Damon Lindelof on ‘The Leftovers’ Finale, Ambiguity, TV Criticism, and What’s Next

     June 9, 2017

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Damon Lindelof’s journey to (and through) The Leftovers is a fascinating one, but one can’t help but think the experiences along the way fed into the brilliance and ambition of the HBO drama. After having worked on Crossing Jordan, Lindelof was paired with J.J. Abrams to create this crazy new TV series called Lost. Abrams left soon after the pilot to direct Mission: Impossible III, and Lindelof carried out the run of Lost alongside co-showrunner Carlton Cuse. That series came to a divisive (and, naysayers be damned, satisfying) end, and after a break Lindelof lent his talents to feature films ranging from Star Trek Into Darkness to Prometheus to Tomorrowland.

But soon Lindelof felt that itch to return to TV, and he did, but with something entirely different from Lost. From the get-go, the HBO adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers was decidedly not a plot-focused series. The big story device that was the “in”—the Sudden Departure—was something Lindelof and Perrotta both said would probably never be answered. This was a show about people, broken people, struggling to connect, to live, to survive in a world that had gone topsy-turvy in an instant.

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Image via HBO

Over the course of three seasons, Lindelof, his writing team, and directing producer Mimi Leder carefully crafted what became one of the best shows in TV history. A wholly unique, smart, ambitious drama that each week forced audiences to give themselves over to the emotions of these characters. The show came to a conclusion this past Sunday with a brilliant and surprising series finale that brought the story of Kevin and Nora to an emotional conclusion while also potentially offering up some practical answer for where all of The Departed went.

A couple of days after the finale aired, I was able to hop on the phone with Lindelof for an extensive conversation about all things Leftovers. We discussed how he and the writers came up with that final scene, and the ambiguity of the finale (and the surprise that many don’t find it ambiguous). We also talked about the final season as a whole, including the origin story of “The Most Powerful Man in the World (And His Identical Twin Brother)”, how the standout Laurie episode came about, and his reaction to the deeply personal writing the show has inspired from the critical community—specifically this incredible, crushing piece by Variety editor Maureen Ryan. As a fan of Lindelof’s work I also took the opportunity to ask about his reaction to Alien: Covenant and looking back on Tomorrowland, as well as what he’d like to do next—which most likely won’t be a blockbuster feature.

It’s a wide-ranging interview and Lindelof was more than gracious with his time, so if you’re a fan of his work, The Leftovers, or just talented writers/showrunners in general, I hope you’ll find this interview insightful. Check it out below.

So the finale aired Sunday. The response seems to be overwhelmingly positive. How are you feeling?

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Image via HBO

DAMON LINDELOF: I’m feeling probably more calm and sanguine about it than waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is sort of my default position. I’ve been letting it kind of trickle in—certainly there was the temptation to do the deep dive into ‘What did everybody think?’ on Sunday night. Fortunately I was distracted, we had a screening here in L.A. and then Jimmy Kimmel did a Q&A with all of us afterwards then some of us went to dinner together and by the time I got home it was so late and I was exhausted, and I was like, ‘If I go down the rabbit hole I’ll never come out.’ So I woke up Monday morning and I had lots of nice emails and texts from friends and people that I loved and kind of started there. The writers and I have kind of been communicating with one another, and they sent me some nice pieces that the critical community was saying so I feel like it’s all been curated in a kind of nice and safe way. I’m really grateful to not be on Twitter because you don’t have to look too hard and for too long to find someone with the alternate take, but it’s been such an overwhelmingly wonderful experience that I kind of don’t know what to do with it all. It’s overwhelming and it’s a bit much. On Monday night I sat down and had a two-hour conversation with my wife kind of about all my feelings about everything that was happening, and that’s probably the best feeling I’ve had in a long time because it allowed me to connect with the human that I love the most. I’m trying to just keep it as simple as possible and enjoy it because things like this don’t happen often in this business. I’m gonna take it at face value for now.

Absolutely. Well let me say congrats—I absolutely loved the ending and it blew me away.

LINDELOF: Oh thanks man. Thank you.

I know you’ve already a lot of interviews but I do want to talk about that ending. What’s the origin story of that final conversation between Nora and Kevin? How and when did you decide you were going to offer up a plausible answer for where they went wrapped in this very character-intrinsic conversation?

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Image via HBO

LINDELOF: We gathered the writers—once we found out that there was gonna be a third season, we only knew a couple things about this season before we started the deep dive into breaking it. The first thing that we knew was that we owed a consequence for Kevin dying and coming back to life again. When you do something like that you don’t want it to feel like there isn’t gonna be—an unintended consequence for it is like, ‘Oh thank God they’re alive again’, it’s like no. What’s that gonna be? We had the inklings of this kind of Life of Brian, reluctant Messiah construct. So we liked this idea of The Book of Kevin, and then the other thing that was up on the white board was just the word ‘Nora. Nora. Nora.’ I kind of felt like Season 2 really focused a lot on Kevin’s journey, and I sort of felt like Nora Durst has the longest road to travel towards some level of healing and internal and personal salvation, and I want to go down that road because she lost so much. I had this inkling of an idea for the latter—what if there was a device, a story device but also a literal device, that Nora could get into that she was told would basically reunite her with her children. Is there any way that we could get a character who was a skeptic and destroyer of all things bullshitty to actually believe in that thing enough to get into it? Or does she get into it because nothing else matters? Then it became obvious to us right out of the gate that if Nora is going to actually going to get into a device like that she can’t be with Kevin anymore, and Lilly has to be out of the equation as well. So we had to kind of strip away all of her most important relationships, or she has to give them in order for her to get in it. So that was the math that we were basically faced with, and then the big question is if she gets in this thing, then what? What happens? Does it work? Does it not work? Does it kill her? Does she change her mind?

