On Season 2 of the HBO drama series The Leftovers, the Garveys have moved to Jarden, Texas, a small town where no one left in the Departure of 2% of the world’s population, in an effort to feel safe again. Upon moving to this special miracle place, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) meet a local family, the Murphys (headed by Regina King and Kevin Carroll), who may be hiding secrets of their own. Created by Damon Lindelof and novelist Tom Perrotta, this season also stars Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston, Janel Moloney, Liv Tyler, Ann Dowd, Margaret Qualley, Chris Zylka and Jovan Adepo.
At the show’s press day, Collider got some time to sit down with showrunner Damon Lindelof to talk to him about this intriguing, compelling and, at times, bleak show. During this exclusive interview, he talked about the changes in Season 2, what he was most proud of with Season 1, why it’s important for these character to live in the present moment, being totally up front about the fact that he’s never going to give an explanation or reasons for why 2% of the population disappeared, raising different questions this season, the unconventional storytelling he can explore in this show, and whether there might be a Season 3. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: Things feel a bit different with the change in location this season, and they seem to be headed in an intriguing direction.
DAMON LINDELOF: I hope. Different, but familiar. Second seasons are make or break because you need to evolve the show, but at the same time, not throw away the proverbial baby with the bath water. It’s certainly unlike anything I’ve ever written before, which is both terrifying and exciting, at the same time. We’ll see what people have to say.
This is an ambitious show in its storytelling that deals with subject matter that isn’t particularly light. What are you most proud of with Season 1 and what you were able to accomplish with it?
LINDELOF: The only way to answer a question when you’re talking about something that you’re proud of is going to feel self-congratulatory and pretentious. All that being said, I feel like the premise behind the show is totally crazy and ridiculous, so it’s a big genre premise. For a show that I love, and I have loved the source material as well, to me, the single biggest accomplishment of The Walking Dead is how authentic it felt. You can distill it down and say that it’s a zombie show, but it’s not. It feels very authentic and very real, but it’s a horror premise. It’s insane. It’s called The Walking Dead, and it’s a crazy genre idea. And Game of Thrones is the same thing. It’s essentially a fundamental Dark Ages European construct, but then it actually has these hints of magic and genre ideas, and yet it feel completely and totally relatable and authentic. So, the thing that I think that I’m the most proud of, in the first season of the show, is that we’re able to take this big, crazy genre idea and present a world that felt real.
The downside of that authenticity was that that realness felt very stark and depressing and sad, at times. I don’t think that I set out to write a sad show, nor was it our intention to make people feel sad. I wouldn’t say that I’m an easy cry, but I’m not the Great Santini either, where I never cry. But I read Tom Perrotta’s book, and there were times that I would just start weeping. Not just a tear rolling down my cheek, but the pathetic gasping cries. I still can’t really quantify it, but I think that that idea of loss, of losing people and not really understanding why, and facing the idea that you’re never going to see them again, and not understanding it, and having your faith get shaken, are all really relatable ideas that got magnified by Tom’s premise. I really admired characters who said, “Moving on. I’m going to ignore that, and I’m just moving on. I’m going to just put on this bullet proof vest and have people shoot me in the chest. My children are gone and there’s nothing I can do to bring them back.” Or “I’m just going to put on this police uniform and I’m going to go and do my job. I’ve got to just move forward.” But you can’t move all the time and in moments of stillness, you’d be super sad.
I suffer a lot. My suffering is not comparable to people who are really suffering in the world, but creatively I suffer, in terms of trying to make something good. I’m always trying to make something good, and very often, I make mistakes. Even more often than that, I fail, and when that happens, it doesn’t feel very good. But when I’d sit in the editing room and watch Carrie Coon get hugged by Paterson Joseph, and there were tears rolling down my cheeks, I’d be like, “I’m very proud of this. It’s not easy to watch, but it feels real to me. I can sink my teeth into it. It would probably be much easier writing something else, but I’m glad, right now, that I’m writing this.”
