Warning: Spoilers ahead for “The Leftovers” season three premiere.
“Showrunners” is a new podcast from INSIDER — a series where we interview the people responsible for bringing TV shows to life. The following is a transcript from our interview with Damon Lindelof, the cocreator and showrunner of ABC’s “Lost,” and now the showrunner of HBO’s “The Leftovers.”
Listen to the episode to hear the highlights from our interview, and keep reading below for the full conversation.
Subscribe to “Showrunners” on iTunes here so you can hear new episodes (featuring the showrunners from “Silicon Valley,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and more) first.
How other shows inform his approach to mystery
INSIDER: How did you first get into the world of television and movies?
Lindelof: I was a huge cinephile from a very early age. My dad was a big movie guy. He brought me to see “Star Wars” in 1977 when I was four years old. That was a transformative event. Obviously many, many people of our generation had a similar awakening upon seeing “Star Wars,” but for me that was kind of the moment where I was like, “Any way I can be doing anything remotely resembling that, I will be a happy person.”
INSIDER: What TV shows are you most obsessed with now?
Lindelof: Oh, man. There’s so much out there. There’s a lot of television out there that I missed, so I’ll work for 10 months out of the year and then I’ll spend the other two months basically catching up on all the stuff that I heard was great. There is appointment television that I’ll watch on a weekly basis. I’m watching “The Americans,” I don’t miss that the night that it’s on. I’m watching “Legion,” Noah Hawley’s new show, and looking forward to “Fargo” starting up imminently again. [I] love “Mr. Robot,” “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Game of Thrones,” of course. I love “The Young Pope,” “Stranger Things,” “Master of None,” “The Good Place.” I watch a lot of television. I don’t sleep a lot.
INSIDER: I was going to say, I don’t know how you’ve kept up with all of those when I feel like I can barely do so.
Lindelof: Yeah, it’s my job to. Well, not really, but I do think that I do need to be aware of what other things are happening in the medium, because they do demonstrate some grounds for inspiration. I think that the idea of … If you look at the Beach Boys and the Beatles, for example, when “Pet Sounds” and “Sergeant Pepper” were happening they were listening to each other’s music and this idea of, “Oh, you can do that? You can do that, too?”
In addition to just really enjoying watching other people’s television shows, I do think that I learn from it. Whether it’s good or it’s bad, I do think that the experience of I do this for a living and I should still be learning constantly. The minute that I feel like I’ve got it figured out or I know what I’m doing, (a) it becomes a lot less exciting, and (b) that’s hubris; it’s just not true.
INSIDER: What is something you feel like you’ve learned from another series recently?
Lindelof: In […] both the first season of “Westworld” and the second season of “Mr. Robot,” something happened in the writing of the television show and the episodes themselves, but then the discourse with the fan base and the audience and the internet at large in terms of the audience is now so sophisticated that it only takes one person to catch one small hint of something and then they post that on Reddit and then the next thing you know the mainstream media is basically picking it up and it’s everywhere.
Then that may be something that the storytellers don’t want to reveal until five or six episodes down the line, and so this idea of … I think in the case of both those shows, in fact, it turned out that the twist was something that they kind of wanted us to guess, but the fact that we were so focused on the twist actually obfuscated some other things that they wanted to keep hidden.
I sort of learned that I need to be constantly thinking about the one person on Reddit who is going to basically crack it, so you can’t really tell stories that way that have twists anymore in the conventional thinking. I do think this idea of evolution and sort of being one step ahead of the audience is something that was very necessary for me to learn, but now that I feel like I’ve learned it, the audience has once again surpassed me. It may be relatively useless, but still fun.
INSIDER: That’s particularly fascinating when it comes to “The Leftovers,” because the whole show is framed around the idea that you aren’t going to have an answer to the biggest mystery of all — what really happened during the Sudden Departure, and why?
Lindelof: Obviously [I] spent six years of my life on “Lost,” and that show invited and in fact insisted upon that level of engagement, with the promise that every single mystery introduced on the show would eventually be answered. I know that there are people out there who would disagree with the idea that we did answer every mystery, but I really feel we did. You might not like the answers that we gave, but they were answers.
When I read Tom Perrotta’s book upon which the series “The Leftovers” is based, he was very explicit in his novel that the most compelling mystery of the show — which is where did these 140 million people disappear to and why them and what’s the purpose of it — is never going to be answered. I just found that incredibly brave. I was like, “You can do that? Isn’t that just a huge F-you to the audience to kind of come right out of the gate?” I became so involved in his book and it became very clear that the story that he was telling was about living in a world that didn’t have resolution.
The fact of the matter is that frustration and dissatisfaction is part and parcel to any mystery road that we go down. That said, some of the things that I have grown most attached to, like say “Making A Murderer” or “Serial” —which are not fictional pieces of work but nonfiction — what’s so compelling about them is I will never know. I just won’t ever know if Steven Avery did it. I won’t ever know if Adnan did it. We can theorize and show photographs to one another and make all these arguments, but the fundamental idea of not knowing is just so interesting to me. I’m okay with it. It doesn’t frustrate me. I think it’s pretty cool.
