Damon Lindelof: ‘I was really depressed’ writing ‘Leftovers’ season 1

Senior Television Writer
09.29.15 76 Comments

HBO

Damon Lindelof wears his heart on his sleeve, which at once makes him an ideal person to run a show like “Lost” or “The Leftovers,” and the absolute last person you would want to wish that burden on. He holds nothing back, whether in his writing or in his discussion of his writing, and he takes every criticism of his work very deeply. (He quit Twitter two years ago because it wasn’t healthy for him anymore to wake up every day to people cursing at him and demanding six years of their lives back.)

That openness and sincerity was on display in “Leftovers” season 1. The show was despised by some for being too depressing, too slow, too opaque, and spending far too much time with the mute, chain-smoking members of the Guilty Remnant cult. But it was adored by others (like me) who fell right into the show’s parallel world – one just like ours, except that two percent of the world’s population vanished, without explanation, in an event known as the Sudden Departure – and could feel the pain of its characters almost as acutely as Lindelof himself (working with Tom Perrotta to adapt Perrotta’s novel) did.

The new season debuts Sunday at 9. I’ll have a more detailed review of it later in the week (spoiler: I loved it!), but there are many changes, starting with relocating the action to Jarden, a fictional Texas town that lost no one in the Departure, and has now become known as Miracle National Park. Some of the show’s returning characters move to Jarden, while we meet a local family led by Kevin Carroll and Regina King as John and Erika Murphy.

Over the course of two long conversations last month, Lindelof and I discussed the decision to so drastically change the show (and why he doesn’t want this thought of as a reboot), how he ended up making a much darker show than he had intended going in, how he tries to use the show itself to tell the audience he’s never going to explain what caused the Departure, and a whole lot more. It’s very long, and very candid, and gives great insight, I think, not only into the making of this show, but into the many complicated decisions that go into making almost any show.

As Lindelof puts it at one point, “It”s amazing to me that every single television show doesn”t completely and totally fail.”

(This transcript has been condensed slightly from our actual conversation, including the removal of several answers featuring spoilers for the next few episodes. Look for those the morning after certain episodes air.)

At what point in the process of season 1 did you and Tom realize you were going to burn through the whole book in that season?

Damon Lindelof: The first meeting that I had with Tom Perrotta ever, face-to-face, I went on and on about all the things that I loved in his book and why I thought that it would translate better into a television series versus a movie. And he had already made all those determinations because he had set up the book at HBO. My sense of it is Tom came in with this idea and that I was just in strict agreement with it: which was that the end of the book would be the end of the first season of the show. And that felt very obvious to both of us.

In the past, you”ve expressed the idea that it”s hubris to say, “I need to have the idea for season 3 of the show when I”m just starting on season 1 of the show.” But in those early conversations, was there much thought given to what you would do next if you used up the book in only a season, or did you put that off until later?

Damon Lindelof: I think it”s probably the latter. I think that those conversations were probably more with HBO and Warner Bros. than they were with Tom and I or any of the other creatives. Our thinking as writers was always, “Let”s write the story, let”s build the world, let”s think about the characters and then if there”s more story to be told, it will make itself apparent to us.” But particularly after coming off of “Lost,” for me, the idea of establishing mysteries or story threads or subplots that were basically planted seeds for potential future seasons was something that I really went out of my way not to do, just because it was highly stressful to do it that way. But I think if you”re doing 24 or 25 hours of a show episodically, you have to do it that way. But if you only have ten episodes, I was like, “Let”s be very careful about the toys that we take out of the packaging and make sure that we”re playing with those toys, as opposed to constantly taking new toys out of the packaging.”

But when HBO or Warner Bros. would ask you what season 2 would be, what, if anything, did you tell them at that early stage?

Damon Lindelof: I think that we said some version of, “Hey, if there”s a season two or a season three or a season four of a show like ‘Friday Night Lights’ or ‘Parenthood,’ why not ‘The Leftovers’?” This is a family show. It”s not going to be super story driven. It”s just about the continuing relationship connections and disconnections that take place in and around the Garvey family. We were pitching them a “Friday Night Lights”/”Parenthood” model with a smattering of supernaturality around it. I think that”s what we were telling them: “Oh, don”t worry about future seasons.” If you could do six seasons of “Six Feet Under,” you go, “How many different stories can you tell about people dying” And the answer is, “A lot.”

So did the stories for season 2 present themselves as you were making season 1, or only after it was over did you go, “Okay, Texas”?

Damon Lindelof: It was after. Not to get into the “woe is me” of episodic storytelling, but the failure rate of a first season television show is striking. It”s like the infant mortality rate before the invention of antibiotics. The first season of a show is brutal, and I think that if there”s one thing that I”ve learned over time, it’s “worry about the episode that”s right in front of you.” At any given time you”re going to be posting an episode, breaking an episode, running an episode. There”s a lot of overlap, but if you make the story in the script as good as you can for the episode that”s right in front of you, then you won”t have to worry about trouble later. And I think we had a very singular vision for what the first season was going to be, and we also had the very comfortable backstop and safety net of not just a book, but Tom”s ongoing creative presence on the show.

