'Leftovers' Producer Says Final Season Is 'About The Stories We Tell Ourselves'

Apr 14, 2017
Originally published on April 14, 2017 3:47 pm

The HBO series The Leftovers explores grief, loss, religion and even the meaning of life. It's set a few years after an event sort of like the rapture, in which 2 percent of the world's population suddenly vanishes. The Leftovers doesn't try to explain why people disappeared; instead, it focuses on those who got left behind and how they try to make sense of the world.

Executive producer Mimi Leder says the show revolves around some big questions. "Why are we here? What is the meaning? What am I supposed to do? How do we carry on in the face of madness every day around the world? ... Some people live in denial and some people ask the questions. I think this show asks those questions."

The Leftovers begins its third and final season on Sunday.


Interview Highlights

On whether the show has helped her find answers to life's big questions

It's given me a little peace and great happiness, actually. It's been an extraordinary journey the last three years on this show exploring the deepness that we all feel about life. It's given me actually a lot of hope. ... It makes me come out the other side going, "Oh, yes. I know what to do." And that's just one day, and the next day I don't know what to do.

On her own faith background

I actually am Jewish but was raised an atheist. My father was an atheist, and my mother is a survivor of Auschwitz and three other concentration camps and [a] death march. When you speak to her today, she's alive at 94 years old and swingin' hard. She has been an agnostic most of her life because she always would say to me, you know, "How could that have happened to my family? How could that have happened to me? How could that have happened to millions of people? How could there be a God?"

And, you know, as I have grown and evolved, I feel there is some sort of spiritual God that speaks to me. Very interesting coming from a family of non-believers, but I feel there's got to be some answer to this world, to why things happen.

On directing a scene in the first season in which a woman is stoned to death

It was a stoning, a ritual that still exists in the world today. It was a difficult sequence to shoot. You know, we had rocks made very air-like, and throwing them at an actor was very jarring to the actor. So I finally gave way to calling sounds to the actor — you know, "Bam! Bam!" — as if the actor was getting hit, and I put a lot of the stones in CGI. That was the practical part of it, but in watching it, it's one of the painful, most horrific things I've ever shot and seen.

On the third season's overarching theme

I think the third season is about the stories we tell ourselves. That encompasses a lot of the end-of-the-world narratives that are floating around. Everyone's looking for a story that gives meaning to their lives and I think allows them to exist in this world in some degree of peace and even joy. That's what I think this third season is about.

Producer Matt Ozug, editor Ed McNulty and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

I'm not sure I've ever responded as emotionally to a TV show as I have to one that begins its third and final season on HBO, this Sunday. The show is called "The Leftovers".

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX RICHER'S "THE DEPARTURE")

SHAPIRO: It's set a few years after an event sort of like the rapture. Two percent of the world's population suddenly vanishes. It seems arbitrary and random. "The Leftovers" doesn't try to explain why people disappeared. It focuses on the people left behind, how they try to make sense of the world. Mimi Leder is the show's executive producer. She came to "The Leftovers" part way into its first season, directing a disturbing and violent episode that begins with a really unpleasant death.

MIMI LEDER: Yes, it was a stoning, a ritual that still exists in the world today.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LEFTOVERS")

JUSTIN THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) I'm sure you're all aware that a violent hate crime occurred a couple of nights ago.

LEDER: We had rocks made that were - they hardly weighed anything. And throwing them at an actor was very jarring to the actor. I finally gave way to calling sounds to the actor - you know, bam (ph) and to a character who was a Guilty Remnant...

SHAPIRO: The Guilty Remnant is the name of this cult that exists to constantly remind people of the departure.

LEDER: Yes. And you know, they also do not speak. And it was heartbreaking when Gladys actually finally said, you know, stop; stop it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LEFTOVERS")

MARCELINE HUGOT: (As Gladys) Please stop, please.

SHAPIRO: I started watching season one of "The Leftovers" at a time when it felt like every day there was another mass shooting or terrorist attack, events where people are present one day and gone the next. And...

LEDER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I wonder how overtly you and the other creators of the show think about those parallels.

LEDER: Well, I can't speak for the other creators, but I definitely think about that all the time. You know, how do we carry on in the face of madness every day? But it's human nature. We do. Some people live in denial, and some people ask the questions. I think this show asks those questions.

SHAPIRO: Has the show given you any answers?

LEDER: (Laughter) Well, it's given me actually a lot of hope.

SHAPIRO: Really?

LEDER: It does to me. I - it makes me come out the other side going, oh, yes, I know what to do.

SHAPIRO: Do you come from a faith background?

LEDER: I actually am Jewish but was raised an atheist. My mother is a survivor of Auschwitz and three other concentration camps and the death march. She has been an agnostic most of her life because she always would say to me, you know, how could that have happened to my family? How could there be a God? And you know, as I have grown, I feel there is some sort of spiritual God that speaks to me. I feel there's got to be some answer to why things happen.

SHAPIRO: I can only imagine how this show must look to a Holocaust survivor.

LEDER: Yes (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Does your mother watch it?

LEDER: I hate to admit this, but she's watched one episode. And I think it was too much for her, really. But she is always very excited about it (laughter).

SHAPIRO: There's a line in the first episode of the new season where one character says, we can't just be going through all of this for nothing.

LEDER: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: And that really does seem to be the central question not just of the show but of life.

LEDER: Of life, exactly. We - there's got to be a reason. And this show explores those questions, and it's for the audience to answer.

SHAPIRO: You've said that the first season of "The Leftovers" was about loss and the second season was about hope. What do you think the third season is about?

LEDER: I think the third season is about the stories we tell ourselves. Everyone's looking for a story that gives meaning to their lives and I think allows them to exist in this world in some degree of peace and even joy. That's what I think this third season is about.

SHAPIRO: God knows it's a worthy goal.

LEDER: (Laughter) I think so.

SHAPIRO: Mimi Leder, Thank you so much.

LEDER: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Mimi Leder is an executive producer of "The Leftovers." The third season starts on HBO Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX RICHTER'S "MAIN THEME - THE LEFTOVERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.