Why The Leftovers’ ‘Sex on a Boat’ Episode Was So Expensive

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We’re on a boat! Photo: HBO

The Leftovers’ latest episode, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” is, let’s say, an eventful one. The credits have barely faded when a nuclear submarine is blown up by a very naked French sailor. Then a cargo flight takes Kevin’s disciples (plus his ex-wife, Laurie) from Texas to Tasmania, where a ferry hosting an orgy of lion worshippers proceeds to Melbourne. Finally, a man who calls himself God has a standoff with a terminally ill reverend before being eaten by a lion. If all that travel and sex and death and religion feels like a lot to take in, just try producing it.

The episode begins with that sailor’s slow-motion nude run through an elaborate CGI set — real nuclear subs being impossible to procure for a TV show. Other HBO properties have far more dazzling visual effects, but this episode wins where it really counts. “Game of Thrones has got nothing on us in terms of full frontal,” says creator Damon Lindelof. “We’ve got the most male dong on HBO.” The nudity on the boat was also very real. Extras were allowed to pick from a sheet of numbered sexual positions to simulate, and now have credits like “Vigorous Handjob Guy” on IMDB. (It’s unlikely they minded; many were recruited from Melbourne swingers’ clubs.)

Logistically, those were cakewalks compared to securing the ferry. The featured boat’s day job is to connect two beach towns at opposite ends of Port Phillips Bay, each one about a 90-minute drive from Melbourne. “The ferry was going broke,” says Eugene Kelly, the Leftovers producer in charge of the budget. “So the owner was smart enough to market it for events. He loved the idea” of using it in a show. (His contract stipulated that ferry scenes could only feature “modest nudity,” but never mind.) The only problem was that they couldn’t transport cast and crew all the way from Melbourne “because the ferry itself sucked up all the available money,” Kelly adds. “I mean, there was barely enough money to pay for the lion.” (Yes, Frasier was real, though making him attack God required some costly CGI.)

Kelly’s solution was to dock the ferry up in Melbourne’s massive port. But the city lights were too bright, so they decided to pilot the boat offshore for the scenes set out at sea. (The distant skyline still had to be digitally erased.) Then they found out there was no proper ferry dock in Melbourne. “Why would you spend all that money on a ferry,” Kelly says, “if you weren’t going to be able to shoot it pulling up to a dock?” So they built out a “dock” on a barge.

The other big line item was music. Lindelof insisted on dropping in a song about “Frasier the sensuous lion,” the true historical subject of the show’s fictional sex cult. “It sounds like we made it up but we didn’t,” says Lindelof. Back in the ’70s, “there was this flash-in-the-pan cultural nexus of excitement about this lion that got rescued from Tijuana when he was 91 years old — in lion years.” Frasier was brought to a hippie animal refuge in California whose lionesses had failed to procreate. He went on to sire 35 cubs in his dotage. “There was a song and a kitschy movie made about Frasier,” Lindelof says. They wound up licensing a disco version and a loungier cover. “They ended up being very expensive.”

Lindelof also used two Hebrew hymns meant for Yom Kippur — a very solemn occasion to reference over scenes of sex and blasphemy. The songs were acquired from the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, no questions asked — thank God. “Sometimes you have to give a description of the usage of the music to clear it,” say Lindelof, “and this is a religious service conducted by an Orthodox men’s choir. So I thought, ‘If they ask what we’re using this for, we are so fucked.’ If they’re like, ‘We’re okay with the orgy but then, you’re gonna hit God with an ax?!’ I just hope that one of them watches this episode and says, ‘Hey, that’s me! I’m the avinu malkeinu guy!”

By the end of the episode they were almost $70,000 over budget and something had to go. “We had temped in this Barry White song, and it would cost 40 grand,” says Lindelof. “It was the one thing that was nonessential to the storytelling, because I wasn’t changing any of those other things. We ended up finding something much cheaper. But it is a bummer.” Lindelof did manage to economize on the episode’s opening theme, having a French actor recite the nuke-launching sailor’s final prayer. Written by Leftovers writer Nick Cuse and translated into French, it concludes, “God, Let this missile fly straight and true/ Let it find the volcano nest/ And let the egg there be unhatched/ So that this unborn beast may be destroyed/ Before it rises to destroy the world.”

The Leftovers’ ‘Sex on a Boat’ Episode Was Very Expensive