Day is turning to night, fair weather to one of those early-spring squalls that make the savanna west of Melbourne, Australia, feel like Ireland with eucalyptus trees. We are in the last day of location shooting on the series finale of The Leftovers, sheltering in a 19th-century clapboard church while star Carrie Coon shivers outside in aging makeup and a $10,000 wig, genuine frustration fueling the anger she needs to play a lovelorn recluse calling a nun a “fucking liar.” Seated in front of a monitor, wearing a cap with the logo of a kangaroo and the words “Leftovers Final Season,” is Damon Lindelof, the nervous showrunner, whose job is to create, then second-guess, and finally cut and polish his profound and bizarre follow-up to Lost.
Lindelof doesn’t love being on set, even — or especially — when he’s there to say good-bye to his own critically beloved gospel of grief and faith. Conclusions are a difficult subject for him. Running Lost in his early 30s, the rookie creator spent six years shepherding the hit ABC show about time warps and smoke monsters through an era when fans, connected and emboldened by internet message boards, began demanding answers that older auteurs — say, Lindelof’s idol David Lynch — had never needed to reckon with. Namely, for Lost, what is this mysterious, magical island that the characters find themselves on? When its 2010 finale failed to produce answers, Lindelof’s rabid fan base turned on him. The groundbreaking series became a cautionary tale. Three years after the finale, Lindelof’s Twitter bio still read: “I’m one of the idiots behind ‘Lost.’ And no, I don’t understand it, either.” He quit tweeting on October 14, 2013 — the same date on which, in the pilot of his next show, 2 percent of the world’s population vanishes.
It was Tom Perrotta who gave Lindelof a shot at redemption with his novel The Leftovers. A literary realist, Perrotta used the supernatural mini-Rapture as a catalyst for psychological and social turmoil. In return, Lindelof gave Perrotta almost equal say in his writers’ room, and together they crashed the mysteries of existence into the hard limits of human relations. The author stayed on after season one exhausted his novel’s plot, forming a partnership that remains rare even in the most prestigious Zip Codes of prestige TV. Despite anemic ratings, The Leftovers became a darling of viewers who prize dark subjects, wild invention, and the kind of intricate, recursive storytelling that rewards patient fandom.
One of the premises of The Leftovers was that the disappearance of the 2 percent, known as the “Sudden Departure,” gave spiritual seekers a do-over, a chance to write new testaments. So it was for Lindelof; Perrotta’s humanism and HBO’s focus on quality over quantity allowed him to channel his obsessions into a show that was more pedant-resistant (because the mystery was secondary) and easier to control. The Leftovers played out over three short, distinct seasons, the last one comprising eight episodes developed over twice as many months. Lindelof spent much of that time worrying about the last episode, No. 28, along with the inevitable comparisons to Lost. “It’s all that pressure of saying, ‘Forget about your other 27 dives — we’ve thrown out the scores,’ ” says Lindelof. “The only dive that matters is the 28th.”
What follows is the complete story of that dive, or rather three separate dives: “You make a show three times,” episode director Mimi Leder told me on that stormy night. “You script it, film it, and then you make it a third time in the editing room.” For this story, I spoke with everyone who was in the writers’ room about the construction of the script; flew to Australia for a tense and emotional final week of shooting; and sat in with Lindelof as he built his final cut, reshaping his creation virtually frame by frame. Throughout, Lindelof was precise and obsessive. But the only thing he couldn’t control was what the audience would make of it.
HOW TO WRITE A SERIES FINALE
In the beginning was the whiteboard, and the first words written upon it were “Nora, Nora, Nora.” It was January 2016, a month after HBO’s announcement of a final season. Lindelof gathered his season-two writers to spitball ideas over two weeks of “pre-room” meetings. The site was a couch opposite the whiteboard in Lindelof’s tchotchke-stuffed office at Lantana, a production complex in Santa Monica.
The three Noras refer to Nora Durst, who lost her husband and both of her children in the Sudden Departure, and whom Carrie Coon plays with dissociated ferocity. “She’s the ground zero for the departure,” Lindelof explains, sitting on th
e same couch nine months after those early blue-sky meetings. Giving her closure on her grief “felt like the perfect conclusion to the entire opus.” Even before the “pre-room,” he and HBO had agreed that the central journey of the season, and perhaps the whole show, would be Nora’s. But when he wrote her name on the whiteboard, Lindelof wasn’t sure how her journey would actually end.
This is where it starts: The Leftovers’ first season follows police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) in the lead-up to the Sudden Departure’s third anniversary in Mapleton, a New York suburb proliferating with would-be prophets (Kevin’s psychotic father; Nora’s reverend brother, Matt) and nihilistic cults (like the silent, white-clad Guilty Remnant, for which Kevin’s wife, Laurie, left the family). After a dour ten episodes of visions, stonings, and flashbacks, during which Nora and Kevin become romantically entangled, the season ends in fires and riots. Kevin and Nora also find an infant on Kevin’s doorstep — she’s the daughter of a cult leader. They adopt her and name her Lily in season two, which is bigger, better, and weirder than the first: The Garvey-Durst family move to Miracle, Texas, a town where no one departed and messianic fervor boils over, especially after three teenage girls mysteriously disappear. Their reappearance as Guilty Remnant members sparks more fires and riots.
Oh, and Kevin dies twice — maybe — and ends up in some kind of afterlife where he must complete a mission to come back to the land of the living. (The first time he’s an international assassin and must kill a senator. The second time, he has to sing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.”) The stress of the Departure has hit Kevin in the form of bizarre visions, spirit-hauntings, and a subconscious death wish – to which he responds not with his father’s dead certainty but baffled ambivalence (along with experiments in self-asphyxiation). What he ultimately can’t decide is whether he’s a (possibly crazy) lone wolf or a family man.
For the final season, Lindelof started with only a few basic parameters. The action would move to Australia and take place on the cusp of the seventh anniversary of the original departure, when many people think the world might end. He and Perrotta had thrown around the idea that Kevin’s two returns from the dead might turn him into some kind of reluctant messiah for a group of believers, but beyond that Lindelof didn’t have much.
