Interview: Damon Lindelof On The Importance Of Mistakes In 'The Leftovers'

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.

You would?

Yeah.

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.

guilty remnant

And the answer you get in Season 2 regarding what happened to John Murphy's daughter and the other girls, did you always know that was going to be tied to the Guilty Remnant or was that something you found along the way?

I don't want to completely and totally unpack and demystify the storytelling process. I will say that we knew right on the heels of the idea that these three girls were going to disappear, which was, I've talked before about, largely inspired by the Peter Weir movie Picnic at Hanging Rock. It was like we're going to... the audience has now been trained to not getting an answer is a possibility.

I've talked about the show Missing that I love, this U.K. limited series show. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. It's about this couple whose son basically goes missing while they are on vacation in France. And it hops between two time periods – the time period in which he initially first goes missing and now several years later and like a new lead has arisen, but their lives have completely and totally blown up. But the husband and the wife basically come back to chase down this lead. The cop who was helping them back in the past, who is retired, is still helping them. It's great.

But as you are watching it, there's a tension that exists that very rarely exists in what I'll call Western cinema or television shows, which is: it is highly possible I will invest in these six or eight hours... I can't remember what it is because I binged it... and they won't tell me what happened to this kid. It's possible that that's an outcome.

I'm not going to spoil anything for you, but the outcomes were, "OK. They will either tell me definitively or they won't tell me." Those are the 50/50. And if they tell me definitively, there's two outcomes – a positive outcome and a negative outcome. The positive outcome is the kid was abducted and they are reunited with him. The negative outcome is that the kid is dead; they find the kid's body and they ID it. But at least they'll know. I'll take either of those outcomes over the not telling me outcome. But, holy shit, they might do that to me, too.

So I was like, "That's cool because people are going to watch this season of The Leftovers with the same tension. Maybe they'll think that we might not tell them what happened to those girls. And, in fact, the characters are going to start articulating..." Kevin and Nora in Episode 4 are lying in bed and she's like, "Do you think they are ever going to find those girls?" And Kevin says no. Patti tells Kevin that the girls vanished. And even though she doesn't exist, she's trustworthy. So the audience starts to wrap their brain around the fact that, like, "All right. Maybe we're not going to get that answer either."

But we knew from the moment that we decided to do the story that the girls staged their own departure. And then it just became about why. Why would they do that? Why would three teenagers do that? And the why conversation led us down a very obvious path to the Guilty Remnant.

One big scene I want to ask about is Nora talking to Mrs. Murphy, asking her what the last thing her daughter said was. Do you recall any memories from filming that day?

I wasn't on set. That episode was directed by Craig Zobel. We were really excited to do another Nora episode. But then, as we started talking about it, it kind of felt like maybe this should be Nora and Erika. Like, what if we just almost alternated every scene between these two characters? And so, how do we draw those characters together so that it would basically build to some kind of really intense confrontation? Because we loved the idea that Nora was absolutely convinced that the girls didn't depart. All these people were feeling sympathy for Erika because her daughter departed, and Nora was getting more and more angry about this because her children really departed and how dare Erika behave like her daughter departed when Nora knew that wasn't the case. So it could only manifest itself really passive aggressively. She would continue to present as like, "I really care about you. I'm feeling for you. Is there anything we can do for you?" But then when she went back into her own house, she'd be like, "Aaa!"

So the idea of, like, Nora throws a rock through the Murphy's house window, and she'd be the last person they'd assume it was. And we'd see her do it and we'd wonder why she'd do that. So it was like, what's the scene that precedes Nora throwing the rock? How do we earn that? Then we came up with the idea because we had been excited by the scientific community's interest in Jarden.

The idea that, like, oh, there's somebody out there that basically flags that Nora Durst, who lost her entire family, moved in next door to these three girls the day that they departed. That's good scientific data for a theory. And so, we're going to take that guy and he's going to come and start yelling at Nora that she may be responsible for the girls disappearing, and that's going to set her off. And that's going to make her throw the rock.

We got excited about Nora throws a rock through the Murphy's window as a way to start that idea. And then Perrotta said the episode needs to end with Erika throwing a rock through the Garvey's window. How do we earn that? The answer became that scene, which was Nora is going to go and she's going to administer, she's going to do what she did professionally in Season 1, which is she's just going to administer this questionnaire. And this questionnaire supposedly will determine whether or not it's a hoax.

But the more she asks these questions, the less it becomes about the questionnaire and the more it becomes about these two women unable to find common ground because they are both in pain. And you want them to just stand up and hug and cry it out, but they are just so angry. So this is going to be a different outcome.

carrie coon

When we wrote the scene, Perrotta and I wrote that episode, I can't remember... We do a lot of writing in the writer's room with all the writers. So we talk in detail. We are even pitching dialogue and stuff as a group, and then you go off and you write your draft. You pass scenes back and forth, et cetera.

When I finished that scene, I remember my feeling about it was like, "Oh, this is really cool, but it's too long. No one is going to want to watch them sitting in chairs for nine minutes." But we sent it down to Texas, and Craig Zobel, who is the director of the episode, he was like, "That scene at the end is really great! Oh, my god!" And Regina [King] and Carrie [Coon] both kind of embraced it on the page.

So I was like, "All right. We'll just shoot it long and then we'll cut it down. We'll give ourselves some options." We ended up lifting maybe 10 seconds out of that scene. I think Craig did an amazing job directing it in terms of how simple and how close he went. But the actors, like Regina and Carrie... It was sitting in the editing room for the first time that I was like, "This is one of the best scenes ever on the show." But I didn't feel like it was one of the best written scenes.

The scene that I think that I was more excited about on a writing level was the scene that follows that where Kevin admits to Nora that he's been seeing Patti. How do you follow up scene and then do another one? How do I do that in three pages? And especially because Kevin really isn't in the episode. So that one I was sort of more proud of.

It wasn't until the editing room that I was like, "Something special just happened." I think it happened because of Craig's directorial restraint, but more importantly because Carrie and Regina found things in the scene that weren't really intentional on the page. The only intentional thing was that when Nora calls Erika pathetic for believing that burying birds was responsible for her daughter disappearing... It's like it's quite obvious that Nora is talking about herself. But Carrie took that idea to a whole 'nother level. It's just amazing.

Make sure to check back soon for the final part of our interview with Damon Lindelof.