show has had a huge impact.” It’s very much a part of cultural life and people are confusing what they’re thinking about certain events of the 20th century with what we’ve been writing about them. And so, that stuff plays in the papers all the time. There are always historians who have a book to sell who are coming out and saying, “that’s not how it was, it was like this. You can get it for $9.99.”

Miller: He wore a blue coat. (Laughs.)

Morgan: So, that’s another one of the unexpected things that you just have to accept. When things like when the pay gap thing happened, we’re such a close group of people and such close friends that when a story like that just gets that level of traction, you really feel for Matt [Smith], you really feel for Claire, you really feel for everyone because it’s a really nice community. It’s a great community of people, all of whom are busy trying to do the right thing. And you don’t want people to get hurt, or upset. So, once you’re on this bus, you’re actually a community that is held together for much longer than anyone else would be. Normally I think of film units as seafaring people who come together for a three-month stint, and then they disappear and go off to the next job. But the core of “The Crown” is a handful of permanent staff members who speak to each other every single day, day in day out, year in year out. And you’ve all got to look after each other.

Miller: When you bring in featured actors, it’s hard to go from “I only have to tolerate these other people for six weeks” to “it’s going to be forever.” And whatever my style is dealing with people who annoy me, or dealing with conflict resolution, you actually have to be able to wield it in a professional atmosphere. You can’t just wait for it to end.

Morgan: It’s even thinking about who you’re going to cast — you’ve got to think “I’ve got to be on the bus with this person.”

Miller: Cannot be more right. We have a no-douche-bag policy on our show. That’s the reason it works.

“I just hear her voice and I can’t think about it anymore than that.”
Peter Morgan

What’s the hardest part for you in all that you have to do?

Morgan: It’s not the writing. I think the hardest part is managing your energy, and the degree to which tiredness, sheer fatigue, affect your moods. So I would say that the hardest part is mental and emotional equilibrium.

Miller: That’s exactly right. Energy management begets everything else. So, over the years that I’ve worked in TV the one big thing I did was I protect my sleep because I find that one or two nights of not getting enough sleep, and my productivity dropped. I go from having eight focused hours in a day to seven, to three, to two very quickly. I think the thing for me that is most overwhelming, the thing that’s hardest, is some of the business things that I have to do.

Morgan: It is definitely the fact that for example I’ve now one way or another worked only on this now for four years. That’s too long to be on something and it still be healthy. One of the great things about being a freelancer and an artist is you want to go in many different directions, and I keep thinking of myself as somebody who’s entered into medical practice with a view to working with end of life care, or obstetrics, or even cancer care, or pediatrics, and then you do a good operation on somebody’s elbow …

Miller: … and you’re the elbow guy.

Morgan: You’re just the elbow guy. And all I do is see elbows.

The Queen is your elbow.

Morgan: The Queen’s my elbow. I don’t know how I ended up in this appalling mess.

Miller: Prosecco problems.

So how do you keep it interesting for you? How do you keep your elbow interesting?

Morgan: I bet Bruce is just yearning to write comedy from time to time, or to leap in different directions because it’s an oppressive atmosphere. And in mine, no one quite says what they mean EVER.

Miller: They make fun of me that I can have a whole script where no one ever, ever, ever says what they mean. Every line is the opposite of what they’re feeling. For a whole script.

Morgan: And so you sort of long to stretch in those other directions sometimes, and I always joke that I yearn to write a bunch of profane men doing a bank heist, because it’s the relentless politeness of what I’m writing. And, the lack of violence, there’s no blood at all which is a great shame.

You did have blood. The king was coughing up blood in the premiere.

Morgan: The opening shot. After five seconds into the show I’ve done all my blood count.

Miller: It’s the Pac-Man. Production Pac-Man. You’re writing scripts and throwing them down, and the Pac-Man’s going wah, wah, wah, wah. And eating up them all up. And you’re writing just as fast as you can so that thing can eat them up. It’s a very weird feeling because every fart you take is going to be produced. You’ve got to be careful about what you write.

Morgan: It’s an exciting time to be in television. [Laughs.] And, so what I envy, if I envy other people anything, I envy that part. The sort of being able to have a little pause, work intensely, have a pause, work intensely, have a pause. This is just pretty relentless intensity.

Miller: It’s the wool-gathering part that I miss. I cultivate a great laziness. My big goal is that I get bronchitis for a month and nobody notices. That it runs so well that nobody even notices that I’m gone.

Morgan: I hope you just go for a walk. But what you described sounds lovely. It sounds really lovely.