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June 12, 2017

Moving On

Damon Lindelof left quite a few questions unanswered as he moved on from The Leftovers.

David M. Gutiérrez

It isn’t always the solution that resonates and attracts writer-producer Damon Lindelof. Sometimes it’s the people surrounding the mystery.

That could strike some as odd given Lindelof’s last series, Lost, was renowned for building riddles and mystery. Lost also gained notoriety for its controversial ending.

In his latest television series, HBO’s The Leftovers, Lindelof and co-creator Tom Perrotta explored what happened when two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanished in an event called the Sudden Departure. Life moved on for those that remained, but questions of spirituality and crises of existence arose. A cult, the Guilty Remnant, was born out of despair and served as a reminder of the futility of life.

Perrotta’s novel acted the basis for the show’s first season. Viewers followed Sheriff Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and his family as they dealt with life in a post-Departure world. Garvey met and fell in love with Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a Departure widow whose entire family disappeared.

Garvey and Durst’s relationship grew in importance in the second and third seasons of the series, eventually becoming the focus of the series finale. And of course, there remained the questions of what caused the Sudden Departure and what happened to those that departed.

After Lost, you took some time working on features, before returning to television. What brought you back?

It started with [Tom Perrotta’s] book for me. I’ve read all his books. I read a review of The Leftovers by Stephen King, and he’s a writer that I loved growing up. I thought it was interesting that Perrota had written a novel with an air of the supernatural to it. I’ve always been attracted to that, especially in how it relates to religion and God, and asks, “What does it all mean,” and “Where do we go when we die?”

I was emotionally affected by it. I found a way to tell a very compelling story while avoiding the central premise that it never resolved its mystery. I thought if Tom Perrotta could show me how to do that, it would be a worthwhile next project to engage on, especially after Lost was completely built around the resolution of its mysteries.

There’s another way to do this kind of storytelling, while still engaging in all the character-based emotions and grander thematics that interest me. And I would get to partner with Tom.

The way Hollywood works is it traditionally purchases the book, then fires its author and replaces them immediately. I wanted to work with Tom and hopefully talk him into moving out to Los Angeles, or at least come out for large blocks of time. If I was going to do another television show, I wanted to do it with someone I could learn from.

I’m still figuring it out myself. There were a number of other writers who read Tom’s book and wanted to do this. He interviewed a number of writers, but I’m the one he picked.

Were you concerned that your involvement brings with it expectations of non-linear storytelling and a grand mystery?

For sure. But I think the things that excite me as a storyteller are things that are kind of dangerous. But I have a type.

Is there a “Damon Lindelof brand?”

I don’t even entirely know what the word “brand” means, but in the context in which you’re using it, then if the shoe fits… I hear what you’re saying and I accept the designation, it just feels a little bit corporate.

The artsy-fartsy part of me says, “I’m not a brand. I’m not a product.” But, of course we are making a product. I want to engage in a certain level of denial about that. I have a type. There’s the stuff I’m attracted to and it’s all the stuff you just mentioned. I couldn’t resist it if I wanted to.

A band has a sound. There’s an expectation that a Beatles album is going to sound like a Beatles album, even though there’s a transformative quality from album to album. In keeping with that, were you thinking about escaping your sound?

[I couldn’t] escape the “Lindelof sound” if I tried. But, by inviting other musicians to the stage, the sound could evolve or become different. If you’re a U2 fan and you love The Joshua Tree, you want the next album to sound exactly like The Joshua Tree, but you also want it to evolve.

The best way to evolve is to partner with different creative storytellers or visionaries. That way you’re making something different by partnering with them. Eric Clapton is a much different artist with Cream than he is as a solo artist, but a Clapton guitar riff is still a Clapton guitar riff.

What was it like collaborating with Tom? Did you feel any sense of ownership from him when you started working together? Or was it an open environment?

