Emmy®-winning director Mimi Leder speaks to Awards Daily TV about starting her career in a male-dominated field and about ending HBO’s The Leftovers.
This article contains spoilers for those who have not seen The Leftovers series finale “The Book of Nora.”
Wonder Women exploded in a big way this weekend. Female directors delivered two critically acclaimed pop culture phenomena on the big screen and the increasingly vital smaller screen. Director Mimi Leder kicked off her big screen career with Dreamworks’s first major film The Peacemaker. As such, it seems fitting that, in the same weekend Patty Jenkins brings record box office to Wonder Woman, Leder closes one of the most critically acclaimed series ever to air on HBO, The Leftovers. Last night’s finale, “The Book of Nora,” ended the series in note-perfect fashion. Set aside the labyrinthine mythology, The Leftovers ended with human connections and emotions. And that’s what Mimi Leder loves to deliver most.
“When I heard the direction in which we were going, it just felt like a poem to me. Filming it felt that way as well by simply focusing on our characters and their belief systems,” Leder explained. “This love story was such a smart, brave, and honest decision. It felt like a dream to be gifted with that.”
Yet, “The Book of Nora” emerges as Mimi Leder’s gift to fans of the series.
Directing in the Boy’s Club
While it seems that women have made great strides recently in directing film and television, the numbers actually tell a vastly different story. According to the Director’s Guild of America’s 2015-16 Episodic Television Diversity Report, women directed 17 percent of all episodes of television. That number increased by 1 percent over the previous season. A similar study reported by Variety in January 2017, reported even worse numbers for women directors in film. Women directors comprised only 7 percent of those who directed the 250 highest-grossing films of 2016. That dropped 2 percent over the past year.
The numbers are a harsh truth Mimi Leder faced still today.
“It was very difficult breaking into the boy’s club and still is,” Leder commented. “You can read the statistics. Even with the career I have, it can still be difficult.”
Leder originally received her start in film thanks to her father, Paul. He gave her $17,000 to start her first short film. The grant eventually resulted in her first television directing gig on L.A. Law thanks to Steven Bochco and Greg Hoblit. Another Steven (Spielberg) later entrusted her with Dreamworks’s first film The Peacemaker.
Despite directing 1998’s Deep Impact to a then $350 million gross on an $80 million budget, Leder’s career flourished more in television than in film. To date, she received 8 Emmy nominations for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series. She won twice for directing episodes of E.R. Leder then used her success to increase opportunities for other women where she could.
“I’ve tried over the years as show runner on several shows to hire as many women as I could. I hired Lesli Linka Glatter on E.R. I hired Michelle MacLaren on John Doe as the first show out of her X-Files experience. I tried to hire as many women as I could and given them their opportunities to spread their wings. To make little movies on television. These days, there is such a blurring of where the great stories are being told. There’s much more opportunity to tell greater stories on television. Directing The Leftovers has been one of the greatest gifts of my career.”
Directing The Leftovers to Embrace Love Over Pain
The common word on The Leftovers remains, “It’s a hard sit.” True, the characters, like Job before them, find themselves challenged in heartbreaking and uniquely painful ways. Yet, experiencing that pain vicariously ultimately becomes what makes The Leftovers so great. The series is a hard sit but not in an unrewarding way. With “The Book of Nora,” most characters found their inner peace, the happiness and love they’d so desperately sought over three seasons. Mimi Leder drives this human connection forward in whatever project she undertakes.
“That is very much the theme to this season. Finding your belief system. Choosing love over the pain and grief of life,” Leder explained. “It’s much harder to life in this world. Dying’s easy. Finding a belief system and finding love is everything.”
Seder’s attraction to themes of loss and grief attracted her to The Leftovers initially. No, she’s not a depressing person. She just loves to cry. The Leftovers scripts made her cry and gave her the opportunity to work with themes that resonated deeply in her.
The Leftovers‘ central story of moving on after the Sudden Departure attracted her, not the mystery of the missing 2 percent. Her interest in its characters and exploration of their emotions made for a perfect partnership.
“We all experience loss in one way or another in our lives. It’s how we choose to live that is what is most interesting to me.”
Closing The Leftovers with “The Book of Nora”
As of this writing, “The Book of Nora” remains unseen by mass audiences. Yet, I suspect true lovers of The Leftovers will wholly embrace the closure it offers. No explicit spoilers here, but the episode delivers in unexpected ways. The first 15 minutes offers the tension of Nora’s (Carrie Coon) decision to enter the mysterious machine offering a portal to the other world. The last 15 minutes offers a wonderful moment of openness and revelation between two long-separated lovers. In between, we watch two people reconnect in tentative, yet beautiful, ways.
“The finale was like a poem for me. It was a real left turn as to how to end the series. I felt it was so important to keep it simple, and I tried my damnedest to do that,” Leder confessed. “I thought it was a very wise choice to film the last scene without seeing what she was talking about. The power of Nora telling us the story was far more interesting than seeing it. It also allowed the audience to question the story. To believe in it or not believe in it.”
Carrie Coon and Mimi Leder deliver an epic moment that rivals any special effect. The choice not to display “the other place” Nora visits feels perfectly right for a series that largely avoids such otherworldly pursuits. She describes it using her own words, captivating Kevin (Justin Theroux) and viewers along the way. The scene emerges as Nora telling her truth. The choice to believe her remains with Kevin and, ultimately, with viewers.
Yet, the scene isn’t the only one of power in “The Book of Nora.” Coon and Leder created an emotionally draining sequence of Nora entering the device, completely nude. Ironically, the final shoot of the series actually became the first shot of “The Book of Nora” as Nora records her goodbye. Initially, Nora says goodbye using her usual terse delivery. But she is “directed” (in a bit of meta commentary) to open herself up and embrace her emotions in the moment. Nora recreates her goodbye barely fighting back tears. As a result, this episode could be the one to deliver Coon her first Emmy nomination and Leder her ninth.
Fortune favors the bold, right?
“I felt it was beautifully written. Beautifully acted, I think. Hopefully will be for the viewers as well. This experience for me has been unforgettable. It was life-changing and helped me look at life in different ways.”