Any conversations that were generated about, “We could do that in the second season,” I think my stomach would start to turn and I”d say, “I don”t want to think about a second season. Let”s just assume that we”re only making one season of television here. That doesn”t mean that they”re going to cancel us, it just means it will force us to come up with an endpoint that really makes us feel satisfied.” Like, this could actually be the end of the show. And I”d never really done that before. (I’m) someone who I think has struggled with endings, and I don”t accept that being foisted upon me by the culture at large – I just feel like that”s one of the hardest things for any storyteller to do is to end a story well. And the things that captivate me about storytelling – mystery, ambiguity, behaviors that are not always rational – they exacerbate the ending problem, right? Mystery and ambiguity do not necessarily correlate to a low degree of difficulty in terms of endings. This isn”t to say that “Friday Night Lights” was an easy show to do, but how you execute the ending of “Friday Night Lights” versus how you end “Lost” or how you end the movie “Prometheus,” it”s an entirely different strata. And I wanted to be much more in that “Friday Night Lights” space despite my inclinations otherwise.

So this is a very long-winded way of saying we had an idea over the course of the first season of the show: As we were plotting Tom and Christine”s road trip from Holy Lands Ranch to the East Coast, we thought that there would be an episode where Tom and Christine stopped in this town where nobody had departed. And we started getting excited about that idea and talking about it, and then it became very apparent to us that the Tom and Christine story was usually going to be relegated to a runner status in other episodes, and that we were starting to get really excited about the Nora and Kevin relationship. And so as we moved into the back half of the season I think that the size of that idea and Tom and Christine”s journey in general became eclipsed by other things that were interesting to us. But the idea of the town where nobody departed was something that never left us. And so when the show ended and HBO started making inquiries as to whether or not we would like to do a second season, my first inclination was, “Let me finish this one,” because we were still posting the last three or four episodes of season one. But then once we were finished, once I edited the finale, I felt like, “Okay, I don”t exactly know what the second season is going to be, but I do feel I don”t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.” Getting a second season of a television show is a big deal. HBO and Warner Bros. had given us a tremendous amount of trust and a lot of rope through which to hang ourselves. And so I felt like it would be disrespectful to say, “I don”t want to accept the pickup.” So we said yes to the second season without really having had any creative conversations whatsoever. And then I went away for a month to Italy and then I came back and Tom and I started talking about what the second season could be. And very quickly it felt like Nora and Kevin and Jill staying in Mapleton and him still being the chief of police – that didn”t feel like it was bearing any fruit. But when we started talking about the power of Nora”s letter in the finale – which was lifted directly from Tom”s book – she makes a very compelling point for why they should leave. Just because she finds a baby on the doorstep doesn”t mean that that should negate that point, and would it be interesting to put these people in a different environment? What if they moved? And then the obvious follow up to that is, where would they move to? And then that connected to that idea that we had in the first season and everything flowed out of that.

You alluded before to HBO and Warner giving you a lot of rope in that first season. You had to shut down production for a little bit. The Christmas episode was reshot. New shows sometimes have difficulties. Did you feel like there were more difficulties than usual in this first season than in some other things that you either worked on or heard about?

Damon Lindelof: It”s always hard to play the compare game. The first seasons where I”ve actually worked on the show, my first experience is on the show called “Wasteland” which was canceled after two episodes aired and they only shot 13. So that first season did not go particularly well, and it became, “Oh, this is what it”s like.” And then the next time I worked on a first season show was “Crossing Jordan,” which Tim Kring ran incredibly professionally and kind of right out of the gate, the stories and scripts were working and NBC was very happy with it and it was generating ratings. And I was like, “Oh, it can be this? This is amazing.” And then the next first season that I experienced was “Lost,” which was abnormal on a number of different fronts and the idea of shutting down production didn”t even exist. We had to do 25 hours of TV in that first year, so it was like, “We don”t care if this script sucks, we”re shooting it anyway.” So a show really has to go off the rail to shut it down. And “Lost” season one was probably on the verge of shutting down because I was about to quit the show. It sounds like it’s hyperbole, but it was very real, and if not for Carlton (Cuse) having come in at that moment in time, I do think that I would have quit and the show probably would have had to take a production hiatus while they hired a new showrunner. But the shutdown on “The Leftovers” in the first season, we shut down for two weeks. We reshot half of the fourth episode, and that”s the first time that I”ve ever done that. And what was amazing about it was we saw the cut for episode four. We felt like we had made a huge storytelling mistake and we shared it with HBO and said, “We would like to fix this.” And they agreed and then they allowed us to take the time to basically figure out how to fix it without getting behind on all the scripts that were piling up in the pipeline. But we also wanted just to kind of hone the production in New York. It was a really rough winter that year, and we started shooting the last week of January. So for a show where most of the crew base and actors were living in Manhattan but was shooting in Nyack and Hastings and all those places, we were losing almost two hours a day just getting people to and from the set each way. So we had to tighten the screws there. And that”s fairly normal for any television show. I”ve said this before about “Game of Thrones,” but I watch that show and I know how it”s produced. I mean, I know – I have friends who direct on it, and (Jack) Bender just went away for five months to basically direct two episodes. And I know where all the locations are, but I literally don”t understand how they do it.

It”s amazing to me that every single television show doesn”t completely and totally fail.

What was the storytelling mistake you made in episode four?

