Best of 2017 (Behind the Scenes): How The Leftovers captured that incredible sprinkler shot
In a season — and series — full of standout moments, one scene from The Leftovers’ final season was particularly striking: After a tense exchange with Kevin (Justin Theroux) that ends in an actual fire, Nora (Carrie Coon) sits on her hotel bed, mourning, as sprinklers go off around her. Here, episode director Daniel Sackheim explains the “happy accidents” that led to the scene’s sharpest moments, what kind of collaborator Coon is, and how it felt to work on such a beloved show.
The moment that the credits began to roll on “G’Day Melbourne,” the fourth episode of The Leftovers‘ final season, all anybody could talk about was that remarkable final scene.
The episode was the first to take the series’ action from Jarden, Texas to Melbourne, Australia, as Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) and Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) went on individual journeys before colliding in an explosive break-up. Nora, who’d lost her entire family in the “Departure,” wherein 3 percent of the world’s population inexplicably disappeared, was investigating an underground effort that claimed to reunite people with their departed loved ones. Kevin, meanwhile, was trying to figure out whether he was seeing ghosts after his father and friend Matt (Christopher Eccleston) put it in his head that he could return from the dead.
Neither found the answers they were looking for, only pushing them deeper into traps of uncertainty and futility. The pair’s tenuous romantic connection, established by common experiences of intense pain but tested as they didn’t magically heal one another, abruptly broke at the episode’s conclusion. Kevin and Nora met in their high-rise Australian hotel room after spending some time apart, and they fought, with Nora mercilessly taunting Kevin over his belief that he’s some kind of divine being, and Kevin cruelly denying Nora’s grief. It marked a low point for the relationship, a searingly acted and written piece of relationship drama that ended with a literal fire breaking out.
As the sprinklers automatically turned on and Kevin exited, Nora sat in stoic, anguished silence on the edge of her bed, her head bowed. A drop caught her eyelid and, in an extreme close-up, we bore witness to a woman too shattered to cry, but with the visual of a tear still in place. It was a stunning picture to cap off a harrowing scene, and it finished beautifully, with the original version of A-ha’s “Take on Me” playing as the shot faded to black.
Daniel Sackheim, an executive producer on Amazon’s upcoming Jack Ryan and formerly The Americans, directed the episode after previously helming a season 1 installment. In an extensive interview, he revisited the scene — and of course, that ending shot — for EW, giving us the how, the when, and the why with fascinating detail and insights. Check out his in-depth breakdown below.
Building a Hotel Room from Scratch
Sackheim estimates that there were at least a dozen pages of dialogue between Nora and Kevin for the episode’s climatic hotel room scene — equivalent to, roughly, two days of shooting on a TV schedule, a concerning proposal given that The Leftovers was already short on funds. (“When you reach the last season, the spigot closes just a little bit,” Sackheim cracks.)
The initial plan was to shoot on-location, on the 17th floor of an actual hotel in Australia. Yet this quickly proved untenable. First, there was the issue of lighting. “If you’re up high in a skyscraper, what do you do when the sun starts to set? You have to have light coming through the windows,” Sackheim explains. “We were debating, ‘What could we do? Put lights under the building?’ and such.” He didn’t end up resolving the dilemma since an even greater one presented itself: the logistics of setting the fire. Since the scene called for a huge fire to break out with sprinklers going off — “We’re going to ruin the room,” Sackheim remembers thinking — staging it in a real hotel room was that much more delicate. There were discussions around literally ripping the room’s carpet and putting plastic down in replacement, but creator Damon Lindelof and the crew finally took Sackheim’s suggestion and decided to build the hotel room from scratch.
“It was just this struggle to figure out whether or not we could actually do this for — it seemed like — weeks on end,” Sackheim says. “Until finally everyone capitulated and we built this hotel room — which, everyone soon realized, it would have been impossible to do without.”
The Leftovers uses a standard guest director model, wherein most of a given season’s episodes are helmed by different people and those who prove to be a good fit are invited back the next year. Sackheim previously directed The Leftovers’ season 1 episode “The Garveys at Their Best,” the penultimate flashback installment, but was unavailable for season 2. He counts himself lucky that his next (and last) experience on the show would feature such a pivotal scene.
He also counts himself lucky since the events of the hotel room happened to fall at the very end of the episode’s production calendar. Because of that, he was able to more effectively trace the thematic and character arcs of the episode. “It almost never happens that way — it’s happened to me once or twice in my career,” Sackheim explains, referring to how scenes are typically shot out of order. “But in this instance, because it was on-stage and once we turned on the water the set was dead anyway, it had to be scheduled that way.” It was so sequential, in fact, that the episode’s final shot — the extreme close-up of Nora, still in her grief and pain, with a sprinkler drop catching her eyelid like a thick, long tear — was the very last one Sackheim filmed. And speaking of that shot…
Capturing That Shot
To anyone who’s seen it, it’s certainly among the most memorable visuals from any TV program this year. The final shot of “G’Day Melbourne” was not scripted, Sackheim says, but rather a determination he made as he, Lindelof, and Coon were trying to decide how best to capture Nora’s crumbled emotional state. As Sackheim explains the motivation, “We wanted to get some behavior of hers or something that would speak to her great degree of grief and despair and loss.” Coon suggested having Nora obsessively smoke, but Sackheim pushed back on it, feeling that it was too frequent a motif in the episode and he wanted to “separate it out.”
