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Interview: ‘Station Eleven’ EP & Director Jeremy Podeswa Talks about Creation & Renewal

Courtesy of HBO Max

The most prolific television directors are journeymen. They show up for an episode or two during a season, put in the work, then move onto the next show. The producers, the actors, the writers, the director of photography all stay, but the director moves along. The television director’s job is to match the tone and feel of a show. That means they must be adept at comedy, action, suspense, depending on the day. Sure, they can add their own spin on a scene or an episode, as long as they stay on time and on budget.

Unlike their feature film counterparts – who are often lionized for their artistic vision and genius – the television director is mostly unsung outside of the industry. Awards Radar had the absolute pleasure to speak with one such director: Jeremy Podeswa, who after decades of putting in the work directing episodes on The Chris Isaak Show, Queer as Folk, Carnivalé, Six Feet Under, Rome, Nip/Tuck, Weeds, The Pacific, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Trueblood (just to name a few), recently Executive produced and Directed episodes of HBO Max’s Station Eleven.

Somehow he managed to do some of his best work even after an incredibly impressive career. I’m not kidding, check out his IMDB page. It’s filled with every quality show on television in the past 20 years.

This is our conversation.

How does this show stand out from all your other impressive work?

Jeremy Podeswa

Station Eleven is an incredibly special show to me, for so many reasons. First of all, I was so drawn to the material and moved by Emily St. John Mandel’s novel. I was moved by Patrick Sommerville’s adaptation of it. I just felt it was so resonant and so timely and said so many of the things that I personally feel so good about saying. It’s the kind of show that I feel the world needs now in a weird way. And, you know, I’m still moved by the show. I directed the show, and I’m moved by it. I had quite a big involvement in the show as an EP and as a director, and I came on very early in the whole process. I feel such a close relationship to the material and to everybody involved in the show. So it’s, it’s very meaningful to me in a lot of ways. I don’t think we ever thought it was going to be as timely as it actually became, due to world events. But I think that, in any time, the show would resonate greatly. I think it speaks to people who have suffered any kind of loss, it speaks to artists very specifically, in terms of how they live and the work that they do and what they contribute to the world. I think people can find a lot of things in it. It speaks a lot to parents and children and about our priorities in life, many, many things. So it’s a profoundly beautiful show.

You directed the Unbroken Circle, which is the grand finale episode. It features a stage performance of Hamlet, and it’s kind of a pet peeve of mine, typically about using a medium that is inherently made for live performance and then translate that onto a screen, it typically doesn’t work as well. Yet, this was so powerful, and it really worked. So I was just curious how you approached achieving something like that?

Jeremy Podeswa

What was so great about the way Hamlet is used in this show is that the characters are speaking the words of Shakespeare, but they’re actually speaking to each other as their characters. And there’s such an incredible mirroring of Tyler’s (Daniel Zovatto) story and Hamlet’s story, that’s actually not in the book, but it’s something that’s very powerfully brought out by Patrick’s screenplay. And it’s this idea that both have suffered a great loss, both are trying to come to terms with this loss and also with a sense of betrayal from the people who are meant to love them, and actually are responsible for this loss. When Tyler speaks to his mother, it’s Hamlet speaking to Gertrude. When Tyler speaks to Elizabeth, the same words apply. Because we’re so invested in those stories, it’s not even Shakespeare anymore. It’s just Tyler talking to Elizabeth, and I think that’s why it feels so immediate. We’re so involved in these characters lives we become engrossed, the words are slightly more stylized, but the intentions and the emotions are completely relatable and understandable. So, as a director approaching this, I was having the actors play the subtextual relationship equally, if not more than playing Hamlet. And I think that’s why it works that way. You know, the psychodrama within the drama is really what it’s about.

I’ve seen Hamlet before performed on stage, and I’d never really cried. And I was tearing up watching this episode. You also had an episode, which was Dr. Chaudhry, which seemed like an insane challenge to me, because you had a hospital full of pregnant women. And some of them were actually pregnant on set. So that must have been really crazy. But the scene also had so much levity. Just wondering how you approached that challenge.

