The Leftovers’ Damon Lindelof on the Lessons He Learned From Season One and What to Expect This Year

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The first season of HBO’s The Leftovers was often difficult to watch, as shows about the aftermath of apocalyptic events tend to be. Set in a world still reeling from the sudden disappearance of 2 percent of its population, series co-creators Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof never flinched in their portrayal of grief and loss, or in depicting the extreme ways in which people cope with such pain. Those who stuck with the show for its first ten episodes, however, were rewarded with one of 2014’s best new hours (and — spoiler alert — some glimmers of hope for our characters). After the usual round of prelaunch publicity last summer,  Lindelof has generally seemed content to let his latest TV project speak for itself. But with HBO beginning to beat the drum for the new season — the first teaser for this fall’s season two was released a few days ago — the Lost co-creator last week hopped on the phone with Vulture for a 30-minute conversation about all things Leftovers. We talked about translating Perrotta’s original idea to TV, what lessons Lindelof learned from season one, and just a little bit about what the second cycle of the show will explore.

Thanks for taking the time to chat about season one. You actually didn’t do a lot of press once the show launched, even though there was lots to talk about and a lot of strong, positive critical reaction as the season went on. Was that silence by design?
It’s almost impossible to talk about not talking without seeming extremely hypocritical. But I wanted to take a step back from talking about the show for a couple of reasons … The simplest answer is, I was just sick of myself. I was just like — it was just sort of wanting to turn off my Google alert. This level of narcissism, of kind of just needing to be known, and needing to be out there, and constantly blathering on and on about my work. I was like, If I don’t want to hear myself speak, why does anybody else? I [was also] retreating from the social-media sphere. And I think part of my process was like, if you’re trying not to drink alcohol, don’t go to a bar. It just didn’t feel healthy to be talking about the show.

But the larger thing was, until the first season of the show really existed, the only questions that were really out there were the inevitable comparisons to Lost. You know: “Here’s yet another mystery show, built around a central mystery where weird things are happening.” It’s fair that people are going to want to compare the show to Lost because I’m making it — there’s a continuum there. At the same time, I don’t know how many times I can answer the question …

… of where everyone went?
We’re never going to tell you what happens to the 2 percent of the population that disappeared. That’s kind of what the show is about. Without really frustrating people or pissing them off, it was sort of like, the one question that people want me to answer, I really can’t answer in a very satisfying way. So it felt like [talking] was sort of a recipe for the usual frustration.

I hadn’t read Tom’s book, and I know once I realized that the show was about these characters and their reaction to their new world and not solving a riddle, it all clicked for me. Going into season two, it’s probably a good thing to get the word out about what will or won’t be answered.
It feels like that’s one of the things that I have to responsibly advocate. If we could just put a surgeon general’s warning on the front of the show, or even like a parental advisory about coarse language. Just the idea of, hey, if you’re going to watch The Leftovers, you should know going in that you’re not going to get [the answer]. The show is about living in a world where this thing happened, but there is no resolution. It doesn’t mean that many of the characters on the show are not looking for that answer, or starting to adopt religions and belief systems that they feel are correct. But the idea that the show is going to answer that question for the audience is just — it’s not going to happen.

I was always annoyed during the run of Lost when it seemed people cared more about solving everything than about how these characters were evolving.
But that was fair because Lost was a mystery show, and it was asking all these questions. If you end a pilot with Dominic Monaghan saying, “Guys, where are we?” and there’s a polar bear and a smoke monster and characters keeping secrets from one another, you’re telling the audience, “You’re going to get the answers to these mysteries.” Like, keep watching, and you will get the answers to these mysteries. That was the covenant, the unsigned contract, that we as storytellers were promising the audience. Whether the show was all about the mysteries, or whether you watched the show for the mysteries or the characters, that’s very specific to the individual. But anyone who wants to sit across the table from me and ask, “What’s up with the polar bears?” I can answer that question. You want to ask me what’s up with the island, I can answer that question. Why did Oceanic 815 crash? I can answer that question. But if you ask me, "Where did 2 percent of the world’s population go on October 14?" I can’t answer that question.

