Interview: Jeremy Podeswa talks ‘Station Eleven,’ the challenges of keeping the tone of the series and what media he’s clung to through the years
Finding a good director, or directors, for a project is one of the most important pieces of the creative puzzles. A good direct can lift the words off the page into a visual form that makes it more digestible for audiences. This is especially true for the HBOMax limited series Station Eleven.
This is where Jeremy Podeswa comes in. Podeswa, whose directing credits include Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale, directed episodes 2, 9 and 10 of Station Eleven. While all of the episodes are emotional, these episodes specifically carry the emotional core of the series, especially the final two which bring the entire series full circle. Podeswa says he was brought on early in development after meeting creator Patrick Somerville for a professional meeting.
I sat down with Podeswa and we talked his episodes of the limited series, how keeping the right tone was the most challenging part of the work and how he developed some of the most emotional moments of the series.
Tyler Doster: How did you get involved with Station Eleven? You’re an EP and you’ve directed three of the episodes, so I wanted to start with how you got involved with the series.
Jeremy Podeswa: I got involved in the series very early. I had met Patrick Somerville, the creator of the show, some months before. We had just been set up on a sort of professional blind date to meet each other, as our representatives thought we would have something in common, which we did.
And so we had a really nice get together but it wasn’t about Station Eleven. And then some months later, I got a phone call to meet with Patrick and [director] Hiro Murai about the show. And they were about to launch into it, but they knew quite early on that Hiro was going to have to leave the show after directing his two episodes to go off and do Atlanta and they were looking for another producing director to come on board and work with Patrick on the next eight episodes. So we had a great meeting about it. I loved the material, I loved the book by Emily St. John Mandel, I loved Patrick’s adaptation, which I just thought it was the most stunning, beautiful work. And I was really excited about doing it. And so we just had this great meeting and it just felt like it was going to be a really nice fit with all three of us. And that’s what happened and that’s what I’m doing now.
TD: You’ve directed many shows now including Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. How did this project differ from your other projects?
JP: You know, every show’s different in its own way. It has its own DNA because of the people involved and the nature of the material. I think with Station Eleven, there are some similarities with Game of Thrones in a way that it was a complete world creation from the bottom up. And I think Station Eleven in a way is a little bit deceptive because it starts in our contemporary world and it looks very familiar and is dealing with things that we recognize, but it does vary, you know, within one episode, episode two, it becomes this whole other thing. And it becomes a very complex interweaving of stories over time, it has multi-layered storytelling, not just through time, but through different character’s stories.
I’ve done many shows that have that kind of overlapping narrative and are sort of looking at things from a variegated point of view. But I don’t know, something about this show just because of the time span of 20 years and because of the way memory is used and because of the very big theme that it’s dealing with, it does feel like something new for me. I haven’t done a show quite like this. It is ambitious, I would say, in every aspect. It’s ambitious in the storytelling and the narrative complexity and the thematic density, it’s rich, rich, rich. And so that for me is really exciting about it and something different.
TD: What was the biggest challenge working on these episodes?
JP: I think just nailing the tone is really like the biggest thing. Because you know, the really fine line with all of Station Eleven and especially in these episodes, thinking like 2, 9 and 10, the episodes that I directed, they are, especially 9 and 10, very narratively complex. They’re telling really rich, rich stories, but they are funny and sad and moving and the emotions are so intense, really. But, you know, it’s a delicate kind of thing because when you’re dealing with emotional terrain, you can’t exhaust the audience emotionally. I knew, especially with the finale that it’s like, you have emotional scene after emotional scene after emotional scene and it’s like, you want them all to land and it’s almost impossible to do that. To have like, seven scenes in a show that make you want to cry. Like, maybe you have one sometimes and if you’re lucky you succeed in evoking that emotion in the audience. But the finale of Station Eleven is like, an emotional, it’s not just a roller coaster, it comes in waves I think is more accurate. And it’s really symphonic, in a way. And that was something I kind of felt intuitively when I read the script, but I didn’t really know until I watched it how amazingly effective that could be. But I was nervous going in because I knew it had to be funny sometimes and it had to be entertaining, but it also had to be really, really moving and if it wasn’t moving, then it wasn’t working. But it was from the outset, I think because the script was so strong and the actors were so incredible. Even the first cut of the show, when we put it together, it was just like waves of emotion. I knew it was happening, we all knew it was happening right away.