More importantly, that’s the world that I live in. I don’t know what happens when you die. I’m okay with that. I know there are a lot of people who feel like they do know what happens when you die, and they live their lives accordingly. I wouldn’t begrudge them that confidence, but I’m just fine not knowing.
On being a showrunner and writing for “The Leftovers”
INSIDER: How would you write your own job description for someone who has never heard of a showrunner or knows what you do? I know it changes from show to show, but I want to know about your job for “The Leftovers” in particular.
Lindelof: I think that my job, more than anything else, is to kind of be “the buck stops here” clearinghouse for most of the creative decisions on the show — even when that decision is, “I trust you, do whatever you want, figure it out,” but I get to delegate the individuals that I’m saying it to. In the case of “The Leftovers,” we have an incredibly empowered writers’ room that functions more like a jury than it does a benevolent dictatorship, which is the way that other writers’ rooms kind of run.
I will pitch in the writers’ room, and the writers will tell me I’m an idiot. The ideas that we get excited about are ones we reach full consensus on. At any given time any one person in the room can completely and totally filibuster and hang us up, and that’s the person that we have to convince that the idea is good. It’s not hierarchical really.
That said, I have to be the person in the writers’ room who eventually says, “Okay, it’s time to stop this now. It’s time to go down this other course.” I am leading the group down the rapids, because if it was pure group think we’d never get anywhere.
Quite honestly, I love the idea of putting a tremendous amount of time and energy into the writing of the script. There needs to be a consistency of voice, so that when you watch a television show it’s like, “Oh, that feels like an episode of ‘The Americans.'” It may not have been written by the showrunners, but the showrunners are basically in charge of saying, “this idea feels like it’s inside the bandwidth of this show, and this character’s voice,” literally the dialogue they’re writing, “that sounds like something that they would say.” The showrunner is kind of quality control when it comes to that determination.
That said, I think the more active creative voices on “The Leftovers,” the better. There are some characters I understand very well, and others less so. I rely upon others, including the actors, to tell me when their spidey-sense is tingling as well.
INSIDER: What are some of the characters that you feel you understand the best?
Lindelof: I feel like I understand Kevin really well. I think that he’s roughly the same age that I am, maybe a year or two younger than I was when I started writing the show, and I think that although I look nothing like Justin Theroux, no matter how many sit-ups I do, I just […] really empathize with him because I think he’s trying so hard, but at the same time there’s just sort of an existential kind of vacuum in him and he doesn’t quite know how to fill it.
I’ve definitely felt that way at times in my life, particularly when I first achieved some level of success, and when “Lost” happened it so far beyond surpassed any dream or ambition or goal that I had that there was a huge, “Now what?” Like I’m supposed to feel great about this and all I feel is sort of terror. I’ve never given birth, but it felt like some kind of massive psychological emotional postpartum, and I was 30 years old. I think this, “What am I supposed to do with my life?”
[Kevin is] a character who behaves with a tremendous amount of confidence in his external life, but in his internal life seems to be riddled with doubt about himself and the others around him. It’s also challenging for him to form relationships, even with the people that he loves. I think that’s not unique to me, but it’s something that I completely and totally understand. I’m happily married. I have a great 10-year-old son, but very often I just feel like, “What am I doing?” You know? Like, “Am I screwing this up? Do I really know these people? I feel so close to these people and yet I don’t know them at all. I’m terrified about them leaving me.” All these sort of internal anxieties that, again, I don’t think are unique to me nor Kevin Garvey, but it is kind of what I relate to in him.
Then Matt Jamison is probably the other character that I feel really connected to because he has every reason to abandon his faith, but he keeps doubling down. I just feel like, “Oh, I just made a big mystery show that many felt ended unsatisfyingly. You know what I’m going to do next? A mystery show.” I do feel like, at least I’m ascribing this to Matt Jamison, there’s a certain admirable quality in someone who continues to do something that they know is going to create a tremendous amount of unpleasant feels focused at them and they do it anyway, because that’s just what they believe. He just breaks my heart. A lot of it, it’s impossible to separate the character from the performance, but Christopher Eccleston is just out of this world, as are all the actors on the show, but I love Reverend Matt.
INSIDER: Can you tell us the secret to Justin Theroux’s ability to cry so well on camera?
Lindelof: What I can tell you is he’s not a method actor, so he’ll do those amazing scenes, and then he’ll come over to video village where the monitors are and just kind of sit next to you and be like, “Hey, can I have one of those carrot sticks?” You’re just like, “What?” He’s able to turn it on and off. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy for him or there isn’t a tremendous amount of craft to it, but he does really process the material with an almost academic scholarly approach. I’ve seen his scripts, and they’re totally marked up. He’s always super prepared. He has a strong sense of what he wants to do. He’s also really collaborative, so what the other actors are doing, he’s a really good listener, as are all the actors on the show. They’re just incredibly great with one another.
