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How MGM Birthed ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ for TV

Variety logo Variety 7/12/2017 Cynthia Littleton
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The journey that “The Handmaid’s Tale” took from page to screen is a prime example of how MGM Television aims to compete in the scripted TV arena against its larger studio competitors.

Steve Stark, MGM’s president of television production and development since 2011, shepherded “Handmaid’s” through multiple networks and two showrunners before the series became a triumph for Hulu earlier this year. MGM has the resources of a major studio but takes a boutique approach in development, as it also demonstrated with its unconventional approach to the TV adaptation of FX’s “Fargo.”

“There’s a producing component to what we offer (talent) that is important. We don’t rush,” Stark told Variety. “It’s like we’re doing features in television. We don’t mind taking our time to make it right. We’re a more nurturing place in that way.”

The development of “Handmaid’s” began not long after Stark joined MGM in the fall of 2011. Showrunner Ilene Chaiken was on a mission to turn the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel into a series. The project was set up at Showtime but ultimately didn’t move past the script stage. After Showtime passed, Chaiken was recruited as the showrunner for Fox’s “Empire” and thus had to bow out of working on “Handmaid’s Tale.”

Stark was determined to find a new home for the project. FX expressed some interest but Hulu promised a straight-to-series offer if the right elements came together. Stark began the search for a female writer to take a new stab at a script. Given the material, Stark figured there was no way a male writer could do justice to the dystopian tale of a future America where women are subjugated in brutal conditions under a twisted theocratic regime.

But as Stark was canvassing the town, he kept running into dead ends. Either the candidates he sought weren’t available or they didn’t have a strong passion for the material. During this process, Stark got a call from Bruce Miller, a veteran drama writer he had worked with on the NBC drama “Medium” during Stark’s tenure as head of Kelsey Grammer’s Grammnet production banner.

Miller was a devotee of the novel and desperately wanted to do the series. Stark turned him down. “I kept saying ‘I have to hire a woman for this story,’ “ Stark recalled.

But as time went on and Miller’s ICM reps kept pushing, Stark finally took the meeting. Miller won the job through sheer passion and the specificity of his pitch.

“It’s a great example of how you have to find the right person who just connects with the story,” Stark said. “I’m just lucky that Bruce and I had a good relationship and that he kept calling.”

Miller’s pilot script was strong enough to attract “Mad Men’s” Elisabeth Moss to the lead role and Warren Littlefield as an executive producer, which sealed the straight-to-series deal with Hulu.

Stark’s determination to tell the story through a female lens came to fruition when it came time to choose a director for the first episode. Reed Morano, a cinematographer turned director, did not have a long list of TV directing credits. But she brought in a vision that blew Stark and the rest of the team away.

Morano presented them with a 40-page spiral-bound notebook of imagery she’d assembled to explain her view of how the world of “Handmaid’s” Gilead should look and feel. And then she handed Stark a CD with music cues to add to the mood and tone.

The decision was made to hire Morano to helm the first three episodes — a huge gamble on a director who’d never done a pilot before. “That was kind of crazy but she was just so fantastic,” Stark said.

Stark’s boss, MGM Television and Digital president Mark Burnett, came into his leadership role at the studio after “Handmaid’s” was well on its way. He was supportive of Stark’s instinct that Morano was the one for the directing assignment. A year later, the rave reviews and Emmy buzz for “Handmaid’s” has become a calling card for MGM Television.

“There was not really a reason on paper to hire Reed for this job but she has proven herself,” Burnett said. “You look at what she does with the camera in (‘Handmaid’s’) and say ‘Wow. Watch that space.’ “

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