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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Crew on Why the Lincoln Memorial Shoot Was Worth the Effort

Shooting on location at a national monument may seem glamorous, but it often involves extensive prep to comply with strict regulations, restrictions and crowds — all for a short on-screen moment. For the cast and crew of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the seven months of planning and negotiations required for a one-day shoot at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for Episode 6 of the show’s third season was more than worthwhile.

“Nothing beats a real location,” says production designer Elisabeth Williams, who’s earned one Emmy and was just nominated for another for her work on the series. “It’s an odd thing, but I think you can feel the spirit [of it] through the screen.”

The production’s D.C. locations manager, Carol Flaisher, is responsible for smoothing the way for the production. She specializes in the area and knows the ever-changing rules for shooting at locations in and around Washington. Flaisher submitted maps and exact plans that included where the production would place everything, including its video village and the large tents for dressing hundreds of background actors as handmaids.

One of the production’s needs at the memorial was shooting a scene around the Lincoln statue, located in an area called the chamber that comes with specific complications: Though the crew was permitted to film in the chamber, only five people at a time could be there and no dialogue could be recorded, Flaisher says. “The reason they restrict the chamber is because of demonstrations,” she notes. “Once you allow a demonstration [in], you’ve set a precedent.”

Other rules prohibit the production from using chalk or painter’s tape to mark actors’ positions, so “they better remember where they’re standing,” says Flaisher. The production also cannot bring in lighting or put any equipment on the irreplaceable marble floor.

Williams had to create workarounds for the shoot. Since the crew was allowed to place only a few banners at the location, it put C-stands with yellow balls on top as markers for the visual effects team to create additional banners. 

The crew also had to deal with the limits of working in a public space. Though the shoot was meant to be confidential, word spread quickly to fans of the series once the show’s distinctive costumes were spotted. And since the memorial is a National Historical Site open to the public, visitors must be allowed access to all parts of the location. To maintain the look of the show’s dystopian near-future setting, the production was allowed to restrict entry only for short, incremental periods, requiring takes to be as efficient as possible for production to finish on schedule.

The restrictions extended to the large prop guns carried by the guardians. Local laws maintain that working guns and gun reproductions cannot be driven through certain parts of town. “You can have a truck with guns stop at the city line,” says Flaisher, “and a D.C. officer will meet you and take it to wherever it needs to go. Then the [guns] come to the set with a call time like everybody else.” 

Despite the challenges, the process was worth the effort to shoot a show with a vital civil rights theme at the Lincoln Memorial. “Freedom and democracy are honored here where we stand,” says executive producer Warren Littlefield, a two-time Emmy winner. “I cannot imagine [this] being done anywhere else.” 

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