Created by Damon Lindelof and acclaimed novelist Tom Perrotta, the HBO series The Leftovers, about what happens after 140 million people vanished from the face of the earth, is currently in its final season. With the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure approaching, everyone is desperately trying to grasp for a system of belief to not only better explain what happened, but to help them deal with what could still be to come.
After seeing seven of the eight episodes of Season 3 (they were understandably withholding the final episode of the series), Collider sat down with executive producer/director Mimi Leder, who has done some beautiful work directing episodes throughout the series’ run, to talk about what she was initially drawn to in the story, the freedom she’s had to experiment and take risks, how she was able to open up the color pallette, her love of the finale, even though she expects some haters, and why she wanted to shoot the series with three cameras. She also talked about her next project, the feature film On the Basis of Sex about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (with Natalie Portman in the lead role), and why it’s such an important story to tell now.
Collider: When you started on The Leftovers, did you know that you would have the freedom to experiment and take risks?
MIMI LEDER: I started in the early days of the first season, and they brought me on as a producer/director. I came on and I think I opened up the show. I didn’t want to change too much, but I opened up the pallette and the scope of the show. I just brought what I thought the show should look like, when I did “Gladys,” the stoning episode. You hire a director for their vision, for their eye, and for their storytelling sensibilities. I have a body of work. I’m not a kid, even though I feel like one. I felt like I could bring what I thought was right for the show to the show, and they all responded.
What was it that sparked your initial interest in the show and drew you to it?
LEDER: I was very interested in the storyline about loss and sudden inexplicable things that happen. I think we’re all in search of what the meaning of life is. Why does this happen? Why did this happen to me? Why didn’t it happen to that person? Why did it happen to that person, and not to me? I think we’re in the constant search for the meaning of life, and the third season of the show really speaks to that narrative and to the end of days themes. Everyone is in search of some sort of meaning, some meaningful explanation, and a little peace and hope. So, when I first signed on, I was very much interested in the exploration of loss and fear, and all of the themes that the show speaks to. I just so responded to it, from my gut. I guess I like to cry.
Did you know that it would be like its own movie, each season, with such vastly different locations?
LEDER: When we were picked up for a second season, we didn’t exactly know where we were going, but Gene Kelly, the other executive producer, and myself went to Austin, Texas and explored Atlanta, Savannah and New Mexico, but Texas felt like the right place. I really wanted to open the second season up in a much bigger way than the first season, and bring color to the show. I wanted to explore those deep reds and explore the earth. Did I know we were going to be making movies, every episode? Absolutely! It all begins with the great writing of Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta and their very talented writing staff. Those guys are mad geniuses. They’re incredible! It was my job to bring it to life and find a way for it to speak to our audience, in a very visceral way. With that complete freedom and vision, these three years have been one of the great three years of my life. The Leftovers has been one beautiful journey that I’m very grateful for. I think it really opened me up, too, in terms of having more belief. This show is about our belief system. It’s the stories we tell ourselves to survive. I think we all have a story that we tell ourselves to get through the day, to get through our lives, and certainly our characters on The Leftovers do.
When you do a project like this and of this quality, how do you find the next thing?
LEDER: Well, I know what I’m doing next, and it’s pretty great. But when you hang out with Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, and the quality of writing is so extraordinary, it does spoil you for life. You can’t go back to anything that is below that. What’s the point? So, I feel like I’ve been given such a gift, to have worked with them, and to be able to bring their story to life and be a part of it. It’s one of those memories of your life that will just stay with you.
So, what are you doing next then?
LEDER: I’m doing a film, called On the Basis of Sex, and it’s about our Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s young life and Natalie Portman is starring. It’s about the first case that declared discrimination on the basis of sex un-constitutional. The twist is that it was done with a man, and it changed hundreds of laws for women. I’ll be shooting that later this summer, and it’s a project that Justice Ginsburg supports, in a major way. Her nephew, Daniel Stiepelman, wrote it. It’s a very important story to tell now because now there’s a lot of fear and dread and anxiety in the world with what’s going on. People are scared because it’s a scary time.
Were you surprised with where things ended up, with The Leftovers?
LEDER: Not really. As the story unfolded and as I was told the story, I was completely taken with the direction that Damon and Tom had come up with. It’s very special, but I tried not to treat it that way when we were shooting it. I didn’t want to be precious about it being the last and final episode. I had to treat it like one of my children. You love all of your children the same way. I just felt like I had to take that approach, so that I wouldn’t be second-guessing myself. I wanted to just direct the way that I normally direct. It was a big responsibility to not fuck it up. The approach of the finale is very special. I love it, and I’m hoping others do. There will always be the haters out there, but I ain’t gonna think about that guy. He has no affect on me. None.
The mythology gets bigger this season, but the character relationships get even deeper, and this season seems to have a really great balance between the two. What do you most enjoy about bringing these character dynamics to the forefront?
LEDER: Shooting in the Outback with Scott Glenn was one of the great experiences for me. He’s a powerhouse. They all are. They’re extraordinary people and actors that have great instincts and have grown, immeasurably, with their characters. It’s so beautiful to watch and see the strength and understanding, and see how much greater they’ve become.
Having been in this business for awhile, and having done film and TV, do you have a favorite camera that you like to shoot on?
LEDER: Yeah, we shoot with the Alexa. I shot three cameras, so that I could get all of the details. This show required so many details, so bringing on the third camera, when I came onto the show, really helped to focus on the small things that are usually very big things and that often make you feel a certain way. I love shooting on film, but who does that anymore? But the Alexa is pretty damn good. I love shooting with long lenses and I love shooting handheld. I love mixing those things and doing very big wide shots. I brought that to the show, and I think that really opened up the pallette of the show. Australia has a beautiful pallette with the reds and the greens, the earth colors, the sky and the clouds. The blue sky against the red earth was magical. It was extraordinary. Even though we shot in winter, and there was mud and rain the entire time, it’s like childbirth. You forget all of that stuff. That stuff all goes away with the finished product.
The Leftovers airs on Sunday nights on HBO.