‘The Leftovers’ creators Damon Lindelof & Tom Perrotta on their dark, mysterious HBO series

Senior Television Writer
06.26.14 38 Comments

I wrote my rave review of HBO’s “The Leftovers” – which began with me wondering why on earth “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof would get involved in a show designed to not offer answers to a cosmic mystery – before I had a chance to sit down with Lindelof (pictured above with director Peter Berg and Justin Theroux) and Tom Perrotta (who wrote “The Leftovers” novel and co-created the series with Lindelof) and ask him that very question directly. His answer fit in with my assumption that he found the show’s premise – 2 percent of the world’s population disappears in a Rapture-like event called the Departure that equally baffles science and religion – freeing rather than constraining.

Over the course of an expansive discussion, Lindelof and Perrotta discussed the genesis of the Departure idea, their approach to adapting it for television, Lindelof’s own experience as a bewitched and frustrated TV fan and whether his absence from Twitter – he last tweeted on October 14th, the date of the fictional Departure – was frustrating when his love of singers in oversized hats became a public phenomenon again. It’s one of those conversations – and one of those shows – where we could have talked for three or four times the length of this chat and still not covered everything, but at a minimum I am trying to imagine a world where Lindelof is Nic Pizzolatto’s gofer on “True Detective” season 2.

Given your obsession with Justin Bieber’s hat, how much was it killing you to no longer be on Twitter when Pharrell’s hat appeared?

Damon Lindelof: There have been many pop culture instances over time where – like how when someone loses a limb, they have an itch on their stump – my tweeting thumbs would itch. But I don’t know. I sort of embraced Pharrell’s hat. It didn’t catalyze me in the same way that Bieber’s hat did. I felt like there was an awareness on Pharrell’s part on what the hat was that Bieber completely lacked, which made it much more engaging to become obsessed with Bieber’s hat.

Tom, where did the idea for this originally come from? You did a couple of religious books in a row.

Tom Perrotta: That’s right. I was writing about the culture war in “The Abstinence Teacher” and reading and thinking about evangelical culture. And the fact is, tens of thousands of Americans believe that the Rapture is going to happen in their lifetime. Because I’m not especially religious, my first impulse is to think that’s really odd, or even quaint. But then over time, I started to think, ‘Well, what if it did happen?’ That to me is the better writerly question: not to satirize the Rapture or people who believe in it, but just to imagine how would I respond to that? I wasn’t interested in satirizing Christianity, but the idea got lodged in my head. And then I tweaked it by making it random, rather than the Christian Rapture, so that it was as much of a challenge to Christians as it was to non-believers. And once I did that in my own mind, it started to seem like a really interesting existential allegory.

One of the things I found interesting about the book and now the show is that most of the central characters are not people who lost someone in the Departure.

Tom Perrotta: To me, what’s interesting is that there is not a single reaction to an event like this. The story is really about a range of reactions. Put most broadly, some people want to move on, and some people want to stop and ponder what happened, and to say that a new world started that day, and here’s what that new world is. And other people want to say, ‘Our lives are this ongoing flow of events, and that was just one event in it, but that story I was in before it is still the story of my life.’ It’s about the variety of the responses, individually and collectively.

Damon, what did you make of the book when you first read it?

Damon Lindelof: I thought it was fascinating, on both a non-narrative level and a narrative one. The non-narrative level is anytime a writer or artist steps outside of their pre-conceived genre notion is incredibly interesting to me. We’re much more familiar with genre writers trying to enter into a non-genre world, even if it’s still fiction, like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling writing a straight-ahead book. That, we fundamentally accept, because “genre writers are looking for some cred.” But what we almost never see is what Tom did, which would be the equivalent of David Simon saying, “I’m doing a vampire show.” We would all go, “Holy shit! He’s what?” Or Sorkin. So that idea, just on a fundamental level, reading the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King writing about Tom Perrotta’s genre novel. As much as you can have those moments in your life where the the road ahead becomes very clear, and illuminated, and you go, “This feels like I need to be a part of this.”

