Long before anyone had heard about Covid-19, Patrick Somerville was pitching Station Eleven as “a postapocalyptic show about joy.”
Somerville’s largely faithful adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2015 novel takes place 20 years after a particularly nasty flu strain has wiped out 99 percent of the world’s population. It’s a world mostly without electricity and the other creature comforts of the reality we know. But unlike on traditional postapocalyptic dramas The Walking Dead or The Stand, the survivors mostly get along with one another, and the focus is on an acting troupe called the Traveling Symphony — whose star, Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), is our central character — performing Shakespeare plays for communities in the Midwest.
So the long-in-gestation screen adaptation (which Somerville began working on in 2018, after attempts to make a movie failed) very much touches the third rail of what we’ve all been struggling with over the last two years. But it’s done it in a way that has proved surprisingly cathartic — and, yes, joyful — to viewers willing to travel through Somerville and director Hiro Murai’s vision of post-virus life as it streamed on HBO Max over the last two months. It’s a tremendous show, whose finale is out now. Somerville spoke with Rolling Stone about the entire season — which means there are full spoilers for all 10 episodes here — including what it was like to have it come out during the rise of the Omicron variant, the nonlinear storytelling, the finale’s crucial reunion, and more.
You filmed your first episodes, which turned out to be the first and third, in January and February of 2020. How aware were you at the time that Covid was coming?
It was a slow creep. Different members of the company had a different sensitivity on their radar to it. I remember news reports at one point saying Americans probably wouldn’t have to worry about it. Then we were filming one of the last scenes of that block in Chicago before I had to fly back to L.A., and our props guy came and handed me two KN95 masks from the shoot. I asked, “Why are you giving me these?” He said, “Because you’re flying?” I said, “What, that thing?” He said, “Yeah, you should wear them.” I said, “I’m not wearing these.” I had the strange experience watching Episode One again where the guy in the grocery store says, “Should I go somewhere? Because of that thing?” And I was that guy! When you’re showrunning, you’re so underwater and unable to process things happening out in the world. By the time we wrapped around February 20, it was starting to feel like we got real lucky to get those in. Something was coming that was going to shut stuff down for a while.
While you were taking a break from filming and it became clearer what the impact of Covid might be, was there anyone at the network or studio level saying, “Maybe this is not a good idea right now?”
No, because we had Episodes One and Three, and they were too good. They were following through on the premise we had pitched, which was a postapocalyptic show about joy. Even though both of those episodes had some tragedy to them, we had just enough proof of concept that there was a feeling that Station Eleven wasn’t leaning into despair, exactly. It was filtering terror out of the equation, to make our executives and the studio feel safe that whenever we could get up and running again, this would be a worthy venture to keep pursuing.
Because you had that time off in between making those two episodes and the rest, did the storytelling change at all as a result of what you were seeing on the news?
The one that really changed was Episode Nine, where Jeevan helps deliver all the babies. We were already making all roads converge at the airport, and we knew that Kirsten and Jeevan would reunite in Ten. I had always pitched Nine, when it didn’t exist, as “Jeevan’s Revenant,” but our version of that. There were some very difficult story maneuvers that we figured out, because no one was ever going to believe that Jeevan wasn’t going to do everything in his power to get back to Kirsten once they were separated. We had to put enough impediments between him and her to make him buy into something else. It’s a tricky mogul run there, story-wise. I remember in those first scary months — April, May, June — I was taking the draft we had from our writers room, and the baby-pocalypse idea was maybe burbling and percolating around, and I decided to go all-in on that. There’s definitely a relationship between what we were feeling in those months and what we ended up writing for Nine.
What do you mean by that?
How do you pay off a promise to a bunch of executives that it’s a postapocalyptic show about joy? I have a friend who is a midwife, who I called up in late April or early May and said, “What if you were alone and had to deliver 15 babies by yourself? What would that look like?” In the room, we had talked about the rarity of doctors, and how interesting of a wrinkle that would be, that of all the people who didn’t survive, that kind of knowledge was very much gone, and the need for them was very high. I thought of a set piece that was a little like Luke in his X-Wing running the outside of the Death Star, but instead it’s Jeevan moving through a very strange space helping bring life into the world. It felt like that idea finally paid off in the promise of how to dramatize this thing in an exciting new way.
