My Favorite Scene: Co-Creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta on 'The Leftovers'

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No one loves a great scene more than the person who first dreamed it up -- the writer. We're asking iconic shows' creators and writers to tell ET all about getting to see their most cherished moment on their series make it from script to screen.

For The Leftovers co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, it comes at two different points in the series: one that is very much still in the world of Perrotta’s novel, from which the HBO series is adapted, and another in season two, when the show left the novel behind for new territory (quite figuratively and literally).

And while there have been many book adaptations seen on TV recently, not all as heavily involved the author as The Leftovers did over the course of three seasons. But as Lindelof explains to ET, “it was incredibly important” that Perrotta be involved in the process. “Unfortunately, with Hollywood, when you’re doing adaptations, we fall in love with the novel that we read and the first thing we do is get rid of the person who wrote it,” the filmmaker says. “Why wouldn’t you want to involve the person who came up with this world and the ongoing development of it?”

MORE: Damon Lindelof on Ending 'The Leftovers' in the Wake of 'Lost'

Fortunately for Lindelof, Perrotta was game -- not only to adapt his novel, but to expand its world beyond his original pages. “Tom took the bull by its horns and threw himself into the process,” Lindelof says of his involvement in the writers’ room. (Over the course of the series, Perrotta co-wrote eight episodes, including the series finale co-written by him, Lindelof and Tom Spezialy, airing June 4.) “He was integral in part of the storytelling and I think The Leftovers is much better because of his involvement.”

Of course, Lindelof is the first to admit that there were hurdles to overcome, but like any successful marriage, both were came to the process with a great deal of love and respect and appreciation for each other. “We had to find the common,” Lindelof says. “The show was a collective mission -- and better for it.”

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Tom Perrotta, Co-Creator/Executive Producer/Author
Holy Wayne Hugs Nora, Episode 6 (“Guest”), Season 1

Photo: HBO

One of the challenges we faced in season one was finding ways to connect characters who weren’t connected in my novel. For instance, we made Nora Durst [Carrie Coon] and Matt Jamison [Christopher Eccleston] siblings (in the book they weren’t related), a move that provided us with a host of new narrative possibilities. But the thorniest problem was the Tom Garvey/Holy Wayne [Chris Zylka/Paterson Joseph] subplot, which was geographically separate from the rest of the show. Whenever we moved away from Mapleton to check in on Tom, Christine [Annie Q.], and Holy Wayne, it felt like we were switching to a completely different show. There didn’t seem to be a way to bring the world of Mapleton in contact with the cult of Healing Hugs.

Until suddenly there was. In “Guest,Nora Durst goes to New York City to attend a conference on the Sudden Departure. In the course of the episode, we come to understand how profoundly damaged she is beneath her exterior of cool emotional control. We watch her enact a strange ritual with a prostitute, pantomime sex with a lifelike doll called a Loved One, and explode with anger at a self-help author who claims that healing is possible, even after the worst tragedy. But we don’t see her cry.

Sensing her vulnerability, a follower of Holy Wayne [Tom Noonan] offers to show her the secret of feeling better. For the price of $1,000, he brings her to the alleged holy man, a broken-down fugitive hiding in a dingy apartment. Nora is skeptical, but willing to try anything. Wayne is rude at first, almost disdainful of his customer. But then they start to talk and something clicks between them. Out of a cynical economic transaction, a genuine human connection emerges. They hug. Nora surrenders her pain; Wayne accepts it. It’s a simple but shattering exchange, a moment of profound physical and emotional intimacy.

I can’t say enough about the two actors in the scene or about the director, Carl Franklin, who found a way to let the moment breathe, to add space and movement to what otherwise could have been a claustrophobic encounter; or our wonderful composer, Max Richter, whose gorgeous music plays softly over the embrace. Joseph is riveting as Holy Wayne -- we see both the charlatan and the miracle worker inside of him. And Coon just breaks -- she shows us everything Nora’s been holding back, all the grief stored up inside of her, the heroic effort it requires for her to get through an ordinary day. She lets it all go. Her tears are cathartic; we feel the release. After this scene we’ll never look at Nora Durst the same way again.

Damon Lindelof, Co-Creator/Executive Producer
Kevin Garvey Pushes a Little Girl into a Well, Episode 8 (“International Assassin”), Season 2

 

Photo: HBO

I love this scene -- when Kevin Garvey [Justin Theroux] pushes a little girl into a well in “International Assassin” -- because it’s really, really weird.  But not just weird, it’s also sad.  I guess it just hits my sweet spot because I am weird and sad.

We talked in the writers’ room a LOT about this episode. We knew that it was happening in an otherworldly terrain, but it was really important to us that what Kevin was experiencing felt REAL. His objective going into the story was that he wants to get rid of Patti Levin [Ann Dowd], this woman that was haunting him. We started to focus on how to make that as difficult as possible for him. We went round and round until we came up with the idea that Patti would appear as an innocent little girl and this would make it excruciating for Kevin to kill her. Then it was just a matter of coming up with the most brutal way for him to do it. So yes, we spent an entire day trying to come up with ways for a grown man to murder a 6-year old in cold blood. And while this scene finally set the stage to set him free, Kevin doesn’t yet realize that he has to free HER, too.

When I first saw this scene in the editing room, it took my breath away. We take risks on the show with the writing, but they only pay off when everyone on our incredible crew commits to them. Craig Zobel, our director, did an extraordinary job of making this magical and heartbreaking at the same time. And Justin’s performance -- it just breaks my heart how conflicted he is.  

I was pretty terrified about how the audience would react to this episode. The idea of doing an exorcism via political thriller was not something that we were high-fiving with confidence about, even though it was incredibly exciting for us to try to execute. I’m not on Twitter anymore, but I started getting texts and emails from friends the night the show aired that were all different versions of “WHAT THE EFF WAS THAT?!?” which I took to be an encouraging sign.