That was very exciting that we did manage to actually capture that. Because I do feel it’s almost impossible to do. I don’t even know what the trick of the show is, I don’t know how we did it. But it’s like, you manage to be emotional without exhausting the audience and without them feeling manipulated and I think that’s, because there is no manipulation for me. Like for me it’s just honest, genuine, real emotion and I think people have been responding to it and that’s kind of great.
TD: I know that the first episode was filmed before COVID started. On your second episode, were you able to film any of that before COVID began or did you come back?
JP: No. The entire show after episode one and three, which were the first episodes shot, everything was shot post-COVID or during COVID, I should say. So you know, the show went down for about seven or eight months after one and three were completed. And when the pandemic was sort of full-on, we ended up shooting the entire show and completing it just before vaccines came in or just around the time that vaccines came in. But we were shooting it at really the most fraught time in the pandemic. So it was really loaded for all of us, doing the show about a pandemic, we were feeling the sort of threat of it constantly and the burden of it constantly while we’re making a show. So it was a really very meta experience.
TD: What inspired you while you were on set?
JP: I think what really inspired me… Well, there were a number of things. I was inspired by the crew that, working this very difficult time after everybody had been sort of isolated in their homes for months and months, then everybody sort of came out of their shells to make the show. And that itself was like a very affecting thing that, you know, we all were coming together to make the show that we all cared about in this difficult time and it really was a bonding thing in a way that was very unusual.
I think the other thing that affected me so much was with the cast. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a better cast than the cast on this show and to a person, they were just incredible to work with and delivered such incredible performances. And I think the only reason why the show is as funny and moving and sad and beautiful and touching as it is because of the actors. And they just bring so much humanity and compassion and empathy and complexity and richness and good humor and sensitivity and all these amazing things. It’s kind of like it’s just a tribute to them, really, that the show is anything. That was a great, beautiful thing and a kind of revelation of the show.
TD: In the second episode, young Kirsten is texting her mom and she’s telling her “I’m safe” and “I’m with a family.” The texts linger on the screen for longer than usual texts do. I wanted to know if that was part of the script or if that was a decision you made.
JP: Are they longer on the screen? I don’t think I ever thought about that, especially. But I think it was very important that it lands because we’re telling a little story through these texts. One of the lovely things about the show is that it doesn’t dwell, in terms of screen time, on the tragedy and the disaster, what’s happening over there. Because we’re focused on this little apartment with these three characters and this is how we’re telling the story of the entire pandemic. Basically in this kind of microcosm of these three people and all these things are happening out there somewhere.
So the connection to that outside world in this episode is through the phone and these texts. And that’s how we find out what’s actually going on. And it is really important, I think, as a sort of vehicle to tell that outside story, it really has to land. So I think maybe what you were responding to was the fact that we do spend time on the phone and on these texts because it’s like, you got to really understand what’s going on and it is a little bit complicated. She sends the texts out, but what she ends up getting back is not texts from her parents, but from the place where the texts are being received, which is the morgue where all these bodies are piling up and people are getting messages from the morgue that if you get this message, the person you’re writing is not alive anymore and that’s why you’re receiving this message.
To me it’s such a heartbreaking, incredible, emotionally powerful way of telling that bigger story of what’s happening out there, which is that people are dying away from their loved ones and they don’t have anybody there with them except somebody who’s just taking their phones and responding to texts. And it’s like such an evocative idea that says so much. So yeah, that’s what that’s all about.
TD: In the same episode while young Kirsten finds out about her parents, she has this big emotional moment and it cuts between her and older Kirsten delivering a monologue in the play. And I wanted to know what it was like working with Matilda [Lawler] and Mackenzie [Davis] to get these emotional moments correct?
JP: Well, I would say Matilda and Mackenzie are two of the smartest actors I’ve ever worked with. Like they are just so smart about script, but also emotionally intelligent. And they really understand layers and layers and layers of meaning in things. And so for Mackenzie, she’s performing the actual words of Hamlet, playing the character of Hamlet in a gender-bending version, and those words trigger her memories. What’s very clever about Patrick’s script is that he’s chosen Hamlet because it mirrors the story that he’s telling, that we’re telling, of the pandemic and individual people’s stories in that time. Those stories are being mirrored in Hamlet very, very effectively. So the story of Hamlet who is a character who’s lost his father and is dealing with the grief of that. Now Mackenzie/Kirsten playing this role of Hamlet is now recalling the death of her own parents and all that sort of unfinished business, unresolved stuff that she’s never really dealt with, that loss, is now sort of being triggered by her performance of this play about a man who’s mourning the loss of his own father.
