The Max Original limited series “Station Eleven,” which is now available to stream on HBO Max, demanded the envisioning of both a world collapsing from a catastrophe, and one reconstructing itself thereafter. Fair enough; as filming continued, COVID was prompting plenty of thoughts about the apocalypse and its aftermath.
Emily St. John Mandel’s source novel, in which mysteries and hints are posed early on, only to be explained much later, also involves much whipsawing back and forth in time. How were viewers to be kept oriented in the course of working out an exhilarating yet demanding 10-hour puzzle?
A crack team of directors and designers, assembled by showrunner Patrick Somerville (“The Leftovers”), conceived a scheme to exploit familiar vistas, and marshal and repurpose contemporary materials, into a set of specific visual cues. The goal was to guide the audience through this unique futuristic tale and bring out the core theme: hopefulness in the face of despair.
In a modern-day winter, “Year Zero” as Earth will come to call it, an inexplicably fast-acting flu kills off 99% of the population. Survivors must fend with a shut-down energy grid, supply shortages and a widespread descent into feral behavior that happens much too quickly. By contrast, in “Year 20,” pandemic veterans and their descendants wield whatever physical objects have been left behind to make the most of a landscape scrubbed clean of technology.
“We wanted it to be very grounded and real, to feel very human and of the earth,” recalls production designer Ruth Ammon. “Those were the only marching orders.”
Somerville credits cinematographer Christian Sprenger and director Hiro Murai for spearheading a visual template in Episode 1 in which “Year Zero tends to be dark and crowded, a bit claustrophobic, indoors and cold,” whereas “anything in the Year 20 space is bright and green, open and lush, and underpopulated.”
“It needed to feel different in the different timelines,” says Somerville. “We needed that the audience could say, ‘Oh, I see that apartment; I know when I am.’ Or, ‘I see big green trees; I know when I am.’ We needed the heart to be the radar, because it’s too complicated to do [overlaid text] everywhere.”
Sprenger agrees: “We’re making the anti-apocalypse story. … No scorched earth, a sky full of ash and no color left.” Indeed, the opposite was true, taking a cue from abandoned urban structures that have become overrun by lush foliage over time.
“We tended to desaturate the present and play with more limited color palettes, while in the future everything is very colorful,” he adds. “Everything wanted to feel inspired by Mother Nature.”
The camerawork followed suit. “In Year Zero mode,” Sprenger reveals, “we tend to be further away from characters. Longer focal lengths, observing the story from a distance.” Those scenes are controlled and smooth, while “Year 20 is a little more wild and untamed. More movement, a little bit handheld. You feel the breath of the filmmaking almost physically happening to the lens.”
Under that lens, future life becomes a recycling cavalcade, especially for theatrical troupe the Traveling Symphony. “Their [costumes’] material was real camping material,” Ammon reveals. “But the palette is oranges and ochres and turquoise, and that became their visual language.”
The wagons are built out of old cars, and the troupe’s roaming actors forage for items from the “pre” era, Ammon notes. “But what you pick up is something you can actually carry or sew into what you’re wearing,” she adds. “So it had to be light enough and protective enough — grounded in some way.”
A Michigan airport is the site of crucial action in both timelines. Sleek and impersonal in Year Zero, when several major characters are stranded there, it’s wildly reconstituted 20 years later as a self-governing, hermetically sealed haven (or prison?) that will bring together all of the storylines in the end.
“Having a rotunda was critical,” Ammon says. “Everyone has to have a meeting point.” Also, the climactic action involves a Globe Theater-like performance of “Hamlet” so a central open space was ideal.
No available airport had one, but the Ontario Science Center did — “a Brutalist architecture with cone concrete,” Ammon grins, “but very strong and theatrical.” Eventually five different sites became “a complete jigsaw puzzle of locations and little pieces,” which gave airport changes of tone and scale. “If we were stuck in one area, it just wouldn’t have the breadth that it has,” she notes.
The breadth and scope of “Station Eleven” can’t be separated from its source material. To Sprenger, it’s “a story about surviving, a new beginning, a new chapter. … You want to feel like the future holds a lot of possibilities — something aspirational.”
Aspiration is reflected in “Station Eleven” itself — a graphic novel about a mysterious, faceless astronaut drifting through silent space. It’s written and drawn by one central character, and gets passed down to others like a cultural talisman.
That meant finding the right artist for the job — Maria Nguyen. “We had her start developing certain ideas of Dr. Eleven: how he would stand, what his expression was. … She went on to do every frame of that book — she was the perfect choice,” Ammon says.
That graphic novel, much of which we peek at over actors’ shoulders, is no last gasp of creativity in the face of end times. To those attempting to restore civilization, reading it becomes a source of inspiration and joy, squarely in line with Somerville’s intent.
“[This is] a post-apocalyptic story about joy,” Somerville says. “After a terrible thing happens, what good is left? What could be left? It’s also a show about building and making, and how art isn’t a pretentious, fancy thing that belongs in museums. It’s just what humans do to solve problems, and then they get really good at it. Art always comes from a grounded, practical, problem-solving place.”
The craftspeople of “Station Eleven” make essential contributions to solving this particular story’s problems. As Somerville proudly notes, “[There’s] a lot of information baked into the visual experience.”