“I think that The Leftovers has carved out a space in the zeitgeist that’s much more culty, it’s a much smaller, impassioned audience,” Damon Lindelof says of the HBO series that has come off an acclaimed second season and is heading toward its third and final season. “And so, I don’t feel the pressure that say a Breaking Bad or a Game Of Thrones or a Lost or Walking Dead feels, when they’re ending seasons or series,” the showrunner adds of how his finale might be received.
Based on Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel of the same name about the fallout from the simultaneous departure of 2% of the world’s population, the Justin Theroux-starring show’s second season went way beyond the boundaries of the book. In the process, Season 2, which debuted October 4 for a 10-episode run, picked up praise galore. Called “an inspiring, unpredictable tale” by Peabody Awards jurors, the show picked up that prestigious prize last month, was on a number of Top 10 lists, snagged a WGA Award nomination for Episodic Drama, and a second Critic’s Choice TV Award with Carrie Coon taking home Best Actress in a Drama Series amid the series’ multiple noms. And as Emmy voting heads into its final week, The Leftovers yesterday snagged a Television Critics Association Award nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Drama.
Deep into production on the eight-episode Season 3 that was announced late last year, Lindelof chatted with me about how it’s all going to end on The Leftovers and how they got there. Comparing showrunning to parenting, the former Lost EP also talked about the important role that now former HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo played on The Leftovers and the decision to end things after three seasons. And, of course, we discussed Lost and the endurance of the award-winning ABC drama that he, J.J. Abrams and Jeffrey Lieber created and that Lindelof ran with Carlton Cuse.
DEADLINE: So, where are you with Season 3 of The Leftovers right now?
LINDELOF: We have shot the first two episodes in Texas and we are preparing to shoot the remainder of the season in Australia, starting this week. So that’s where we are production-wise. And writing-wise, we’ve written half the season and have broken the first couple episodes of the back half of the season in the process of writing those. And we’ll be in production through the end of September.
DEADLINE: And what are you going to do when Leftovers is all done?
LINDELOF: (laughs) That is an excellent question and I do not have the answer. A mistake that I’ve made in the past is that I start firing up the next project while I’m still finishing the one that I’m working on now, and I’ve really enjoyed being monogamous to The Leftovers. And that worked really well for me.
Like I said, we’re going to shoot the show through September and then I’m going to spend October and November editing the show. And at some point, around Thanksgiving or the holidays, I’ll be finished with it. And that’s when I’ll start to think about what’s next. But until then, I’m keeping my eyes on the proverbial prize.
DEADLINE: Season 1 obviously was patterned very closely on Tom Perrotta’s novel, with Tom deeply involved over the whole series as an EP. But for Season 2, you guys were without a blueprint and took The Leftovers world to whole new places – literally and figuratively. After all the acclaim the second season received, how did you plan out how to actually end the series?
LINDELOF: Well, we started with the very end. We eventually said, what do we want the last scene of the series to be, who’s in that scene and what’s happening in that scene, what do we want that scene to evoke emotionally? And then, on a storytelling level, what happens, what feels like finality in a show that has never been about resolving mystery and delivering conclusive endings, now that the show is actually going to end? And how do we want the audience to be feeling when it’s all over? So, those conversations started in a very abstract way and as they developed became much more coherent and sort of formed themselves into “OK, we know what that last scene is, now, how are we going to get there?”
So, we just planted a very firm flag in the ground of what the destination was going to be and I think that’s really well for us. Season 2, we had no map, but we drew it up before we got in our cars. So, Season 3, the show is ending and that’s infusing it with a certain degree of energy that’s different, perhaps, than the previous seasons.
DEADLINE: As Lost still displays for you even after all these years, there is the expectation of endings – as showrunner and as a writer, how do you think the end of The Leftovers will go over with the show’s viewers?
LINDELOF: I think that The Leftovers has carved out a space in the zeitgeist that’s much more culty, it’s a much smaller, impassioned audience. And so, I don’t feel the pressure that say a Breaking Bad or a Game Of Thrones or a Lost or Walking Dead feels, when they’re ending seasons or series.
I feel like, if you like The Leftovers, if you’re watching The Leftovers, at this point, my job is basically to be as authentic to the same show that I’ve been writing all along and not really stray from that. And hopefully the audience will dig it, but that’s something that you can’t predict. And it’s a waste of time and energy to lay up at night, wondering whether or not people are going to like it. I just have to make the people around me like it.
DEADLINE: Will that last scene of the last episode shock or comfort the show’s fans?
LINDELOF: Definitely not shock. As for comfort — well, that’s all relative.
DEADLINE: Now that you’re working on the second half of the final season, can you say the show went to where you wanted it to go?
LINDELOF: Yes, I think so, yes. I think that the show had a hard time starting. I think that the first season was analogous to just turning the key and the engine’s like, sputtering but it won’t turn over — it finally started, towards the end of the first season. And since that time, I feel like the drive has been fairly incredible. That said, we have only plotted the show one season at a time. And when we got to the end of the second season, it felt like we were much closer to the ending than we were to the beginning. And it never wanted to be a show that went on for many, many, many seasons. And three started to feel like it was a magic number.
DEADLINE: Season 2 certainly took things up a notch, on-screen and in the reception.
LINDELOF: Yes, the critical community certainly started to embrace the show over the second season and that was a huge part, I think, for Mike Lombardo, who always liked the show — it enabled him to confidently pick it up for another season. He called me last year and said, let’s just do a third season. And I was the one who said to him, I want the third season to be the last season. To Michael’s credit, in that very call, he was like, if that’s what you want to do, then that’s what we’re going to do. So, there is no third season without him and without his stewardship.
DEADLINE: What was Michael’s influence in shaping the show?
