Twenty years after a “Georgia flu” has erased most of civilization, the people who remain have built a new world.
Station Eleven, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel, juxtaposes the early days of the pandemic with a timeline set in the future following a traveling symphony performing Shakespeare plays.
Jeremy Podeswa, an executive producer on the series who also directed three of the 10 episodes, makes a better case for Station Eleven than I ever could.
I’ll just introduce my interview with this: creator Patrick Somerville and his team have made a one-of-a-kind television experience. Station Eleven is my “I’m begging you to watch this show” show. My Emmy plea that goes beyond the confines of any award season. Station Eleven is medicine for the soul that is bold and inventive— breaking your heart and putting it together in a new way.
Read more below:
Awards Daily: I have to start by asking about your relationship to the novel because, as an avid reader, I can confidently say it’s an all-time favorite of mine. It stopped me in my tracks, and honestly, it took me a while to recover after reading it.
Jeremy Podeswa: I was an enormous fan of the novel. It was complex but beautifully rendered, sprawling and intimate at the same time, and it said so much about our world, our priorities, and what really matters in life. It also is a kind of road map through grief and suggests how we find meaning after great loss— through love and through art. It’s a startlingly original novel that is deeply profound and very moving in its own quiet and modest way. Many times when reading the novel, I would feel my eyes welling up just because Emily wrote something that was so humanistic and relatable. Her love for humanity infuses the book and was so inspiring when thinking about our adaptation.
AD: How did you come to the decision to direct episodes two, nine, & 10?
JP: Episode two made sense to direct as it’s the first ‘Year 20’ episode, and it establishes an entirely new world, introducing many new characters and ideas through the Traveling Symphony. It also has the first Hamlet performance, which I knew would be important to get right and would be great fun to bring to life. Episode 9 was always a favorite from the script stage. It’s such an unexpected episode and almost stands alone like a little movie. I loved Jeevan’s character, and equally Himesh Patel as an actor. I loved the juxtaposition of the Jeevan and Kirsten cabin plotline with the birthing centre in a shopping mall story. It was so cinematic and original and moving. And also risky. But I loved the potential in it to be something really special. And the finale… how could I not? It’s the culmination of everything. So satisfying as a resolution and again so emotional as all the storylines converge and resolve. I was in a puddle reading it, and it’s still probably the most emotional storytelling I’ve ever been involved with.
AD: I’d like you to pick one scene from Station Eleven that has stayed with you and walk me through the directing process and what it was like to be in that moment.
JP: There are so many. I think two that stand out are Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) ‘s phone call with the pilot in the finale, and the reunion between Jeevan and Kirsten, also in the finale.
The first was something we shot quite early in the schedule, and Danielle Deadwyler’s performance just knocked me over. It was a very simple scene, Miranda, alone in a hotel room, talking on the phone, and I wanted to shoot it beautifully but simply to give her the space to do what she needed to do. She was incredible, and watching her work was such a great early indication for me of how emotionally potent the story was going to be as we were bringing it to life.
The second was further down the production track, but it was another emotionally loaded scene, this one between Mackenzie and Himesh, that moved everyone to tears. We were shooting all night in the airport terminal and were already in an emotional place after filming Deborah Cox’s amazing and heartbreaking performance of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ so by the time we got to this moment, I think we were primed. And it was everything I’d hoped it would be. The reunion is a long time coming in the show and the actors brought everything to it. Again, my approach to directing this was to give the actors unhurried space and then let them do their thing.
AD: How did you approach directing the finale? It manages to be both visually striking and emotionally resonant.
JP: I was very cautious going into the finale because it was so dense with so many stories and characters that needed to be serviced and resolved. It also spans 20 years, with the past colliding with the present in so many resonant ways. And then it takes an even bolder leap into almost metaphysical territory, with Miranda entering her own creation at the end. And then there’s Hamlet!
