In advance of making The Leftovers’ second season, a new executive producer, Tom Spezialy, joined the team. We checked in with him about what he enjoys about this season, how he’s putting his stamp on the show, and so much more. Here’s what he had to say.
HBO: What are you enjoying most about the second chapter?
Tom Spezialy: I’ll argue the show is more ambitious in every element this year. Our production is more ambitious—we're filming in Texas. There is very little stage work. There’s authenticity that comes with actually filming in homes. You have entrances and exits that ground the story and allows us to be ambitious with the scope of what's real and not real.
[Series co-creator] Damon [Lindelof] has carried over the idea of strict point-of-view stories from Season 1. It's one of the only shows on the air that embraces the idea. We have an ensemble cast, but you tell the story through Nora Durst's point of view for an hour, or Matt Jamison’s for an hour, and then you get to more deeply invest in their wants and their conflicts and their worries.
HBO: The use of music and score continue to be very interesting.
Tom Spezialy: That's Damon. That's his contribution more than anyone's. In a collaborative medium, it's rare to have a singular voice making a show and you're experiencing Damon Lindelof.
HBO: Do you have your own stamp on this season of the show?
Tom Spezialy: That's a good question. I'm here as a facilitator—part of the job is working with Damon and [co-creator] Tom Perrotta saying, "Here's the scope of our show." Having run and written my own shows, I’ve become convinced there are limits to what your characters can and cannot do. Then another voice comes in saying, "Well, look at it differently. What is Kevin capable of doing? How far can we push Nora in redefining her goals in life?" And then another voice comes in and says it's a bigger canvas than you might have thought it was. So in that regard, maybe that's what I'm doing.
HBO: How do you decide how far to push certain things, whether it be violence or the religious metaphors or the scientific supernatural?
Tom Spezialy: Also a really good question. We started on this show last fall, discussing it. What's considered too overtly religious? What's considered too overtly magical? Are Kevin's experiences perhaps a psychological break versus a magical experience? We discuss endlessly and find the version that we are all intrigued by but can defend. When you feel like it's lazy, it's either one or the other. You go, "There's definitely magic occurring here," or, "There's definitely a lack of magic," and instead it's interpretive. You'll notice almost every event in the show this season—like the Bible itself—can be interpreted in many ways. But trust that we have a version that we believe it to be.
HBO: That's very well-described. It's nice, as an audience member, to be left to interpret things on your own.
Tom Spezialy: There's a conversation I have on a lot of shows: "Who's the hero? Who's the anti-hero?" I tend to find that audiences are accepting of situational ethics. If you're behind Matt and his wants, in any given situation you just need to understand it—you don't have to agree with it. You won't even necessarily judge him for it, whether it's an act of violence or cowardice. Or for any of the characters, you just need to bring the audience to a point of going, "I could see myself doing that." That's the ride. If we made you empathize with everyone equally along the way, you would be bored.
HBO: Season 2 introduces many new elements. Is there one in particular you are excited for the fans to grow with?
Tom Spezialy: Just the Murphy family as a whole because they are a unit and every action that John takes has a reaction in the family. As you watch the season, I know it's always easy to say, "We'll peel back the onion, and you'll see layers and understand," but I believe you'll get to the end and go, "I completely understand why everyone made these choices."
HBO: What is the nice difference or challenge with this show versus others you've worked on?
Tom Spezialy: This show will live with ambiguity. After years of network television—where it's all clarity, and you lead the audience to one conclusion, innocent or guilty, remorseful or not—here it lives in a world that we live in. You can be both things, remorseful or not and still carry out the same actions. You can betray someone you love. You can live in a point of being comfortable and uncomfortable, committed to family and wanting to run away at the same time. This is the only show I know that lives in that space. I think that people who respond to it recognize there's something true about it.
HBO: It's nice to have a contained little chapter, season-by-season, within the whole arc of the series.
Tom Spezialy: That's where Damon and Tom have always been. Tom's novel is such a grand idea. If you present it on a global scale, it's hard to hold, so they've always taken the Garvey family as representing a singular point of view to a worldwide event. And when the show keeps moving, that's the nice thing about it, too—you're reminded the whole world experienced this.
HBO: What new questions does the second season address?
Tom Spezialy: I don't want to give away any spoilers. In a post-departure world, even an atheist has to accept the possibility of something supernatural because you can no longer say that no other unexplained activities occur. So when girls go missing, they are either dead or ran away or they departed. In a post-departure world, you have to listen to everyone who has a theory about how the world works or how we came into creation or established religion. I don't think you can be a devout atheist after that. Or if you are, it's challenging.
HBO: Damon and Tom spoke to the science. It's nice to have that element in there because religious factions would be questioning it, scientists would be questioning it.
Tom Spezialy: The thing that keeps the show current—and why it matters—is that, even in our modern world, we find ourselves constantly dealing with unbelievable scenarios, violent ones, peaceful ones, but they are so a part of our life, so in post-departure world they're even more powerful.
HBO: What do you like about how people have received the show?
Tom Spezialy: Most people I talk to who are fans like the raw emotional, potentially exhausting elements. It's not relentless but it also doesn't shy away from it. If someone is suffering you're going to see it.
HBO: You started working on the show in Season 2. Which episode convinced you to sign on?
Tom Spezialy: In Season 1, it was called "Guest"—the Nora-specific one. In the second season, after reading the first episode, I was on board. Had I not even seen the show, I would have been invested after that first episode, and then on top of that, I'm intrigued by how people deal with the tragedy.
HBO: At the start of this season, was there a conversation that delineated “here’s where we’re starting, here’s where we’re ending”? Or do you guys let it unfold along the way?
Tom Spezialy: It's somewhere in the middle of that. I work the same way Damon works, and I think that's why we are getting along so well. If you pre-plan everything, you go, "Here's 10 episodes," it's certainly a way to make television. If you say, "Here's the ending, and we're going to build five steps toward the ending, Matt's story will end up here," you block yourself to discovering the story along the way.
So what we basically did is we set in motion a number of stories, knowing the environment they were going to be in, knowing they might conflict with each other. We had in mind the endings that seemed to suggest themselves, but we weren't working toward making that happen. Whatever was going to happen with Matt and Mary, we had a sense of the ending but we didn't work actively toward trying to satisfy that. What happens along the way, if it changes the ending, we let it change the ending. That's how Damon works, and I think that's how his storytelling brain keeps the audience surprised and engaged. We do have a path, we have a default ending, but we have to be open to exploring where the story takes itself.
HBO: Is there one tease or sort of summation you want people to know going into Season 2?
Tom Spezialy: I like the theme. Even if you've never seen the show, you're introduced to the concept of miracles. If you just want to come fresh to the show and go, What’s your feeling about the idea of miracles? Do they exist? Are they interpretive? Is there a divine power? Is it human endurance? What's a miracle?” That alone will carry you into this season and will hopefully carry a lot of other people, too.