The Leftovers is in a way the inverse of Lost: The interesting part isn’t the mystery but how people live with it. Perrotta and Lindelof had toyed with some kind of apocalyptic ending, but even though The Leftovers begins with a cataclysmic unexplained event, the story hinges on the way humans respond to it; people are both the cause of and the solution to the post-departure chaos, so absolving them of their role via heaven-sent brimstone was off the table. In which case, how would a show obsessed with the End actually end? One possibility was to close with a man-made disaster. Both of the previous seasons had ended with social breakdowns. But they could also go the other way: The world doesn’t end, and instead the characters must resolve the true underlying themes (grief, love, faith) on a personal scale.
There was another thread of the story to resolve, too, the question of the 2 percent. Where had they gone, and would their loved ones — and the audience — ever get to find out? Whether there was an answer, avoiding the question entirely might have suggested it didn’t really matter — and to the characters, at least, it really does. Lindelof was pondering these dilemmas late one night when he channel-surfed his way to David Cronenberg’s The Fly, in which Jeff Goldblum’s character, Seth Brundle, is fused with a fly while testing a teleportation device.
Could something like that — but much less sci-fi — become the plot engine of Nora’s deliverance? “The most obvious story,” Lindelof says, “is she gets a lead on where her kids are.” Nora is already a fraud investigator for departure-benefits cases. She could pursue scientists offering to send her to wherever the departed ended up. The twist is that she comes to believe that the scientists’ machine isn’t a hoax, that it might actually send her to the Other Place. Nora’s journey could dovetail with a stab at answering the Ultimate Question: Where did the 2 percent go? Lindelof added “Brundlefly Vaporizer,” his nickname for Cronenberg’s portal, to the whiteboard. “It scared Perrotta a little,” he says, “and that excited me.”
Perrotta had said adamantly and publicly that it didn’t matter what happened to the vanished 2 percent, but he knew Lindelof was at least a little inclined to answer the Ultimate Question. One very Lost-ian idea the showrunner had clung to from the very first episode was the possible existence of a mirror world, where 98 percent of the population disappeared instead of 2 percent. While filming his pilot’s first scene, during which a baby disappears from a car seat, Lindelof asked director Peter Berg if they could shoot an alternate version, “where we stay on the baby and then we tilt over to the front seat and the mother is gone.” Berg asked why. “That might be the way to end the series,” Lindelof had said. They didn’t have time to film it.
But in that pre-room Lindelof revived the idea of showing the Other Place. “He made it so fucking compelling,” says Perrotta, “and everybody in the room is going, ‘Yeah!’ And I’m sitting there going, ‘No!’ ” Lindelof, comparing his writers’ room to 12 Angry Men, says that “Perrotta became Juror No. 8” — the lone dissenter who brings the room around. Perrotta gave a version of his Leftovers stump speech: “It was always just a given for me that there is this mystery, the same mystery of where do we go when we die, and the idea that there’s one authoritative answer seems palpably ridiculous to me.”
Writer Patrick Somerville brokered a very Leftovers compromise: Nora tells the story of her visit to the Other Place to someone in the finale, sometime in the future, over a cup of tea. “But,” Lindelof countered, “if she tells it, then we won’t know if it’s true!” Which, he realized in the middle of that sentence, is the perfect way to end the series: Give the audience an answer, but don’t say whether it’s true. And so they wrote a new phrase on that whiteboard: “Nora makes tea.”
Damon Lindelof’s Whiteboard
The decision to “let the mystery be,” as Iris DeMent sings over the finale’s opening credits, says much of what you need to know about Lindelof. He remains scarred by the backlash over Lost, but it didn’t stop him from ending The Leftovers with an ambiguity the size of the universe, one that flirts with breaking Perrotta’s implicit promise. “That all felt really delicious,” says Lindelof, “but I also kind of realized I was going to get crucified” for once again leaving the audience guessing. He had come around to the idea that it’s better to be memorable than cautious. “Twenty years from now, if people are still talking about The Leftovers in any context, even as a cautionary tale, that’s a huge accomplishment.”
The question of whom Nora would tell her story to was tabled for the real writers’ room. For the time being, they settled on the teenage version of Lily, Nora’s adopted daughter. Lily was a problem from the start — it’s not easy for a film crew to take a toddler to Australia — so the pre-room agreed to have Nora lose Lily to her birth mother, reinforcing her alienation. Lindelof referred to nagging problems thereafter as “a Lily.”
As January turned to February, Lindelof staffed up his writers’ room. He took a casual approach, inviting candidates for a conversation and seeing where it went. In the end, each writer brought his or her own particular set of skills: Lindelof was both the boss and the chief thrower of bombs, crazy ideas that Somerville calls “Damon grenades.” (“Laurie shoots herself!”) Perrotta was the critic with veto power. (“No other place!”) Tom Spezialy, an executive producer involved in all phases of production, was chief of staff and quality-control officer. Early each season, Reza Aslan, the religion scholar, came in to talk about Isaac’s sacrifice or Aboriginal songs. (He insisted Kevin was a shaman and had to die.) Somerville, also a respected fiction writer, was the conciliator, the literary bridge between Lindelof and Perrotta.
On most TV dramas, episodes are sketched out in meetings and then assigned to one or two writers, but the Leftovers writers worked out almost every beat in the room, sometimes down to precise dialogue. Then at night the writers had homework: Invent a wedding ritual incorporating an animal; bring in an idea for a meaningful tattoo. “Writing by committee” has a bad rap, but on Lindelof’s jury, “the more traditional ideas are the ones that end up dying because they’re divisive,” says Somerville. “You have to get into some weird shit to find the one that unifies everybody.”
Photographs (Above): Patrick McMullan (Lindelof, Aslan, Perrotta); Courtesy of the subjects (remaining)
In February, the writers congregated around a table at Lantana to begin blocking out the rest of the season. All eight episodes were reverse-engineered from “Nora makes tea.” From the very first episode, whose coda is a flash-forward to Nora’s last day, the writing process was an arrow aimed at the finale.