A lot of actors that work with you talk about how you keep them in the dark until they get the next script. Have they given up even trying to get stuff out of you, or do they still ask you questions?
LINDELOF: None of the actors on the show, really at all, have ever asked what’s coming next. The only questions they ever ask is, “Can I get a little bit more clarity on what I’m feeling right now?” I think it forces characters to live in the present time. It’s not because I’m trying to be secretive. It’s because the style of the show is that the show tells you what it wants to be, as it moves along. If you don’t allow an actor’s performance to inspire you and give you new ideas, then it’s a one way street. So, decisions that Carrie is making, or that Regina King is making in Season 2, we watch it and we say, “That hadn’t occurred to me before. There’s something to that. There’s something going on.” If you hedge them in and say, “I’m going to give you a 40-page bio of your character, and this is everything that’s ever happened to you and that’s relevant to you, and play all of it,” that’s just not the way that life works.
As human beings, we engage in all these behaviors that are not only counter-intuitive, but often self-destructive. I have a nine-year-old and he’ll do something like drop an egg on the floor in the kitchen. You go, “Why did you do that?!” And he’ll just look at you like, “I don’t know why I did that.” It all boils down to some version of just wanting to see what would happen. But, I do think that the most authentic characters are ones that don’t entirely know consciously why they’re doing what they’re doing. The only way to replicate that process, in terms of the management style of the show, is to not tell them why they’re doing what they’re doing. I just say, “You have to do this. Can you do it and make me believe it, even if I don’t tell you what’s driving it?” We’re blessed with incredible actors.
You’ve been up-front, since the beginning, about how you’re never going to give an explanation or reasons for why 2% of the population disappeared, but I don’t know if viewers totally believed you. Are you finding that fans are less focused on getting that explanation, and that they’re more focused on the character journey, at this point?
LINDELOF: Yeah. I don’t think that question is ever entirely going to go away, but our answer to it is never going to change. If the storytelling were to shift into a realm where Nora was trying to find her children, then the audience would go, “They’re definitely gonna tell us where they went.” And then, we’d say, “Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.” And then, you’d be justified in hating me and everything I ever said, and not trusting me because the storytelling is saying something different than we are. We make no guarantees about the show, other than that one. I’m just telling you right now, there’s no winking, at all. We are definitely not going to answer where those people went, or why those people were selected. This show is really about living in the aftermath of this mysterious event. That’s really all there is to it. But there are going to be characters on the show, like the MIT guys, for example, in the second season, who are interested. This show wouldn’t feel authentic, if there weren’t some people who were investigating that idea. But our world is populated by any number of people who are searching for meaning and religious faith, and they try on different things.
If you say you’re a Catholic, and you are 100% sure that the Catholic church is right about everything and you know exactly what’s going to happen to you when you die, that’s just a belief. You can’t prove it, and that’s the point. We do feel we owe the audience, as storytellers, this disclaimer. I often joke about saying, if Fox puts a disclaimer in front of 24 that this contains graphic material not suitable for all ages, maybe we should put a disclaimer on the front of The Leftovers saying, “If you are watching this show to find out where 140 million people went or why them, don’t watch it.” If you think that we’re lying to you, all I can say is that, when it comes to these kinds of interviews, I’m always as honest as I can be, in the moment that I’m answering the question. I can’t foresee any scenario by which answering that question would betray what the show is about. What the show is about is ambiguous loss versus when someone dies and you know that they’re gone.
It’s so interesting to hear the theory that the MIT guys have, that who ended up disappearing in the Departure could be as simple and basic as geography.
