Entertainment TV On the set of The Handmaid’s Tale, the bleakest show on television

On the set of The Handmaid’s Tale, the bleakest show on television

handmaids tale
"It's still miserable but it's very, very good," Australian cinematographer Zoe White says of The Handmaid's Tale season two. Photo: SBS
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Here’s a guarantee: The opening scene of the second season of smash-hit TV series The Handmaid’s Tale will leave you quivering in your seat.

“I’ve seen it 15 to 20 times and it still leaves me absolutely breathless,”  the show’s Australian director of photography, Zoë White, said.

“It [features] the most unexpected and beautiful [use of] a Kate Bush song you’ll ever find and it was just so beautifully, let’s say, executed.

“No pun intended.”

Without giving too much away, the scene in question concludes with one character demanding in a voiceover: “Our father who art in heaven. Seriously? What the actual f––k.”

It’s a fairly accurate summary of what follows in the second season of the brutally dystopian drama, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel and produced by American streaming service Hulu.

After breaking streaming records for SBS with its first season – which hit Australian screens two months after its US premiere – the show’s second season premiered on SBS on Thursday, a day after the US.

White was one of two directors of photography working on the Toronto-based shoot, which ran from late September 2016 to early April this year and involved many a late night filming incredibly bleak material.

For New York-based White, however, the experience was a surprisingly joyous one, thanks in part to the work ethic of the show’s star and executive producer, Elisabeth Moss.

“To have the honour of seeing that face in close up with such nuance, take after take, for months, it was an almost transcendent experience and a privilege to watch that calibre of performance,” White said.

“I don’t know how you could do any better,” she added, referring to Moss’ performance as Offred, a sexual servant or “handmaid” charged with the sole duty of bearing children.

The show’s first season nabbed two Golden Globes and eight Emmys for its portrayal of the oppressive society of Gilead, a version of the US where a militant, totalitarian regime has been installed following a civil war.

Due to an increasingly low birth rate, women are regarded as property of the state, with society’s remaining fertile females kept against their will by the country’s wealthy elite as vessels for their heirs.

Season two sees a pregnant Offred working for the state’s resistance movement, while her peers including Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) have been relegated to the “colonies”, where enemies of the state are sent to clean up toxic waste.

So does it get any lighter? “It’s still miserable but it’s very, very good,” White laughed.

One of the show’s characteristically sombre scenes, shot by Australian cinematographer Zoe White.

Having recently been named one of Variety‘s 10 cinematographers to watch in 2018, White wasn’t exactly flying under the radar before she scored this gig, but admits it was a substantial step up in terms of exposure.

“It was huge to receive the invitation to shoot on this because I was already a fan,” she explained.

“It was the first time for me stepping into a project that was already known. With that came a sense of huge responsibility and some self-inflicted pressure to do it justice.”

Plus, the costumes and sets were a cinematographer’s wonderland.

“They’re the most beautiful sets,” White said.

“They have an immersive quality because they’re all enclosed and every detail when you’re inside is thought through – all the paint colours are carefully chosen and all the furniture is antique.

“The only thing missing is when you look out the window there’s nothing out there.”

Acquiring the second season of the show at the same time as the rest of the world was a coup for Australian public broadcaster SBS, which refused to reveal the financial details of the deal.

“Off the back of The Handmaid’s Tale season one, which Australians connected with immensely, SBS is delighted to be able to offer audiences the chance to see season two as soon as it is available internationally,” an SBS spokesperson told The New Daily.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the sort of program you wouldn’t typically see on a mainstream broadcasting platform and builds on SBS’s long history of bringing unique and niche programs to Australians.”

The Handmaid’s Tale season two airs Thursdays on SBS at 8.30pm and is available on SBS On Demand.

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