Then it came to him. “We’re working on it, working on it, and then I thought, when the sprinklers go off, if I was to shoot a very tight shot of the side of her eye, and the water would be running down, it would in essence then visually communicate or create a visual metaphor for a woman crying without the woman actually having to cry,” Sackheim says. “It’s an external action that reflects on or conveys or emulates an internal conflict, or internal dynamic or sense of grief.” They only did a few takes, if only because they couldn’t heat the water in the constructed rooms. For one person, at least, it was a relief that getting the scene didn’t take any longer. Sackheim remembers: “Carrie, being the good sport she was, dealt with it, but she was basically standing under freezing cold water in that room when we shot the scene.”
Directing a Defining Scene for Nora
The Leftovers is an aesthetically deliberate show, one where the visual language is often as crucial to character as dialogue and story. Sackheim was given a vague outline of the final season’s endpoint, meaning he knew that the conclusion of “G’Day Melbourne” would represent the low point of the relationship between Nora and Kevin — “the yin to the yang” of the series finale’s uplifting closer.
Sackheim was helped, again, by the linear shooting schedule — being “able to track [Nora’s] emotional arc through the sequence over the course of two days,” from when Nora returns to when they fight. “The beauty of that moment is her being forced to deal with something that she has chosen to deny, and has been dishonest with him about,” he says of how he approached the scene narratively.
Sackheim also needed to work closely with Coon on executing Nora’s character development with precision; he describes the actress as a committed collaborator who “has strong ideas and a strong point of view,” and who’s focused on what works for the scene and not herself. (She’s not shy about disagreeing, either — Sackheim says she’d say something along the lines of “It just feels dishonest, I’m not sure why I would do that” if anything ever rang false to her.) “One of the reasons she’s so good is that she’s just honest; there’s no artifice to her,” Sackheim gushes of Coon. “When she inhabits the body of that character between action and cut — and truly, it’s between action and cut — she reacts and emulates the behavior of that character very true to form.”
Finding “Happy Accidents”
Sackheim says much of the scene’s power was derived from doing rehearsal — a luxury which is “more the exception than the rule” in television — with Coon and Theroux. It’s how the actors dialed in with him, and how they landed on many “happy accidents” along the way. An example: When Nora picks up “The Book of Kevin” and begins mercilessly taunting Kevin with it, that not only wasn’t scripted, but wasn’t a predetermined direction, either.
Sackheim remembers how, while in rehearsal, the book’s accidental placement near where Coon was standing — and while Theroux was reaching for it — gave him an idea that ultimately led to one of the scene’s sharpest back-and-forths. “[Carrie] just picked up the book, in rehearsal, and handed it to him, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t you keep it? Why don’t you just keep the book, and then you can just taunt him with it and throw it at him?’” Sackheim recalls. “Then he said, ‘I wouldn’t even let her have it. I would just rip it out of her hands.’ So that wasn’t scripted. That was just a happy accident where she happens to be holding it, and it occurs to me, ‘Oh, keep it. Keep the book. Taunt him with it.’ A lot of the ways that I direct is I’ll find a verb that really hits home. She had the book in her hands, and I said, ‘No, hold it. Taunt him.’ That’s very specific and that gives her a lot of ideas and a lot of places you go. And boom, then it develops into something like that.”
Sackheim adds that it’s the kind of thing that could only happen with rehearsal: “One of the beauties of having rehearsal and rehearsal time is the idea to experiment and find organic ways in which actors can respond to each other that makes it feel unique and less scripted, less formulaic, less pat.”
Working on The Leftovers
Sackheim, as already mentioned, is a TV veteran with many distinguished titles under his belt — to name just a few, he’s directed standout installments of Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, and The Americans. Yet coming back for this final season of The Leftovers, and working on such an essential episode, still towered above everything he’s done before. “This was pretty much my favorite directing experience of all the shows I’ve done,” he says. He’s a huge fan of the show’s material and its interpretive nature, but more than that, he loved the collaboration — the opportunity to create something singular with other inspiring artists.
“From Damon on down, there’s just an incredibly collaborative experience,” Sackheim explains. “Damon encouraged me to bring a vision to it. As long as we were all on the same page in terms of the kind of story we were trying to tell, and what was the essential arc of those characters and it was true to that arc, shoot it in any way that I felt communicated that. Episodic television is, by its nature, a much more homogenous art form — and I don’t mean that pejoratively. You are oftentimes asked to paint or draw within very specific lines. I was never given that mandate on this show.”
The entirety of The Leftovers is available to stream on HBOGo.