Damon Lindelof is an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning writer, producer, and showrunner, known for such films as Tomorrowland and Prometheus and the television show Lost. His current show, HBO’s The Leftovers — which scored a Writer’s Guild Award Nomination for the episode “International Assassin” and six Critics’ Choice Award nominations, including Best Drama Series — is his most audacious work yet. Lindelof’s penchant for themes like reason and faith and his use of nonlinear storytelling and ambiguity have made him one of the most daring, visionary storytellers today — and one of the most controversial, provoking adulation and ire in equal measure, often from the same fans.
Lindelof spoke to Inverse about his plans for Season 3 of The Leftovers (and beyond), why he’s okay with you thinking he ruined Alien, his thoughts on the Leftovers fans who made a pilgrimage to HBO, that time Christopher Eccleston wrote him a letter asking to be naked, and much more.
I: On getting purgatory right this time around and why Kevin Garvey is a shaman
The Writer’s Guild Award-nominated Leftovers episode “International Assassin” is unanimously being praised as one of the best hours on TV this year. However, it used a concept that hasn’t gone over well when you’ve gone there in the past: purgatory. Were you at all nervous about what the audience reception might be?
When we first started talking about Season 2, we knew that Kevin’s primary objective was going to be getting rid of Patti. At the time that we were figuring out the superstructure of the season, we were talking about prophets versus shamans and all these kind of quasi mystical, supernatural ideas. We were also talking about mental illness.
Certainly that’s the way that we treated these kinds of manifestations in the first season, because his dad was hearing voices in the mental institution.
We knew that we were building towards this climactic decision for Kevin to make in terms of “Am I crazy, should I seek medical attention? Or am I in fact being haunted by a supernatural being and I need to take supernatural measures?” It was very apparent which was the more exciting door for Kevin to walk through.
Once we committed to that path, even knowing that we wanted to ground that storytelling by presenting both options, then it just became a matter of “What is that going to look like?” Reza Aslan said the thing about shamans is that there’s a case to be made for heredity — if your mom or dad was in touch with the other world, you were more inclined to have the touch — but it’s not a given. So Harry Potter is born of two wizards, but Hermione Granger is born of two Muggles, and they’re both great wizards. We can have their cake and eat it too.
But in order for a shaman to become a shaman, they have to die. So Kevin Garvey is going to die this season and be reborn. And this was before it became very in-vogue to kill off main characters on TV shows. We never wanted to present it as “He’s dead and that’s the season finale.” We said, “He should die somewhere in the neighborhood of Episode 7 or 8 and he’ll get rid of Patti and then he’ll be back alive again. He’ll deal with the repercussions of that scenario.”
We were so excited by that idea, we never really got nervous about executing it — no pun intended — as we were going along.
But once we wrote Episode 7 and Kevin drank the poison, then it was upon us to show it. We always knew that we were going to commit an entire episode. We had been referring to it all season long as “the Dante’s Inferno episode.” But what does Dante’s Inferno look like on The Leftovers? How do we make it emotional and grounded and unexpected and just exciting to write?
Truth be told, we barked up a number of incorrect trees and wandered down a number of paths that yielded diminishing returns. It was like, “We’ve come up with this really cool construct, but I don’t think we’re satisfyingly building up this episode of Kevin’s journey of the afterlife.”
Then we hit on the idea that ended up being “International Assassin,” which was “What if we weren’t super precious about this journey but approached it with some degree of levity?” We watched it grow into a pre existing genre construct that someone would never expect from The Leftovers, like a spy thriller; like a Bourne Identity movie. Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View were the inspirations for how we wanted the episode to feel.
And Kevin would be completely self-aware in that space. That was the big difference between my previous journey into that space beyond, which was that the characters weren’t aware they were in that space. Wouldn’t it be cool that Kevin remembered drinking the poison, remembered dying, and then suddenly found himself in this scenario that he couldn’t quite wrap his brain around? Once we keyed into that idea, we all got super excited as writers.
At that point my feeling was, “If people don’t like this, then that’s their prerogative.” The most exciting ideas are the ones where your hand is moving increasingly closer and closer to the open flame. The idea that we could get burned, that it could be a complete and total catastrophic disaster — where people watch that hour of television and say, “I’ve never seen something this terrible on television” — that was exciting. It probably should have made us nervous, but we embraced it.
Aside from giving the episode levity and giving Kevin some self-awareness, what else do you think enabled you to make the purgatory construct work this time around?
