In an era when many of us are weary of pandemic-related content, Station Eleven, the production of which just so happened to coincide with our real-life pandemic, was a welcome breath of fresh air.
We spoke with three DGC Ontario Members instrumental to the production of this extraordinary miniseries, which recently wrapped up its run on HBO Max: Directors Jeremy Podeswa and Helen Shaver, and 1st Assistant Director Andrew Shea.
Director Jeremy Podeswa, Director Helen Shaver, and 1st Assistant Director Andrew Shea. All photos courtesy of Jeremy Podeswa and Andrew Shea.
Tell us how you became involved with Station Eleven.
Jeremy Podeswa: I had met Patrick (Somerville, the creator of the show) for a general meeting, to talk about some of our work, and we had a really nice meeting. Some months after that, I became aware that the TV adaptation of Station Eleven was being made. When I heard that they were looking for a Producing Director, I was quite interested, so I read the book and Patrick’s pilot script. I just thought it was incredible. The pilot script was so beautiful and moving, and it captured the essence of the novel in a way that was really surprising to me. So I had a meeting with Patrick and Director Hiro Murai, who was already on board to be the first Producing Director and to direct Episode 1 and Episode 3. The understanding was that Hiro had to leave after those two episodes because he was directing a double season of Atlanta for FX, and they needed somebody to help take over the show for the last eight episodes, so it had to be a really good fit with Patrick and Hiro and the material. I just found the project incredibly creative and fresh and moving, and I really wanted to be part of it. And so, fortunately, they asked me to come on board.
Helen Shaver: Last October, Jeremy and I did a Masterclass for the DGC and shortly thereafter, in conversation with him I learned about Station Eleven. I was fascinated. Soon after, I was sent the scripts for Episodes 1 and 3, and I responded to the writing, themes and hopefulness much in the same way the audience is reacting to the finished work. I was deeply moved. Patrick Somerville is a great writer. I expressed my interest and in short order Patrick and I met on Zoom. We connected on many levels: it was an easy, exciting, stimulating conversation… and I knew I wanted to be part of this extraordinary project. I loved the material and felt confident it would use all of me.
Initially, they asked me to direct 4 hours; however, I’d committed to doing 2 hours of Maid and the dates overlapped. Happily, they were able to work out dates so I was able to finish Maid and come to Toronto and direct 3 hours: Episodes 2, 4 and 6.
Andrew Shea: I had the good fortune of working on the movie Fugitive Pieces with Jeremy several years ago, and we hadn’t had the opportunity to work together again, although we had kept in touch. When I got the call that Station Eleven was coming to Toronto with Jeremy on board as Executive Producer and Director, I didn’t hesitate to say yes! I had enjoyed Emily St. John Mandel’s book as well, so it was great to know that there would be significant Canadian creative content on the production.
Script Supervisor Brad Wetherly, DP Steve Cosens, and Director Jeremy Podeswa. Matilda Lawler and Himesh Patel (Young Kirsten and Jeevan).
Andrew, what was your collaboration like with the Directors and Locations team on the series and how did you work together to conceptualize this universe that spans across two different time frames? (immediate post-apocalypse and post-post-apocalypse 20 years in the future)
AS: It was great to sit in on the many Zoom calls with the other Directors (Lucy Tcherniak and Helen Shaver) and creatives as well as Jeremy as the world-building was taking place. It was a huge challenge for the Locations Department (Location Managers Srdjan Vilotijevic and Elmer Jones) to find locations devoid of people and humanity (in the story, 99% of the world’s population has been wiped out) that we could control. There were a couple of locations and sets that required special scheduling to allow for the 20 years of ageing to take place. The Locations Dept, the Art Dept, and Production were able to secure an unused Terminal at Pearson Airport, which was a real coup! This allowed the Art Department the freedom to create a modern working terminal that could also be transformed into the 20 years later look, that includes gardens and housing and other necessities of life after its residents are cut off from the rest of the world for two decades. The Ontario Science Centre, which was also a large component of the Airport set, was closed to the public due to Covid, so we could go in and out and allow for the 20 years of ageing/dressing to occur. Timelines were tight and crews were working around the clock, but everything was ready when required in the end.
From left to right: Nearing the end of principal photography with Andrew Shea, Jeremy Podeswa and MacKenzie Davis (Adult Kisten), seated; Andrew Shea and Steve Cosens (DP); Andrew Shea ponders what to do on a snowy day when two leading ladies were to do a walk and talk wearing bathing suits.