Jeremy Podeswa

I read all the scripts in advance, of course, and then there was a discussion about which ones I would direct. And that was the first one that I said, “I have to do it”. Because it was its own its own little movie. It’s like a moment out of time. We’ve been following the traveling symphony, we’ve been following the backstory of Arthur and Tyler. But now it’s the second to last episode, suddenly, we take this detour and we go back in the past and find out what happened to Jeevan. And when I read it, I was so moved by it, because it has, it has two incredibly beautiful parts to it. The first part is really about his his evolving relationship with young Kiersten and then when they’re alone in a cabin in the woods in the winter. They’re almost like two lovers, like going kind of stir crazy. But they’re also the father and a child. And it’s a very complex dynamic. And then you have this second act, which is completely its own thing, which is this maternity ward in a department store, this kind of ad hoc medical facility that he gets thrown into. His whole life of being aimless, and misunderstood, he finally becomes a healer, which is what he was always meant to be. And it’s such a beautiful arc for that character. The situation is so bizarre and unexpected. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never read anything like it. And when I read this, I thought it’s incredibly challenging. It could completely go pear shaped, but they could also be the greatest thing ever. Because I cried reading it. It was so beautiful, so emotional. And we’re so invested in that character. And I have to say, Himesh Patel, is everything. He plays so beautifully. He’s such a compassionate, emotive, beautiful actor. And so he just really makes it everything. And then these amazing women, I knew if we cast it well, and, you know, if we found the right tone for it, it would just be the greatest thing. I’m so so happy with that episode. And it brings me to tears every time I watch it.

We brought in doulas and the specialists and maternity and birthing process and we had like long discussions with all the women who were there so I would give them person who hadn’t and discussed what would it be like in this post pandemic world to give birth? In this kind of situation. Psychologically, what is this you’ve lost everything but there’s new life within you. And what does that mean to give birth in this devastated world, but still having some sense of hope. I think, all of that really contributed to the kind of very unusual tone of what it is, which is, weirdly unbelievable, but at the same time, completely believable, because you just buy it on an emotional level.

I was so worried about that Jeevan character because that is obviously the one I identify the closest with. Jeevan is just trying to figure things out his place in the world. I’m used to the traditional post apocalyptic show, just terror and horror and violence. So that was such an odd left turn I didn’t see coming. And there was something so beautiful about it, this idea that art will save us, right? Art and creation. This rebirth of life. Humans are not going to just stop being humans just because society falls. And to see this very feminine side of the Apocalypse, this idea of rebirth and regrowth was just so beautiful. It felt so fitting, Why don’t we hear these sides of stories, right? Why is it always doom and gloom? Why is everybody so violent and awful?

Jeremy Podeswa

That was one of our earliest discussions. That this post pandemic world was not going to be any of those things, it’s not The Last of Us, it’s not The Road, it’s not Walking Dead. Because when there is a seismic shift in the world, even after a great tragedy, there’s also opportunity for growth and change, and reinvention. In this post pandemic world, with nine tenths of the world population dead, you can be whoever you want to be. You can say you are whoever you are. And that’s something that’s not thought about very much. I think Patrick was really intrigued by this idea of reinvention, that people now have the opportunity to just kind of declare themselves as something new. And, in the end, in the process, truly find themselves.

Your career is essentially directing these episodes in the series. You’re trying to fit something in seamlessly with tone and approach, but obviously you put your own stamp on it. So I’m just wondering how you thread that needle of doing something that’s very much your production, but also, at the same time, trying to match it to everything else that’s come before and after?

Jeremy Podeswa

I’ve been doing this for a very long time. So I certainly have thoughts about that, which I’ll say in a second. But I think it was a little bit different, because I was still very much involved in the world creation here. Hiro Murai directed episode one and three, which were contemporary and set in Chicago, in the winter. And then, episode two, which I directed, is 20 years post pandemic, in a world without electricity, without internet without all the modern conveniences. And it’s kind of imagining, what is that world? And what is this traveling symphony, this group of random people that came together to become a band of artists in this post apocalyptic world? It was almost like creating a new show, this post pandemic world. The role here was to find a common language with Chicago and certain visual touchstones, but then build and create a whole new thing off of that. What I do very often, when I go into a TV show, is I try to work within the language of the show or the vernacular that show had already has established, and then hopefully, bring in a little bit of freshness. And so I find new ways of expanding the language or of employing the language in an innovative way to tell the specific story that you’re telling, and bring yourself to it. Rhe reason why they bring me in, or any director in, is to bring that new fresh perspective onto something. I always say, ‘you can sort of you can bend the show, but you can’t break it’. You’re encouraged to bring who you are, bring your taste, your aesthetics, your choices, to to a world that is established, and you can expand that world, but you can’t blow it up. So it’s always like a little it is a bit of a fine line to walk. But it’s a very interesting challenge. And I I tend to work on shows where the language really speaks to my established language. And I feel like yes, this is a language that I’m really comfortable working in. I enjoy this. This is a world I appreciate. And so I feel like I can bring myself to that because I’m already in it.