And then I read the book. First off, the idea that it was presenting this huge mystery, the Departure, it felt to me about 50 pages in, “Oh, he’s not interested at all in answering what the Departure was. This is just all about the condition of living in a post-Departure world.” And that to me became really fundamentally interesting. It’s like reading “The Road,” where when they get to the ocean, it’s not like there’s going to be a party, and the sun’s going to come out and there’s going to be an abundance of food. They’re just moving for moving’s sake. And as gritty and as despairing and as upsetting as that is, that’s what Cormac McCarthy is telling me I’m going to get. That, to me, was very fascinating – to be unapologetic about saying, “This book is about characters living in an ambiguous space where the mystery is not going to be resolved.” For whatever reason in my life at that time, I was like, “Good for them! This is what this should be.” Because if this was about Joe Fiennes trying to get to the bottom of the Departure, I wouldn’t be interested in it at all.

And then I just started – and I’ve said this to Tom, and I’m not saying this for the sake of our interview – crying, multiple times. And I don’t do that when I’m reading. But I just felt emotionally affected and connected to this thing. I can’t really explain to you why. It just touched me. I very rarely have an emotional experience reading a book, but I did here.

I read the book not long after it came out, and when I heard that you were going to help Tom adapt it, I had two thoughts: “My God, what a masochist,” or else, “This must be weirdly freeing for him, to do a show where there are no answers and it’s not interested in that, so he won’t have to deal with expectations on it.”

Damon Lindelof: It’s totally the latter. Although I completely understand how the former can be grafted upon me. I don’t feel like a masochist, but all these people keep telling me that I’m one. But I say, if you really look at it from 30,000 feet and wonder, “Why would he do this?,” the answer is just that I am completely and totally engaged by this story. I don’t think that I should be characterized as a masochist, nor should I be given any points for bravery. When you get activated by a story, it’s the equivalent of getting divorced and falling in love again, or losing someone close to you and connecting with someone else. The heart wants what the heart wants, and the equation isn’t any simpler than that. On a completely and totally simplistic human level, if I read that someone else was doing “The Leftovers,” that it was going ahead without me, I would have experienced that thing where I wished I had been a part of it. “I wish that I could be on that writing staff.” In the same way I would watch “Breaking Bad” and go, “I just want to be on that staff. I just want to work for Vince.” Or watching “True Detective” And be like “I just want to know what Nic is doing in the second season. I will go and get coffee for those guys.” And I am not joking right now. When you get catalyzed by something creative, you just want to be a part of it. So for me, being in that place in my life where I know (HBO executive) Michael Ellenberg, I’m ready to do a TV series again, maybe I can be a part of this if they haven’t already gone in a different direction. That was so exciting that it didn’t even occur to me that I was being foolish or masochistic or any of the other things that would later be attributed to me.

Tom Perrotta: (laughs) That’s the first sign of a masochist!

Tom, you’ve been involved in adaptations of your own work before. How much of a role did you play in making this match with Damon?

Tom Perrotta: I came to HBO with the book and really was interested in long-form TV, just as a fan. It feels like that’s where great things are happening in the culture right now. The book was too big for a feature film, and I’d been thinking about trying TV. So I brought it to HBO, and they saw the potential in it. I don’t know how to produce a TV show. This is new to me. I know how to write a screenplay. It’s a massive job, that I only, in the course of being there, realized how massive it was. So our first level of creative discussion wasn’t “What is the show?” It was “Who is going to run the show?” Independently, both I and HBO had Damon’s name at the top of our lists, so he was the only person we went to with it.

In terms of adaptation, I’m sure each of you must have had some thoughts about how you were going to make the book work for television. What were some of the specific initial ones? The show is not identical to the book.

