Inside ‘The Leftovers’ Premiere: Director Mimi Leder Answers Our Burning Questions

We had a lot of questions after Sunday night’s Season 3 premiere of ‘The Leftovers,’ and director Mimi Leder is here to help.

Most episodes of The Leftovers leave the viewer with a general feeling of, What the hell just happened? Tonight’s season three premiere, the first of eight final episodes that will air on HBO this spring, was no different.

Warning: major spoilers for episode one ahead.

We got yet another extended dialogue-free opening sequence, this one set among a mid-19th century Second Adventist cult. There was also an apparent drone strike that may or may not have wiped out what was left of the Guilty Remnant.

Time jumped three years into the future, with the all-important seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure fast approaching. And the whole thing ended with a confounding flash-forward that revealed Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst as an elderly woman named Sarah in Australia.

In an attempt to make sense of all of this, The Daily Beast reached out to Mimi Leder, who not only directed the season three premiere but has served as an executive producer alongside co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta since season one.

Leder was just as cryptic as you might expect, each question we asked prompting several more from her. But she did offer some insight into what we just witnessed as well as a few teases about what’s to come. The Leftovers is a show in which anything and everything can happen, and this season it just might.

You went into this season knowing it would be the last. How does that change how you approach it?

Mimi Leder: Well, choosing Australia was always in the wind while we were figuring out where we were going to shoot season two. But it was perhaps too early for Australia. So the approach for season three, you know, you have to carefully look inside yourself and say, “I’m not going to be precious about every move I make.” Because it might stop how you’re really feeling about what story you’re telling. I try to not look at it like it was the end and just look at it as the journey. Because I didn’t want to limit myself to prejudging—I didn’t want to think about it too much, I just wanted to feel it. And that’s how I approached it: with a very open mind and knowing how scrutinized it would be, because it was the last eight episodes. I thought doing that could be somewhat crippling. I looked at it as a whole, as a journey, as an adventure. What are we saying in this story? How best to say it, not what will people think of it?

Like last season, the premiere opens with a scene from the distant past—though not as distant as cavemen times. Why did you want to start that way?

Well, I have to give credit to Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta and their incredibly brilliant team of writers who came up with the idea of this cult called the Millerites. I believe they actually existed in New York and this group that we were telling the story about was a group out of Adelaide, Australia. And as you know, we never say, “These are the Millerites!” and we never say, “It’s 1844” and we never say where we are. Because I think the whole point of that sequence was that these people were precursors to our Guilty Remnant. There have been groups that have existed forever who are looking for answers. Looking for what does it mean to be human? How do we face our own mortality? How can we get out of this place? This season is very much about belief systems and about the stories we tell ourselves that give meaning to our lives. So I think this prologue, like the cavewoman, this family is preparing for what they believe in, the impending Judgment Day. It’s all about faith and it’s all about the cycle of life.

There are some interesting parallels too with the Garvey family’s story in the first season, the split between the woman, who we see wearing white, and her husband and child. Like Laurie [Amy Brenneman], she’s the true believer and they’re not.

Yeah, and that is exactly what we were looking at. You know, she was the believer. She wanted to go to heaven, she wanted to, who knows, be there with her dead child. But she’s truly just a leftover who’s left to live in this world like the rest of us.

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So we go from there to this apparent drone strike on the Guilty Remnant. They have been such a contentious group both inside the world of the show and for viewers over the first two seasons.

I think it’s very true to life with a lot of these groups—they get taken out. Waco, Texas, Jim Jones, bam. One minute they’re there and one minute they’re gone. And life goes on.

Is there a meta-commentary there about taking them out of the narrative as well or am I reading too much into it?

I don’t think you’re reading too much into it. I just think that the theme of season three is about the stories we tell ourselves. And there are a lot of end of the world narratives running around. These groups come and go and are quickly forgotten. That is a statement all in itself.

You directed the premiere, which takes place three years after season two. What did you communicate to the actors in terms of how much has changed in that time?