LINDELOF: Yes, and you also get overwhelmed by how lame that is. One of the things that we know is that the larger the question, or the more impressive the premise, the higher the degree of disappointment when the answer is given. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, there’s a culture of people and they build this super-computer that is the fastest and smartest super-computer that’s the collective intelligence of their entire species. They ask it, “What is the meaning of life? Tell us.” And the computer says, “Hold on, let me work on it.” It feels like it takes several generations. The people who initially ask the question die, and their great-great grandkids are there when the machine finally announces, “I have the answer to the meaning of life, and the answer is 42.” And they go, “42 what? What does that mean?” I think the idea that the longer you wait for an answer like that, the answer can only be incredibly disappointing, especially for a grand mystery like this.
There’s a reason that Agatha Christie novels are the length that they are, or that we had to find out who killed Laura Palmer after a finite amount of episodes, or why people rebelled at the end of the first season of The Killing. They’re like, “We have now waited the adequate amount of time that one is expected to wait.” If it’s the old trope from the 1950s delivery room of the man pacing around because his wife is in labor, and then the nurse comes out and says, “I’ve gotta be honest with you, it looks like she’s not going to have the baby tonight. I’m sending her home and we’ll see you again in two weeks,” you’d go, “What?! No! The story has betrayed me!” So, I understand that it’s not unreasonable for the audience to say, “Where did the people go, and why them?,” which is why I feel like it’s our job, as storytellers, to constantly reinforce that that’s not what the show is about.
There was a show on a couple of years ago, called Flash Forward, on ABC. We were still doing Lost, and I would run into David Goyer, who I am a big fan of, would run into each other at a bunch of events because we were both on ABC. The lead character of Flash Forward was an FBI agent whose job it was to determine what caused the flash forward and I was like, “Now you have to answer it.” And he said, “We’ve got a killer answer for what caused the flash forward, and we’re going to give it at the end of the first season.” And I was like, “Awesome!,” ‘cause that’s fair.
If the lead character’s job is to find out, then he’s gotta find out, and they stuck true to that. But maybe the more interesting show, or the show that would have certainly lasted much longer, would just have been characters where it wasn’t there job to find out what caused the flash forward, but that they just lived in a world where they knew what their future was going to be. And then, maybe the audience wouldn’t have demanded it. I may be wrong, but what your character wants is what’s driving the arc of the show. So far, and we don’t intend on changing this, our show is populated by characters who have accepted that they’re never going to find out what caused the Departure. Even if they knew what caused it, it’s not relevant to them. What’s much more relevant is, can they feel safe again, or can they ever feel stable in a relationship, and what are they doing to achieve that?
Are you taking the same approach with this new town that they’re in, as far as presenting new questions about why no one departed from there and what makes them different?
LINDELOF: Yeah. I don’t want to talk about what we’re willing to explain and what we’re not willing to explain because, in a town like that, it’s more interesting for us, as storytellers, to have some sense of it, and then tell our story and let the audience do the rest. It is a little bit about affixing meaning to something. Why is Jerusalem, Jerusalem? Why is Mecca, Mecca? These are places that have great religious significance. Is it because someone told stories about them, or is it because this is where Jesus lived or came, or is it because this is where Muhammad preached or lived? Why a pilgrimage from Mecca to Medina? Why is Vatican City in Rome? These are all intensely spiritual places. If you’ve been to any of them, it doesn’t matter if you believe in that religion, you feel it flowing through your body. It’s not just history, it’s something else. It’s infused with that power. We titled the first episode of the season (“Axis Mundi”) very intentionally. If you’re curious about what our intention is with Miracle, you should go onto Wikipedia, and you can even do deeper dives, in terms of why we chose that title. But I do think that we’re playing with this idea of, what is it that makes magical places magical. It has to start with something that happened there. In this construct, Jarden, Texas is exceptional because nobody departed from there and there has to be a reason for that. What that reason is, is less interesting to us as storytellers than what people think the reason may be.
There’s such an unconventional approach to the storytelling on this show. Just in the first episode of Season 2, the first 10 minutes have no dialogue, and you’re telling the story from the perspective of a family that we haven’t met yet, in a town that we aren’t familiar with. Was part of the appeal of this story the fact that you’d have the opportunity to experiment?
