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Interview: Mimi Leder on Directing The Leftovers

We chatted with the director about why she decided to sign on to The Leftovers and what it was like to help find the show’s voice.

Interview: Mimi Leder on Directing The Leftovers
Photo: Van Redin/HBO

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.

When you first saw that season-premiere opening sequence on the page or heard you were going to do it, what was your reaction and what was your approach to shooting it?

I walked into the writers’ room and I saw all these writings on the wall: “Cavewoman,” “baby,” “snake.” I went, “What the fuck is that?” I received the sequence and it took months to plan. It was always this sequence that was “out there.” “How are we going to do this?” It’s like its own little movie. “How do you tell a sequence in no words?” We had these ladies come in. “Here’s the scene, you walk out of the cave, you pee, there’s a huge earthquake, you deliver a baby.” All these auditions are six, seven, eight minutes long, of these women ranting and raving. It was unbelievable. This woman, Sarah Tomko, came in, and we just fell head over heels over her.

Michael Grady, my cinematographer, and I talked about the colors of this sequence. We wanted to transition from this time period to the present day. “Do we take the color out, do we make it yellow, do we make it sepia, do we make it closer to black and white? What do we do to present the past in addition to the present? What does her wardrobe look like? How dirty is she? How long ago was it?” It was kind of scary because if we didn’t get this right, we were completely fucked. There was a lot of pressure to get this sequence right. And a lot of it was on us. There were no lines, there was no dialogue. There was just this story.

In three days we shot that sequence. While we were shooting in Texas, it was when the big rains came. It could have been a sequence that didn’t work at all. But it had to be told from her point of view, which I thought was essential. That’s why a lot of it was very close. But you still get those big, big shots, because you have to tell this story of this place where life continues. And it was an extraordinary sequence to shoot, to cut. We could have started the show with the girls jumping into the water and introduce our characters that way. But it felt so interesting to start the story 20,000 years ago, in the same place. It felt right.

And as I was shooting, I realized I’d already shot a scene like this before, in ER, “Love’s Labor Lost,” when the mother dies and the baby lives. Why am I continually shooting these scenes of unexplainable loss?

Was there any concern about this episode not feeling like an episode of The Leftovers?

Yeah, I know, I was scared. We have a whole new group of actors finding their footing. Kevin Carroll [who plays John Murphy] had an enormous role to pull off, with that crazy smile. It was very challenging, and it had a slow burn. In that way, it felt like The Leftovers. It was really fun shooting the first episode, kind of not knowing if it was going to work, but feeling as if each scene was really working. “It’s all really working, but will it ultimately work? Will the audience wait that long?” I think it spoke a lot to the bravery of the writing. We have extraordinary idea-makers. And then doing the point of view from the Garveys in the second episode felt very much like The Leftovers. In case you were missing The Leftovers, here it is. “Cross-boarding” [shooting scenes from two episodes simultaneously] isn’t an easy thing to do, but it makes total sense. I was directing episode one, and they had both scripts and they were from different point of views, and I said I should do both of them.

What are your thoughts on this season’s POV structure, in which each episode is seen through the eyes of only one or two characters?

I think it’s been very successful. It’s much more satisfying to do straight POV from one character instead of doing three storylines. That’s much more typical in television. Each one of these is a little film. You’re telling their story. I prefer it much more.

What techniques do you use to keep emotions high on set, given the grief-stricken material?

Everybody was so into the show. Everybody felt the material deeply. When we were shooting, it was really intense. Everybody was totally into it. Then, of course, when we would cut, there would be laughter, there would be release, and also a feeling that we had done something together that felt really good. And that doesn’t always happen for a lot of people. I think we did do something special this year. You don’t always get to direct material like this. After you do, you don’t want to go back to ever doing something that hits a false note.

Are you optimistic about a third season? Would you return if the show is renewed?

I don’t know yet if there’s going to be a third season. I’d love to come back. I just don’t know what’s going to happen. Hopefully we’ll know by the end of the year. We’re very critically successful. I just don’t know what the eyeballs are. It always comes down to numbers. I love our show, and I love being a part of it.

Television has been your home for the last few years. Especially with The Leftovers having been this big vehicle for you, do you have interest in returning to film at some point?

I have great interest in doing the right film. I’ve been offered a couple of them, and I may do one. I’m just trying to figure out what’s the best story to tell. For me, there’s not a lot of difference between working on an HBO show like The Leftovers and making a film. Every 10, 11 days, we make a little movie. Obviously on a film you have a bigger budget and a little bit more time to concentrate on the details. But it’s all about the story to me. That’s how I choose what I’m going to do next. There are a lot of bad movie scripts. And there are a lot of good ones. It’s just about what’s the right material that I have a connection to, that I can tell in a unique way. That’s how I judge what I’m going to do next.

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