Episode 420: ‘Station Eleven,’ Noah Hawley, ‘Harold and Maude’

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Jeevan (Himesh Patel) and Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) embrace in this promo still from HBO Max's 'Station Eleven'
(C) Photograph by Ian Watson/HBO Max

Showrunner Patrick Somerville on the HBO pandemic saga, ‘Station Eleven.’ Also, ‘Fargo’ creator Noah Hawley on his novel, ‘Anthem.’ And author Heidi Greco on the staying power of the movie, ‘Harold and Maude.’

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  • Showrunner Patrick Somerville on the poetic pandemic saga, 'Station Eleven'

    In early 2020 as most of the world retreated into quarantine, author Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, “Station Eleven” began popping up on popular reading lists. The author was deemed prophetic in some circles for her story about a Georgian flu that wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population and the survivors’ plight in the aftermath. Others, however, found it a bit “too soon” for COVID-19 reading.

    HBO didn’t feel it was too soon. They optioned the book for a limited series months before an actual pandemic hit the globe and tapped Wisconsin native Patrick Somerville to adapt it for television.

    Somerville had two big pluses heading into this job. One, he was a successful novelist himself. And further, he cut his TV writing teeth with Damon Lindelof (“Lost” and “Watchmen”) on the similarly themed and critically acclaimed HBO series, “The Leftovers,” which dealt with another global “rapture” and its aftermath.

    “The novelist who wrote the novel ‘The Leftovers’ was Tom Perrotta, and very unusually, he was in the writers’ room for seasons two and three after they had exhausted the material that was in the book,” Somerville told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Somerville got a front row seat to watch Lindelof and Perrotta work together to expand Perrotta’s world, but in Lindelof’s domain as a master television storyteller.

    “So, I got to watch for two years what it looked like when a TV writer, who had made 120 whatever episodes of ‘Lost’ with cliffhangers and twists and turns, was in a dialog with a novelist who was protecting and maintaining the spirit of the novel that he had written,” Somerville said.

    In many ways, the nonlinear, multiple timeline, puzzlebox structure of “Station Eleven” echoes that of “The Leftovers,” and Somerville said that isn’t coincidence.

    “I’m not a writer who needs to tell a story out of order. I just happened to learn about it from one of the best and also learn about it again from Emily’s novel,” Somerville said.

    ‘Station Eleven’ needs to be out of time because it’s about memory,” he continued. “It’s about before and after, not just one or the other. So, we needed to tell the story in a way that let the different timelines proceed together.”

    The show and novel follow a small and loosely interconnected group of characters as they navigate the initial outbreak and the “after” as the world as we know it collapses.

    The main protagonist is Kirsten, who at the time of the outbreak is performing in a presentation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in Chicago when the lead, Arthur Leander, has a heart attack on stage.

    Leander is the hub character whose orbit connects most of the cast. That includes his estranged wife, Elizabeth, and their son, Tyler; his longtime frenemy, Clark; and his ex-wife Maria, whose titular graphic novel becomes somewhat of a sacred text to both Tyler and Kirsten in the wake of the outbreak.

    When Arthur begins to falter on stage, an audience member, Jeevan (Himesh Patel), is the first and only person to react, rushing the stage. It was here that Somerville makes his first tweak from the novel.

    “In the novel, Jeevan is an EMT in training, and I think his rush to the stage is somewhat motivated by a sense that he’s the guy to help. He might know what to do. And in our version, we decided just to take that piece away,” Somerville said.

    Somerville said it’s the instinct to want to help that was important for Jeevan. So, as Jeevan helps with the backstage commotion of Arthur’s heart attack, he meets and helps to console Kirsten. When her stage “wrangler” fails to show up, Jeevan shepherds Kirsten home. It is during this trip home where he receives the fateful call from his sister, an ER doctor, who gives him a heads’ up that there is a highly contagious and mortal flu outbreak and that he should isolate immediately. Unable to locate Kirsten’s family, Jeevan is faced with an impossible choice — take in a stranger or send her off to her likely demise.

    “It’s the whole show in a lot of ways,” Somerville said. “You find yourself in a position to be morally responsible, even if your heart is saying, ‘Run and go,’ your moral heart is saying, ‘You can’t.’”

    Jeevan ultimately fibs to Kirsten that her parents offered permission for her to stay with him and his brother, Frank, for the night.

    That night turns into a two-year odyssey for Kirsten that ends when she stumbles across and joins a post pandemic Shakespearean troupe called the Traveling Symphony. Kirsten becomes the central player in the troupe and a protective and resourceful leader over the next 18 years.

    While the Traveling Symphony can, as Somerville puts it, “take a second to get used to,” this concept of arts after the apocalypse is what sets “Station Eleven” apart from other apocalyptic literature and film. In fact, their slogan is “Survival is Insufficient,” which Somerville feels can even apply to us all now.

    I think it’s not enough to just survive. You need to laugh, you need your friends, you need your family, you need to be together with people and resetting relationships all the time,” he said.

