By Iain Blair
From day one, the stark images of pure white bonnets and blood-red cloaks in The Handmaid’s Tale have come to symbolize one thing — the oppression of women. The Hulu hit series has also come to symbolize that rare moment in pop culture where difficult subject matter and massive artistic ambition cross over into impressive ratings.
In fact, the show — based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian and prescient 1985 novel of the same name — just received 20 Emmy nominations, including eight acting noms and a second nod for best drama series. It reportedly doubled its audience for the Season 2 premiere (as compared to the first season), after becoming the first show from a streaming service to win best drama at the 2017 Emmys.
Many of the most searing episodes, including “Night,” the finale to Season 1, and “Other Women” in Season 2, were directed by the award-winning Kari Skogland. As CEO of Mad Rabbit, which launched in 2016, Skogland produces one-hour dramas for the international market while she continues her work as a director on The Handmaid’s Tale and the upcoming pilot for Starz’s The Rook. Skogland was included in the 2018 Emmy nominations with recognition of her directing work on the Season 2 episode “After.”
A prolific female director of TV and film, Skogland’s television credits include episodes for the premiere season of Condor (Audience), and such shows as The Borgias and Penny Dreadful (Showtime), Boardwalk Empire (HBO), The Killing, The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead (AMC), Under the Dome (CBS), Vikings (History Channel), Power-Starring 50 Cent (Starz), The Americans (FX) and House of Cards and The Punisher (Netflix). Skogland also directed Sons of Liberty (History), a six-part event miniseries for which she won the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC) award for Best Director of a Television Miniseries.
As a feature film writer, director and producer, Skogland’s film Fifty Dead Men Walking, starring Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and was nominated for another six awards, including Best Film. Additionally, Skogland was recognized by the DGC as Best Director. Her previous film as director, writer and producer was The Stone Angel, starring Ellen Burstyn and Ellen Page. It was nominated for Best Director and Best Writer by WGC as well as Best Screenplay and Best Actress. It also won a Best Film award from the DGC.
I recently spoke with Skogland — the only female nominated in the best directing drama category at this year’s Emmys — about the show, her workflow and mentoring other women.
Why do you think the show’s caught the public’s imagination so much?
I think it’s rooted in many things, one of them being a cautionary tale. Another would be these compelling performances that engage you in the story in an emotional context and a narrative that has the possibility of actually coming true, especially given what we’re seeing on the news all the time now. It’s a weird perfect storm where today’s political climate and this show sort of merge.
I recently read something where Margaret Atwood, who wrote it over 30 years ago, says that everything has happened. It was fiction, but it has happened somewhere in the world since she wrote it, and it’s happening today. So I think the authenticity of the characters and the performances, even more than the events, is what really drives it even further into being so incredibly watchable.
Every character is so complex.
Exactly. You love to hate Serena Joy, but then there are moments where you really feel for her in ways you can’t predict. So your emotional barometer is going up and down.
Fair to say that Atwood’s book and its themes seem more timely than ever?
Definitely. Not only is it very timely now, but it was probably very timely when it first came out too, which makes it even more interesting when you think about progress. Are we really on a treadmill? Have we really moved the political needle at all? It doesn’t seem that different from when she wrote it, when Reagan and the rise of conservatism in America were making headlines.
Have you started Season 3?
Not yet. It’ll probably start filming in September. They’ve asked me to come back, but they don’t have a schedule yet.
What are the big challenges of directing this show?
First of all, you have to be very aware of all of it. When I did the Season 1 finale, I had to watch everything very carefully up until that point so I could continue the emotional story. It was the same thing for Season 2. They’re very challenging performance pieces for everyone, and you have to maintain that sense of continuity and trust. You have to really plan for the season’s arc for each character, and someone like Lizzie [Moss] is so collaborative. But it’s also this path of discovery, where you want to capture the inspiration of the moment.
Where do you post?
We shoot in Toronto and do all the post at Take 5 Productions there. I’ve known and worked with them for years — they’ve won so many awards for their great work. They do all the editing and finishing.
Do you like the post process?
I love it, and with a show like this it’s where you can combine the plan you went into post with, along with those happy accidents and inspired moments, and see the scene or episode come alive in ways you didn’t expect. I always think of it as a way to re-direct the episode. Post is always full of surprises.
Talk about editing. Didn’t you start off as an editor?
Yes, and I am really involved in the edit. I always want to have two options in post. I don’t want to be handcuffed by any decisions made on the set. I need to be able to re-sculpt the footage and rediscover stuff as we go.
You have a big cast, and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
One of the things I really like to avoid is what I call “ping-pong” editing, and doing lazy coverage of a scene where it’s so predictable — there’s the closeup, there’s the wide shot, there’s another closeup! I always want coverage that actually eliminates edits. The goal is to not interrupt the flow by jumping all over the place. With that in mind, I try and shoot with the idea of “the elegant accident,” and that means you sometimes shoot a lot of extra footage so you can find the gold and the gems as you re-sculpt in post. It’s like documentary filmmaking in that sense, and those gems happen in the oddest of moments.
This show has a great score and great sound design. Talk about the importance of sound and music.
The show’s creator, Bruce Miller, is very really instrumental in all that, but we’re all involved too. For episode eight, Joe Fiennes came up with the idea of a record player, and then we built this whole storyline around the record player. The wonderful thing about Bruce’s writing and his aesthetic is that it’s so spare, so it leaves such great opportunities for performance. The actors can convey a lot without any words.
How important are the Emmys to you and a show like this?
It’s incredibly important! When your peers nominate you it’s a real nod from industry professionals, and it indicates tremendous appreciation.
There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?
I’ve been advocating for women for years, and the truth is, nothing’s really changed that much. There’s been so much talk recently, and it was the same thing 20 years ago. One female director had a big hit with Wonder Woman, but real change will only come when half the superhero movies are directed by women.
What advice would you give young women who would like to direct and run shows like this?
Not only can you do it — just do it! Obviously, it’s hard and there are many sacrifices you have to make, but don’t take “no” for an answer.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.