Damon Lindelof on Taking Chances and the Evolution of ‘The Leftovers’ [Interview]
(This is part two of a larger interview. You can read part one right over here.)
The Leftovers isn’t playing it safe in its third and final season. Co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta‘s series has grown more ambitious over its three chapters and this season can get pretty bonkers, to say the least.
As out there as The Leftovers can get, it somehow manages to stay grounded. The surreal touches and bizarre turns tend to carry an emotional weight, striking deep into the heart of the characters. Last season’s “International Assassin” is a great example of that.
Lindelof takes some big swings with season 3. He recently told us about some of the risks the writers took, how the music has evolved over the series, and what he’s learned from the experience of The Leftovers.
The music feels more pivotal in season two and three of The Leftovers. What conversations did you have with [composer] Max Richter and your music supervisor about what to do with season three?
Richter, I think, certainly for the first season of the show, in addition to the way that we were telling the stories, Max’s beautiful music just was incredibly sad and emotional and powerful, but we were really only kind of playing one bandwidth. Then what we found was, the more that we used popular music, particularly pop songs or light and frothy material, and we used those songs against the imagery of The Leftovers, it created this more interesting thing that was less familiar to us, but yet somehow worked.
We found this balance between the Richter and the Olivia Newton-John, as it were, or the Captain & Tenille, that sort of made this very interesting blend. By the third season of the show, Liza Richardson, our music supervisor, she just basically would send me a mix of like 100 songs that she’s like, “Oh I kind of get what you’re looking for now.” I would just listen to them on my iPhone as I was taking my dog for a walk or driving in my car, and the ones that really jumped out at me, I would just bookmark and keep in the back of my mind so that when we got into the editing room, I’d be like, “Oh Liza sent this amazing song. We gotta use that.”
She found that crazy song that basically starts off the season, the “You’ve Been Left Behind.” It’s called “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” It feels ethereal and both completely and totally out of time as it’s mixed with the images that you’re seeing, so I really liked the juxtaposition and the datedness of the music. Certain themes begin to emerge, so we used the Simon & Garfunkel for the karaoke scene, and then it’s like, “Oh let’s use this bridge song for when Kevin puts the bag over his head.”
You start to kind of lock in musical ideas that play against the moment. Again, I felt like that was a pretty intoxicating idea. Then we wanted to take it to the next level, which was “What if the opening title song was different every week, and plays as sort of an overture for the episode to come?” Over the image system, but we use a different piece of music, and the music actually transforms the image system every time. So “Personal Jesus” is a very different experience than “Suicide” or the “Perfect Strangers” theme song.
You basically go like, “Wow.” There’s an incredible amount of variance in terms of songs that work over the same images, so we gave it a try and we liked the result.
How did you, director Mimi Leder, and everybody want to continue or change up the style for season three? Do you see it as a continuation of what we saw in season two?
Well, to some degree, but also because we were moving the show to Australia and there were going to be a number of different key personnel behind the camera in terms of the crew. We had an amazing experience in Texas, but you can’t bring the Texas crew with us to Australia. It’s cost-prohibitive. More importantly, I like the idea of creating a slightly different adoptive family.
Just like season two was like, “Now we’re introducing the Murphy’s,” the same thing happened with the crew, from both Texas and Australia, where suddenly your family is now consisting of all these new people. That creates an entirely new energy, but I think it’s really important to give a tremendous amount of autonomy to the directors of the episodes.
Obviously, Mimi oversees even the episodes that she’s not directing, but Carl Franklin and Keith Gordon and Nicole Kassell and Craig Zobel, they’ve all directed episodes of The Leftovers already. I would go down to Australia and really just tone the scripts with them, in terms of saying like, “Look, you read what we wrote. Do you have any questions for us? Here are really, I think, the important things that need to happen in this episode.”
When I watched this thing in the editing room, it’s going to be entirely different than the way that we pictured it on the page, but that’s going to be a wonderful thing. Everybody understands what the show is, but they also feel like there are no rules constraining them, in terms of how they move the camera, or how they direct the actors, etc. But they all kind of get the show.
So what ends up happening over the course of a season is every episode feels consistent with the language of The Leftovers, and yet every episode feels like a separate entity because it’s being translated by different directors. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s kind of great when it’s working.
You said how sometimes you’d get into the editing room and a scene will surprise you. Are there any examples come to mind?
There was a scene at the end of episode six, season two. The scene between Nora and Erika Murphy, and Regina King, and Carrie Coon. Perrotta and I wrote that episode, and we knew that that was a very long dialogue scene. I went down to Texas, and that was the first episode that Zobel directed. Sort of like, “Do you kind of get what we’re going for here? This is two women who kind of probably should be hugging each other, but instead, are attacking one another. It starts with Nora throwing a rock through Erick’s window and ends with Erika throwing a rock through Nora’s. So it’s a battle, but there’s also just a tremendous amount of pain there.”
He was like, “Yeah, I get it.” It was very casual. Then I went into the editing room, and essentially … I think Michael Ruscio was the editor on that episode, but Craig had chosen to shoot it in mostly very tight close-ups, with no blocking. So the characters are just sitting there. Which is pretty much as it was scripted, but occasionally the directors will say, “I need to have somebody get up and pour themselves a cup of coffee or walk.”
He was like, “But I’m just going to have them basically seated, and a camera is going to get progressively tighter and tighter on them.” It just took my breath away. I was astonished by how incredible the performances were, and how simple the direction was. The show had never really used close-ups of that extreme size before, but it was just completely and totally called for in the context of that moment. I was like, “Holy shit. That is a really good scene.”
When we wrote it, I didn’t think it was bad. I just thought it was like, “Oh, this is a scene in an episode.’” But man did everybody elevate that material.
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