The final season opens with a preamble — a historically accurate Australian branch of the 19th-century Millerites, waiting for a thrice-predicted Rapture that never comes. Then we’re back in Miracle, two weeks before the seventh anniversary, which some residents believe might be the end of the world. (One interpretation of the Bible holds that after the Rapture of the faithful, there are seven years of tribulation followed by Armageddon.) End-times fever spreads as far as Australia, where the cast travels to become, more or less, fanatics. A Book of Kevin has been written about Kevin’s death-journeys by Matt and other “disciples,” who persuade Kevin to die once more; Kevin’s crazy father is already in the outback stealing Aboriginal songs to stop the coming flood; and finally and most importantly, Nora hears about a device that could zap her to the place where her family went (though the scientists admit they don’t know where that is; they might be corpses floating in space). Kept on a truck to evade authorities and currently in Australia, the device generates “LADR” (for Low-Amplitutde Denzinger Radiation), pronounced “ladder,” though it’s almost never referred to by name on the show. After Nora flies to Australia to meet the scientists, they reject her without explanation, which only makes her more determined to go through. Kevin starts having visions again, the couple have a huge, relationship-ending fight, and Nora leaves him to hunt down the scientists.
As the writers began writing the season, Nora’s companion for tea became obvious. Somerville remembers summarizing the first episode for HBO by explaining that the show was “a love story in reverse.” Kevin and Nora had been papering over profound unhappiness, pretending to know each other better than they did. “If you don’t do the emotional work,” says Somerville, “it’s going to catch up with you.” The finale had to be about that work, and the last conversation had to be between Kevin and Nora.
Working through the episodes, the writers also realized the season already had all the action it needed. For the finale, the world wouldn’t end with a whimper or a bang; it would go on. The season-two finale hinged on a fake bomb threat. This season they could double down by violating what Lindelof calls “Chekhov’s apocalypse.” Armageddon will come, but only for Kevin in his final death-world jaunt; on Earth, it just stops raining. The last line of the penultimate episode is spoken by Kevin Sr., up on a roof like the disappointed Millerites: “Now what?”
“This show is not about something happening,” Lindelof says. “It’s about the anticipation, and then the Great Disappointment” — the textbook name of the Millerites’ nonevent. “And if we resolve [the idea the world might be ending] in the penultimate episode, the audience will have a full week to deal with the idea that we still have more show. And what we are really interested in — the ‘now what?’ of it all. What generates apocalyptic thinking is that you don’t have to deal with the future.” The finale takes us ten years into that future.
The next few months went by in an episodic blur, with a long break in June so Lindelof could oversee production of the middle episodes in Australia. The biggest writing challenge was to find interesting ways (like an orgy on a ferry) to move every character toward his or her final moments, no loose ends allowed.
The writers met again in July to hash out details of the finale. But the first day or two of writing it were snagged, instead, on a character in plot purgatory. While meeting on episode six, Lindelof had dropped a Damon grenade: He sort of killed off Laurie. Some writers adamantly opposed her suicide; others thought it was time to sacrifice a character. “I didn’t see it as part of Laurie’s story,” says Haley Harris, a young writer who was driven to tears over the plot turn. Somerville and Carly Wray, another senior-level writer, were also against it. Then Nick Cuse, Lindelof’s ally in bomb-throwing, came up with the notion of scuba diving; he had a relative who had died of an embolism after a dive. A scuba-diving mishap, in which, say, Laurie cuts off the flow of oxygen from her scuba tank, could be a way of “camouflaging suicide,” relieving family members of the burden. Or, alternately, it could “push the debate onto the audience,” says Wray. But what it really did was push the question of Laurie’s fate into the last episode.
Several writers only agreed to the scuba scene on the guarantee that Laurie was actually alive. Others felt that her survival would amount to a cheap twist — “schmuck bait,” as Somerville called it. “By day two, morale was very low,” Lindelof remembers. “Also, I didn’t want to be in the room. It just felt like there was a weight there. I think it was separation anxiety. It’s the final episode.” Finally, he realized he had to break the logjam. He stepped into Perrotta’s office and said, “I think Laurie should still be alive.” Perrotta came around, and they went into Spezialy’s office. “And then,” says Lindelof, “the three of us went into the room united, and it was a tremendous relief, and that was the day that everything changed.”
13 WORKS THAT INFLUENCED THE LEFTOVERS FINALE
But for Lindelof, the weight of ending his series never really lifted, “and I made everybody suffer for it,” he says. “Especially when they would pitch something that made it seem like, ‘Are we in some sort of alternate space?’ I’d be like, ‘We’re not fucking doing that. No. Because I’m going to have to be the one who answers the questions.’ ”
Before she maybe-dies in episode six, Laurie helps Nora track down the scientists. At the beginning of the finale, Nora is sitting outside the LADR truck, her last moments before entering the machine that will take her … somewhere, or nowhere. Inside the truck, the scene is mostly dialogue-free. But there are plenty of script directions; Lindelof’s tend to be almost freestanding vignettes, complete with metaphor, rhythm, and profanity. “And so,” the LADR sequence reads, “she walks toward it. Slow and deliberate … but without hesitation … she walks the entire length. A bride coming down the aisle. A prisoner approaching the electric chair. Or just a woman. Ready to be fucking DONE with a place that reminds her how deeply sad she is.” Then, a page later, the mysterious moment where she maybe chickens out: “And she OPENS HER MOUTH, ALMOST AS IF SHE’S ABOUT TO SHOUT SOMETHING at the TOP OF HER AIR-STARVED LUNGS and WE — SMASH TO BLUE.”
Now what? How does Kevin find Nora, and what does he say to her? “There needed to be an organic stall that thematically made sense,” says Somerville. After Nora enters the LADR, the show jumps ten years. She is living alone in the Australian countryside when Kevin finds her. Somerville pitched Kevin telling her a lie — a neat foreshadowing of Nora’s own (made-up?) story at the end of the episode. “I had him introducing himself as, like, Bill Smith,” says Somerville, “and then Damon made it better: ‘No, he’s presenting as Kevin, but as a Kevin who hasn’t seen her since that moment in season one.” The school dance where they met. Later, Kevin will confess angrily that playing dumb was a desperate gambit, and that in fact he’d spent the last decade looking for her. Then she will make him tea and tell him where she’s been all this time.
