Premiering in the summer, the HBO series The Leftovers, from showrunner Damon Lindelof and acclaimed novelist Tom Perrotta, tells the story of what happens after 2% of the world’s population abruptly disappears without explanation. The pilot starts off by giving a glimpse into The Departure, but really focuses on the lives of who didn’t make the cut and were left behind, three years later. Having attended a preview screening of the pilot, I can say that it’s intriguing, it’s edgy and it definitely pushes the envelope.
During the HBO portion of the TCA Winter Press Tour, Damon Lindelof talked about how you train an audience to not be waiting for absolute answers, why he won’t definitely say whether The Rapture will ever be explained, why the people populating this world even think it’s The Rapture, in the first place, how they’ll be moving past the ending of the book (whether they actually use the book’s ending or not) for the show, that he’s already thinking about how many possible seasons this story could be told over, how many episodes they’ll do per season, just how deeply populated this world is, and how it ended up working out that he left Twitter on the date of The Rapture. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Having come off of a show where a lot of people were concerned about answers, and yet the central question seems really unanswerable, how do you train people to know that there may not ever be a solution to what happened here?
DAMON LINDELOF: That’s a really insightful question. I do think that our answer to it is fairly simple, which is just watch the show. Hopefully, what you’re going to care about, more and more, when you watch the show is how these characters are dealing with this situation, in terms of living in this world and interacting with each other, and less about what happened and where everybody went and why, although there will be characters in the show who are concerned with those things. I think the other shows that are based on a massive genre premise, like Flash Forward, or even Lost, where built into the DNA of the premise was a mysterious island or a mysterious event, you have characters who are actively engaged in determining why it happened and how. You’re promising the audience that you’re going to give them that answer. These characters, on this show, are not actively searching for what happened in The Departure. They’re actively searching for what they’re supposed to do in their lives. Hopefully, that’s what the storytelling is going to echo.
So, are you definitely not going to give answers, as to what The Rapture is? Will you ever explain what exactly happen?
LINDELOF: I think what I’d say is that the question you’re asking right now is the fundamental question of the series, for the characters in the series. Everybody in this world is asking, “Am I ever going to get an answer to where these people went? Am I ever going to get relief?” If I tell the audience that, “Yes, the answer is coming,” then I’ve given you a piece of information that the characters don’t have, and therefore you’re not going to be able to identify with these people ‘cause as they’re walking around in the show going, “I don’t think we’re ever going to get an answer,” you’re sitting in your living room saying, “Yeah, Lindelof said it was coming. Just be patient and chill out.” The anxiety from not knowing whether or not they’re going to get an answer is anxiety that I want the audience to be experiencing. I understand that I’m putting my head in a hive of bees, but it’s Tom’s fault. He wrote the book.
Do you worry about, if you don’t give audiences the answer, you’ll have a repeat of Lost?
LINDELOF: All I can say is that I didn’t want to do Lost again, but the things that drew me to the premise of Lost are the same things that drew me to this premise. I hope that the viewing experience is not completely and totally dependent on the resolution of this show. I feel like Lost was very much presented as a mystery show, and had characters on the show that were actively trying to determine what the island was, why they had been brought to the island, and what the purpose of it all was. Therefore, the show had to present some version of those answers. But, it’s not my place to say that there was an empirical response to Lost, as you present it. I know there are a lot of people that were frustrated with the way the show ended, but there were other people who were not frustrated with the way the show ended, and there were a lot of people who gave up before the show ended. I think the same will be true of The Leftovers, and there’s no way that I could guarantee otherwise.
LINDELOF: The reason that some people think that it’s The Rapture is that The Rapture is the only pre-existing concept that could possibly explain this phenomenon. But when they try to figure out the rules of The Rapture, an immense debate breaks out. We know that The Rapture is a lead-up to the end of days, but it does seem to have this idea of the people who disappeared were all really good people. But a lot of assholes went, too, and not just assholes, but really, really bad people. So, there is the idea that there’s a moral judgement in play, but our idea of morality is slightly skewed. These things we think are good or bad, like not cheating on your wife or murdering people, may not be that big of a deal to whoever decided to make this cut.
Are you committed to sticking with the ending of the book?
LINDELOF: I don’t want to say whether we’re going to do that ending or not do that ending on the show, but I can say that the ending in the book is not the ending of the series. I think we’ll be moving past the ending in the book fairly quickly, in terms of the life of the series. The idea of the story that we’ve talked about for the series, definitely extends beyond the ending that’s currently in Tom’s book.
Do you have an idea for how many seasons you’d like the show to go?
LINDELOF: It’s definitely a thought. I don’t think I ever would have taken on another serialized drama like this, if I didn’t have some sense of what that was. I do think it’s arrogant to say, before anybody has even seen the show, “I only want to do 40 episodes of The Leftovers,” but I do feel like the number of episodes in this show is more akin to Breaking Bad than it is to Lost. Breaking Bad did as many seasons of Lost, but only did just slightly more than half the episodes. The format of this show and the desire of this show is to not be a cliffhanger-y based show. The finales should feel more like the endings of books in a series versus, “Oh, my god, who shot J.R.?!” It’s hard for me to tell you, not having seen the finale of Season 1, but we’ve planned it. I do think the first season of The Leftovers has a sense of completed-ness to it, but also a sense of, “Wow, I would really like to see what happens next.” We’re just trying to balance that.
How deeply populated is this world?