The great thing about the writers and producers in The Leftovers is that nobody is drinking the Kool-Aid. There are many ideas that I throw out there and people look at me and say, “That’s so fucking stupid.” Then I go, “Thank you for giving me a reality check.” So when they say, “Oh that’s pretty cool,” it’s meaningful.
But then once we shot it and edited it, as the date was approaching when it was going to be on the air, then I started to kind of feel like “Uh-oh, what have we done?” By then, we had already written the finale and shot the “Homeward Bound” stuff.
So it was like, if “International Assassin” doesn’t work, we’re done. Any goodwill we’ve worked up to at this point will completely and totally evaporate. Then we doubled down in the finale, so it will just be rubbing salt in people’s wounds.
I’m not out there in the Twitter-verse anymore. I have my zeitgeist carefully curated for me in terms of what the fan response is, but I’m sure there’s gotta be some people out there who hated “International Assassin.” Any time you try to do something that far out-there, you’re going to piss some people off.
II: On how he runs a show
In this day and age, showrunners are just as known as actors. You’ve been at the beginning of that wave — Lost was really the precursor to Game of Thrones as a show the internet obsesses over. What are your thoughts on the modern showrunner’s place in the culture and your relationship to that place?
On a pure ego level, it’s really exciting to have some degree of authorship. And I don’t just mean me — any showrunner can say this. The idea of having any kind of distinctive storytelling voice in a media climate that is generating so much content — particularly so much amazing content — is immensely flattering.
It’s unpleasant if somebody says to me, “I hated Prometheus and it was so bad you ruined Alien.” But there’s also a part of me that’s like, “That’s so cool that you think I have the power to ruin Alien!” That I just walked into a room with Ridley Scott and was like, “Ridley, this is what we’re going to do. I’ve written this script and I’m handing it to you and we’re going to shoot it. Are we cool?” And he’s like, “Right-o, Damon! Sounds good!”
That’s kind of incredible that the writer is perceived to have any level of power, considering where we were when I was growing up.
David Milch was probably the first television writer on my radar, in addition to Mark Frost and David Lynch. I knew their names, but that was still a very niche thing. Then of course, Joss and J.J. were the first power showrunners where I was like, “I want to do that, I want to be those guys.”
It is cool to watch Fargo and to know that Noah Hawley writes it; to watch Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul and know that Vince Gilligan is writing those. But it’s no secret amongst showrunners that these shows are highly collaborative. So many ideas on The Leftovers are not my ideas. They were presented and hatched and developed by other writers in our writers’ room. Unfortunately, their names don’t get said as much as they should, because we are living in a media culture that wants to say, “This is so-and-so’s show.”
It’s never fun to have your name impugned, but I’ll take that any day of the week just to be like “People know my name because of my writing.”
III: On the level of shit one can get
As you pointed out when you mentioned Prometheus, you are someone who gets a lot of shit. Why do you think, in projects you do with others — like Ridley Scott or J.J. Abrams — you wind up getting the most shit?
One of the interesting things about collaborating with people is we make value judgements based on like, “OK, Damon made this himself without J.J., therefore that’s the kind of writer Damon is.” And: “J.J. made this by himself without Damon and that’s the kind of writer J.J. is.” And: “This is what it looks like when J.J. and Damon make stuff together.” None of that is accurate.
In any given project, some things are going to be great and some things are going to be less than great and it’s magic. It’s lightening in a bottle in the fact that [J.J. Abrams] and I came together and collaborated and made the Lost pilot together without really knowing each other at all.
It was an aggregate of a billion different things. One of the reasons the criticism stuck to me is that J. J. left the show after the pilot. So if someone goes “I love the pilot, but I didn’t like where the show went after that,” you’re going to assign the criticism to me — and that’s completely fair and justified. I can’t knock that. Because I’ve developed a fair reputation as someone who is really engaged by mystery and ambiguity. When that stuff pisses people off, it’s fair for them to stick that on me too. So I don’t really feel like the criticism of me is unfair.
What’s unfair is how vitriolic it is, because I’m just telling a story. I can acknowledge that I’m a divisive figure, but if you hate me, if you’re using that word to describe me — I’m just a storyteller. I’m not hurting anyone. I’m not a horrible human being; I’ve never committed violence on anyone you care about. Why are you using the word “hate”? If you don’t like the book, put it down; if you don’t like the show, turn it off. I’m telling a story. If you don’t like it, stop listening. But the criticism is totally valid.
IV: On The Leftovers’ fandom
What was your reaction to the fans who made a Guilty Remnant-inspired pilgrimage to the HBO headquarters when the show’s renewal was looking iffy?