Damon Lindelof: When Tom and I first started talking, my initial impression was that I loved the book, and the one thing I felt the series was going to need was, even if the book was clearing stating “We’re not going to explain the Departure,” that I was really fascinated with what I describe as “the Virgin Mary toast scenario.” In our world, if the Virgin Mary appears on a piece of toast, it’s kind of a joke, although some people will make pilgrimages to it. I said, “In a post-Departure world, I think less people would be joking about the toast.” And many of the characters on the show, even if they didn’t lose someone in their inner circle, they would have to start perceiving the world in a way where you start looking for signs. People need to be searching metaphysically. So if there’s not direct genre in the show, there needs to be the specter of genre, or the characters need to be grafting genre onto the show. The idea is that you could watch “The Leftovers” with the sound off, you’d think “This is a non-genre show,” but if you watched it with the sound on, you would have to realize that it is. And Tom said something about the dogs. I told him that I loved moments in the book like where Nora is riding her bike and some guy is sacrificing a goat. And he said to me that, “I had a whole chapter that I explored where pets of people went crazy of people in the presence of a Departure. If they bore witness to it, they went feral and just ran off into the woods. And Nora had a dog that was there at the time her family disappeared, and she goes off into the woods to look for her dog.” And I was like, “Wait, what’s this about the dogs?” I became obsessed with it. The dogs became representative of the direct genre kind of stories I wanted to tell on the show. Anybody who lives in the suburbs see deer walking through the streets, but if you were to see one in this world and it was looking at you, you might wonder if God was trying to speak with you in some way. Coupled with the ferocity of the dog idea. But most of the other stuff was direct, like starting with Heroes Day. (The 3-year anniversary of the Departure.)

Tom Perrotta: And that was interesting because even before Damon came in, I had lost my nerve a bit and said to HBO, “Maybe we can just start six months after the Departure instead of three years. Because there’s a lot of story that happens, and we could start the timeline earlier.” And I was relieved when Damon came in and said, “No, we start with Heroes Day.” You say “genre,” but to me it’s not so much genre as just religious. People see things because they’re always on the lookout for meaning. That’s what charges the show with weirdness: people are really alert. They’re really sensing that something important is going on around them. They’re just not sure what it is.

What’s interesting is that when you create this show where God is real in the universe, you put the audience on alert, where they may start to read into things that you may or may not have intended, or that you may never explain: “Is this character a hallucination? An angel? Just a weird guy?” or “Is Kevin’s father crazy, or spiritually connected?” In success, you’re maybe not going to get as much analysis as “Lost,” but still a lot more than your average prestige HBO drama.

Damon Lindelof: The premise lends itself to that. And we certainly embrace it, although we don’t want to be Loki-like figures who are teasing it. What’s interesting is any presentation of Kevin’s father in a show with a different premise is that he’s a schizophrenic. But in our show, you have to allow for something else. The idea is that if 2 percent of the population disappeared, then there always has to be a 2 percent chance that you’re watching a genre show. There’s a 2 percent chance that Kevin’s father is actually communing with some other-worldly entity, and a 98 percent chance that he just lost his mind because he was chief of police at the time the Departure happened. So we have an entire episode that’s just based on Kevin wondering whether he’s going crazy. We’re trying to make the audience feel the same way that Kevin Garvey is feeling.

But do you have any fear based on the reaction to “Lost” of that response eating the reaction to the show as a whole? People start focusing too much on that and not enough on these specific character stories?

Damon Lindelof: Personally speaking, I have no fear of that. My fear is just “Are people going to like the show, and is the show good?” That other stuff, I can’t control. I found it fascinating to go down the rabbit hole as a fan on “True Detective,” and then for me to be disappointed by Nic talking about “True Detective.” I really didn’t want him to say, while I was watching the show, “You’re getting way too into this Yellow King stuff.” It was sort of like, at a kid’s birthday party, giving the kids cake and soda, and then yelling at them for going nuts in the bounce house. So I’m going to make a real effort, certainly in-season, to not be talking about the show at all, to not be talking about what we mean by things, whether we’re going to be following up on things. What I embrace is that that’s going to frustrate a lot of people, that people are going to say, “Here we go again with this asshole.” In my defense, I can’t enter into this with any fear, and all I have to say is, if ever there was a case of buyer beware… If you were frustrated the last time, don’t watch “The Leftovers.” That would certainly be my prescription.

Tom Perrotta: The other thing is that there is a book, in this case. We’re not sticking with it entirely, but people who are really interested in this world can read the book and go, “In the book, it’s not about solving the mystery of the Departure. It’s about living in the wake of the Departure and what happens when they suffer this huge, unexplained trauma.” So at least there will be a counter voice, if some people go down a rabbit hole and think “Lindelof has some intricate system that he’s only revealing in little glimpses.”

