Damon Lindelof Q&A: ‘The Leftovers’ producer
“When I read Tom Perrotta’s book, I just started weeping in random places,” admits Damon Lindelof, showrunner of the critically acclaimed “The Leftovers, which he co-created with the author. In our webcam chat (watch above), this prolific film and TV writer/producer talks at length about his current HBO series and looks back on his work on the Emmy-winning “Lost,” which he oversaw from 2004 to 2010 with writer/producer Carlton Cuse.
In “The Leftovers,” two percent of the world’s population– 140 million people — have suddenly and inexplicably disappeared off the face of the Earth, in what is known as the “Sudden Departure.” As Lindelof explains, “the show is an exploration of trying to tap into this idea of ambiguous loss and people’s coping mechanisms. Some people are going to join cults, or gravitate towards belief systems that probably wouldn’t have made any sense before. I really liked the idea of exploring the weird behaviour that would emerge out of this collective worldwide PTSD that occurred in the wake of this sudden departure.”
The first season, set in the fictional town of Mapleton in upstate New York, initially divided critics and fans, who complained that “The Leftovers” was too dark and too depressing. However, it picked up steam by the middle of that first season and earned a respectable 65 score at MetaCritic and 68% at Rotten Tomatoes, with many hailing it as a profoundly moving experience as it touched on loss and grief as few other series or films have done before.
Lindelof implemented some changes for the show’s second season, lightening the show’s tone and moving the show’s setting to the fictional “miracle” town of Jarden, Texas, where the whole town was seemingly spared from the Sudden Departure. The general consensus was that the show vastly improved in season two, meriting an 80 score at MetaCritic and 87% at Rotten Tomatoes, with raves from the likes of Vicki Hyman (Newark Star-Ledger), who called the show “breathtaking,” and Alan Sepinwall (Hitfix), who proclaimed it “TV’s Best Drama.” “It definitely exceeded my expectations,” admits Lindelof and “by mid-season as I was watching cuts of the show, I was starting to feel like, oh wow, this is cool, this is working.”
Much of the praise came for the audacious, philosophical and emotional “International Assassin” episode. “The margin for failure was incredibly high, and the possibility for success was incredibly narrow, but somehow we threaded the needle, and I think it was exciting to watch, because you felt like it was on the verge of going off the rails,” says Lindelof with a laugh as he talks at length about the process of putting that episode together. “Once we wrote the script and started seeing dailies, then it was sort of like, oh wow, we’re doing this! All the actors played it totally straight, so the absurdity of the premise really complemented the strength of their performances.” Lindelof was particularly impressed with the performance of the show’s leading man Justin Theroux. “When you work with an actor, especially on a TV show, you think you know what their capabilities are; you know what their moves are. He busted out some new moves that I had never seen before and I think the episode works in large function thanks to him.”
He now has his sights set on the show’s third and final season, which begins shooting on May 2 in Texas. Reflecting on the chance to go out with a bang by wrapping up the story with one more season, Lindelof recalls the excitement and relief when HBO decided to take the plunge and order a final chapter in the story. “It felt like, when we finished the second season, we were closer to the end than we were to the beginning, and so the math would suggest that there’s one more season of the show. The finale aired, and then there was radio silence, and again HBO had been immensely supportive and really liked the show a lot, but we weren’t hearing anything and didn’t know what was going to happen. And then the critical community rose up.”
As he explains, “HBO heard those voices, and the show shifted into that ‘zeitgeisty’ space in the sense that people were writing about it and saying interesting things about it, so they were able to take that and use it as an impetus for a pick up.” Lindelof reveals, “When I got the call, I was super excited, but in the very same call, to Michael Lombardo the head of HBO, I said I’m so grateful that you’re going to let us do more of this, but if it’s OK with you, I’d like to do just one more. This was our opportunity to not push it, and HBO was gracious enough to say they’re cool with doing just one more season.”
With regard to ending this series, he alludes to his experiences on “Lost” and is typically self-deprecating. “For a guy who is very confident in the area of ending things it’s been liberating because there’s a lot of anxiety and stress that goes with this job, and insecurity that is part and parcel with being a writer in general, and for this season I feel at peace in a way that I never have before. It’s a huge blessing to know that the show is going to end on our own terms, and I really feel like we’re in control of the elephant in the room.”
Lindelof convened the writers at the end of last year and they spent almost six weeks building the entire season. “Knowing the show is going to end has really energized us. We brought on a couple of new writers, which I think is incredibly helpful in terms of not resting on one’s laurels, and it also brings new voices and ideas into the room.” He continues, “We basically said, where are we ending? What’s the final scene? And once we figured out what that was, we were like, ‘OK what happens in the episode leading up to that scene, and now, how do we earn that episode.?’ You know, now that we have our destination, how to plot and navigate our way there.”
Asked to reveal something more about season three, Lindelof keeps his cards close to his chest. “Everyone who is alive at the end of the second season you will see again in the third,” he offers. “We started thinking a lot about apocalyptic thinking, and how people are going to behave if they think the world is going to end. That ‘Y2K’ idea, where you’re kind of laughing and joking about it like it’s not really going to happen, but by December 28th, you walk into the grocery store and all the water bottles are gone and you start to go ‘Shit, does everyone else know something that I don’t know,’ so I guess what I can say to you is that thematically, if the audience knows that the show is ending, there’s actually an opportunity for us to play with the idea that the world is going to end. I think there’s a way to do the apocalypse that we haven’t quite seen before.”
Although the TV academy overlooked “The Leftovers” for its first season, the show has garnered attention from the Critics’s Choice Awards, which nominated actors Christopher Eccleston and Carrie Coon in both 2015 and this year (with Coon winning on her second nomination). Theroux, Ann Dowd and Regina King also picked up nominations this year along with one for the show as Best Drama Series. Lindelof has been nominated twice by the Writers Guild of America: in 2015 for Longform Adapted Screenplay for the show’s pilot (with co-writer Perrotta), which was won by “Olive Kitteridge,” and again this year for Episodic Drama for “International Assassin” (with co-writer Nick Cuse), which they lost to an episode of “Better Call Saul.”
On whether the show can finally break through with Emmy voters this year, Lindelof is wary, given the abundance of worthy contenders all jockeying for attention. Lindelof talked fondly about his own favorites like “Mr. Robot” and “The Americans,” which are vying for the same nominations as “The Leftovers.” When pressed, he admits that he would like to see some nominations for his show. “I would love some our actors recognized and I would love to see our director Mimi Leder recognized.”