June (Elisabeth Moss) is instructed in how to give birth, even though she’s already done it.Image: Hulu
The latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale broke a lot of ground with its portrayal of a scene that was not only crucial for the series, but also a fantastic representation of a truly human experience. We spoke to the episode’s director about how she and star Elisabeth Moss brought that moment to life, and why it proves we need more women behind the camera.
As mentioned in our latest recap, “Holly” features the birth of June’s (Moss) daughter. The scene is primal and evocative, foregoing the normal tropes of onscreen labour in favour of a realistic portrayal of the experience — right down to Moss herself. While some shows like Game of Thrones have used body doubles and extensive CGI to recreate nudity, Moss chose to wear a prosthetic stomach so she could be the one to perform the scene. The CGI used was mostly to smooth out the belly’s lines.
When we talked to director Daina Reid about the scene, she said she was “excited” when she first read the script, in spite of its challenges. After all, the sequence has no dialogue, relying heavily on Reid’s direction and Moss’ performance. Reid said she and Moss spent a little time getting to know each other before the day-long shoot; figuring out details, as Moss “had a lot of ideas” on how she wanted to do it. To fill in the rest, Reid drew on some of her own personal experience as the mother of two kids, and consulted with midwives to get a clear picture on the experience from someone who observes childbirth for a living.
“One of my best friends in Western Australia is a midwife, and I talked with her at length about it,” Reid said. “We are putting a very long process on television — getting those contractions right, all that kind of stuff — and the timing. And sound was very important to me.”
Interestingly, the research Reid put into the birthing scene wasn’t just because she was doing her job. It was also because, honestly, there isn’t a whole lot of inspiration she can take from — at least in Hollywood. Most onscreen labors are what Reid called “sanitised,” with films like Knocked Up and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith foregoing the realities of childbirth for the sake of jokes or keeping it family-friendly. Let’s not forget how many times a woman on a show or movie has huffed and puffed, then poof!, out pops a flawlessly clean baby.
Reid cited this as the reason why more female-identifying writers and directors are needed in Hollywood (though it’s important to also include the perspectives of others who can give birth). She said cis-male writers and directors tend to filter their film or show’s world through their own lens, and that’s not enough. Since they haven’t lived through childbirth that way — for example, how it can make “you feel transported into another place,” according to Reid — that sells short the experiences of people who actually give birth.
“We can portray an experience like that in a much more visceral, experiential way, as opposed to an idea of what it would be,” she said. “I think it’s important to have a visceral, realised version of all female experiences, because I think often we do not get that… Women are starved of watching the world through their own lens, across the board.”
And that’s a key part of what made the scene of June giving birth so powerful. “In this example, it was going, ‘OK, this is childbirth.’ And really, with a show like Handmaid’s Tale, the only way is to show it that way. A realistic way.”