The wordless nine minutes that open the second season of The Leftovers are likely to elicit strong reactions, both among admirers and the (very vocal) cadre of viewers already disinclined to like the HBO show. Our Margaret Lyons, for one, called it “one of the most out-there ten-minute sequences in modern television, one that would be equally at home on The Twilight Zone as it would in the pages of National Geographic.” While the opening is better seen than described, the scene boils down to this: Possibly prehistoric pregnant woman leaves her home cave, gets separated from her tribe following a massive earthquake, delivers her own baby, dies a short while later from a snake bite, while her baby is rescued by another woman. We’re never told the when, where, or how of the event, but director Mimi Leder’s camerawork strongly suggests it all takes place in what will become Jarden, Texas — the main location for this season of The Leftovers. As part of a longer conversation, series showrunner and co-creator Damon Lindelof talked to Vulture about how and why he and partner Tom Perrotta decided to kick off season two with a scene seemingly disconnected from the central drama.
So what is the origin of what may or may not be an origin story? How did you settle upon the idea of opening this way?
We were talking [about season two], and we already had the Jarden idea. We talked a lot about what, even though the show was never going to answer it, it was about this place that made it exceptional. First off, was it geographical? This is an idea that gets advanced in both the title of the first episode [“Axis Mundi,” or “navel of the earth”] and in the title of the second episode [“A Matter of Geography”]. So if the show is going to put the idea out there that geography matters, is it going to do anything that presents that as a possible explanation [for the Sudden Departure]? Even though we have been very clear that we are never going to explain this thing, the show has to have characters in it who are in pursuit of that explanation.
Right. Just because these theories are discussed on the show doesn’t mean viewers should expect you, as the creator, to ultimately come down on one side or the other.
You know how you tell your kid, “We know you want a bike for Christmas. We know you do. But you’re not going to get the bike.” And then the kid goes, “Okay, Mom and Dad, I know.” And then sometimes the fucking bike appears. This is not a bike scenario. We’re never, ever gonna tell. But when we were talking about the opening of the second season, we acknowledged that perhaps we can give emotional, psychological, thematic presentations to some of these ideas as opposed to what I would call plot responses, or traditional answers. We can say like, “Maybe this will whet people’s whistles somewhat.” Perrotta’s joke, which I actually think is very fitting, about the opening of the first episode is, “It’s like ‘previously on The Leftovers.’” We’re telling you the story, but if you line up the opening of season two with the opening of season one, it’s not that different — except this time, the baby makes it.
Tell me about the actress who plays the Woman in the scene. Who is she, and how did you find her?
Her name is Sara Tomko. She came in and she “read” for the piece alongside a number of other actors. [Victoria] Thomas is our casting director, based out of Los Angeles; she’s a genius. She sent us the top four or five performances. The auditions were like, “Okay, here’s the scene. You walk out of a cave. You pee. There’s a huge earthquake. You turn back. You see that the cave you just came out of has collapsed. And then you go into labor and you deliver your own baby. Okay — action.” We cast the actor who gave the performance that was the most real.
I know a lot of the scene came from Mimi Leder’s mind, as the director of the episode and a producer on the show. What were your conversations like leading up to filming?
Well, first, I can’t say enough amazing things about Mimi. She’s the unsung hero of the show … We spent a lot of time talking about how that opening sequence was going to look and feel. Michael Grady is our director of photography, and we all talked about how it was going to be shot. We had every conversation: What is her level of wardrobe going to be? How dirty is she? Are we going to try to use primitive languages? Should there be prosthetics involved? How long ago was it? All of these questions were explored to the degree that we spent more time talking about those first nine minutes of the episode than we did the other 50 minutes of the episode — all with an understanding that (a) if we didn’t get it right, we were completely screwed; and (b) even if we got it right, there would still be people who absolutely hated it.
This scene is destined to be polarizing, though that’s nothing new for The Leftovers.
The joke in the writer’s room — well, maybe it wasn’t a joke, since writers use jokes to reflect pain. We all listen to the Grantland podcast with Andy [Greenwald] and Chris [Ryan]. And we love it and think they’re brilliant. But they both fucking hate The Leftovers. So the joke was, “What can we do to completely and totally piss off those guys?” There was a lot of, “Oh, Greenwald’s gonna love this” going around in the writer’s room. I think [the joking] was also a reflection of our fear that we were about to completely and totally shoot ourselves in the foot right out of the gate. But … it felt right. It’s that simple. We weren’t trying to make any bold statement, and perhaps that’s naïve. I mean, we’re not idiots. We knew it was a risk. But at the end of the day, it was something we got really excited about. It was, “When does our story start? This feels right.” We could’ve just as easily started with the girls jumping into the water. That wasn’t as exciting to us as this other idea.
The big questions viewers will have after watching the open are likely: How does this play into the rest of the story? And what does it all mean in general — what was your intent with the sequence?
Well, I’m not going to answer the last part, in terms of what it means. There was a very purposeful design to the sequence; we had a lot of intention in terms of what it means to us. But I never want to say in an interview, “This is what it means. This is why we did it.” Because it completely and totally defeats the purpose. All I can say is — there is a design to it. But for me to reveal that design completely diminishes it. I do hope that when this season is over, or at least when the series is over — and who knows, those two things might be the same thing — that there will be even more perspective on that opening sequence to discuss. This is the beginning of the story.