Interviews Screenwriting

An Interview with Damon Lindelof

David Lindelof Credits

Star Trek Into Darkness (feature) (Producer/Writer) 2013

Prometheus (feature) (Executive Producer/Writer) 2012

Cowboys & Aliens (feature) (Writer) 2011

Lost (Executive Producer/Writer/Co-Creator) 2004–2010

  • Emmy Award Winner (Outstanding Drama Series) 2005
  • Emmy Nominated (Outstanding Drama Series) 2008–2010
  • Emmy Nominated (Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series) 2005– 2007, 2009–2010
  • WGA Award Winner (Dramatic Series) 2006
  • WGA Nominated (Dramatic Series) 2007, 2009–2010
  • WGA Nominated (Episodic Drama) 2008, 2011

Star Trek (Producer) 2009

Crossing Jordan (Co-Producer/Supervising Producer/Writer) 2002–2004

Nash Bridges (Writer) 2000–2001

Photo by Ewen Roberts

NL (Neil Landau): My first question has to do with the Mystery Box Ted Talk that J. J. Abrams [Creator, Executive Producer of Lost ] did—it seems like his message was a governing principle for the series. The title graphic speaks to that. It’s blurry, but as it gets closer and into focus, it disappears, so that it is just out of our grasp. Was that the storytelling strategy? Keeping things slightly blurred—always instilling in the audience the need to know more and then carefully doling it out?

Photo by James MacDonald

DL (Damon Lindelof): I think to ascribe a specific strategy into the overall design of the show would be doing retroactive rewriting of history. I think the reality was that we had a very specific issue that we were dealing with when Lloyd Braun first came to J. J. and J. J. came to me. I was certainly involved in the same question, which was, “How is this a TV series?” We all know what an hour-long TV series looks like, so what is the thing that we’re going to present in the pilot of the show that gives people a sense of how the show is going to work? Because while it can be an enormously exciting idea of like, “Wow, I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” that can also backfire when, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” leads you down so many roads that it has no structure whatsoever.

I think mystery was a word which appeared many, many times in my first meeting with J.J. I was clearly a huge fan of Alias which, although I really liked Felicity, Alias was a show that I was much more dialed into. At the time that I met with J.J., it was about halfway through its third season. I had all these questions about the deep and involved mythology of Alias which I wanted to ask him and the idea of that being his brand.

Although he wasnt openly talking about mystery boxes at the time, I think that we both were engaged by the idea that not only was Lost going to be a show set on an island that was incredibly mysterious and very unwilling to give up its mysteries but that every single character on the show had to be surrounded by mystery.

They didn’t want to talk about themselves. They were deeply conflicted and troubled people. One of the most compelling mysteries that first season was just finding out who they were. Many of the characters would be unreliable narrators, who didn’t necessarily tell the truth, and we could dramatize this by revealing to the audience, “You’re now in on the joke. You’re behind the curtain. You got through the velvet rope.” We’re going to tell you that Locke [Terry O’Quinn] was in a wheelchair, but no one else is going to know on the show—just you and Locke. We adapted the format of a mystery show. Twin Peaks was a show that we mentioned a lot in our early planning sessions because it was huge on both my and J. J.’s pop culture radar in terms of shows we loved and were dialed into. It was a crowd source show before the Internet even existed. The idea behind it was that you would watch an episode and when it ended you would need to go find someone else who had seen it, so that you could talk about it and theorize in an attempt to understand what the hell was going on there. And more important, it transcended, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Laura Palmer was an interesting question, but much less interesting than, “What the hell is this place, Twin Peaks, and why are people acting so weird?”

NL: Like Blue Velvet , also.

DL: Right, exactly. We felt if we could ground the show—and all credit to David Lynch, who is a genius, there’s something about his voice that’s very ethereal or strange or weird that makes him less of a mainstream jeopardized case. So if we went to ABC and said, “We need you to give us millions of dollars to produce this show,” we couldn’t sell them on weirdness. But we thought that Twin Peaks was a good thing. So when we submitted the outline to Lloyd, he loved it, but there were a couple things that concerned him like the polar bear and the monster in the jungle—which, for us, were the cornerstones of what the show was going to be, but were the only really strange things that happened in the pilot that we had written. Lloyd said to me and J.J., “We don’t want to pull a Twin Peaks.” J.J. just looked at him, and this is the way that I remember it, and said, “You’re using Twin Peaks as a cautionary tale fifteen years after it was actually cancelled. Don’t we want to aspire to be like that?” The idea that although it’s ultimately a cautionary tale in that they only made thirty episodes, it completely and totally peaked and valleyed within a two-year period. They obviously tapped into something. We wanted to tap into that same thing, and find a way to not burn out on it. By not having a central mystery, but lots of mysteries, we’re ultimately going to engage the audience with the characters. I don’t think it was just the political thing to say or a way of deflecting focus from the mystery because the mystery was a huge part of the show. It’s what people were talking about. It’s the way that we ended almost every episode before we went to the Lost card. It was our bread and butter in terms of building audience investment. It was just a delivery mechanism for the real pill that we wanted people to swallow, which was an emotional investment in the people on the island.

