Patrick Somerville was a novelist before he ever got into film and television. He published his debut novel, The Cradle, in 2009 and his second novel, This Bright River, in 2012. Not long after that, in 2013, Somerville joined FX’s The Bridge on the writing staff. A couple of years later, he began work on the HBO series The Leftovers where he wrote four episodes across the second and third season of the acclaimed show. He then created and wrote Netflix’s Maniac (starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill) before being announced as the creator and showrunner of a limited series based on Emily St. John Mandel’s bestselling novel Station Eleven.
Station Eleven is a limited series that Somerville has described in interviews before as “a post-apocalyptic series about joy” that follows the aftermath of a deadly virus sweeping Earth. The series, with the exception of key scenes, follows a group of people called the Traveling Symphony 20 years after the initial onslaught of the virus, the group’s aim being to spread joy by performing the works of William Shakespeare. The series closely follows Kirsten, played by both Matilda Lawler and Mackenzie Davis in young and adult versions, as she navigates life after the beginning of the pandemic and holds onto a single piece of media titled Station Eleven. The series is warm, funny, empathetic and insightful, Somerville giving the series the attention it deserved.
I recently sat down with Somerville to discuss the inception of the series, his relationship with the book, casting the role of Kirsten (both young and older), and creating the actual Station Eleven comic.
Tyler Doster: How did the book first catch your attention?
Patrick Somerville: Well, actually, I knew Emily from way before because we were both novelists and I met her in 2012. We read together once in Chicago and she had, I know, started writing Station Eleven then, even though I think she was being coy and not telling me about it. Because as all writers do, I think it was nascent and she was protecting that project, but we met and talked. And we talked a lot about … We just had a lot in common, storytelling-wise and I think life-wise as well. We got along. We made friends and we read together. And so I went on a different journey completely from her because I got a job writing for The Bridge on FX about a year later and then eventually moved to LA and started remaking myself as a screenwriter.
And she published Station Eleven, I think when I was about a year into that move. And I just laughed when I saw that NPR was doing a thing about this new novel and then I heard her name and I was like, “Oh my God.” And then I looked and it was her and her book was rising up The New York Times bestseller chart. It was a phenomenon. So I heard of the book in the context of my mid list, fiction writer friend striking gold, and then I got it and I loved it.
That was the other thing that made me so happy. I just loved the book and I wasn’t talking to Emily or anything at that time, but it just was all the things about the post-apocalyptic genre that were annoying to me had been completely excised and she was focusing on something else completely, which is the day to day of making things together with people and regular life.
And I also loved the Arthur Leander storyline. I don’t know why. It was a strange third wing of that book, but there was something about Arthur who’s always pretending that … I don’t know. There was something about his character that I think that I related to it in some way to be honest, I think his need to be performative when you don’t want to be and all that. So I just thought it was cool.
It took a few years for me to get to a place as a producer where I could go pitch up a thing. And by then I knew that book had been optioned and a screenplay was written as a movie that wasn’t working. So when I got a chance to go find the producer who had the rights to it, I was like, “Hey, how about a limited series instead?” I’d been thinking about it for a few years and I was coming off and making Maniac. And so I had an opportunity to meet with them and essentially get a yes from them and then go forward and go make a series.
TD: What about the book called to you and made you think that it should be a limited series?
PS: It was a combination of scale. It had the massive scale of a genre event story that was sort of critical to sell it to people who were skeptical about a show that was quieter in some ways as well. But I think the quiet things about Station Eleven also were what made it seem like an amazing limited series to me too. The short story writer in me was like, “What if we did a the-world-is-ending story, but then got to have quiet, interesting conversations about friendship, between people inside of that context?”
So the stakes were life and death. They needed to be once the world ended. And that felt true to me. It felt like an actually true landscape where the stakes were like life and death. We didn’t have to manufacture it, which is always sort of tedious when you’re operating in the world of everyday people. How do you get to life and death stakes? Well, this was a very big sweep that made everyone always in a life and death stakes situation. But then the challenge was, how do we remember intimacy and little things inside of that? And so a limited series was perfect for it because there’s so many characters who needed dimensionality. And a movie probably couldn’t hold the amount of characters we needed to have a rich three dimensional perspective actually be centered. All these different people needed to be centered. And it’s very hard in a film to keep reentering around different people.