LINDELOF: Yeah. The thing that I love most about storytelling is how the story is told, and I’m a big fan of non-linear storytelling. Our brains perceive things to have beginnings, middles and ends, but television completely and totally uproots that idea because the canvas on which you’re painting is so much larger, and serialized television is very exciting, in that way. When I was 14 years old until I was 18 years old, I worked in this movie theater as an usher. We would get 15-minute breaks, but I would time my breaks to always see 15 minutes of the movie that I hadn’t seen before. So, I watched every movie that came out for four years, out of order. Even movies that were boring and terrible, and you would never have any interest in them, when you watch them out of order and try to figure out why these people are angry at each other right now, and then you see the scene where it catalyzed, it actually became interesting. And then, Quentin Tarantino made Pulp Fiction and basically made a movie like that, that was out of order, but with great intention.
So, you wonder, can I tell this story out of order, but can I do it with intention? I don’t just do it because it’s a gimmick. Why start the story here? When people tell stories to you, they start telling you the story and then they go, “Oh, I forgot, a week before that, so and so called me up and told me to go fuck myself!” And you’re like, “Oh, okay! I wish I had known that.” We tell stories out of order. I think that in the first season of the show, we had great success with narrowing point of view focus. We presented Matt Jamison as a kook, and we didn’t know why he was handing these flyers out, but then you just drop into his life and say, “Oh, this is why he’s doing that.” We did the same thing with Nora.
The novel doesn’t cover any ground, really, in terms of what the Garvey family was like before the Departure, and I wanted that to be the penultimate episode of the season. I wanted to go through the entire year with them, and then the ninth episode would show what this family was like two days before the Departure, before the world ended. It subverts all of your expectations because you realize that they were already on the verge of collapse, and it was just so weird to hear Laurie Garvey talking. Perrotta loved that idea. Obviously, Lost was a show that did non-linear storytelling in every episode, by nature of the flashbacks and then the flash-forwards. I didn’t want to repeat the same trick, over and over again, but I just love telling stories out of order. If you do it with some degree of purpose, the way that you’re telling the story, there’s something to be derived from that.
When you did the first season, you’ve said that you told the story you wanted to tell and you would have been okay if you hadn’t returned for a second season. Are you approaching Season 2 the same way, or are you looking ahead to a third season?
LINDELOF: Yes. Season 2 has a little bit more of a conventionally narrative engine to it because of what happens in the first two episodes, and we revisit that from a couple different points of view. It’s the idea of what happens in a town that nobody departed from when somebody departs. Now we put quotation marks around departs because did they? On any other television show, they either ran away, or somebody tried to kidnap them or hurt them, but on our show, there’s a third possible explanation. The season is really about investigating all three potential options. But I do feel like, hopefully, the ending of this season feels like we’re winding things down and wrapping things up versus throwing out all these crazy new characters and new mysterious storylines to explore. It’s much harder to do it that way because, if we come back and do a third season, you have to start from a stop versus Lost where the season premieres were always relatively easy because you were coming into them with such great inertia. There was a cliffhanger to immediately resolve. Not so with The Leftovers.
But it also forces you to get together and say, “If we can’t come up with what a cool third season should be, then the show should just end.” It forces us to think about the show a little bit more like the way that Tom Perrotta writes. He writes novels. He doesn’t write a continuing series. And I don’t want The Leftovers to have a design where it’s building towards this big battle between the undead. It’s a little bit more like The Walking Dead, where this is the condition of living in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to solve the zombie problem anytime soon. But the problem that we can solve is whether we can find a way to feel safe and whether we can restart or reboot civilization. I feel like the last episode of The Walking Dead is ultimately going to answer that question, but it’s not going to be some guy saying, “I have developed a serum that, if released into the ionosphere, will wipe out all the zombies, and then all our problems will go away.” I hope they don’t do that.
The Leftovers airs on Sunday nights on HBO