    While Kirsten retains her Thespian spirit, the years spent in a lawless world have hardened her instincts.

    “Kirsten, in ‘Year Twenty’ is still that same person, but she’s powerful. She’s talented. She’s intelligent, she’s brave, but she’s dangerous,” Somerville said.

    “I think it’s fun in TV when your main character is a dangerous person or when your main character is a person who sometimes loses her temper,” he continued. “Never knowing quite what someone’s going to do makes for a very exciting feeling when you’re watching a story.”

    Kirsten is portrayed throughout the series by “Halt and Catch Fire” star MacKenzie Davis and the young and impressive actor, Matilda Lawler.

    “(MacKenzie) is in the true use of the word, a dynamic human being and performer and gigantic ball of powerful energy, able to play so many different looks,” Somerville said. “Matilda Lawler (is) a young actor who is stunningly talented and confident and able to do all of those things I just said about Mackenzie, and the two of them working together tell the story of a whole life.”

    With such a heavy story, Somerville made an effort to inject shots of humor throughout the series. He said that’s almost necessary when making a prestige drama.

    “I think it’s always a good idea to make fun of your own pretentiousness when you’re trying to make a high-minded TV show,” he said. “It’s quite good to take a step back and roll your eyes at yourself.”

    The Green Bay native also relished the chance to transplant St. John Mandel’s story from Toronto to his beloved Midwest. Somerville pays homage to his alma matter by having Jeevan sport a University of Wisconsin-Madison sweater while quarantining in Somerville’s hometown of Chicago.

    “I think the whole show’s sort of a love letter to the Great Lakes region, and this is where I’m from. This is where I grew up,” he said. “And I just wanted to tell a story set in my home.”

    “Station Eleven” is streaming on HBO Max.

  • Noah Hawley's novel 'Anthem' captures the current state of our union

    Noah Hawley is one of our most masterful multimedia storytellers. He’s the creator of the FX anthology series, “Fargo,” based on Joel and Ethan Coen’s film of the same name. He also served as a writer and executive producer for “Legion,” the FX television series based on a Marvel comic book character.

    Hawley is also a novelist. He’s written six novels; his latest is called “Anthem.”

    “Anthem” is the gripping, suspenseful story of a group of young people on a quest. When they join forces with a man whose sister is being help captive by a man known as the Wizard, their quest turns into a rescue mission. It’s a literary thriller that captures the current state of the U.S. in uncannily accurate ways.

    “One of the things that was very clear and one of the things that the book is about is the sort of spiraling anxiety in adults, but also in our children,” he told WPR’s “BETA.”

    “We have spent the last five, 10 years in an increasing state of anxiety about the world,” he continued. “Whatever your personal, political, religious beliefs, I think we can say that we’re all more on edge than we used to be, and our children feel that.”

    Hawley said that anxiety is part of a broader issue of mental illness, and in that conversation we must also confront suicide.

    And so in thinking about a kind of catalyst to push this book forward, this idea of the contagiousness of suicide, it’s an idea like any other idea that became a driving force of the book that something was happening to our children and our characters had to spring into action to try to save the day,” he said.

    As the story begins, we learn that there is a suicide epidemic among young people. The first case is a 16-year-old named Brad Carpenter in Madison, Wisconsin. We were curious to know if there was any significance to this character being from Madison.

    “Poor Brad. No, no,” Hawley said. “There is no underlying deep meaning to Brad’s residing in Wisconsin. Other than that it’s a beautiful place to live in and a senseless place to pass.”

    One of the most surprising things that Hawley does in “Anthem” is occasionally interrupt his story to address the reader directly as the author of the book. Like this:

    “First of all, your author would like to apologize for the world he’s created. He knows it’s ridiculous. The fact that the world he lives in is also ridiculous is no excuse. The author’s job is to make sense of the senseless, to create coherence from incoherence. But if the author’s job is also to reflect reality as he perceives it onto the page, then what is he meant to do when the world he lives in loses all sense?”

    Hawley said there were a couple of reasons why he decided to do this.

    “What I didn’t want to do is to hide behind my story. I wanted it to be clear to the reader, I’m worried and I know you’re worried,” he said. “I’m worried about my kids, I’m worried about my country, and I know that you feel the same way. I’m worried about the planet and climate change and all of these things. And so I’m going to tell you the story to kind of try to explain what I’m worried about, where I think the problems come from and what we might do to solve them. But let’s do it through a story because the last thing you need is another pundit that will only make you more anxious.”

    It’s very frightening how Hawley has captured the absurdity of the world we currently live in.

    “You know, the work that I’ve done on ‘Fargo’ set me up for a way of looking at the world, right?” he said. “And as I developed seasons two and three and four of ‘Fargo,’ I really started to think about this formula in which irony without humor is just violence, right?”

    “You know, there’s a certain ridiculousness to life right now that is hard to process,” Hawley continued. “Serious problems have serious solutions. But absurd problems, what solutions do those have? And I don’t think we ever thought to prepare an answer for that.”

