Posted on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016 by Jack Giroux
After season two of The Leftovers, it feels like season one hasn’t totally gotten its due. Admittedly, the HBO drama got off to a rough start, but midway through chapter one, the adaptation of Tom Perrotta‘s book began to soar. By the time “Guest” aired, directed by Carl Franklin (One False Move), The Leftovers began delving deeper into its world and characters — and season two continued to do the same. The main mystery became less of a burning question and the drama grew richer.
Showrunner and writer Damon Lindelof remains immensely proud of season one, but there were lessons learned that him and his collaborators kept in mind during season two. Below, read our conversation with Lindelof. (Spoilers for Season 2 of The Leftovers ahead.)
If you missed part one of our Damon Lindelof interview, you can read it here. In this portion of our conversation, Lindelof discusses narrative expectations, mistakes, and more.
For the people that look at surreal as a dirty word, do you just think, “Well, I’m not writing for those people”?
Every time that I’ve ever tried to write for someone other than myself, I fail. And then I fail, and then I can’t even feel proud of having failed because I was trying to hit a mark that was unhittable. Take something like the Star Trek movies and you go, “I’m just writing this for the fans because I’m a fan and I just want to make sure the fans love it.” Then you start to wonder, “But the fans of Star Trek, some people love Next Generation and hate Voyager. Some people love the original series and they don’t like the original series movies. So how do I even define what that is?”
So, at the end of a day, I hold onto a belief that now there is a core audience for The Leftovers that have watched both seasons. And they all kind of say the same thing more or less, which is the first season was really hard to get through, but it emotionally affected me. I’m transcending the idea right now of I liked it or I didn’t like it, because different people are going to have… But there were episodes, like I said, that rose to the top. Like, if you watch the first season, most people said “Guest” was one of the strongest hours of the first season. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there who hated it. And so, you ask, “What was it in that episode that we did right?” Let’s keep trying to hit that mark.
But then, once you build a formula, then I start to get antsy, because the audience is so sophisticated that they begin to smell the formula. And so, ten minutes into an episode of The Leftovers they know exactly where it’s going. And it’s actually not satisfying when you take them there. They want you to kinda start to deviate from the path.
But then if you take risks just for the sake of taking risks, like coming into the third season, if I were a fan of The Leftovers and I wasn’t writing it, I’d be like, “Well, they started Season 2 with a cavewoman. How are they going to start Season 3?” And that puts pressure on me to basically start to hear that voice and be like, “The audience has this expectation now that this is the way that I’m going to start it.”
But, at the same time, sometimes expectation is good. So if you go into Star Wars Episode 7 and it doesn’t start with a crawl, you know, because J.J. is like, “We’re not doing crawls anymore. That’s the old way.” You’d fucking lose your brain.
I’d probably accept it.
Great. You are making my point then, which is you have to change things up if it feels right, but don’t change things up just for the sake of changing things up.
We talked about that with Tomorrowland, too, where it felt like you were trying to go against the formula and people just don’t want to see that.
Right. Or you are being inspired by what not to do versus what to do. So Brad and I were so impassioned by the idea of, “We need to make it very, very clear that we’re anti-dystopia.” But, at the same time, I kind of also love dystopia. So if I’m anti-dystopia, why am I first in line to see The Hunger Games and watch The Walking Dead? That’s dystopian storytelling. So I can’t shit all over it. I have to sort of embrace that this is something that people like, including me.
Again, lesson learned. But, ultimately, it all boils down to, I produce my best work when I’m surrounded by collaborators who challenge the work constantly and we find it together and they save me from myself. And then, I produce my best work when I can acknowledge a mistake and basically be like, “That didn’t work. Let’s diagnose why it didn’t work. Let’s do a pathology on it and then try again.” It’s not rocket science. It’s very time-consuming and it does require a certain degree of honesty with yourself, and especially if you hate a lot of the stuff that you write. People think that I say that because you are supposed to pretend to be modest and humble, but anyone who writes knows that that’s just a real thing. You just hate a lot of the stuff that you write. You never would get anything done if you were constantly afraid of making mistakes.
So it’s like, “All right. Today I’m going to go in and we’re going to make a billion mistakes. But if we can learn from them, maybe we’ll generate something good.” So I don’t think the Season 2 was a reboot, but I do think that it was a reaction to Season 1. We built on the ideas that worked and we eradicated a majority of the ideas that didn’t, but then we doubled down in a huge way on the biggest idea that didn’t work, which was I think if there was a uniform criticism of Season 1 of The Leftovers, it was the Guilty Remnant, just in terms of that it existed at all. We don’t understand what they are about or why someone would even join them or what their doctrine is. And I don’t like watching them. I don’t like watching them smoke cigarettes and stare and people and writing shit down. It’s frustrating. I don’t like it.
Then it was like, “Well, what if they are still the big bad? We’re going to sort of eliminate some of the things that were annoying to you and about them and were annoying and frustrating to us as storytellers.” But the answer to the big mystery of Season 2 is the thing that you hated the most about the first season — that felt right. It could have blown up in our faces in a huge way. And it’s not like I’m sitting here now going like, “We’ve made people love the Guilty Remnant.” I still think that that idea is highly divisive. But I’m glad we did it. It felt like it was the right thing to do.