LINDELOF: I do think that the jumping off point for this show is the Garvey family, but there are characters in the show who have one or two lines, that will be carrying entire episodes on their back, sooner rather than later. One of my favorite shows is The Simpsons, and I love the idea that Springfield has gotten to the point where everybody who walks by them, even if they’re just shopping in a mall, is someone who’s had their own episode, at one point or another. It really lends to the rich texture of that universe.
Will there ever be an explanation for why, after three short years, a whole new generation of chain smokers was born?
LINDELOF: If you’re asking, “Is the show going to delve into the origins of the Guilty Remnant, and why they do what they do, and what their philosophy or theology is and, most importantly, why they chain-smoke?,” I think that we would be remiss in doing our jobs, if we didn’t get into that a little more. But, the show is really focused on showing you these people’s lives in motion, and less on delivering tremendous amounts of exposition. And I think that I would say that, again, as the show goes on, you’ll have all the information that you’ll need to answer that question. But, cigarette smoking is just highly addictive and bad for you, and you shouldn’t do it.
How many episodes are you looking to do, per season?
LINDELOF: Well, this year, we’re doing a total of 10. We’ve shot the pilot, and we are going to start production on the remaining nine episodes about a month from now. For subsequent seasons, my guess is that we would keep the episodic range between 10 episodes and 13 episodes, if we get to do more of the show.
Do you think that will make it a better show?
LINDELOF: Look, we can definitively agree that cable is far superior to network. That isn’t to say that there can’t be a great network drama or comedy that makes 20-plus episodes a year. We know that there are, and there have been. But I do think that, when you slow the conveyor belt down, the quality control tends to go up. You have a lot more time between seasons to talk about what worked and what didn’t work, and plan for the future. And the pacing of the storytelling, particularly for on-going serialized dramas, means that you don’t need to do non-essential episodes, just because you have to fill this pre-existing schedule. The beauty of working with HBO is that you have a conversation and they say, “How much story have you got?” And you say, “Here’s what happens over the course of the first season. This is the actual story that we’ve all talked about in the writers’ room, and this feels like about 10 episodes to us.” And they say, “Great! Awesome! Let’s do that!” Therefore, you’re not needing to fill weeks of story that are non-essential. Hopefully, every episode of The Leftovers will feel like it needs to exist versus this very fibrous bridge that exists between two essential episodes, which all of us, as TV fans, find incredibly frustrating to watch.
LINDELOF: First off is the idea that it’s a straight-up adaptation. It’s a book that I loved. Going to Tom and say, “Can we play together in your world? Here are some ideas I have. What do you think of them?,” definitely puts me out of my comfort zone ‘cause I’ve not really adapted television before. There’s a sense of, “How much story is there here?” It’s a novel, so technically speaking, this could have been a movie, if you just straight-up adapted the novel. What makes it a TV series? How long should it go on? How many episodes of The Leftovers should there be? Where does the frustration point start to set in? I think the comfort zone is that I am stepping back into that abyss that many would argue burned me last time, but for me, was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. While I think that there are going to be a lot of new surprises, along the way, I get turned on creatively by what I get turned out creatively by. I have a type, when it comes to TV shows.
Are you basically making the assumption that people haven’t read the book?
LINDELOF: Yeah. I think that the assumption has to be that people haven’t read the book. Even if it was a massive phenomenon, like The Hunger Games, where you’re selling tens of millions of copies and it’s a pop culture phenomenon, it’s still six or seven years later that the movie is coming out. As a storyteller, you also don’t want to make people feel like they’re left out, like other people who have read the book have an interior knowledge of this show, and the degree of difficulty in watching it is much higher. So, there was certainly an effort, on our part, in the storytelling, to bring the audience in. And while there will be people who read the book, or people who start watching the show and they just don’t want to wait maybe until the following week’s episode, so they’ll just go and buy the book, there are clearly deviations between the book and the series that we have to do because we’re building a television series that could potentially go beyond the first season and extend well beyond the book. And then, there are just beautiful things in the book that absolutely have to happen in the series. As storytellers, we just have to figure out when the appropriate time to do those things is, and hopefully the readers of the book will go, “Oh, yeah, I remember that.” But, we want to make the show as accessible to as many people as humanly possible.
Was your departure from Twitter an elaborate promotional gambit for this show?
LINDELOF: Twitter was something that I enjoyed immensely, particularly in the three years between the ending of Lost and the beginning of The Leftovers. Right around the time we started the writers’ room up, I just felt like it was a good opportunity to dive in and focus on the show, and Twitter is so entertaining, but also massively distracting. But as far as promotion goes, I’m a whore that way. The date that I left Twitter did correspond with the date of The Departure, which just felt appropriately pretentious.
How long were you planning to quit Twitter on October 14th, to coincide with the day of The Departure?
LINDELOF: I was sitting around with the writers. It was our first week of working together, and I was in a place of feeling like Twitter was really consuming me in an unhealthy way. It was right around the time that Breaking Bad was ending and I felt like I just needed to quit. And then, as writers’ rooms often do, everyone started pitching on the best and most dramatic way to do that. If I was gonna leave, I had to do it in an incredible fashion. It wasn’t me. Someone said, “Hey, October the 14th is in two days. You should just quit on October 14th, and you should cut off your last Tweet right in the middle, so it seems very abrupt. And then, don’t tell anybody. Later on, it will become apparent that that’s what it was.” That said, me leaving Twitter was not a marketing stunt for the benefit of The Leftovers. It was just a happy accident. I have no intention of coming back.
The Leftovers will premiere on HBO in Summer 2014.