One of the more exasperating TV trends of the last few years is shows telling stories out of chronological order for no good reason. Like the book, this show bounces around in time constantly, but in a beautiful way that seems to make sense as a narrative choice. What’s the key to making nonlinear storytelling like this work?
I think what makes it work is if you planned it that way for a reason. You should only be messing with linear time if there’s no other way to get at the thing you’re trying to get at. In stories, if you’re doing it in a different order, you have to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” With Station Eleven, it needed to be told in this way in order to properly talk about the relationship we have with our own memories and our childhood selves. And also to slowly knit the immediate postpandemic space — the “now” space — to the Year 20 space. There’s recognizable things in the before timeline, and in Jeevan’s world in Year One, that are comfortable. We recognize those people better. In year 20, those people are aliens. We need some time to slowly get there. And for me, it’s not until episode 10 that I fully see the synthesis between the two timelines.
But also, the thing I think you’re sensing with these other shows is that if shows are fucked up, the first thing that everybody comes in and says is, “Let’s slice time up and tell it in a nonlinear way, to give it some pizzazz and some zap!” There’s a version of it that’s a sleight of hand, like someone’s trying to cover up for something that doesn’t work. There’s a huge difference between that and planning it with intentionality.
As an example of how well this works, I imagine the seventh episode, where the adult Kirsten is hallucinating about the time she was a little girl [played by Matilda Lawler] staying with Jeevan and Frank in that apartment. That easily could have been told in chronological order, but it works beautifully in this fractured way. Why did you take that approach for that episode?
It’s Mackenzie’s point of view. That was the key. That feels, to me, like a time-travel episode, even though there’s no devices; she’s just been poisoned. It’s a really interesting exploration of one’s past in a way I haven’t quite seen. She’s sort of the ghost of Christmas future, but we’re in her point of view. We’re going with her through that door. The special thing that happens in our show, since we started Episode One with Matilda, it feels like Matilda is the “now,” and Mackenzie is the “future” in the first few episodes. To me, Episode Six is where Mackenzie really rises up powerfully and takes the reins as the point-of-view character in the “now.” Episode Seven got to convert what used to feel like the “now” into “before,” if that makes sense. It’s very delicate stuff.
What did you see in Matilda Lawler that made you believe that she was both a good match for what Mackenzie would be doing as the adult Kirsten, and someone who could carry that end of the show with Himesh Patel?
I saw what you see. It was deeply obvious the second we met Matilda. But the verification that we had it right was when Himesh came in to do a chemistry read with Matilda. That’s really what we needed to know. The dynamic between those two is what we’re asking our viewers to grab onto emotionally for a whole hour, to pull them into our series. They just felt like they knew each other already. They’ve got a great dynamic, but Himesh is playing kind of a kid in a grown-up’s body, and she’s playing a 45-year-old woman from Long Island trapped in a child’s body.
In the book, Jeevan and Kirsten cross paths only briefly at the beginning, and he’s much more closely tied to the life of her mentor, Arthur. Why did you change that?
It was always going to be a spoke-in-a-wheel type situation with the people who knew Arthur. But we added a couple of spokes and removed a couple. And it just felt like a good TV episode to have two strangers have to get across the city together, and morally the questions that arise for Jeevan in that episode, getting to know Kirsten through the eyes of a person who is implicitly asking for help but never saying, “Help me.” It was very compelling as a one-hour. And then the implications of the three of them being stuck together in the apartment instead of two, we didn’t know what that was going to be, and it was going to be good. Emily’s novel gave permission to do it, simply by the fact that she returned to Jeevan for a couple of pages later on to show that he was alive and well in year 20. I didn’t ask her about that particular thing. To me, that meant that Emily’s sense as a novelist was that Jeevan had left quite an impression. We wanted to know if he was OK. And I felt we could go deeper into that.
Was there ever a version of the story where he and Kirsten did not reconnect in the finale?
