Tom Perrotta Talks Oak Trees, Orgies and Tests of Faith in The Leftovers

The co-creator and author of the show’s source material reveals what it’s been like watching the show evolve over three seasons, and approaching the finale.

HBO: This entire series began with your novel. What has it been like working on this story and these characters for so many years?
Tom Perrotta: It’s been an amazing experience working on the show, watching The Leftovers expand beyond the boundaries of the novel. The show’s become increasingly rich and deep and wild over the years — it’s starting to make my book feel like an acorn that’s blossomed into a huge and majestic oak tree.
HBO: Has the evolution of any of the storylines surprised you?
Tom Perrotta: I’ve been most surprised by Kevin’s journey — the hallucinations, resurrections, and boundary crossings. In the book, he was a solid, reliable guy without any messianic pretensions.
HBO: What episode in Season 3 was the biggest challenge to conceptualize?
Tom Perrotta: We spent a long time at the beginning of the season trying to crack the finale. It was a challenge because we usually start at the beginning and move slowly forward, allowing the end point to come gradually into view. This time we worked in the opposite way — starting at the end and moving backwards. 
HBO: Could you talk a little about the process of creating a new episode — what was the dynamic in the writers’ room like this season?
Tom Perrotta: In the writers’ room, we begin with a broad, freewheeling discussion about each episode. We usually have a pretty clear idea of who the main character will be and what the essential plot points are, but the writing doesn’t really take off until we find the special element that makes the episode unique — the plastic bag in Episode 1, Mark Linn-Baker in Episode 2, Senior’s self-imposed quest to stop the flood in Episode 3, and so forth.
HBO: Which one was the most fun to write?
Tom Perrotta: There were so many crazy and fun moments this season, but Episode 5 [“It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”] with the lion and God and the ferry boat orgy, has to take the prize for pure Leftovers fun and insanity. 
HBO: Is there a character you’ve really loved writing for?
Tom Perrotta: We only used Ann Dowd [Patti Levin] in one episode this year, but her performance was so effortlessly brilliant. It's a pleasure to write for all of our actors, but Ann is a singular talent.
HBO: The humor of the show really comes through in Season 3 — how do you approach writing the funny moments?
Tom Perrotta: The show got much funnier over the years — early on, we weren’t sure how much humor The Leftovers could accommodate, but it turned out to be a lot more than we’d ever imagined. This season we embraced the absurdity of the post-departure world. The craziest suggestions in the writers’ room usually won the day, which is how we ended up with God being eaten by a lion after an orgy on a Tasmanian ferry.
HBO: What was it like having to think about a possible answer to “Where have the Departed gone?”
Tom Perrotta: For me, the Departure always stood for the unknowable elements of existence. Where do we come from? Why are we here? And, as Iris DeMent sings [in Season 2 theme “Let the Mystery Be”], where are we “gonna go when the whole thing’s done?” The book and the show both place the characters under terrible pressure, forcing them into a desperate search for a narrative that will keep them from going crazy or falling into despair. Nothing in Season 3 changed that.
HBO: Why not show anything while Nora gave her final monologue?
Tom Perrotta: A religious narrative is one that can’t be proved — a believer has to believe, to have faith in something they haven’t seen for themselves. Nora’s asking Kevin to believe in her story, and we’re asking the viewers of the show to do the same. We wanted the ending of the show to be a test of faith. Showing it would have defeated that purpose.
HBO: What do you hope viewers take away from the series?
Tom Perrotta: The show is about different individuals searching for a narrative (religious or otherwise) that will allow them to live and love despite the terrible losses they’ve suffered. If the show helps viewers think about their own quests for meaning, and gives them a way to talk about it with their friends and loved ones, that would be a beautiful thing. We need stories in order to live, and we’re hoping The Leftovers is one of those necessary stories.


Read more Season 3 interviews From the Finale:

Watch every episode of The Leftovers on HBO.