Interview: Damon Lindelof On The Backbone Of 'The Leftovers' Season Two

Midway through season one of HBO's The Leftovers, the show found its footing, going on to deliver heartbreaking, romantic, strangely comedic, and honest stories about family. The show continued to improve, and by the time season two premiered, the show was on its way to delivering an ambitious, dense, and more surreal chapter in its three-part story.

Based on Tom Perrotta's book, The Leftovers allowed co-creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof to start almost from scratch in season two. When season one ended, that was the end of Perrotta's book. This past season some of the key characters picked up and moved to Jarden, Texas, where they learned not even paradise is perfect.

After the jump, read part one of our Damon Lindelof interview. (Spoilers for Season 2 of The Leftovers ahead.)

It felt like everyone had a lot of confidence going into season two. This season took a lot of gambles. 

I don't know it was as much as it was confidence as it was feeling like we had nothing to lose. And also, I think that, for me, television writing has always been the more you try to control it yourself and force the show to be something, the less effective it is. But when you start listening to the show, it will tell you what it wants to be. It's very clear what's working and what's not working. The show will reject an idea like a body will reject a bloody type that doesn't match. And so, I think that we all got better at that this year.

I think there was a degree of specificity in the second season in terms of the storytelling, where in Season 1 it was like: "These are people living their lives." Where, in Season 2 it was: "These are people living their lives," but we were also hanging the idea of Jarden and the girls' disappearance. And even though we didn't dedicate a lot of screen time in terms of the investigation of the missing girls, I did feel like that was like the spine of the season in a way that the first season didn't have that. If you can find that spine in a season of television, where a lot of the great shows, even the shows that are less plot-driven, like Mad Men, are basically like, "Oh, McCann is going to take over Sterling Cooper," and that becomes the paradigm that creates a lot of the conflict of the series. If you can find that thing, you are in good shape, and we did. That's why I like the anthology shows like Fargo or True Detective. They have to have that because they are anthology shows. It's hard for a continuing show to find it.

From what you've read or heard, do you feel like this past season people embraced the show more for what it is?

Sure. I mean inherent in your question is not as many people watched the show in the second season, which is interesting considering I do think that the response to the second season of the show was more positive or less divisive, however you want to say it. Empirically, the show was more embraced in its second season, and I think that there were a number of reasons for that. But the idea that people made it all the way to the end of Season 1 and then they were like, "I'm done with The Leftovers. I don't want to watch anymore," is a bit of a head scratcher, because I think if you make it to Episode 10, you are sort of like, "Oh, I'm curious to see where these people go next." And maybe people are waiting to binge and it's still a longer story.

But I have my zeitgeist very carefully curated for me in terms of, like, I just avoid Google searching that stuff. I'm off social media, because my habit is I'll just find the most negative thing and just fixate on it. And the negative thing is always out there. And so, I have writers and producers on the show who are really tapped into this stuff. If something nice is written about the show, they will send it to me and I'll click the link. And then I'll use every iota of my being not to go into the comments section to find the negativity because I feel like I need to have that balance.

So yeah, in general it definitely does feel like the response to the second season has been more favorable.

It seems like people have stopped caring about the idea of what happened to everyone and just accepted that's not really what the show is about.

Yeah, maybe.

Wouldn't you say the answer to that question isn't important?

I think there are philosophical and emotional answers to the question that you are asking, which is why do people like it more? But I just think we just did a better job this year, all of us, the writers. It wasn't that the show was s***tily written last year, or s***tily acted, or s***tily directed. It was just like everything wasn't clicking yet. We spent the first five episodes, inclusive of the pilot, just kinda trying to figure out what the tone of the show was going to be and how to tell stories. And then we kinda tripped over the third episode of the show, which was just told really from sheerly Matt's point of view. And that was the first time that we were all like, "This is working. But we can't do this every week, can we? Let's go back to Kevin. We've got to follow Jill around and see what Laurie is up to."

Every time we narrowed the storytelling focus, the show just felt like it was working much better. And I think we were able to do a lot more of that in Season 2. When you get to the end of the season, it still feels like, "Oh, I wish there was more Nora. I wish there was more Jill. I wish there was more Matt." But I also feel like that's a position you want to put the audience in. You always want them to want more.

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Frustrate them a little.