Other scenes were worked out piecemeal: They wrote a goat into the wedding scene, as part of a made-up ritual in which guests unburden their sins onto the beast. Later he gets stuck in a fence and Nora wrestles to free him. There’s a scene in which she’s at home alone, processing Kevin’s return; she gets locked in the bathroom, and must break down the door, symbolizing her own breakthrough. Earlier, she bikes to a pay phone to call Laurie — who is alive! — demanding to know whether Laurie is the one who tipped Kevin off. “It’s my favorite kind of storytelling,” says Lindelof, “where you’re completely behind the story for 20 minutes and you catch up with it right around the time the emotion starts to kick in.” Between Laurie on the phone and Kevin and Nora talking, we also learn the fates of all the other characters. “There were many times over the course of the finale where I would say, ‘I do not want to spend the next 20 years of my life getting asked what happened to John Murphy.’ ”
This is how Damon Lindelof writes script directions.
Playing out Somerville’s reverse–love story meant sending Kevin and Nora on a date. “They’d skipped courtship,” Somerville says, “all those first steps and first dates,” and now Kevin’s lie allows them to start over and maybe fall in love for real. Nick Cuse suggested Kevin and Nora should go to a wedding together. “I was thinking about this time when I was in love with this girl I had dated, and I was devastated,” says Cuse. “I was in my parents’ kitchen and the wedding scene from Up in the Air was playing, when Vera Farmiga and George Clooney are dancing, and I had this feeling of broken-heartedness and weeping.” He realized how fraught other people’s weddings could be for a couple — how effective at surfacing buried emotions. Kevin invites Nora to a dance, and she arrives to find out it’s actually the wedding of two local townspeople.
Plotting out what happens after the wedding required what Lindelof calls “a very late night figuring out how Nora has shifted and she’s ready to tell the story.” Even though the story itself was sketched out months earlier in the pre-room, Lindelof actually sat down to write it while in Australia prepping for episode seven. By then, the room had reached a verdict on whether Nora’s story is true. “We have a unanimous feeling as to which one of those realities is real and we will never, ever, say, ‘This is what really happened,’ ” says Lindelof. “Kevin believes, or says he believes, the story; that’s the whole point of the series. That’s what religion is.”
HOW TO FILM A SERIES FINALE
“Why does God hate us?” Mimi Leder moans as the drizzle starts to thicken over the Australian gold-rush ghost town of Clunes, dampening the set of a large and motley wedding: golden lights strung low over a wooden platform in the middle of Fraser Street; 150 shivering extras in light tuxes and strapless dresses; an impassive white goat the size of a Great Dane, warmed by a Peruvian-style blanket. Leder watches from the dry warmth of “Video Village,” a bank of monitors and folding chairs behind a storefront window marked “Sunday Special, $25 Roast.”
A few hours ago, a hazy moon hung over the scene, but at three in the morning, brief cloudbursts force Margie Beattie, the first assistant director, to corral the extras in and out three times, shouting, “Safe hair!” In drier moments, a visual-effects specialist takes light measurements near a cage full of pigeons so he can make them rise majestically in postproduction. By the standards of HBO and even The Leftovers, it’s a laid-back scene, but in the context of this intimate finale, it feels Felliniesque — especially when Leder steals a line from the groom: “Bring out the fucking goat!”
From hay-bale sofas to washing-machine fire pits and golden lights that the groomsmen would have hung up themselves, no detail was too small for production designer John Paino and his team to sweat over. They aimed to manufacture a kind of “hipster ‘bogan’ wedding” (bogan being Australian slang for hillbilly). They also borrowed from the Australian culture of bachelors’ and spinsters’ balls, where singles in formalwear and cowboy boots dance surrounded by custom-designed “utes” (pickup trucks). The only element cut from Paino’s detailed sketch was the DJ on the back of a utility truck, nixed for poor sightlines. Paino didn’t mind: “The best thing you can do is have so much stuff there that it’s like a buffet for the director.”
Nora’s speech to Kevin over tea is the culmination of not only her grief pilgrimage but also their love story, and the wedding, that long-deferred first date conjured by the writers, is where they start rebuilding their connection. The power of their final scenes depends on their tense conversation here. Like the story Nora tells Kevin over tea, the setting of this reunion entailed months of planning and years of dreaming. Lindelof didn’t think of Australia for The Leftovers until Tom Spezialy joined the show in season two. Spezialy is obsessed with Australian auteur Peter Weir, whose Picnic at Hanging Rock, about vanished schoolgirls, inspired the plotline of season two’s faked departures.
While Lindelof was kicking off the writers’ room in February, producer Gene Kelly, who manages the budget, went on a location tour with Leder, Spezialy, and production designer John Paino. One stop on that tour, led by Australia’s film commission, was Clunes. Spezialy called Lindelof in L.A. and told him they’d found the area where Nora should end up. It had everything: a historic town with a real main street surrounded by isolated, open hills. Later, the producers found the perfect cottage for Nora there. Owned by an eccentric artist, it was hand-built with leaded windows, a slim concrete chimney, and walls of gray stone and milled eucalyptus. It was also “very cluttered and full of cats,” says Leder. After paying the owner to rent it, Leder and Paino oversaw a complete renovation—clear windows, a smaller kitchen counter, and a fake second bathroom.
WHERE THEY SHOT SEASON THREE
Meanwhile, Paino began researching the finale’s design. Some of his best ideas came from the location itself. The Australian crew told him about “bachelors and spinsters balls” — rowdy parties featuring outlandish formal getups and customized “utes,” or pickup trucks. (Think of a rave mashed up with a truck rally and a Mad Max fan convention.) Scouting outside Sydney, they had discovered a 100-year-old pigeon coop. It inspired the writers to have Nora breed pigeons in her new life. The writers even wrote the birds into the wedding, supposedly carrying guests’ messages out into the world (though they actually just returned to Nora).
Just as The Leftovers thrives on the push-pull of Lindelof’s mania and Perrotta’s groundedness, it lives in the space between the writers’ Talmudic precision and Mimi Leder’s scenic experimentation. Most TV shows rotate through a stable of directors, and so did this one, but Leder was first among equals. The Leftovers was wallowing in darkness through the middle of season one, visually and emotionally, until Leder was hired. She opened it up to contrast, humor, and hope. In his farewell speech on the set, Lindelof called her “our fearless leader, who came in and basically saved the show.”
