An oral history of the show’s greatest hour, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World.”
Even for a show renowned for its bold, divisive storytelling, it was immediately clear Episode Five of The Leftovers’ third season is something exceptional. In arguably the entire series’ best episode, the perpetually misfortunate Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) finds himself on yet another mission of faith, to deliver Kevin Garvey back to Miracle, Texas for the seventh anniversary of the Departure. Of course, as the press release for the episode puts it, “God gets in the way”—this time a little more literally than Matt’s previous two ill-fated episodes.
“It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” represents The Leftovers at its strangest, most beautiful, and most brutal. Also, it’s a journey of faith that involves a boat, a lion-worshipping orgy, and a man who may or may not be God himself. Naturally, we wanted to know everything we could about how it came to be, so we spoke to everyone we could get our hands on: actors, writers, and showrunners.
From extensive conversations with people who worked on the episode, we learned that, like the show itself, The Leftovers crew is something unusual and special. There’s a stunning reverence shared between the writers and the actors, and a sharp-but-at-times-freewheeling vision from the show’s creators. And for a series that can be as sad and bleak as The Leftovers is at times, the writers’ room tends to make its boldest decisions by what gets the most laughs—even when it comes to killing God.
“Oh my gosh, is he doing that? Can he really do that?”
As if to deliberately disorient us, the opening scene this week takes us deep underwater to a previously unseen submarine. Without explanation, a man strips naked, assaults his captain, and, after displaying a feat of human flexibility by turning two keys at the exact same time, launches a nuclear missile.
Nicole Kassell (director, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”): You’re watching like, “Oh my gosh, is he doing that? Can he really do that? How can he do that? What am I seeing when he does that?”
Lila Byock (writer, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”): That was a big Nick Cuse idea [another writer on The Leftovers]. He often would come in with the most completely off-the-wall pitches. We felt, in the middle of this final season, we wanted to kind of ramp up the sense that people are starting to lose it a little bit. To put some pressure on the characters.
Kassell: I’m blown away by the actor we got. There’s a sweet, innocent look to his face, yet this darkness lurking underneath.
Byock: There was an attraction to doing a planes, trains, and automobiles episode. You know? I mean obviously in the first season, the first Matt episode is called “Two Boats and a Helicopter”? And in this episode we’ve got a nuclear submarine, a cargo plane, and a ferry.
”We’re fucking with him the way God was fucking with Job.”
This is the final entry in an unofficial “Matt Jamison Trilogy” of episodes, in which Matt feels “tested” by God in some way. In a show full of downtrodden characters, Matt might just be its most mistreated.
Christopher Eccleston (actor, Matt Jamison): Yeah, and abusive at times. [laughs] He is both repellant and sympathetic and certainly that’s the way I’ve experienced life. I’ve behaved badly and I’ve behaved well. I mean, Tony Soprano is a great example. He’s pretty repellant in many ways, but he’s deeply human. There’s a real appetite in audiences for that character, and certainly from an actor’s point of view, that’s what you want to play. You want to play rounded individuals and that’s down to Damon really—the brilliance of his writing.
Damon Lindelof (showrunner, writer, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World”): Matt Jamison was in [Tom] Perrotta’s book, but was a very minor character. I felt like there was real opportunity to have a character who was a “man of God” as a regular fixture in the show. But I feel like “the priest who has lost his faith” as a trope is a cliché. I thought, Wouldn’t this character be more interesting if he was a priest who doubled down? Who stayed faithful or in fact became more faithful as a result of an event that technically should have disproven his faith? And that idea mostly came from Eccleston when I first met with him in the UK.
Eccleston: That’s not true. I’m not that smart. I wish I was. And really I should take credit for these things. It was my idea to go naked for Season Two. I will take the credit for that. I didn’t have the kind of body that needed to be naked on national television, but no, I think Nicole and Damon have been too kind to me.
Tom Perrotta (co-creator and executive producer): There’s a very simple answer to [why we fuck with Matt so much] which is: he is Job. We’re fucking with him the way God was fucking with Job.