I was flying to New York, actually. When I landed, I’d gotten all these emails and texts of these photographs of those guys. I was obviously so touched that they did it, but then I was bummed that they had already dispersed because I would have gone down there and dressed in white alongside them.
Then HBO probably would have felt like it was orchestrated by me. But it would have been worth it. I’m a fanboy, so the idea of the most noble pursuit that a fan can engage in is when a show is on the bubble or about to be canceled and they take it upon themselves to lobby for its ongoing survival — that’s a big deal. To be the beneficiary of that was a pretty incredible experience, and one that was totally new, because I was blessed enough for Lost to never be in danger of cancellation, and that was the only other show I’ve run. It was an out-of-body experience in all the most beautiful ways.
V: On mistakes and constructing satisfying mysteries
Broadly speaking, The Leftovers has engaged with many of the same themes as Lost, to a wildly different result. Do you think you’ve grown as a writer to engage with mysteries and ambiguity in a satisfying way from now on?
I hope so. I hope that I can learn from my mistakes, but I also acknowledge that in order to learn from my mistakes, I have to make mistakes. So there will never be a time in my career where I’m not capable of writing shit. I’m afraid of that, but I’ve run through the gauntlet now. I’ve heard it all. I’ve experienced the worst-case scenario in terms of what failure feels like on every level that one can imagine it, and I’m still here.
And the reality is, from the moment you’re sentient, there’s a kind of story that you’re drawn to when you’re a little kid and that never changes, in the same way that there’s a person that you’re attracted to, whether that’s friendships or romantic entanglements. I was born this way, so I will always be drawn to those kinds of ideas.
I’m really infatuated with mystery and religion and the relationship between those two ideas. I’ll probably continue to be drawn to material that explores them. That area is a minefield. People take it very personally, even when you’re just telling the story. I’m kicking the hornet’s nest of material that was provocative long before I came along and will be provocative long after I go.
VI: On religion
Religion and religious motifs are something you consistently return to in your work. Before I knew much about you, I was inclined to assume you came from a rigorous religious background, and I remember being surprised to learn that’s not the case. What is it about religion that draws you again and again?
I find religion very interesting on an academic level and I find it interesting on a spiritual level because I can’t shake the feeling that there is something to it all. Not just purpose, but something mystical or magical. I feel that in the air. I want to believe it — and yet I haven’t been able to find a single religious construct that I can connect with that feels like, “Oh, that’s it, that nails it, that completely explains the feeling I’m having and is now giving me some fundamental guidance to how to live my life.”
My mom was Jewish and I was raised in the Jewish faith, but what’s really interesting about Judaism is their answer to many questions is “We don’t know.” I think that’s probably why there are many less Jewish people on the planet than other religious systems that say, “We absolutely know, we can answer every single question you have with a high degree of clarity.”
That idea [from Judaism] of asking questions that don’t necessarily have answers and dealing with the frustration and satisfaction of that was coupled with my dad, who was an atheist by the time I came along. He was basically really angry at all religious systems. Like, “God is a construct invented by man to collect wealth and aggregate power and there’s no worse villain in the world than organized religion.” I wasn’t connecting to that either.
So between those two poles of being raised in a Jewish construct, and having my dad say all religion is just bad, I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ve got to go try to find something that fits for me.” I’m exploring that journey in my writing.
VII: On dong
There was quite a bit of male full-frontal nudity in The Leftovers Season 2. Prestige dramas typically lean towards displaying female bodies more prominently than male bodies. Was that something you were thinking about, or was it not intentional?
I just like penises. In the ingredients that The Leftovers requires, I feel like there’s an underserved audience of penis-admirers across all communities. It’s time to restore balance to the force — and I say that only half-joking.
In the script, it was presented that those characters were nude, but then it’s up to the actors and directors to figure out what everybody’s level of comfort is. I would never get up on the podium and say, “This scene demands nudity in order to be authentic.” There’s always a way to portray nudity without actually showing genitalia. But if the actors are down, then let’s go for it.
In the case of Chris [Zylka] and Carl Franklin — who directed the episode — Carl spoke to Chris and said, “I’d like to not be inhibited. We might see it, we might see your dong,” and Zylka was like, “Great.” In the case of [Christopher] Eccleston, he emailed me and said, “I want Matt to be completely and totally naked and I think that we should see it.” I was like “Great!”
I celebrate the Year of the Dong, if that’s what it should be.