TD: I know that you guys shot a couple of episodes before COVID started. How did quarantine affect your writing process whenever you were writing the finishing episodes of the series?
PS: I think a lot. I think just like it affected you, in terms of trying to navigate work while having all of your things taken away from you that are usually the things that make you feel alive. Writers, I think maybe for a time, had a special, unique advantage inside of… I don’t know. Being alone didn’t mean losing access to the imaginative world that I liked to go to recharge inside of, but I wasn’t alone. I had three children, a wife and a family to look after too. I think I learned a lot about what ultimately became episode seven, about what it would be like to be alone in a small space with a small group of people for a long period of time. And I think Frank’s rap is a perfect example of something that maybe went from a whimsical idea, a maybe that was in the writer’s room when the writer’s room wrapped, to “We’re doing this,” once we got to production because I’m a dad who busted out the karaoke microphone mid pandemic too.
In the worst times even, it was the best. Just when you thought someone was going to go crazy, they give a little gift of something joyful that you can all participate in. And those are the little rocks that we jumped across to not lose our minds in the pandemic. So episode seven, episode nine, the babies coming. How do we follow through on the concept of the show fully and invert everything about what’s the set piece that doesn’t kill anyone. It’s the set piece that actually creates life. That’s how [episode] nine, I think very much evolved into being a big set piece about a lot of births. And I think in [episodes] eight and ten, you can feel the pandemic a lot to me too, because ultimately it’s where Mackenzie’s taking over the show. That thing that happened, I think to all of us in the pandemic happened to me, happened to Mackenzie, happened to everyone making this show too, which is like a pressure cooker to make you look at who you are. And I think for Kirsten, she’s in that pressure cooker when she gets to the airport and they are in quarantine there, and she’s like, “Hey, is this prison or a gift?” And that’s sort of the question she’s asking for the last episodes. And I think her answer, which is the most beautiful birth to me in the whole show is, “Give more art, direct better. Put on the right show at the right time for the right people in the right way with the right taste and it will be healing.” And that takes a huge amount of skill and courage. And, usually, you’ll get it wrong and you won’t be validated for that very brave act. But I think we wanted to make a show where her idea was the right idea and it didn’t involve destruction, it involved putting on a play.
TD: How did it feel to go from telling a story that seemed far off, being more post-apocalyptic, to becoming reality for most people? How did that feel to tell that kind of story?
PS: Well, really fucking weird. I mean, hard not to pretend that wasn’t true because it went from an intellectual exercise to the world we were living in, as we were telling the story. So it felt a little bit like the story we were telling had more agency than stories usually do. It felt like our story was alive. But it also, it’s hard to say this in the right way. We never wanted to tell a story about a virus. We wanted to tell a story about people after a bad thing happened. And so it was instructive and weird and scary, sure, but we also just kept telling the story we wanted to tell, which was after the thing, not during the thing. We skipped that on purpose. We skipped the first 100 days, except for inside of that little apartment because we wanted to get to the rebuild after.
I think one reason why the show landed so well is it’s a lot about the work that hasn’t been done emotionally, about the shitty thing that happened. And even 20 years later, people still haven’t dug into it because that sucks. You don’t want that. And I think now we’re all faced with the same thing. We are collectively traumatized, I think by the last three years of life. And I think some people have looked that right in the eye from the start. Some people have looked at it askance. Some people have gone, “No, no,” like that. And some people know that they owe that work. It’s just not time yet. It’s too hard.
I hope Station Eleven, all those different kinds of people, exists as a friendly, warm and compassionate story that can be helpful depending on whenever a viewer feels like it is time they want to watch it. It’s also very fun. I think it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Or if it does, it makes fun of itself immediately afterwards in the right way. And it’s just very accessible. So I hope it’s always there for people on whatever timeline they want to watch it.
TD: What were your early conversations like with the four directors of the series, specifically Hiro [Murai], who’s first episode sets the tone of the series?