Eccleston: Matt jumped out at me as a dramatic character because you’ve got a strong religious figure living through a huge, phenomenal event and that’s a staple of drama, that kind of character. I was very drawn to Matt’s belligerence, in a way—his willingness to be physically and spiritually beaten in order to tell the truth as he perceived it.
Kassell: I love working with Chris. I feel so lucky to have gotten to do such in-depth episodes [having also directed the Season Two Matt Jamison episode, “No Room at the Inn”] and to really do this character study. It’s just a treat. We have lots of long conversations, really analyze where he is and what he’s going through. And then by the time we’re on set, he brings in the performance and then for me I just have to give little notes to occasionally modulate it slightly.
Eccleston: I originally taped for the lead role, but not surprisingly they gave it to Justin Theroux, so I asked my agent to ask Damon about Matt Jamison. He met me in London and he told me he had no intention of using Matt Jamison in the series. And we then started talking about why I thought Matt Jamison should be used. We had a huge conversation about faith and we also laughed a lot, which I think was the key thing for both of us. He decided to introduce Matt into the pilot and I went over and I think I had two lines in the pilot? And then he ran with it.
”I experienced absolute ancient, primal terror.”
Fittingly, Matt’s story ends similarly to Job’s: he quite literally confronts God (Bill Camp), who we knew previously as the man on the bridge who whispers something to Kevin, and, yes, makes him do karaoke.
Lindelof: In the finale of Season Two, we had a line of dialogue that we cut out of the show where Kevin asks him at the karaoke bar, “Who are you?” And he says, “I’m God.” And he winks. We definitely talked about it at length in the writers’ room and we put it in the draft. So that idea of Bill Camp as God, or at least claiming to be God, was there at the end of Season Two. And clearly, he’s an Old Testament God.
Byock: Patrick Somerville said something really astute in the writer’s room. He was like, “What I crave was almost like an Agatha Christie; all these people are in a confined space with limited time. And something happens that sets a chain of events in motion.” That was how we got to idea of Matt seeing God push somebody overboard. That really kind of gave an engine to the episode, as opposed to just, Chris Eccleston chasing God around the ship for an no reason.
Eccleston: I felt like an enormous responsibility [in the final confrontation scene]. How do you portray a man’s entire life changing in one moment? I learned a great lesson from Keith Gordon [director of “Two Boats and a Helicopter”] on the first season. He got hold of me and Carrie in that huge scene when Matt tells Nora about her husband’s affair, and he said the worst thing we could do now is approach this as a big scene. I think that I approached that scene and that moment the same way. And it helped that me and Bill Camp fell in love with each other.
Lindelof: The ending of the Book of Job culminates in an actual conversation between Job and God, where Job asks some version of, “Hey, now that I’ve gone through this, I’m just curious as to why,” and God answers in a very lengthy, Ayn Randian monologue, “I don’t have to explain myself to you, I’m God.” He just says that over and over again and then leaves. And then Job gets everything restored to him. And the moral of the story is… what, exactly?
Eccleston: Damon and Tom love life, I think. They love people and they believe in character and they believe television audiences want—yeah they’ll want their occasional explosion—but really they just want human connection and The Leftovers is about that.
Lindelof: And so we decided, well, let’s just do the ending of Job. What does it look like if Matt Jamison is having a conversation with God? Literally, not figuratively. Literally. And how can we subvert that in a Leftovers-y way where it’s probably not the actual God but someone claiming to be God who might have some importance but it’s probably just an egomaniac? [laughs] What would that look like? And that became the kind of jumping-off point, pun intended, for Episode Five.
Kassell: That scene took around eight hours. I don’t think it was a whole day’s work. I think we had some other scenes on that day as well. That was fun because we had the real lion to keep us company.
Byock: I’ve learned so much about how to be a better screenwriter from working with Damon. He puts everything on the page and then he just completely walks away and leaves it in the hands of the director and the actors. But he lays it all out and it’s like, “Here’s what our intention is.” Then he obviously tones the shit out of the episodes with the directors. But then it’s like, “Okay, you guys, you’re on your own now.” And somehow it works. I think it requires a huge amount of faith in your cast and in your directors. Fortunately that basically always seems to work on The Leftovers. It did in this case with Nicole and Chris.