No. That was literally the end of my pitch in every room that we sold the show [in]. It was, for a long time, going to be the final image of the season: the two of them seeing each other, Kirsten onstage and Jeevan standing up in the audience. But in the end, we needed a little more conversation between them afterwards, to get to my favorite scene in the whole show, the last scene, and we also had Deobrah Cox, and a whole play to perform, and Deborah to sing Midnight Train to Georgia.
Let me ask you: When we did the near-miss earlier in the finale, did you actually think they weren’t going to reunite?
No, because it would have felt mean to have them both in the airport and not see each other, and by that point, it was clear this was not a mean show. Once you spent that much time on what Jeevan had been up to, and that a doctor was coming to the airport, I felt pretty confident she would see him.
This comes straight from Damon Lindelof’s(*) school of twists: People don’t want twists. What they want is to be told four times that it’s coming, and then for it to come. Because then different kinds of watchers are prepped. Some people can get out ahead of it and know it’s coming. Some are still surprised, but subconsciously, it’s a warmer embrace of a turn. It’s not quite a surprise, but it’s a hope that you are falling towards, just like water over a waterfall. It would have been pretty cruel to do all the other things and not have the hug at the end.
(*) Somerville worked with Lindelof on The Leftovers.
The motto of the Traveling Symphony is that they do what they do “because survival is insufficient” — that there needs to be beauty in life to make it worth living. As we’ve spent the last two years mostly locked away in our homes, experiencing the world largely through our televisions and our computers, has the meaning of that concept changed for you at all?
It’s something that I agreed with before, when I read the novel. But it’s something that’s been deeply demonstrated over and over again since our experience with Covid. The difference between reading the novel and now is, it’s one thing to say that survival is insufficient. It’s another to find yourself safe in your home amidst the pandemic, with your kids and your family, not knowing jack shit about what’s going to happen, trying to work, to not notice that the absence of friends and socializing in your life is harming you slowly. Trying to not notice that, and then trying to find that spark on a certain day, like Frank finds in Episode Seven. It gives everyone the relief they need from a new creeping psychological terror that we didn’t know about before. This is a weird monster that we’re fighting, with strange powers, that shows itself in unusual ways. I don’t think that we’re OK. I do think that we will be OK. I just think it’s going to take time. Those little sparks, when you’re hungry for them, you can feel how powerful they are. One conversation with an old friend saves you for a week. When you’re in your shit, in your career stuff and not paying attention… I was surviving incorrectly, I think, before all of this.
Anecdotally, what kind of response have you been getting to the show, especially since you had the timing to premiere right when Omicron was beginning to bubble up?
Whether or not it was right, I felt like the timing was a good thing. Just to go straight into hard feelings, because I know the show is compassionate about them. People want to talk about how they’re feeling; they just don’t often get served up stories that make them feel safe enough to release the feelings, you know? I wasn’t worried about the timing at all. It is what it is. The only bad timing is fucking Covid coming. Everything else is just living.
But the thing that I’ve noticed — other than Tim Simons texting me from the park, saying one guy said, “Hey, that’s the guy from Station Eleven!” instead of, “Hey, Jonah [his character on Veep]!” — is that I’m getting is a lot of outreach from people saying, “I cried a lot watching your show. Thank you!” There’s this thing in Hollywood when people reach out because they feel they have to, like, “Oh, good job, sure.” And this is more like people saying, “We had a meeting four years ago, it was not memorable for either of us, but I just want to say that my wife and I are watching your show. It just made us feel better.” I’m getting a lot of those. It feels totally true, but not normal. I don’t ever want to be exploiting where we are with Covid, but I feel validated in the opinion that our mental health is what is most at risk right now, collectively. It’s good for new stories to help people talk about their feelings. So that part makes me really happy.
In the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse, Enrico Colantoni’s character is a smooth guy with an Italian accent. In Year 20, his manner and accent are completely different. What happened to him in between?