Damon Lindelof: Yeah. In episode four, we did a Tom and Christine story where they encountered this soldier who was returning from this war in Yemen, that is happening in the book. And essentially the story was weighted towards the soldier. And it was like, “Oh, this feels like a guest star episode.” It’s one of those things where your show should always be in service of your main characters, your main crew, and you can kind of always smell like “Oh, this guy”s only around for this episode.” And the actor that we cast, Peter Mark Kendall, who plays Hans on “The Americans,” was amazing. But the story was just a bust from the word go. And it was literally half the episode. And so meanwhile the A-story in Mapleton was that the Baby Jesus had been stolen from the manger which was obviously not a hugely pyrotechnic amazing story, but we liked that story and felt that Theroux gave a really strong performance in it. But overall, I thought that if we put this fourth episode on, people will stop watching the show. Because you”re still in the first season of a television show, every episode”s a date and until you get to like date five or six, any date can be the last date.

And that was right after “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” which was the first of the POV episodes you did. People reacted very strongly to that one and “Guest.” One of the things that”s interesting about these new episodes is that, while none of them is quite as tunnel visioned as either of those were, each episode is still told from the point of view of a small group of characters. What did you learn from both those episodes and the way people responded to them and whether that was a thing that was doable going forward?

Damon Lindelof: When we wrote episode three, it was (relatively) easy to write because you”re just following one person. And it really reminded me of the way that we used to do the flashbacks on “Lost.” That was my favorite part of writing “Lost,” which is you just come up with six scenes that are just about Hurley or just about Charlie, and there are these little short stories and they”re going to be affected by the island story emotionally. But they”re kind of an island unto themselves. And so those stories were just fun to break, for episodes three and six. And even nine, which although it tracks both of the Garvey”s and Nora, it felt like everybody was part of the same story which is the Departure is about to happen. And it”s much more difficult, I think, to write and execute stories where there”s a lack of cohesion to it. But embedded in your question is the idea of point of view, which is, “Whose eyes am I experiencing this episode through?” As we move forward into season two, the Murphys and the Garveys are all going to be characters in that. But in every episode, (we’re) deciding, “Whose point of view am I experiencing this through and can I get even more specific about it?” So if I”m going to be bouncing between the Murphy family and the Garvey family, maybe it”s just Erika and Nora this episode. So unless Erika or Nora is in a scene, we don”t see anything else. So we”re only experiencing Kevin and Jill through the point of view of those two characters. So every episode in season two, we as writers basically decide, “Here are the characters that we”re experiencing the episode through.” It doesn”t mean that other characters won”t be in it, but let”s choose them and be as limited as we can about it. It”s always fun to just choose one as we did with Matt and Nora in three and six of last year. But if we can limit it to like three four (characters) max, that”s really going to help us with our storytelling, and I think that it has.

One of the things that happens as a result of that is that in each of the episodes, you get a scene from the previous episode from a new perspective. And there”s also a recurrent theme going on where different characters ask whether they’re the main character of a story or the supporting character in someone else”s story. Where were you going with that in terms of the larger themes of the series?

Damon Lindelof: I think that there is an element to the show where – I don”t want to say “meta,” because that makes me want to punch myself in the face. But at the same time, I constantly try to be an audience member of the show and experience it as if I were not one of the people writing it. And one of my own criticisms of the show is it didn”t seem to have a sense of self-awareness. And that”s different than a character breaking the fourth law or looking at the camera or being cutesy. But (was) there a way for the storytelling of “The Leftovers” to be a little bit more self-aware in terms of saying, “Hey, we know what we”re doing here”? Or, “We know that we”re super depressing.” Or, “We know that we”re engaging in a certain level of storytelling that may be bothersome to you. Is there a way that the show can be a little bit more reassuring?” And then who”s going to articulate that idea? So I think for us Patti has a line in the second episode that is probably the nexus of your question which is she”s talking about the Murphys and she says I”m not sure whether you”re a part of their story or they”re a part of yours. And ultimately I think that”s her way of basically summing up exactly what the audience may be feeling after watching those two episodes, which is, “So what”s episode three going to be? Are you going to bounce back and forth between these two points of view all season? Is this just a way that you”re setting it up?”

Because one thing that I do feel I”ve learned, and I could be completely wrong about this, but I think this idea that the audience doesn”t know what”s going to happen next is not good. People want to know what”s going to happen next. They like to be surprised, but more than being surprised they really want to have a sense of comfort. They want to know what they”re going to get, you know. You want to know what they’ve signed up for. This idea of unpredictability is not good. And so is there a way that the show can kind of message, “Hey, don”t worry, you know. We”re doing this this week, but hopefully this is still the show that you dig.” And one of the reasons that I say all that is – and obviously, people will perceive the show however they perceive the show, and I have no control over that – my biggest fear in transplanting the show to a new location, although it didn”t occur to me when we did it, is that people will think this is a course correction. This is a reboot. This is a do over. Something was broke and they”re fixing it. And I don”t look at it that way, so whether you hate the show or love the show, I don”t want the show to feel like it”s apologizing for itself.

You mentioned before the notion that some people find the show incredibly depressing. Tom”s novel is dark in spots but also has some lighter moments, and when we spoke before the first season, you said you didn”t necessarily expect the show to turn out as dark as it did. How and why do you think that happened, and do you think ultimately that was to the show”s good? Or is that something that you wish that it hadn”t gone to quite that intense a place emotionally?

Damon Lindelof: (big sigh)

That”s where you write, “big sigh.”

