Damon Lindelof on Why The Leftovers Is Ultimately a Love Story

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Ahead of the final season of The Leftovers, Damon Lindelof joined the Vulture TV Podcast to talk about the Matt Zoller Seitz piece that just may have saved the show, why it’s ultimately a love story, and the persuasive powers of a naked Justin Theroux. Listen to our conversation, and read an edited transcript below.

Jen Chaney: How did you decide on sending seven episodes from the final season to critics?
I listened to people who are much smarter than I. I was on the phone with Mimi Leder, Tom Perrotta, Tom Spezialy, and Justin Theroux, with HBO publicity and marketing, and we were weighing the pros and cons of should we send three, should we send four, should we send all eight. And Theroux was the one who said we should just send seven, we should hold the finale back, but we should give as much of what we’ve done as possible. We have nothing to hide. He was probably naked when he said that. That’s how I always imagine him. You could just sort of hear the collective nod. He spoke very passionately and it was sort of like, “Yes, we’re going with the Theroux plan.”

Gazelle Emami: How do you say no to a naked Theroux?
That’s poetry right there. “How do you say no to a naked Theroux?”

Matt Zoller Seitz: That should be on the posters.

JC: I think it is on the posters, actually.
It’s definitely implied on the posters.

GE: Was I just imagining it or does he have more scenes with his clothes off this season?
I can’t really speak to what you imagined. Look, when you’re dealing with a physique like his it’s actually insulting for him to not have his clothes off.

GE: It’s a work of art!
All kidding aside, if I can put on my artsy-fartsy hat, which has a feather in it, the idea that when a character is going to be naked is actually is supposed to demonstrate some level of vulnerability. And we wanted to demonstrate Kevin Garvey as a very vulnerable character, particularly as we move into the endgame. So it was like, the more vulnerable he feels, the more naked he should be and he’s feeling awfully vulnerable this year. That would be a good exercise. I think, probably, we should all do this. Just break out the stopwatch. Just do a quick binge of the first two seasons and get some accurate measurements of how naked he is.

GE: Vulture will get right on that. I also felt like this season was a bit funnier. Was that an intentional choice?
I definitely feel like that was intentional. One of the things about season one that I was very resolute of living in the space of was there can be no humor on this show. This show is all about despair and depression, and this Sudden Departure happened that wrecked families. In season two, we started realizing there was a greater bandwidth for that. But because I am completely and totally and unable to admit that I was wrong, I would be like, “Okay, there’s no room for comedy, but maybe absurdity, and those are two different things and now let me give you a lecture about how absurdity is different than comedy.” But by the time we got to season three, there was a lot of laughter in the writers room, and we started just thinking, “Hey, if we’re laughing at this, maybe we should put that in the show, too.” And we started getting tickled by ideas that were a little bit further out there. Part of the fun was that the characters really aren’t in on the joke, and then we started developing this idea that wouldn’t it be great if we could construct episodes where we imagine the imaginary dialogue between someone who had seen the episode and someone who had never seen The Leftovers, and the person who has seen the episode just says, “Here’s what happened on The Leftovers last night,” and the person that they’re talking to is like, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” And now our job is to make that person, who has never watched an episode, realize that it’s not as stupid as they thought it was.

MZS: In fact, I did have that feeling at several points during season three, when one character is reminding another character of something that happened to them, and the way they’re describing it was funny.
Oh, good.

MZS: Just the act of describing it, because it is not the sort of thing that happens every day.
My wife doesn’t want to be spoiled on the show, she wants to just watch the episodes. But if something intense is happening in the writing of the show or in the writers room, where we’re trying to figure something out and we’re going down a blind alley, it requires me basically telling her some of the larger story lines of the season. And I was like, “Oh, we’re doing this thing with Nora, etc.” And she just looked at me and was like, “You’re not really doing that are you?” And I was like, “Oh my god, that conversation is now happening between me and my wife.” I’m like, “Trust me, I think it can be good.” And she’s now fortunately seeing the first two episodes and she’s like, “Okay, that was much better than you described.” Which is a functioning metaphor, I think, for my life.

