Arriving at Station Eleven
Patrick Somerville, showrunner of HBO Max drama Station Eleven, looks back on the making of this post-apocalyptic series set both before and 20 years after a devastating pandemic sweeps around the world.
When Patrick Somerville first began working on Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic drama about the survivors of a deadly pandemic, he could have had no idea how events in the fictional series might mirror real life by the time the series would air.
But despite the unfortunate timing that saw Station Eleven launch on HBO Max in the US in December, following lengthy production delays caused by the onset of the real-life Covid-19 pandemic, the series has won plaudits from critics and viewers alike for its unwavering sense of hope and optimism as its ensemble cast of characters attempt to rebuild their lives. The story also explores how art can survive even the most catastrophic events and be used to understand the world before and afterwards.
Now back at home with his family in LA after filming the series – first in Chicago and then in Toronto – creator and showrunner Somerville is able to reflect on how the series has resonated with audiences around the world.
“That doesn’t always happen,” he tells DQ. “You can have the best of intentions but, a lot of times, something different happens. But this one really just feels like it’s connecting with people in the way we hoped it would.
“You can poke at Station Eleven and think about it in all sorts of different ways, but fundamentally the show is about shared emotion. I’ve gotten a lot of pretty powerful emotional reactions from people I know and don’t know who watched the show and really cried a lot or felt a lot. In the pandemic, one of the many strange alien offshoots of this experience has been a general emotional malaise, and I’m happy if the show has helped at all with people with that regard.”
Based on the novel by Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven spans multiple timelines that unfold at the outset of the pandemic and 20 years later. Mackenzie Davis stars as Kirsten, an actor who finds a home with the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of Shakespeare actors and musicians. Himesh Patel is Jeevan, who takes care of Kirsten at the start of the pandemic, sheltering together in the apartment belonging to his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan).
Other cast members include David Wilmot as Clark, who leads an isolated compound at an abandoned airport; Daniel Zovatto as Tyler, the son of famed actor Arthur (Gael Garcia Bernal) who becomes a cult leader; Lori Petty as Sarah, co-founder of the Travelling Symphony; and Danielle Deadwyler, Arthur’s first wife and author of a graphic novel called Station Eleven. Matilda Lawler plays the young version of Kirsten.
Somerville had first read Mandel’s novel upon its publication in 2014 and was drawn to its focus on what happens before and after a huge disaster, rather than the disaster itself.
“It is interesting because it’s also about art. That sounds really pretentious to say but I loved it because it reframed art as a tool for problem-solving and communication and how art is integrated into our daily lives,” he says.
“I also loved the giganticness of the scale of the story, and the way it operated in small local spaces too. For me, as a short story writer originally, that just presses all my buttons because I love little tiny moments. But I love Return of the Jedi and gigantic space operas too. It’s stretched on both ends of the spectrum in a way that a lot of projects aren’t.
With writing credits on HBO’s The Leftovers and as the creator of Netflix’s Maniac and HBO series Made for Love, Somerville has a habit of exploring high-concept stories that are rooted in science-fiction.
Station Eleven certainly looks to be a continuation of that trend, but if there is a relationship between all of his previous projects so far, Somerville always looks to find an interesting story and tell it in a different way – “or a lot different in the case of Maniac,” he jokes. “But that puts storytelling tools in my hands that I really like, which is taking deeply familiar stuff we take for granted and looking at it again. There’s so much content [on television], I’m of the opinion that if you make a show, you’ve got to make it special. You’ve got to make something that no one else would have made or tried to make. That’s usually my guide.”
Adapting Mandel’s novel, the writer immediately made a big change to the source material by deepening the relationship between young Kirsten and Jeevan. When he read the book, Somerville immediately connected with Jeevan, but he’s alone for the first pages of the novel. Now in the series, they are paired up almost immediately as Jeevan, watching a theatre production starring Arthur and Kirsten, rushes on stage when Arthur suffers a heart attack. He then tries to take Kirsten home but, upon learning the seriousness of the growing pandemic, takes her to safety.
In the series, “it’s the best way for two characters to meet,” Somerville says. “We just imagined a little bit more of an entanglement and that really just suggested a lot of the future of the story once we did that. I loved also the airport setting and wanted just to use it even more if we could. And I wanted in the adaptation to really do Shakespeare. You can’t just write a three-line aside about how [the Travelling Symphony] went and did this show, you’ve got to do it. We also knew then we were going to go a little deeper with Tyler and his story as The Prophet as well. That just all made sense.”
The multiple timelines also mean it’s initially unclear what is happening in the present and whether the show jumps backwards or forwards through the story. “I loved that, though,” Somerville adds. “We started with young Kirsten and Jeevan, which feels like now, and then the now in the show drifts as the episodes go on until Year 20 [after the start of the pandemic] is undeniably ‘now.’
