A great article for Lost, my favorite show.
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‘Lost’ producers dish on show’s secrets
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
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(10/17/06) — In anticipation of the third season of “Lost,” ABC News Senior National Correspondent Jake Tapper sat down with executive producers and writers J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse to talk about the show, the mythologies, and its place in TV history.
What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Tune into “Nightline” tonight at 11:35 ET to watch Tapper’s interview with the writers and producers of “Lost.”
JAKE TAPPER: Why do you think “Lost” became such a phenomenon?
CARLTON CUSE: We don’t know. We set out to make a show that we thought was cool for us, and you can’t really predict when that’s going to catch fire with the public. But I think that in making a show that was something that we all enjoyed, we violated a lot of rules of television. We have a large and sprawling cast, we have characters who are inherently unsympathetic — there are murderers — we have complicated storylines. Those are all things that intrigued us as storytellers, and I think made the show feel different than other things that have been on the air. And so I think by pleasing ourselves, we ended up creating a show that was a little bit different than things that had come before it.
DAMON LINDELOF: When the show came along, the climate of television was made up of procedural dramas, which were great but at the same time you knew what was going to happen next week. And we all loved the idea of going into this territory where anything could happen. And that sort of started to create a buzz and make the audience perk up and say, “Wow, I have to watch this thing.”
TAPPER: J.J., you didn’t even originally want work on the show, right?
J.J. ABRAMS: Well, it’s not that I didn’t want to do it, but I got a phone call from Lloyd Braun who at the time was head of ABC and he said, “I want to do a show about people who survive a plane crash.” And I thought I could see that as a movie, but I didn’t understand what that would be beyond the immediate aftermath.
And I started to think about it. I started to have some ideas. I called him back, and I said, “You’re not going to want to do this version of it.” But I pitched a version where the island wasn’t just an island. And I thought it was a little weirder than what they would want, but he said, “No, I love that. Do that show.”
So Damon Lindelof walked in. And we had this great first meeting and it was so exciting. We had an outline written within five days, turned it in, Lloyd called on that Saturday and said, “We’re green-lighting this pilot.” And we had no script. We had an outline, and we had like 11 weeks to write it, cast it, shoot it, post it, deliver it and this is a two-hour pilot. It’s not that I didn’t want to do it. It just seemed unrealistic.
TAPPER: In the original pilot, you killed off main character and hero Jack Shephard, played by Matthew Fox. How big a fight was this between you guys and ABC about whether or not you would kill him off. Obviously you lost the argument.
LINDELOF: Well, it wasn’t really a fight at first. In fact, in the outline that we delivered, they signed off on the fact that Jack would die. It wasn’t until we delivered the script and we had a meeting in response to the script that certain parties basically said, “Look, you spent half of the show making us fall in love with this doctor character and then you kill him off.” And we’re like, “That’s the brilliance of it! It’s psycho! Anything can happen on the show!”
And they said, “We want you to at least consider not doing it.” There was no ultimatum, but we started having conversations amongst ourselves saying like, “All right. This obviously will radically affect the second half of the pilot that we’ve written but they sort of do have a point.”
ABRAMS: This was the consensus that we were hearing, and I still wasn’t convinced because I loved doing something that was so crazy and dramatic. And then I showed the script to Greg Grunberg, who is my oldest friend, from kindergarten, and he’s an actor who was in “Felicity” and he was in “Alias.” And I showed him the script, and he read it and he called back and he said that he loved the script except he was furious at us that we killed this character. So I ended up casting Greg as the pilot who gets killed. I killed Greg instead.
TAPPER: And in terms of wanting to break all the rules, is that because of a certain boredom with the kind of predictable product that is churned out in Hollywood?
LINDELOF: The short answer is the show demanded that you broke all the rules. The beauty of a people stranded on an island show is it forces you to have to think outside the box in terms of generating story. We certainly approached the pilot and people watched the pilot and would say how is this show going to go anywhere? How is it going to sustain? How are you guys going to do Episode No. 5 let alone Episode No. 50, which we’re up to now. The answer is we don’t know. But every week is a new adventure and that is what forces you to break rules. You have to do things that you normally wouldn’t do. With 16 main characters, you have to go off the island via flashback, you have to have weird things happen to them.