For this one, you stopped down because of COVID. And I’m sure it affected all different parts of production. Did you get the amount of rehearsal time you would normally get with your performers and did COVID affect that at all?

Jeremy Podeswa

COVID affected everything. Two episodes were shot, pre COVID. And then COVID hit. It ended up being a nine month a break before we could go back to work. And then during that time, we really didn’t know when or how or where we were going to shoot the show. So a lot of it was just planning. But, you know, while we had all this downtime, it actually give us a lot of time to really think about the world building for the next part of the show. And to think about what does the Traveling Symphony look like? It was time well, well used, actually. And also helped with some of the cast, because McKenzie Davis in particular was involved very early on. And she hadn’t worked at all in those first two episodes. During those nine months, there were many conversations about ‘what is this post pandemic world?’ What is your backstory? I won’t say that there were like rehearsals per se in a conventional sense, but there was a lot of discussion about character and context and background.

Was there any time for like improvisation on set? Or is that kind of how you like to work, to stick really close to a script?

Jeremy Podeswa

I think there’s always room for in the moment stuff to happen. But the scripts were really, really good. And that helps. It helps a lot. Typically, the way I work is, I will spend time with the actors in advance. Going through the script, very meticulously. I’ll get together with actors singly, so we’ll kind of go through all their scenes together, we’ll read through them. Is there anything that bumps for you? Or do you have questions about this thing or that thing, and then we can take those questions back to Patrick, in this case, and continue the conversation around everything that’s in the script. And then I’ll get pairs of actors together who work together a lot. And we’ll go through the scenes together. So a lot of the discussion that you might have on set we have in advance because I’d rather not do it when we’re shooting, I like to take the time ahead of time. And then the actors come in, and they know that they processed everything and they’re happy with it. And by the time we get to set, the script is the script. During the pandemic, we did it on Zoom. It was definitely an evolution, Patrick really responds to the actors. 

As Patrick was seeing the show being filmed, he would make adjustments to things that were coming up. And he’s also very responsive. Like when we’re in production, he becomes very responsive to locations, things he sees, and other things that have been shown already and then wants to make changes. It’s a lot more fluid. This way of working with with Patrick in particular, but it’s great because he’s very alive to what’s happening. And it’s not like the script isn’t really this rigid thing that’s written like two years before and you can’t change it. It changes in the rehearsal. It changes as it’s shooting, changes in the editing. He keeps everything really fresh and alive.

You get that sense, when you watch Station Eleven, different from many other shows s that it does feel lived in. TV generally doesn’t lend itself to that. I’m actually encouraged to hear that there a lot of flexibility was allowed. It felt like a real community you’re living with.

Jeremy Podeswa

It was a huge thing for us, especially with the traveling symphony, they really felt like a troupe that’s been traveling for 20 years around the Great Lakes area and performing. I know theater trips, I know, lots of actors like that, it was really important to me that this feels like a real thing. And so we spent a lot of time with this group of actors together, just kind of getting to know each other. And we actually cast a lot of people that didn’t know each other, in fact, from the theater communities, and like, it was a very eclectic, very interesting group of people that we brought together to be this troupe. And they really gelled and, and it was really important to us that they gel as a company. It was a big thing with the production designer, the costume design hair and makeup, that you believe that these people live on the road, that it’s a scavenging culture. Nobody goes to the store to buy anything. What is it to live in this kind of nomadic way, as an artist as a creative person, and you use your clothing to express your personality, and you make you make props out of junk that you find, and vehicles that don’t drive anymore and have to be pulled by horses. There was so much invention and routing and grounding it in this new kind of reality. And that went for everything. Everything was considered and created in a way that really gave it a texture and a depth and I lived in aspect.

Is there anything else you want to add about Station Eleven and your journey with it?

Jeremy Podeswa

It’s definitely one of the most creatively satisfying projects I’ve ever been involved with. And as you know, I’ve done a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever done a show where I laughed and cried so much at every stage, and felt like, every, every bit of juice that I have, I could use, you know, like, to the surface of this show. And that also came back to me. I feel like I gave it 150% or 1,000%. And it came back to me 1,000% in the in the rewards of making it. So extremely satisfying. So I think and I think for everybody involved. Making it in the pandemic amplified that even more, because we were making the show before there were vaccines, like it was, there was still a sense that we were risking something to make the show and we were very dedicated to making the show anyway. A lot of us were separated from our families, and we were in a pandemic, making a show, and feeling good about it, because we cared about what we’re making. I don’t think I’ll ever have that experience again, actually.

Station Eleven is streaming exclusively on HBO Max.

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Written by lukonianlogic

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