So, I approached it very humbly, one scene at a time, through my own S11 lens, which I describe as macro and micro. There needs to be a sense of a broad canvas. This epic cinematic quality makes this story feel bigger than the story of a few characters in an extraordinary situation. In some respects, the show is really about everyone, about humanity, and it needed to feel expansive and intensely visual, with moments that make the hairs on your neck tingle even if you don’t know why. It can be in a close-up, or a drone shot, but the images need to feel like they come from a place of intuition and feeling. At the same time, the show is actually very micro. It lives in the details, in the Station Eleven comic book graphics, in small looks and gestures, and that was something I was alive to, especially in the finale.
AD: What’s your directorial philosophy and how does it relate to the relationship you have with your actors? What about as an executive producer?
JP: I don’t think I have a directorial philosophy per se, but I am always looking for the authentic thing. A director friend of mine says that the work of a director is to be a bullshit detector, and I think that’s pretty accurate. You feel in your bones whether a prop is right, or a piece of wardrobe, or a character’s set is appropriate… or if an actor’s performance is truthful. With everyone, you’re just trying to get at a truth, or at least to something that feels like something true to you. And with actors that’s what it’s about for me, and whatever I can do to help guide them there is really the task at hand. With executive producing, it’s about having a 360 degree view of things always in your head. Everyone working on the show needs to be working towards a single vision and it’s all the producers’ jobs really to bring everyone under one tent for this collective purpose. You’re building a thing and everyone is essential and they need their tools and they need support and they need to understand what role they’re playing in the bigger picture.
AD: You’ve done quite a bit of “prestige TV,” what does that phrase mean to you, and how is Station Eleven different? In my mind, Station Eleven is the closest thing to arthouse cinema that I’ve seen on television for quite some time. Did any of your previous work inform Station Eleven? Will any lessons from the show carry forward to other projects?
JP: I think the idea of “prestige TV” came in with what we now consider the Golden Age of television, spearheaded mainly by HBO in the early 2000’s. Coming from arthouse cinema myself, it’s been great to be a part of so many ambitious and cinematic projects made for TV. It’s been a gift and I’ve been very lucky. And Station Eleven, even more than most, is almost like an extended independent, arthouse film. It is so idiosyncratic and bold, thematically, and formally. It was inventive on the page and even more so in execution and it demanded a kind of care and sensitivity and attention to detail in every aspect that was really special. It has really impacted my thinking about future work. I feel like this show tapped into every part of me as a filmmaker and as a human being in what I think about and what I care about. It sets a very high bar for shows I take on in the future.
AD: I love that the show is so much about art and how the need for creativity is so central to our survival. How has working on Station Eleven shaped your relationship with the art that you create?
JP: I grew up in a family of artists… my father was a painter and so is my brother, so I always believed in the centrality of art and art practice in life. And my drive to be a filmmaker was always about finding my own form of self-expression and using the film medium as a very personal tool to communicate with others. It was never about commerce for me. But I have rarely had the opportunity to make something that so directly addressed why art is so important and what its contributions mean to humanity. S11 makes a very strong case, I think, for art as a tool for healing, and as one of the key things that not only enriches our lives, but gives us meaning and community and hope for the future. When we truly engage with a work of art, it gives us a direct line into the mind and soul of the artist, but also a direct line to everyone else who has engaged with that work and who we now have this bond with through the work. I think the show itself is a great example of that. I feel there is already a community of people who have bonded through this show and what it’s telling us, and even more through the emotions that it evokes.
AD: What aspect of the show has most resonated with you? I just found it to be such a profound exploration of human connection and empathy. What the greatest lesson you hope viewers will take from the show?
JP: I agree. I think the big takeaway is about how we are all connected and that at the end of the day we really only have each other. There’s no going it alone. Art is something that brings us together—making it, sharing it, viewing it, but love, community, understanding, and empathy are the bedrock of everything.
AD: HBO has announced that it will be adapting Emily St. John Mandel’s subsequent novels, The Glass Hotel and Sea of Tranquility. Do you hope to be involved?
JP: It would be a gift to engage with Emily’s imagination again. These are gorgeous and entirely original novels that only she could have written and dovetail with Station Eleven in subtle but fascinating ways. What could be more exciting? Also, Patrick is again adapting, and other key team members are involved, so yes, absolutely.
Station Eleven is streaming on HBO Max.