‘Station Eleven’: The HBO Max Show Made a Fictional Pandemic Before and During a Real One

Directed by Jeremy Podeswa and Hiro Murai, the adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel's novel finished filming two episodes before the show's premise became eerily prescient.
Mackenzie Davis
"Station Eleven" star Mackenzie Davis
Michael Buckner/Variety

Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed 2014 novel “Station Eleven” tells the story of a society ravaged by a mysterious avian flu. Spread out over multiple generations, the book picks up just after the disease spread and follows various characters’ stories for decades after.

Production on the series had already begun and was roughly one-fifth of the way through before the events of last spring reconfigured everything. Speaking on a panel as part of the Television Critics Association’s virtual Summer Press Tour, producers and members of the cast shared their experiences from various stages of lockdown and how those, in turn, informed the show they were all working to create.

“The themes of the show were becoming so resonant as we’re going forward, it really made us think so much about what’s important in life, which is really what the show’s about,” said Jeremy Podeswa, an executive producer and director on the series. “Really what matters is other people, the people in your life you care about, your health, and also making art, which is what we’re all doing with this show. That really gave us a great sense of purpose in a really difficult time.”

Mackenzie Davis plays Kirsten, the adult version of a character who, as a child, experiences the collapse of recognizable society. While she said that there were plenty of real-life emotions that helped her and the entire crew grapple with what they were making, it helped to stick as much as they could to the episodes that were all written and broken out well in advance of that production hiatus.

“It’s not ‘The Road’ and it’s not a fairy tale, but it’s kind of the two put together,” Davis said. “There’s danger in the woods, but there’s also beauty and rebirth in the woods. I’m glad that it’s neither a cautionary tale nor is it idealizing trauma and mass loss.”

“We always wanted to make a post-apocalyptic show about joy,” said series creator and showrunner Patrick Somerville (“Maniac”). “As we began to live it, we began to feel feelings we didn’t expect to know about. They influenced things, but I think we did what we were always going to do.”

Adapting the book was never going to result in a direct translation of the time-shifting elements from the page. Somerville said that he was up front with Mandel that there would have to be changes, but that the central spirit of the novel was something he was eager to keep.

“It’s a very aggressive adaptation of a very beautiful book that I love,” Somerville said. “The spirit of that book to me was always about what’s gentle and human inside of us before and after, and how do we get back to the people that we love? And how is that hard? Emily’s voice as a novelist is impressive for what it does to knit things together. We needed to make our stories a little different to get that back.”

Even as the order and chronological layout might be altered for the visual version of this story, executive producer Jessica Rhoades pointed out that there were elements of the book that absolutely had to make it to the screen. Realizing the physical form of those theoretical objects was a thrill amidst the uncertainty.

“We did have the fun of realizing the graphic novel and realizing the traveling symphony and the wagons and all of these pillars of the book. Fans of the book and lovers of the novel will be excited to see it brought to life,” Rhoades said.

“Station Eleven,” starring Davis, Himesh Patel, Gael García Bernal, and directed by Hiro Murai and Podeswa, is expected to be released via HBO Max in December.

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