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‘The Leftovers’: An Oral History of the Finale’s Karaoke Scene, from Damon Lindelof & Justin Theroux

Co-creator Damon Lindelof, director Mimi Leder and star Justin Theroux walk us through the batshit crazy creation behind one of this TV season's best scenes.

The Leftovers Season 2 Episode 10 Karaoke Scene Justin Theroux

Van Redin/HBO

“One of the things I’m most proud of is the sequence with Kevin Garvey singing “Homeward Bound.” Mimi Leder

“The karaoke scene was probably the most deeply uncomfortable scene I had to shoot.” — Justin Theroux

“If you try to explain to someone, ‘Here’s what happened in the finale of “The Leftovers,”‘ you sound insane.” — Damon Lindelof

[Spoilers for “The Leftovers” Season 2 are below.]

The second season of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s magnificent exploration of belief, faith and family included its fair share of bold moments. Its opening sequence tracked a cave woman giving birth in rural Texas. Its first episode barely featured its main stars, shifting instead to a whole new family in a brand new location. And then came “International Assassin,” the season’s eighth episode that tracked Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) into the afterlife; an afterlife set in a hotel where he donned a suit, became an assassin and had to kill his nemesis in order to get back to the real world.

READ MORE: Why ‘The Leftovers’ Is The Only Show on TV That Knows How To Kill Its Characters (Consider This)

But as ambitious as all those moments were, one pivotal scene in the finale was so bonkers it defied logic on almost every level. Kevin, who died again in the Season 2 finale, again found himself in the hotel, only this time he had a fresh challenge in front of him in order to return home: He had to sing a song.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And yet the courage it took, as every key player explained to IndieWire, to create and craft the scene itself speaks to a courage unique to television. It’s only in hearing how each piece came together that one can truly admire the crowning achievement of Season 2 — and the best scene of the 2015-2016 TV season. Much like the scene itself, you have to hear it to believe it. So here we go:

The Concept: “Explain your logic.”

The Leftovers Season 2 Episode 10 finale Justin Theroux
Damon Lindelof: We knew in Episode 7, before “International Assassin,” that we were going to send him back. Before he drinks the poison, he goes to the firehouse to get some bolt-cutters to get the handcuff off and ends up getting his handprint taken by John Murphy. And as soon as we did that, we knew there was going to be a real consequence to John getting Kevin’s handprint — it’s going to match. And we also knew Kevin’s going to drink poison at the end of Episode 7, and he’s going to be dead and then he’s going to be reborn again. But when he comes back to life, he’s still going to have to contend with the fact that his handprint matched. And so, what’s the consequence for the handprint matching?

So, right then, I think we knew: “God, Kevin’s probably going to die again in the finale.”

I think we knew that we wanted to go back, but we didn’t have any idea what was going to happen when we went back. And then once we were breaking the finale, and John shot Kevin, we were like “Okay, here we are.” We really only had room for like seven pages in the afterlife — or in the hotel, as we referred to it in the room — so what is it that Kevin has to overcome to get out of the hotel this time?

And then Perrotta just said, “He should have to sing karaoke.”

So I said, “Explain your logic.”

“For someone who doesn’t want to sing, that would be terrifying,” he said.

I won’t say that I ever thought he was joking, and I’m not entirely sure whether he thought he was joking, but I think that the idea just immediately landed — the sheer ridiculousness of it. It felt like, tonally, that could potentially be a great moment.

The Preparation: “Can you sing?”

Mimi Leder & Justin Theroux on the set of "The Leftovers" Season 3
Lindelof:
So I e-mailed Theroux immediately. “Can you sing?”

Mimi Leder: You know, he’s not a singer.

Lindelof: And he replied, “No. Why?”

Justin Theroux: It was literally Damon zeroing in on the three things I like to do the least: sing, be under a spotlight and public speaking — you know, as karaoke. So it was like a trifecta of three things that made me absolutely uncomfortable.

Lindelof: All we had to put in the script was, “Kevin sings ‘Homeward Bound,'” and it was up to Justin and Mimi to execute that incredible performance.

Theroux: I think I called Damon and said, “Fuck you,” right after I read the script.

Leder: Justin Theroux is a great actor. He’s as good as it gets, and he was really frightened. He was really scared.

Theroux: There were definitely moments before we shot it when I wished it was omitted.

Lindelof: We have these big, crazy ideas in the writers room. They’re not easy to come up with. But once you do, it’s easier to say, “Hey, here’s a crazy idea,” because what’s really hard is executing it, and that’s where our incredible crew and our amazing cast just completely and totally take these insane premises and make them seem somehow less insane.