You just asked a lot of questions in there, and the first and simplest answer is I think I was really depressed while I was writing the first season of the show. And I don”t know if it”s the chicken or the egg scenario, which is, did the show make me depressed or was I depressed and made the show depressing? But I will say that what I locked in on and particularly when I started talking with (pilot director) Pete Berg the first time, he said, “I think about Sandy Hook and Newtown when I read this.” And I was like, “Oh, what?” He”s like, “I read this and I just remember the news that day and what it was like to be completely and totally blindsided and how I related it to my own child, and how some act of completely and totally inexplicably devastating violence breaks the rules because, you know, people are going to get shot in war zones but that”s never supposed to happen. And I just keep thinking about Sandy Hook.” When we were prepping the pilot, we went out to New York for a location scouting, and Pete said, “Come over to my hotel and let”s have dinner.” And I went over to his hotel and there was a car waiting and he”s like come on, we”re going to have dinner in Newtown. And I was like, “Dude,” and he”s like, “Come on, it”s important.” So we drove out to Connecticut and I think it was still inside a year of it having happened. But the entire town felt just really sad and tragic, and there were ribbons everywhere, and they had built this amazing lighthouse monument that was covered in messages. And then when we came, there were all these people standing around with their cell phones taking pictures of this stuff. And I felt really icky for being there – like I didn”t deserve to be there. I felt like a looky lou, but the tragedy really permeated. I have to check the timing, but I believe they had just voted toraze the school. Then they were going to build a new school on the same site. So they were engaging in this almost primitive religious behavior of, “We”re just going to destroy this structure and clear out that energy and then rebuild again.” And all those things just became embedded in the show at that point.

And so the idea of sadness and grief and loss and a pervasive sense of PTSD and insanity started to kind of seep into my consciousness and feel really authentic. Just, “What does the emotional apocalypse feel like?” I was mainlining Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and “Gimme Shelter,” and all of these post-apocalyptic stories. It”s like, “How can I take the feeling of these people scrounging for Coke cans and sardines and a burnt sky. How can I take that feeling and just put that feeling in the world that we know? Can I create an existential apocalypse?” And of course, I probably also should have been thinking, “Why would anybody want to watch that?” But it felt different to me. It scared me. It felt way outside my comfort zone because while I think “Lost” functioned in an emotional space, it was a mythic space, and very oftentimes a fun space, a heightened space. If you try to describe “The Leftovers” to someone, it sounds ridiculous. But is there a way to emotionally ground it, so that if you watch “The Leftovers” with the sound down, you just think that you were watching a show with weird people walking around dressed in white. You”d have no sense whatsoever that the Sudden Departure happened, but you would have a sense of what that world felt like emotionally. And that became the ambition, right or wrong. That became the magnetic north. That”s where I kept gravitating to where I felt like the true soul of the show lay.

What Berg said really rings true to me. The show takes place in a broken alternate world, but when I watch what’s been on the news lately, I feel like our own world is pretty broken as well. The emotions aren’t dissimilar.

Damon Lindelof: I respectfully agree. I do think that this event has a sort of cosmic supernaturality around, it but I do feel like wherever you lie on the faith spectrum, your faith also gets shaken when you see these things happen, because it completely and total decimates your construct for faith. So if someone walks into a church, sits in a prayer group, stays for an hour so he gets to know the people in that group, and then takes out a gun and shoots them all, they”re some sort of despicable racist. And then you just go, “That breaks the fundamental rules of my God construct. That”s not allowed to happen.” And you just have to find a way to kind of explain it. To me, that”s the other wrinkle that the show provides constantly, which is there is an active hunt for meaning. There”s an attempt to understand, and to ask, “What are we supposed to do with what just happened? What are we supposed to do with this information? How is it supposed to transform us? Can we just ignore it and go back to the way that we were, or is it a catalyst?” And those are all really interesting ideas. It”s like, does Walter White ever become Heisenberg if he”s not diagnosed with cancer? Was that a latent Scarface lying in him, but it did need to be activated by the cancer, or was it going to happen sooner or later anyway? So I do love the idea that the Departure was a catalyst that affected the entire world, everyone and everywhere. And what affect did it have on individuals, I think is interesting. But as you say, it”s easily relatable because on any given week you can turn on the news and just be like, “Okay, that happened.”

It’s funny that you mentioned the idea of watching the show with the sound off, because the sound design feels like more important a part of this show more than any show I can remember in recent memory – not just the music that you”re using but just the sound of the world and the way everything is always unsettling at all times. How much of the soundscapes, both in the score and other things, have you been focusing on and what have you been trying to achieve with that part of it?

Damon Lindelof: First off I think that it”s important to say in a media culture that wants to assign a certain degree of auteurship to a lot of these TV shows, that this show, like many, is incredibly collaborative, from the writing side, to the production, which is more or less completely and totally governed by Mimi Leder and Gene Kelly and Tom Spezialy as a connection point between LA and Austin, to the post-production of the show. I”m really involved in the editorial. I”m very closely involved with Max Richter, our composer, who lives in Europe. He moves between London and Berlin, so that timing is not always ideal, but we exchange constant emails and ideas and he will send me pieces of music and I will describe how something is supposed to feel. The sonic landscape, at least musically and also in terms of the songs that we pick, Liza Richardson – who is a genius and is a luminary here in Los Angeles on KCRW – just has an endless supply of musical knowledge. So I will ask her, “What”s the better version of this song?” and then she”ll give me eight options. So very often she”s providing the music there. And then we just have an amazing post production team led by this guy John Blair. And the sound department will basically build everything that you”re talking about, and then we”ll watch the mixes and we”ll give notes. But almost every mix that I attend, a lot of the things that you”re describing that just happened organically because those guys get the show. And I”ll also say that when and when not to use sound design, when to go quiet, is an important decision to be made on this show constantly. Not just because of the Guilty Remnant, but because I think that the idea of silence is very powerful. You probably have noticed Erika Murphy is hearing impaired, so I think what people can hear and not hear is something that we”re very conscious of as storytellers.

