Visiting Damon Lindelof's office is enough to make a TV fan geek out for days. It's not just the posters and other art commemorating his two major TV series (Lost and The Leftovers). It's the fact that everywhere you look, there's a new reminder of one of those shows, or one of his personal favorites, or one of the many movies he's worked on. And then there, right in the front room, there's a set of seats from Oceanic Flight 815, the plane that crashed to kick off Lost. It's as close to a holy relic as many TV nerds are going to find.
It's also a weirdly appropriate segue into a chat about the second season of Lindelof's series The Leftovers, which has been revamped considerably from its divisive first season. In the second season, the show actually digs into the roots of religion, the ways that these movements grow out of very human impulses that arise in the wake of seemingly supernatural events — like the disappearance of 2 percent of the world's population that happens on The Leftovers. In season two, the show asks: What does a religion look like in its earliest days?
To discuss that question and many others, I sat down for nearly an hour to talk with Lindelof and his co-creator, Tom Perrotta (who wrote the book upon which the series is based). The conversation ranged from motifs of the series to how they chose to make such a radical break in season two to whether there's any room left for a season three. What follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On mental illness, religion ... and dogs: "The dog is always going to be okay"
I want to talk about some themes that seem to pop up a lot in both of your work. Depression, especially, but also other mental illnesses and talk therapy are really vital to this series in particular, but also other work you've both done in the past. Why are you interested in those ideas?
For The Leftovers in particular, there was just a sense that I was dealing with a world where everyone was grieving at the same time. This is an interesting issue in mental health, whether or not there's such a thing as a grief disorder. This idea that somebody's going to say, "That's too much grief." What you have is a world where I think a lot of people are approaching this line. The question is, who breaks and why?
I always thought the implicit contrast between Nora and Laurie was really telling and true to life. A terrible thing happened to Nora [who lost her entire family]. If anyone has reason to just throw in the towel and join the Guilty Remnant [the show's much-criticized cult], it's Nora. But there's some drive in her to have her life and not be broken by this thing. Here's Laurie. In the show she's more personally affected than in the book, but there's just no possible world where Laurie has been damaged more by the Sudden Departure than Nora. Yet Laurie is the one who cracks.
There is no equation that will tell you who crosses that line. That's something that I think is true in life, too. Some people have a certain kind of strength and a certain kind of resilience, and other people don't. At a fundamental level, that is what the story is about. Who's going to crack?
In the wake of a supernatural event on this scale, the line between being prophetic and being mentally ill is razor-thin. Patti Levin, who is mentally ill before October 14, suddenly becomes prophetic after October 14. That was really interesting to us, particularly as it relates to Kevin last season in terms of the guy who's sleepwalking, and nailing his shirts up to trees, and bringing people to cabins and beating them up, and now seeing things that aren't there.
He is thinking, "I'm mentally ill," but the world actually provides an alternate answer. Was Jesus Christ mentally ill? Was Mohammed mentally ill? Was Joseph Smith mentally ill? Was David Koresh mentally ill? If you are living in an age of miracles and wonders, you can't actually distinguish between psychosis and phenomena.
One of the things the show does well is convey just how terrifying that would be. It's terrifying to be mentally ill, but it's not actually reassuring to think that there's some prophetic component, because that's an enormous burden as well.
Mohammed, I believe his initial reaction upon coming down from the mountain was, "I'm crazy," which actually, I think, legitimizes everything that came next. That's the natural human reaction to suddenly being downloaded huge portions of the Quran that you can recite at will, instead of, like, "I guess I'm God's chosen vessel." It's a much more human reaction, initially, to be like, "I'm a crazy person." Moving through that spectrum is really interesting.
That's a huge gap in the New Testament. When Jesus found out who he was and how he reacted — it's just not there. We just see him emerge as an adult man saying, "This is who I am."
This season, you're really digging into the foundations of religion. There's a lot of stuff in there about how one gets started, how ideas get co-opted from one group to the next. What made this interesting to dig into?
Most religions are built on the ruins of the religion that preceded them. Let's take monotheism and just add a human element to it, or let's take Holy Wayne's hugs and say, "Well, that was working for him, so how can we co-opt that for us?"
Ultimately, all religion, the basis of it is, "We're going to give you a structure to your life, and we're going to answer questions that the world at large or the scientific community is unwilling to answer." If we're in a world where people just want to feel better, they feel destabilized and scared that the Departure is going to happen again, the most successful religions are going to be ones that say, "Here is what the Departure was, and here is how to live your life to basically feel better."
