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“We Were Fixing a Lot of Things As We Went”

‘Leftovers’ cocreator Damon Lindelof on how his show has become one of the best dramas on TV, how the crew came up with that Wu-Tang scene, where prestige TV is headed, and more

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

HBO’s The Leftovers didn’t exactly didn’t land on its feet when it premiered in 2014. The show got a cool reception from many critics, including The Watch’s own Andy Greenwald. But as it enters its third season, the program has turned itself around and has gained praise. Cocreator Damon Lindelof joined Greenwald and Chris Ryan on The Watch to talk about how the crew behind the scenes engineered the turnaround, how they came up with some of the best moments of the season so far, and how prestige TV is changing.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

How the Show Changed Since Season 1

Damon Lindelof: I’m really interested in what the critical community is saying, because I look at what you and your peers do as a free resource. I may take issue with what you say, but I do listen to it. I stand by the first season and I’m really glad that it exists. But I’ve been very candid about the fact that we were fixing a lot of things as we went. We had to shut down for a couple of weeks. Mimi Leder came in and helped us kind of find the show. There were a lot of conversations going on.

Although you weren’t in the room and your peers weren’t in the room, I heard what everybody was saying.

Andy Greenwald: What’s your perspective now on the way you were able to twist the dial a few clicks and let the light in? It’s the same show, but I feel like you let in the heart in a different way, you let in the humor, you let in the strangeness, that I felt was knocking on the door and not quite penetrating in Season 1.

Lindelof: It feels a little bulshitty [to say, but] it’s a team effort. I do really have to stress that I think that many of the changes that you’re talking about, I would attribute to others. Mimi Leder, who I mentioned earlier, who came in mid-Season 1, just took the reins directorially and on a production level and creatively. Then we made a couple of key hires between Season 1 and Season 2. We brought on another executive producer, Tom Spezialy, who was the one who was like, "You should watch [Picnic at] Hanging Rock and [The] Last Wave, because I feel like there is another tonal bandwidth that the show can be spinning on."

[Tom] Perrotta, who had been back and forth on Season 1, I went back and read his book. And I was like, "There’s a lot of humor in this book!" This idea that I had that humor or absurdist humor can’t exist in this world was actually in the DNA all along, and I was just not listening to that idea. I went to a couple of funerals unfortunately, but people were, like, laughing at the funerals, and I was like, "Oh, that exists too."

We promoted one of the writers from Season 1, this guy Nick Cuse; we brought on Patrick Somerville into Season 2. And there were just influential voices in the writers’ room, and I stopped trying to demand the show to be this thing that I needed it to be and I started listening to what other people wanted it to be.

One of the downsides of doing eight episodes of television, or 10 episodes, is that you — and especially with layoffs between seasons — you lose talent. We had a great writer named Jackie Hoyt who was on in seasons 1 and 2; she left, and so we made some key hires into Season 3. Carly Wray and Lila Byock … Haley Harris, [and] Tamara Carter [were all brought on].

And of course, Spezialy, Perrotta, Nick and Patrick. And [it just felt] like that room started humming along.

Why Lindelof Didn’t Listen to the People Who Said to End After Season 2

Lindelof: We found out that there was going to be a third [season]. The thing that was rattling around in our collective writing consciousness was that many people in the critical community said, "We really love this season; end it. Stop now." It was like, "We’re good with it ending here. You’re not going to outdo this ending."

That certainly gave us pause to some degree. So we tried to unpack that. What’s the source of that? I came to the conclusion, whether correct or not, that it wasn’t because [critics] felt that the story was over; it was that they felt like it would be a risk to invest further given my internal reputation for ending things. They didn’t trust me to end it better than it ended at the end of [Season] 2. To which I said, "Fuck that, here we go."

How the Wu-Tang Trampoline Came Together

Greenwald: [The] Wu-Tang trampoline … is a moment of just ecstatic absurdity that is both emotionally gripping and ridiculous and somehow makes sense. Those moments are not easy to do. They involve taking a big risk and also seeing it through, and with a seriousness of purpose that doesn’t drown it. How did you get to Wu-Tang trampoline?

Lindelof: Nora has a cast she’s [using to] cover up something. What is she covering up? And the idea was she went to go get a tattoo with her children’s names on it, because Nora’s a character who, when we first meet her, is pushing coffee cups over in cafés so people will recognize her and they’ll look at her and they will acknowledge her loss. But now we’re seven years later and … in the process of getting her children’s names tattooed on her she totally becomes self-aware and says, "That’s pathetic, I’m pathetic, I have to stop this. I need to cover up this tattoo." And she points to another tattoo on the wall to cover up her children’s names. What should that be? And Tamara Carter, story editor on the show, came on Season 3, [and said] it should be the Wu-Tang insignia.

I wish I was cool enough — I can name [only] like three members of the Wu-Tang Clan. I’m familiar with their music but I can’t count myself as like a Martin Shkreli.

