New York Times Interviews HUMANITAS Trustee Damon Lindelof


LindlofDamon Lindelof Promises You His New Show Won’t End Like ‘Lost’

A few months ago, inside a house in Douglaston, Queens, Justin Theroux, the star of the new HBO show “The Leftovers,” was in the kitchen, having his feet blow-dried. Theroux had been shooting a scene in which he had to run outside in the snow in bare feet, jump a fence, then put out a fire — over and over. When he retreated to the living room between takes, a conversation about the limitations of human feet ensued among the various people assembled, which led seamlessly to a vigorous and enthusiastic discussion about the magician David Blaine, who was once frozen in a giant block of ice.

Tom Perrotta, upon whose novel “The Leftovers” is based, asked if anyone had ever seen any of Blaine’s card tricks. Damon Lindelof, the show’s co-creator and head writer, got excited and chimed in: “His most amazing trick is he’ll just say, without even a deck of cards: ‘Think of a card. You got it?’ And you just go, ‘O.K.’ And then he’ll go, ‘Four of clubs,’ and that’s the card.” Lindelof, who is 41, wears plastic-framed glasses and has a shaved head and a perpetual day’s worth of scruff, pulled out his phone and searched on YouTube for another favorite Blaine illusion: one in which Blaine puts what looks like a knitting needle through his biceps, to the disgust and delight of Ricky Gervais, and then pulls it out with no trace of blood or puncture wound. Everyone in the kitchen watched the video, horrified.

When it ended, several people talked about ways Blaine might have pulled off the illusion. Lindelof wanted no part in that conversation. “I would never, ever want to be told how he achieves it,” he announced. “I don’t want to feel like that’s a trick. I want to feel like it’s real.”

The conceit of “The Leftovers” is also a kind of trick: 2 percent of the earth’s population disappears one day with no explanation. There appears to be no common denominator to the people who go missing. Condoleezza Rice is gone. The pope is gone. So is Gary Busey. It may be the Christian Rapture — when believers ascend to heaven — or it may not. The story begins on the third anniversary of what has become known as the Sudden Departure, and focuses on characters living in a world that is trying to figure out how to move on.

It’s a compelling but tricky premise for a TV show, because the show’s central mystery may (or may not) be teased out indefinitely. Perrotta’s novel wrapped up its story after 355 pages, but a successful HBO series has to sustain several seasons of intrigue. And because it is Lindelof’s first TV project since he was a creator of “Lost,” the ABC show that famously drew out several mysteries for many seasons — only to end with resolutions that many people found, to put it mildly, unsatisfying — this may be a good time to remember how comfortable Lindelof is with the whole idea of mystery. The short answer: very, despite everything.

When Michael Ellenberg, an executive vice president at HBO, told Michael Lombardo, the network’s president of programming, that he wanted to bring Lindelof on to run “The Leftovers,” Lombardo’s first reaction was: “Damon Lindelof? The guy who was on ‘Lost’?” Ellenberg worked with Lindelof when he was hired to do rewrites for the film “Prometheus,” and he felt as if Lindelof could pull off the strange balance of intrigue and drama they were aiming for in “The Leftovers.” Lombardo agreed they needed a show runner who was willing to take bold chances. And though he hadn’t been a fan of “Lost” — he stopped watching after one season — he began to think of Lindelof as a promising candidate. “ ‘Lost’ had a big and loyal and robust and smart, passionate audience until the very end,” Lombardo says. “I mean, how many serialized shows do that? Most shows peter out, they end with a whimper.”

So Ellenberg called Lindelof and asked if he’d read “The Leftovers.” He told Ellenberg no, and Ellenberg responded: “Read it.”

Lindelof was eager to get back to TV — “It’s what I love, it’s what I’m good at.” He’d spent the years since “Lost” ended in 2010 mostly writing for movies. He worked on “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” with his friends Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. With Jeff Jensen and Brad Bird, he wrote “Tomorrowland,” a Disney movie coming in 2015 based on the section of the Disney theme parks that houses­ futuristic rides. There was more script-doctor work on “World War Z” and several other movies he declined to name.

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