Mimi Leder on ‘The Leftovers’ Season 3, the Move to Australia, and the ‘Bittersweet’ Series Finale
If Damon Lindelof is the brain behind the The Leftovers, Mimi Leder is the eye. The executive producer directed some of the show’s must astounding episodes, from Season 1’s brutal “Gladys” to last year’s Season 2 finale that found Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey singing karaoke to escape the afterlife. The visual language of the HBO series reached new heights in the second season, and now Leder is helping expand that even further as the show heads to Australia for its final eight hours.
The Leftovers charts the aftermath of an apocalypse-like event were two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanished. The third season picks up — minor spoiler alert — three years after the events of Season 2, and just weeks away from the seventh anniversary of the Departure. (Read our full review of Season 3 here.) Sunday night’s episode, “The Book of Kevin,” is just the beginning of the long journey Theroux’s chief of police, Carrie Coon’s Nora, and Christopher Eccleston’s Matt Jamison are about to take towards what may actually be the end of the world.
I caught up with Leder over the phone to chat about the new season, which is the show’s most ambitious and layered bundle of episodes yet. Leder, who directed three episodes this year, including the premiere and series finale, told me about the choice to move the show to Australia, how much of the series’ end was known in advance, and its ever-evolving relationship with faith and religion.
I love this show so much and I tried not to binge it, as Damon Lindelof suggested, but I couldn’t help myself.
It’s really hard to binge, but I know so many who do. I go, “How do you do it?” But I understand, because I can’t get enough of it either.
I’m going to watch it a second time as the episodes air live. It’s so emotionally and narratively complex this season.
It really is. It’s very complex and affects you on an emotional level with all the detail, in a really good way. It just gets under your skin. The writers, starting with Damon Lindelof, the genius — you just don’t get that quality of writing very often. He’s a brilliant artist, a brilliant writer. So often the writing sneaks up on you, for sure.
You were such a major part of the transition from Season 1 to Season 2, and revamping the show into something much more optimistic and hopeful.
Yes. Thank you.
With that in mind, how did you approach the transition from Season 2 to Season 3?
Season 3 was — we went to an even larger campus, Australia. From the beautiful landscapes of Texas, to the incredibly vivid open space and vastness of Australia — just really felt like the end of the world, and here we were doing a piece on the end of the world. I just took it in. Our palette changed. For Season 2, I really wanted to bring in colors and light and more hopefulness. Season 2 being a reaction to the sudden departure, the move, and Season 3, you find our characters three years later really struggling with what it means to be human. How do we face our mortality? What are the stories we tell ourselves, and encompassing all of the end of the world narratives that are floating around? It always begins in story.
The themes that run through the third season are — what are the belief systems we tell ourselves that give meaning to us? When you look into the vastness of the landscape of Australia, you think you see nothing, but you actually see so much. There’s so much detail, and it was a beautiful canvas to explore our characters’ final destination, so to speak.
It really expands the whole visual scope of the series now that we’re not in two small towns anymore. The third episode specifically, which you directed, is just stunning. We get to see the Outback and really explore the world with these characters.
Thank you. You know, filming in the Outback, that was the first thing we filmed in Australia. I just can’t tell you what it felt like to be on sacred land. The earth just had a different color. When we first scouted it, it was all red. It wasn’t green yet. And then when we came back and started filming in June, it was red and green. It was so distinctive, and the sky is very different than our sky [in America]. The light falls differently. It was just a really beautiful, magical experience working in the desert, in the Outback, with a great Australian crew. That was also DPed by our American DP, John Grillo, who did a magnificent job.
Working with Scott Glenn, who is a superior, brilliant actor, who is brave and open — we just had a great journey together as he went through the Outback. To go on this journey with him, and his character, and with [Kevin Sr.'s] flood narrative, it was truly a gift, and a very cathartic experience.
He’s phenomenal this season. I think it’s his best performance in the series, by far.
Oh, yes. I think maybe ever. He says he’s never had so much fun. He went deep, he went really deep, and he was unafraid and he just went there, and it was really wonderful to film and be there to guide him.
