Damon Lindelof Reveals Why 'The Leftovers' Season Two Almost Didn't Happen

The co-creator of the HBO drama also gets candid about his "constant anxieties" about disappointing his audience and why the show needs more diversity.
Photo by Annie I. Bang /Invision/AP
Damon Lindelof

Damon Lindelof is risking it all on Sunday when The Leftovers returns.

The showrunner is ushering in a host of changes in the sophomore season of his HBO drama — a location move, new main characters and a potential second rapture-like incident, to name a few. But the former Lost co-creator insists that the narrative overhaul is simply the next chapter of the story, not a series reboot.

The new direction of the drama, which in its freshman run explored the aftermath of a mysterious event that caused two percent of the world's population to inexplicably disappear, began to materialize after creators Lindelof and Tom Perrotta burned through the show’s source material (a book of the same name by Perrotta) at the conclusion of season one, tasking the pair with inventing original storylines for season two. But according to Lindelof, a second installment wasn’t always a guarantee.

“When the first season ended, I was certainly of the mind of, ‘Well, maybe we’re done. Maybe this is all there is,’” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “[But] we were really interested in this idea of breaking free of the grief cycle. I wanted to watch a show about people who were trying to feel better, versus people who are stuck in this washer cycle of mystery.”

It’s an audacious move for someone who’s been tremendously vocal about his fear of disappointing his audience. “I spend my life in a constant state of anxiety and concern,” says Lindelof, who — to no one’s surprise — has been candid about the challenges of the writing process. “To think that I’m swaggering around feeling like I’m just dropping my brilliant creative ideas on the world, and that if they don’t get it then they’re fools, that’s just not the way that I am wired.”

Ahead of The Leftovers season two premiere, THR sat down with Lindelof to discuss why he decided to keep the show going, the significance of adding a black family to the cast and how he plans to refrain from “teasing the audience” this time. (“If our characters were pursuing the answer to this mystery… then the audience can say, “F— you.’”)

What did the initial conversations between you and Perrotta about season two look like?

In season one, we obviously had the template of Tom’s book and we always knew that the last scene of the book — in fact, the last four words of the book — were going to be exact same last four words of the season finale. We always knew that. But because we’re doing a television show, I think undercutting that is always the anxiety of, “But then what? What’s next?” And The Leftovers just didn’t feel like a show that was going to live and die on cliffhangers. There are plenty of amazing television shows that end their seasons in really satisfying ways, like Mad Men and The Wire, even The Sopranos. The question just becomes, “Do you want to spend more time with these people?” versus, “Is this person who’s just been shot going to live?” There also are shows that I love, like Breaking Bad, where the seasons ended — and certainly moreso as they moved into their endgame — with a more dynamic, “What’s going to happen next?” The Leftovers is never going to be that show.

What then did you have in mind for the second season at that point?

When the first season ended, I was certainly of the mind of, “Well, maybe we’re done. Maybe this is all there is. We just did a season, ten episodes, of this thing. Is there a compelling reason to continue? What are the story threads that we’d want to explore?” Then we sat down and we started saying, “What does this family look like? What is Garvey 2.0? What does ‘Kevin and Nora’ look like? It seems like Laurie is out of the Guilty Remnant and she’s with Tom but both of them kind of joined these crazy cults, so what would they do next — and is that interesting?” So we basically had the freedom to explore the idea of, “We don’t have to do this if we don’t want to, but if we wanted to, what would it be?”

There were a couple of ideas that we had over the course of the first season of the show, one of which was, “What if there was a town somewhere in the United States where nobody departed, and what would that place be like?” The show felt like it wanted to move somewhere. In that amazing letter to Kevin [at the end of last season], Nora writes, “I need to leave this place. I’m still living in the same house and sitting at the same kitchen table where I suffered this great tragedy. Why?”

Tom wrote the book as kind of a 9/11 parable, or at least that got attributed to it, and now here we are many, many years after 9/11 but there are still the 9/11 widows and widowers who have made that their life. So we were really interested in this idea of breaking free of the grief cycle. I wanted to watch a show about people who were trying to feel better, versus people who are stuck in this washer cycle of mystery. So we started getting excited about some of those ideas and went to HBO and said, “Would you be interested in watching this show?”

You’re introducing a new, prominent family, the Murphys, this season, and you’ve said that you specifically wanted those characters to be black. Why?

I feel like the decision for the Murphys to be black was really about gut. Last year — with the exception of Paterson Joseph, who played Holy Wayne, and Amanda Warren, who played Lucy — we did not do a good job of presenting a diverse worldview. And because we were moving the show, it was kind of like, “Now we’re really irresponsible if we don’t move into [this] realm.” It always felt like it should be a black family. But it doesn’t feel like The Leftovers has anything to say about race in the way that that’s a supercharged issue, and [one] that everybody should be talking about. I don’t want to say, “They’re black, but I don’t want to talk about race.” But at the same time, this is not the way that The Leftovers is taking on Ferguson or any of the incredibly important things that are happening in terms of the racial divide in our country right now. That said, in terms of a fundamental dynamic it felt like, “If we’re spending all this time with a black family and then a white family moves in next door and they are the other family, they are the ones that are new to the neighborhood, the ones that do not belong, the ones who do not have roots down.”

It also scared me a little. It made me feel outside my comfort zone, and I think that’s why a lot of white writers don’t cast black actors — because they just basically go, “I’m afraid that I’m going to do something offensive, so I’m just not going to do it at all.” My feeling is that that’s a crutch. I don’t want to do anything offensive, but if my gut is telling me that these characters should be black, then that’s what they’re going to be. And I want their experience to feel authentic and important, so I’m going to cast actors who are going to protect those characters. We’re going to do our best, but I have not lived the black experience. At the same time, I felt like that’s not a reason to shy away from it because I’ve never been a mystical guy who is in a wheelchair and I was able to write Locke just fine. So [I thought], “Let’s take a swing at it and see what happens,” and I’m really, really happy that we did.

