From ‘Lost’ to The Rapture: Creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta on HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’
The co-creator of Lost and the writer of Election and Little Children have teamed up to helm an enigmatic new series about “the birth of religion in the face of mystery.”
The conceit of The Leftovers is like an evangelist's wet dream: One day, a day like any other day, 2 percent of the Earth’s population vanishes. A baby disappears from a car seat. Unmanned cars collide into each other. Unlike the Christian Rapture, however, the “Sudden Departure,” as it’s called, is just that; there’s no method to the madness. The Rapture-like event has claimed everyone from Shaquille O’Neal and the pope to, a puzzled bartender grumbles, “Gary fucking Busey.”
Three years later is where this new, grim, Delphian HBO series begins, examining the effect the event has had on the inhabitants of a small suburban town. There’s Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the town’s chief of police who’s haunted by terrifying visions, and struggles to maintain a normal family life; his wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who’s left the life she knew behind to join a creepy cult known as the Guilty Remnant who dress in white, chain-smoke, don’t speak, and antagonize the townspeople; their daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), a former straight-A student that’s lost her way; their son, Tom (Chris Zylka), who’s fallen under the spell of a mystic with a penchant for young, Asian girls who goes by Holy Wayne; a forlorn woman (Liv Tyler) targeted by the cult; and a host of others.
The Leftovers is co-created by Damon Lindelof, best known as the co-creator/executive producer/writer of ABC’s Lost, as well as the screenwriter behind blockbusters Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness, and Tom Perrotta, the author of the 2011 novel upon which the series is based, as well as the books Election and Little Children. Perrotta optioned the book to HBO in 2011 prior to its release, and the two New Jersey natives were introduced to one another by HBO exec Michael Ellenberg, a friend of Lindelof’s. After reading the Stephen King book review of The Leftovers in The New York Times, Lindelof, already a fan of Perrotta’s, thought, “Tom Perrotta is stepping into genre? He’s doing the supernatural? That’s bold. And he’s being anointed by my hero, Stephen King.”
Since Lindelof was advised by HBO to stay away from Perrotta while he was still under contract with ABC, an e-friendship blossomed, and by the time the showrunner had wrangled his way out of it, the two met in June 2012. One meeting quickly became two, which eventually blossomed into a week of hanging out in which they discussed the Bible and sketched out an early version of the pilot.
The Daily Beast sat down with Lindelof and Perrotta in New York to discuss The Leftovers, which premieres on June 29, its similarities to Lost, and much more.
With the mixed reaction to the finale of Lost, did you feel some reluctance to return to the arena of television? And also with creating a great show like Lost, there must be some pressure to create a follow-up show.
Lindelof: All I can say is, independent of what the reaction was to the way that Lost ended, my feelings about Lost are overwhelmingly positive. My feelings about the show itself, the experience of the show, it transcended my wildest dreams as a human being. If you had asked 12-year-old me, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Lost was far above and beyond the storytelling that I wanted to do, as well as the way that it connected. As obnoxious as it sounds, my feeling is there’s nothing that scares me anymore because I’ve lived through every permutation—the highest of the highs, the lowest of the lows—and I walked away from it feeling like I was really happy about the work I did on this thing. And now, I’m going to do it again. Lost is a catalyst for all the work that I do now. There’s no cautionary tale there at all.
Do you see thematic similarities between The Leftovers and Lost? Both shows explore mankind’s struggle to come to grips with the afterlife, and with a cataclysmic event.
Perrotta: In the broadest sense, yes. We’re following people who are trying to make sense of something that is profoundly mysterious to them. The big difference, for me, is that this is set in a very recognizable, real world, so if you just turned it on, you’d think you were watching Friday Night Lights—which is what we’re using as the other pole of the story. The thing that excited me about Lost is that J.J. and Damon created a space where anything could happen, and The Leftovers isn’t that, so it makes for a different kind of storytelling. We have an ongoing negotiation about how much can happen in this weird. Is this a realistic story with a supernatural event in the past, or is it the real world breaking down under supernatural pressure? It’s kind of both, and we’re trying to figure out how much storytelling space that permits.
The book was optioned to HBO in 2011, around the time evangelist Harold Camping claimed The Rapture would occur—on May 21, 2011.
Lindelof: And then he had to change the date! The first date passed and then he thought, “I forgot to carry the 1.”
Perrotta: [Laughs] The book was written between 2008 and 2010, so it was pre-Harold Camping, but Stephen King used that in his review because it was in everybody’s minds. You know, human beings desire an ending and they want it to be a happy ending. What guts it takes to go out there and predict it.
Do you guys believe in The Rapture?
