The HBO drama The Leftovers, set three years after a cosmic event causes two percent of the world’s population to abruptly disappear, got off to a rocky start. The series shut down production for several weeks midway through its inaugural season so the creative team, led by showrunners Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, could focus the show’s perspective and retool half of the fourth episode. It was around that time that HBO hired Mimi Leder, a veteran of TV and film, to direct the first season’s fifth episode, “Gladys.” Leder wasn’t privy to the behind-the-scenes creative difficulties, but once the series returned from its self-imposed hiatus, Lindelof and Perrotta decided to hire Leder as directing producer. Now in its second season, The Leftovers has undergone a significant transformation. Leder was at the helm for more episodes than any other director, including the two-part premiere, which told the same story from different perspectives, last week’s “A Most Powerful Adversary,” and the season finale, which airs December 6th. I chatted with Leder about why she decided to sign on to the series and what it was like to help find its voice.
What was the main problem in the show’s early going, and how do you feel that you played a role in helping to solve that problem?
I think every show has growing pains. Every new show has to figure out how to tell their story. The first several episodes were hit and miss. The pilot was amazing. Episode three was amazing. Two and four weren’t as gripping, not as powerful. I think, with a new show, all writers struggle to find its voice, find the scenes, get into these characters. They just created these characters, but they don’t know them really. It’s a combination of chemistry and magic that makes something really hit. Damon found his voice with Tom Perrotta and their team. And with me they found a partner to visually tell that story and get into it in a deeper way emotionally.
What aspects of your style and approach work particularly well with what The Leftovers needs?
With the first episode that I did, “Gladys,” I just tried to stay very focused on the events and what the characters were feeling, and telling the story of [Gladys’s] stoning. I just kept that story intimate and stayed really, really focused on those characters.
Do you feel like the Texas setting is a more effective or appropriate place to set the story than the town in New York was last season?
I felt the first season was very claustrophobic. It was hard to get a sense of place. For season two, it felt necessary to find this town of Miracle and see what it looked like and open up the show visually. I really loved the colors of Austin, I love the big sky of Texas. The town we found, Lockhart, just felt right. The buildings were all these very beautiful hues of red and rust. We found the Murphy house on the very first location scout. We looked at it and said, “That’s it.” Damon had originally written the Garveys’ new house across the street. But all of a sudden, I turned and there was this house next door, and it was in disrepair, in the middle of this huge renovation. We all had our faces to the window looking in like little kids, and the floor was completely covered with wood. But wood that had been taken off the walls. You couldn’t even walk on it. If you were in the living room of the Garvey house, you could look right onto the porch of the Murphy house. I felt there was connectivity potential to telling the story of these two families. How rare it is to find two houses right next door to each other that really suit the narrative.
To what extent were you involved in discussions about the new direction for the show in season two?
When they came up with the idea of Miracle, Texas, that’s when I immediately started looking at places in America and Australia, looking at towns and cities that could be this town. I, with my team, set up this infrastructure, found this world, found that bridge. We had an incredible location team led by Joey Hudgins, who took us to where the encampment is—this bridge, with this park below it. It really spoke to me: “Hell below and heaven above.” Those who get to go to heaven get to go on that bridge. Those below get to burn. There was just so much symbolism.
That was my contribution in changing the look of the show and bringing in a richer color palette. In the first season, the palette was somewhat muted. This season we hired John Paino [production designer for Dallas Buyers’ Club], and he really brought us that beautiful color palette. The rich, deep colors of the Murphy house—when we found the house, he transformed the interior of it with these deep reds and purples and other really cool colors. It was really fun creating the look for this town where nothing happened.