Guest of Honor

Damon Lindelof Finds Freedom in Limitations and Ponders the Paradoxes of Fandom

The co-creator "Lost" and "The Leftovers" shares how "Encyclopedia Brown" shaped his approach to storytelling and why it can be tricky to please fans and critics alike.

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(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Damon Lindelof co-created the ABC series “Lost” — widely considered one of the greatest TV shows ever. He also wrote installments of the “Alien” and “Star Trek” movie franchises. But most recently, he co-created HBO’s “The Leftovers” along with Tom Perrota, who wrote the book it’s based on.

The show is about a family living in the aftermath of an unexplained event, in which two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanish without a trace. In a way, it’s a study of how people deal with grief and loss.

Since its debut in 2014, critics have called “The Leftovers” one of the best shows on TV. The series finale airs this weekend. Before Damon and Rico talked about the show, our intrepid host reminded Damon of their surprising shared TV past. [Be sure to check out our extended interview with Damon here.]

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Damon Lindelof: It is wonderful to be here.

Rico Gagliano: So normally, we ask all our guests a standard question, which is “tell us something we don’t know,” but I’m just going to say, right at the top here, probably many people don’t know that you and I were both on the writing staff together for the MTV show “Undressed.”

Damon Lindelof: “Undressed!” Yes!

Rico Gagliano: Back in, like, 2000 or something.

Damon Lindelof: It just hit me, yes! That was in like ’98, man. Was it ’98?

Rico Gagliano: Was it ’98?

Damon Lindelof: Or ’99 maybe?

Rico Gagliano: I don’t want to think that far back.

Damon Lindelof: And we had to write 36 episodes —

Rico Gagliano: A day!

Damon Lindelof: — In six weeks. And every three scenes we had to figure out a way to get people into a hot tub.

Rico Gagliano: That’s right.

Damon Lindelof: Which is the same on “The Leftovers,” by the way. Oddly enough.

Rico Gagliano: That’s not true. For those who don’t know, “Undressed” was basically a late-night MTV soap opera for teens, with a lot of sex in it.

Damon Lindelof: It was 20 years ago!

Rico Gagliano: That was about 20 years ago.

Damon Lindelof: Oh my God.

Rico Gagliano: The thing I most remember about that show is Steve DeKnight, who was our head writer…

Damon Lindelof: That’s right.

Rico Gagliano: …We’d say, “I don’t know what should happen next in this scene.” And he wouldn’t even read it, he’d just say, “Pop the top.”

Damon Lindelof: Yep: Get someone’s top off. Absolutely. Male, female — didn’t matter. Equal opportunity.

Rico Gagliano: So, here’s my question to you…

Damon Lindelof: Oh, boy.

Rico Gagliano: …Well, it’s not that hard a question, but is there anything that you took from writing that show into the rest of your writing career on, you know, massive sci-fi epics?

Damon Lindelof: Absolutely! And I’m not just spinning it.  Because the amazing thing about that show was was had three sets, right?  The way that “Undressed” worked was there were three different storylines: there was a high school storyline, there was a college storyline and then there was, like, a “just-graduated” storyline. And we were all writing scenes in each storyline, but they kind of had to oddly interconnect.  And they all had to just take place on this set.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah: The entire high school storyline had to be on, like, one set.

Damon Lindelof: Right! And so, the limitations, and the speed at which you had to write, was great boot camp.  Because it’s like that scene in “Apollo 13” where [the astronauts] are running out of oxygen up there, and the dude [in Mission Control]  just walks into the room and dumps out a box of stuff and says, like, “We have to make a filtration system out of this. This is all we have.” And one guy’s like, “Could we use a pen?” And it’s like, “They don’t have a pen up there!”

So I think that, once I started writing for bigger budget movies or network drama, it almost feels like you can kind of do whatever you want. But returning to that idea of, like, “limitations are a very good thing”. Sometimes you need to know where the walls are. Limitations and deadlines are a writer’s best friend, I think.

Justin Theroux appears in a scene from Season 3, episode 7 of “The Leftovers.” (Photo Credit: Ben King)

Rico Gagliano: Yes, although it does help — if you do come up with a great idea — to have as much money as possible to throw at it, budget-wise.