So it’s a very clever way of getting her to deal with this complicated thing from her past that she’s always pushed aside and hasn’t really been able to grapple with. And so for Mackenzie, she understood every layer of that. She understood what Hamlet’s about, she understood what she was going through, how this was triggering that and what it all means to her now. So that was great. And the words, Shakespeare’s words, they really helped because they’re beautiful words and they’re very moving and they’re very loaded with meaning.
For Matilda, doing the other end of it, she’s playing Kirsten as a young girl who’s just finding out for the first time about the death of her parents. She doesn’t need a lot, Matilda. Like she understands very, very well what’s going on. And so from a performance point of view, it’s not like she needed to be coached into this. Like she knew what that would feel like, what it would mean to be a girl in her position, just learning about the death of her parents in this home where she’s with a group of strangers and she’s been separated from them and was hoping to get back home and now realizes that she will never go back home and where she is now is where she’s going to be.
And that’s a lot for a young actor to really internalize into play. But you know, Matilda’s not in my mind, she’s not a young actor, she’s just like an actor actor. She’s a great actor and she can access all that stuff. She knows what she’s doing. Not only can she access it, she can also calibrate it, which is amazing. Like she, it’s not just like, she’s going to do it one way. She can internalize it and if you want it to be expressed this way or that way, she can do that too. But she has a very strong sense of what it is to internalize something and then to express it. She’s an actor that can’t do a false thing. She’s so honest and real, like you’re never going to get something where you’re like, “What was that?” It’s always going to be the real deal. Like you’re going to believe whatever she’s doing because it’s authentic.
TD: In episode nine, Jeevan falls into the pit and gets attacked by the wolf but the frame remains right above the pit, allowing the audience only the audio of what’s going on. What made you decide to set it up that way?
JP: That was actually in the script and that was something that Patrick very much wanted. I think like for a lot of things, the scarier version of things is to not see them and just hear them and that your imagination does the rest. Like, you know, we could have shown a wolf attacking Jeevan, but it’s like, I think somehow forcing you to imagine it as worse. And then we just see the aftermath, we see what the wolf did to him. But I think it was exactly the right approach because you know, the show at every turn doesn’t do the obvious thing. For a post-pandemic, post-apocalyptic show, it’s not The Road, it’s not The Last of Us, it’s not The Walking Dead. It’s the opposite of that. It’s the show that doesn’t do the obvious thing. It’s the thing that it’s going to show you in this case, the horribleness of this post-pandemic world sometimes, but we’re not going to throw it in your face. It’s going to be over there and now we’re just going to deal with the consequences of that or what comes out of that.
And I think that’s a great thing about the show. It’s not exploitative, it’s not horrific for horror’s sake. It’s not a genre show, really. I think that’s a really good way of putting it, actually. It’s the non-genre version of what you would think would be a genre show (laughs). Like it’s not a pandemic show, it’s not a post-pandemic show. It’s actually just a character show. It’s about characters who happen to be going through a very strange time, but every cliché or everything you might expect about this kind of story isn’t in it. And I think that’s the great thing about it.
TD: Episode nine is also pivotal, in that the birthing scenes represent new life in this new world. How was it putting those scenes all together?
JP: That was like, I think one of the greatest things. I loved making that episode and I loved doing that entire sequence. We had spent so much time creating this harsh, post-pandemic world where nine tenths of the world’s population is gone. There’s no electricity and there’s no internet. It’s just this kind of really basic survival world. And here we were now, bringing life into the world. And that was very exciting because it really is a kind of emotional breakthrough, I think the show in a way, this episode. Where it’s not about devastation and loss, it’s actually about the opposite. It’s about new life, it’s about rebirth, it’s about why did we go on, it’s about the future. And I think that’s why the episode is so moving. It really is a lift for the audience and it’s a lift for the characters. It’s a lift for Jeevan. He’s been struggling his whole life without really having a purpose and now he’s found in this post-pandemic world where everybody’s lost so much, he’s actually found something. He’s found a reason to go on and he’s found his purpose in life, which is to help people and heal people and bring people into the world and I think that’s such a beautiful thing.