We definitely spoke about how it’s three years later, everything seems better, but it’s definitely not, as we discover. Everyone’s living with these incredible feelings. Kevin Garvey is now chief of police and he just wants to get the hell away from Jarden, because the seventh anniversary is approaching in 14 days. He discovers the Book of Kevin is being written about him. Is he the Messiah? Is he Jesus Christ? I think he wants to get away from everything that’s happening to him. And I think that one of the things we discover is we think he’s OK, but he’s not. He’s still believing that he killed a woman, Patty. Did he? Was that real? Was that alternative universe real? It certainly was to him. [Justin] Theroux is incredible in the series, as always, brilliant and brave and goes deep. Playing that fine line of being crazy or not being crazy. Everything is not what it seems to be.

The scene where Kevin puts the bag over his head is particularly disturbing. That’s the first moment we really think, maybe he’s not as OK as he seems to be.

Right. Everything’s feeling groovy and then you all of a sudden feel, oh my God, impending doom. And that song comes on [Simon and Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”], the irony, you know something’s going to happen, but what is it? And then he puts this bag over his head and almost kills himself. I guess that’s Kevin’s way of coping, and getting right to that point of “departing” himself or continuing on.

There are a lot of coping mechanisms that we’re going to see this season.

I think so, I know so… And filming that was really hard, because he did it. He just did it. And it was like, when should I call cut? Is he going to lose his breath? Is he going to pass out? It was scary to film, actually.

There were no movie magic tricks there?

No and you know, Justin was like, “You need another one?” No! That was good enough. He’s such a trooper.

At the same time, there do seem to be more moments of humor this season than in the past. Was that a conscious choice?

I think it was. I think the best drama comes from humor and it was really fun to explore the humor. I think it was very much a conscious choice on Damon and Tom’s part. And anywhere we could infuse it, it was so welcome. The irony of a lot of the music choices really helps with the humor and really brought it out.

It’s interesting to see the conspiracy theories about the apparent drone strike against the guilty remnant given our country’s current obsession with that sort of thing. I know you filmed it a long time ago, but did any of that stuff filter into your thinking about the season?

The Leftovers in the age of Trump—the parallel is indirect, but very intriguing. Tom Perrotta wrote the book in response to 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008, and all those events produce huge anxiety and uncertainty to a very changed world. And I think people are trying to make sense of, what the fuck happened to our world? Nothing’s like it was, at least to liberals. In the earth-shattering events of the Sudden Departure, it does very much have a parallel to the moment we’re living in. I think it was all very intentional, what was written.

Let’s talk about the final scene of the premiere. Does this glimpse of Nora as an older woman named Sarah contain hints of what’s to come?

You see this woman, you see this ponytail, you don’t see her face. There are all these birds and all these little notes that she’s putting into a bucket. They’re mostly all white. What are they? Who is this woman? Why is she on a bicycle in the middle of Australia? And do you know it’s Australia? You see this vast landscape and you’re intrigued. And then she goes to the nuns and drops off the birds and the nun asks her, there was a man who came looking for her, Sarah, do you know someone named Kevin? And then we reveal it’s Nora, an older Nora. And she says no. I think it’s a tease and it’s obviously a foreshadowing of things to come.

It gives us an idea of the scope that you are going for, that we may be headed that far into the future.

Yeah, I mean it gives that tease that we may be headed into the future and what that reality is and what we might be exploring.

Looking into the future of this season, there will inevitably be a lot of questions about whether fans are satisfied with the ending. Do you expect fans of the show will be satisfied by the end of the series?

I don’t know what to expect in terms of how the fans will receive these final episodes. But I can only say this: I felt very satisfied by the finale and by the conclusion. And I think, in only The Leftovers way, Damon and Tom never, ever, ever—we said we’d never give the answer, why did this happen? And I think that is very true to life. What does it mean to be human? How do we face our mortality? What are the answers? I don’t know. Do we ever get answers? Do we ever get the real answers? I mean, if we got all the answers, what’s the point? But, I must say, I think there’s some great satisfaction to the answers that we do give, at least for me. Other people I can’t really speak for, you know? We’ll see. Will it all be lovers or will there be some haters? Who the hell knows? All I know is I thought that it was a very satisfying ending for our series.