I think the honest answer is both. And thank God he did have some proprietary ownership, because I was looking to him to give me some boundaries. I think boundaries are really healthy. They let you understand where the edges of the field are. As long as you’re running up along the sidelines and not stepping out-of-bounds, you’re cool.

He was open me to saying, “Well, let me explain to you why it actually is inbounds.” And then a very interesting conversation would begin to emerge. There were other writers as well, but Tom and I were the head writers. The conversation that would begin to evolve was that he and I would try to answer the simple question, “Is this a Leftovers idea?” He is the leading expert on The Leftovers.

We were discovering all this together. It was more critical for Tom to be there because my tastes and sensibilities tend to drift out into this “extraordinary area,” and Tom’s sensibilities [drift into] the less extraordinary. I don’t want to say they’re ordinary, because they’re not by any sense of the imagination, but I’d say that he’s not down for the wacky sh-t.

It was important, and sometimes fun, to see how far we could push him out onto the ledge before he would say, “Stop, this is far enough.” But by the time we got to the third season, some of the wackier stuff was pitched by Tom. He had Stockholm syndrome by the end of it, and I was the one saying, “I think that might be a little bit absurd.” 

In the season two finale, Kevin finds himself in this purgatorial state he wants to get out of, and he’s told by this guy he has to sing karaoke, that was Tom’s idea. I just looked at him and thought, “How far you have come. And I love it, and we are doing it.”

Did Tom offer any explanation for the Departure?

No. It was the first question that I asked him when I met him. I said, “Look, I don’t want you to tell me what it is, but do you even know where the people that disappeared went?” And he looked at me, and completely genuinely said, “I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t even thought about it. I’m not concerned with it; it’s not interesting to me.”

And I said, “That’s all that I was thinking about. I’m totally okay with the fact that you’re not going to tell me, but it’s incredible to me that you don’t even think about it.”

There is a noticeable shift in tone from the first season to the second. There’s a greater emotional brutality in the first year where the smaller victories were amplified because their struggle was so great. But in season two, you allowed more levity, and even started doing episodes that varied greatly from what you did before. Was this change because you were no longer following the novel?

I think that was a big part of it. Another part of it was I was feeling sad and depressed as we were making the first season of the show. The first season of any television show is difficult to make. This was the first time I was running a show without Carlton Cuse, with whom I partnered on Lost, so it was very isolating.

Even though Tom was around, he wasn’t a showrunner or producer that worked in television before, so his function was almost primarily creative.

Secondly, the characters in season one weren’t moving towards anything, they were just living their lives. I think when a character isn’t moving towards something or doesn’t have an ambition, they can start to create the emotional frequency you described. They become hard to watch, living in a state of despair without being able to get out of it.

For season two, we thought, “Let’s literally move them.” They’re going to leave the place that they were basically chained to and go to this other place because they want to feel better. Kevin was going to be given this specific objective because he’s being haunted by [Guilty Remnant member] Patty Levin and he needs to get rid of her.

Everything he does in the season was geared towards accomplishing this goal so it felt like it had more energy behind it.

The other thing was that the show could explore this absurd and quirky sense of humor. It could also do crazy narrative loops like starting in prehistoric times as long as we were willing to earn it. I think even in season one, when we did the episode where Nora went to New York, the show began to demonstrate it could get away with bold narrative leaps as long as they were grounded in emotion-based storytelling.

I think we already knew [the show] was capable of doing that. Season two started to be about seeing how crazy we could be while getting away with it. It was never being crazy for crazy’s sake, but it let us chase the more dangerous ideas to see if we could pull them off. That resulted in an exciting way to tell stories.

It felt like the decision was made to turn the show into a love story between Nora and Kevin.

I would agree with that. The love story is a big part of Tom’s book as well.  They even go to Miami in the book, which doesn’t happen in the series. Their trip doesn’t turn out that good, and they’re on the verge of breaking up when Nora finds the baby.

