It's not a mystery to anyone who has kept up with my coverage of The Leftovers that my affections for the series run deep. At the ATX Festival in Austin this past week, I had the opportunity to sit down with the brilliant, creative minds behind the series to ask some important questions.
When sitting face-to-face with Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta, and Mimi Leder, it's impossible to imagine limiting yourself to ten minutes, let alone to the confines of The Leftovers on TV, no matter how beloved.
Lindelof, of course, is known the world over for Lost. Perrotta is responsible for the book from which The Leftovers stemmed. And Leder placed her stamp on China Beach and was even connected to a little-known show I still remember to this day, A Year in the Life, neither topic that I got to address.
All of that is to prelude to this: I love my job, and as much as I love it, facing three people whom I respect dearly was a daunting task.
Much like The Leftovers itself delved far deeper than what we watched on the surface into places within the hearts and minds of the characters, I wanted to know what drove these three people to deliver one of the most unique and thought-provoking dramas we've ever watched on television.
That's one of the things Lindelof noted he'd miss about being a part of The Leftovers. At the end, he shared how much he'd miss conversations like this one and the level of engagement The Leftovers created. It's not about love triangles or who's in the hatch, but ideas far deeper. Kudos to all of you who were a part of it.
"Softball," Lindelof laughed when I suggested their first question to ponder was what it is about faith that challenges all of them and why they feel pulled toward open-ended subject matter as a matter of course.
Perrotta had been thinking about why The Leftovers connected with viewers and believes it's due to the changing reality in our postmodern world. "We used to have a culture that had a consensus. We all watched the same news channels; there was an official narrative of America."
While it was oppressive to some, it also allowed others to stay on the rails, so to speak.
"I feel like The Leftovers puts all our characters into a position where there is no consensus reality about this thing that has happened and everybody is left to their own devices because religion, science, politics, nothing can explain what it is. So it's a little bit a parable about our culture right now and not having consensus reality."
Lindelof took it a notch further. It's important for him as a storyteller to ensure he challenges himself by providing unique content not seen before on television.
"I just feel like there is an abundance of television out there that gives people definitive answers, solves mysteries, says this person is angry because their parents beat them when they were a kid. Everything is neat and tidy and explained. There is a lot of that out there, and I just want to offer an alternative."
"I have to be honest with you," he continued, "that's not the life that I'm experiencing, and as a writer, I want to reflect the life I'm experiencing, which is I don't understand why people hate the way they behave, I don't understand why people think they don't deserve love, I don't understand why they worship a deity in the sky that seems to totally and completely ignore them."
"Those are the ideas that I want to explore in my writing because I don't know the answer. And I know when I get to the end, I'm still not going to know it, but the exploration of the question is just as fascinating to me."
I'm reminded of the theme song (which returned for The Leftovers Season 3 Episode 8) from Iris DeMent, "Let the Mystery Be," when Lindelof suggests that if you're not a fan of that kind of storytelling, there are plenty of very well-made procedural shows with finite and clear-cut solutions available. "I live in a world of mystery, and I want my storytelling to reflect that."
Like watching The Leftovers, creating it seemed to be a profound experience.
"For me, I really went on a journey of self-discovery and opened my mind up quite a bit to learn that there are no answers and to accept it, perhaps," Leder shared. "And who needs the answers anyway? It's the journey. It was really a life-changing experience and a release, letting go of my old belief systems and perhaps finding new ones, and that's very much what the show talks about."
Lindelof's journey was in pace with the show's religious themes. We wrestled with the themes of religion on The Leftovers frequently here, and it's interesting to discover how closely his thoughts are intertwined with what faith, in its many incarnations, meant in the context of the show.
"I think my shift has been that when we started writing The Leftovers, I was at war with my own religious identity – I was born and raised Jewish – and that's a cultural identity as well as a religious identity, but I don't like Judaism because it's about chosen-ness, and God is a very angry, wrathful, judgmental force that scared me as a kid."
"At the end of the show, I wouldn't call myself Jewish, but I've made my peace with all that negativity because there is nobility with a certain aspect of that religion that doesn't answer questions, and you're supposed to wrestle with the text, and you're supposed to say 'why is God such a dick.'"
Lindelof continued, "So, I think that through confronting an old testament God we have Matt Jamison, a new testament guy, doing battle with an old testament God. God gets eaten by a lion, Matt's cancer isn't going away, and that's what happens when you fight with religion. You both lose."
Even Perrotta, who created the characters and the themes presented in the overall story finds it all fascinating during a discussion. "That's really interesting. I started from a really agnostic place. The book really came out of that, but I think we did a good job of showing how necessary these narratives really are, right?"
"The book creates this vacuum and the characters are trying to fill it, and in the end, I just feel like there is no escaping religion because it's just what we do, and in fact, it led me back to this 'bible as literature' position because I don't believe any religion is the true religion. What I believe is that we can judge the stories that they tell, and use the stories that they tell."
