small stories

The Snowplow Guy, ‘La Campanella,’ and 7 Other Behind-the-Scenes Stories About Station Eleven

Photo: HBO Max

Sometimes the best stories about the experience of making a television show have enormous scope. They are about a years-long process of adapting a gorgeous, epic novel, or they’re about the meticulous care it takes to design an entire visual language for a series. Sometimes, though, the best and most fascinating stories are very small — about one person’s experience preparing for a single scene, or the way a piece of costuming creates a particular feeling.

These are nine short stories about what it was like to make Station Eleven, from people both onscreen and behind the scenes. They’re stories about the challenges of making a pandemic story during a pandemic, but they’re also about creating art and caring about each detail, and about listening when a showrunner asks you to bring your tooth to set.


Meet Kirsten

Photo: HBO Max

We were deciding about whether to change Kirsten out of her stage costume. I like it when people are in an environment with things on that they’re not really supposed to have — it creates a tension in the scene. We picked the color pink for the dress because we felt it would create a juxtaposition with the seriousness of what was happening in that snowy background and this delicate theater costume. The puffer coat, I showed it to Hiro Murai, and he’s a big cheerleader of anything that looks like Peanuts, like Charlie Brown: that graphic, iconic shape where you could pick her out right away. We liked the practicality of it.

We were talking about culture before and after, and the culture of now is that children are very representative of their parents. If Kirsten is upper middle class, we wanted to show it right away. She’s in practical but designer kidswear and Uggs. It’s a combination of things that shouldn’t be working, but in terms of the psychology of how people dress every day, it does work. — Helen Huang, costume designer


On the Wheel

The Traveling Symphony was one of the hardest things to design. We wanted believability, and we wanted them to be smart. We had the caravan much larger, but we kept paring it down to essentials so we could keep seeing the trucks. One was a former UPS truck — I wanted to leave the “UPS” on, but we couldn’t.

They had to carry the stage around, so we created three tableaux so we could create energy but not have it be such a huge stage that you’d think, They’re such stupid people for carrying so much weight around! They’re not materialistic, but they’re using light and fabric costumes and makeup, and this performance and the theory of this stage will be the weight of it. It’s the opposite of Arthur’s King Lear, with a huge stage and huge pretense. — Ruth Ammon, production designer


Hamlet’s Coat of Arms

Photo: HBO Max

It was about how to make Hamlet feel regal without just giving him a cape. A cape is so traditional in Shakespeare, so we didn’t want to do that. It was a coat of arms — actually arms, from puffer jackets, sewn on to create volume. It was inspired by Hindu gods with a lot of arms, someone who has a lot of dissonance in them. When she plays him, he feels like royalty. — Helen Huang, costume designer


“She Needed to Feel Like the Core”

Finding Miranda felt like a near-impossible task. She’s this enigmatic character, and in some ways passive, but she needed to feel like the core of this entire cog of the show. We had worked with Danielle Deadwyler on Atlanta in season two, and we had her come in and read. We’d seen hundreds of people at that point. She just brought her own idiosyncratic energy. She has a core to her that lends herself to being this character, but she’s also just masterful as an actor.

That conference-room scene in episode three, it was one of the first things we shot from that episode. Which was probably poorly planned on my part, because that’s such a big, pivotal scene, and we were still trying to figure out what this episode was. But we shot that maybe the second or third day, and we tried a bunch of different ways to do it. We realized the moment was about this woman who was playing everything really close to her vest and investing more in her internal life and work than her external world. Then everything bubbles to the surface and spills over for the first time ever. It’s simultaneously cathartic and strange and kind of funny and heartbreaking. We were talking about it conceptually like that, and somehow she synthesized it all into one big monologue.

We shot that, and there were still a lot of things in flux about that episode. There were scenes that never made it in, things that got remixed and reconstructed in the edit, but once we got that scene, I was like, Okay, I know what this episode needs to get to eventually. — Hiro Murai, director of episodes one and three


“La campanella”

Photo: HBO Max

They were thinking about getting a hand double, and I said no. I have rhythm. I know how to clap on the two and four. I was like, “I can do this!” They believed me.

I was in that hotel room in Toronto for over 140 days. I had nothing to do. I had a beautiful electronic keyboard. It’s not a grand piano, but it’s very nice. I put it next to this mirror, and I put an upside-down laundry basket on top of a box, and then on top of that I would put my computer, and I would do Zoom piano lessons every day with this lovely man named Gregory Oh. He’s just the greatest guy, but it’s like learning basketball on Zoom. I don’t have cameras hooked up to my computer, so then I have to hold my computer with one hand, pointing it at my other hand, like, “Hold on, let me see, maybe I can hold with my neck!”

I didn’t touch a real piano until two days before I shot that scene. There’s a big difference between a keyboard and a grand piano that’s 100 years old! The reaction with your fingers is different, and you have to push harder. It was night — it was the last scene of the day. And it was pouring rain. Pouring. It was a storm! Production hasn’t seen me play. They don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m like, “Shoot it! I’ve been in my room for four months playing this damn song, and we’re gonna shoot the hell out of it. I don’t care if there’s hail! I don’t care what happens. You think I’m afraid of this rain?!”