So, yeah, it was so much fun to do because we had all these amazing women in the birthing center and some of them were actually pregnant and we worked with a doula and we had many discussions about what it is to give birth and what it would be like to give birth in this world, in this way, and everybody here is separated from their partners and loved ones. It’s such an unusual, loaded circumstance. I think birth itself is like for anyone who goes through it is a really emotional thing and then just imagine in this post-pandemic world, without your partner around you and just the support of these other women you don’t really know. You know, what’s that like?
It was such a bonding thing, I think for all the actresses. We treated it really, it was like a, I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to say it’s like a group therapy thing, but it was a kind of like… It wasn’t like a summer camp either, but in a way it was kind of both of those things. It was like a group therapy summer camp that we were all in and talking about birthing and what it’d be like in this world and kind of going through it all together and creating a sense of community in these women. And it was great, it was a super fun thing to do and we actually filmed it. Like, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. The actual birthing itself was so beautiful and kind of exciting and I have to say, Himesh’s performance, and all the women’s performances were so great that it was really touching.
TD: In the final episode of the series, Clark finds out that Arthur Leander is the one who gave Kirsten Station Eleven and he finds out that she’s Kiki. What went into making this very emotional moment?
JP: It was one of those great things. Like what I love in the show was when worlds collide and characters collide and new revelations and there were quite a few of them in the finale where we, spoiler alert, but like when Kirsten and Jeevan finally meet after being separated for all this time and when we find out what Miranda’s role was actually in saving the lives of all the people in the airport, we never knew that there was a connection between those characters. And when Clark finds out that Kirsten, that [older]-Kirsten is actually [younger]- Kirsten, that the little girl that he met once at Arthur’s dressing room is now this girl with a traveling symphony 20 years later in front of him. Like this kind of collapsing of time and this sort of, like this beautiful sort of almost a cosmic connection between things is very satisfying, I think. Like it’s very satisfying narratively, it’s very satisfying emotionally.
So for me, as a director watching these things being filmed, it’s very satisfying because the moments of recognition between people and those kind of, I don’t know, it is almost like a cosmic connection that is formed between these characters, it’s a really fun thing to witness and it’s great that this episode gave us so many opportunities to play with that. And that was a really nice one, I think, because David Wilmot who plays Clark is such a fantastic actor. And he and Mackenzie I think had a really nice chemistry going and in that scene, it’s really beautiful when the penny drops, when he finds out what the connection really is.
TD: In honor of speaking about Station Eleven, Kirsten clings to this throughout her entire life after reading it, even when she doesn’t have it. I wanted to ask you, is there any media that you’ve clung to over the years, whether it be a book, a movie, or a TV show?
JP: Hmm. That’s a really good one. Yeah. I think for me, the first show I directed for HBO was Six Feet Under. And I think that has a very, very special place in my heart. It’s similar to Station Eleven in a way that it deals with really big ideas. There’s a big thematic underpinning to that show, which is knowing that we’re all going to die and we don’t know when or how. The big question we have to ask ourselves is how are we going to live and what are we going to do with the time that we have? And that’s a very profound thing for a show to be dealing with. Six Feet Under dealt with that in every episode, miraculously. Like it managed for five seasons to make 50 episodes that all grapple with this idea of like, what are we doing with our lives, and death is so close, it can happen at any moment. Every episode started with somebody dying, usually in an unexpected way. And you know, it asks, what are you going to do with the time you have? There’s no bigger question, really.
I think Station Eleven asks these kinds of very profound questions of the audience as well. So for me, sentimentally because it was the first show that I directed, first show for TV, coming out of the independent film world, it was very meaningful to me as that, but it was a meaningful show for me because of what it dealt with and how affecting it was. And it is a show I revisit and it still holds up extremely well. The ideas behind it are as meaningful now as they ever were. So, yeah, I think there’s this direct line from Six Feet Under to Station Eleven and I think it’s not that hard to see.
Jeremy Podeswa is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series or Movie and Outstanding Directing for Limited or Anthology Series or Movie (episode 10, “Unbroken Circle”), both for Station Eleven.