Why do we do it? Why do we create? We paint, sing, dance, write poetry, screenplays, and songs. Is it to express a feeling or a thought that just can’t be communicated in any another way? Is it to work through a traumatic moment in our lives we can’t move beyond? Maybe it’s an effort to reach out to others, to shout into the void a warning or a message that can touch another soul. Station Eleven, the post-apocalyptic television show based on the novel by Emily St. John, grapples with this deep, existential question, and deftly probes how art and expression not only allow us to survive amidst unspeakable tragedy, but to thrive.
It’s rare to watch a television show that actually has something to say, something new and profound to add to our lives. And to execute that message with such style, grace and even humor, Station Eleven is truly a unique, marvel to behold.
Awards Radar was fortunate enough to speak with the creator of Station Eleven, Patrick Sommerville, and producer Jessica Rhoades about the show.
Patrick described how he approached the herculean task adapting a novel with dozens of characters that spans decades and crosses continents.
I was really drawn to the idea that we could tell a story with a really big scale with really big ideas, but to do it in a way that stayed small with their characters, and really tracked the humans on a level that doesn’t usually get tracked with an end-of-the-world story. And for a long time, the producers, who had the rights to the novel, were trying to make a movie. And when I came around years later, to say, ‘Hey, I think this should be a limited series’, they were open to it, because I think that very same reason. It’s a show about humans and characters, a half dozen or so people, a limited series offers a chance to do a deep dive on on a bunch of people, but to still tell a story that connects them. And there’s just not enough time in a feature film to cover all that ground. So it was a great challenge. I loved the book, and I just felt really lucky to get a crack at it. And then when we started developing from there, Jessica jumped on board too. And it’s one thing to say everything I just said and another thing to make it into a TV show, and actually produce it. So that was that was the next step in the journey.”
From the second I read it, I knew I needed to read the next script and the next script and the next script. I met with Patrick and I was like, ‘oh, no, I love this so much. We have to figure out how to how to do it’. I had just made Utopia with Gillian Flynn and so I when when I read the scripts, I thought, ‘uh oh, there’s a graphic novel’. There were some similarities I was nervous about. And I I actually called Gillian and I said, ‘I’m in love with these scripts, but I don’t want to touch anything near Utopia. I want to be respectful’. And she said, ‘I’ve read that book. It’s amazing. You have to do that show.’ So I had the pleasure of doing it.
In a show packed with beautiful imagery, one setting really stands out: the traveling symphony. Twenty years after the “Georgia Flu” wipes out most of humanity, the symphony is a Shakespeare troop that travels around the Great Lakes, performing for the disparate camps of survivors speckled around the region.
Jessica always loved the wagons. Jessica always talks about the wagons she wanted to see the wagon, she want to see Mackenzie [Davis] on the on the horse. I think that Year 20 space just sort of had some iconic, unusual visuals that that were just like electrifying to us. Even though we didn’t know quite how we were going to go from something that’s called a wagon on the page to something that actually is 1000 pound vehicle with its engines ripped out and horse pulling it around. But I think that stuff was pretty special.
There was a few things that I was a fan of in the book, that if the series didn’t give you, you were going to feel like like it didn’t deliver. And so the wagons were absolutely that thing. And then Production Designers are like, ‘Okay, you know, we actually have to put it on screen’. But, personally the shot I was so excited to see in the cut was Jeevan jumping on the stage for Arthur.
In the opening scene of Station Eleven, Jeevan [Himesh Patel] is in the audience watching Arthur [Gael Garcia Bernal] perform The Tempest. Arthur collapses from a heart attack and Jeevan recognizes the symptoms and rushes on stage to provide assistance.
Yes. The first scene of the novel, is what got me when I read the book. And it’s it’s very true to the book, the run from first seeing Arthur on stage to Jeevan, to him and Kiersten having their first conversation. It’s just one of the one of the greatest beginnings I had ever read and setups for for unexpected. What was what was about to happen to all those people?