There’s two possible explanations. The first is, he decided to abandon Elizabeth and go with “Agent Roker,” having been seduced with a high-level position in this new society. Then something went wrong, the plane crashed, he suffered a massive head wound and was the only survivor. He returned on a mountain bike, unable to speak, having to relearn the English language along the way, only knowing a destination like a lost dog finding his way home, and threw himself at the feet of the people there, and they took him back in. The other explanation is that he was a con man who sidled up against Elizabeth, and then after the apocalypse, he decided it was time to ghost. Then either the plane crashed or he was just unsatisfied and decided to go back; he liked that place, so he made up a new character for himself to play.
The show has a lot of great music, both in Dan Romer’s score and in the needle-drops that are featured throughout. What was your philosophy when it came to the soundtrack?
Dan Romer started at the front, front end with us, way before a composer usually connects. For business reasons, we had a plan to write 10 folk songs, me and him, and seven of them are going to be on the soundtrack that comes out on the 13th. Not all of them made it into the show. And then there’s the challenge of the diegetic Traveling Symphony score: How do you score Hamlet? That was a challenge for him, and then the extra challenge of the score itself, that go beyond the Traveling Symphony. He said to me at one point, “This is kind of a big job, Patrick.” He is the exact right composer for a gigantic conceptual deep dive into different kinds of music. Dan lives down the block from me. For all fall after we wrapped, I was going over to his house, and he was showing me what he was doing, and we were working on it from episode to episode, and every time we had a piece of temp music in there that we didn’t think was possible to beat, he would come up with something even more beautiful.
And on the needle-drop side, most shows, it’s Liza Richardson, music supervisor of Leftovers and Watchmen, and [editor] David Eisenberg, and Hiro, and me. We know the mission is very high-low. We’re very into high art and low art, and a lot of the needle-drops, to me, served to depressurize the pretentiousness of the other elements of our story, the big swings toward art. Folk music, to me, is deeply relevant to our story. Historically, it was a way for people to connect with one another who didn’t know one another, without killing each other. “Music or fight” are kind of the two options when you come upon a stranger in dangerous lands. If you both know the same song, it can be OK. We had to figure new songs would come into play, but also old pop songs like Lisa Loeb that had maybe been dismissed in their time but could have taken on new profound meaning in the after. Obviously, this comes too from learning from Damon the power of music and score in visual storytelling. Our story really needed it. We have a fucking symphony, you know?
Speaking of pretentiousness, at one point, Jeevan gets fed up with Kirsten’s obsession with the Station Eleven comic and calls it too pretentious. Is the comic actually supposed to be good? Or just something Kirsten and Tyler clung to because it connected them to Arthur?
Yes. It’s excellent. But one of the other writers asked the same thing early on: “Is this a good comic book?” I said, “I think it’s good. I think it’s really good.” But it’s so hard to tell, because it’s so cryptic. My hope was that the art we generated, made by an artist named Maria Nguyen, Hiro and I took it very seriously. Because it’s very disappointing where you watch a movie or a show and hear, “This character’s an artist,” and you see a painting and it’s some piece of shit the props department threw together at the last minute, and then you don’t believe in anything. Whether or not the writing, the words inside of it, are pretentious or poppy or sci-fi-y, I think if you read the whole thing cover to cover, you would like it. And we, in fact, wrote the whole thing cover to cover, in order to make it real for us.
Finally, when you were talking earlier about Jeevan and Kirsten walking through Chicago together, you said it “felt like a good TV episode.” This is a very serialized story, but within that, you have a lot of very clearly delineated episodes: the Miranda episode, the airport episode, the apartment episode, etc. Why is that important to you?
I will go to my grave defending the TV episode as the building block of television. I do not think limited series is just “one big movie.” I do not like that description at all. Episodes are distinct packets of story that you are then using to build a larger mega story. It was a lesson I had to learn when I transitioned from being a fiction writer to a screenwriter. I didn’t know what a scene was. In TV writing, you need specifically shaped blocks, like Legos, to build things. They need to be different sizes, and different colors, and they have to make you feel things, to make a larger Lego guy come together. You can’t just let it bleed. There are steps to these things. I love episodes, I will only make television episodes that line up in a row and make something else.