CUSE: The expectation that the network had at the beginning of the show was that this was way too large for a network cast and we’d have to kill some of these people off and then we’d be down to our normal seven or eight characters — which is sort of the normal network-show paradigm. But the characters were all so good and the audience loved them all so much that it quickly became apparent that that was not going to be viable, it was not going to be a situation where you could suddenly reduce this cast to eight people.
ABRAMS: When we wrote the pilot and we were making it, it was just conventional wisdom that there was no way this was going to work. And we kept getting these calls: “You have to shoot an ending so we can air this as a movie.” And we asked, “Well, what’s the end? How do you end it?” It’s sort of the beginning of something. We didn’t know how to wrap it up. How do you do it?
TAPPER: The SS Minnow pulls up?
ABRAMS: Yes, and the Harlem Globetrotters show up and they’re like, “What’s up?” But I do think that the reality is that you look at what the show was when we were doing it and it did go against, what people believed was viable television. The cast was enormous, serialized storytelling — I mean serialization in itself was sort of verboten in network television. It was a genre show.
CUSE: And characters who were unsympathetic leads who would murder people. … You go to a network executive and say, “You know what, you’re going to love this girl. She’s a fugitive and she actually blew her father up and killed him!” Or, “This other guy was a con man and his desire was to basically kill the guy who killed his parents but he actually killed somebody else instead!” But those became the characters that we know and love on the show and that, again, was something which was really in violation of normal network storytelling rules.
TAPPER: Do you think that the fact that the show is nonlinear and has such complicated storylines shows that the American people are smarter than Hollywood often gives them credit for?
LINDELOF: I think it’s not just the American people but it’s the worldwide audience.
CUSE: It’s the Dutch people, too.
LINDELOF: It’s the Dutch especially.
TAPPER: Let’s not forget the Dutch.
LINDELOF: I think that if you tell compelling stories, people will totally dial in. I don’t think there is an estimation that the American audience isn’t savvy enough, it’s that they’re impatient. And I think that this show and many other serialized shows that have have come in the wake of this show have proven that people will wait a week, they will dial in the characters, they will interact on the Internet when the show is not on in an effort to sort of keep abreast of things. The viewing audience is very intelligent. Those procedural shows are who-done-its. You present a mystery in the beginning of the show — somebody’s been murdered — by the end of the show you reveal who did it and why. And the audience at home wants to play along and figure it out. Our show is the same thing. We present a mystery, but you have to wait 17 or 18 episodes to get the answer to that mystery.
TAPPER: Or more than that.
ABRAMS: The flashback element is one of my favorite things about the show. And in theory you think, “Well, it’s a flashback so it’s not affecting the present-day story, therefore is it relevant?” I’m a huge fan of the “Twilight Zone,” and I love tuning into a show and not knowing exactly what you’re going to get every week — it’s sort of having a little surprise. It’s a current network sort of no-no that you don’t have an anthology, you have to have characters you’re following every single week. But “Lost” allows us to kind of sneak in an anthology element into a series, which is: You don’t know exactly who you are going to be following every week, and you have no idea where they are going to take you. The flashbacks are sort of a minipuzzle within each episode — what that means or why that little plane is so important to her.
TAPPER: Why is that little plane so important?
ABRAMS: You don’t have one of those planes?
TAPPER: Is there really a reason for everything in there, or sometimes are you guys just having fun and throwing in little things? The books that Sawyer is reading on the beach, whether it’s “A Wrinkle in Time” or “Watership Down.” The little plane Kate killed for. Jack’s father’s name is Christian Shephard. Does everything have a reason?
CUSE: Most things have a reason. Some things we just throw in there. Some things we throw in there sort of self-referentially. We’ll do things in the show that acknowledge people’s theories about the show.
TAPPER: Like what?
CUSE: The book “Incident at Owl Creek” we put in as a shout to people who are theorizing that this whole show was taking place in someone’s mind in the last moments of their life. Sometimes a plane is just a plane, but most times we think these things through, they have meaning and they are part of our mythology of the show.