    In his latest book, ‘The Story Paradox,’ Jonathan Gottschall argues that storytelling can bind people together, but it can also tear people apart. Was that something Hawley thought about in terms of finding the right balance between optimism and pessimism for the tone of “Anthem”?

    “I talk a lot in that end of the book about empathy,” Hawley said. “And empathy, it’s sort of the best, worst solution because empathy is a very powerful force if we’re talking about one or two people. I see a homeless child on the street, I feel empathy for that child. I see a thousand homeless children on the street, empathy breaks down.

    “But empathy can also be manipulated, right? If you tell a large group of people that they have been victimized and things have been stolen from them, and who doesn’t empathize with themselves first and foremost? And when you feel like someone has been wronged, you’re looking not just to comfort them, but also to catch the perpetrator of that wrong. And unfortunately, when you have people who believe they’ve been wronged, they’re out to get justice for that wrong,” he said.

    Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “Hopeline” to 741741.

  • More than 50 years later, 'Harold and Maude' still offers a fresh take on love

    The movie “Harold and Maude” was released in 1971. It stars Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in what could well be their most memorable roles.

    The film combines dark comedy with drama to create a movie that gives us a new way to think about love. And it features a memorable soundtrack by Yusaf Islam (alias the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens).

    More than 50 years after its release, “Harold and Maude” still holds up.

    Heidi Greco is the author of “Glorious Birds: A Celebratory Homage to ‘Harold and Maude.” Greco says that this movie is one of a kind in the genre of unconventional romances.

    “The main way that it is unconventional is the fact that Maude is pretty well four times Harold’s age,” Greco told WPR’s “BETA.” “She’s about to turn 80 and he is about 20. It’s never specified exactly, and I cannot think of another film where such a huge age difference occurs. But I do point out, and it will always bother me, that in our culture, it’s perfectly acceptable for an 80-year-old man to have a 21-year-old piece of eye candy female on his arm. But the other way doesn’t work.”

    Harold has an obsession with death; he stages fake suicides, attends funerals for complete strangers and drives a hearse. This may have something to do with his rich mother’s efforts to play matchmaker for him by arranging blind dates, much to Harold’s dismay.

    The film opens with a series of Harold’s fake attempts to commit suicide.

    “The thing that I think is the most important about the first suicide is the fact that the film begins with it and that the film begins in darkness,” Greco said. “Harold appears only feet first, walking down the stairs in quite a dark afternoon. And then he lights candles and they’re the only illumination. And I can’t help but think that one of the reasons this film came out at solstice on Dec. 20 of 1971, almost solstice, is that the whole film proceeds from darkness to light.”

    Hal Ashby directed “Harold and Maude.” It was his second film, and Greco strongly admires the style he brought to the movie.

    “Well, he brings that wonderful vision of a world that will be filled with peace and love rather than one that is filled with war and hate. I love the little touches that he does where he does his little Hitchcock cameos in the films. He was a visionary and he did things his own way. Yet another inspiration to me to do things my own way,” Greco said.

    According to Greco, the most poignant anti-war scene is when the camera pulls back on a shot of a Veterans Cemetery filled with white gravestones.

    “The camera pulls back and back and back and back and back until we’re viewing thousands of graves of Veterans,” she said. “If that isn’t a powerful statement against war, I cannot imagine it being interpreted in any other way. And of course, when Harold manages to get out of the draft, everything about the scene is ironic because Maude is helping him. She’s carrying a peace sign, which he grabs and chases her with it, wielding the peace sign as a weapon. And then Harold is finally excused from military service because he is clearly too rabid about his own violent actions.”

    Along with the anti-war theme comes a theme of environmentalism in “Harold and Maude.” Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1971, the same year that the film was released. The scene in which Maude rescued the little tree and took it to the forest resonated with Greco; she developed an appreciation for the Earth and the environment.

    The music for “Harold and Maude” was composed and performed by Cat Stevens. In her book, Greco writes that “the soundtrack serves as connective tissue to the film from the first scene to the last.” She explained that this quote was applied originally to Mike Nichols’s 1967 film, “The Graduate,” and the way that the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack was used in that movie.

    Greco said that she believes that was the inspiration for Ashby to create “the same kind of unified soundtrack to hold his film together.”

    “(Ashby) apparently almost got Elton John, and then Elton John recommended his friend Cat Stevens, and suggested that his music might be more suitable,” Greco said. “Cat Stevens chose tunes from two previously published albums, but then there were two gaps in the soundtrack, and Cat Stevens had to write two more songs, both of which he thought weren’t ready. But Ashby liked them as they were.”

    Greco said she ultimately learned a lot about changing the status quo and growing with the times from “Harold and Maude.”

    “The film told me that it was okay to care about such things at that time. It was going against the grain, even for women to wear pants to work. The times were very different. Women had a place and it was behind men. This film told me that it was okay to be weird and it was okay to stand up for what you believe,” she said.

    If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “Hopeline” to 741741.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Patrick Somerville Guest
  • Noah Hawley Guest
  • Heidi Greco Guest

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