What about Tom’s book stood out for you and said, “This is a TV show?” And then how did that translate into making that show?
Tom is fully engaged in the writing of the show, and continues to be in the second season. When I read the book … for me, it was about this fundamental emotional truth that I’ve always been fascinated with, which is guilt. This idea that this huge supernatural event became a prism for,  “What did I do wrong?” If your entire family disappeared, everyone except for you, even if your husband was cheating on you, you could still kind of feel like it was your fault in some way. That’s so much the human experience for me, in terms of the level of narcissism that we engage in as human beings — to [still say], “That was my fault.”

[But] the idea of everybody kind of bouncing around off of one another, feeling really shitty — who wants to watch that show, let alone write that show? So to me, the show basically became: Everybody feels really shitty, what are they doing to feel better? You know, what straws do they grasp at to try to feel better? So let’s watch that, because I want to watch people struggling to feel better …  The idea [is], how can I feel good again, how can I feel safe again, how can I love someone again when I feel like they can be taken from me at any moment? Or, like, what belief system should I engage in? How does Christianity sound now? How does this group of crazies who dress in white and smoke cigarettes, how is that actually appealing? Why would anyone even join those people? Those were all very compelling ideas.

Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter praised The Leftovers near the end of season one by calling it one of the most “creatively bold” shows on TV because it offers “no mythology, only terrifying existential meaninglessness.” Is that what the show is, at its heart? Is it an existential meditation?
[Sighs.] I mean, [we] allow ourselves a certain level of being pretentious, if not precious, about that idea, of saying we live in a world full of mystery. And the same questions plague us all, you know: What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of my life? And then what happens when my life ends? Nobody’s like, “Huh, I’ve never really thought about that stuff.” So it does unify us all. But the larger question becomes, how do you write this show where the characters are not just sitting around having that conversation?

Take a show like Mad Men, which I love and is brilliant. It’s very existential, and it’s able to present the existential themes without actually ever having characters say, “What do you think the meaning of life is?” Maybe when we get into the final season you start to have Don Draper polling the people around him, like, what’s next? What do you want to do with your life? And you’ll hear Ted or Peggy say, “I want the Coca-Cola account,” or “I want to own my own agency.” And those things sound sort of petty, but you understand that you’re in a show that is dealing with very existential issues, that is using advertising executives who are using advertising language to present those ideas. The Leftovers doesn’t have any such pretext, because the situation that they’re in is biblical. So that gravity of the departure itself is pulling on every scene at all times. But we have to write scenes where people are not always talking about the departure. It’s an existential event; therefore the show is, by definition, existential.

Not to get off track, but since you mentioned Mad Men: What did you think of the finale?
Oh, I loved the Mad Men finale. Unequivocally, I just loved it. It kind of felt like it was presented with incredible confidence. It was fair and loving to all its characters. It was both unpredictable and completely and totally inevitable. The person that I cared most about shifted constantly; I ended up caring about all these people. And I felt like all of them were left in a place I was comfortable with. I didn’t feel like it was cheap or easy. In fact, in many ways it was sort of complicated. I felt like I was in the hands of someone who really knew exactly what they were doing, and delivered me exactly where I wanted to go.

So after you finished season one, did you go back and evaluate what worked and what maybe didn’t? Did you learn any lessons about what the show should be going forward?
There’s a constant process of self-evaluation. The self-evaluation is much more brutal than the evaluation that comes externally. It starts in the moment in the writers’ room where I basically pitch out an idea. The writers and producers that are on The Leftovers, they’re not sycophants. I’ve populated the room with people who kind of think I’m an idiot. We’re like-minded, but they’re not going to tell me an idea was great because it was mine or because I’m their boss. I constantly have to not be afraid to make mistakes. But once it makes it through that process and makes it onto the screen … then you can actually take a huge step back and say, “What did I learn from this? What are the best parts? Where am I most engaged? And where am I totally disengaged?” And those things tend to be very, very obvious.

