How a spirit of optimism shines through ‘Station Eleven’

In the multiverse of post-apocalyptic drama, zombie hay rides, and dystopian fables that have been streaming during the pandemic, HBO Max’s “Station Eleven” felt unique. The series, adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel about survivors of a catastrophic viral outbreak, offered something lighthearted and rare: a spirit of optimism.

Patrick Somerville, the show’s creator, saw the story as a necessary counterpoint to all the downfall and chaos.

“You can have great ideas about the end of the world, but it’s gotten a little boring, especially in Hollywood,” Somerville said in a recent video call. “Emily’s book is so cool because it was always about the human level.”

A novelist who wrote for The Leftovers and later directed the satirical sci-fi series Maniac (with co-creator Cary Joji Fukunaga) and Made for Love, Somerville had a problem to solve. “I thought there was something wrong with the math of storytelling in this genre. It’s a cheat to tie up almost everyone. If you start with billions dead, it can be impossible whether people will survive or not because you started the story with everyone dying.”

“Station Eleven” alternates between pre- and post-contagion over decades, amid the shifting perspectives of several characters, all somehow linked to Hollywood actor Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal), who is struck down by the plague while he appears as King Lear. Much of the story follows a nomadic Shakespearean troupe (The Traveling Symphony) 20 years later circling Lake Michigan, affirming humanity and sparking joy in the ruins through their barde-meets-mad-max junkyard enactments.

Players are pursued by a dangerous cult leader named Prophet (Daniel Zovatto; played as Julian Obradors’ child Tyler), who has shared a mysterious relationship with the troupe’s lead actress Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis; played as Matilda Lawler’s child) since his Childhood fascinated by a rare graphic novel, Station Eleven, whose lyrics have inspired radically different interpretations. Playful cultural references abound, from the heroic speech in “Independence Day” to the funk jams of Parliament, as the show primarily argues, Somerville said, for “an insistence on the imagination, which is inherently more powerful than … everything else”.

To get there, Somerville made important changes to the source material, most notably expanding Himesh Patel’s role as Jeevan, who becomes a surrogate father to child Kirsten, and more importantly, the author’s overhaul of the story, a new iteration of the Prophet . The character is no longer just villainous, but becomes more likable and complex. “Our Tyler was a different Tyler,” Somerville said. “When we met and cast Danny, it became very clear to us how we’re going to pull it off sonically. He has a gentleness and childlike softness, but he also has an intimidating masculinity. … He had a very nuanced view of who Tyler was.”

The cold weather at the Ontario location has pushed the final episodes – shot on the airport set where all the action converges – to the forefront of the production schedule. “We kind of went backwards,” said Zovatto, who jumped in at the deep end as the troupe performed one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays in a sprawling airport that has become a micro-society of survivors. The scenes mark one of the emotional highlights of the show. “‘By the way, you’re going to play Hamlet.’ ok cool That’s exactly what everyone wants to hear two weeks before shooting.”

Of course, the biggest challenge was managing most of the production during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the circumstances “really lightened and sharpened and deepened the emotional impact,” Somerville said. “It felt like there were too many feelings to feel. The community that the show was mimicked what the show was about.”

Cast and crew had to forgo the usual social rituals that make extended outdoor shoots feel like summer camp. “There [the shoot] was the only activity we had besides being in your hotel room,” Zovatto said. “When we were there, we welcomed the fact that we could be alone.”

Somerville’s time in the writing room of The Leftovers will continue to guide him. “I learned on that show that anything is possible on TV if you have the right attitude,” he said. “Sometimes we made it impossible for ourselves, but we always found a way.” “Station Eleven” met the polar demands of his creative aesthetic. “I’m really, really drawn to extremely grounded realism with microscopic revelations burned into the writing, and I’m drawn to Death Stars exploding.”

By daring to create a “post-apocalyptic show about joy,” Somerville proposes the answer to a charged question. “What if people don’t eat each other?” How a spirit of optimism shines through ‘Station Eleven’

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