I want to talk a little bit about world building and how you and Tom approached it. One of the things I really like about the show is how fully-realized this alternate reality feels. In everyday scenes that have little to nothing to do with Sudden Departure, it always has all these little details in the background connoting how the world has changed. How do you do that? What goes into that, and why is it so hard for other shows to do it?

Damon Lindelof: I think that I”ll take the last part first, which is having worked on other shows that try to do world building, it”s the funnest part of the job but it”s also the most time-consuming. One of the benefits of a ten episode season is that you can spend a couple of weeks before you even start breaking stories or writing episodes and doing just that part of it. It”s just, “Okay, we”re living in a world where the Departure happened, and we”re one year out, we”re two years out, we”re three years out, we”re four years out. What is the trajectory at which things happen?” And then even before we started writing the first season of the show, in order to get to the three year point, we had to imagine how close to the brink of chaos did the world come? What was the scientific community doing? And I think that what was really kind of freeing about Tom”s concept is that the world just never got to apocalypse. It never got to food riots because the event itself was emotionally destabilizing, the loss of humans. But there was no property destruction, or the moon has moved closer to the planet and the gravitational fields are all different. So the key was basically saying, “What are the after effects of emotional devastation? What do they look like and how do we subtly plant that stuff?” And then when you get into a micro level in terms of Jarden, we had to build this very complicated timeline of if you were living in the town of Jarden at the moment the Departure happened, how did you find out that the Departure happened if nobody disappeared? At what point did the phone start ringing and at what point did you walk out in the street and you realized that nobody on your block disappeared? How long did it take the town to realize that nobody from the entire town disappeared? And then if you were a Jarden resident, but you were outside of Jarden at the time of Departure, could you have disappeared? So was it geographical in terms of was there a border established, or if you have a Jarden zip code, you don”t Depart? All of those questions started flying around, and then we got into the mechanics of the (Department of Sudden Departures). If the DSD didn”t even exist yet until probably a year out, how could the town of Jarden be verified formally? Someone like Nora would basically have to come in and knock on every door and take a census. And so we had two weeks of just those conversations, and did research on the National Park Service and how the National Park Service basically can take jurisdiction over national monuments, etc, etc.

But ultimately, you can make that your full-time job, and the time came to actually start writing and breaking the story. So we did have time to do world building both macro and micro. And also we wanted to continue to build the world around the show. One of the things that you”ll start to get a sense of as the season goes on is something is happening in Australia, and it”s very subtle and happening on the fringes of the show, but it”s definitely something that we want the audience to be paying attention to. And that”s all derived from the same kind of sci-fi and fantasy novels that I grew up loving. I think it all harkens back to Stephen King, again who was not just a huge inspiration for all the writing that I do but he also wrote The New York Times book review that first put “The Leftovers” on my radar. And there”s an interconnectedness to all of his books that he writes too in “The Dark Tower” series, etc. The idea that like “Salem”s Lot” and “It” are both happening in kind of the same universe, I always loved that. So the larger you build your world, the more detailed and more authentic it feels, but it”s also more tempting to go and venture out into that world. And I think for us, it”s not like “Heroes,” where you”re bopping around from Japan to India and other places on the globe. We always want to be about, what do the people in this place care about most? So once you build that world, the real effort is in constraining it which, as you know, is an issue that I have in terms of keeping things small and insular. So Tom is really instrumental in keeping me honest in that regard.

Okay, so for an example, in “Guest” last season, whenever Nora is out walking the streets of Manhattan, it feels like a different version of the city from the real one. What were you telling production about what you want to see, so that it”s clear things are different, but it doesn”t just become a distraction from Nora”s story?

Damon Lindelof: I think a lot of it is that we give production a certain level of autonomy. I can”t praise Mimi Leder enough when it comes to doing basically the same job Bender did on “Lost.” She”s the executive producer, producing director on the show. In the script for “Guest,” for example we wanted Nora to pass through a gauntlet on her way into her conference to get some sort of sense of who would basically show up and be kept outside of this conference? What kind of crazies would be there? The script will have a couple of indications, for example, we always wanted there to be some kind of Guilty Remnant presence, even in Manhattan, so the script would say that a couple GRs walk up to Nora and hand her this grenade that says “any day now” written on it. Or the script may say there”s a guy who”s dressed up like the Pope. He just has written on his pontiff hat “popelives.com,” you know, and that guy has a whole story which is that he thinks that the Pope who”s supposedly Departed, something that we set up in the pilot, is actually hiding in the bunker underground because he had to fake his own Departure to give the Departure itself some legitimacy in Catholic doctrine. But the audience has only really experienced that for four seconds. And then we as storytellers are like, “Oh, let”s register the domain name popelives.com and put up like a big fake blog.” But it was already taken, of course. So the show is starting to build a language from that preexisted in Tom”s book, so you have the Barefoot People who have the targets on their heads, and the GR, and you have the Holy Wayners. And so we were constantly trying to represent different religious ideologies and presentations in the show. Obviously, that will continue and magnify in Miracle. I don”t want to spill anything, but I think that the encampment that you see outside of Miracle, the people who want to get in but are kind of tailgating, we”re going to go into that encampment and spend some time there and get into a lot of what you”re talking about. A lot of our world building conversations get manifested in that place.