Photo by Joi Ito

NL: How much of the mythology was worked out from the beginning? For example, was Charles Widmore [Alan Dale] always intended to be the super villain? Were “the others” always part of your plan? Was time travel and the hatch created from the beginning or did those things evolve?

DL: When you say the beginning, I’m assuming that you’re talking about the pilot, and let’s just say that I met J.J. the last week of January in the year 2004. We then wrote the next episode, “Tabula Rasa,” in mid-June of that same year. From February to mid-June, there was a period within which we actually wrote the pilot, produced the pilot, edited the pilot, and then the show got picked up and ordered to series. During that period, February to June, there were many, many conversations not just between J.J. and myself, but we also hired a staff of writers whose job was to make fundamental island mythology and pitch story ideas. In that period of time, many ideas were discussed, but not necessarily committed to. For example, the idea that they would find a hatch—that was in the very first meeting that J.J. and I had together. He pitched that idea. The fact that there were other people on the island—and they were not necessarily the people responsible for building this hatch, but a different group of people, that was discussed in the first meeting with J.J. What the monster might be versus what it actually looked like was discussed in the first couple weeks because there was a lot of interest from the network and studio in terms of what the monster was. What’s that noise in the jungle? When are we going to see that thing? And what is it? So we had an answer for that which ended up being very close to what we ultimately revealed on the show minus, I think, the Man in Black/Jacob implication.

There is a certain level of figuring things out, we have ideas, we have stuff that we’re working toward, but sometimes (1) it doesn’t work and (2) sometimes you change your mind because you have something better. I think we always had it in the back of our minds and were always talking about what the fundamental end game of the show was going to look like. Although some things changed along the way, I would say the lion share of the real mythological work got done between season 1 and season 2 because there was just no time to do it before then. We were off and running, we produced twenty-five hours of the show in a ten-month period. We had basically a month before we had to start writing the first episode of the second season, which, because we were going into the hatch, required a tremendous amount of thought being put into the Dharma Initiative and the idea of the “Others.” The hatch represented Dharma, and the “Others” were represented by Mr. Friendly [M.C. Gainey], who basically abducted Walt (Malcolm David Kelley) in the season 1 finale. So although we had the idea for those guys, that’s when we started having larger, more involved conversations about who these groups were and how they came to be on the island.

And then we did it again between the second and the third season of the show. That was a dark time for particularly Carlton and myself because we were pretty certain that we would be leaving the show after the third season because we were lobbying unsuccessfully for an end date for the show. We let our contracts lapse because they had us locked down for two years, and then between seasons 2 and 3, we realized that quitting the show at that point would basically leave the show with no fundamental leadership. So season 3 was about putting together a succession plan. We inherited Jeff Pinkner (Executive Producer) from Alias, which had ended, with the idea that he was basically going to run Lost once we left. So between seasons 2 and 3, we were fairly despondent. There was still some stuff that we wanted to do. We had this idea about several of the castaways leaving the island—the “Oceanic Six.” But we knew that we couldn’t pull the trigger on it because that would be the first step in moving toward the end game. The end game was always designed as a three-phase idea for the show. Phase 1 is they crash on the island, we learn who they are, they learn about each other, they start to understand what the island is and at the end of Phase 1, several of them are able to leave the island. And then we were into Phase 2, which was those who were left behind on the island were finding themselves in peril because, as a result of the first group leaving the island, the island was now in flux and moving through time. Phase 2 basically ends with the people who made the decision to return being reunited with everyone else and then that begins the denouement or Phase 3, which was the final battle as it were. That was always the idea.

We just couldn’t end Phase 1 because they wouldn’t give us an end date. They were very reluctant to do so, but halfway through the third season, ABC changed their mind because either they realized that Carlton and I weren’t bluffing, or the audience was starting to echo our sentiment, which was, “We’re just doing middle. We can’t move forward. We’re only moving backward. The show is getting boring. We’re just introducing new mysteries without resolving old ones.” Once they instituted the end game, the season 3 finale, and the introduction of the flash-forward, we basically put our stake down and said, “We’re not only telling you that people are getting off the island, we’re telling you that Jack (Matthew Fox) and Kate (Evangeline Lilly) are two of those people, and we’re committed to that now because we’ve just showed you the scene.” Once we started doing flash-forwards, we had to have a very specific mythology and plan worked out because every single episode we did was showing the audience scenes from the future.