For the pigeon coop, the set designers wanted to replicate the aesthetic of Nora’s house—quirky and handmade out of incongruous found parts. “Someone who’s handy made it out of scrap wood,” Paino imagines, “so it feels almost like it’s part of the house.” There’s even a separate birdcage stuck on to the top. “I was hoping that two birds would find their way up into that part,” says Paino, “but they never did on set.”
A strong director is especially essential on a series whose creator has zero interest in directing. “We would never leave,” Lindelof says, if he were running a set. “I’d need to have one perfect take, instead of realizing we’ll have all the options in the cutting room.” Leder, a veteran of TV and film (ER, Deep Impact), is decisive, direct, and calm. Her emotional range over my week on the set span from mild disappointment to a sort of ecstatic serenity.
“When she first came in,” says Justin Theroux, “there were crew members who were kind of like, ‘That’s not how we do things around here.’ She was like, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ She just basically grabbed the thing by the back of the neck and started directing the shit out of it.” Leder can push actors hard (“Do it again” is her constant, occasionally wearying refrain), but her tone is more persistent than aggressive.
At the Clunes wedding shoot, her persistence plays out for hours. “The problem is you have the luxury of too many hours tonight,” Theroux says after one too many takes of the dance. It’s a problem Leder loves to have. She even lavishes attention on Rupert — the goat. Leder had rejected a smaller, pre-trained goat, so Rupert had to be found and brought up to speed in a week. “The first day on set, he got worried about things,” says Cody Harris, an animal trainer who looks like Will Forte playing Crocodile Dundee. “And then he got good.”
“Lead the goat,” Leder says, instructing Chris Cuevas on the A-camera to follow Rupert with a handheld, wide-lens Steadicam. A longtime Leder collaborator, Cuevas is one of very few American Leftovers crew members to be flown over to Australia. After Cuevas shoots Rupert receiving guests’ Mardi Gras beads, Leder triumphantly yells “And … cut,” smiling beatifically. “This show is so much about subtext and symbolism,” she says. “You need to find ways of bringing that out.”
Of all the elements in this circus, Leder is most concerned with capturing Kevin and Nora’s tricky courtship. “It’s a really hard note to hit narratively,” she says. “It was kind of an easy thing to write, but it’s a much harder thing to play.” Most of Leder’s experiments attack that challenge. While shooting Nora’s emotional dance with Kevin, they try a take without any extras, so that it might look like the guests have disappeared. Soon Cuevas is circling the lovers on an empty platform, his shirttail held by an assistant keeping him clear of obstructions. Leder is delighted, “but who knows, maybe we won’t use any of it.” After that, a long, telescoping crane pulls up to the edge of the wedding, dangling a camera that stays close in on Nora’s face as she stomps off the dance floor, leaving Kevin receding behind. “This is fucking beautiful,” says Leder. “Damon will hate it,” she half-jokes. It might be too showy for his taste.
Lindelof, Spezialy, and Perrotta weren’t there for the wedding; they only fly in for the last week of filming, when Leder shoots the two most important scenes: the final conversation and Nora’s entrance into the LADR, which opens the episode.
The pressures of the wedding scene are trivial compared to “Nora makes tea.” That shoot is so predictably tense that I am not allowed on set. There isn’t much room in the cottage, but more important, the actors felt vulnerable. Lindelof meets me the next morning in the dining room of a golf resort a half-hour from Clunes, the closest place that could accommodate a film crew. He’d flown in from L.A. and gone directly to the set, but it isn’t just jet lag showing on his weary, stubbled face.
“Yesterday morning felt very quiet, very calm, very sad,” he says. “I was trying to put aside my expectations for the scene and just be there. But the prevailing emotional sentiment that started to push through the day was: How big of a deal is this ‘Do I believe her or not’ thing gonna be? If I could build a machine that could tell people how to think, it would essentially be that 50 percent of the people believe that what Nora is saying happened and 50 percent think she’s making this up, but all 100 percent say it doesn’t matter.”
The tension felt different for everyone that day. Leder reversed the order of the monologues: Nora’s show-closing conversation would be shot first, Kevin’s angry confrontation, in which he demands to know what happened to Nora, second. There were compelling technical reasons for this: It would be sunnier for the exterior scene, and shooting it sequentially would have forced a two-hour makeup break as opposed to 20 minutes. “The ideal situation would have been to shoot it the other way,” says Leder, “but it didn’t seem right to break up the most emotional, final scene into two days.”
THE LEFTOVERS ’ FOUR FAVORITE CAMERA TRICKS
Any show with a distinct sensibility has a lexicon of preferred camera styles, directions, and angles. The Leftovers is influenced by a combination of Mimi Leder’s eye; the tools and skills of her cameraman, Chris Cuevas; and Damon Lindelof’s desire to get inside a character’s head without becoming too “camera-aware.” Four of their favorite camera shots featured heavily in the finale:
THE HANDHELD STEADICAM Good for closely following a chase scene or getting extra-intimate during a close-up.
THE LONG-FOCUS LENS The center of attention is in focus, and everything else is blurred out and far away.
THE CRANE SHOT Hanging the camera off the end of a long, low crane that telescopes rapidly can make a character seem to recede or advance against the backdrop.
THE “DIRTY-OVER” Medium shots of talking faces over someone’s shoulder reinforce the connection between two characters.
Coon had been preparing for weeks. Trained in theater, she knew that “the only way to have freedom in the moment is to be really solid on the lines.” It helped that she’d been living with Nora for three years. “I have a lot of visual memory from working with those kids in season one,” she says, referring to the episode where Nora’s children disappear. “I’ve lived through a lot of her life, her more traumatic times.”
Coon had broken down the story into four tonal sections, as suggested by Lindelof’s script directions. It isn’t very long, but it ends the series, and it constitutes either the sincerest kind of lie — the lie we tell ourselves in order to live — or the most improbable and shocking truth.
“I didn’t change my mind,” Nora tells Kevin, “I went through.” She pauses. “I was in the parking lot. Naked, curled up like a baby,” as she’d been in the LADR. Eventually she met a woman who’d lost her entire family. “That’s when I understood. Over here, we lost some of them, but over there? They lost all of us.” She found her own family in mirror-Mapleton, complete with a new mother. Nora was “a ghost who had no place there.” So she found her way back — but not to Kevin. “Did I think about you? Did I want to call you,” she asks Kevin. Of course, but it was too late, and she thought he’d never believe her. “I believe you,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I? You’re here.”