I read Tom's book, and I loved the Guilty Remnant. It never even occurred to me that their religion made no sense and that it would be frustrating for people reading the book. When my wife read the book, she was like, "Why do they smoke?" I was like, "Why do you cross yourself when you walk into a church? Because that's what the religion tells you to do." There is some interior logic to it, but it's religion, right? The minute that you start picking it apart, it doesn't make sense anymore.
It makes sense to the people who are in it. I do understand the criticism when people watch the show, like, "What's up with the GR? Why are they doing what they're doing? I don't get it." That was always the point. I am interested in the ridiculousness of the religions, but most importantly, on a therapeutic level, the most successful religions in a post-Departure world are going to be ones that say, "We can explain what happened, and this is how you're supposed to live your life now, and we're not going to tell you why."
Most religions are founded on some supernatural act, but it's way in the past. What we have inherited are these very mature rituals, like you cross yourself, or there's this ceremony to say that you're an adult now, whatever it is. We don't really have to understand how those things evolved. If we moved this supernatural event up into our world, how would we react to it? What would an authentic, ground-level, contemporary American religious experience look like? It's true that the GR makes no sense, yet I believe that people find it comforting. It's impossible to talk about this thing, and so to just be quiet might be better than trying to talk about it.
It's three years in, maybe this lifestyle isn't a full-fledged religion yet, but there are these acts people have chosen that distinguish them from everybody else. Once you create that space, then maybe the religion evolves and maybe it survives. I think people who were saying like, "Why are they doing this? I want a full-fledged theology from the Guilty Remnant," that wasn't how Christianity worked. For a couple hundred years, it wasn't even written down. The scriptures came very late. I feel like first what you get is a decision to separate yourself and to adopt a handful of rituals that define the community.
One final motif: Dogs feature a lot in your work, Damon. What makes them an effective storytelling element?
It's so funny that you ask that, because [my family] just got a dog. I've never owned a dog in my entire life, but we've had a dog now for two months.
In our first meeting that Tom and I had, I don't even know how it came up, but there was some passing reference in the book about the fact that the dogs had run off, if they witnessed the Departure, and I was like, "Let's talk more about that."
I also felt like Lost started with Jack sitting up in the woods and Vincent appearing like a spirit animal and leading him to the plane crash. In The Leftovers, when the dog shows up to Kevin, we're going to shoot it. Just to boldly declare you're in an entirely different realm.
The dog is always going to be okay! In Independence Day it's like the dog is going to leap out of the way of the explosion. In The Leftovers, Tom's idea that I was really captivated by is: People going crazy is very upsetting to me, but dogs going crazy is really upsetting to me, because the dog is supposed to be okay.
Breaking that fundamental role might have been a mistake. I think probably a lot of people watched the pilot, and five minutes in, they were just basically like, "All right, a little baby disappears from the back of a car, pretty harrowing. But now that you've shot the dog, I'm out." But still, one of my favorites scenes in the pilot is when the twins and Jill are burying that dog, and the twins say, "We're all going crazy just like the dogs are. We're just too sophisticated to realize it yet."
On building the show's world: "I know what happens when you start snorting the genre cocaine"
This is primarily a character-driven show, but it has a lot of genre elements. It's so easy to let genre elements take over a story, so how do you keep that from happening here?
This harks back to Tom, the kind of prose that Tom writes. I remember being very surprised by the fact that Tom Perrotta had written a genre book. The truth is, it's not — it just has a genre premise. We have a great writer on the show this year, Patrick Somerville, and he wrote a short story where the world stops spinning. It never gets into why did this happen. It's just a short story about characters who are living on the wrong side of the world, the side that's not facing the sun. I just love those. It's a big genre premise, but then it's completely a Cormac McCarthy presentation of that idea.
So Tom wrote a book where 2 percent of the world's population disappears. It was exactly the right number for us to say, "Okay, the show is 2 percent genre." There are times, especially in season two, where you really have to flirt with the idea of, this is a place where nobody departed from. We have to lean more heavily into genre. Then there will be entire episodes that don't do that at all.
I won't say that Lost was a cautionary tale, but it was a very genre-driven show. I know what happens when you start snorting the genre cocaine, and it becomes addictive. You want more, and the audience wants more, and suddenly, you're Robert Downey Jr. passed out in someone else's bed. It doesn't have a happy ending.