In contrast to most post-apocalyptic shows, the world of Station Eleven is lush and beautiful. Set 20 years after the fall of civilization, humans have used their creativity to reinvent themselves. Unbound by tradition, the characters use whatever they can scavenge to create their costumes, clothes and tools. The world feels vibrant and lived-in. For the audience, it’s like being transported to a different world that’s more serene but just as expressive.
The thing about world-building is, you’re either doing it or you’re not. And when you’re doing it, that means everything the camera sees, everything that the writers have thought through, to everything that every department has to do; we need to get it right on every layer. We put a lot of strain on all of our departments, and they all delivered. But I don’t think it feels real unless you do everything. We went all the way down to the level of the folk songs that they’re singing in episode two. Dan Romer and I wrote the eight original folk songs that were folk songs that people would have written in the time between the lapse and Year 20, because if they’re singing the wrong song, again, it stops feeling real. If you don’t do the work, and it was critical for the show that that you never once sort of like dropped out of the dream, dropped out of the story of how the world had changed.
And the thing about building a world that feels tangible and real, is the work of every single person, not only department heads, but every single crew member, every single cast member. And I think that one of the beauties of the show is, Patrick, the writers’ visions, all of this. And then, you know, they created it all. But then Patrick had to lead and Patrick had to share that vision and make sure everyone was on the exact same page. Then the thing he did that was so unique, especially in the environment we were in, because it was so big, was he allowed everyone to have some authorship. And so production design, hair, makeup wardrobe, they would go on tangents, they’d go on ideas. We had the wardrobe department literally dumpster diving, because they felt like items had to feel found, you know, our makeup team, like what makeup would the symphony have had, and was researching berries and fruit to smudge. And so it just it was it’s an incredible team effort building such a large world.
I love what the show is, exactly as it is out right now. And I think when you’re doing world building like we were, you can always do more and more scenes, more moments, more little glimpses of the world. But I think had we had another another two months to shoot, I just would have loved to be with the symphony in different stops along the way, and really get to know all those other Symphony members, who are our cast. You know that the traveling Symphony was 24 people. And those couldn’t be extras, those were characters. And so everyone in that group, which feels so real to me as a community had a story they were playing, and everyone kind of got a moment, or little little glimpses of who those people were. But I, if we could do anything I would, I would get to know all those rich relationships inside the symphony even even more.
Patrick had, unfortunately, to kill some of his darlings. When asked about the moments from production that really stood out, this is what Jessica had to say.
A few of the live music moments, very specifically, because we were all a year plus into a global pandemic, when we shot those scenes. When Deborah Cox brings down the house with Midnight Train to Georgia, we were at the at the airport we were surrounded by the cast and crew. And all of a sudden you’ve felt what live music feels like. And everyone felt it. And it was such one of those a just amazing opportunities to be on set with Deborah Cox singing A Midnight Train to Georgia, but also even more you were so aware of the thing we were making, of what does art do? What does performance do for community? And it was pretty astounding and emotional. So it’s that’s hard to top.
For me, I would say there’s something special about every day that we we shot the show, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel that feeling again. And I think it has to do with community and the imagination that was just so on display and wild and swirling and chaotic that just was every day of work for six months. That to me culminated to the day we walked in when we were shooting the Hamlet sequence in Episode 10. We all walked we walked into the space and finally the wagons were put together. The costumes were starting to come out and be put on the actors. The lighting was set up the the choreography of the play was was set and the sun was going down. And we were going to shoot all night, and all the HODs were coming out to see all of the work of everyone, so densely packed into this one space at one time. Part of the power I think of that part of episode 10 in the ending is like you can’t see a pixel on your screen, that isn’t an idea someone hadn’t nurtured and followed through all the way over the course of two years. It’s in every single element of the story all at once, for this very special little sequence. You could feel it standing there on the day that it was all of our work together, all in the same place at the same time. And sort of the end point of a really long journey that and it worked. I couldn’t believe it worked!
Station Eleven can be seen on HBO Max. Watch below for the full interview with Patrick & Jessica.