Damon Lindelof On Taking Chances And The Evolution Of 'The Leftovers' [Interview]

(This is part two of a larger interview. You can read part one right over here.)

The Leftovers isn't playing it safe in its third and final season. Co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta's series has grown more ambitious over its three chapters and this season can get pretty bonkers, to say the least.

As out there as The Leftovers can get, it somehow manages to stay grounded. The surreal touches and bizarre turns tend to carry an emotional weight, striking deep into the heart of the characters. Last season's "International Assassin" is a great example of that.

Lindelof takes some big swings with season 3. He recently told us about some of the risks the writers took, how the music has evolved over the series, and what he's learned from the experience of The Leftovers.

The music feels more pivotal in season two and three of The Leftovers. What conversations did you have with [composer] Max Richter and your music supervisor about what to do with season three?

Richter, I think, certainly for the first season of the show, in addition to the way that we were telling the stories, Max's beautiful music just was incredibly sad and emotional and powerful, but we were really only kind of playing one bandwidth. Then what we found was, the more that we used popular music, particularly pop songs or light and frothy material, and we used those songs against the imagery of The Leftovers, it created this more interesting thing that was less familiar to us, but yet somehow worked.

We found this balance between the Richter and the Olivia Newton-John, as it were, or the Captain & Tenille, that sort of made this very interesting blend. By the third season of the show, Liza Richardson, our music supervisor, she just basically would send me a mix of like 100 songs that she's like, "Oh I kind of get what you're looking for now." I would just listen to them on my iPhone as I was taking my dog for a walk or driving in my car, and the ones that really jumped out at me, I would just bookmark and keep in the back of my mind so that when we got into the editing room, I'd be like, "Oh Liza sent this amazing song. We gotta use that."

She found that crazy song that basically starts off the season, the "You've Been Left Behind." It's called "I Wish We'd All Been Ready." It feels ethereal and both completely and totally out of time as it's mixed with the images that you're seeing, so I really liked the juxtaposition and the datedness of the music. Certain themes begin to emerge, so we used the Simon & Garfunkel for the karaoke scene, and then it's like, "Oh let's use this bridge song for when Kevin puts the bag over his head."

You start to kind of lock in musical ideas that play against the moment. Again, I felt like that was a pretty intoxicating idea. Then we wanted to take it to the next level, which was "What if the opening title song was different every week, and plays as sort of an overture for the episode to come?" Over the image system, but we use a different piece of music, and the music actually transforms the image system every time. So "Personal Jesus" is a very different experience than "Suicide" or the "Perfect Strangers" theme song.

You basically go like, "Wow." There's an incredible amount of variance in terms of songs that work over the same images, so we gave it a try and we liked the result.

Justin Theroux

How did you, director Mimi Leder, and everybody want to continue or change up the style for season three? Do you see it as a continuation of what we saw in season two? 

Well, to some degree, but also because we were moving the show to Australia and there were going to be a number of different key personnel behind the camera in terms of the crew. We had an amazing experience in Texas, but you can't bring the Texas crew with us to Australia. It's cost-prohibitive. More importantly, I like the idea of creating a slightly different adoptive family.

Just like season two was like, "Now we're introducing the Murphy's," the same thing happened with the crew, from both Texas and Australia, where suddenly your family is now consisting of all these new people. That creates an entirely new energy, but I think it's really important to give a tremendous amount of autonomy to the directors of the episodes.

Obviously, Mimi oversees even the episodes that she's not directing, but Carl Franklin and Keith Gordon and Nicole Kassell and Craig Zobel, they've all directed episodes of The Leftovers already. I would go down to Australia and really just tone the scripts with them, in terms of saying like, "Look, you read what we wrote. Do you have any questions for us? Here are really, I think, the important things that need to happen in this episode."

When I watched this thing in the editing room, it's going to be entirely different than the way that we pictured it on the page, but that's going to be a wonderful thing. Everybody understands what the show is, but they also feel like there are no rules constraining them, in terms of how they move the camera, or how they direct the actors, etc. But they all kind of get the show.

So what ends up happening over the course of a season is every episode feels consistent with the language of The Leftovers, and yet every episode feels like a separate entity because it's being translated by different directors. I wouldn't have it any other way. It's kind of great when it's working.

You said how sometimes you'd get into the editing room and a scene will surprise you. Are there any examples come to mind? 