Lindelof: Tom has done much more exhaustive research on The Rapture than I have, but my belief is that The Rapture itself is so ill-defined in the texts upon which it’s supposedly based that that word doesn’t even appear in the New Testament, so it’s an extrapolation. And even amongst evangelical communities, there’s a tremendous amount of debate as to whether it’s figurative or literal, and also to the timing of it. The deeper into it you go, the harder it is to give it any fundamental validity, but for me, the presentation of the Departure in Tom’s book is much more believable than Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books, which are trading in that Biblical canon. To me, the idea of, “What if a huge, inexplicable supernatural event occurred that the scientific community was completely and totally baffled by, and that was also undeniable?” You go see the Transformers movies, and you’re like, “So… the world has experienced massive robot battles and invasion ships in multiple American towns, and then every time a new Transformers movie starts, they’re just back to where they started.”
“Not again with the Transformers!”
Perrotta: [Laughs] Forgot about that shit!
Lindelof: They’re aware that it happened, but they haven’t changed their lives in any way. That idea that you’re living in exactly the world that we know now—except there are Transformers in it—is a very heightened reality. The thing about the Tim LaHaye books is everyone in the world accepts that it’s the Biblical Rapture because you’re able to take out your Bible and say, “This is happening! Here’s where the antichrist is. All those people that disappeared are really good people, and the rest of us didn’t make the cut.” Tom’s book says there doesn’t seem to be anything tying these people together and that just became infinitely more interesting to me, because that felt like it was more reflective of what our lives are, which is that we’re living in a perpetual state of mystery about a number of things. I think The Leftovers has more in common with a show like The Sopranos than Lost, because The Sopranos is not about a mafia kingpin trying to whack people and deal with issues in his family. There was an existential crisis at the center of it, which was, “Who am I, and what am I doing here? And what kind of judgment is going to be weighed upon me at the end of my life?” Those questions are all embedded in the pilot and the finale, and Tony was in a coma for much of the final season and having this very existential walkabout, and those are the moments where I go, “That’s the stuff I’m really engaged by as a storyteller,” and that was the stuff I was engaged by in Tom’s book, and that’s the type of stuff we’re trying to do in the series.
Did you guys enjoy that Sopranos finale?
Perrotta: I loved it. I remember just shouting at my TV. It teaches you so much about people and their reactions. Some people are more comfortable with ambiguity and doubt than other people, and I guess we’ll find out as this show will be a litmus test for that.
Lindelof: I thought it was a masterpiece.
The Leftovers isn’t a series of books like Game of Thrones, so do you envision the series going on for multiple seasons, or is it a one-off?
Perrotta: We don’t even know if there will be a second season, so I don’t have a plan.
Lindelof: This is an instance where I do feel comfortable saying what our truth is, which is our job was to generate 10 episodes of The Leftovers and make them as good as we possibly could and tell the story that we wanted to tell, and we didn’t think about those stories in the framework of setting up the series beyond it. It’s not about cliffhangers or dropping more mysteries. Lost had a mystery engine to it, so the show had to continue to drop mysteries in order to keep viewers involved and engaging in the mysteries, and we had to introduce new characters, too. The collective weight and size of that story was driving towards an entirely different ambition. For this, our goal was: If the show connects and people want more of it, there are more stories to tell in this world, but if it doesn’t, and these 10 episodes are the only 10 episodes of The Leftovers that will ever exist, I hope it will be more like The Prisoner than other series that were canceled after one season. But we didn’t want to think about the future, and were very committed to being in present time. Because the book embraces this idea of, “I’m not going to tell you about The Departure; I’m not going to tell you how or why these people went, because that’s not what the story is about. The story is about these characters living under the condition of felling like they’ll never know. If that’s the show that you want to watch, that’s the show that we want to write. But that might not be the show that people want to watch.
Why do you say that?
Lindelof: Well, to me, the thing that made True Detective such riveting television—as opposed to just good television—was that the thing that I cared about the least was who was responsible for these murders, and the thing that I cared about the most was Rust and Marty’s relationship, but their relationship existed as a result of these murders and was contextualized by these murders. But if you had presented me a final episode of True Detective where the murders were not resolved, I would have been frustrated, but at the same time, I felt that once that issue did get resolved, the more engaged part of me felt, “Well, what of Rust and Marty?” We feel the same way about The Departure in that the audience has to sign up knowing that it’s highly unlikely that they’re ever going to get that answer. And that’s frustrating.
In The Leftovers, do you feel “The Departure” is a metaphor for organized religion? This crazy event occurs, and then to cope with it and try and make meaning of it, the people of this community have divided into various factions—cults, mystics, hardened cynics, etc.
Perrotta: Yeah. Religion, to me, is always this human confrontation with however you want to define that existential mystery—we need to create an explanation. That’s a very agnostic, somewhat superior position I’m taking, because if you believe that you have the truth, then you believe you have the trust. I believe that there’s this human need to believe we have the truth, and because this event throws off existing religious systems, it creates this vacuum. In Season 1 we’re looking very closely at the Guilty Remnant, and it’s hard to know what it is. It’s some kind of organized quasi-religious response to this event—but it’s a godless religion.
Lindelof: It could be more of a protest movement.