Theroux: It was one of those things you just don’t talk about. You know it’s going to come. You know it’s going to suck. And you hope you can do it justice.

READ MORE: ‘The Leftovers’ Season 3 Heads to Australia — Why It Matters

Choosing the Song: “Madonna was like, ‘No.'”

Damon Lindelof & Tom Perrotta on the set of "The Leftovers" Season 2 finale
Lindelof:
 In the initial Perrotta pitch, the room consensus was to use Madonna’s “Like A Prayer.”

And it’s actually on the wheel right behind Kevin, but Madonna wouldn’t clear it. And they had used the song on “Happy Endings,” so she does clear the song sometimes — what’s the issue? Our request apparently made it directly to Madonna, and Madonna was like, “No.”

I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like if it was “Like A Prayer,” but I’m glad that it wasn’t.

So we narrowed it down to two contenders. The first was– I think it’s called “The Great Pretender” [sings: “Oh yes, I’m a great pretender…”] We considered that because it felt like it was making some sort of meta-commentary on what everybody in the show was doing. It’s got that ’50s doo-wop sound that felt like it was going to match the vibe of the hotel. But it was a love song. At the end of the day, this is not only about getting back to Nora, but Kevin getting back to his family.

“Homeward Bound” was always in the conversation, but the issue was: Is it too obvious? Does it feel like we didn’t even try hard?

We also were trying to pick songs that Justin would feel comfortable with. When I was down in Austin, Mimi, myself and Michael Grady, the director of photography, were sitting in her office just playing both songs over and over again in the course of a day or two. And then we sent both songs to Justin and we were like, “Do you have a preference in terms of which one you feel more comfortable with?” And his note back was, “I’m not comfortable with either of these songs. Do I have to sing?” And I was like, “We’re definitely on to something!”

Theroux: Extreme discomfort.

Lindelof: But yeah, “Homeward Bound” won out in the end. The only question became, “Is Justin Theroux singing ‘Homeward Bound’ going to be emotional, or is it going to be stupid?”

The Execution: “It’s Even Better Than I Imagined.”

Damon Lindelof & Mimi Leder on the set of "The Leftovers" Season 3
Theroux: 
It was one of those things where the less you talk about it, the better.

Lindelof: He has this conversation with Bridge Man, where he says exactly what the audience is thinking: When Bridge Man says, “You wanna get out of here, you have to sing,” Kevin says, “No, because it’s fucking stupid.” Suddenly, you feel like you’re covered — but then, in the process of singing, is anything going to happen?

Theroux: It was sort of my Hillary Step; something you don’t want to encounter.

Leder: I said, “Good! I don’t want you to be a singer. I don’t want you to sound good. I just want you to sing. I want you to want to go home. I want you to find that in the scene.”

Theroux: Mimi can just direct the shit out of anything.

Leder: “We’re either going to fuck this up so bad, or it’s going to be great.”

Theroux: Then you just start shooting it, and Mimi’s is at the levers: “Go further. Do less.” And I just tried to accommodate.

Leder: He really found it, and he did it beautifully.

Lindelof: When we got the dailies of Kevin singing karaoke, I thought, “It’s even better than I imagined.” Because he can’t sing, but he’s really trying!

Theroux: I think it helped the scene because of the discomfort of it. And then you have the song that does all the heavy lifting for you, in terms of what the words are saying. It’s an incredibly melancholic song.

Lindelof: Even though the song we ended up picking was very on the nose — sort of like, “What song should a character sing if he wants to go home?” “Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Homeward Bound’!” You kind of want to throw up all over yourself–

Theroux: I don’t even like Simon and Garfunkel.

Lindelof: — but at the same time, the literalness of it helps convey the emotion. The longer he sings, the more you realize: This guy really wants to get home.

Leder: It was risky, it was scary, but I knew we had it. It was everything I wanted it to be. It was all the good vibes — everything, coming together.

Theroux: I was grateful to Damon for giving me that chance to create new muscle, to get pushed, to stretch and grow as an actor.

Leder: I’m really proud of that scene. I love that scene.

Theroux: It turned out really great.

Watch “The Leftovers” Season 2 finale, “I Live Here Now,” on HBO NOW.

[Editor’s Note: Indiewire’s Consider This campaign is an ongoing series meant to raise awareness for Emmy contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This contenders may be underdogs, frontrunners or somewhere in between. More importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]

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