Pushing through the membrane of discomfort: Damon Lindelof on The Leftovers
Damon Lindelof discusses writing a show with religious overtones, making every character the star of the show, and using the title sequence as an overture to the episode.
The Rapture. It’s not exactly the easiest subject matter, either to tackle as a writer or digest as a viewer. But who better to bring us a televised take on it than The Leftovers’ Damon Lindelof, one of the creative minds behind Lost?
Based on Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, The Leftovers stars Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman and Carrie Coon. Brought to the small screen by showrunner Lindelof, and written by Lindelof and Perrotta, the title refers to those left behind after a rapture-like event suddenly causes 2% of the world’s population to disappear.
The show offers an emotional, character-driven look at family members struggling to come to terms with this new reality, and the choices they make as they stare down what could be the end of the world.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Lindelof about the series, and the many reasons he knew he wanted to be involved with it – even before he’d picked up the book.
How did you first become involved with this project? What appealed to you about Tom’s book?
My first exposure to The Leftovers came when I read a New York Times book review written by Stephen King. He’s one of my favorite authors, going back from when I was a kid, and he loved the book. I was also a Perrotta fan way back, from Election through Little Children. So I was just here in this weird Venn diagram of Stephen King and Tom Perrotta thinking “this sounds interesting”.
Stephen King described it as the best episode of The Twilight Zone that had never been filmed, and I’m a huge fan of The Twilight Zone as well. So I was kind of on the hook before I even bought the book.
Then I read the book and I was just deeply and emotionally moved by it. I liked the fact that Tom, who had never really written a “genre book” or flirted with the supernatural before, had used a very supernatural premise to tell a very emotional, simple story about a family.
I had just binged on Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, these two Jason Katims shows that really focused on the idea of family, and it just felt like something I desperately wanted to be involved with. HBO had already bought Tom’s book, so I called them and begged for a meeting.
There were a couple of other writers and showrunners who were trying to get their hands on it – fortunately, and perhaps sadistically, Tom chose me. And we were off to the races.
Given the religious subject matter and the fact that the show deals with cults, what kinds of research did you do?
The birth of The Leftovers happened because Tom was writing a book called The Abstinence Teacher, in which one of the characters was an evangelical who believed in The Rapture. Tom did a lot of research for that book, to understand how that idea of The Rapture came into being, who believed in it, and what it meant. All of those things kind of got dumped into The Leftovers, so he arrived already pretty well researched.
As the show went on, we hired Reza Aslan, who is a religious scholar. He’s written a number of books, most notably one called Zealot, about the life and times of the historical Jesus Christ, the origins of Christianity, and how that all came to be.
Reza became a kind of consulting producer in the room that we could turn to anytime we had questions. When we were looking to research the history of religious thought, ideology and beliefs as they pertain to God, and even more nihilistic, agnostic, atheistic constructs, Reza was the creative crutch that we would lean on.
You grow up hearing the phrase “don’t talk religion or politics”. What are the implications of writing a television show with heavy religious overtones, when it is a subject people have such strong opinions about?
It’s something that everybody wants to talk about but nobody does talk about because there are all these landmines. I think that it makes people really uncomfortable – it’s an incredibly personal question to ask someone “what are your religious beliefs?” When you say that to someone, even just a close friend, you can see how uncomfortable they get because it’s such a hard thing to put into words.
But I thought, “Oh…well that’s perfect,” because I’m not at all averse to making people uncomfortable. And I think that ultimately any kind of art, whether it’s on a canvas or in a piece of music or as a television show, sometimes has to push through that membrane of discomfort to discover some sort of fundamental truth.
I do feel, particularly having been born in the latter part of the 20th century in the United States, that the conventional thinking is that there’s a mass migration away from organized religion. But that’s because I was raised on the coasts – first I lived in a suburb of New York City, then I moved to Los Angeles. But in fact, between those coasts there’s a tremendous amount of religious belief intertwined in people’s lives.
I wanted The Leftovers – and I think this was really true to what Tom’s vision was when he wrote the book – to not condemn religion, but actually have an open conversation about why it exists and what it does for people emotionally, and explore the idea that it can be this incredibly beautiful and powerful thing in addition to being this scary and separating thing.
I think that particularly in a post-Trump world, the way that we talk about other religions like Islam as dangerous threats really cuts to the core of this broader conversation, of “Why is it that our belief systems result in such widespread violence and hatred and confusion…Is there another conversation that we can be having alongside that one, that casts it in a slightly different light?”
We try to pack all that pretentious nonsense into The Leftovers.
As you mentioned, the series is really about family. There are certain episodes that focus completely on a single character and serve to develop his or her backstory, which is something I also remember from Lost. Tell me about writing those types of episodes.
Perrotta’s novel focused mainly on Kevin, Nora and Laurie – though there were certainly other characters in it. But when you’re going to expand a novel into TV, I think you have to look at every character as basically the star of their own show, because that’s the way that the world works.
In your existence you are the star of the episode that is life. You’ll have an interaction with someone at a Starbucks and then you’ll part ways – they go back into their episode, even though there was some overlap into yours.
I just wanted the storytelling to reflect that idea, and if you treat every character like the star rather than just a couple of them, it forces you to really do a deep dive into what makes people tick.
So I love that format of storytelling where even the characters who seem the most inconsequential at first become stars in their own right as you deepen the narrative, as it expands. I fell in love with that kind of ensemble-ized storytelling in shows like Hill Street Blues that I watched as a teenager, and Twin Peaks after that of course. And even into The Wire. Heavily ensemble-ized shows that were able, on a season-by-season basis, to completely and totally leave the narratives of the main characters.
