Damon Lindelof On 'The Leftovers' And The Side Effects Of Binge-Watching [Interview]

(This is the first half of a two-part interview. The second half will run later this week.)The Leftovers entered its third and final season this week. The first hour was what we've come to expect from showrunner Damon Lindelof's ambitious HBO drama – the start of another ominous, darkly funny, and emotional journey for the struggling family at the heart of the Tom Perrotta adaptation. Kevin Garvey Jr. (Justin Theroux) and co. remain at the forefront of this story, not the mystery (as intriguing as it is).

There are a few questions raised at the start of season 3, but the characters continue to drive Damon Lindelof and Perrotta's story. The new season is set three years after the events of season two, and some of them have changed and grown, but others still find themselves lost in this fish-out-of-water chapter of The Leftovers.

I was recently able to speak with Lindelof about the series and while we didn't get into too many plot specifics, we did talk about the structure of season 3, shows that inspire the series (like Rick and Morty), and the side effects of binge-watching.

I've seen the first seven episodes, and each one just feels 20 steps ahead of you.

Oh good. That's exciting. We obviously want the show to be surprising without relying on cliffhangers and whodunnit's and "who's gonna die?" I think there are other ways to do that kind of storytelling. It was exciting this year to take the wackiest ideas that emerged from the writer's room and say like, 'Okay that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard, but what if we actually tried it? Is there a way?' Sometimes a lot of those ideas, thank God, never made it to the screen, but some of them did.

After people embraced season two, did that give you and everyone a sense of comfort or freedom to go to stranger places with season three?

I certainly think that's part of it. We found that the show could broadcast on different frequencies without abandoning it's sort of core Leftovers-ness. But the only way that you can determine what those frequencies are is by going too far, and I think that every time we returned to the same question, which is "Why are we telling this story? What is it about? Not just thematically, but emotionally. Why are we supposed to care?" You can do the craziest things in the world, but unless you try to make some sort of grounded emotional sense out of them...

That was always the challenge on the show, but I also have to say we are great consumers of television and movies, and books too. As we're making The Leftovers we're watching Mr. Robot and Fargo, and Rick and Morty, and a bunch of other crazy things. It's like that sort of infected us, and you see what's possible. You go like, 'Oh okay.' I think that the culture itself is more willing to go in this absurdist direction, than perhaps they were three years ago when we started writing the show.

When you see other people doing it, you watch a dive or a snowboarding move that was previously impossible, and then you watch it get executed and you go, "Oh, that is possible. I want to try that." You have to be willing to fall on your face a bunch of times, but it is really exciting to be out there, not knowing if something is going to work, and that it could potentially result in great bodily injury. We're just making television here, so no bones will be broken.

leftoversHow much do you consider audience expectations? 

It's totally on my mind. I think that if any person or storyteller who did this for a living knew what the audience wanted or what the audience expected, they would never, ever produce anything but massive hits all the time. At the end of the day you've got to scale back and say, "Okay, we're the audience for this show. What do we want?"

I think one of the cool things about The Leftovers is we've always been filtering new writers into the room on a season-by-season basis, so that the composition of the writer's room on season 3 was entirely different than season 1. Some people were still there, but when you only get to do 10 episodes a year, you end up losing a lot of writers to other shows.

So we had writers who were basically like, "Oh I watched season 1, but I didn't work on it. Here's the show that I was watching, and here's what I was excited about." You're like, "Oh this is like the audience. They're now getting to write fan fic, really, about this show. And we get to make it."

I think that was a big part of it, and the audience ... Once you get into season 3 of the show, I think they become a little bit more trusting than they are in season 1. As the show is teaching us how to write it, it's convincing the audience how to watch it. So you just cut off the bandwidth from the audience.

I think that the stupidest thing that we could have done in season 3 was be conservative and not take risks, because if season 2 taught us anything, it was that the audience wanted us to take risks. They were sort of like, "Even if this wasn't the greatest thing you've ever done, I at least appreciate the fact that you took a chance. And you don't have the greatest singing voice, but the fact that you're standing outside my window right now and serenading me, it's the thought that counts."

This season's only eight episodes, correct? 

Correct. Yeah, there's just one more.

I watched them mostly in one sitting, which is is not the way I like to watch this show, so it all-

You binged it.

I did.I warned you.I know.

I warned you, Jack.

[Laughs] I wanted to be prepared, though.

I appreciate it, yes. It's not entirely fair to say "Don't binge this," but then we want you to write about it within ten days.