After Coon’s second take, Lindelof turned to Perrotta and said, “I think I believe her.” At the hotel he tells me, “Let’s say you wrote something that you knew was not true, but then somebody else recites it and they believe it. Does that make it true?” He adds that he and Coon “have very purposefully avoided the subject” of whether or not Nora really went through.
Running through takes, Leder and Coon worked on modulating the performance, varying the moments where she burst into tears. “Carrie is a super-honest actor,” says Leder, “and she feels every moment to the core. Sometimes it’s a matter of pulling back.” According to Coon, “the thing Mimi always comes up to me with is, ‘That’s great. Now fight against it.’ ” She compared the required restraint to the trick of playing drunk. “Drunk people aren’t trying to be drunk. They’re trying to pretend they’re not drunk.”
How They Made Kevin and Nora Look Older (But Not Too Much Older)
Leder aimed the cameras only at Coon for the first set of takes; the next round captured Theroux’s reactions, forcing Coon to tell it all over again and Theroux to respond as if hearing it for the first (instead of fifth) time. Then, finally, the action moved to the backyard for Kevin’s confrontation. Theroux became increasingly annoyed with his own performance, and he second-guessed Leder’s reversal of the shoot. “It was just tough,” he tells me a few days later. “Fucking Carrie just crucified it so good, and then we were fighting the light at the end of the day. I got a bit stony on the speech. I was tired. The sun was setting. The pressure was on. I didn’t love that day.”
Lindelof says Theroux’s angst made his performance stronger. “Because Justin’s scene is pitched so high, I think the idea that we were losing the light actually helped [to play] a character frustrated and off-kilter.”
Fortunately, Theroux’s last scene, three days later, is literally in a warm bath of good feelings. On a Melbourne soundstage on the last day of filming, he shoots a holdover from episode seven: a flashback to Nora and Kevin chatting in a bath tub. “It was a very nice way to go out,” Theroux tells me just after wrapping the scene.
The second scene shot that day, the last to be filmed in the entire series, is one of the most pivotal — and expensive — of the episode: Nora entering the LADR. For its design, the show consulted with a physicist, who shared images of supercolliders and retro nuclear-fusion machines. They settled on a transparent globe and clear water as the event chamber where Nora would be irradiated. It cost $100,000 and appears onscreen for three minutes.
Seeing it in person for the first time on set, Lindelof congratulates Paino on “your masterpiece. It’s like seeing photographs of the Mona Lisa—and then you have to actually step into the Louvre.”
The “Louvre” is an ersatz truck, a big box parked in the middle of an enormous soundstage. The inside walls are lined with orange spools strung with wires. At the far end is an acrylic bathysphere with a hatch on one side. There is an opening at the top for Coon’s comfort and safety, which could be erased in postproduction. Inch-wide holes at the bottom can shoot water in “as fast as you want,” says a crew member, “though it might rip her skin off.”
Lindelof and Perrotta take turns posing inside the globe while Theroux takes pictures. “Don’t Insta this!” Lindelof yells. “Spoiler alert! It’s not a sci-fi show, man!” He seems more worried about having his finale misinterpreted than spoiled. Shortly after he arrives, they turn off the eerie blue underlighting. “You just know sci-fi when you see it,” Lindelof explains. “Tom wrote a novel with a supernatural premise, but there’s a way to make this set look like Space Mountain and there’s a way to make it look like it’s the Large Hadron Collider”—if the particle accelerator were installed in a truck to evade authorities. “Once you put Carrie Coon in there, I think you’ll forget all the trappings.”
That’s partly because Coon is going to be naked. “I felt it was very important to show her completely nude, frontally,” says Leder, “as a little girl standing there completely vulnerable in a full wide shot.” The soundstage is superheated for Coon’s comfort (and no one else’s). Before disrobing, Coon, who is out of her older-age makeup, reads off Nora’s “testimonial” — the video each LADR entrant leaves behind — dispatching it in three takes. “Jesus, that was fucking great,” says Leder. “I don’t know what to say to her.” From Coon’s point of view, Nora’s testimonial is evidence that she’s willing to go through. “On some level, it doesn’t matter to her if it’s real,” she says. “All that matters is that she can choose it, and if that means choosing suicide, so be it.”
Video Village is closed off with scaffolding and black curtains, and when Beattie shouts, “We are a closed set!” all nonessential crew are shuttled out to the catering area, where a gelato truck awaits. I am shuttled out too, but given a headset to listen in and allowed back in between takes. The sequence, mostly wordless, is more emotional in some ways than the closing conversation, and just as important to the viewer’s idea of what happens after the “SMASH TO BLUE.” But it makes for a fussy shoot. Coon has to spend 20 minutes drying off after each take. Every time she closes the hatch the action has to stop for 30 seconds while technicians rivet the door shut. “That scene in the tub with Kevin and Nora, I was getting really choked up because it was the last time these two actors are working together,” says Lindelof. “But this is just, like, people wiping down plastic.”
Inside the truck itself, it is just Coon and Chris Cuevas. “Carrie, I’m going to be physically closer when you first step in,” he says.
“Can’t wait!” she says, joking but edgy. “Just watch it or you’re gonna get some merkin in your teeth.”
When Coon emerges from a set of takes in a robe, Lindelof tells her, “Looking good.”
“Great,” Coon says with a smirk.
“I mean the way you’re playing it!” he adds quickly. “It’s like you’re seeing it for the first time.”
Leder is ready to try again: “They say ‘Happy to go’ instead of ‘Ready’ in Australia, right?”
“I’m not happy,” says Coon, “but I’m ready to go.”
Before they actually run the water through, Beattie tells Coon what to do if she panics in the machine. Simultaneously, Lindelof talks to me about religion’s universal death wish: “A lot of people who take a religious journey start from a place of complete and utter cynicism, and for people who find belief systems later in life, that’s really interesting—”
“So I’ll just let you know: Up here is open. So at any point that it’s uncomfortable you can stand up—”
“And all you really need is the right incentive, and the incentive of Christianity is the same incentive that the LADR offers, which is, you get to be with the people you love again. Judaism never stood a chance.”