Then we just have great directors who trust the actors, but are also willing to shake things up and put them in uncomfortable situations. Justin has been very game to do all the crazy stuff that we’ve asked him to do. The only time that he’s ever blinked is, I emailed him and said, “Hey, can you sing?” Then he emailed me back just one word. It just said, “Why?” I was like, “Oh, this will be great. This is something that he doesn’t want to do,” which is great because the character doesn’t want to do it when he’s forced to sing. If Justin was basically like, “Can I sing? Oh my God, I’m amazing,” then I think we probably would not have ended up doing what we did.
INSIDER: That was such an unexpected and powerful moment. Can you tell me about that moment in the writers’ room, because I’m sure that was something that sounded crazy and yet it worked so well.
Lindelof: Unlike many things in the writers’ room, I remember that one very specifically. We had done an episode called “International Assassin” in which the character of Kevin spends the entire episode in this … I’m not going to call it a dream realm or an afterlife. You decide what you want to call it, but it’s not our world. The rules of the world are that he is an assassin who is supposed to kill this senator who is running for president who is also the same character who’s been haunting him. The way that he ends up getting out of this world and returning back to the world of the living is that he has to push this little girl into a well, supposedly to her death. Then she doesn’t die when she lands in there. She basically becomes her adult self, and then he has to jump down into the well and drown her. That’s hard.
We had this idea that in the finale Kevin would die again, because no one would be expecting us to do it again so soon after bringing him back to life. Also, we loved the idea that he would be very frustrated by having to go back to the beginning of this particular video game, like, “Oh my God. I’m starting over?” But it wasn’t going to be an entire episode. Now it was going to be about a five minute long sequence because there were so many other things we needed to do in the finale. The challenge in the writers’ room was, wow, he ran this entire gauntlet. He had to push a little girl into a well in order to get out. How’s he going to come back to life this time? How’s he going to get out? It’s got to be even harder than murdering a little girl.
Perrotta just says, without any thought, “He has to sing karaoke.” Everybody just burst into laughter, because we kind of thought he was kidding, but he was dead serious. He was like, “For Kevin Garvey, having to sing karaoke is just as hard as pushing a little girl into a well.” It was just like, of course he’s right. This idea is just so out there and so perfect. We kind of embraced the idea almost immediately. Then there was just a lot of conversation as to what song he should sing. Yeah, that’s how that went down.
How Lindelof approaches creating a diverse writing team
INSIDER: Working a little bit backwards to the writing room and something that you said that struck me was that some of the writers have said that your ideas were idiotic?
Lindelof: Oh, for sure.
INSIDER: First, I’m curious as to what you look for when you’re hiring writers that are confident enough to say that to you, but I’m also curious if you can remember an idea that you had that was vetoed by the rest of the writing team.
Lindelof: There have been so many ideas that I’ve had that have been vetoed by the rest of the writing team […] it just happens 50 times a day.
Lindelof: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ll just be two sentences into a pitch and they’ll visibly start shaking their heads or snorting. We’re all very comfortable with one another. It’s just like a conversation that you’re having with your friends, I think.
As for what I look [for] I’m really interested in where people came from. How is your life story different than mine? Because although I’d be much more comfortable sitting with seven other white Jews from New Jersey who love “Star Wars,” we’re all looking at life through the same basic lens. The first thing that I tend to ask people when I’m interviewing them is, “Tell me your story,” or “What’s your story?” The way that people answer that question is very interesting. Some people start with, “I was born in Kentucky,” and some people start with, “This morning I was in a car accident.”
More importantly, I just want a very diverse array of experience and the way that people see the world. I also like what their influences are. I’m like, “What are you reading right now?” I want somebody to mention a book that I’ve probably never heard of or haven’t read. I like to get a range of different ages in the writers’ room. I think our youngest writer was 25 and our oldest writer was late 50s. Obviously we had a really good gender balance all three seasons on the show. I’m proud to say it was 50/50 in addition to our directors as well. That was really important. Getting some cultural diversity, whether people of color, other than just white folks. I don’t think anybody was born and raised in LA. Everybody was from different places in the country. That’s kind of job one, just to kind of shake it up and have different opinions.
Then I want someone who has a really specific voice and an attitude and a fundamental confidence where they’re not afraid to speak their mind. I think when I was interviewing people if someone came in and said like, “Oh my God, I loved ‘Lost’ so much. I love your writing. I’m such a big fan,” I kind of almost automatically disqualified them because I wanted to be surrounded by people who see me the way that I see myself, which is incredibly fallible and not above being second-guessed. That would be really challenging for me if I was a huge fan of someone to ever basically say, “I don’t like your idea.”
To go back to the jury metaphor, which I think is probably the most apt here, it’s all voir dire for me and I’m trying to build a jury that’s going to arrive at the verdict that is the best possible show imaginable.
The difference between showrunning “Lost” and “The Leftovers”
INSIDER: What are the differences between producing a show for a network like ABC versus HBO?
Lindelof: There’s a huge difference just culturally between broadcast and cable. There’s just the business side of it — particularly for HBO or Showtime or even Netflix, which is streaming but it’s subscriber based — they’re looking for an entirely different product than the networks are. If you can’t get people to watch the show it can’t possibly sustain itself, acco