It isn’t often that a novelist gets to see his creative vision expand into an entire television series, and it’s even less often when that novelist has a hand in creating that series. But Tom Perrotta knows his way around show business; he signed a deal with HBO to produce “The Leftovers” at the same time that the novel of the same name was released in 2011. It’s a level of control that a novelist dreams of — for instance, he was instrumental in picking Damon Lindelof of “Lost” as the program’s showrunner.
This is the first time that Perrotta, whose previous screen adaptations were film versions of his novels “Election” and “Little Children,” has adapted one of his books into a series, and he and Lindelof have expanded the world of Mapleton beyond the book’s multiple points of view of the Garvey family. Perrotta spoke to Indiewire about adapting the book, why Lindelof was the best showrunner to help him do it, the show’s relentlessly dark tone and why people should embrace the story of people moving on from this tragic event instead of figuring out why it happened.
[Mild spoilers for “The Leftovers” Episode 1 follow.]
You signed the deal with HBO when the novel came out in 2011. Was Damon attached to the project back then or did it take a little while to find him to sign on?
No, no. I went to HBO first with just the manuscript. So almost the first creative conversation we had, I made it clear that I couldn’t be a showrunner, that I didn’t know how to be a showrunner. And so they said, “Well, before we do anything, we want to find a showrunner because the best showrunners want to be in on the ground floor to develop the material.” So we made a list of various people we thought would be good for the show.
It just so happened, I hadn’t watched “Lost” when it came out, but I was watching it on Netflix at the time with my son and was really enjoying it and was actually really impressed with the scope of the storytelling, especially those episodes that were almost all flashback. That was a pretty bold thing to see on network TV. So Damon was high on my list and it turned out that the HBO executive, Michael Ellenberg, who was certainly in charge of the show, had just worked with Damon on “Prometheus.” So he was the first guy we went to.
Because the show would have different points of view, did you think Damon would work for it because your book had the potential for a similar structure to “Lost?”
Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I guess as “Lost” went on and on, I think the show got more sort of outlandish, but I think I was probably in the midst of the first two seasons in that moment. And it was actually surprisingly a human show.
So I think there were two sides of it and I was very struck by, as I said, these flashback episodes, the size and the ensemble cast — his ability to create a number of characters that are cared about and really populate that island. So it’s that sort of storytelling that I think I was most surprised by, because the show had been out already and I kept hearing how weird it was.
Did you always envision this as a series?
Well, I think it’s hard to say what came first. I mean, I think I had been watching a lot of TV, becoming very aware of the possibilities in this form, the way that TV had been changing. And for a novelist, the thought of being able to tell something over a long form seemed really appealing. It also seemed like TV was embracing really difficult, complicated material in a way that the feature world wasn’t. It’s amazing to me that I got movies made of “Election” and “Little Children,” because they’re both pretty difficult movies.
But it’s become harder and harder. I went to HBO and they were immediately interested. I can’t quite imagine going to major film studios with “The Leftovers” and getting them to jump at it.
Because the world of the show is so large, didn’t it seem like, unlike your other movies which were about a few people or a couple, this would lend itself to a series?
That’s what I was about to say. On the one hand, I had been thinking a lot about TV and was very aware of it as a very creative place to be in the past, you know, ten years or so and then also [that] this book, as you say, was just really big. Like you could imagine trying to make a feature film out of it; you’d probably spend about half the film just establishing the world. And then you’d have to pick your main character and tell one story. I don’t think I’d be able to tell the story of a whole family in the course of a two-hour film.
So this seemed like much more [well-]suited. The book worked through a microcosm. It picked this one family in this one town. But there’s a whole world out there that the show could potentially explore if we end up doing multiple seasons.
There are elements to your book that are unusual — the Guilty Remnant being the biggest one, obviously. They dress in white, they smoke, they don’t talk. How do you make them human and intimidating at the same time? How do you make it look weird but not weird?
When Damon and I first met, I think, one of the things that was really reassuring to me was that he immediately was just saying, “This has to feel real. We have to do what we can to make this feel real.”