“—And there’ll be someone right there and I’ll get you on the radio—”
“You’re gonna see all the people that you loved and lost, you’re gonna be pain-free, and you’re gonna be with them for an eternity. Who doesn’t want to get on that train?”
Leder and Coon try Nora’s ambiguous final shot a couple of different ways. As she turns up for air, will she be gasping for a final breath, or splashing, or yelling something? “Our discussions were: Let’s do it as if you are not going out — at least up until the very last second,” Leder tells me later. “And then I did have her do takes where she does yell something, just to get that first syllable.”
Coon emerges from her final takes looking very energetic for two in the morning. We are minutes away from last good-byes. She takes a philosophical approach to the sequence. “If people are moved by it, they’re having whatever experience they want to have, and they’re going to believe Nora or they’re not, and it’s going to reveal so much about them and nothing about me,” she says. Perrotta adds that they didn’t have to figure it out just yet. “She’s trying to see which note is the right one. She’s definitely given us both versions to use” — cold feet and suicidal resolve — “and we’ll see in the editing room which one makes sense.”
HOW TO EDIT A SERIES FINALE
“So how do I get into Nora’s head,” asks Lindelof, “and give the audience a more emotional experience?” Nearly three months after wrapping in Melbourne, we’re in the Lantana office of the episode’s editor, Henk Van Eeghen, a tall Dutch man who, in one of the many inside jokes on the show, lent his name to the inventor of the device Nora is approaching on a large screen. Van Eeghen is the one behind the console who executes all the edits for Lindelof, but he also had first crack at the footage coming in from Australia. Two months ago he made an initial editor’s cut, lining up the shots into a long approximation of a show. A few weeks after that, Leder submitted her director’s cut, making more aesthetic choices and temping music. And finally it came to Lindelof, currently about halfway into the two weeks that it will take him to change it slightly scene-by-scene and radically in its entirety.
At the moment, Lindelof is showing Spezialy the changes he’s already made to the LADR scene. (Over two days I will see him edit about a third of the 72-minute finale.) Spezialy is here to offer a last note or two, which Lindelof always takes; he likes to say “Speez Columbo’d us” when the producer catches a last-minute flub. First, we watch the director’s cut, a somber and swelling affair. Leder scored Nora’s walk to portentous atonal music, heavy on shots of the machine. It flirts with tropes Lindelof hopes to avoid. He wants to ground the scene more in lived reality, rather than some sci-fi genre space. “This is just straight up Nora is walking into this thing. She’s scared and it’s scientifically overwhelming, but what is she thinking?”
Lindelof began by adding a shot on Nora’s feet, “making it more of a procession.” He swapped in a wider take of the full frontal, so Nora looks smaller, “less physically naked and more emotionally naked.” More strikingly, the scene is now “dry” — no music at all. But a few steps in there’s a distant shout, which I mistake for children playing outside. It’s actually an aural flashback to the chaotic season-one vignette right before Nora’s family disappeared. A boy chants, “I want food!” Nora says “Goddammit!” A cell phone buzzes. A quick flash of the kids appears before we cut back to her walk. Then there are the terrifying ticks of the machine, the fluid rushing up and, finally, Coon opens her mouth and starts to shout before the scene cuts. The final gasp is evidence that she chickened out; the flashes of memory are evidence she is determined to go through.
Lindelof’s cut is powerful, but a little disorienting. Spezialy praises the sound design—“It keeps us out of a familiar genre language. My only thought,” he adds, Columbo-like, “is my brain got confused about what was happening in the room and what was remembrance.” So they add a few more visual flashbacks. “If I had my druthers,” Lindelof says, “there would be no picture [flashes] at all, just sound. Ninety percent of the audience would say ‘What is that?’ And 10 percent would say, ‘I love how understated it is.’ But you have to make the show for 100 percent of the people watching it.”
Like an airplane passenger attaching his own oxygen mask first, Lindelof has to please himself before entertaining others. Typically, he and Van Eeghen will watch a whole scene through, have a quick discussion, test new music if need be, and then dive in. About half the time, they go take-by-take, and if something feels off, Lindelof will say, “Line up the alts, Henk.” Van Eeghen then brings up every workable shot and they narrow it down like an optician: “Better or worse? Better or worse?” Some showrunners find this too tedious. “There are a lot of people in my position who don’t like to be in the room; they’ll give notes and leave,” Lindelof says. “I love this process. It’s painstaking … It’s bird by bird: ‘I don’t know how to fix this episode, but let’s make this scene great,’ or ‘I don’t know how to fix this scene, so let’s make this line great.’”
Connecting the viewer to Nora is one of Lindelof’s editing imperatives. For one scene, he digs through discarded takes in search of more and longer eye contact, landing on one in which Coon opens her eyes after Leder yells “Cut.” “Get in there man, get into those eyes,” he tells Van Eeghen. (An editor can “push in” a shot up to 40 percent.) Even in the beautiful wedding sequence, Lindelof always favors Kevin and Nora over their picturesque surroundings—including Rupert. Not to say he doesn’t love the goat. “Rupert’s looking straight into my soul right now, Holy shit!” he says over a shot that makes the final cut. (He texts it to Theroux as a meme: “I MISS YOU … KEVIN GAHAHAHAHAHAHRVY.”) But the handheld wide-lens shot on Rupert that Leder used is scrapped. “I hate any time I’m aware of the camera,” he says.
Another imperative is to lighten the tone. Earlier, Lindelof decided to “work against picture” by dropping in Billie Holiday’s “The Man I Love” for the scene when Nora bikes to the wedding. “Billie is telling the audience, ‘This is a love story.’” Now, Lindelof tries a second Holiday song, “Back in Your Own Backyard,” for a later scene of Nora locking all the windows. “It’s manipulative but self-aware,” says Spezialy, “and that’s what I like about it.” But Lindelof isn’t ready to settle. “My concern about using the Billie Holiday again is, ‘Now you have to use it three times.’”