Has doing this show and dealing with all of these fictionalized religious sects and all of these questions about God and meaning and everything else in any way changed your own views on spirituality or organized religion? Or that”s just a completely separate thing, Damon the writer versus Damon the human?

Damon Lindelof: I think that there”s no way to answer that question without sounding like a huge pretentious d-bag – which, let”s be honest, I am. My feeling is that since I”ve been working on the show, I think about spirituality and meaning and mystery a lot more. I think “Lost” obviously had a mystery engine and a certain degree of spirituality to it, but I wouldn”t call it an overtly religious show. Even when we got into Mr. Eko a bit, and it had all these religious themes, and obviously ended in this incredibly religious spiritual way, it didn”t feel like I was living in a religious sphere in the same way that I do at “The Leftovers.” And one thing that happened for me over the course of the first season, and continuing into the second, is that I feel immensely defensive of every sort of spiritual belief that lives in this world, no matter how ridiculous it is – whether it”s someone who can hug the pain out of people or it”s the Guilty Remnant. In a way, I empathize with them, because I look at their spiritual belief as a way of gravitating towards anyone who will give them an answer. Like, it”s just too upsetting to live in a world where 140 million people disappeared without explanation. Anybody who comes forward and says, “I have a theory,” they become a religion in a way. The Guilty Remnant is probably one of the most divisive aspects of the show, and certainly when Tom and I first started hanging out, he relayed to me it was one of the most divisive aspects of the book. But there”s something about the Guilty Remnant that makes so much sense to me the more that I write the show. This isn”t me saying that I would join them, but I kind of wonder, is it that ridiculous to just be silent and wear white and smoke cigarettes and do weird shit? Is it that much more ridiculous than a lot of religions when they first started forming, in terms of what you could eat and what you could do, and the idea that most religions start as cults that basically demand that you leave your family? Or if your family frowns upon the cult, they pull you away from your family. This idea of the religious influence on family, we tend to think is overwhelmingly positive. Religion brings families together. But when a religion is first starting, it does the exact opposite. Footnote: go see “Going Clear” if you haven”t. That stuff is immensely interesting to me. But I feel like, perhaps ironically, I come away from “The Leftovers” having a lot more respect for all religions. In terms of my own spiritual belief, it”s probably solidified more in the three years now that I”ve been working on the show – it”s a gravitation towards belief as opposed to a gravitation away from. This doesn”t mean that I am a devout anything. I just don”t think that I could write “The Leftovers” from a system of atheism, because the show doesn”t really allow for it.

You talked before about characters in the universe really wanting answers, really wanting an explanation. You are, of course, used to this from your audience on the previous show. And despite a lot of the press you”ve done about “The Leftovers,” there are still people who are expecting some kind of explanation for the Departure or other things. At this stage of it, short of just doing more interviews where you say, “That”s never going to happen,” is there anything you can do about that within the show itself?

Damon Lindelof: The short answer to your question is we”re trying. The inside joke is to put a disclaimer on the front of every show – in the same way that, FX will warn you that there”s violence and sexual content before this episode of “Louie” or “Bastard Executioner” – saying, “If you are expecting any answers to specifically as it pertains to the Sudden Departure, you will leave this show immensely frustrated.” But I think it”s even more of a “fuck you” to rub it in people”s faces. We”re much more interested in the condition of living in a world without answers than we are in providing them. I also think that we”re playing fair with our storytelling. For example, if one of the characters worked for the X-Files and it was their job to determine the cause of the Sudden Departure – like Joe Fiennes on “Flash Forward,” it”s his job to find out what caused the flash forward – that’s the story telling you, “We are going to answer this.” But because all of our characters are resigned to the fact that they”re not going to get an answer, we feel that we”re playing fair with our storytelling in terms of showing it. So if Nora was on a quest to find her children then you go, “Well, the show”s going to give us that.” But not necessarily. Did you see that show “The Missing”?

I didn”t finish it, but I watched the first half of it.

Damon Lindelof: I won”t spoil anything about it, but for me what I really loved about the show was, obviously it was intense and emotionally harrowing, but it did not tell me whether or not these parents were going to get an answer. I knew while I was watching it that the show could end and I would not know what happened to their child. And it created that reality for me, and therefore I was able to empathize with the parents in a way that I wouldn”t have if it was a movie. Because if it was a two hour movie versus a TV miniseries, I know that they”re going to give me something. They kind of have to, unless it”s a Michael Haneke movie; I love him. When I watched “The Missing,” I thought, “This show is making me no promises, and I love that.” But my wife for, example, I said, “Oh my God, this show is amazing. You have to start watching it.” She says, “Finish it and tell me what happens – whether or not they”re going to get their kid back alive – and then I”ll decide whether or not I want to watch it.” And I get that. It”s the thing that we”ve talked about on multiple occasions, and will continue to talk about for as long as “The Leftovers,” is on, which is (people thinking), “I don”t want to invest in this unless I know what the outcome is going to be.” We can”t control our lives. We can”t control the people in our lives. We can”t control what the stock market is going to do. But we can at least control the stories that we watch on TV, and it”s a much less harrowing experience to not be sucked into something that isn”t going to pay off.

Just playing devil”s advocate here: You don”t want to say “fuck you” to the audience, but in the new season, you are introducing even more mysteries that may or may not be paid off.