That episode, to me, really captured the way The Leftovers approaches faith, and how it often empathizes with believers, but can also deem those beliefs insane. It rides a very fine line. How would you say the series’ relationship to religion overall has developed throughout the whole series and throughout this season for you?
Well I think it’s very interesting, all the religious themes that are woven through the series. You could say it’s very agnostic, in a way. For me, it has really opened up my belief systems in looking at the world with bigger eyes open. Standing on sacred ground and wondering, “Well, how and why are we all here?” You know? It has opened up my belief systems, I think considerably. Because I was raised by an atheist and an agnostic. My mother survived Auschwitz, and how she’s still here. Why did that happen? A lot of questions and theories, and the themes of The Leftovers have really opened my heart to many questions.
The series really does that for audiences as well. I think that’s what’s so compelling about it.
It is very compelling. You are telling this story as the storyteller, and at the same time what the audience is questioning, you’re questioning with the characters, questioning your questioning, and you go on that discovery together.
With only eight hours to wrap up the show this season, was there ever any pressure to provide definitive answers by the end? Did you ever feel yourself, or maybe you and Lindelof, having to ask yourselves, “Are we explaining too much?” or “Is this too opaque?” And how did you ride that line this season?
Well, I think the writers brilliantly rode the line of giving some, perhaps, satisfaction to questions that have been asked along the way. I think, of course, the series never answers, “Why did this happen? How could this happen? Where do they all go?” I think it’s a constant question we all face in life. I think it’s just a question we all continually ask ourselves. I think, Damon and Tom Perrotta, brilliantly ride the line and provide the roadmap for all of us.
I can’t wait to see the finale. It’s difficult to discuss the season without having seen the end.
Yeah. It will be very interesting to hear what you think about how we ended this series, and what are the stories we tell ourselves. What are those belief systems? Maybe there’s some satisfaction in our belief systems, because we certainly do need them to get through the day.
I don’t know if you are able to say yet, but did you direct the finale?
I did. Yes. It’s bittersweet.
As the director of the series finale, how much did you know in advance, say back in Seasons 1 and 2, about where the series was going to end and what the finale would entail? Did you have the direction of the ending in mind then, or did it evolve as Season 3 came together?
I think it evolved. I think the finale evolved. I think in Season 2, and in Season 1, you’re world-building as a writer. In Season 3, I believe they — Damon and Tom and the brilliant writing team — had to know what the end was before they could write the episodes, because we definitely had a destination to get to. But the show’s themes, grappling with loss and faith and tragedy, will really lead us to the end. I think a lot of questions are asked, and maybe some are answered. You have to be the judge of that, not me.
One thing I really love about this season is how it has such a bright sense of humor, whether it’s through the dialogue or the use of music. The changing music in the opening sequence each week also brings this very fresh, sort of sardonic sense of humor to each episode.
Absolutely. Well, you know, Damon is the music maven on our show, and he has a real uncanny ear to the ironic. Just doing comedy on The Leftovers was so much fun. It was like, “Wow. Yeah. We can do this.” Because in tragedy, there’s always humor. The best dramas have great humor.
You guys introduced that playful sense of humor in Season 2, but here it expands into something even more enjoyable. You’re crying one moment and then laughing at the next scene.
Yes. I agree. I think it really works. I’m very proud of this season. Very proud. It was very challenging on a production level, what we created, and I’m very proud of the work we did. These shows we do are like little movies, but we still do them in about 10 to 11 days. They’re amazing feats, I think, to accomplish. We have an incredible cast, starting with Justin Theroux, who leaves nothing on the table. He just gives it all, and Carrie Coon, the same. I mean, what a delicious group of actors.
Since there’s only eight episodes this season compared to the previous 10, did that place any constraints on production or on the storytelling? Was there anything left behind that you weren’t able to bring to this season?
I think it was hard to get all the story into the eight episodes, but I believe we did. You’ll be the judge, but I think there’s a lot of story in all those eight episodes, and I find it very satisfying.
The Leftovers airs on HBO on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.