Lindelof’s “rule of three” is one of several music commandments. Another one is to play a good song through and see what happens. “I don’t like making edits in music unless it’s absolutely, totally necessary,” he says. “I’d rather cut the picture to the music than the music to the picture.” As “Backyard” plays through, he lights up when the lyric “through your windowpane” lines up with Nora locking the kitchen window. The song goes in. And yes, he’ll find a third place for Billie Holiday.
The wedding sequence, 15 minutes long, involves all his editing imperatives—which he summarizes as “tone, transition, music, pace.” For Nora’s entrance to the wedding, he hunts through a list of 300 songs compiled by his music supervisor Liza Richardson, and finds Robin Trower’s “I’m Out to Get You.” The next wedding song is Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’s “New Year’s Resolution.” Redding is a particular favorite of both Lindelof and Kevin Garvey. They thought about him for the opening theme in season two—but Otis is expensive. It’s easy to get attached to songs that won’t clear. “You get tempitis,” says Lindelof. He wants to try a second Redding song, “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” over Kevin and Nora’s emotional dance, Back in Clunes they shot it to Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” but tempitis couldn’t overcome the fact that Mr. Robot’s finale used “Tonight” five days after the Clunes shoot. The opening line of the Redding song, “I’ve got dreams,” plays on Nora’s face as Kevin gives her his hand. “Oh, Jesus,” says Lindelof, shivering slightly, before letting it play through. “Okay that’ll work! That’s amazing. Oomph.” He cuts their dance to Otis’s bridge, so that the lyrics “bad dreams” play on Kevin’s face, “sweet dreams” on Nora’s, and so on, as the couple slow-dances.
A couple of seconds of Leder’s experiment with the empty dance floor make it in, but only because they were the best takes. Lindelof does keep the crane shot Leder joked about him hating; he actually loves the way Kevin recedes as Nora walks. “He’s like, ‘I just did my John Cusack moment and fucking put my boom box over my head and it didn’t work.’ So he’s at a loss. That’s what that shot is telling us.”
During the slow dance, we could hear through the back wall the shoot-’em-up action of episode seven. In neighboring offices, editors are working on episodes further along in the production cycle, with Lindelof occasionally popping in. Visual effects are being tweaked for episode five; Lindelof has a fake-looking light taken out of the nuclear submarine. Effects on the show almost always aim to enhance what was already there—rain or sun or existing animals. Rupert was too still during a sequence when he’s supposed to be fighting to free himself from a fence; his angry bleats and head jerks will be done in post. There are tricks on The Leftovers, but they mimic reality.
FIVE THINGS LINDELOF TWEAKED IN THE EDITING ROOM
Two days later, after I left, Lindelof tackled “Nora makes tea.” At first viewing, he had found Leder’s cut very “pausy,” with lines that felt overwritten. He wanted to trim the whole thing by a minute or two. But once he dug in, it became slightly longer, without a single line changed or cut. Instead, he attacked issue No. 1: what the audience thinks is going on. Nora, in his opinion, was getting too emotional too fast, and too many close-ups on her face against the white sky, while beautiful and suggestive, put distance between her and Kevin (and felt a little 2001 to boot).
In Leder’s cut, Nora starts tearing up even before she starts talking about her children. In Lindelof’s, she becomes visibly emotional only when talking about her relationship with Kevin, and much of her speech is seen over Kevin’s shoulder, tethering the couple. Lindelof also delayed the start of composer Max Richter’s score, one of a handful of themes that define The Leftovers, until almost the very end. He added another half-second flashback, this time to Nora’s last LADR moment.
Even though HBO had made the rare gesture of promising no notes on the finale, there were still weeks of postproduction—small-group screenings to tweak light and sound, add effects. One of those is a “music spot” a week after Lindelof finishes his edit. Richter Skypes into a meeting in Van Eeghen’s office; on the couch are Lindelof, Spezialy, Richardson, and music editor Amber Funk. Most of the crew are seeing the finale for the first time. After it ends, there is a moment of reverent silence before Lindelof begins explaining what’s foremost on his mind, Nora’s tale. “She’s obviously getting affected by her story, but it’s very controlled,” he says. “From my Judaic perspective, it’s a very Waspy iteration of the scene. We’re not playing to the rafters, but I feel like you really lean in and hang on to every word.”
Does the dryness (musical and emotional) make Nora’s story more or less believable? Lindelof doesn’t ask the question that way. He simply waits until Richter finishes praising the finale and asks, “Do you believe her?”
“I completely believe her,” Richter says. “Goddamn it!” says Lindelof, half-joking. “Any moisture in the eyes whatsoever?” “A good amount of moisture,” Richter reports. “It must be the connection,” Lindelof says. “It got lost in the darkness of your turtleneck.”
Richardson tells Lindelof that two of the temped songs will have to go, including the first Otis number. She’ll find replacements, but the good news is they can keep his favorites, “I’m Out to Get You” and “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.” “Thank God,” says Lindelof. He threatened to bankroll the second one himself if he had to.
The prospect of losing songs feels jarring even to me, who has zero creative investment. Tempitis is contagious. Watching clever jokes lopped off or gorgeous shots casually discarded or even the showrunner’s pet songs killed—and this on a show lucky enough to make it to three seasons on low ratings—is a painful experience. It’s hard to watch people lose control over their favorite things, to see great ideas die unseen. But ultimately control is an illusion, because there’s only one person who decides what a show really means, and that’s the viewer.
“What do you think of the episode,” Lindelof asks Richardson. “Do you believe her?”
“Yeah,” she says.
“Shouldn’t I? Obviously in real life I don’t believe it, but I believed her.”
“Okay, okay,” says Lindelof.
“What’s the answer?” she asks.
“There is no answer. I’m just curious.”
“I feel very resolved. I’m glad you didn’t leave me hanging.”
“And now you know where everybody went,” says Lindelof.
It was an irony as satisfying as anything in the show: Lindelof had summoned up the courage to set aside the burden of Lost and craft yet another deliberately ambiguous series finale—only to discover that almost no one thought it was ambiguous at all. And that, he tells me, is fine with him. Or anyway, it has to be. “My own precious artistic intentions aside, whether Nora is telling the truth may not be up to me anymore,” he says. “It’s interesting to imagine that whoever’s watching this in June is just going to take it at face value, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
Design and Development: Jay Guillermo, Terri Neal, Ashley Wu and Jeni Zhen