What do you feel like you lose by binge-watching The Leftovers?

Not just The Leftovers, but I think that any show that's attempting to go for having an intense, emotional impact or fanatic resonance. Most importantly, I think that you lose the sense of anticipation. I can't remember what it is, but there was some story or some cartoon when we were kids about a little kid who wishes for it be Christmas every day, and by like day nine, he's basically like, 'Christmas kind of sucks, because there's not even Christmas Eve anymore, because every day is Christmas.' So that idea of having to wait 364 days for the next Christmas to roll around is kind of built into what makes Christmas so awesome.

So for me, when I got really into Westworld this year and really into Big Little Lies, or Walking Dead, or Legion, or The Americans, any of these shows that I actually watch the night that they're on as opposed to binging, part of the excitement is like, "Oh my God, it's Wednesday. The Americans is on tonight." And when you're bingeing, you lose the anticipation because it's right there.

I think anticipation is an important part of storytelling, and the fact that of course, we walked out of Rogue One and we would have loved to watch Episode VIII right then, but the fact that you have to wait an entire 12 months for more Star Wars I think is something to be celebrated.

Leftovers s3I also think it's nice to have a week to reflect on an episode.

Yeah. Also, my hope is ... And I think that it's obviously also to ask given what the media culture is and how much excellent television there is, and just when I get totally overwhelmed by the shows that are going to be on in the spring. Between American Gods premiering, and Twin Peaks coming back, and the new season of Fargo starting, it just feels like it's an embarrassment of excellent shows.

But I do hope that maybe some of the people who binged The Leftovers when we sent out all seven will revisit some of the episodes or re-experience them, because I do think that they're packed pretty tight. It's not that people miss things the first time around, but once you are free of the anxiety of "What's going to happen next?" you're just experiencing the show and letting the show sink in, or at the very least joining the conversation of "How is someone who doesn't have episode two to put in immediately after the premiere going to be processing some of the events that happened in episode 1?" You kind of know what it's al leading to, but the rest of the audience doesn't. I think that could potentially be an interesting experience.

The show deals with some heavy themes, symbolism, religion, and surrealism, but not in a way that ever feels pretentious. Is that ever a concern, something you have to stay conscious of?

You totally have to be conscious of it, and I'm a very pretentious person, and a lot of the writers are pretentious. I don't think pretentious is necessary a bad thing, but it can be a bad thing if you are not comfortable enough to say "I am pretentious." That's when it gets dangerous.

Another show that I love is Mad Men, and it could be incredibly, off-puttingly pretentious through a certain lens, but then suddenly someone's foot would get run over by a lawnmower, and you'd be like, "Okay, Matt Weiner gets it." I kind of feel like the shows takes itself both incredibly seriously, but it knows that it's taking itself incredibly seriously, and that is creating a level of comfort in watching it. I don't feel like the show is talking down to me. I feel like the show is making me want to evolve.

So you have to cut your pretention. You can't drink the vodka straight. It needs a little bit of ginger ale and a cherry.

When The Leftovers started, did you know you wanted to one day focus more on Kevin's relationship with his father?

I saw Scott Glenn last night at the premiere, and he reminded me, we had a Skype call because Kevin Senior gets introduced at the end of the second episode of the show, and he basically has this one big scene. When I talked to Scott I said, "We're not going to see this guy a lot in season one. We'll probably see him again in episode six, where we have an idea for how he escapes the mental institution. Then we're going to do a flashback episode where we see what everybody was like before the departure, and we'll need you for that. But it's not a gargantuan part, and I want to be upfront about that with you. But I will say that I think that this guy once he flies the coop, he's going to go on some kind of walkabout." Walkabout was the word that I used with him. He reminded me that I said that to him, and obviously, that was an episode of Lost that was highly remembered and Lost started in Australia. John Locke on this walkabout.

So I believed Scott that I used that word, but I don't think that I meant it literally. But he was like, "But lo and behold, we ended up in the outback." I had always communicated to him that Kevin Senior was going to be the part of the show that basically flirted with the mystical. He really just kind of tore into that idea, and so by the time he came back in season two and told Kevin that he was going to Australia ... We shot that crazy scene where for [episode] "International Assassin" where he's in a hotel room covered in face paint, and saying that he's in Perth, and that he's under the influence of a hallucinogen.

By that point, I think that we were pretty hopeful that if there was a third season of the show, that the adventures of Kevin Senior in the outback was going to be an episode that we were pretty excited about writing.


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