All of these conversations were happening in the first two weeks of January before we had even hired the other half of the writers room, this was just the sort of holdovers from Season 2. We sort of said, ‘Well, whether or not it actually does happen, let’s talk about what if this machine works? Where did the 2% go?’ It was the first time really in the life of the show that we had had that conversation as writers, although I had had this idea when we were shooting the pilot. Pete Berg was directing the scene where the baby disappears out of the back of the car, the scene that basically starts the series, and I said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be interesting if we got one take where we held on the baby and then the mom in the front seat is talking on her cell phone and suddenly we don’t hear anything, and then the camera moves off the crying baby to the front seat and the mom is gone. That would be sort of an interesting way to basically get across the idea that some kind of flip happened, that in our world we lost 2% of the population but from the baby’s perspective 90% of the world was gone.’ And Pete said, ‘We don’t have time to get that shot, we’re losing the light.’ And I was like, ‘Oh okay,’ but I kind of buried it away as at least my own personal potential explanation for what happened to the 2% even though we would probably never ever reveal it.

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Image via HBO

But once we were confronted with this idea of the LADR and Nora getting inside the LADR, it forced us to sort of revisit that idea and we kind of riffed out the broad mechanics of what Carrie ended up saying in the finale, which were ‘Here’s what that place would look like’ and she would have to go on an almost Odyssean journey in order to get back to her family again, but what experience have they been having for the past seven or eight years, however long it takes Nora in that other space to find them. Have they gotten to a place where they’re OK? What if Nora basically saw them OK? Would she want to come in and disrupt that or would she basically realize that she didn’t belong there, that whatever universal construct had basically separated us in the first place, maybe she basically gave herself over to that and just seeing them was enough to realize that she should come back to the world that she had been sorted into. That felt like it was a really interesting idea too. So we had that story before we even started writing the third season at all, certainly breaking the premiere episode, and we knew that we were going towards it. We wondered who she should be telling that story to, and we knew it was gonna be an older version of Nora because this journey would take a very long time and she was in some degree of self-imposed exile. We liked this idea that Nora was in the Guilty Remnant—although the Guilty Remnant no longer existed, she was behaving like the GR, she wasn’t talking much, she was smoking cigarettes, she was in some state of sort of existential despair and separation. If the pilot basically showed Kevin showing up at the Guilty Remnant house and trying to get Laurie to rejoin humanity and failing, maybe we would repeat that idea in the series finale with Nora but he would be successful. They would reboot and restart each other’s universe.

We all liked that construct very much, so the idea that Nora would be telling that story to anyone other than Kevin seemed absurd, and that’s when it became kind of apparent to us that—I think it’s sort of reductive to say that The Leftovers is just a love story, but the love story was a big part of it and if the show was asking could you reconnect with other people in a world where this thing could happen again at any instant? Even knowing that it would destroy you, could you be vulnerable and allow yourself to feel and care for someone knowing that they could leave you in an instant? Oh fuck it, why not? It’s worth it, even though there’s potential pain at the end of it. How better to articulate that idea than between Kevin and Nora, who have always had this incredible chemistry between the two of them—that was in Perrotta’s book and it was something that we wanted to return to for the final season.

I find the ambiguity of the finale fascinating. I watched it on a screener a few days before air and it didn’t cross my mind that Nora might be lying. I tried to unpack why that was, why I didn’t think of it, and aside from the fact that Carrie Coon is a god among men— 

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Image via HBO

LINDELOF: Agreed.

I feel like I just can’t bring myself to believe that in this fragile, sincere moment she’s not sharing a uniquely and totally honest conversation with Kevin. The fact that this moment could be a lie was just too crushing to me to consider.

LINDELOF: I’m right there with you. This is both the upside and the downside of living in the culture that we’re in now where the watchers of a television show can basically kind of crowdsource what their belief system is, and they can make cogent arguments on either side of it. But I think that that idea of returning to the you that just saw it, that was not really influenced by what everybody else was thinking, that’s the feeling that I was going for. It bums me out a little bit that some people are gonna watch the finale not necessarily being spoiled but being told that there is some sort of subjective possibility that it’s true or it’s not true. I had the unique opportunity—we were in New York and we did a screening of the finale on Thursday of last week, and everybody just watched it and it was moderated by Matt Seitz the chief critic for Vulture, and the first question that he asked us on the panel was, ‘Why didn’t you show Nora’s journey?’ He wasn’t asking it like, ‘I’m not sure I believe her,’ he treated it like an artistic choice that could’ve been made, and then Perrotta was like, ‘Well that depends on whether or not it was true.’ We polled the audience and basically said show of hands how many people believe Nora, and 90% of the people in the audience put their hands up and the other 10% I think were offended by the question. That basically tells you that the subjective emotional response, the heart response, is yeah of course she’s telling the truth, it’s Nora Durst. She’s a cynic and a non-believer and a crusher of all things that are not true, she’s the one that told the story. Not to mention Mimi Leder, and I can’t say enough amazing things about her, directed the hell out of that finale and basically showed the presentation of the LADR. Basically showing you this is the emptied out husk of where a body once was, and the performances by the physicists—basically these people seem legit, this thing looks like it works versus ‘We want you to get into this cardboard box and just wish yourself into another reality.’ All of the work that we did to basically make Nora’s story believable was really critically important to us in presenting our story.

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