One of the lessons learned in the first season is the narrower the point of view, the more emotional and effective the show is. The idea of saying, “We’re just going to be with Nora for this episode,” or “We’re just going to be with Matt for this episode.” Those episodes — you can’t do those every week. You also have to service the story, and when you narrow the point of view, the story becomes very paired to that person … [But] the gasoline that powers The Leftovers is emotion. If you feel emotions more intensely, the more time you spend with someone, you get to understand them better. That became very, very apparent to us.

The other thing was, we understand that we’re going to watch people suffering, and that isn’t always the most fun thing in the world to watch.  But watching somebody suffer constantly, that’s really hard. That’s really brutal. And I think that we maybe put a little bit too much into the soup, maybe we used a couple of tablespoons too much of suffering. There are ways to, without being cheesy about it, to have the characters gravitate towards hope and optimism and faith a little more in a world that was basically making all of those things very difficult to gravitate towards. I kind of feel like the story was telling us to do that, too. But at the same time, I don’t want to compromise the value of the show. 

The most honest answer to your question is: I’m constantly learning and unlearning. The things that I feel like I’m sure about turn out to be dead wrong. I’m not ever going to get to a point where I basically drive the car, and I turn to all of the passengers in the car and say, “I got this.” It’s not in my nature. And I feel like it would be a huge mistake to feel that level of creative comfort. I’m much more comfortable being uncomfortable.

One of the highlights of season one for me was the ninth episode, which took us back to before the Sudden Departure. Can you talk about the decision to wait until right before the end of season one to give us this big reveal, this look at who these characters were before everything changed?
When we were first talking about the season, the idea I was always very certain about from the get-go [was] that episode nine was going to take us back to the day before the Departure. I don’t want to go on and on about why that decision was made, but most importantly, it really boils down to: We will maximize the emotional power of that episode the more we know these people. So the more time we spend with Nora and Kevin and Laurie, the more we will understand, or be surprised by, the inversion of who they were before this event occurred.

When I read Tom’s book, the fundamental question of the entire book [was], “How could Laurie Garvey do this?” I don’t want to live in a world where people could abandon their families that easily — although I do live in that world, we all do; we just don’t want to talk about it. But the idea [of episode nine] was, we’re going to give you our best answer to that question, and we’re going to give it to you right before we experience the finale.

We’re still a few months from the start of season two, and I know you don’t want to talk quite yet about what’s ahead. But HBO did release a teaser showing a long line of cars en route to a town in Texas that boasts “zero departures.” What can you say about what’s to come?
Well, we have confirmed the show is leaving the geographical space it occupied last year. It’s not set in New York anymore. We’re transporting this family unit that we’ve become completely and totally invested in — Kevin and Nora and Jill and this baby they found on their doorstep — to this new place that’s in Texas. And based on the promo we put out there, [this town] is claiming there were no departures in this place. It’s going to have a slightly different emotional bandwidth. The first season of the show is, all of these people are touched by this thing called the Sudden Departure. They lost someone or were very close to someone who lost someone. Now, what if they all moved to a town where nobody lost anyone? What would the people in that town be like? It’s a little bit of a Twilight Zone–y idea as a jumping-off point, but because our show is very grounded, I like the way of the non-genre presentation of a very genre idea. 

One last thing. You very publicly signed off Twitter a few years back. And unlike some media figures who’ve logged off, you’ve yet to go back. Any regrets about leaving?
I think regret is a strong word. The thing that I miss most about it is consuming. There were a number of people that I followed, really funny comedians like Rob Delaney, who would just get me to laugh out loud while reading their tweets. A number of TV critics and bloggers who would engage in debates or write great posts, and then link those posts. As much as she drives me nuts, [The New Yorker TV critic] Emily Nussbaum is someone who I really love to hear what she has to say. Now I’m completely and totally disconnected from it, and I miss that. There’s a part of me that wishes to go on invisibly, like no one will never know. But I know myself. I know that the minute I read something that I wanted to respond to, that I’d be back, you know? If I’m a smoker, I can’t hang around with smokers. I can’t just watch you smoke. So I don’t regret leaving. It’s been immensely great for my psyche. But I really miss it. And to be clear, I’m not someone who left Twitter and announced, “Twitter is crap! I don’t know why anybody is on it; it’s bad for everybody.” It was bad for me.