Liz Garbus interview: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ director

Among the 21 Emmy nominations Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” scooped up this year is the seventh career citation for two-time champ Liz Garbus, who is nominated for directing the show’s season 4 finale, titled “The Wilderness.” “I was really lucky to helm that very special episode, and I’m so pleased that it’s resonated for people,” the director says in response to her individual recognition from the TV academy. In our exclusive video interview (watch above), Garbus talks through the preparation process for the aforenamed installment, the psychological crux of June’s (Elisabeth Moss) arc, and the intimate nature of Fred’s (Joseph Fiennes) salvaging. 

The series is based on Margaret Atwood‘s 1985 novel of the same name, which is set in a dystopian near-future America, where women are enslaved as ‘handmaids’ due to plummeting birth-rates and forced to bear children for the ruling class in the new authoritarian Gilead theocracy. A now 75-time Emmy nominee and 15-time winner, the show took home the Best Drama Series honor in 2017 and became the first series on a streaming service to take home a series prize at the Emmys.

“The Wilderness” marks not only Garbus’ first directorial effort on “The Handmaid’s Tale” but also her scripted TV debut in general. The episode, which ultimately culminates in the salvaging of Fred at the hands of June and other female Gileadean refugees, is the “bookend to an amazing, tragic struggle for June,” Garbus describes. Since the installment accordingly draws several parallels and makes references to the show’s pilot, “Offred,” both visually and narratively, the director reveals that she went back and studied the entire series. Ultimately, however, it was important to her that she not only honored the “special” style of the show but also brought her “own fresh new take on it.”

“To me that scene is the set piece of the episode,” Garbus says about June meeting Fred in his cell in the Canadian detention facility, which she considers the psychological crux of June’s story in this installment. “I think June walks in there wanting to convince herself to keep that pot on a simmer and enter life as a normal Canadian mother,” the director continues, highlighting that by the time June leaves, she knows “that is not her path.” This comes after Fred meekly tries to apologize for his innumerable crimes and to identify with June, convinced that his manipulative attempt will be successful. Making an apology in this context is almost an implicit indication that “maybe it could have not happened; maybe there was some other choice,” Garbus — who reflects on her recent HBO docuseries, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” which explores Michelle McNamara’s investigation into the dark world of the violent predator she dubbed “The Golden State Killer” — explains. In terms of the scene’s staging, Garbus expounds that she wanted Moss “to inhabit that space, to walk around, to touch all his things” in order to “diminish his [Fred’s] sense of privacy and ownership the way he had done to her [June]” and to make it seem as though June “was circling her prey.” 

Even though Fred’s ultimate salvaging references the salvaging from the aforementioned series opener — which the handmaids carry out on a man convicted of rape — this one is “a lot more intimate,” Garbus underscores. She explains that this one is primarily about two people, June and Fred, the power dynamic between whom is foregrounded not just in this scene but also in the opening scene, which is a flashback to June and Fred dancing in Jezebel’s. Garbus describes the latter scene as being “the flip side of the salvaging, where you know June is trying to control herself. The director concludes, “She is that still person the way that you know that Fred had to be in his cell. She is that person who cannot move, who has this vulture on her, possessing all of her body and all of her things, and she cannot do anything. So, this is the flip side of that, and this is her owning him, controlling him and making him helpless in a very intimate way.” 

Garbus received five of her preceding six nominations as a producer of documentaries or docuseries, for “The Farm: Angola, USA” in 1999, “Ghosts of Adu Ghraib” in 2007, “Bobby Fischer Against the World” in 2012, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” in 2016 and “The Fourth Estate” in 2018. She won for “Ghosts of Adu Ghraib” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” the latter of which also earned her a directing nom and one of her two Oscar citations for Best Documentary Feature, with the other being for “The Farm: Angola, USA.”

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UPLOADED Aug 16, 2021 1:30 pm