LINDELOF: Well, after he and I spoke about a third season, we gathered the writers’ room together and we worked for about six weeks, basically designing the entire season, on a storytelling level and character dynamics. That led to an epic two-hour pitch meeting that we had over at HBO, with Mike Lombardo. I think that he was, overall, very responsive to what we were going to do. But he gave a couple of very big notes. And I don’t mean big in terms of he was blowing stuff up, but he had an insight because he hadn’t been in that room for six weeks and identified some problem areas and more importantly, offered the solutions.
I’m not just saying this because we’re supposed to speak well of our bosses, but I really think that the course correction that he offered has paid off in hugely significant ways for the show. And so, my hope is that when he sees the third season that he feels like it’s a justifiable part of his legacy moving forward.
DEADLINE: A legacy that includes the very beginning of your time with HBO.
LINDELOF: Well, I think because they’re not making as many shows, there’s sort of an artisanal approach to the shows that they make at HBO. It’s a very unique space to have creative conversations on the level that I’ve never had, prior. A lot of trust, but the trust is earned through being challenged and then, hopefully, rising to that challenge. If not for the guidance of Mike Lombardo and Michael Ellenberg, who was running drama at the time for the majority of the first season, and Sue Naegle was there for the piloting process, the show would not have been picked up in the first place. Also, when something isn’t working, they’re able to articulate not only that it isn’t working but hopefully, in most cases, make suggestions to get it working again.
And that’s what Mike Lombardo did all throughout his tenure there. And then the only reason there is a third season of the show is because of Mike Lombardo. It’s not a secret that the show is…what’s the politic way of saying “ratings challenged?” or “there’s a small but passionate fan base.” These all sort of equate to the same thing and I live my life with my eyes wide open. We’re not taking all our delegates to the convention, if you know what I mean? I want to acknowledge that The Leftovers is never going to be a broad hit. And so, I took nothing for granted – ever.
DEADLINE: To that point, the “International Assassin” episode seemed to throw the whole notion of The Leftovers aside with Justin Theroux’s character going into the world of the undead and turning all Bond and Bourne. Were you worried it was a bridge too far?
LINDELOF: Well, I don’t think that we would have done it if we weren’t confident that it was going to work. I think when you approach something with a complete and utter level of confidence, people at least respect the confidence. It’s sort of like, wow that guy just belly flopped in the most painful way that I could ever imagine, but he really looked, when he was at the top of that diving board, like he thought that he could pull it off. And so, I think that the idea if you’re doubting yourself it actually ups your chance of failure.
That said, when I first started seeing dailies for “International Assassin” we got very excited about it in the room, and we wrote a script that HBO was really responsive to, despite its weirdness. But when I started getting dailies and Justin was locked in this kind of Jason Bourne fistfight in a hotel room, I was like, oh boy, what are people going to make of this? Are we going to be able to pull this off? So, it wasn’t necessarily worry as it was, I think that that moment that anyone has that they act on romantic impulse and then suddenly, you’re in the reality of it and you’re like, oh my god, I just proposed to this person.
DEADLINE: What were you proposing to – blockbusters?
LINDELOF: We were certainly down on our knees proposing to something. I’m not entirely sure what it was yet. But that I think that the other thing and particularly Tom Perrotta and Tom Spezialy, who came on in the second season, really opened my eyes to the idea that the show could also be funny. The Leftovers is never going to be a comedy and especially if you think about the first season, you go, like, no that show is not funny at all. But there were moments of real brevity and absurdity like in the “International Assassin” episode.
DEADLINE: Speaking of brevity – TBS just debuted a new comedy called Wrecked, which feels a lot like a sitcom spoof of a certain show that you, J.J. Abrams and Carlton Cuse worked on…
LINDELOF: Unfortunately, I have not seen it yet. I DVR’d it. I thought that the promos that I saw looked really funny and it’s immensely flattering, but I don’t think it’s a direct spoof of Lost, any more than Airplane! is a direct spoof of any particular disaster movie, it’s more of a genre thing.
DEADLINE: Damon, a plane crashes on an island with survivors trying to build a society – in context, the homage is pretty clear that’s this is playing off Gilligan’s Island.
LINDELOF: They’re obviously using that language and I’m really looking forward to checking it out, I think it’s great that it’s a comedy. And as I am not a luminary on the level of James Franco or Charlie Sheen, I’ll never get my Comedy Central roast. But it’ll probably be more fun to watch Wrecked than roast Lost, and I’m very curious to see what they did.
Still, I think the fact that anyone still cares about Lost is a blessing in and of itself and obviously it’s work that I’m incredibly proud of, with no buts. And it’s been off the air now for almost six years and the fact that it still exists in people’s consciousness, when there’s so much, not just television in general, but great television out there, is immensely flattering — in whatever form it takes. So, I’m just glad that people still care about Lost.
DEADLINE: Having been the co-showrunner on Lost with Carlton and now running The Leftovers, what has changed in the way you approach the gig now?
LINDELOF: I really feel that running a show is a lot like parenting — where the more you try to make your kid like you, the more you want your kid to be interested in what you’re interested in, the higher the chance that you’re pushing your kid away. The more that you listen to your kid and let your kid tell you what they want to be and then you start to participate and play the games that they want to play, or watch the cartoons that they want to watch, that’s much better for your relationship. And I think the same is true of writing, at least for me.
The more I collaborate and the less tightly I hold this stuff, the better it turns out. When I’m forcing it, when I’m chasing the fist-pump, when I’m engaging in my own ego or I’m saying, the world needs to know what Damon Lindelof needs to say about the state of the world, that’s going to end in catastrophic disaster. And every time that I’ve tried that it has not gone well. So, I’m trying something a little bit new now and I’m really liking the result.