“As you watch the show, you’re stuck with this strange feeling of the past being present, which is what life feels like to me, actually. It was a really unique and strange way. We never used the word ‘flashback’ because it wasn’t. There’s two competing timelines that were both ‘now’ for a long time. Then in episode seven, they really fuse into one thing for the rest of the way.”
Don’t describe Station Eleven as a 10-hour movie, though. The complicated structure of the series, not to mention the vast number of regular and recurring characters, meant that in the writers room, Somerville was adamant that each episode would be self-contained in some way.
“With the amount of things that come out these days, people say, ‘Oh, we’re just making a 10-hour movie.’ I do not believe in that,” he says. “That is not what we were doing. We were making 10 one-hour episodes. When you do that, when you really embrace that way of thinking about a limited series, you can then start putting some of the characters as kings or queens of that episode, and you can handle the incredible diversity of character through the idea of, ‘Well, three is Miranda’s episode and episode five is Clarke’s episode and nine is Jeevan and seven is Jeevan, Frank and Kirsten.’ If you think about the episodes in terms of which people we are servicing , it starts to get a little bit less complicated. It’s still quite complicated, but I’ll go to my grave refuting the idea of the 10-hour movie as a concept.”
A real-life pandemic would make the series complicated further, as Covid-19 forced the production to go on hiatus. Filming had started in Chicago and two episodes had wrapped when shooting paused. But backed by HBO Max and producer Paramount Television Studios, resources were put in place to support the project once it was possible to restart. To do that, the show faced huge logistical challenges as production moved to Toronto, where a new crew was assembled.
Somerville remembers a conversation in early January 2020 with one of the crew who pointed to similarities between Station Eleven and real-world news about a virus coming out of China. Then a couple of weeks later, the gravity of the situation became clearer when, following hospital scenes that were filmed at Chicago’s McCormick Centre, he was handed a couple of face masks for his flight back to LA.
Back on the west coast at the beginning of March, Somerville and lead director Hiro Murai were in an editing suite working on the first two episodes when a producer interrupted the session and told them to go home.
“That was the last time we worked together in the same space until all the way to the fall and January and February in Canada,” he says. “We thought we were going to come back in June and keep shooting around Chicago and the woods out there. But we made the decision to move to Canada because Ontario numbers were just dramatically lower and it felt like the only safe way to make the show.
“We had built Frank’s apartment in Chicago for the end of episode one, when Jeevan and Kirsten come in and meet Frank, and we broke it down and trucked it across the border to Toronto and they rebuilt it. So on day one of shooting, I was standing back in the same apartment that I had been standing in in Chicago, only we were in Toronto now, it was a year later and all the same actors were walking in a year older, but we were pretending it was an hour later.”
While Somerville didn’t use the downtime to change the direction of the story and what happened in each episode, he says part seven – where older Kirsten remembers her time in Frank’s flat with Jeevan at the outbreak of the virus – became a uniquely informed episode about what it felt like to be trapped in one place for a considerable amount of time. “You can’t live a year like that and not be a little bit more attuned to a certain set of feelings that are out there in the world,” he notes.
The early episodes filmed in Chicago – involving director Murai, DOP Christian Sprenger, production designer Ruth Ammon and VFX supervisor Marc Kolbe – dictated much of the way the series would be shot once production picked up again, whether it was the occasional objective perspectives captured by overhead drone shots, the camera moving slowly sideways or the distortions that suddenly reveal glimpses of the future, from an empty theatre suddenly covered in vegetation or an L train platform in Chicago reclaimed by nature. Directors Jeremy Podeswaw, Helen Shaver and Lucy Tcherniak and DOPs Steve Cosens and Daniel Grant then developed how Year 20 would look and worked on the show’s outdoor feeling in the new world.
Somerville says it was always his intention to wrap up the story in 10 episodes, though Mandel’s other novels that intersect with Station Eleven could offer new ways to reopen the series. For now, however, the showrunner is developing new film and TV projects through his production company Tractor Beam, while he believes Station Eleven stands up as a fun show about a serious subject. Distributed by Paramount Global Content Distribution, the series is available on Starzplay in the UK and features as part of the International Panorama at France’s Series Mania festival, which begins in Lille today.
“Our intention was never to make homework or lessons in hard emotions and trauma. It all goes back to the core motto of the Travelling Symphony, which is survival is insufficient,” he says. “It was hard to make the show. Everyone’s had a hard few years for sure. But the point is we need to find what we love out there and what’s fun and laugh with other people and be together with other people in art, music or whatever it is we do that brings us together. It’s a good time, it’s not a lot of sad crying. There’s a lot of laughter as well.”