That was the intention. Frustration is inherent in the premise of the show. Anybody who knows that I have anything to do with the show knows that they are signing up for a certain level of frustration because that's, either unconsciously or completely and totally consciously, become my brand. But I wish there was a better word for it than frustration, but it has all the emotional earmarks of frustration.

One standout episode from this past season was "International Assassin." When did the idea for that episode come about?

Well, I think that episode came to us in pieces. At the beginning of the season we all sat down and figured out what was the season going to be. And then, what were the characters' specific stories going to be? And we knew that Kevin was going to have Patti attached to him. And so, his arc over the course of the season was like going to be: How am I going to get rid of Patti? Because we didn't feel like it was going to be a continuing condition for that character, where, oh, now on the show Kevin has just got his spirit guide Patti. It was going to get old fast. And it also felt like she's not a guardian angel, so she's not Al on Quantum Leap. She's not helping him. So he's going to do everything he can to get rid of her.

So how does Kevin get rid of Patti became the operative question coming out of our seasonal break. We were doing all this... Reza Aslan, who is this amazing religious scholar, he was a fan of the show, and I read this book that he wrote called "Zealot." And Michael Ellenberg [HBO's executive vice president of programming] and HBO called me up and was like, "You know Reza watches The Leftovers? He's totally into it. You guys should have lunch." So Tom Spezialy, one of the other writer/producers, and I took Reza out to lunch. We were talking about this thing from Season 1 called The Prophet's Dilemma, which is that when Nora is at her conference, she is following this woman and she wonders into a symposium on this thing called The Prophet's Dilemma, which is in the post-departure world, if you have a weird dream you suddenly think that God is talking to you. It's just everything gets magnified by that.

It would be interesting if Kevin felt like he was starting to experience this because his dad heard voices and now he's hearing voices, and what if he's not going crazy? What if there's some sort of prophetic design to Patti? And then Reza said, "Oh, Kevin's not a prophet. He's a shaman." We're like, "What's that?" And then he came in and he talked to the entire writer's room about what a shaman was. Essentially, without boring you, a shaman is someone who gets information from a spirit realm and then has to interpret it themselves. It's not God saying, "Lead your people across the desert to the promise land." You just have a weird dream and then you wake up and you are like, "F***! What do I make of this?" I was like, "This is perfect for me! This is the kind of storytelling that I do." You get the puzzle pieces, but without the picture on the box, and you don't even know if there's enough pieces. I was like, "Oh, I love this. This is great. Kevin is a shaman."

And then Reza said, "But here's the thing. In order to become a shaman, it's somewhat ancestral. It's somewhat genetically passed down." Great. Kevin's dad is demonstrating this. But shamans have to die. They have to go to the other side. And when they come back to life that's when they have their powers. It was like, "OK."

So, very early on, before we even started writing the premiere, we knew that Kevin was going to get rid of Patti by dying. And then that gave us the idea for him waking up at the sight of the girls' disappearance, that he was actually... it looked like he was trying to kill himself. But because he didn't remember it, we would later found out he was trying to kill himself in order to get rid of Patti.

So it was like, OK, somewhere in the neighborhood of Episode 8 or 9 Kevin is going to die. He's going to go do battle with Patti in the afterlife, and we're going to do our version of Dante's Inferno. We all got very excited about that and HBO loved that. But nobody was like, "What is Dante's Inferno going to look like? What are the rules that govern it?" So we kinda tabled that conversation pretty much until we killed Kevin. We broke and wrote Episode 6 and 7 and had him drink Virgil's poison, and then it was time to say, "OK. We know what the end result of this episode is going to be: that he's successful. And, more importantly, we know that emotionally the end result of this episode is the only way that Kevin can vanquish Patti is by understanding and sympathizing and empathizing with her." It's that thing that goes all the way back to Anakin, which is, "Oh, the villain was a child once, too, like this person is broken. And only through understanding Patti can Kevin let her go, because the reason she killed herself in Season 1 was she's like, 'You Understand Kevin." He didn't. Kevin has to understand her.

We knew that that was going to be the math, but we didn't know how to achieve it. We talked about all different versions of what Kevin's walk through the afterlife looked like and just none of them were clicking. They all felt very obvious and dreamlike. They didn't feel like they had any kind of sense of humor to them or self-awareness. They felt very tropey. It felt like we were undoing the coolness of killing Kevin the first place by just doing the atypical... It felt like just kind of mystical bulls***, to be honest with you.