MZS: When did you hear you were going to get a season three, and why did they decide to do it?
Well, Matt, what was the day that you published that article that made a very compelling case for why there should be a third season of The Leftovers? Because two hours after that article went up I got the call.

MZS: Are you kidding me?
I’m not kidding you. Is it a coincidence, who knows?

MZS: I didn’t know about this!
Margaret Lyons, who was at Vulture at the time, wrote a piece maybe a couple days ahead of yours that was basically like, “The Leftovers season two was great and that should be all.” And when we read that, it made such a compelling argument, and Margaret’s such a great critic and writer about television that I was like, Oh man, she makes a very compelling case here. And then Matt’s piece came out and we got the pick up.

GE: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Kevin and Nora’s relationship and how you view it, because it definitely complicates in season three.
I feel like, ultimately, this is a little bit corny but I’ve never had any issues with corny. Not to oversimplify a very complicated show, but this is really just a love story between Kevin and Nora. That’s where we wanted to push our story chips — into the middle of the love table. And I think that they skipped all the important things that you need to do to be in a healthy relationship. They have chemistry, they have the thing that makes you fall in love with someone, but once you have those things, in order to actually stay in a lasting partnership, you have to basically expose some wounds and not be afraid to fight, and then also explore your own trauma, both the trauma that you suffered prior to getting together with this other person, and the trauma that you’re suffering as a result of being together with this other person. And Nora, this nuclear bomb went off in her emotional life. So it’s not as simple as, “Oh, this is a hot cop and I really like him and he’s cool and he goes running into burning buildings and saves his daughter and now he has a baby on the porch, let’s make a family together!” Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in that world? Unfortunately we don’t. And Nora and Kevin tend to avoid these more painful conversations about what it would take for them to trust one another and be in an intimate relationship. This final season basically wants to dramatize, “Here’s all the things that we’ve been feeling but haven’t said to each other and we’ve been scared to say them because it may mean detonating the relationship. We’re scared to have that fight because that fight is one we may never recover from.” So, at first, they’re kind of avoiding it. Then they’re directly confronting it. And then we’ll ultimately determine whether these two people even should be together.

GE: You mention they have this intense physical chemistry. I did notice this season that you see them being physical with each other more than they have before. They have this great kind of surface-level rapport.
Yeah, it’s the romance novel. At least it was our intention in the storytelling, that when you look at those scenes when they have sex, or they are kissing one another and being intimate, those scenes are always preceded by them starting to talk about the thing that they should be talking about, and just as it starts to get uncomfortable, they start having sex. Like, Let’s just do this instead. And even when they’re just being cute and prissy, you’re like, “Why is the camera lingering on Nora’s cast? What is under that thing?” It wouldn’t work for the show if it was just sex. There has to be a level of danger involved there, too. But danger is sexy, at least it is if it involves Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon.

MZS: So you know why things happen on the show, but you’re not sharing it with the audience. If the audience were to say, “Why did this happen, why did that happen,” you would say I can’t tell you?
You know, I’d try to find a more artful of saying “I can’t tell you.” And I wouldn’t say, “Well, what do you think?” which I feel is a frustrating cop-out. But I will say this: I believe the audience can tell when you don’t know. The storytelling itself is either confident or it’s not confident, you either know or you don’t know. And the audience can just sense it. We are animals with instinctive sensibilities about when we’re being lied to. Let’s take the point of Carlton [Cuse] and I saying until we were blue in the face [on Lost], “We have all the answers; all the answers are going to be satisfying to you, have faith in the process.” We wouldn’t have had to do that constantly if the storytelling was unwinding in a way that it felt like we knew everything as we were doing it. Unfortunately, when you’re doing 24 or 25 episodes of a broadcast drama a year, it’s almost impossible to focus too much on what’s next. And particularly with a show that was open-ended for the first 70 episodes, certainly roads were traveled that never should’ve been traveled in the first place, and they created consequence and debt. But there is no excuse if there’s only going to be three seasons and 28 episodes of the show, and you have two months in between seasons to gather the writers and talk about what your intention is, to not know the answer to those questions. And if you’re deciding not to answer them and not tell them, there’s a way to construct your story that doesn’t frustrate the audience in the process of watching it. At least, that’s the thinking. We’ll see what happens.