Did you happen to hire additional African American writers on the show following that decision?

I’m really reluctant to talk about it just because there’s no upside in me saying, “Yeah, we have black writers in our room. Give me a medal because we have two black writers on our staff.” I guess all I’d like to be quoted as saying is that I need to do better. I need to hire more writers of color, and I shouldn’t hire more writers of color because we have black characters on the show. There should just be more writers of color in writers rooms, period. And as much responsibility as I want to take for that, I think there’s a fundamental failing at the agencies in terms of what their stable of actors and writers of color are. But the way that I hire writers is I go to them and say, “We’re looking for two writers next season, who have you got?” and the majority of the scripts that I get sent and the writers that I get pitched are white males. So I can say, “I want a black female,” or, “I want more females on the staff,” and then I’ll get them. I have to solicit that material. But if you basically looked at the agencies and said, “How many black writers do you represent, and what is the percentage of black writers do you have to white writers?” That’s what the submissions are reflective of, so there needs to be a change.

At its core, The Leftovers explores how ordinary people react to seemingly unexplainable events. How much do you plan to reveal about the “why” of these phenomena as the show moves forward?

When Lost ended, I was like, “I’m never doing this again. I’m never working on a television show again, and I’m certainly never going to get into the resolving of mysteries and that constant anxiety of believing that everybody in the world is like, 'When are you going to answer this? And when you answer this, it better be great.'" And knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to achieve that, I told myself that I couldn’t ever put myself in that position again. But the reason that I responded to The Leftovers was that Tom made it very clear in the writing of the novel that the most intriguing question, “Where did these people go?” was never going to be resolved. If you take that off the table, it’s about living in the world where that’s never going to be resolved. That’s really relatable to me because that’s the world that I’m living it. I want to know what happens when I die. I want to know which religion is right. I want to know if I picked the right woman to marry. I don’t know any of those things for sure, but I put faith and I invest in all those things. I meet my wife at 30 years old and I’m like, “This is it. This is who it is,” and I get down on my knee and I propose, and that’s the way that I want to live my life — but you just never know for sure. And I think that idea of living in a state of not being sure that you’ve made the right choice is really interesting when someone starts to scratch at it. Here I am ten years later and I definitely chose the right woman. But when it comes to religion or a spiritual system, that’s constantly shifting, and I think that the Departure would shake that up.

But it’s safe to say that there won’t be any definitive explanations for the Departure?

The short answer to your question is that we are never, ever going to tell you where these people went and why these people were chosen. And if that’s the reason that you’re watching the show, I can guarantee you that we’re not going to answer it and that may be frustrating for you. It’s sort of like how the Harry Potter universe is never going to tell you why some people are born with magical ability and some people aren’t, or where magic started. It’s just like, “Here’s Hogwarts. Some people are like Hermione, where her parents were normal and she was born with magic. But we’re not going to tell you why. This is just what you’re inheriting.” And J.K. Rowling was smart enough to never try to make that into a mystery. If our characters were pursuing the answer to this mystery, if Nora was looking for her kids, then the audience can say, “F— you. You better tell us because that’s what it is.”

There was just this amazing show called The Missing that was on the BBC last year about a couple and their son that goes missing in France, and what made it so engrossing for me to watch was that I didn’t know whether it was going to end with the parents knowing. And I didn’t go into the series with any assurances and that made the watching of it so riveting. I love not knowing and I really respond to that kind of storytelling, but I feel like we have to be very responsible in the way that we do it because I don’t want to tease the audience.

But in a world where an event as bizarre as the Departure takes place, wouldn’t most people be searching for answers?

The characters in the show don’t know that they’re never going to get the answer to that question. They don’t know that that’s not something that the show is going to answer. So it would not be an authentic presentation of the world of The Leftovers if there weren’t some people — probably not our people — but some people who were actively seeking where all the people went. It is a little bit like the J.D. Salinger trope of writers who want to be left alone and want to become recluses. It’s like, but you wrote this amazing piece of brilliance. People are going to try to find you and ask you what Catcher in the Rye meant. You don’t get to live off the grid. If you didn’t want me to bug you then why did you write it? He’s like, “I couldn't help myself. If I wanted to be more specific, I would have been more specific.” Michael Haneke, who is one of my favorite filmmakers, made the movies Cache and The White Ribbon and Amor, and he says, “Everything I wanted you to know is in the script, and there’s nothing else to say about it.” I think that’s immensely ballsy.

Considering all of the risks you’re taking with season two, were you at all concerned that the audience would be upset that there’s not enough familiar terrain?

I spend my life in a constant state of anxiety and concern — and I’m not trying to get ink. To think that I’m swaggering around feeling like I’m just dropping my brilliant creative ideas on the world, and that if they don’t get it then they’re fools, that’s just not the way that I am wired. The way that I am wired is I come up with an idea that is immensely exciting to me, and then I spend a lot of time trying to convince others that it’s exciting. Sometimes they talk me out of it and sometimes I steamroll over them and do it anyway, and then I spend the next several weeks, if not months, hoping that the audience loves it as much as I do and that my opinion will be validated. And then the same thing happens every time, which is that some people love it and some people hate it. And then I spend a tremendous amount of time being depressed and anxious about why the people that hated it, hated it. “What did I do wrong?” And then I do it all over again. This is the cycle that I am in. I will say that I am a happier person because now I’ve acknowledged it, versus before when I was completely and totally unaware that I was doing it. Now, at least I do it with intention.

The Leftovers premieres Sunday, Oct. 4 at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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