Damon Lindelof: That seems to be the case, and yet, like, the best movie I’ve seen in the last year is “Get Out.” You know? And can you put that movie side-by-side with “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” — which is a great movie, but cost one hundred and seventy million dollars more — and say that it’s one hundred and seventy million dollars better?

So, everyone’s like, “What’s Jordan Peele going to do next?” You know, “I’d love to see him get his hands on a $150 million movie.” And I’m sort of like, “Eh, I don’t know, is that a good thing?”

Rico Gagliano: Yeah. And we have seen this many a time. A lot of people talk about indie film as being like a boot camp now for major motion pictures, and then you see people flame out when they get those budgets.

Damon Lindelof: Not just flame out, but it’s sort of like, you know, Collin Trevorrow makes a great, cool movie like “Safety Not Guaranteed” and then now he’s doing “Star Wars” films. And that’s great; I want Collin Trevorrow or Rian Johnson making “Star Wars” films, but at the same time, I also want to see what their follow-ups to “Looper” and “Safety Not Guaranteed” are.

Rico Gagliano: More personal films.

Damon Lindelof: Right. By the way, I just want to say, by the end of this interview, we’re getting someone into the hot tub.

Rico Gagliano: Right.

Damon Lindelof: We have to figure it out together for old time’s sake.

Rico Gagliano: That’ll be weird on public radio. We can just do it by bringing up a sound effect.

Damon Lindelof: That’s exactly right.

Rico Gagliano: Just pretend we’re in one right now.

Damon Lindelof: Oh, man, you’ve ruined the illusion.

Rico Gagliano: Sorry.

Damon Lindelof: You’ve taken away the magic.

Rico Gagliano: But let’s talk about the kind of sci-fi that you do. Well, let’s just say that one of your earliest influences, you’ve said, was “Twin Peaks.” Very ambiguous, weird dreamlike thing. “Lost” had a similar kind of ambiguous mystery at the heart of it.

You have said that that’s one of the attractions to you of the “Leftovers”: that everybody’s living in this ambiguous world where there is no resolution.

Damon Lindelof: Just like the real world. Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah. Why are you so attracted to that?

Damon Lindelof: As frustrating as it may be for others, I’ve always been drawn into the story that has an interpretive ending. The book that has the last 10 pages ripped out.

I’ve told this story before — but not terribly recently — which is: There were these books called the “Encyclopedia Brown” books, where there were these little mysteries. “Encyclopedia Brown” was a boy detective, and at the end of the case it would be like, “How did Encyclopedia know that Bugs Meanie stole his bike?” And then you’d flip to the end and it would tell you what the giveaway was.

And my dad caught me basically, like, flipping to the end before I’d even really thought it out.  So he ripped out all of the answers in my “Encyclopedia Brown” books.  And so, I would go to him and be like, “Is this how he found out?” And my dad would be like, “Oh, I don’t know. I threw those pages away!” So, I’d just have to sort of sit there thinking like, “I think I got it, but I’m not sure.”

Rico Gagliano: This is how you grew up, basically!

Damon Lindelof: Yeah! And I’m still catalyzed by, you know, “Making a Murderer,” “Serial” or “S-Town.” Those stories don’t have fixed endings because they’re real. And there’s this idea in reality of just, like, never knowing.

Rico Gagliano: I kind of figured you’d say that. But on the other hand, the reason why people go to see narratives, and the reason why narratives have such a pull on us, I think, is because they’re a way to organize the world in a way that it isn’t in reality. So you go into a story wanting some order. You want a beginning, middle, and end. So, it seems like if you’re not ever going to give audiences that payoff at the end, you’re working at a disadvantage from the beginning.

Damon Lindelof: You are giving them something else, though. You take a movie like the original “Blade Runner” that ends with a high degree of ambiguity — Ridley Scott’s director’s cut even more so. This idea of like, “Well, was Decker a Replicant?” — that’s the Harrison Ford character — “We’re not going to tell you.”

And, you know, “Blade Runner” comes out.  It bombs.  But here we are 30 years later anticipating the return to that world.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah — there’s a sequel coming out.

