How ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Team Built a Ruined Washington, DC During a Government Shutdown (Video)

“There were a ton of limitations that the [National] Mall put on us,” VFX producer Stephen Lebed tells TheWrap

Last Updated: August 26, 2020 @ 9:41 AM

“The Handmaid’s Tale” went to Washington, D.C. for its third season, revealing the capital of the fictional Gilead, which looks very, very different from our nation’s seat of government in present day.

That massive on-screen transformation is thanks to the hard work of the costume, VFX, production, casting, makeup and hair departments, who came together during the 2019 government shutdown to build up a dystopian version of America’s capital that might be the most terrifying setting the Elisabeth Moss-led Hulu drama has shown us so far. And they had just three weeks to plan for it all and one day to shoot it.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” team broke down the on-location episode during a “Crafts Masterclass” conversation with TheWrap, which included costume designer Natalie Bronfman, production designer Elisabeth Williams, head makeup artist Burton LeBlanc, head hairstylist Paul Elliot, VFX producer Stephen Lebed and casting director Sharon Bialy, who are all nominated for Emmys for their work on Season 3.

“There were a ton of limitations that the [National] Mall put on us as a production,” Lebed said. “We could only have so many people within the monument at a time. We couldn’t shoot on the steps, we couldn’t close down the Mall at all, so while we’re shooting we had tourists and people who work in D.C. walking around the area. And as soon as our handmaid actresses showed up in wardrobe, a crowd started building. So a big part of what you see in the show had hundreds and hundreds of looky-loos in the background there with their cameras watching. And we had to digitally remove all of those people. We had to recreate the backgrounds because obviously when you take somebody out, you have to replace it with something. And we tried to keep as much of Washington, D.C. as possible, as opposed to taking anything away, we just kept adding on top of what was already there.”

“Production had made banners, but we couldn’t hang them,” he added. “We could only have so many flags. All the banners had to be added. We had hundreds of handmaids, but the script called for thousands, so those had to be added digitally to fill out the Mall.”

What did get taken away, rather than added, were pieces of the Lincoln Memorial, as the episode features a ruined version of the iconic statue.

Williams explained that the reason the head and the hand of Abraham Lincoln were removed was because series creator Bruce Miller thought of them as “being a symbol of freedom and liberty for the United States” and taking them away also took away “all possibility of thought and all possibility of action” from the people of Gilead.

“In one quick look, it sends a very clear message of the power of this new regime and what it has done,” she said.

“In the script, and with conversations with Bruce and Elizabeth, the idea was that Gilead had taken jackhammers to the monument,” Lebed said. “So rather than just reduce the whole thing to rubble, they’d used heavy machinery to break apart as much as possible … The National Park Service provided a 3D model of the Lincoln Memorial and we took that and added more details to it, basically built it up to make it match the real monument — and then went back and destroyed it and started chopping away details.”

For Bronfman, the biggest challenge with the D.C. episode, which she says shows “us what it would be like to live in a much more pious society than where the Waterfords were living — if that was even possible,” was walking a “fine line” while coming up with a costume for these new handmaids “without creating offense to anyone.”

Bronfman said, “So essentially what I did is I tried to grab something from all of the different world religions to show that all of us, at some point throughout history, have covered up women, thus removing their voices.”

Because of the shutdown, only a limited number of crew members were able to travel to D.C., meaning LeBlanc and Elliot had to do a lot of prep work in advance to make sure that the local staff brought on would know how to re-create their work.

“For me in makeup, it was just getting all the information passed to the person there,” LeBlanc said. “We had to get the wiring on the women’s mouths just right, make sure it was all lined up to come down properly with the costume.”

Elliot says that Moss, or “Lizzie” to him, “has a specific way of her hair being done under her caps,” so he had to take photos to help the D.C. team replicate it.

As for casting, Bialy’s focus for this episode was the introductions of Christopher Meloni’s High Commander Winslow and his wife Olivia (played by Elizabeth Reaser), two important figures in-universe.

“We really needed an actor who already exuded some power and strength without saying anything and Chris Meloni’s name came up sort of just as the creative juices started flowing,” Bialy said. “And it was very different from anything he’d done and we were looking for an actor who would also add value and do something different with the role.”

Season 3 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is driven by June’s (Moss) resistance to the dystopian regime of Gilead and her struggle to strike back against overwhelming odds. Startling reunions, betrayals, and a journey to the terrifying heart of Gilead force all characters to take a stand, guided by one defiant prayer: “Blessed be the fight.”

Along with Moss, the series stars Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, Samira Wiley, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer, O-T Fagbenle, Amanda Brugel and Bradley Whitford.

Watch TheWrap’s full “Crafts Masterclass” with “The Handmaid’s Tale” team via the video above or click here.