MZS: What you’re talking about, Damon, raises a question for me, which is, to what extent were you reflecting on your work on the Lost finale as you worked on this?

Lost is a huge part of my life. It was the most personal story that I’d ever told, prior to The Leftovers. It’s impossible to talk about Lost without talking about the ending of Lost, and that’s just what the pop-culture conversation is and I think that that’s fair. I understand I’ll be talking about it as long as I’m doing this for a living. As it pertains to the ending, my hope is that the conversation about The Leftovers is not dominated by how The Leftovers ended. It’s fair that that’s what happened with Lost because it was a different construct, it was a mystery construct. There is mystery in The Leftovers, but I don’t think there are twists or tricks or “oh my god, this character was a figment of someone else’s imagination or they were doing nonlinear storytelling without us realizing it.” It’s a fairly straightforward approach. Lost invited all those things, and therefore, live by the sword, die by the sword.

GE: There was one moment in this season where visually I was reminded of Lost. The way episode five opens on that submarine took me right back to the opener of season two of Lost, where we first meet Desmond. And I was curious if that was intentional.
I think there is a lot of intention and homage to Lost in the body of The Leftovers because it would’ve been a huge mistake to basically avoid it. They’re not meant to be cute little winks to, oh I want to refer back to my past work. But the reality is to essentially say we’re going to end the final season of The Leftovers in Australia without being cognitive of the fact that that’s where Lost began. Probably one of the most memorable episodes of Lost was its second episode, “Walkabout,” which involves John Locke and we’re actually going and exploring the Outback through another character who is basically looking for meaning and understanding in his life. It’s impossible to not have those conversations in the writers room. Almost all the writers have seen Lost and say like, “Okay, that thing exists, and what’s the line between homage slash wink” and just sort of wanting cutesiness or self-referential kind of fart-smelling, to use the South Park vernacular. And let’s try to stay on the right side of that line.

JC: You mentioned earlier your interest in exploring questions of faith, especially in this season — what looks like true belief to one person can very easily look like mental illness to somebody else. Now that The Leftovers is over with, is this something you expect yourself to continue exploring in other projects?
The honest answer is I don’t know. I definitely don’t want to retread familiar ground just because it feels familiar to me and therefore less exciting and potentially redundant for the audience. And although it’s slightly terrifying to move into territory that I’m less comfortable with, I feel like that’s the space in which I can learn. I think it will be impossible for me to do my next project and not talk about what’s happening in the world right now, because what’s happening in the world right now is crazier than anything I could ever pitch on The Leftovers. The experience that we had in our liberal enclave on the coast, that space of, “I’m going to go celebrate on the night of November 8th, we’re ordering pizzas, we’re having wine. We’re going to keep the White House!” And within 40 minutes people were weeping. Not crying, but weeping. And I was like, “Oh my god, this is The Leftovers!” The world just changed that fast. I don’t know how it’s possible to not write about that. It’s just too fascinating.

JC: In a way, like you just said, The Leftovers is exploring that idea. When something traumatic happens, how do you cope with it? When something is snatched away from you like that. Obviously, that’s not what your intent was, but psychologically you’re kind of watching it from that viewpoint at this point.
Just to piggyback on what you just said, it’s only traumatic for me. There’s a large portion of the country and the world that was celebrating at that moment. I mean, they were popping vodka in Russia for sure. So that idea of like, everybody is feeling like me, that was one of the things that Tom and I talked about on The Leftovers, which is, for some people the Departure is the greatest thing that ever happened because some asshole that was making their life miserable has just popped off out of existence. So we should be looking at that story, too. So I think the idea that I was living in a bubble, and now my bubble has burst and I’m less angry at the people who were in opposition to me, and more interested in how I came to a place of being so blind to the world as it really existed. I want to explore that idea. I don’t know how to, but, you know. Of course, my next show will be like “Farty Pants and the Dog.” It’s like a buddy-cop show and you’ll be like, “Where are all those granular themes you were talking about?” Well, they’re there, you just have to look hard.

Damon Lindelof on Why The Leftovers Is a Love Story