And then, at some point, I don't remember who said it in the room... Someone used the word 'assassinate', because we just kept saying, "What's Kevin objective in Dante's Inferno? What's driving him? He's got to find Patti and he's got to assassinate her." Once I heard that word I was like, "It would be so much more fun if he literally had to assassinate her." Assassins kill people who have like political power or John Lennon gets assassinated. She'd have to be a prominent person. Otherwise, it's just murder. But in his realm, Patti is the most important person in the world. All the writers just kinda sat up and were like, "What?" It was like that was the beginning of the break. Then the whole episode just kinda laid itself out before us.

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I'm glad you mentioned the sense of humor in that episode because season two was really funny. Watching Garvey in "International Assassin," just how frustrated he got, was strangely comical.

People forget, or maybe they're just not aware, that Justin [Theroux] is a comedy writer and a comedy performer. He plays the bad guy in Your Highness and it's a straight up comedic performance. He's very funny in real life. While I think he's a great dramatic actor, I think he's got a lot of comedic moves. Unfortunately, the situations in The Leftovers, they don't present themselves to a comedic take. But I think in that space we were able to get away with a lot more. The show never goes for laughs, but I think that the ideas that started getting exciting to us as storytellers were what I would call absurdist ideas.

And the other thing is Perrotta himself, his writing is really funny. He writes dark s***, which is why I love it, but Election is really funny. And Little Children has a lot of comedy in it. And The Leftovers the novel actually has humor in it. Perrotta is a big part of the creative vision of the show, as opposed to trying to kind of force my own dark despair or depression on it I think was immensely useful. And if he got excited about an idea like "International Assassin," anything is possible.

With season 2, did you always know it'd get more surreal?

Surreality? I don't know. I don't take issue with that definition. But I feel like what we're drawn to is this surreal idea presented in the real context where, obviously, "International Assassin" is a surreal idea, but all the normal rules kind of apply until they don't anymore. In a conversation between two men sitting in the hallway sharing a bottle of whiskey and then one of them starts talking about women s***ting on him, and then that becomes the McGuffin for the other one to determine his identity. But it's all played in this very kind of real way. That's when the show's at its best.

I think the idea that there's a guy that walks around and sacrifices goats because he feels like, or the town at least, condones his belief that that may have staved off the departure from this particular reason, that's a surreal idea. But you just present it like he walks into the diner, he takes out a knife, nobody says s***, he walks out. In fact, almost all of it is just a testament to Mimi Leder, who directed four of the episodes this season and basically runs the show in Texas. She preps all the other directors. And she maintained a real consistency in the second... she didn't come on until Episode 5 of last season. Not to take anything away from the people who directed the show before then, but I think television shows need to be specific. You want to have a specific sense of place. You want the audience to feel like you know what the show is as opposed to the show's meandering around.

And so, maybe that surreality has become part of the show's specificity. But I also kinda feel like if you push it too hard, the audience will go, "This is too weird," or, "I don't understand the rules anymore." I would imagine although it feels like, again, I've had this stuff curated for me that the idea that Kevin has died several times now, some would argue he's died three times if you are including the time that he jumps into the waterhole and the earthquake happens. Like, that he's unkillable, and people might think that's too weird. They might not like that.

So when you present that idea you are like, if he looks down at his body and the bullet hole has healed itself, that's too far. So it should look really nasty. When he slides down a wall he should be bleeding, but he's just not dead. And so you kinda try to find ways to ground ridiculousness.

Surreal is kind of a dirty word. If you say to me, "Oh, that show is really surreal," or, "That Terrence Malick movie is really surreal," people very rarely are saying like, "Oh, it's so surreal! It's awesome!"

Right. I definitely didn't mean it as a criticism.

No, I know you didn't. I know you didn't. It's a very interesting piece of branding. Do you watch Rectify?

I don't.

That show is very surreal to me in a beautiful, poetic way. It's an hour-long show, but I've always wondered, like, are the scripts for Rectify, are they 20 pages long or are they 200 pages long? So little is said, but they could write the scripts out to be like great pieces of prose. I don't know. But when I watch it, it has this very kind of hypnotic surreal effect, even though nothing surreal is happening; there's nothing supernatural happening.

Check back soon for part two of our interview with Damon Lindelof.