The Leftovers was a show in turmoil for much of its first season. Production even shut down briefly, with one episode being split between two different directors as a result.
Enter Mimi Leder.
Leder, who won an Emmy for directing one of the greatest episodes of TV drama ever made (“Love’s Labor Lost” from ER season one), turned up to direct the series’ fifth episode, “Gladys,” a brutal hour in which a member of the Guilty Remnant was stoned to death in the woods. Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof needed a new directing executive producer, and Leder had such clear command of both the material and the set that she was asked to take the job. Leder took charge, subtly but clearly altering the show’s stylistic template for the rest of that season, then making even bigger changes for years two and three. She directed all three finales — including tonight’s conclusion to the series (which I reviewed here) — and many of the show’s other crucial hours.
“I actually measure the show in pre-Mimi and post-Mimi,” Lindelof told me while discussing the series finale.
On Thursday, I spoke with Leder about her arrival on the show, directing Carrie Coon through the finale’s full frontal nude scene, what she and Coon discussed about the story Nora tells at the end, the memorable cavewoman prologue to season two, and a lot more, coming up just as soon as I’m a great gecko…
Coming into the middle of a season like you did, what did you see that the show needed from the perspective of what you were doing to start to put your stamp on it over the course of the rest of that year?
I actually had only seen the pilot, which I thought was beautifully done. When I came in and directed “Gladys,” I approached it the way I thought it needed to be approached. I thought my artistry, whatever you want to call it, my instincts, my vision — I hate using those words — to it. I just thought this is what the show needs, this is what it’s asking, this is what’s speaking to me, and I did what I felt it needed to be. There was no one there telling me not to. Damon hired me to direct the show and I came in and directed it the way I thought it needed to be directed, and I know they were having troubles, and I know it was a difficult time for them, and I just instinctively did what I thought it needed.
Then as time went on, they brought me in as an exec producer. I opened up the palate of the show more significantly in season two, because I felt the palate needed to stay the same for one, but it did open it a bit more in season one towards the end because I felt that the show had been shot in such a claustrophobic way. It was good claustrophobic; it was just relentless, and I felt that seeing the world — seeing the show in wider shots, seeing the show open up visually — would help us really relate to the inner lives of these characters, because I don’t think you can live in a world of closeups without some release and some breathing space.
One of the things that really strikes me about this finale is how many times it is Nora either looking directly at the camera, Nora walking towards the camera, Nora riding her bike directly towards it at a breaking the fourth wall angle. What were you going for with that?
I really wanted to feel that she was journeying towards something, towards the finish line, towards everything we’ve been speaking of for three seasons. I really felt that she needed to be moving towards us and towards her children, towards the answers. I also felt like I really wanted to be with her in every possible way. When we shot the going into the truck, going into the event chamber, I had her walking towards us quite a bit, and I also was over her shoulder and trying to feel what it was like to be naked, to be vulnerable, to be completely naked emotionally.
We come into this world naked and Damon and Tom wrote “naked” in the script, but there’s lots of ways of shooting naked when you’re filming.You can think you’re seeing everything, but you’re not, and it was very important to me that Nora, be completely naked. So, I asked Carrie quite simply, “Are you game? Are you open for me to shoot full frontal nudity?” She was completely open to it, and knew that I would do it very carefully and very honestly, and it was beautiful and frightening for her to be walking down that corridor completely naked and ready to go to the other side. It was terrifying, and terrifying to be naked and alone, and to be open at the same time. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but she is one of the bravest actors I’ve ever worked with, and she’s one of the greats.
It was a scary experience for all of us. I think we were all holding our breath, and for me, I had to like take away the emotions that I was feeling directing it. I really felt like if I’m too emotional, this isn’t gonna work ’cause I’m very emotional and I cry a lot. I was holding myself: “Just don’t go there. Just let the audience go there. Direct it so the audience can feel it.”
Having worked with her for two and a half seasons on this show, is there anything Carrie can’t do?
There is nothing Carrie Coon can’t do. She can do everything, and she does it with abandonment. There isn’t even that much discussion. It’s like there is so much unspoken. I never like to intellectualize when I’m directing. I really like to keep it simple and Carrie Coon just can do it all, and I’m so excited that the world gets to see her for hopefully a lifetime, because she is one of those actors that goes for it, goes deep, as is Justin Theroux, who is always surprising. The combination of those two and the chemistry that was created between the two was just pure great acting.