Jeremy, you directed the finale of Station Eleven. How did you envision this story coming full-circle for these characters in multiple timelines?
JP: The finale was all about the script. For me as a reader, it was so satisfying seeing these characters come together, and for the storylines to find closure. It leaves you with a sense of optimism and a sense of love for humanity in a way. The trick was just not to screw it up. The potential was within the script for things to be incredibly moving and satisfying, but you have to “land the plane”. Fortunately, we had such an amazing team of collaborators on the show; the actors, the Production Designer (Ruth Ammon), the Cinematographers (Steve Cosens, Daniel Grant, and Christian Sprenger). Everybody was firing on all cylinders. We didn’t shoot the finale last, but we shot it in the middle of the shooting schedule. It was interesting because it was necessary that all the actors really live in at that moment, yet they hadn’t really gone through the entire arc of their roles by the time we shot. Fortunately, because I had done Episode 9 prior to this, I had some strong working time with Himesh Patel, who plays Jeevan, so I was very confident that we would land that story and I would vibe with the other actors on their other episodes. Everybody just did such a beautiful job. The scenes were so loaded and so emotional, and there were people crying, the crew was crying. I was tearing up through all the scenes in the back third of the show. So I knew when we were shooting that it was all going to come together, but I didn’t know how powerfully it would come together until we cut it. But somehow, all of it really landed. Every storyline had its moments, and it was extremely satisfying to see it all come together. Dan Romer did the score, and he did the most incredible job. And by the end, it was just a little miracle of everything working as it should.
Helen, you got a great shoutout from Director Barry Jenkins on Twitter, about how you spent more than two decades as an Actor before stepping behind the camera as a Director. What prompted this decision initially, and how did you blend your Acting and Directing experience in your Station Eleven episodes?
HS: I’ve spent nearly 5 decades working in film: the first 30 in front of the camera and the last 20 years directing. Sometimes I consider ‘acting’ my undergraduate work. The understanding, love and respect I have at a cellular level for acting, combined with my passion and understanding of the power of the frame, as well as my years of experience on set…I bring all of it to everything I do. I celebrate and honour collaboration, which is at the core of creation in film. Station Eleven used all of it.
Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) and The Traveling Symphony: Andy McQueen, Max McCabe, Deborah Cox, Joyce Chan-Barretta , Ajahnis Charley
We often don’t see the role the arts play in a post-apocalypse world. How did you integrate art, performance and the power of storytelling into a post-pandemic world in Station Eleven?
JP: I love the way the show deals with art, and with artists, and what it means for people to create, and also to experience art. It was important to Emily and Patrick, and everybody who was involved in the show. We are all artists, and we value what we do and think it makes an important contribution to the world and to culture. But you can also make art for art’s sake. Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), for example, spends a good chunk of her life making this comic book, and there are only five copies of it. She’s not doing it to be famous, she’s not doing it for it to be a success. She’s doing it because she has a need to express something personal, but these five copies end up having ripple effects through time and become really significant cultural artifacts, and they’re meaningful to the people who experience them. I think that shows something about the reach of art, even beyond what we’re intending sometimes, and how important it is to the people who are receiving it. Similarly but differently, the Traveling Symphony theatre troupe is composed of amateurs, semi-professionals, professionals who have this feeling that they need to create and bring some light and beauty into this devastated world with whatever materials they can get together. They’re performing for small groups of survivors around the Great Lakes area, and it’s received beautifully by the communities. It has real meaning in this time when there’s so much darkness and people live through such trauma.
I think the show says many things about the beauty of art and its healing quality. It can feel a little self-aggrandizing if you’re an artist to make something about how great artists are, and how important art is, but I think there’s something about Station Eleven that really connected to audiences without feeling self-important, which I’m really happy about. And maybe that’s because the art is presented in a way that’s so accessible. Making art for the people or for yourself, or just for the joy and the pleasure, I think people can relate to that. I’ve had an amazing reaction to the show from theatre practitioners who have really appreciated how it accurately depicts what their work is, and gives it a kind of validity. Artists are often diminished in society by certain quarters, and they are not really appreciated for what they have contributed, because many people are stuck in this idea that society is all about monetary success. This idea that art for art’s sake actually is a meaningful contribution to society is a good thing to remind people of. It’s not just about money, and it’s not just about materialism. There are other things that enhance and bring beauty to your life that are not things that you can monetize. I think that’s a good thing.