And I remember the first time, we were shooting the pilot, and Amy Brenneman and Marceline Hugot, who plays her partner in the G.R., appeared at that restaurant where Liv Tyler and her fiancé are eating. And they just seemed so creepy, even though they weren’t doing anything. They were just standing there smoking and looking in the window and I think we both realized, “Oh, this is going to work.” We found a way to make [the G.R.] both real and otherworldly.
How tough is it for actors like Amy Brenneman and Ann Dowd, playing Guilty Remnant members, to just be silent and communicate everything through their expressions and body language?
I think it’s been a real challenge. Amy and Ann chose very different ways to do it. Ann plays incredibly resolute and fierce and Amy is just so expressive and you can feel like what a struggle it is for her and for her character to remain silent.
But honestly, I was so pleased that we were able to get that level of actor to take on that challenge of acting without your voice. So it’s actually like being a silent movie actor. I think somebody like Amy, who’s had so much success in TV and in being a likable protagonist, I think she appreciated the challenge of playing a silent, unlikable, difficult character. The struggle I think that she feels is visible.
Do you expect viewers to come back to you and have them say, “Well, how did this event happen?” What did Damon tell you about revealing that central conceit of what happened? In the book you don’t explain either, you’re just talking about the lives of the people as they’re trying to move on in life.
Look, if you want to know what happened, if that’s why you’re watching the show, you’re going to hate it because it’s not about that. It’s about how people live in the face of a mystery that is not going to be solved. It’s three years and scientists and studies say, “We don’t know.” There’s no religion that can explain it. And they’ve almost stopped talking about it because there’s nothing to be said.
I felt like this Malaysian airliner that disappeared this year was an interesting case study on that. For about a month, it was in the news every day. CNN couldn’t stop talking about it. And what they did was just have various experts and journalists just spin whatever theory they could think of. That’s what the human mind does when it’s confronted with a question that can’t be answered is spin out crazy theories.
And I think that that’s what’s going on in “The Leftovers.” This thing has happened, nobody can explain it and what the story is about is what people do when confronted with this gigantic hole in their understanding of the world.
Do you have faith in the viewers that they’ll get that, and that they won’t be trying to figure out what happened or ask what happened?
I think people are really different. And I think a lot of people consume stories, particularly mysteries, to reach some kind of resolution and to get some kind of reassurance. This is not a show that’s going to give out a lot of reassurance. So I think that those people probably won’t watch, but the ones who realize that the show is about faith and religion and mystery and grief and that it’s really about how the characters get on with their lives or recreate their lives to become an entirely new conception of what life is about… That’s what the story is about.
A big change was, instead of having Kevin being the mayor like in the book, you have him being the police chief, which I thought was an interesting choice. Did you do it so he can butt heads with the mayor a little bit?
When we wrote the pilot with Kevin as the mayor, so it would be more closely reflecting the book, we had a sense that he was a little bit outside of the action. And it just didn’t seem like a good thing to have the mayor kind of standing and watching. The real impulse was that our main character shouldn’t be an observer of events. He should be in the fray. And it just seemed to us that the police chief would be much more in the fray than the mayor would be.
I think the show is several degrees darker than the book. I think, in the book, the mayor is kind of a nice decent guy who’s trying to get the town to sort of feel happiness again and to return to a kind of normalcy. There’s something almost comic about that, like the nice guy in the midst of the apocalypse. But there’s something much darker about the tormented guy in the midst of the apocalypse, which is how we ended up going.
The book was a little bit lighter, given the topic, than the tone of the series. What made you guys decide, “Hey, let’s go a few shades darker?” Are you afraid that this is going to alienate viewers? And will you go lighter as we go along?
It’s been amazing to me to see the critical response and we’ve gotten some wonderful reviews, but there have been a few people who are just like, “My God, this is the most morose, dark thing that I’ve ever seen,” and, “Why would anybody watch it?” Of course, I understand that that’s a very traditional, sort of Hollywood view that people want uplift and they want to feel better. But actually, on TV, it doesn’t seem to be true to me.