PS: Well, Hiro played an incredible and hands-on role in the development of the show, from its inception really, all the way through to the end of it. Even though he only directed episodes one and three, his thoughts on how to do this merged with mine in a way that gave us a template for how to shoot the whole show. So the conversation with him was very special. And he needed to know things in order to shoot one and three in a way that would make sense to all the other directors who joined us, like Jeremy [Podeswa], who came while we were shooting one and three. And then soon thereafter, Lucy Tcherniak and Helen Shaver, who both played unbelievably important roles in balancing out the show. And I would say all four of those conversations were different and unique because all four of those directors brought a different and unique set of talent to the show without any one of which we would have been fucked.
Helen’s work is the first time we were really shooting outside with anything green. We had to be cross boarded and shot through the winter inside this hangar. And, ultimately, Jeremy would catch up and shoot episode two. And its out of summer later. But for this period of time, Helen shot outside for 35 days in a row. It was the first green we had in the show and we were dappling it everywhere. So she was like this kind of like spring goddess who came in and just like breathes an entirely new kind of life into the show and created in a lot of ways, the traveling symphony vibe to help us retroactively too. And Lucy Tcherniak, to say like, “Hey, your first job is to shoot an entire episode on the stage with only three living characters and four total characters, one of whom cannot interact with any of the others except for one and she can only talk. It was impossible.
But Lucy just took to that set and took to that story. And the idea of episode seven as a play. And that was the first episode we shot in Canada. The first three episodes we had done were one, three and seven. So she was giving us this incredibly important template. And Mackenzie [Davis] in particular learned what happened to her character before she had to shoot anything else. So Jeremy also, I should say, he had this incredibly difficult task of shooting episode nine, right on the heels of seven. And that was another kind of like, “I don’t know what year 20 looks like out here,” thing. And he and Ruth Ammon together with Himesh [Patel] and now that the winter, the snow, the cabin which was Ruth Ammon’s concept and then the actresses who came to play those women. They were world-building before we knew what year 20 looked like. So thank God for the directors.
TD: When you were casting for young and older Kirsten, what were you looking for? What kind of qualities were you looking for when you were searching for them?
PS: They were different. I think Mackenzie just always felt right always, from the beginning for adult Kirsten. She’s got a lot of different kinds of gears and they all felt appropriate energetically, just as a human being, for Kirsten. One of them is incredibly intellectual and smart and just like… Her analytical brain is incredibly, I don’t know, all seeing in some ways. And then, at the same time, she can pivot and be such an emotionally vulnerable human being at the same time and hold both of those at the same time. Her very visible and obvious strength never undermines her femininity either. What we were really tired of was seeing a masculinized woman as a stand-in for what strength meant for female characters. And it was very clear that Mackenzie had thought a lot about that topic, but also just embodied a version of a futuristic human being that we could get behind.
And then Matilda [Lawler] too. Matilda was just amazing from the jump, but her energy … She’s more primal, she’s a kid, but she seems like she’s an adult sometimes. And that’s exactly what we needed. We needed this kind of boundary, complicated emotionally high IQ or a high EQ person who also could just be a kid sometimes, too. And then the last step for Matilda was a chemistry read with Himesh when we put the two of them together. And what you see on screen is what they did for us in the casting room. And we knew that we had our way into our show.
TD: You’ve described the show before as a “post-apocalyptic series about joy.” Can you tell me how when you were writing the series, how you kept that tone balanced throughout?
PS: Yeah. I think you have to make fun of yourself when you get a little too profound, or thinking you’re profound. And it’s like the world. Be careful what mood you’re in because tomorrow a virus could come and make you look like a fucking idiot for everything that you just said.
We’re not in control. And I think the tone needed to be able to be humane and warm regardless of what was happening. So things like Himesh saying, “It’s so pretentious,” after he’s been attacked by a wolf, to me are exactly emblematic of the whole idea, which is that the world can be ending and Tim Simons can look up at the sky and make the most hilarious joke that I’ve ever heard in my life. Well, I’m busy crying about what Danielle [Deadwyler] just did in her lines and I’m laughing as well because of what Tim just did. And I think once Hiro had shot one in three and we felt that kind of impossible tone combination working, I knew what to write toward going forward. If you’re going to have Shakespeare in your play, you better make fun of yourself for it.
TD: That leads me to my next question: do you have any kind of personal connection to Shakespeare?