Perrotta: But one of the truths about religion is they’re not born fully formed; they evolve like any human institution. It took hundreds of years before Christians understood they were Christians. I do think, in a way, that the story is about the birth of religion in the face of mystery, but we’ve set the clock back to zero. Jamison is an interesting character because he’s trying to hold on to Christianity, but even his Christianity is sorely tested and he’s behaving in erratic ways. But yes, I do think at its most interesting level, the show is about the religious impulse and looking at it in a fresh way.
What inspired the Guilty Remnant? Was there a cult-ish group that inspired it?
Perrotta: What I wanted was to think of what an authentic, contemporary religious movement—or non-religious movement—would look like. But even that’s an interesting question. Maybe, 20 years down the road, the Guilty Remnant will start to come up with its own conception of God, but right now, they’re feeling rejected by God, and feeling the absence of God. I had a couple of principles: You need to set yourself apart and it needs to be easily achievable, so wearing white clothing. There are a bunch of religions that operate through clothing. When you see Mormon missionaries coming down the street there are two of them and they’re dressed identically, so that was something that was in the back of my mind for this. The white is a bit Biblical—a sign of purity and separation. The cigarettes were an interesting one, and cigarettes have become hugely important over the course of the show—we’re giving Mad Men a run for their tobacco money—but they’re very easily available, they’re very visible, and even now, they’re such a divisive thing. You have to leave the building to smoke, and if you do it by my wife, she’ll give you a dirty look. It has something to do with the denial of faith in the future. If you walk through this world dressed in white and smoking and staring at people, they’re going to hate your guts.
In addition to the dressing in white and the chain-smoking, the Guilty Remnant have all taken a vow of silence and communicate by writing on scrub boards. Why?
Lindelof: This is going to feel like a complete and total frustrating dodge, but that’s what was so fascinating to me about reading the book. The narrator of the book can find ways to say, here’s why they do this and here’s why they do that, but the interesting thing to me about television is that there is no narrator other than the creative, so for Tom and I to come forward and say, “This is why the Guilty Remnant does what they do,” it diminishes our faith in the audience to come up with and graft onto why they think that the Guilty Remnant is behaving the way that they’re behaving, but more importantly, it demystifies the Guilty Remnant, so the question you’re asking isn’t one that I’m particularly interested in answering. My wife read The Leftovers with her book club but the one fight that broke out in book club was about the cigarette smoking. My wife was like, “I just don’t like it. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why they’re chain-smoking.” So, I conveyed this to Tom and we invited Tom over to our house for dinner and said, “Brace yourself.” But the thing that was interesting to me was that my wife was having the exact reaction that the Guilt Remnant wants her to have: that it just bothers her. Their entire purpose is to bother people.
But why do you think they find solace in being agitators?
Lindelof: We’re living in a world where everyone wants to walk around and not think about what happened three years ago because it’s upsetting, and because it has no resolution. To think about it is a road towards insanity, frustration, and depression, so the attitude is: This happened, we’re moving on. The GR is Simon Wiesenthal in a lot of ways, and they’re saying, “You can never forget that it happened, and we’re going to walk around, follow you, and blow our smoke in your face just to make sure that you don’t.” That’s fundamentally their agenda and everything they do is in service of that idea.
With shows like Lost, True Detective, and The Leftovers, this somewhat vague story template is created and the mystery gradually unfolds, which in turn causes viewers’ imaginations to run wild—hitting the message boards and concocting wild theories. Do you enjoy triggering that?
Lindelof: Not intentionally, because I don’t think that’s something that you can do on purpose, and during the first season of Lost, we had no idea that any of that was going to happen. Yes, we’re hiding little Easter eggs on the show, etc., but I’d only experienced that sort of a thing with Twin Peaks many years earlier, where the water cooler conversation wasn’t just, “Wasn’t that a great episode” or “Wasn’t that a shitty episode” or “I can’t believe so-and-so got killed off,” it was an existential question of, “What the hell is happening on this show? What does it mean? What did that character mean when they said that?” You can’t be intentional about that because if you write a show in that way, the audience can smell it.
I don’t feel like we’re writing The Leftovers in a way where we want to create a cultural zeitgeist, and if you look at a show like True Detective and what Nic [Pizzolatto] has said in the wake of True Detective, he seemed to be completely caught off guard by the way the Internet activated on The Yellow King. It’s like, “You’re surprised by that? Look at the things that you wrote!” But of course you are, because you have no idea what people are going to key in on and what these phenoms are. And if you look at Game of Thrones, which is certainly an Internet phenomenon, people aren’t debating what the show means. They’re just like, “Ah, wasn’t that awesome when that fight happened last night.” Also, it’s an adaptation of a story that exists out there already, according to George R.R. Martin. But when you delve into more existential waters, people are going to have very passionate feelings about it that transcend, “Is The Leftovers good?” and enters into the conversation of, “What am I watching?” That’s interesting to both of us as storytellers.
Perrotta: That fascinates me. I’m really interested in the human capacity to create meaning. People are going to be making a big mistake if they think we have some truth that we’re withholding from them.