The first season of The Wire is about cops and the drug dealers that they’re chasing after and trying to bust. By the end of the season you’re thinking, “Is this about the cops or is it about the drug dealers or both?” And then the second season completely shifts the point of view to these people who work down on the docks who were just barely mentioned in the first season.
I love that idea of swinging the lens over to some other interesting place and building that Dickensian construct of “every character matters”.
Season One covered the entirety of the novel. What was it like to create an additional 18 episodes for these characters, and with their author?
It was very exciting. Although Tom might have a slightly different answer!
By the time we got to the second season, the idea that a manual existed that we could refer to if we got stuck, or that could be a source of inspiration, was now gone, and it was the terror of “the training wheels are now off the bike.” But what we learned once the training wheels came off the bike was, “We can ride faster, we can take corners, we can navigate through areas that were previously unexplored.” And I think that that whole process was really exhilarating.
Obviously Tom and I are important voices in the creation of the show, but we have an incredible writers’ room, with a sort of shifting landscape – different writers for different seasons.
It was really important for us to bring new voices on each year who weren’t basically drinking the Kool-Aid, to use the cult terminology, of having been inside the culture of the show. They could say, “Well here’s the show that I was watching, not having made it.” And that really opened our eyes to different possibilities and areas to explore as we dove into the second two seasons.
In that spirit, the show has three seasons with three very different filming locations. Was it almost like shooting an entirely new series each year?
Every season premiere was almost like a new pilot because it introduced, not necessarily entirely new characters (although season two certainly did that), but a new plotline or new idea.
The whole second season is about the disappearance of these three girls, and although we’re continuing the arc of the Garvey family [from season one], the focal point of the storytelling is really the Murphy family. And in the third season we return to the Garveys, but because it’s the final story we introduced a new idea, which is that the world may be coming to an end or something big is going to happen on the seven-year anniversary of the Departure.
I did feel a desire to shake things up and do something new, but, more importantly, I wanted the characters to be moving, not just emotionally but also physically. I wanted to really feel like the characters had taken a physical journey as well as an emotional one.
If you think about mythological storytelling in, say, the Joseph Campbell tradition, carried forwards in Star Wars from my childhood, for the characters it’s about leaving Tatooine behind and going out into the galaxy at large, and who knows where you’re going to end up.
And each season has its own specific character, based on the fact that we uprooted the show each year. Because every time we started to get comfortable we’d think, “Oh, we figured out New York, now it’s time to go to Austin and start over again…” And then, “Now we’ve figured out Austin, let’s go to Australia.”
I think that that idea of always feeling like we weren’t home created a really interesting kind of frequency and energy that crackles around the show, and makes it really exciting to watch because you don’t know where it’s going next. Hopefully.
Let’s talk a bit about the opening credits. They change drastically from season to season, and even seem to tell a bit of the story, particularly in season three. What narrative purpose do they serve, if any?
I had this idea that we could use the opening title sequence almost as an overture. If you go and see a musical, the lights go down and they play like 20-30 seconds of all of the songs that are about to come. And then the curtain goes up and it begins. It helps put you in the rhythmic and thematic and emotional kind of mood that is about to assault your senses.
I basically thought, “Well, we’re telling eight different stories here…what if we used the opening titles as an overture, and thematically gave the audience a sense of the episode to come?”
Sometimes we used sound design, as in the fifth episode with Matt Jameson, and other times we used pieces of popular music that were really on-the-nose descriptions of the episode to come.
So we used the Perfect Strangers theme song for one, not just because Mark Lynn Baker was going to be offering Nora this very interesting opportunity, but also because the lyrics of that theme song felt like they were very much in line with the journey that Nora was going to be going through in that episode.
And we used the Ray LaMontagne song “This Love is Over” to say to the audience, before the episode even started, “This episode is about Nora and Kevin breaking up, and we’re going to tell you that right before you even start watching it, so you have some sense of where we’re going.” That was kind of the thinking.
“We’re in the Golden Age of television.” What do you think of this assessment, and how does it change your game as a showrunner?
It is popular culture’s job to kind of brand things with catchy titles like “The Golden Age of television”. And who knows how long that’s going to last, until they come up with “The Platinum Age of television” or “The Diamond Age of television”? John Landgraf dubbed the age of television that we’re in right now as “Peak TV” – and I think all of the above apply.
But I think what’s been really incredible for me as someone who makes this stuff, is that there’s so much incredible storytelling out there that it does in fact inspire me and teach me what the medium is capable of. Shows like Louie, or Atlanta, or Master of None which are sort of half-hour comedies, but really aren’t – they’re their own sort of specific iconoclastic things.
Or Noah Hawley comes along and does Fargo as an anthology series. They’re doing things that I hadn’t seen before, and that inspires me and makes me realize that the envelopes can still be pushed. There are still new ideas out there, and the only way that that can be shown to you is for someone to actually demonstrate it.
So I completely and totally embrace this idea of “Peak TV”, or “Golden Age of Television”…Because there’s just an unlimited resource of awesome storytelling out there that I can draw upon to inspire my own work.
Finally, do you have any advice you could offer our readers?
The most important thing to do is read. This is not an old fogey saying “whatever happened to books?” But if there’s an episode that you love of a television show, you should try to hunt down the script and actually read what it was before it became the product of the direction, and the product of the acting, etc.
I think that things will start to click in your head. That’s something I did when I first came out here. I wasn’t only reading unproduced screenplays, I was also reading the screenplays of movies that I loved, whether it be The Godfather or Lethal Weapon or Die Hard. I was reading the writing.
If you are a writer and you are not reading, you are denying yourself a tremendous learning opportunity.
The finale of Leftovers airs Sunday 4th June on HBO
Featured image: Alexandra Schepisi as The Woman. Photo by Ben King – © 2017 – HBO
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