PS: No. I mean, I was an English major, so I had to read it. And so I think I had an experience like a lot of young students do, which is, “Yeah, this is amazing. I’m so bored.”
One of our writers, Sarah McCarron was more [of] a theater person, an actor, and it really takes actors to show you how amazing Shakespeare is. So my journey was one of, kind of like wary, never wanting to play Shakespeare for like, look how smart we are, but very interested in the idea of like, what if you could shock William Shakespeare with those paddles and make him sit upright for a minute and say something that was actually fascinating and relevant and accessible?
Because there’s amazing things inside of his work that get lost because of all the cultural baggage around him, not just how academic and elevated he is, but how white, how elitist, how the culture that gravitates toward Shakespeare tends to be the asshole that you’re talking to at a party that you don’t want to talk to anymore. So how do we overcome that and show it as a live and messy and back on earth? And in episode 10, relevant. The whole idea is I didn’t write a line for the most important scene in Station Eleven. That’s all just straight from Hamlet, all of our actors reading a scene from Hamlet and just stepping back. So how the fuck that worked? I don’t know, but I think what it does do is it speaks to the idea that old playwrights are onto the same truths that screenwriters today are trying to get onto. And sometimes you just got to shake the Etch-A-Sketch a little bit to be able to see that we’re all just doing the same thing.
TD: What was the process of making the actual Station Eleven comic for the series?
PS: Well, we should have done it earlier. It should have been the first thing we did, but we knew we needed it. And then as Hiro was shooting episode three, and as we were developing it, it started to be clear that in those before times, what we wanted was for Miranda to be overhearing lines that would in her regular life become part of the actual comic. So on the text side, that was my worry. How do we see someone acquiring the language that will then later be made into a book? But then there’s the art side. And I think all of Station Eleven goes back to this scout that we went on in the fall of 2019 before COVID. And it was a very small group of people. It was Hiro, it was Christian Springer, who’s also nominated for an Emmy, it was Ruth Ammon, who should have been nominated for an Emmy, our production designer, and a couple other of our producers. And we walked around in Chicago. We went to Lake Point Tower. We went to the Thompson Center, we went to Lincoln Park. We went around to start imagining. We went to the L. We rode the L together. What we noticed is that the architecture of the city should inform the art of the graphic novel. We’re going to see Miranda’s eyes looking up at the Thompson Center, and we want to know that she’s actually cribbing. She’s going to steal that and make the engines of the space station out of it. So the visual part, Ruth Ammon was starting to figure out. And I think Lake Point tower looks like a spaceship. That apartment looks like the deck of a spaceship.
And then we found our artist after we had shot those, Maria Nguyen, who really was sort of outside the production. We would just send her pages we needed out of order with the text we needed and she would make them. And the last, I guess, ingredients to it all was in the edit of episode three, we realized between seeing one cut and then the next day, “Oh, Miranda should be reading Station Eleven over three, even though we don’t know that’s what she’s doing.” So I went home and I watched Hiro’s director’s cut a second time at six o’clock in the morning, in my basement, in my pandemic-ified basement by then, where I had a TV. And I scribbled a whole bunch of lines that had been echoing in my head and some of which had appeared. Like Arthur says, “adrift,” in that scene when they’re standing outside, when he is doing his fake psychic reading. And I was like, “Okay, we need the line ‘adrift’ to be one of the early lines.” So that’s where I remember damage then escape, then adrift in a stranger galaxy for a long, long time. So that “adrift” is completely taken from the scene that we had already shot. And then I just sort of composed basically a poem to run over the top of 1-0-3. And Daniel read it for us. And there you go. There was Station Eleven.
TD: That’s very cool. I’m sure that was an interesting, but also particularly difficult part to get right, just to make sure that it was exactly what you wanted.
PS: Yeah. And I think the key was that it needed to organically be coming up out of the show. I said, “I wish we’d done it ahead of time,” but I’m glad we didn’t because I got to watch one in three before I had to ultimately write those lines. The writers room did a huge amount of work to crack some of the story of the graphic novel and how it worked. But those lines, I think, and Daniel reading them were what really locked the whole thing together as a piece.
Patrick Somerville is Emmy-nominated in the category of Outstanding Writing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for the episode “Unbroken Circle” of Station Eleven, currently available to stream on HBO Max.