Damon Lindelof: What”s the question?

The question is, given your concern about that, why would you do that?

Damon Lindelof: Am I concerned about it?

Well you said you were at least trying to address it.

Damon Lindelof: What I would say is, the show is thematically about people trying to recover and/or find solace and/or feel better in a world that”s offering every reason not to. Ultimately, it”s a family show, and one of the fundamental themes of the first season was articulating this idea that family is dead, family is an institution that does not work. But the characters that we really care about seem to be fighting against that idea, and so the show is basically asking you to invest in that. At the same time, it does need fundamental tension and story, and I think that the second season of the show does offer that, as opposed to more slice of life episodes. Which, by the way, we will continue to do but there is an over-arcing story this season… And hopefully it”s satisfying.

It”s satisfying to me, but all I can do is continue to write the stuff that”s really interesting to me. And I won”t say that I”ve learned from past mistakes, because I would probably take issue with the fact that they were mistakes. But I have a self-awareness now that perhaps I lacked when I was telling stories five years ago. And that may or may not have influenced my storytelling. But I”m presenting the story that I”m presenting. I do so in lock step with Tom Perrotta and the other writers. This is not a process where it”s just me coming into a room and saying, “Hey, I had a really cool idea,” and then I get to do that idea. We kick the tires of everything and anything. And if it makes it out of that room and onto the page and then makes it down to Austin without a lot of pushback, then I feel like we”re on to something. But whether or not this show is going to connect with a larger audience ever – that”s not its design. It doesn”t mean that that wouldn”t be thrilling if that happened.

You and I have talked about this: why do I do this to myself? And the answer is, this is what”s interesting to me. This is the story I”m compelled to tell.

I want to talk a little bit about the supernatural, and the way in which you approach it to leave room for ambiguity about what Holy Wayne can do and whether or not Patti is a ghost or a hallucination, etc. What rules do you have in place for how these different things can be depicted, so that people can”t just say, “Obviously, Holy Wayne”s powers much be real” or “Patti must be there” or whatever?

Damon Lindelof: I”m not going to tell you what the rules are, but I will tell you that there are rules. Because there”s this huge umbrella over the show of the Departure itself, it allows a certain degree of supernaturality that “Friday Night Lights” or “Six Feet Under” would not. And there”s a certain degree of literalness, where if Kevin is seeing Patti, we”re saying that that”s literal as opposed to a device that would happen on “Dexter.” “Dexter” never presents the fact that he can see his dad as, “Oh my God, I”m really seeing him.” It”s presented in an entirely different way

Or look at “True Detective” season one. One of the thrilling things about “True Detective” season one for me, and it seemed to radiate into the pop culture, was, “Am I watching a supernatural show or not?” And there was a raging debate around, first off, whether or not the show was supernatural, but secondly, whether or not the audience wanted it to be. And I thought that was fascinating. With me, there is no ambiguity as to whether or not the world of the supernatural exists on “The Leftovers.” Of course it does. There is no scientific explanation for the Sudden Departure. But was it a one off? Is this now an age of miracles and wonders that kicked off as a result of that event or were there always supernatural events occurring even prior to the Departure? I think those are more the questions that we want the audience to be asking. But I think that it”s always interesting to look at the prism of a psychic or someone who talks to themselves, and saying, “What if this person isn”t crazy?” Granted there are crazy people out there too, but isn”t it interesting to do a television show where you kind of can”t tell the difference anymore? And if you hear voices but that didn”t start happening to you until after the Departure, are you not more prone to believe that it”s “real” as opposed to a figment of your imagination?

I”m not sure I”d ever noticed Carrie Coon on TV before. Nora didn’t have a lot to do in the early episodes. At what point were you aware of just how much this actress could do for your show, and how many different things she could do?

Damon Lindelof: I”m going to give you the honest answer as opposed to the politic one, which is I”m still even watching cuts of episodes in season two amazed by what Carrie can do. It seems like she is constantly demonstrating new moves, which is kind of astonishing. That said, Ellen Lewis just sent a tape of Carrie and she was just doing essentially her Hero”s Day speech for the pilot. I sat forward, and sometimes with casting, you narrow it down to a couple of people, you bring them back, you have a bake off, you send them to the network and the studio and blah, blah, blah. Every once in a while, you just know. And anyone who is around Perrotta and I at the time that we saw that audition, we were like, “Oh my God, that woman is Nora Durst.” So we asked to meet her in person and we just kind of had a sit down and a hang out in New York. And I just found her to be an immensely compelling and interesting person and it felt like it was going to work. The reality was that Tom”s book leaned so heavily on Nora and the Nora and Kevin relationship, that the only real question was would she have chemistry with Justin. And if she didn”t, that would be highly problematic, but we still would have found a way to keep Nora as a huge character in the show. So we wrote the scene that was in episode four where they meet outside the Mapleton Dance in the hallway. Once we saw the dailies for that scene, we were like, “Oh, we”re going to be just fine.” When we wrote episode six, there was a tremendous amount of confidence in us that she was going to be able to pull it off in the same way that we knew that Eccleston was going to be able to pull off episode three. But when we saw it for the first time, particularly the scene at the end with Wayne, it was pretty transcendent. And I think that as writers we all hope to get amazing actors to make us look good, but at the same time, what Carrie does makes us have ideas. It”s inspirational. I think that she”s playing grief in a way that I”ve never seen before, and it”s perfect for a show like “The Leftovers” because what they”re experiencing is not grief. It is as Patrick Johansen, writer of “What”s Next,” describes as “ambiguous loss.” And I think like Carrie has somehow figured out a slightly new emotional frequency to play, where in the same episode, she can ask a prostitute to shoot her in the chest, and then also fall into a man”s arms and weep. And you realize that”s the same feeling. And it”s kind of ridiculous if you describe it. When we first started talking in the room about saying, “What if Nora puts on a bulletproof vest and hires escorts to shoot her?,” it was also, “Thank God Carrie Coon is playing this character, because that”s not a great idea, but if we have a great actor representing that idea, it might be cool.”