Eccleston: There was a beautiful moment when we were doing the lion scene—it was quite a sleepy lion—and I think I did a hand gesture. I moved slightly, suddenly. And he roared and I jumped about six inches in the air. I don’t know if it’s in the final cut, because I have not seen it yet, but I experienced absolute ancient, primal terror. When it roared it electrified all of us. We all felt it. I just physically jumped in the air. Not even to flee.
”Hey! Were you Biff in the Back to the Future movies?”
A quirk to “God” is the cards he hands out, dealing with all the frequently asked questions people have for the great almighty. Lindelof himself drew inspiration for that from a real-life, unexpected place.
Byock: Did Damon talk to you about the genesis of God’s business cards?
Lindelof: We’re laughing in the writers’ room a lot. One day, I was telling the story of Thomas F. Wilson, who played Biff in the Back to the Future movies. Those movies came out in the mid-1980s, but anytime anybody sees this guy, they walk up to him and they’re like, “Hey! Were you Biff in the Back to the Future movies? What’s Steven Spielberg like? What’s Michael J. Fox like?” Et cetera, et cetera.
Byock: You might not expect it, but it was a fun writer’s room. We were laughing constantly.
Lindelof: He got so used to and/or annoyed by people doing this to him that he printed out these cards and when you walk up to him, he just hands you one. You can Google it. And the first thing it says is, “Steven Spielberg did not direct Back to the Future, it was Bob Zemeckis.” Even the card is kind of annoyed. I was telling this story and everybody was laughing, and I was like, Let me put that in the back of my brain and figure out a way—oh, what if God hands out that card? Anything that evoked laughter in the writers’ room became fair game for actual stories.
Byock: It was one of those things where we thought he was sort of pitching a general idea, and then we would get somewhere else. And then it was like, “Oh no, that’s the just most amazing thing ever, let’s just do that.”
“I haven’t heard any idea that beats ‘ferry from Tasmania’.”
The bulk of the episode sees Matt on a boat from Tasmania to Melbourne.
Kassell: Filming it really was a military operation in terms of calculating when we had control of the boat, getting everyone on it, getting everyone off it, what direction it was pointing. For a lot of it, we were actually docked. We had to go two hours south to get away from the city lights. I think a lot of it we were actually able to shoot during the day [by] blacking out the windows, because for all of that party there’s so much life in front of the windows.
Byock: Damon started doing this thing in the writers’ room where he would assign homework. Which, in the beginning, I found incredibly intimidating. So when we were breaking Episode Five, we knew it was going to be a Matt episode and we knew some of the basic ideas but we didn’t have a structure for it, or where the episode fundamentally takes place.
Lindelof: The fact that God was, like, the voice of the Olympics, and likes to ride the Tasmanian ferry, that stuff didn’t really come until we started talking about the episode specifically.
Byock: He sent us off to do homework on that over a lunch break. I went into my office and I stared at this big map of Australia on the wall. I became fixated on Tasmania for some reason; we had talked so much about the rest of Australia, and I thought, What If they just got stranded in Tasmania and had to take a ferry to the mainland? So I came in and everyone pitched their homework. It’s a nerve-wracking process because Damon doesn’t always weigh in on each idea. He just lets people go around. After everyone pitched, Damon was like, “I haven’t heard any idea that beats ‘ferry from Tasmania’.” I was delighted.
“So the conversation started: how should God die?”
Kevin Carroll (actor, John Murphy): Dude, can you imagine seeing that on paper?! It’s a lion… on a boat… with a whole bunch of people having orgies. I was like, “Wow!” The ideas and the writing… It’s special.
Lindelof: We knew the ending of the episode was going to be: God gets killed. And we wanted God to be killed in some sort of very memorable, kind of comic way. We were thinking about complex Rube Goldbergs for a while, but it would be great if that fate were in some way kind of biblical. So the conversation started: how should God die? And everybody was pitching all around the table: “There should be some kind of wire that’s tightening and it snaps and he literally gets split in two, that’s very King Solomon.” And I’m pretty sure it was Lila–it may have been Nick Cuse—said, “He should get eaten by a lion.” And then everybody laughed. Then I was like, “There it is!”