VIII: On the unexpected things Damon Lindelof reads
Tom Perrotta is one of your first collaborators who has a very different sensibility than you. Do you think, moving forward, you’ll try to work with more writers who don’t necessarily come from a sci-fi world?
In this case, Tom chose me. The material was set up at HBO and he was in the position to decide who he wanted to collaborate with. Largely, I think because he was a fan of Lost and because this was his first “genre book,” there were other people who were eyeing the job, and he hired me. The reality is that Tom and I are partners on the show. It’s not like he sold this book and then went away. He’s in the writers’ room all the time. We wrote three episodes this season, but in addition to the episodes we wrote together, he worked creatively on every single episode that we produced since the word go.
I’d read every Tom Perrotta book before I even worked with Tom. I was a fan of that kind of storytelling. I love what we’ll call “suburban drama” or the American Beauty kind of John Cheever storytelling. I love Friday Night Lights. That show seems like it’s very far removed from the shows that I’m associated with, but I think there’s a lot more overlap than people give us credit for.
I was a year removed from a show that’s legacy is it didn’t answer its questions satisfyingly and I was reading the book where it’s basically like, “I’m not going to tell you where these people went or why the Departure happened.” This show is about struggling with ambiguity and the frustration of not getting an answer when you desperately need one. I was like “I love this.” So there was a magnetic pull towards Tom because I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, but with this particular piece of material, even more so.
You’re right, I wouldn’t have expected you to be a fan of Friday Night Lights or Tom Perrotta’s other books even before you worked with him. What else are you a fan of that people might not expect?
I love comedy and I love family drama, so two of my favorite shows right now are Transparent and Master of None, which are shows that trade in both of those arenas. Those are shows I could probably never write myself, but I’m really moved and affected by. But there’s a level of darkness to them; they’re not afraid to show their characters in unsympathetic lights. I feel like that’s very much up my alley.
I was just as into John Irving as I was into Stephen King when I started reading novels as an adolescent. If any writer had a profound effect on me saying, “I just love this storytelling,” it’s Dickens. I think that makes total sense considering of the serialization in the way he wrote his stories and ended his chapters and the way he hinged a lot of his literary developments on coincidence, but you wouldn’t necessarily be like, “Lindelof is just a huge Dickens-head.”
Those are just a couple that people would be like “Oh, that’s surprising because he’s a sci-fi geek and that’s probably all he’s watching.” But I have very mainstream tastes as well. I get hooked on shows like Scandal and Empire just as much as anybody else.
IX: On The Leftovers Season 3
So far in Season 2, you’ve walked a fine balance between the mystical and the mundane: Anything that could be supernatural also has an alternate, more grounded explanation. But in the finale, you tilted more towards the mystical (e.g. definitively clarifying that Mary Jamison did wake up). Are you planning to maintain that balance in Season 3?
I don’t want to talk too much about what our intention is in Season 3, because I might give you an answer and then we’ll get into the writer’s room and find that it’s not yielding the result we hoped. I would say just in the case of Mary Jamison waking up — clearly she woke up a couple times. It turned out Matt was telling the truth about the first time she woke up, and then she woke up a second time. There is a tremendous amount of scientific and anecdotal data for people who were in comas for years and come out of those comas.
So maybe the timing of it happening right after an earthquake occurred feels like it’s quasi-supernatural, but it’s not the same as Mary Jamison getting up out of her chair and walking around. That would be supernatural, because someone who’s been comatose for that long, their legs would atrophy and they would not have the ability to walk.
The way that we summed it up when we first started talking about the show, Tom [Perrotta] and I were like, “If 2 percent of the world’s population disappeared in the Sudden Departure, then 2 percent of our show should be supernatural and the other 98 percent should be completely natural.”
But where the show gets really interesting for me is, in that 98 percent that’s completely natural, maybe 20 percent of it is perceived as supernatural because of the 2 percent that is. So if the world suddenly has causation for weird things happening on a grandiose scale, things you used to brush aside — like you and I will watch a psychic on TV and we’ll be like, “that’s bullshit” — but in their world, you have to give it a little bit more room to stretch its legs because the Departure did in fact happen. That’s real data.
So when you watch Fargo, it dips its toe into what I would clearly define as supernatural waters. For me, it was so exciting when it happened because I was like, “You can go there on Fargo?” I wasn’t even aware that that was in the lexicon of Fargo. With The Leftovers, it is in the lexicon. In the very first scene of the pilot, something very supernatural happens.