This was a divisive show, and you open the new season on a scene that’s particularly crazy, even by “Leftovers” standards. Was there any part of you that asked, “Do we really want to open season 2 with this?” As opposed to something a little friendlier, a little more puppy dog, a little, “Come on in, it”s okay, you can watch ‘The Leftovers.’ We”re not going to try to scare you off like last year”? Or just that”s storytelling death if you do that?

Damon Lindelof: If I can be completely and totally entitled and obnoxious for a second, I feel like the hugest mistake that we could ever make is to start writing the show for the people who don”t like the show. So who knows if anybody”s going to like it? The only barometer that we have is do we like it? Or do we think that it”s cool? Our only sense of what is a good idea on “The Leftovers” is one that excites us, and the minute that we start trying to move the needle to what”s going to excite other people, I don”t think that that”s a target that we”re ever going to be able to hit.

But there is a system in place for ideas that we have. The ideas basically get filtered into the machinery of HBO, so they”re going to hear the idea. Warner Bros., they”re going to hear the idea. And then Austin, Texas, they have to go and execute the idea. So if it”s a bad idea, the system is going to reject it, and if it”s a cool idea the system is going to accept it. Maybe I have blinders on, but that”s the way we basically generated the show so far. Even if people say, “The second season was worse than the first,” or, “I was on the fence after the first season, and the second season pushed me all the way over the fence, or, “I loved the first season and I have no idea what you”re doing in the second season,” I think that entire range of reaction is going to happen, but I don”t know how to do the show any other way.

I”m curious in this specific case as it was moving through the system were there any strong objections or even people saying are you sure you want to do that?

Damon Lindelof: There were definitely people saying, “Are you sure you want to do that?” And I was one of them. Am I sure I want to do this? There is a level of hubris and naiveté to basically sit here and tell you that I was like, “I”m doing this and I don”t care what anybody else thinks.” We all know that I care what other people think. But at the same time, I was excited about the idea and I couldn”t articulate why. The only thing that gave me pause was is this going to be perceived as a gimmick, you know. Is it going to be perceived as meta. Is it going to be perceived as, “Oh god, come on, like look at what he”s doing now”? Okay, yeah, all those things are probably going to happen. But I did want to feel that when it starts, you”re going to have a reaction, but what”s really important is once you get to the end of that sequence, did you feel anything? Even if what you felt was, “I hate it with every bone in my body.” Or, “I”m confused by it.” But did you feel something or was it just lame and boring and stupid and it didn”t justify its own existence? But I got super psyched about it and I thought that Mimi executed it perfectly, and I thought that the actresses that we cast were awesome. And, you know, right or wrong, I don”t know. We went with it.

As you said, you do care very much about what people think about what you do. This is a show that has had very, very strong positive reactions and very, very strong negative reactions. It”s come a few years after “Lost” ended. You”re no longer on Twitter. Are you at a point now where it weighs on you as much as it maybe did back in the “Lost” days, the people who aren”t liking what you”re doing? Or is it a little bit easier for you now to set that part of it aside?

Damon Lindelof: I can”t quantify it as harder or easier. I can only quantify it as different. And I won”t say that I”m more mature. I will say that I”m older. When you have an experience that is emotionally upsetting or hurtful, you do form a thicker skin. There is scar tissue there. There was a point where I was just constantly surprised by it. And particularly, it gets more confusing when you get mixed messages. We understand that some things universally just don”t work, you know. They”re just panned. And some things are universally praised. But to be living in a space where you’re described as “polarizing”? If you take the “Lost” finale, for example, I think that certain people would say that there”s an overwhelming consensus that the “Lost” finale was shitty. It was bad. But that”s just not true. Aside from the fact that even the television critics gave the last season of the show (TCA Awards nomination), it was also nominated for an Emmy, the final season for drama series, in a high competitive environment. And the finale itself was nominated for writing. They don”t just give you a writing nod because you ended a show. The landscape is littered with series finales that were not nominated for writing. So there you have one subset of people saying this episode of television was so bad that it retroactively ruined the 120 hours that preceded it. And another subset of people who were saying it”s one of the top five pieces of writing of the season.

And that”s the confusing part for me. Or at least it was. Now I go, “That”s not confusing to me anymore. That happens to the stuff that I write.” And it”s not my place to understand or explain it. I can”t avoid it. I can”t tell stories that will be universally loved. I don”t know how to do that. I wish that everybody loved everything that I wrote. I”m not in the spirit of, “I”m writing for me and eff all of you.” The thoughts and reaction of the emotions and the emotions of the audience are something that I cared very, very deeply about. At the same time, I don”t know how to please all the people all the time, so I just have to stick to what makes sense to me. And at a certain point, as long as people allow me to do it, I”m going to keep doing it. And that”s really where I sit now.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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