‘The Leftovers’ Creative Team Discusses The Show’s Wildest Theories

The significance of interviewing The Leftovers dream team of co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta and director Mimi Leder inside a hotel wasn’t lost on me. Many of the show’s most iconic moments — “International Assassin,” Nora’s sprinkler system tears, “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)” — were set inside hotels. It probably wasn’t lost on Lindelof, either. In a conversation with Alan Sepinwall, which took place a few days before the series finale aired, he was filled with “simultaneous celebration and dread.” But last Friday, during a panel at the Austin Television Festival and our subsequent discussion, Lindelof looked relaxed and relieved; he even wore a Frasier the Sensuous Lion t-shirt.

I spoke to Lindelof, as well as Perrotta and Leder, about some of the wildest theories they read about The Leftovers and the TV shows that influced their masterpiece.

As I was doing research for this interview, I went down a rabbit hole of The Leftovers theories. Most of which, now that the show is over, have obviously been proven completely wrong. I’m curious if there’s any along the way that you were particularly wild and out there.

Lindelof: The one that stuck with me coming into the end game was the idea that the physicists were actually in the Guilty Remnant, and that they were basically staging an elaborate con to recruit people, which is why they had selected Nora. So the idea is that they would kinda bring her into the back of the truck, and there’d be fifty other people dressed in white there saying, “We’ve now proven that you want to, you know, go and see your kids. You can admit that there is nothing worth living for now.” So the series would end with Nora in white, as a member of the GR. It was like, oh boy, that’s nastier. We’ve come up with some nasty stuff, but that’s nastier than anything we’ve ever thought of.

Perrotta: And in a sense, it’s a logical thing because it was…

Lindelof: …based on the previous two seasons.

Perrotta: It’s a twist that we’ve done, so whoever was doing that was not a wild theorist, but somebody who is doing the more strategic “How do these people think?”.

Lindelof: Yes.

Perrotta: And the idea that the GR was the ultimate embodiment of the show. I agree that people would maybe be skeptical, like, did we really just kill them off? The GR and Lisa weren’t the only ones, right? We knew there were others, because Meg had met with them, but the GR affected her disappearance off this show, this season. I can see why it was a good theory.

Lindelof: My new favorite one in the wake of the finale is that Nora was the messiah all along, because she takes the beads off the goat and that’s the sins of mankind, and the final episode is called “The Book of Nora.”

That’s what I thought, actually, as I was watching it.

Lindelof: And I’m like, “Oh, I really like that one,” because if you need to have a messiah, I think Nora would make a better messiah than Kevin in general, nothing against him…

Perrotta: He’s just a more responsible person!

Lindelof: More importantly, I think, we need some more female messiahs! You know, there’s a shortage of female messiahs.

There’s a theory out there for every member of the cast being a stealth member of the GR. Including one for Kevin, where he was in it all along, and he was planning a long con to… That one didn’t really have a resolution.

Lindelof: But you know Patti, in season one, said to Kevin, “You understand.” That was what “you understand” was. “You’re pretending you’re our enemy, but you are right here with me, you believe in nothing the same way I believe in nothing.” So, that theory is actually totally right.

You mentioned something earlier about Nora, that it would be too much of an emotional wallop to have her in the GR. Was there ever a point where you considered doing something to a character but you eventually pulled back because it was just too much? It was too emotionally devastating.

Perrotta: We definitely talked about in the premiere the idea of killing Meg and Evie in one fell swoop, it felt like it was a good idea plot-wise and narratively to say, “This is what the GR wanted, they wanted some level of martyrdom, and now they got what they wanted,” and then three years later there’s just a couple of teenagers in red shirts, saying “Remember them!” But that’s all that remains of the GR. But I think on a character level, it’s like, is that what we want? We liked the idea of being able to reprise Meg and Evie in the International Assassin Room, but Laurie is the one that we’ve talked about most exhaustively in terms of… We had to come to the point where she was committing suicide, and sit with that for a couple of weeks, before we decided to revisit it, because it wasn’t sitting particularly well.

Leder: If the kids hadn’t called, would she have stayed under?

Perrotta: Or was that her intention at all, yeah.

Lindelof: But the other issue was for people who were seeing it for the first time, they weren’t quite sure what realm Nora was in. Is it some other realm of the dead? So when you see Laurie, people were just not really… Until Kevin explains what’s going on, I think people have this little kernel of doubt about what they’re even seeing.

On a lighter note, a very silly theory posited that the entire show was one big set-up to a ridiculous leftovers/microwave pun.

Lindelof: [Sarcastically.] Right. Great, I like that one.

Yeah, it’s good stuff. Season one is heavier than seasons two and three, or at least it feels it. Was there a moment where you were conscious of adding, maybe not jokes exactly, but more lightness to the script?

Lindelof: We started with the laugh riot of Gladys getting stoned to death.

Leder: Yeah that was really fun!