TAPPER: There was a lot of theorizing that the show takes place in purgatory. You guys just came out and said that’s not the case, this is not purgatory. Why did you feel the need to do that?
LINDELOF: I blame [M.] Night Shyamalan primarily, but the sort of greatest genre twist of all time is always — and you see this re-occurring in popular fiction for the last 125 years — is that the lead character is dead and doesn’t know he’s dead. So that consciousness was really rolling, and then “The Sixth Sense” came along and it surprised people again. But then every time there was a movie that had a twist ending, the audience started anticipating that.
In the third episode Jack and Kate are sitting on the beach, and he turns to her and he says, “We’re all dead. It doesn’t matter what happened before. We all get a change to start over.” And that started feeding this frenzy of, “Oh, wait a minute. They’re all dead. He meant it literally. They’re all in purgatory.” So we felt like we had to get out in front it and say that’s not going on because in a way that sort of takes the stakes out of the show. So if Boone dies or Shannon dies are they just deader than the rest of everybody else.
ABRAMS: They’re a little more dead.
LINDELOF: The stakes of life and death don’t exist if everybody is already dead.
CUSE: We actually dispelled two theories, the purgatory theory and “This whole show is taking place in a snow globe” theory. And we did it.
TAPPER: From the last episode of “St. Elsewhere.”
CUSE: It was to eliminate the audience’s fear that it was going to be a cheat, that they would invest all this time and energy and that there wouldn’t be a real ending. There would be one of these short of shaggy dog endings.
ABRAMS: But we’re not debunking the theory that Suzanne Pleshette will arrive in the last episode.
Lessons of ‘The X-Files’
TAPPER: Two other mythology shows that were successful and then failed in a way, shows I was a fan of, were “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files. ” Both of them started out really strong, were compelling. They were mysteries, and they both ultimately — “Twin Peaks” faster than “X-Files.”
LINDELOF: Much faster.
TAPPER: Much faster — failed. “X-Files” creator Chris Carter has said in print as a warning to you guys, “There are pitfalls. If you fall into one of those pitfalls, you will fall.” What lessons do you take from those shows?
CUSE: Certainly “Twin Peaks” was a cautionary tale in terms of basically frustrating an audience by never giving any answers and/or by also focusing on one central mystery and putting so much emphasis on that mystery that once that mystery is solved — in that case “Who killed Laura Palmer?” — then everyone’s interest in the show goes away.
We looked at “Twin Peaks” as a model of what not to do in terms of stringing the audience along. So if you look over the course of the first season of the show, questions that you might not expect to get answered are answered. You know: “What is the source of this radio transmission?” All of a sudden you meet the French woman. If you were to go back to the pilot and look at what the mysteries were that were posed by the pilot, a lot of those questions have really been answered.
LINDELOF: To look at “The X-Files” as a failure — the show was on for nine years.
TAPPER: I don’t mean to say it’s a failure but it was very …
LINDELOF: Why do you hate “The X-Files”?
ABRAMS: Yes, what did “The X-Files” do to you?
TAPPER: I loved “The X-Files.” It was appointment viewing for me, and then I stopped watching.
LINDELOF: There is a point that no writer or producer knows where, when the story becomes too long. And once you’ve crossed over that line, you look back and say, “Oh, no. I should have ended it before I got into this zone where it becomes too long.” But the pragmatic reality of the network television business is we don’t own the show. We don’t get to decide when the show ends. If we lived in a world where Chris Carter could say to his masters at Fox, “I want to end the show after five seasons,” then you could point the finger and say, “Shame on you.” But the lesson to be learned is the lesson of the inevitable, and we’re in the same boat. People will continue to watch “Lost” as long as it’s great. They’ll stop watching it when it is no longer great. And it will no longer be great when it’s been going on too long. So there is almost an inevitable moment that will occur when the show should have ended and didn’t.
TAPPER: J.J., there’s obviously the “Twin Peaks” lesson. Is there an “X-Files” lesson?