“The Walking Dead” is just so relentlessly grim, week after week, and people love it. “Mad Men” has a tone. It’s very funny, I would say, so that’s a little bit different. But there’s a consistent tone of melancholy in “Mad Men” that I find really fascinating. I don’t know, maybe we’re pushing the envelope in terms of darkness, but I wouldn’t be sure that viewers aren’t interested in going to that place.
Maybe they wouldn’t be interested in going out of their house, paying money and going to a theater for something like this. But I think they’ll sit at home and watch surprisingly dark stuff.
It seems like, in adapting to film or TV, people I collaborate with tend to choose one tone and stick with it. It’s almost like cinema wants to have a consistent tone, and the way to take my work is to take either the funny side of it or the dark side of it and then almost exaggerate it, push it to one end or the other. So I wasn’t uncomfortable with the decision to move that way.
I do really appreciate the moments of humor in the show. And I often find myself laughing uncomfortably when I watch it. It’s just so weird sometimes. I like that kind of laughter, but I think some people won’t get the humor. I was at a screening the other night and I was laughing and one other person was laughing a lot and most other people were just sitting there kind of feeling… I think they were kind of hypnotized by the show but they weren’t finding the bleak humor in it.
Look, my hope is that we can find more opportunities for humor. I think the Carver twins are funny whenever they’re on screen. Emily Meade, who plays Jill’s friend Amy, is a very funny actress. And I like having those characters on the show who can lighten things up. So I hope we can use them more. But I do appreciate the humor of it. And as you know, I’m not opposed to that. But in the first season, we’ve definitely pushed the show to a dark extreme.
What are the parts of writing a series that differ from the novel or movie-writing experience?
I loved the writers’ room and the collaboration. It was just such a break from my solitary life as a novelist. I really like the other writers on the show, and it was almost like a year-long story seminar. I would say, rather than send kids to a creative writing program, you should just go and sit in a writer’s room and watch a bunch of writers try and tell stories together and question every beat of every episode. It can be exhausting, and there’s a lot of tension when people have different visions, but it was really, intellectually, pretty interesting.
I think the thing that caught me by surprise, especially in the last couple of months, was just how grueling it is when you’re basically planning one episode, writing an episode, producing a different episode, editing maybe two or three other episodes. It’s almost like the opposite of the concentration you need to write a novel. It turns out, you need to be a multitasker and you have to have a huge amount of endurance to take care of all those things.
How tough is it to put your work in someone else’s hands?
Because “Election,” I thought, was such a great movie and because I love “Little Children,” I’m able to be philosophical about… There might be moments when I wish it had gone otherwise, or I would change this or that. But I generally try to be philosophical about collaboration. Because in the end, whatever, if [co-writer] Todd [Field] and I didn’t agree on every line of “Little Children,” all I feel now about that movie is, “Boy, what a great movie.” And I’m so glad that I was part of it and it really honored the book. So I go into the collaboration hoping for the best and trying not to obsess over every up and down.
Like you said, in a case like this, it’s becoming its own thing, so there’s a separation there, too.
That almost made it easier. When we have storylines that are entirely new, like in episode three, in a funny way I’m on the same level as everybody in the room. It’s like we’re all just trying to talk our way through an entirely new story. And in a way, that takes some… it makes me less defensive. It made me more open to be able to just work on the story when I didn’t have some preexisting stake in the choices.
The funny thing is that a lot of the heat’s being taken off of you on this because it’s Damon’s first show since “Lost.” So he’s getting a lot of the publicity for it. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
You know what? I guess you’ll have to ask him. I think there’s a level of pressure that he has to deal with that I just can observe. I just hope that people watch the show for what it is, and don’t spend a lot of time thinking of it as “Lost II” or “Land of the Lost: Redemption.” I want them to see “The Leftovers” as “The Leftovers,” and react to it on their own.