[Then, the next question was,] "Can we license the Wu-Tang insignia?" And thus began this sort of inquiry [with] Warner Bros. I then emailed Liza Richardson, who is our brilliant music supervisor, and … she was like, "Pick a song and I’ll do everything I can to get it, but it’s gonna be a toss-up." I was like, "We’re going full Wu-Tang. We’re doing it." Warner Bros. came back and said, "You’ve got the tattoo."

Nora should tell Erika they’ve now become friends. Nora should tell Erika about this tattoo, and then Erika should help Nora. She should give her some piece of healing, but it has to be a nontraditional coping mechanism. It has to feel the opposite of putting on a bulletproof vest or a bag over your head; it has to feel like it’s healing because Erika is like, "Oh, the show’s actually over for me. You go on, but I’m actually good now." So what is Erika’s coping mechanism that she shares with Nora? Tamara Carter comes in and says, "I think [Erika] says, ‘I have an aunt who has a trampoline in her backyard.’ And she just jumps on it."

And I was like, "Regina King [and] Carrie Coon jumping on a trampoline … we’ll find the right Wu-Tang track; hopefully we’ll clear it. That just sounds amazing."

Building the World

Lindelof: There’s a tremendous amount of thought put into world-building. We [never] wanted this to feel like it was an alt-history show, where it’s dealing with the issue of who is the president in this world. In the pilot of the show, on the TV in the bar, you’re seeing people who have departed. So there’s [Gary] Busey and Anthony Bourdain and Shaquille O’Neal, and Hillary Clinton pops up there. And she’s talking; does that mean she disappeared? But we never wanted it to feel like, "OK, let’s do the big alt-history unpack."

More importantly, we talked about things like the loved ones, or what coping mechanisms people are using. How can we make the Departure, which was an invisible thing, [come to life]? How do you make the invisible visible? We try to really relate it to the characters. I didn’t want The Leftovers to be an Easter Egg show.

How the Character of Kevin Was Influenced by ‘Game of Thrones’

Lindelof: There was this Life of Brian idea that was scratching at us. What happened was, as we were writing the second season of the show, Game of Thrones’ last season was airing. The whole question in the zeitgeist was, "Jon Snow is coming back to life, right? How are they going to [bring him back]?" And we all watch Game of Thrones and obsess over Game of Thrones.

As we were writing Season 2, we knew that we were going to do the same thing with Kevin. And we said, "Because Game of Thrones now exists and the audience has seen it, we can’t end an episode with Kevin drinking poison and falling out of his chair and telling the audience, ‘He’s dead.’" You have to show him getting dragged out of the room by Michael Murphy to say, "No no no, we’re going to be bringing him back to life."

I was like, if we bring Kevin back to life, not just once, but twice, there has to be a consequence. This has to be something that the show is talking about. Because when people come back to life, that’s a big deal. What will be interesting is if Kevin’s attitude is, "I don’t want to talk about it, it’s not a big deal, so what, you buried me in the ground, I came out of the ground a couple of hours later [after getting] shot point-blank in the chest. I guess it didn’t hit any major arteries, I just want to get on with my life." But what if the people around him were like, "Oh no no no, we want to talk about this"?

[Reza Aslan, the show’s religious consultant] wrote this book called Zealot that was about the historical Jesus Christ. And at the time there were like 10,000 Jesuses on the planet, who were saying, "I’m the son of God, I’m talking to God," but Jesus is the one who stuck. And I was like, "Oh, let’s just take that idea, and say there’s 10,000 people on the planet right now who actually claim to be divine. And Kevin is one of them, but he’s one of them that doesn’t want to be. It’s the people around him who are trying to recruit him into some form of higher purpose."

That idea felt like it had some kind of weird, quirky, comedic energy to it, even though the show took it seriously, but the ideas felt silly.

The Show Unintentionally Reflects Reality

Lindelof: This was not our intention, because we wrote the show between January and August of last year, but one of the big themes we were chasing over the course of the series, but really tried to dial it in for the final season, is this idea of what we’re now calling "fake news." How can you build a viable narrative that seems completely and totally ridiculous, that has just a couple of facts that you connect? And suddenly there’s a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., that is human trafficking and a hub of pedophilia.

And you can get intelligent people to believe that. I think that every character on the show is struggling to find some kind of belief system that reconciles the Departure. Then these crazy stories, Mark Linn-Baker in a hotel room saying there’s this gizmo that exists that will blast you with radiation [and] send you to your children, sound completely and totally absurd. And we’re like, "This sounds too absurd for Nora to buy," when we came up with the idea. "It should come from someone incredibly absurd. What if we pay off the Mark Linn-Baker gag that we’ve been setting up for two seasons?" But he performs it in the most grounded, incredible way.

