This story about “The Handmaid’s Tale” star and director Elisabeth Moss first appeared in the Comedy & Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
After three seasons of leading Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” on screen, Elisabeth Moss decided it was time to take charge behind the camera during the drama’s fourth season. In signing up for her first directing gig in Gilead, Moss, who stars as renegade Handmaid June Osborne, thought she’d just be sitting in the director’s chair for one episode—but the pandemic changed her plans, luckily, for the better.
“We prepped it, shot for two weeks, shut down for almost six months, came back and kept shooting,” she said. “And it was during (the second block of filming), which was Episodes 4 and 5, that the idea for me directing 8 and 9 came up. Episode 3 had been distributed to the rest of the producers and then to MGM and Hulu, and I got some really, really amazing feedback on it. People were really happy with it. And we needed a director for Episodes 8 and 9.”
Moss said there was a clear key to figuring out how she could pull off directing those back-to-back episodes: “It’s all about the prep time if you’re an actor/director who is in the show as much as I am.” Using the two weeks of Christmas break and two weeks of mandatory quarantining time when she returned to the set in Canada in January, the “Mad Men” alum was able to work out the logistics and get the OK.
Blessed be the fruit of Moss’ labor, which allowed the actress to visually control the narrative in two of the most pivotal episodes of the season for her character. Former Handmaid June has now been reunited with her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley), and baby Nichole in Canada, and is testifying against her former captors, Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). And Moss’ three years of experience starring on the Bruce Miller-created series put her in a unique place to know what “The Handmaid’s Tale” does best — and what she wanted to show viewers.
“Our show, from the very beginning, has been extremely subjective,” Moss said. “From Episode 1, that is the visual language of the show, and it’s very important to us to be more subjective than any other show. And that doesn’t necessarily mean other shows aren’t beautiful. I watch ‘The Crown’ and think, ‘Jesus, I want to go work on ‘The Crown.’ But our show just happens to be very, very subjective. And that allows me to do things that are a little bit unusual and to do a lot of closeups and to really, really get in there with your actors, which I happen to, apparently, love as a director.”
Her love of closeups comes first and foremost from a place of wanting to focus on the story rather than how she’s going to shoot the story, something she learned from Stuart Biddlecombe, who was Moss’ director of photography on all three episodes she directed. “His gift as a cinematographer, if it’s defined by anything, it’s defined by his ability to adapt the visual language to the story,” Moss said. “Story and performance are the most important things to him. That is his style. We start with a script and go through everything and talk about what the scene is about. We don’t talk about where the camera is, we talk about the story that we’re telling. We talk about whose point of view the scene is in.”
That led to ideas like doing June’s lengthy testimony in Episode 8 in a long single shot, “because we don’t want the audience to look away,” or holding tight on the face of Alexis Bledel’s Emily when she sees that a former “Aunt” of hers from Gilead has hanged herself from a tree after trying to reconnect and make amends with her in Canada. “There’s no wide shot,” she said. “It’s all on Emily. And then there are these tight shots of Irene’s body hanging, which is what Emily is seeing in her head. That’s a very, very specific choice to stay with that character.”
Moss also looked to other directors she admires deeply for cues about how to capture her three episodes this season. “The top of Episode 9 is a complete rip-off of Barry Jenkins and Jonathan Demme,” she said. “I fully cop to it. I was watching a Barry Jenkins compilation of close-ups and was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do that.’ I can’t speak for (Barry), but I imagine he was inspired by Jonathan Demme. ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ is f–king full of that s–t, and it’s fantastic, because you feel like Hannibal Lecter is staring into your soul when he’s looking straight down the barrel.”
Moss used that technique to show June and Luke staring silently at each other at the start of Episode 9, after she has finally opened up to him about the traumatizing last time she saw their young daughter, Hannah, who was taken away from them in Gilead.
“I wanted it to feel like they had been talking for six hours and they were exhausted and there was nothing to do but just sit there staring at each other. There’s nothing left to say.” But Moss said everything for them with that choice.
Read more from the Comedy & Drama Series issue here.