“It has to feel like it could happen to you”: How “The Handmaid’s Tale” designed dystopia

It feels real.
It feels real.
Image: AP Photo/Vince Bucci/Invision
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Hulu designed The Handmaid’s Tale, its grim TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel of the same name, as if it could happen tomorrow.

The show, released today (April 26) is set in and around what was Boston, Massachusetts, during a totalitarian future in which women (called “handmaids”) are forced into sexual slavery because of a worldwide fertility crisis. But the show’s setting is eerily reminiscent of modern-day US. The architecture is ripped from a typical New England town. Much of the artwork on display in homes on the show could be found in a real Boston art museum. And the supermarkets, if not for the total absence of advertising, look like your usual American grocery store.

The cues of present-day America are what make the show all the more devastating. “I wanted viewers to remember that this isn’t the past or future, it’s now,” production designer Julie Berghoff told Curbed. “It has to feel real, like it could happen to you.”

It’s a trick Berghoff may have picked up during past gigs, like when she was production designer for horror movies like Saw and The Conjuring films. She also worked on the dark, fantasy-adventure The Last Witch Hunter and AMC’s violent, offbeat TV series Preacher.

For The Handmaid’s Tale, Berghoff and her team reportedly studied New England architecture and sourced locations in Toronto, Canada, where the series was filmed, that mirrored those elements. The handmaids were filmed walking through modern, public spaces like Toronto City Hall and Front Street and The Harbourfront Centre in downtown Toronto, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

A lot of the art featured in the show, particularly in the house of the Commander, who is married to painter Serena Joy, were re-creations of works from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The feeling was that, if the government was overthrown, the extremists in power might take some of the more prominent pieces for themselves.

The sets were also stocked with furniture and other elements that might be found in a real 2017 household. The kitchen was one of the most challenging set to dress in this way, because the show’s repressive Gilead society banned appliances. Instead, the room was stocked with herbs, copper pots, and other basic kitchen tools.

The supermarket, meanwhile, was created entirely from scratch because there was no comparable space devoid of modern branding. The set design team reportedly designed more than 500 labels for the various common goods that were stocked in the different markets on the show.