I would agree that it was in the second season we began to explore the romantic entanglements. In season one, they’re both spinning when they find each other, but in season two they’re together. They’re going through the stuff that couples go through. I feel like we made musical choices, and the actors made performance choices, that more explicitly underlined that we were telling a love story.

What made you decide to start changing the opening song? Was it to reflect each episode’s theme?

There were a couple of reasons for that. We changed the entire title sequence between seasons one and two, and I felt like that was a way to tell the audience it’s still The Leftovers, but we’re changing frequencies slightly. In the third season, we felt there was an expectation that we were going to change the opening title sequence again because it would be kind of weird to have it as one thing for the first season, but then it’s another thing for the second two seasons.

But we had no budget to make up an entirely new title sequence. So, I thought that maybe we should change the song from Let the Mystery Be to something else. I started experimenting with different songs against the show’s opening images and a lot of them were working.

I thought maybe we don’t have to just pick one song, we could change it every week and look at it as a bit an overture. My dad used to take me to see Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals like Carousel or West Side Story when I was a kid. The lights would go down, and the orchestra would play little pieces of all the songs from the musical to give you a taste of what was to come.

I thought, “Oh, let’s do that.” HBO really responded to the pitch and they thought it was an inventive way to shake things up without spending an exorbitant amount of money, so we went for it.

You also seeded objects, ideas that paid off much later or in unexpected ways in the last two seasons. How did you go about structuring that? Was this when you were breaking the stories? Were you working backwards?

Particularly [we started seeding] once we got into the second season, and certainly the third. In the first season, we had the book, so there was something to adhere to or deviate from.

In season two, we didn’t have that, so it was important for us to sit down at the beginning and say, “Okay. Here’s what this season is about: a place called Miracle. Here’s what happens: these three girls disappear. And in a show that said it would never resolve a sudden Departure, we’re going to have to resolve what happens to these three girls. Let’s talk about what those possibilities are.”

We settled on the idea that they faked their own Departure and had joined the Guilty Remnant. Before we started writing the season, we needed to know where we were heading and what would happen in the finale. There’s a certain amount of discovery as you along the way.

Some plans that you have don’t work, and you have to improvise. New ideas occur to you that you didn’t know you had, but maybe you left subliminal clues for yourself. Like in the first episode of season two, when Erica Murphy (Regina King) was out there in the woods. She dug up a box and a live bird flew out.

You kind of need to say, “What the hell is that? Why is she doing that and when are we paying it off?” You can’t just do it and hope you can figure it out later. It’s irresponsible and will ultimately lead up to a lot of red herrings. If you don’t handle that responsibly you can get into a lot of trouble – and I know that from personal experience.

It’s clear that you’re open to responding to feedback on your series finales and even engaging with critics. How do you feel about your finale?

I feel we put a lot of time and energy into ending The Leftovers. I really trust the guy who has the showrunner designation. This is not coming from a place of modesty, but is the actual truth, The Leftovers is truly a collaborative effort and so many of the great ideas of the show that I love came from other people.

The actors were constantly surprising me with their performances. It was a “we” show, not a “me” show. That said, I do care deeply about what people think about the show and wouldn’t change that. I don’t wish I didn’t care, I think the fact that I do care is what makes me who I am, and what makes me want to tell stories that connect to people. I do want people to like the ending of The Leftovers as much as I do.

I also understand that The Leftovers deals with some uncomfortable material like grief, loss, spiritual belief systems, and to a degree, the supernatural – not really understanding where the real world ends and the supernatural begins. I understand there will be some kind of interpretive element as people process the ending of the show.

Ultimately, I have to be okay with whatever the response is, because the only thing I have any control over is how I feel about it. If the ending felt satisfying to the people I made it with and worth their time, then we hit that target. Hopefully, the audience will find it satisfying and worth their time. People invest a lot into these kinds of shows.

The most painful thing a person could say isn’t, “I didn’t like the finale of The Leftovers.” They could say, “I really wasted my time watching this show.” I really hope the latter doesn’t manifest itself.

To get a sneak peek at the series finale, click here.

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