The keys were coming off in my hand, that’s how wet it was. I pulled one of the keys off and waved it at the camera, and they’re going, “Lori! Put that back!” It was like A League of Their Own, playing with a broken ankle. I don’t care, we’re gonna get this. I was fabulous. They didn’t have to cut around nothin’. — Lori Petty, Sarah


News Reports From the End of the World

Photo: HBO Max

The news stuff I did one day in a studio in London, shooting with BBC broadcaster Tina Daheley. It was something I felt really strongly about, that it should be a real reporter. Even though we had all of these scripted news moments, some of them we ended up adjusting later in post so they’d play on our own experience of this pandemic. There was a lot of playing with that stuff to modulate it in just the right way.

The scene that always gets me is that moment where Clark is watching the TV in the airport in episode five, and Tina finally speaks directly to her husband and leaves the frame. That was a direct lift from the book. Imagine being at home and watching a news reporter walk off the screen. That’s when you would know shit had hit the fan. Tina was really great. I don’t think she’d ever acted before, and it took some goes, but she was so wonderful. She even used her real husband’s name, to really get into it. — Lucy Tcherniak, director of episodes five and seven 


The Severn City Airport

For the airport, I got a little worried — we were shooting in a former airport, but it was abandoned and everything was boarded up. There were horrible supply-chain issues, like everyone is experiencing now. Trying to get lumber, getting plastic, getting glass, getting plexiglass; you have these ideas and concepts, but they have to get made. I was always trying to make sure we pushed the angles that got the flight gates. We kept all the airport signage and monitors up, but then laid over that this idea of suburbia or modern-day tract housing: Everyone has a place, it’s got two levels, there’s this sense of order. But you can’t know where they’re going to point the camera, so you just have to hope for the best. — Ruth Ammon, production designer


The Snowplow Guy

Photo: HBO Max

Some of the cabin stuff where it was six feet of snow everywhere — I’d never worked in any natural situation like that before. I’ve worked in a lot of strange weather situations, but this was like four hours north of Toronto on Lake Muskoka. We were there for a week, and it just magically snowed this massive amount while we were there. Slogging through that snow, the characters having to slog through it, is a visual you could never have created yourself.

Those trees were so heavy with snow. Even if we weren’t making a show there, it would be one of the most beautiful things you could ever experience, just standing in these six feet of snow, and it’s dead, dead quiet because the snow dampens everything.

But you couldn’t necessarily go through the same place twice, because then the snow had been altered. There are tricks, like when the snow is super, super high, as long as the actors stayed on the same line and the camera was in the right position, you wouldn’t see the actual steps. There were points when I wanted an actor to walk through somewhere, so I would walk through it myself. And there were times where it was like … yeah, that’s actually impossible.

The big thing was there was a road. Our main access road to the cabin set, only one way in and one way out — it’s the road that we brought all the equipment in and brought the cast in, and it was meant to be pristine. In the story, it’s post-pandemic. There are no cars! So Patrick came up with this brilliant idea that even though we’re post-pandemic, there’s one guy with a snowplow. He was like, “Why not! There could be a guy with a snowplow, and he’s clearing the road.” So we got a snowplow guy to clear the road, and that justified what was required for us to be able to shoot those scenes. — Jeremy Podeswa, director of episodes three, nine, and ten


“I’m Dying. And My Filling Just Fell Out.”

Photo: HBO Max

I quarantined for two weeks in a hotel room to do that one day on set where I’m mostly just lying on the ground. I look at it like, Holy fuck, I can’t believe I was able to lie on the ground and be there while Danielle did that work.

In that first day I was in quarantine, though, Patrick Somerville called to check in, and I was like, “It’s all going fine. I do need to get in touch with production, though, because a really big filling just fell out of my tooth.” He said, “What?” and I said, “One of my back teeth — I just bit down on something and a giant filling popped out and fell out into my hand.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll get in touch with production. But save the filling and bring it to set.” I said, “Absolutely.” That’s where that line comes from. Ultimately I heard that it didn’t make it into the edit because the filling looked sort of like a pistachio, but the reason my character ends up looking at the graphic novel is because my tooth is sitting on it, and Jim Phelps is playing with it with his finger and just happens to notice that it’s on that graphic novel. It reminds me of a line that Pat pitched after the first rehearsal of that scene, which was when Jim hands Miranda the credit card: “Jim should say, ‘Use the blue one.’” I laughed for five minutes.

Work with people who tell you to bring your tooth to set. It’s a beautiful thing about this show. That line about his filling — we’ve all done these things. Jim Phelps is going to die, but there are these little things we’re still concerned with. — Timothy Simons, Jim

9 Small Stories About Making ‘`Station Eleven’