The way that we chose to show it to you is, as you say, grounded. But there’s no getting around the fact that 140 million people vanished in thin air. That’s supernatural. So every time that you forget that the Departure happened, the show has to remind you. We’re going to hopefully do more of that in the third reason.
If my read on your question is, “Please don’t make it too supernatural; I really like the balance you’ve struck so far” — if that is in fact what you’re worried about, I would say to you, “Don’t worry. I hear you.”
Will Season 3 return to concepts like Lensing and the Demon Azrael?
I don’t want to tip my hand and say we’re going to do this or not do that, but I guess my feeling in the telling of that story was that we used Doctors Cuarto and Herbert as a way of telling a “Nora story.” It’s fascinating, but I kind of feel like that show is the show you don’t want to watch. Somewhere there’s a spinoff of The Leftovers about all the scientists who are working with the Vatican to basically track down and eradicate demons that are possessing individuals who may be responsible for the departure. I don’t want to write that show.
Many people would probably watch it.
I would watch it too! I just don’t want to write it.
And for the most hard-hitting Season 3 question: What will become of Kevin’s dog?
Well, since you asked, all of Season 3 is told from the dog’s point of view. He’s going to go find Cuarto and Hebert the demon hunters and he will sniff out people who are possessed, on a weekly basis. That will be our first Leftovers spinoff.
X: On his future ambitions
Is there anything you haven’t accomplished yet that you’d like to?
There’s no way to answer your question without it feeling like I’m thumping my chest, but the fact of the matter is I’ve accomplished more in my career than I ever imagined I would or wanted to. The idea that I get to make stuff that other people see — that was the ambition. It feels like that happened in such a massive way, there’s not really anything else.
The decision to make The Leftovers’ third season its last was your own; HBO was open to continue past three. What was behind that choice?
We design these seasons to kind of be self-contained novels and each episode is a chapter of that novel, so there’s some degree of completeness. When we designed the second season on the show, we never talked about the finale as a series finale. It was more a matter of, “I just want the second season to feel like it’s really complete.” I want to feel the same way about the third season.
People would send me positive reviews and recaps of the finale or the season as a whole. Very smart people were starting to say, “This feels like the end,” or “Even though I love this show, I’d be okay with this being the end.” If they felt like we could end at Season 2, and I feel like I want a little bit more, we’re closer to the ending than we are to the beginning, which means one more season feels right. I don’t want to distill it down to basic mathematics, but it feels like the show is not just getting going. It feels like we’re moving towards the ending of the series and that the ending is soon. That’s why I felt like one more season was the right way to go.
It makes an elegant three-act play.
That is my hope — that that will be its fundamental design. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been an elegant four- or five-act play, but three feels like it’s a good Biblical number. No one ever went wrong with a good-old fashioned trinity.
Since you are capping The Leftovers at three seasons, what’s next?
I’ve gained some degree of clarity and confidence in my creative life by being monogamous with my creative pursuits. There was overlap in the first season of The Leftovers between that and Tomorrowland.
I wished I was present on Tomorrowland more and I wish that I had been present on The Leftovers Season 1 more. I felt like I had two different families and both were underserved by me. So when I had the opportunity to do the second season of The Leftovers free and clear of any other creative obligations, it was so liberating.
But a big part of that was I got to live in present time and all that existed was the episode that was right in front of me. We live in a culture that’s basically like, “What’s next? What else are you working on?” I had to keep telling myself that it’s enough that I’m just working on this. In order to make a television show good, it’s so hard. We’re living in this era of unprecedented, amazing TV.
There are so many great shows out there that it’s impossible to even watch them all. I feel like I’m pretty tapped into the zeitgeist and I watch a lot of great television shows. But then somebody will be like “Oh my God, how great is Bojack Horseman?” And I’m like, “Fuck, I have to watch Bojack Horseman?! Alright, I’m on it!” So the idea that it’s enough for me to just make The Leftovers is all I’m trying to think about.
When it’s over a year from now, I’ll start worrying about the next thing. But there’s no part in my brain that’s like, “I better start figuring out what’s next because as soon as The Leftovers is done I can jump into that.” There will be a period where I have to mourn the end of The Leftovers, even though I’m the one that’s killing it. Hopefully then, the next thing will come my way.
And it wasn’t like I was walking down the street and then had this idea. I read Perrotta’s book, it moved me, it inspired me, it made me desperate to be a part of it — and that doesn’t happen often. When it does happen, you have to chase it. It’s like falling in love. I’ll wait for that to happen again when The Leftovers is over. It may be a month, it may be six months, it may be a couple of years, but it’ll happen. I’m a romantic at heart.