There was a scene at the end of episode six, season two. The scene between Nora and Erika Murphy, and Regina King, and Carrie Coon. Perrotta and I wrote that episode, and we knew that that was a very long dialogue scene. I went down to Texas, and that was the first episode that Zobel directed. Sort of like, "Do you kind of get what we're going for here? This is two women who kind of probably should be hugging each other, but instead, are attacking one another. It starts with Nora throwing a rock through Erick's window and ends with Erika throwing a rock through Nora's. So it's a battle, but there's also just a tremendous amount of pain there."

He was like, "Yeah, I get it." It was very casual. Then I went into the editing room, and essentially ... I think Michael Ruscio was the editor on that episode, but Craig had chosen to shoot it in mostly very tight close-ups, with no blocking. So the characters are just sitting there. Which is pretty much as it was scripted, but occasionally the directors will say, "I need to have somebody get up and pour themselves a cup of coffee or walk."

He was like, "But I'm just going to have them basically seated, and a camera is going to get progressively tighter and tighter on them." It just took my breath away. I was astonished by how incredible the performances were, and how simple the direction was. The show had never really used close-ups of that extreme size before, but it was just completely and totally called for in the context of that moment. I was like, "Holy shit. That is a really good scene."

When we wrote it, I didn't think it was bad. I just thought it was like, "Oh, this is a scene in an episode.'" But man did everybody elevate that material.

leftovers season 3 pic

Some of the characters have changed and evolved at the start of the season, like John Murphy. Was there a lot of discussion over what happened in the three-year time jump?

Doing time jumps is not only not anything new, but it's becoming somewhat of a cliché or something that people expect from the narratives. It's a good way to basically fast-forward through all the boring stuff as it were. But we wanted to make sure that the things that happened in the space of our time jump did exactly what you described, which is kind of push the characters forwards.

But in a sense that they didn't require a lot of explanation, so you just see Laurie and John aren't together now. It doesn't need to be explained to me how that happened. So I think for Nora, it was like, "Let's rejoin these characters in a moment where it feels like everybody has found peace, but the closer you look you realize they're all still deeply fucked up."

All the characters are basically struggling with the same thing that they were when we first met them, which is "How do I form a belief system that makes it okay to live in a world where the people that I love most can disappear in an instant?" They're all moving forwards as opposed to stagnating, which is what they were doing when we first met them.

I think that there's just an energy in season three, particularly because we're ending the show, of the characters moving towards something. They're saying "I know what I want, and I'm going to go and get it, no matter how ridiculous it sounds." Even if it's "I want to die'" or 'I want to write a book about a new Messiah." These are all completely and totally absurdist notions, but the characters don't view them as such.

I imagine after getting to take these sort chances, the experience would maybe influence what you want to do next. Has The Leftovers influenced where you want to go as a storyteller? 

The short answer is 'I don't know.' I feel like I set out to do something that felt like it was really different than Lost, but at the same time, dealing with the same things that interest me as a writer, in terms of the way that I like to tell stories and what I want to tell stories about. But if you put the two shows side-to-side, they would feel very unique.

I look at a show like Fargo and a show like Legion, and they're both obviously made by Noah Hawley, but I'm like, "Oh my God, these are very different shows." They're different shows tonally, but they're written by ... Obviously, there are many talented writers involved in a show, but they're overseen by the same individual.

I guess my feeling is whatever I do next, I want to try the same thing again, which is I want it to feel different so that I'm uncomfortable. That I feel like I'm in uncharted territory and I don't quite know what I'm doing so that I can feel like it's a learning experience. Then I want to surround myself by incredibly talented storytellers because that's what I was able to do on The Leftovers, which was like, "Oh, that's why this is going to feel different because I made the show with entirely different people. They're all really super talented, and they have stories to tell and different life experiences than I do."

I should stop trying to think of myself as an author, and start thinking of myself more as a curator, a coauthor, who basically knows a good idea when he hears it and is able to stick all these disparate parts together into some kind of glorious Frankenstein monster. I do feel like whatever I do next, I've evolved in terms of I'm a better listener.

I want it to feel different. This is such an incredible time to be making television. What always jumps out at me is the stuff that I feel like I haven't seen before. So I feel like the better television gets, the more of a challenge I feel to be up there at the pinnacle of what everybody else is doing, because when you see someone do something amazing, there's a part of me that's like, "Oh, I want to try that too."

But the amazing thing they're doing is being unique. I don't want my voice to feel like it's old or stale, and the only way to assure that it doesn't become so is to continue to take risks.

***

You can read part one of our interview with Damon Lindelof here