And so this has that silliness factor, which is, if you say to someone, "Last night on The Leftovers, Mark Linn-Baker as himself from Perfect Strangers sat in a hotel room with Nora Durst and told her that there is a gizmo that will blast her with radiation and transport her into another dimension," they would say, "That is the stupidest thing. The Leftovers must have jumped the shark." And hopefully you go, well, "It did, and I liked it," or, "It didn’t feel like we were jumping the shark."

Making Prestige TV Feel Like … TV

Greenwald: Vulture wrote a couple pieces about the 10-episode movie, and I wanted to get your thoughts on that, because one of the reasons why I have done a 180 on The Leftovers is because you championed the episode [as a medium for storytelling]. These are distinct pieces of art in a larger season that tell a larger story. We’re two episodes into Season 3, and they are very different from each other in tone and focus. Wu-Tang trampoline would not have fit in 301, may not have fit in 303.

Lindelof: I mean, I understand and agree with a lot of the writing that’s being done on this right now, but I also feel like there has to be a space to say some albums are albums and other albums have 10 great singles on them and some are both. Our brains are changing in terms of the way that we absorb these things. Something is definitely happening in my brain if I watch Episode 1 of Stranger Things and I’m 40 minutes in and I’m like, "This is so good. I love this world. I just want to draw it out." And then it ends and a little box pops up in the lower-right-hand corner of my screen and says, "The next episode will start in eight seconds." Something happens in my brain that’s like, "I’m going to watch one more." And so the fact that that exists now, that that is there, that that model exists for us, it’s almost impossible to resist if you love something.

But the shows that do episodes, it’s very clear. Like Transparent, for example, those are episodes. And so after the turtle one, my wife and I just sat there with our mouths hanging open. We’re like, "We can’t watch any more Transparent tonight. We’re taking like three days to just be in the beauty of what just happened." We have to self-regulate to some degree.

I don’t take issue with Jonathan [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] saying that Westworld is gonna be a 70-hour movie or a 10-hour movie, because if I didn’t have to wait until the following Sunday, the majority of the dings on Westworld in its first couple episodes never would have happened if it was released on Netflix and you could just watch all 10. All the theorizing about Jimmi Simpson, that all would have gone out the door. You just would have watched one after the other and it would have played as a 10-hour movie.

‘Big Little Lies’ and Shows That Figure Themselves Out As They Go

Chris Ryan: What’s the most recent show you were wrong about? Like, something you started and you were like, "Ahhh, do I have time to do this?" and then it got itself together.

Lindelof: Big Little Lies is certainly one of those shows. But when I watch the first or second episode [of any show], the bar is very low. I just start from a position of, "Give me a couple things to love about this show." If you can get through the first couple episodes and I have some sense of theme or I’m really engaged or interested in the performances, that’s all I need to keep going. After four or five episodes, if it isn’t finding itself then I will actually give up on it. But there’s just a grace period.

Doesn’t it make complete and utter logical sense that a show is just going to get better as it goes? Unless the people who are making that show are just completely and totally deaf to their own show, but everybody who’s making it wants to make it better, but very rarely does the show get worse unless there’s a key personnel change.

The metric for a show making it beyond its first season used to be really one thing with shadings of another. And that one thing was how many people were watching it and the shadings of another is if it’s a critical darling. Then, [with] Parks and Rec or 30 Rock, the expectations for ratings starts to go away because it becomes a critical darling, so it has to be one or the other. And The Leftovers was neither, and [former HBO programming president] Michael Lombardo was generous enough to say, "I see the potential and the promise in this show." And HBO is traditionally great about saying "Even if the first season was highly flawed, we believe in you and we’re gonna give it a second season."

Lindelof’s Plan for the Finale

Greenwald: Two episodes of Season 3 have aired. There are six more to go; included in those six is a finale. You’ve famously had some issues with finales. How are you feeling right now?

Lindelof: I’m feeling anxious. The anxiety isn’t based on the material that exists, because on that front, I’m uncharacteristically confident. I place a tremendous amount of trust in the collaboration and this finale, in particular the final scene of the series. So it was like we all got together and said, "How is it going to end? What’s the last scene?" Not just in terms of like on a meta level, like literally. "Who’s in the scene? What are they saying to one another? What’s the last shot of the series?" We started there, we arrived at something that we all felt was right, and then the entire season was just plotting to get to that place.

Perrotta and I were both in Australia when we shot that final scene, and Mimi [Leder] directed the finale. As I was on the set watching it be performed, I was like, "This is beyond my wildest expectations. They’ve elevated something that I already felt confident about." And then when I watched it in the editing room, I was emotionally overwhelmed by it.

Then all the writers and producers came back into the editing room and all watched the whole episode again. We gave notes; there were some things that I missed — some things that I went by too fast and some things that were too slow — so we adjusted the pacing, looked at some performance changes, etcetera. So the show ended with the same level of collaboration that got us there in the first place.

Where is the bar going to be at the end of Episode 7 in terms of expectation for how great the finale needs to be? Can we clear that bar? So my hope is that expectations are high, because I really like the seven episodes that lead up to the finale.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.