by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Mimi Leder is one of the most respected directors in film and television. Her ability to bring out the subtle nuances of the human experiences has made her a highly sought after artist and collaborator. Helming films such as The Peacemaker, Deep Impact, and Pay It Forward, Leder has brought her talents to some of the most beloved franchises in the world of television in recent years – ER, Nashville, The West Wing, and Shameless, just to name a few. She has also been a key voice in guiding HBO’s The Leftovers, directing ten episodes of the show.
Leder sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about her career and her experiences.
John Bucher: You’ve said in other interviews that The Leftovers, and especially this season, is really about the story that we tell ourselves. That seems to be an on-going theme in a lot of your work. Can you unpack that?
Mimi Leder: Well, we all have stories we tell ourselves to get by, to make things all right in our individual worlds and the world as a whole. We see a lot of coping mechanisms. We see how people on the outside look, and then in private moments how they really look and feel, and see the things that they do to get through the day. Kevin putting a bag over his head, getting near the point of death so he can feel alive in The Leftovers is certainly an example of that. We see how each and every one of our characters exists, does things so they can exist in a place where they can breathe.
John Bucher: You have directed more episodes than anyone else over the course of the show’s run. You’ve become one of the chief storytellers for this show, especially where it’s taken off from Tom Perrotta’s original work. It seems like the audience that has developed for the show are really thoughtful people, and that has a lot to do with how the show is directed. So, what’s been your approach in connecting with that audience?
Mimi Leder: I feel that my approach to directing the show is always somewhere very honest and grounded in a real place from the character’s point of view. We dig deep when we approach a scene. We discuss the hows, the whys. I feel I just approach it from a storytelling point of view, and it’s really been an exciting journey to be able to be with the show since mid-first season and really experience it from the characters’ points of view. Even location scouting, finding the right house, the right landscape, how it fits the characters and how the character will fit within it.
John Bucher: Since you brought up locations, let’s talk about Australia. Were there films that were influential for you in approaching the Australian storytelling? Was it different than Austin?
Mimi Leder: Well, going to Austin, Texas, felt like the right place for season two, and going to Austin felt like they had such great little towns that we could find our little town that was untouched. It just felt right for Miracle, Texas. The blue skies and the vast landscapes, the open sky. When they talk about Texas and the open skies, they’re not kidding. They’re hypnotizing. They really are. You just watch clouds a lot of the day. It’s hypnotic.
Going to Australia and finding the right place to shoot, for example, in episode three, in the outback, was something we did last February when we decided we actually were going to Australia. We had to go find the right outback because the outback exists everywhere there. We didn’t quite know the storyline at that point, but I knew that I was going to be shooting an episode in the outback with Kevin Sr. on his journey with his flood narrative to save the world. Scott Glenn is one of the greats. He gave every ounce of himself to this role, and it’s a very beautiful, honest portrayal of a man trying to save the world.
We went to a place called Broken Hill, which is out of Sydney, in the state of New South Wales. Broken Hill is where they shot Wake in Fright that Ted Kotcheff brilliantly directed. It was a very beautiful and haunting and magical place to film. It was a great experience for all of us. We took in every moment. We didn’t take it for granted.
John Bucher: It feels like one of the re-occurring themes throughout the seasons that’s really coming to a pinnacle in season three is this idea of family, of fathers and sons, and the idea of saving the world but also saving yourself, saving your family. You have a daughter who’s beginning to enter the filmmaking world. Have you been able to draw from your own life at all in approaching these stories about families and the intricacies and nuances of families working together?
Mimi Leder: Yeah. I’ve definitely been able to draw from the intricacies and the moments in my life and the connections with my family: my husband, my mother, my daughter, my stepchildren as well. Family is everything, and it’s very complicated. This is the telling of that story, and the scripts by Damon and Tom especially spoke to that. Every ounce of The Leftovers, in so many ways, speaks to family and what the family means, and how could we live without our families. How could we go on? And how do our characters go on? That is what we’ve been exploring in depth.
John Bucher: Nora got a tattoo of the Wu-Tang Clan symbol to cover her children’s’ names. Were you given a Wu-Tang Clan’s name like the writers of that episode?
Mimi Leder: That was really funny. Mine was great. We were on set shooting one night, and everyone was getting a Wu-Tang Clan name. Mine is Womanly Panther.
John Bucher: That’s quite fitting.
Mimi Leder: Isn’t it amazing?
John Bucher: Has there been anything that you’ve learned from your earlier experiences or the earlier projects that you’ve done that you’ve been able to put into practice or that you’re really proud of or glad that you’ve been able to exercise?
Mimi Leder: Well, I would say that The Leftovers has been one of the best experiences of my career in that the material is so extraordinary. It opened me up in so many ways. I believe that it has opened me up as a director. I had many years of experience and it has in some ways made me more open and fearless and a better collaborator. It has made me explore my inner spirituality more. It has allowed me to be more free and somehow has cracked something open inside of me. I’m loving the work that we’re doing, that I’m doing. It’s been one of the great experiences of my career. I’m very grateful for it.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.