We're constantly trying to keep the story focused on the characters. There's an argument to be made that most of the things that happened on the show could happen on any other show, but we get a little more latitude because 140 million people did vanish off the face of the earth. Law & Order: SVU can't do genre because it's not baked into the premise of the show. But we can.
Lost had a lot of genre elements, but it also had these character elements, which I think is what made it a much more interesting show than a lot of shows that resemble it but are lesser [in quality]. This show may have a different ratio of genre to non-genre, but I think [character] elements have always been part of your version of storytelling.
Here's what's exciting to me about it but might be divisive. Let's talk about Patti Levin, for example, and the presentation of her in the show in the second season of The Leftovers. On any other show which uses a device like this, whether it's Six Feet Under and Nate seeing his dad, or it's Mr. Robot — you're not watching Mr. Robot and going, "What if Christian Slater is actually there?" Mr. Robot takes place in the real world. It is a work of fiction, but it's governed by the rules of the real world. Therefore, he can only be a figment of Elliot's imagination, and therefore, Elliot is engaging in some level of psychosis.
In our show, there is the possibility that Patti Levin is real, that she is not a figment of Kevin's imagination, that she is not a manifestation of guilt that he's feeling but she is literally there. That's what's exciting about The Leftovers, which is the search for meaning — the possibility that the premise opens up, versus the exploration of that possibility.
This season, it feels like the first three episodes are like little short stories in and of themselves. What's the process for writing an episode? What's the thing that you start with, and how do you build from that?
One of the things that we took away from last season was that the really strong episodes — particularly three and six, the Nora and Matt episodes, which were singular points of view, then episode nine, which was exclusively a flashback episode — had something going for them that the others didn't. You can't do that every week. It's the equivalent of someone trying to hit a home run every time they get up. You need to get people who are just on base and set things up.
We would try to do stories where it's like, here's an episode where Kevin loses his bagel in the toaster, and he's trying to figure whether or not Dean is a figment of his imagination. Meanwhile, Jill and Aimee are following Nora Durst because they saw she had a gun. There was a lack of interconnectivity between those stories. It was a traditional A-story, B-story plot.
One of the things that we started learning was, let's have narrative cohesion in these episodes, so that there is only one story. We can explore different points of view, but in the one where the Garveys come to Miracle, there may be Nora scenes, while Kevin is [doing other things], but they're all on the same axis. They're all interrelated and interconnected. That's one of the things we try to do as we break stories now. Everybody is orbiting around the same center.
That said, we did also feel the need to say we want to do a Matt episode again this season, but we don't want to rip ourselves off. Now, the audience is expecting that's something we do, so how can we be a little bit subversive about that? Ultimately, the short answer to your question is there is usually about a week of flailing around, with one nugget of something cool that we're all excited by but can't figure out how to make it work. Then somebody in the room says one thing, and then you literally physically see everybody sit up, and then you just chase it.
Excitement often is expressed, at least in my heart, as alarm. Damon knows if he has scared me, he's onto something.
I think you're selling yourself short, though. I think that you pitched what is definitely the craziest idea that's going in the finale. I would never have pitched that idea, and when I heard it I got scared. We're doing it, and I love it. I corrupted you!
On building season two: "This is the one house that was not obliterated by the hurricane"
There were criticisms in season one that the show was very white. We're living in an age of increased diversity on TV, and the majority of the new characters this season are of other races. Was that just where the story was taking you?
It was certainly a conscious choice. When we started thinking about Jarden and where it was situated in Texas and what community we would be focused on, we really were driven by the idea that it was an African-American family and cast it appropriately. But this was in a pre-Empire world. I don't think that Tom or I or the majority of the writers and producers on the show had something to say about race.
It did feel like the show as depicted in season one was a relatively white suburb of New York. So we really did like this idea of saying, "There is this black family, and they're basically going to be the major characters of the second season, and the show is really going to be about the trials and tribulations of the Garveys and this family." We're really going to try to push them together and watch what happens.
In the book, my urge was to tell this global phenomenon through the microcosm of this one family and this one town. One of the things that will inevitably happen as we expand the show is that we expand the world of the show. How do Muslims deal with the sudden departure? I don't know if that will ever get written, but it's interesting to think about how different cultures would respond and different religions would be challenged in different ways. We began that process in season two.
This season is vastly different from season one. How did you get to that?
It started in the midst of season one. As an adaptation of Tom's book we had a blueprint that traditionally you don't have for season one of the television show. For a show like Game of Thrones that is a continuing series of books, you know that blueprint goes beyond the first season, but from almost the first time that Tom and I ever met, we both agreed that structurally speaking, his novel could be a season of television. You could start it with Heroes Day and end with Nora finding the baby on the porch. That would be a wonderful season of television. But there was more to this world.