NL: Do you think this was ABC’s comfort level with Gilligans Island where they just stayed put, and they were afraid that once you got them off the island that it would “jump the shark”? Do you think they were just afraid that the show would fall apart or that it was going to change into a different show? What do you think their hesitation was?

DL: I think that a large part of it just boiled down to television is about repetition—that’s the way that they understand it. And I can’t blame them because if you look at all the successful Top 10 network television shows, including reality shows, there’s nothing new about American Idol, CSI, or NCIS. Not to take anything away from those shows, but the shows that per- form very well are deeply formulaic, and I think that the network looked at Lost and said the formula is working because lots of people were watching it. Every week, we tell a story that takes place on the island and then we have a flashback story that is about one of these castaways off the island. Like a New Yorker short story. And that’s working really well, so why change it? Why do you guys need to push it forward? At the time that we were doing Lost, serialized TV or the word “serialized” was still an ugly word. Obviously, Desperate Housewives and Greys Anatomy which both premiered the same year, were both serialized shows, but they had a certain Tom and Jerry-like ability to kind of reset. The character relationships were constantly evolving and heavily serialized, but at the end of the day, with Greys Anatomy, there was always a new medical case that would come up.

Photo by Darren Wittko

NL: Exactly—they had the franchise.

DL: And although Desperate Housewives resolved the Mary Alice murder at the end of its first season, it was able to introduce new overarching mysteries into that show. But ultimately, it became a very effective nighttime soap opera with a particularly mischievous and fun, tongue-in-cheek voice to it. But because Lost was mystery based, you could only have someone’s attention for so long until they started to get extremely frustrated. While we could resolve the character mysteries fairly easily and oft en, the fundamental mystery that began to dominate us was, “What’s the purpose behind all this?” Locke keeps talking about this being their destiny—that they’ve been brought there for a reason. Okay, tell us what it is. What’s the reason? What is this place? What is this island? Why is it able to do the things that it does? Why do people see the ghost of their dead fathers or visions from their own past? Why is there some type of healing property in this place? The big fundamental mysteries that we couldn’t answer, because they were end game reveals, began to piss people off —and who can blame them? We were pissed and frustrated as writers.

NL: Very interesting. I never heard anyone say that before from that perspective. Did you know when you were going to introduce the “Oceanic Six” that there would inevitably be a second plane crash that would allow you to reset things? And then that shifted you into this whole other time travel element with the island disappearing. What I loved about the show was that once the island vanished I thought, “OK, now anything can happen.” Is predictability for you the worst demon of storytelling? I felt whenever I was watching that I thought I knew where it was going, but then it didn’t go there which I liked because it was always surprising to me.

DL: To answer your question, what I preach is that the perfect twist is the one that half the audience might have guessed—and it doesn’t mean that half the audience does guess it and the other half doesn’t. You have to lay enough track for them to anticipate it. If you do something and you haven’t established any precedent for it at all, it’ll feel arbitrary and unfair or it’s just a twist for twist’s sake. So you need to have that Sixth Sense moment when Bruce Willis puts his hand on the doorknob, and you go through the entire movie and say, “Oh my god, this is fair. They totally set up this idea all the way through.” The idea of time travel—we knew we were going to do it from early on, but we also knew that if we did it too early on, we would alienate that part of the audience who thinks they don’t like science fiction. We had to invest the audience in the characters before we started taking them down that road, but there were moments as early as the end of season 1 and season 2 where Sayid [Naveen Andrews] finds a radio and he hears like a Glenn Miller broadcast or we were talking about electromagnetic disturbances all along. As soon as we introduced Candle’s [Dr. Marvin Candle played by François Chau] first film, embedded in the idea of what the Dharma Initiative was doing there was time space experimentation, and clearly by the premiere of the third season when Desmond [Henry Ian Cusick] was basically running through the jungle naked. He then had the ability to see and predict Charlie’s imminent death. Our first time travel episode was a Desmond flashback episode early in season 3. Season 4 was much more committed to the idea. We were laying track for the idea that this was where the show was going to go. And when it went there and we did time travel, it was going to be non-paradoxical time travel where you couldn’t change the past or the present or the future. Everything was fixed. This is all the way that it happened before. So we felt that by the time you started seeing craziness like the island disappearing, that the show, as unpredictable as it might be, had prepared you for the possibility that such a thing might happen.

NL: I agree.

DL: Not everybody does, but I’m glad you do.

NL: I did. It was like a ride which I always wanted to stay on. I felt that the storytelling was so confident. I was fully invested in the characters, but there were also motifs that kept bringing me back like the extreme close-up of the eyeball which was how the show started and how it ended. I always felt like there was going to be this cosmic, psychological, metaphysical connection to everything which kept pulling me through. Did you invent the flash-sideways? I’d never seen that before.