Damon Lindelof: And we live in a post-Twitter age. I branded myself, as much as anyone else branded me, as being highly communicative about this stuff. That said, there’s a number of pieces now being written by television critics and bloggers I respect that are essentially different permutations of “Shut the fuck up, showrunners. Let your work speak for itself.” Which I feel is the next wave of this. If David Chase had come out at any point during the run of “The Sopranos” and said, “I’m telling you, all you people who are talking about whether Tony lives or dies, I’m never going to resolve that,” it would have ruined the entire experience of watching that show. Tom and I have taken this on, so we owe somebody something, but I don’t want to say definitively that we’re not going to answer what the Departure was, or why these people vanished. Because to say either one is to not say, “Hey guys, you have to watch the show. And we hope you like it, but that’s all there is to it. And if it drives you batty, we’re not sorry. It’s 50 minutes out of your life a week, and if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.”

But in terms of the “True Detective” of it, before the last season of “Lost,” you and Carlton were very blunt in telling everyone, “Look, guys, we’re not going to answer everything. You need to prepare yourselves for that.” So you had the same impulse Pizzolatto did, which is, “If you’re expecting Cthulu or something else supernatural to appear, you’re looking in the wrong place,” because he didn’t want them to be disappointed when Cthulu didn’t appear. And yet your reaction is basically, “Shut the fuck up, Pizzolatto, and let me watch the show.”

Damon Lindelof: I’m in a Catch-22, which is I don’t want Nic to shut up, because I think he’s a genius, but in the middle of the story, that doesn’t feel like it’s the time to be talking about the show. But as a writer, when people are picking up something you’re not putting down, you feel the impulse to say, “Guys, don’t focus on that, focus on this! This is about Rust and Marty.” Again, I would have done and have done exactly the same thing Nic did, because there’s nothing else to do. But I also feel like this culture now of, “Well, Nic, how do you respond to allegations of misogyny? Will there be more female characters?” And I don’t want him to write the show for us. I want Nic to write the show for him. The first time around, he did something that was just unbelievable. The more that we enter into these conversations about being afraid people will have some reaction, it’s like, if we’re going to write this show from a place of fear, I can guarantee you it’s not going to be any good.

“The Leftovers” is not a happy book, necessarily, but the show doubles down on that sense of despair and being lost. Why did you decide to really go for the bleakness of it?

Damon Lindelof: I think the tonal conversation of “Do we want it to be dark and bleak and sad?” never happened consciously. I think the tonal conversation was, “We want the show to feel real, and give a real presentation of what it feels like to be in a world where this thing happened and how characters are dealing with it.” I’d always thought of the show feeling like ‘Friday Night Lights’ in terms of the way it was visually presented, and the way that I had heard that Pete (Berg) and Jason Katims executed the show. When Pete became available, he really responded to the material, and when he began talking about both the book and the script he had read, he was really processing it through Newtown. It was maybe four or five months after Newtown, and he said, “I’m really interested in how you move through life when an existential crisis that completely and totally destabilizes your sense of safety has happened. Like, how is the pizza parlor open the next day?” That’s how he articulated it. So when he started talking about what he wanted the (debauched teenage) party scene in the pilot to be in the pilot, “nihilism” is one word that you can use to describe it, but I do feel like the idea of bringing that energy into it, and bringing the actors to a place where tears could slide out of them at any given time, wasn’t on the page. It just started happening. And then we watched the pilot and were like, “I guess this is what the show is!” It was an instance of the show telling us what it wanted to be, and we just did more of the same.

Tom Perrotta: And I will say it’s kind of what happened to me with the book. I started out trying to write an apocalyptic comedy of sorts. And I started to write it, and I just kept realizing, “It’s not funny, because every single character turns out to be grieving in some way or another.” So I realized it was much heavier than I originally thought. I thought if you create this alternate reality, you can divorce yourself from it, but the psychological reality turned out to be very heavy. And then to have actors actually embody it, it became heavier yet.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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