ABRAMS: That show took turns that were, given the cast and cast changes — by the end of the show the people who you’ve been watching weren’t on the show. It had become a very different show in a lot of ways. And what Damon said is right, there is an economic reality. This is product to a company as much as it is to us a purely creative endeavor. So the question is how do you navigate those waters? When you look at any series on television — “X-Files” and “Twin Peaks” are two examples — when does a show end well? I mean it happens, there are examples you can point to, but it’s infrequent. I mean I think it’s the anomaly. We hope it happens in our case but in the meantime we’re just doing the best we can to keep the show as good as it can be.
Killing Off the Characters
TAPPER: Let’s talk about the decision to kill characters, because you were talking about Josh Holloway who plays Sawyer, being contracted for six seasons.
ABRAMS: As are they all.
TAPPER: You killed off characters in the first season and you killed off characters in the second season. Is that difficult to do?
ABRAMS: It’s always difficult to make an adjustment in the cast of a show. On a show like “Lost,” in particular, it’s a weird thing because there’s sort of a mandate that the island not be a safe place. You can’t go through a season and not have some loss of life.
We don’t do the “Star Trek,” where it’s like the “red shirts” are there — which we’ve made references to in the show — where every time there is someone in a red shirt you knew that that person was going to be offed.
But people started to expect, that one of our characters was going to die every week. And so the trick I think is to make sure that it doesn’t seem like, “Oh, well. We haven’t killed someone off for a while we have to do it now.” It has got to come out of the story.
Last season, the thing about killing Ana Lucia and Libby was that while it was shocking that Ana Lucia died, for me the stroke of genius was that then Michael turned and he shot Libby, too. And it was just so horrifying and so unexpected. What people forget is that there are these vulnerabilities on this island.
TAPPER: Of the four major characters that have died not one of them has been killed by The Others.
TAPPER: Boone was in an accident…
TAPPER: Shannon dies from Ana Lucia and Michael kills Ana Lucia and Libby.
CUSE: There’s a lot of friendly fire problems.
CUSE: We basically don’t want anybody to feel safe. One of the rules of conventional television is you watch a show and if you see somebody put a gun to Billy Petersen’s head on “CSI” you know he’s not going to get killed, he’s the star of that show. By killing characters it really allows the audience to really feel invested in moments of tension and danger because you really don’t know on our show whether characters are going to live or die.
TAPPER: It’s weird because Shannon had been redeemed. Shannon had become a better person and had found love with Sayid.
ABRAMS: Exactly, yes.
CUSE: Which, therefore, made her death all the more poignant.
CUSE: That was clearly intentional. We try to set up characters and then get you to bite on a certain stereotype or a certain kind of judgment that you might make about this character and then try to kind of completely reverse field on that.
Lost Through Post-9/11 Eyes
TAPPER: In no small way it struck me that Jack, an essentially decent person, was put in a situation where he was willing to make compromises for the greater good. How much is it fair to look at “Lost” through post-9/11 eyes?
CUSE: There are definitely similarities. They’re in a jungle and anything can come out of that jungle at any time and cause them harm. There’s this kind of pervading sense of fear that kind of hangs over the characters in the show. And whenever they are trekking someplace you don’t know what actually is going to befall them. It’s nothing that consciously sit around and talk about. But I think all of us exist and live in a post-9/11 world so it can’t help but inform us as writers because we live and feel the same things that everyone else does in a world post-9/11.
LINDELOF: When we were first working on the pilot, the idea that it was going to start with a plane crash and that all throughout the first 10 or so episodes of the show there are just shattered pieces of the plane all around — people started to process that 9/11 metaphor without it being intentional at all.
ABRAMS: These questions had come up. But it wasn’t until we got to the set the first day and saw this airplane — we had taken an airplane and shipped it to Hawaii and we’d built this set but it was a real plane — that it was so depressing and it was so numbing to see this plane there. It was a very interesting thing that that reality of not just a plane crash but, you know, but 9/11 itself there — it wasn’t theoretical anymore. I actually sort of felt it more that first day that I was on the set than I had before.