Damon Lindelof: I just think that’s another way to tell stories. There’s got to be room for both ways of doing it.

Rico Gagliano: Let’s talk about the writing of this show. You burned through the plot of the book, I think, in the first season. So now you’re free to sort of take the story wherever you want to. Because it has this ambiguous quality, and because there’s an almost stream-of-consciousness thing to it, I wonder how much of it was plotted meticulously out in advance, or how much you’re just kind of going with the flow. It feels like something very organic.

Damon Lindelof: Season by season there has to be a plan. But that’s the thing about television storytelling is, you don’t really know what pace you’re going to be chewing through the story until you’re actually engaged in it.

The story that I love is that “24,” the television show, they basically pitched that show so that in the first season, Jack Bauer finds out there’s going to be an assassination attempt on the president’s life… and in episode 24 he thwarts that assassination. He ended up thwarting it in episode six. And so they were like, “All right, we’ve got 16 episodes to go post-thwarting. What do we do now?!” So I like being in uncharted territory. I like it when I’m approaching an episode and I don’t quite know what to do, and you kind of have to fumble your way through it.

Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta on the set of “The Leftovers.” (Photo Credit: Ben King)

Rico Gagliano: Really? You like it?

Damon Lindelof: I do like it!

Rico Gagliano: That sounds like stress beyond imagination.

Damon Lindelof: It is stressful, but also the most exciting thing about storytelling is discovery. When I watch an episode of “Mr. Robot” or “Fargo” or “Legion” or “Transparent,” I’m like, “What’s the next episode going to be?!”

You know, there was an episode of “Transparent” from this last season that revolves around a turtle… or a tortoise. I think it was a turtle. And it just, like, devastated me. I mean, my wife and I watched it and we just looked at each other and we’re like, “Something beautiful just happened.” And we were completely not expecting it.

That’s the kind of thing that I’m chasing, is this idea of discovery. The unfathomable, the indescribable. I can’t explain to you why that turtle moment is so great, but I can almost guarantee if you just watch that one episode, even if you don’t watch “Transparent,” you’ll understand that something incredibly special just happened.

Rico Gagliano: We already got an answer to our first standard question, which is: tell us something we don’t know. Our second question is: “If we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question should we not ask you?”

Damon Lindelof: Oh my God. “Were you making it up as you went along?” Which you’ve already asked me here. Because —

Rico Gagliano: Sorry!

Damon Lindelof: — No, no! You shouldn’t ask it to me, not because I don’t want to answer it, but because you’re going to get my speech.  And you’re going to hate me even more than you already do, probably, before you ask the question.

Rico Gagliano: Why is that? Your speech just now was great.

Damon Lindelof: No, no. My response to that at a party is: People actually only ask me two questions. One is “Were you making it up as you went along?” And the other is, “How much input do the fans have?”

And they want the answer to “Were you making it up as you go along?” to be “No. We had a plan, there was a binder, there was a blueprint. We followed it to the letter. There was no spontaneity. There was no winging it. We knew what we were doing every step of the way.” That’s the way that we want mom and dad to answer that question. That’s the way that we want our leadership in the country to answer that question: “There is a plan.”

Question number two, “How much impact do the fans have?” They want the answer to that question to be, like, “A lot! We listen to everything you say. If you don’t like a character, we’ll kill them off. If something’s too confusing to you, if the pace is… we will adjust based on your input.” Nobody wants to hear, “I don’t care what you think. The fans have no impact on the storytelling whatsoever.”

And no one can identify the paradox between these two answers. Because if there is a plan, if there is a binder, if there is a blueprint, then the fans have zero impact! But if you want to have impact on the storytelling, then there can’t be a plan that we won’t deviate from. And then I say this, and as I’m talking to people, I can start to see them getting angrier and angrier and angrier at me. And then my —

Rico Gagliano: “I just asked you a question, man!”

Damon Lindelof: — Then my wife politely squeezes my elbow and gets me out of there. Poor Heidi, my wife, has to hear that speech over and over and over again.

Rico Gagliano: And now all of America has as well.

Damon Lindelof: All of America.

Rico Gagliano: Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Damon Lindelof: Really good to be here, and let’s go hop in that hot tub!