We got into the first season of the show, and as we were coming down into the end game of episodes eight through 10, I think at least personally speaking I started feeling like maybe this should be it. We're not ever going to have a better series ender than Nora finding the baby on the porch and saying to Kevin, "Look what I found." That's a good place to leave your characters! You feel like everyone is going to be okay.
Of course, that's not the way television works. We took a little bit of time off between seasons to start have those conversations [about what would happen next]. We were talking about, okay, so what does season two look like in Mapleton? Kevin is still the chief of police. Nora is living with him. The GR starts up another chapter on another cul-de-sac. Nothing is really exciting. I just kept thinking about Nora's letter.
For the most part, the letter in Tom's novel is Nora making a very compelling case to get out of Dodge, to basically leave this town where she will always be defined by her loss. Today [the day of the interview] is September 11, and I was listening to NPR this morning. It's 14 years later, and there's still the widows and widowers and family members of those who were lost. They're still going to these memorials every year, and it's like they're in a perpetual state of mourning. The world will not let them be anything else!
We'd had this idea over the course of the [first season] when we are talking about the Denziger Report that there are anomalies, like the Brandenburg Carousel in Germany, where there was a carousel where everybody who was on the carousel at that time disappeared. We were like, there should be, like, a town somewhere in the United States where nobody departed. Other storylines took over, but we always liked that idea.
Where would [Nora and Kevin] move to? Remember that town where nobody departed from? If you want to go to some place that has the illusion of safety, this is the one house that was not obliterated by the hurricane.
It wasn't some random thing, like let's send them to California because it's sunny there. This was the place that had thematic weight and also allowed us to approach the phenomenon from an entirely different direction and look at certain other religious impulses that would spring from this — not that sense of we've been cursed, but that sense of we've been blessed, but also, that makes us special, and we need to make a distinction between us and them.
We were interested in the idea of, what does a holy city look like at ground zero, when the rumors are just starting to spread? How did Mecca become Mecca, and how did Jerusalem become Jerusalem? In a contemporary, even cynical, world in the aftermath of a supernatural event, would this place even be deigned holy, or would it feel more like it's a national park?
Tom, as you were moving past the novel, are you someone who when you're writing has thoughts of what's off the page, or are you someone who kind of stays focused on what's just right in front of you?
I've never returned to a character or a story. Part of my brain just shuts it off when the book is done. So part of the adventure of this was how will these people keep living and how will we reinvent them? That process actually started in season one. What I was used to before was taking a novel and making it a feature film. What that meant was mercilessly lopping off stuff that just wasn't going to fit this two-hour box. We actually expanded the book in the first season, and Damon was very clear: "I want Nora to have a job." That led to this amazing thing, her doing these questionnaires, and that opened up into this world of the conference.
We were already adding to the book. It was like, let's just give these characters fuller lives or new dimensions. That was already happening. You can't ever exhaust your characters, I guess.
You can! Then you just kill them off.
In a 350-page book with five or six major characters, Nora was just home and grieving. That seemed to get at what I thought was essential about her. But to get that character out in the world, suddenly she was a more volatile, interesting character than in the book. I started to see how this could be fun.
You mentioned season one could have been the end of the show. Do you feel that way about season two, or could there be seasons three, four, and five?
We know what the finale is going to be. As we design these seasons, contrary to popular belief, we did start before we even embarked saying, "Where are we going to end? What's the last scene at the end of episode 10? What does it feel like?" That becomes your magnetic north. That scene has always felt to us more of a conclusion or a book being closed than a cliffhanger, and remains so.
Harry Potter, which we couldn't be further from, or the Narnia books, which we couldn't be further from, always felt like there could be another Narnia book. But it ended with, okay, the kids are now back in the real world and whatever they needed to resolve over in Narnia has been resolved, or Harry Potter has thwarted this plot of Voldemort. Whereas Lost, every season had to end with a real cliffhanger, designed toward, "How can we get people to come back and watch the next season?"
The Leftovers is not built on that engine, and season two could be the end of the series. If we don't make any more of these, the audience isn't going to be clamoring that, "You've got to resolve this thing!" At the same time, of course, there is more story to be had. After season one, I felt like there wasn't any at all. Then, when someone just basically says, "What if there was?" we started talking about it.
The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on HBO. Watch previous episodes on HBO Go.