LINDELOF: There was a scene in season one where they’ve been getting attacked by The Others and Locke comes out on the beach and he’s saying, “We’ve been attacked by these people, sabotaged by these people, we need to stop worrying about attacking each other and we have to start worrying about them.” And I remember watching that scene in dailies for the first time and going, “Oh, wait a minute!” That was the first moment where from the inside looking out I suddenly realized that — it wasn’t intentional but at the same time very similar things were being said on Fox News.
And I thought that we were going to get now accused of doing the big political statement. The whole idea of sort of al Qaeda — the invisible enemy, they hate us but we don’t know why, but then when you look at things from their point of view you begin to sort of look at things in an entirely different way — that parable started playing out on the show.
TAPPER: You have a scene where an Iraqi tortures a southern American guy.
LINDELOF: And you’re rooting for the Iraqi. And you see the Iraqi character, Sayid, struggling with this decision to do it but he realizes that if he doesn’t, that the life of another castaway is in jeopardy. And Matthew Fox is endorsing this activity. So by the time the torture begins you actually have completely flipped and the American audience is saying, “I can’t believe how belligerent this American character is and I’m rooting for the Iraqi character.”
CUSE: This is a theme we’re very much exploring in season three, this notion of “us versus them.” And who is us? And who is them? I mean I think we all tend to objectify people who we don’t know much about and I think that’s the audience’s view of The Others right now — they are bad, they are the malevolent force on the island. But over the course of the stories we’re going to be telling this season on the show we expect the audience’s view of The Others to change a lot.
All Those Theories
TAPPER: Before this interview, we were all going through one of these unauthorized “Lost” books. It must be amusing to see some of the theories out there that haven’t even occurred. You were talking about the “2009 theory” that was in this book, this theory that everything is really taking place in 2009. And you said, “They’re looking at bad props” because some things had been mislabeled Is it fun to see all this stuff on the Internet, all this speculation?
CUSE: It’s insane the amount of time that people put into the show and spend thinking about it and theorizing about it. There are people who spend more time thinking about “Lost” than we spend thinking about “Lost.” And we spent a lot of time thinking about “Lost.” There are a lot of people out there that are a lot smarter than us, in terms of how they’ve connected this to other things in popular and classical literature. They’ve picked out antecedents and things that maybe we saw sometime but aren’t consciously part of our creative process.
ABRAMS: You know we are so grateful for the people who watch the show, care enough to write about it, and read about it. But I don’t think you have to be one of those people who, you know, have theory upon theory to enjoy the show. I think it is ultimately a character show and you have to be careful you don’t start serving the wrong master where it doesn’t become about trying to sort of make a show that’s all about hidden meaning. There’s certain point that can become a distraction and sort of lead you down the wrong path.
TAPPER: I was amazed to find out in my research that the incomprehensible whispers of The Others are actual lines you’ve written — people actually saying things and viewers are downloading and listening carefully over and over and over and deciphering what they’re saying. Or that when Walt appeared as an apparition to Shannon he said something that if you play it backwards Beatles style, you could hear what he was saying.
CUSE: He’s saying: “Watch ‘Nightline.”
TAPPER: I wondered why our ratings were up.
TAPPER: And then obviously you have this elaborate Internet campaign that you guys have been working on over the summer where you’re dropping clues and you’re hosting Web sites with all these side stories and various clues. Is that part of it fun? Or is it a distraction, like J.J. says?
CUSE: It’s fun as a writer and as a show creator to experience what it’s like to work in new media platforms. We’re at a time when television is changing radically when you can watch an episode of “Lost” if you miss it, you can go to ABC.com and watch it streamed the next day or you can download it onto your iPod. It’s fundamentally changing people’s perceptions of what television is. And I think for us it’s been an interesting crater of exploration to contemplate mobisodes — little episodes of “Lost” that will be on your cell phone — or to do this Internet experience where we’re telling stories that are on the Internet that would never go onto the show.
I mean all the details of the Hanso Foundation and Dharma Initiative would just basically cloud up the brains of most of the people who watch the show but there is a hardcore group of people who love a mythology of the show and they want to see that stuff.
LINDELOF : I remember when I was a kid there was a “Star Wars” holiday special which was sort of — do you remember that?