Tales of the creative process behind The Leftovers made it sound like Lindelof would toss out crazy ideas, and Perrotta would shoot them down, but the two men didn't remember it quite that way. In fact, in their recollection of the process, they made a great team by keeping each other in check.
Perrotta recalled moments he fought against that turned out great, "So, for instance, I was very worried in the Season 1 finale. Why does Holy Wayne happen to be in the diner that Kevin and Matt are in so Kevin can go into the bathroom and have an encounter with the dying Holy Wayne? It just felt so coincidental to me."
"And I just thought everyone's going to watch this and say this is crazy! You know, you'd have to explain to me how they found themselves in the same diner. And I fought, and Damon was like, 'No, it's fine.'"
"He used Dickens as a sort of explanation as to why it worked, and sure enough, I feel like I was the only person who was saying, "Why is Holy Wayne..." And he said, 'There is gravity in the story bringing these people together, and people want to see them together.'"
"I feel like I learned a lot about storytelling by saying no and then realizing that no? It was a yes. And people talk about that scene to me still. It was the only time that Kevin and Holy Wayne interacted, and people are very interested in the wish that Holy Wayne granted to Kevin."
"So I was often fighting from a realist position and then learning that that position didn't apply to every scene in The Leftovers."
Lindelof's recollection was one of scaling. For all the insane ideas he'd toss at Perrotta, they'd come back scaled down and make more sense.
"One of the big ideas that I was excited about for the third season of the show was that Kevin was going to be perceived as some sort of messianic figure and that after not dying at the end of Season 2 this cult of people were starting to believe that he was the Messiah, and he didn't know about it," Lindelof shared by way of example.
"And I imagined, at first, that there were going to be like hundreds of people who were Kevinists, and Tom was like, 'Whoa there.' And so it just became Matt, and John and Michael Murphy. So that idea of saying there's something in your idea that's great, but let's just scale it down, let's make it more intimate, let's ground it. It was more like that," Perrotta explained of his relationship with Perrotta.
Perrotta also admitted the give and take allowed them to realize just how much the show could accommodate, including far more humor and reality than then anticipated.
Even in the face The Leftovers ending on a high note, with answered questions, critics' praise, the beautiful love story of Kevin and Nora, and ultimately a series that will live on, generating conversation well after the weekly airings on HBO disappear, the team still has reservations about its success.
When I compared The Leftovers finale to what, in hindsight, was not the most well-received finale Lindelof could have asked from Lost, he saw things differently. "I'm not entirely sure I agree with your premise. That's where we sit four days from the finale."
"Four days after the Lost finale aired, there was an outpouring of positivity and then the Emmy nominations came out and then the final season of the show was nominated for drama series and the finale was nominated for writing. There was that and four episodes of Mad Men. So in my brain, I was like, 'That's a huge win.' I was blind to the other side, the people who didn't like the Lost finale."
"But in the month of the aftermath of the Lost finale, I was either deluded or was having the information curated for me that it was a win. So I'm not, four days after The Leftovers finale, sure that this story has been entirely told yet because I'm anxious about the other shoe dropping."
While I tried to assure him it was a win and to take it; it's difficult to stand in his shoes, waiting for one or the other to drop. Lost was and is now a hugely successful series. But The Leftovers achieved something different.
Lindelof listened and considered, chuckling, "It's categorically a win? Yeah. Six weeks from now? Well. I hope you're right. So, that feels really good. I'll direct any grumblers to you."
"It will, in the future possibly, feel really good," Perrotta laughed.
"I felt we had made something very special and unique, the entire series," Leder began her statement assured and confident. She even admitted she was "very satisfied" when they finished the finale. "Instead of feeling scared, I just felt completely, like, this feels right, you know? I felt good about it."
But in a matter of seconds, even Leder's confidence seemed shaken. "But now that it's over and there's such a tremendous response, now I'm starting to shake in my boots for some reason. It makes absolutely no sense, but I'm feeling very mournful. I don't know why, but I'm feeling very nervous now. It's an odd feeling. [looks at Lindelof] Can you explain it to me? [laughs]
And that's where they find themselves, outside of the series, mulling over the question we all have about everything. Lindelof pondered, "I think to quote the title of David Johansen's book, "What's Next?" And to quote Nora's, you know, sort of review of that book, "What's next?"
"Nothing. That is what I'm feeling," Leder offered. "What's next is going to be so difficult to achieve compared to the achievement and how deep we all went on this journey, and what this show said, and everything it meant, and that is why I'm feeling so at loose ends."
"You know, it's been a long journey, especially for me," Perrotta agreed. "I started the book about eight years ago, but I just have this feeling like 'you brought it home,' and I can close this book feeling just right about it. The collaboration brought a lot of joy to my life, and artistically, I feel the book was honored, and I got to do something that was greater than I ever expected."
"Amen," Leder said appropriately.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.