Byock: That’s funny [Damon said it was my idea]. I was trying to remember whose idea that was. That’s one of those things where I think the memory is lost to the writers’ room. It may have been mine, but honestly, it just as easily could have been Damon’s. That’s the kind of crazy idea he would come up with.
Lindelof: I was like, Okay, he gets eaten by a lion, that is absolutely what we’re going to do. God gets eaten by a lion, I fucking love it. Now what is a lion doing on that boat? We need to do Chekhov’s lion, set up the lion early on, and the payoff is it eats God. So what’s an organic reason? Everybody went home, everybody had their homework to come in and pitch. And I have to do the homework too, but I like to go last, so that sometimes I don’t have to go because someone has pitched something so good that it doesn’t ever come to me. But I also get to listen to everybody else without having the fear of rejection, because many times the writers don’t like my ideas. If I have to go first, I have to sit with that and then listen to theirs. [laughs]
Eccleston: I was surprised at the reception of the first season. The critics and the viewers didn’t seem to register the humor. I think Damon and all of us, maybe reflecting back, we as actors, as writers, as designers, we had somehow not found our way to present that humor, because you only have to spend five minutes with Damon Lindelof, and you’re gonna laugh.
Lindelof: So everybody went around the table, and there were many different variations of circuses and magicians. Somebody pitched the day before that the entire vibe on the boat should be carnal, and there should be lots of sex happening on the boat because that would be a really good environment for Matt Jamison to be walking around. But also it felt like it’s that moment when Moses comes down from the mountaintop with the Commandments and all the Israelites are worshipping the golden calf and fucking each other. So that night before I just googled the words “sex lion.”
Byock: Damon was the one who wanted there to be sex on the boat, yeah. Damon made it weird. [laughs]
Lindelof: I found the story of Frasier, and in fact a movie that was made called Frasier the Sensuous Lion that was made in the ‘70s, and it was based on the true story. So everybody went around and then I pitched, “There’s this thing Frasier the Sensuous Lion. What if this group of people takes this lion all around the world just to fuck other lions in zoos to spread its seed, but they use it as an excuse to fuck each other, and they’re kind of trolling the apocalypse. They don’t take themselves that seriously.” And everybody laughed. And then everyone started Googling Frasier the Sensuous Lion. Then somebody found the song. I was like, “Oh, we’re doing this. You guys actually like this idea. We’re doing it.” And that’s how Frasier came to be.
“We wrote the line, and then he did that in one take.”
The episode ends with God tenderly “healing” Matt, only to meet his fate minutes later. It’s one of the most emotional, then suddenly jarring and absurd moments in The Leftovers—one the actors really had to nail. Matt’s final line of the episode, turning to the camera over the sounds of God being torn apart by the lion: “That’s the guy I was telling you about.”
Eccleston: I have to be honest: I think it passed me by, the importance of that line.
Byock: I’m just looking at this email Tom Perrotta sent to me and Damon when he read the draft of the script: “Great work on 305. I think it ranks as the most bat-shit episode of The Leftovers ever written, and that’s saying something. I was stopped cold by the last line of the script. It’s way better than a joke.” I felt the same way. I think I was always a little bit nervous about the idea of the joke. I was afraid it was going to veer too far in the kind of wackier, whimsical direction. But ultimately it feels haunting and humane.
Lindelof: I would also say everything that we have to say about whether or not Matt Jamison believes that God healed him when he snaps his fingers is played in Christopher Eccleston’s performance from that moment on. He’s so clear in how he feels about it. I mean, in the last line of the show, he doesn’t seem to be particularly reverent, again, in the way that Eccleston chose to play it. I didn’t know what he was going to do. We wrote the line, and then he did that in one take.
Eccleston: There’s an ambiguity, isn’t there? I think it’s very clear where Matt ends that conversation, but there’s still an ambiguity that Bill [Camp] and the writers brought to “Who is this charlatan? This Godless charlatan?” [laughs] But Matt, most importantly, makes a decision, as we all have to do I suppose about how we’re going approach life. How we’re going to receive life. And it was so interesting for me to play a man in those final episodes, to find he’s a man who had never had ease in his entire life. It’s great. [pauses] My arc was perfect, wasn’t it?