CUSE: I remember; with the Wookies.
LINDELOF: Yes, with the Wookies. And it was otherwise completely forgettable. It was like Bea Arthur and Art Carney were like guest stars on it. But you were so hungry for new Star Wars content between “Star Wars” and “Empire Strikes Back.” And there was a Boba Fett cartoon that was in the special —
ABRAMS: And he became just the thing.
LINDELOF: It was just a cartoon about this guy named Boba Fett who was a bounty hunter. And you’re like, “What does this mean?” And you had to wait before “The Empire Strikes Back” came out and then here is this guy Boba Fett who was introduced in a row of other dudes. And the audience was like, “I know that guy, I’ve seen one of his adventures before.” And the fact that there was a platform, whether it was on a holiday special or not, to actually go deeper on the show.
ABRAMS: I thought you were going to go the other direction on the point which was that because of the quality of that special —
TAPPER: Yeah, it was pretty bad.
ABRAMS: — that you ought to be careful that you’re not making the Thanksgiving Star Wars special. As a fan you’re so excited to kind of see something that someone else might not, but on the other hand you want to make sure that the way you learn that information is of a certain quality.
CUSE: That’s why we canceled the Lost Christmas Talent Show.
LINDELOF: I guess now would be a bad time to tell you that Bea Arthur is in Episode #4 of Season Three. Going to be a leader of The Others.
How Will It All End?
TAPPER: Do you have in your minds an endgame, where the show ends, what happens? Is it all sketched out that broadly?
LINDELOF: Absolutely. I mean when we first started talking about the show in that — in that very first meeting we talked about, you know, OK, everyone was saying what would season two look like, what would season three look like, what would season four look like? And we started having those conversations and obviously that conversation ended with “and here’s where the show ends.” This would be theoretically what the last episode of the show would be. But the reality is you’re sorting running a race, a marathon, where no one has told you where the finish line is. So your plan at how how you’re going to feel and how you’re going to finish when you cross mile 26 changes because when you’re passing the nine mile marker someone tells you the marathon has been extended to 40 miles.
So what our original ending is hopefully is going to still be in play. But the reality is the characters who were involved in that ending and what happens on the island might change as a result of external factors. God forbid, Josh Holloway decided to leave the show after six seasons, which is what he’s contracted for. If that were to happen, we as writers would have to change our minds about certain story directions that we’re taking. But the kind of conceptual idea of the ending is in place.
But it’s a very organic process. We feed off of what we see so you see a character like Desmond all of a sudden he becomes a regular in Season Three as does Michael Emerson who played Henry Gale because they were both so incredible and so wonderful that we ended up deciding that we were going to tell more stories with them than we had originally planned. We always are listening to what the show is telling us it wants us to do. We are not the masters. We are in concert with all these other forces in trying to guide the show. But the show has its own ideas about where it wants to go.
TAPPER: Does the show talk to you?
CUSE: The show does, it talks to me often but I’m medicating and that helps a lot.
ABRAMS: It’s been talking to me this entire time and it’s telling me to kill you.
TAPPER: So Desmond and Henry Gale are happy accidents, characters that you didn’t initially mean to become major characters.
LINELOF: For Henry Gale, we knew that they were going to capture an Other. We knew that he was going to pretend to be someone else. And the idea was that after two episodes we would find out that he was lying and he would escape. But as soon as we cast Michael Emerson and saw the first dailies of him we said, “All right, this two-episode plan just became a seven-episode plan.”
And then it was like we’ll bounce him off Locke, we’ll bounce him off Eko, we’ll bounce him off Jack, he’ll begin to manipulate them. And it was like it all became incredibly compelling television just by virtue of the actor that we had cast.
CUSE: And the same thing was true with Desmond. There was a plan for Desmond and Desmond has sort of an arc throughout the overall mythology of the show. But we fell in love with Henry Ian Cusick and we loved what he was doing and we just wanted to tell more of his story as storytellers. So we just sort of expanded the amount of Desmond’s story that became a part of the world of “Lost.”
TAPPER: What hasn’t been such a happy accident?
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