DL: Invent is a bold word. I think that everything we’ve ever done has been done before in some sense. We had known for a couple years that the audience was very interested in this idea of purgatory. And the reason they were so interested in it was because the whole show was a metaphor for purgatory. In fact, the characters were openly talking through the pilot, and in the first couple of episodes after the pilot, in that language. So Jack would say, sitting down with Kate, “We all died in that plane crash. Everything about who we were has died and now we have this chance to basically reinvent ourselves. Let’s take it.” He wasn’t speaking literally, he didn’t think that he was dead, but the audience took that ball and ran with it. We always felt that the end game of the show had to be a meditation on the afterlife and since this island is a metaphysical, metaspiritual place, we wanted to examine that. We also knew that per the Lynchian concept of “let’s not get too weird” or “lose people,” because the show was already ambiguous enough as is, that we had to offer a Trojan horse by which to present that mechanism. If we’re going to do fifteen minutes of story every episode in the final season that takes place in a projected afterlife, depending upon what your interpretation of that is, we have to couch it as something else.

So the fifth season became an exercise in setting up that Trojan horse. What if they were able to avert this incident? That basically created the hatch in the first place, and if they were able to avert that incident then they never would have crashed on the island, so we’re going to show you what their lives would be like if they had never crashed. Then, very quickly in the final season, we began to establish that the idea transcended, “what if they didn’t crash land on the island?” because quite obviously their lives were different in small, but noticeable ways. Jack had a son, for example, which he never did before. Or Locke was married to Helen [Katey Sagal] or Ben Linus [Michael Emerson] was a school teacher. The audience began to go, “Well, this feels like it’s much more far-reaching than just ‘what if they never crashed on the island?’ ” How do we account for these other differences? And the answer for that was not a scientific answer; it was a metaphysical/spiritual answer which, as you know, created a significant amount of controversy surrounding the show. But that’s what we wanted to do, and we were committed to that idea for quite some time. I can’t tell you exactly when we first had that idea, but we’d known from very early on that we wanted to present what the audience was calling purgatory in a very real way in the final season of the show. We knew that Jack was going to die and that he would be the primary conduit by which we showed that. I think that we had basically burned all the flashback stories and flash-forward stories that we wanted to do, so that created one final and ultimately very exciting option for us.

NL: How did you keep track of all of this? The audience of this book is going to be storytellers and aspiring screenwriters. It became so complex with the different timelines and characters’ stories. Beyond a whiteboard, I’m sure there were lines and different color cards. How did you keep track of it in your mind and for the team?

DL: The answer is that I didn’t nor did Carlton. I think that the writers were so busy just making the show and constructing the scripts that the actual organizational principle of the show had to be maintained by someone else and that was a guy by the name of Gregg Nations. He had this Rainman- like ability to completely and totally keep all of this straight. So that anytime we asked him a question, he would have the answer based on the precedent that the show had already spoken or it was already in canon. Or he would say, “Well, you said this back in season 3, and it would be pretty hard to undo that and get out from under that.” He had to keep all of these timelines and vast character crosses straight because we constantly kept going back to the well. Greg managed the bible as it were.

NL: Are there any things that you learned from doing six seasons of sustaining an overarching mystery? Is there anything you learned that you might take into your next episodic series project? Anything you might have done differently?

DL: That’s always such a loaded question, and I think it’s a fair question to be asking. I think the more appropriate question is the way that you phrased it moving forward: “Is there anything I would do differently on the next one based on knowledge that I learned about Lost?” I don’t feel like I can lay out any specific lesson because what I would say is on one side—and it would be: “Just know exactly where you are going at all times. Know exactly what the ending is going to be and how many episodes it’s going to take for you to get there, so that you can meticulously plan.” But when you say that, you’re not allowing for the plan to go wrong. It always does—that’s just the nature of life. You wake up in the morning and you get out of bed and you say, “This is what I’m going to do today,” but your plan doesn’t take into account anybody else’s plan conflicting with it or just random happenstance or your car not starting or there being an accident on the freeway or you getting sick. There are just too many wild cards. I think it’s finding that balance and that level of confidence in yourself to say, “This is what I want to do, this is what my gut is telling me is right. It’s probably not going to work out exactly the way I want it to, but I’m going to stick to this as much as humanly possible.” At the end of the day, I do think that the experience I gained on the show is much more valuable than any lesson that I gained from it. Every time we made a mistake, there was a significant amount of back and forth before we made it, in terms of whether or not we should do this: “I’m not sure this feels right. Should we do this? You know what? We’re going to do it anyway.” I would feel much more trusting of that instinct in the future.

Excerpt from The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap: 21 Navigational Tips for Screenwriters to Create and Sustain a Hit TV Series by Neil Landau © 2013 Taylor and Francis All Rights Reserved

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