Lindelof: But in Tom’s book, and in all of Tom’s writing, I define it as humor, but the humor is basically derived from a different emotional space than an episode of Friends derives its humor. So I was interested in that emotional space, but less interested in the humor because the humor felt inauthentic to me in a world where this happened, and that was a mistake and I feel like I’m largely to blame for the fundamental thinking of “the show can’t allow for that” in season one. But then Tom didn’t give up in terms of deploying that tone, and then I think there were episodes like “Guest” that sort of infused the show with sort of this weird, bizarre, once Kevin was throwing the baby Jesus out the window, then we were starting to go, “Okay, this is funny to us, but what does funny even mean?” that the show started to come alive.

Perrotta: The funny thing about the, well, funny stuff is that in a sense, this year, the show got almost a little bit madcap, and I think there was almost this feeling I actually shared at season one, we just didn’t know how much humor the show could accommodate. And, every now and then it would just slip in and it would feel right, and then once we made the realization that this is an integral part of the show, this is not something we have to be sparing with, you can get as funny as you want with The Leftovers, and it won’t prevent a sad moment from hitting you. In fact, the sadness of those sad moments will feel, I think, that much more intense, because you were feeling good a second ago. And I think this show started to become about emotional instability; Emily Nussbaum called it the “Everything Bagel,” which is a funny line, but I actually thought that that was really the growth of the show, that it was coming at you from all sorts of different emotional angles, and as a result all those emotions felt a little fresh and unexpected.

Lindelof: Especially when the Everything Bagel gets lost in the toaster.

An example of that is in “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” when Christopher Eccleston turns to the camera and says…

Lindelof: “That’s the guy I was telling you about.”

That’s a hilarious moment, but it’s comes after something really dark.

Leder: That shot that [director Nicole Kassell] did, going into them and then cutting to the close-up. You felt doom, or at least I felt dread, I felt scared, and then bam!

Lindelof: That’s the best kind of comedy though, when the character is not in on the joke. I don’t think Matt is trying to be funny at all, he’s trying to be profound.

Perrotta: It’s also the truth of his life, that’s the guy he’s been telling people about. That makes it work for me, as funny as it is, it is the truth of his life.

Lindelof: The original punchline for that episode was “I’m dying.” Remember?

Perrotta: Yeah.

Lindelof: So, we moved up. Laurie says, “Are you okay?” and he says “Actually Laurie, I’m dying.” Then, now we’re ready for the comedy. But we used to watch God getting eaten by the lion, and then he turned around and is like, “Actually, I’m dying.” I’m glad that we rearranged that.

I’m curious, then, about the collaboration between directing and writing on a show with such tonal shifts, when you go from the most heartbreaking moment ever to something that’s laugh-out-loud funny a minute later.

Leder: Well, you know, they’re the pitchers, I’m the catcher, and then we…

Perrotta: It’s not true! I don’t want to speak for you. I’ll just say we do write the material, but then Mimi has, in my opinion, carte blanche to basically direct the material. I mean, once she gets it, then there are conversations, but there’s a tone meeting that Mimi leads, and that is like, “Let’s go through the script. Any questions?” And it’s not like, “Here on page three, do you understand what we’re going for?” So she interprets the material both for herself when she’s directing, and for the other directors, and then what we get back is what we get back, and we always love it. But that doesn’t feel like pitching and catching to me.

Leder: I was being…

You were being humble.

Leder: I was. There’s so much humor layered into the scripts, and to find it and hit the tone right is something we strive and work very hard for. When you’re directing the actor, “No, this is what it means, this is what it feels like, try it this way.” Justin especially is very funny, he has a real ear for humor. They all do. Nora in the phone booth, “No I don’t want to go to the dance!”

Lindelof: “I do not want to go to the fucking dance!”

Leder: And I wanted her to scream it to the high heavens, like, “Okay we’re in this ridiculous comedy now.”

I know you’re a big Twin Peaks fan, Damon, and there are obviously Perfect Strangers references sprinkled throughout. I’m curious what other shows informed The Leftovers.

Perrotta: The Twilight Zone is something that we referred to a lot.

Lindelof: And Friday Night Lights. I mean, when Tom and I first met, we talked about the aesthetic of Friday Night Lights. Tom always talked about the book, and his vision for the series as you look out the window and you can’t tell that the apocalypse happened. It looks the same, but it feels different. So we were talking about the right aesthetic, and this was before [producer Peter Berg] came in. But when he was pitched to us, it was like, “Oh, well that’s one way to get it,” in that it would be very organic. So, I do think that obviously Pete developed that aesthetic, but Jason [Katims] came and was the one who ran the show. These more grounded shows, like Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, and that was an aesthetic that was developed on Hill Street Blues and E.R. of course. It was always about getting a very natural authenticity in terms of its style, like cinema was a part of it, but you never wanted to be too aware of the camera and what the camera was doing.

Leder: And Damon really helped me hone that, because I can be fancy-shmancy and do all these incredible shots, but once you become aware of it, all of a sudden you fall out of the story.