Listening to Damon Lindelof admit that he wanted to quit LOST – more than once – makes you wonder what would have happened if the statement had actually come to pass. There would certainly be no polar bears or hatches. Maybe not even the game-changing character flashbacks and flash-forwards. Lindelof, who created the concept of the show along with JJ Abrams back in 2003, will be the first to admit that he thought LOST would never get picked up (much less become a smash hit or run for six consecutive seasons.) Yet hearing stories about his experiences on both a personal and professional level, you begin to wonder how he ever could have thought otherwise.
Without question, Lindelof is an absolute pleasure to listen to – not only because of his expertise, but because of the obvious devotion and passion he has for his work. At last week’s New York Television Festival, Lindelof sat down for a one-on-one with MTV’s Andrew Jenks to deliver the keynote address and speak candidly about his beloved show. The fact that it was exactly seven years to the day LOST first premiered on ABC seemed to be no coincidence.
In an exclusive interview preceding the panel, I had the opportunity to chat with Lindelof as he reflected on seven years gone by, what he would’ve changed (a trick question!), and his plans for future creative ventures.
It’s been seven years since the airing of the pilot. If you could go back – knowing what you know now, knowing the writing process, knowing what’s to come – what would you tell yourself? Would you change anything?
“I have to preface that answer by saying what happened, happened and it’s impossible to travel back in time and change the outcome at all. And I mean that not by way of jest. I feel like if I could travel back, what I would tell myself is to relax, take it easy, let the show tell us what it wanted to be and try not to get too overwhelmed by it all. But at the same time, I feel that if I hadn’t gone through that entire process, the show might’ve been something entirely different. The panic and catastrophic experience that it was – especially the first year – really translated onto the screen in, I think, an overwhelmingly positive way for the show. Although the philanthropic thing to do would be to go back, ease my pain, hold my own hand…
At the time, anyone who knows me will tell you I was absolutely convinced that there were no more than six episodes of this show. And I was so terrified when they picked it up, and when I would say this to people, they would sort of laugh and think I was being modest or self-effacing. And then I would get home and tell my wife, who was my fiancé at the time, ‘But I’m not joking!’ If I went back and told that guy the morning after on September 23rd, which was one of the saddest days of my life, “Don’t worry; this thing’s gonna go six seasons,” I would’ve said, ‘six years; no way!’ It’s probably a good thing that non-paradoxical time travel does not exist.”
Did you ever think the show would be such a hit? Was there ever any thought in your mind that maybe it could work if it got the right audience or the right time slot? Or was did you really think no one would ever watch it?
“It’s so funny for you to ask that question through the prism of ‘I’m really thinking now about what that day was like seven years ago, the night that the show premiered.’ And I haven’t really thought about it with any degree of substance because I kind of lump it into the overall experience of the show premiering and getting really good ratings. But when we were shooting the pilot, JJ and Bryan [Burk] and I would constantly be saying things like, ‘This is going to be the best show ever!’ We were going to give you all this fun stuff and blow up stuff and have polar bears running through the jungle and have people flying out the back of planes, but we were like, ‘This is the best show ever that’s going to be cancelled.’ We really got it into our heads that the best case scenario was going to be kind of like a Prisoner of War legacy, where we made 13 of these things and then it became a cult classic where it was cancelled prematurely and wouldn’t that be cool. In our brains, it was just kind of a cult-y show, you know, sort of catered to our own geeky sensibilities.
It wasn’t until I saw the pilot for the first time and realized how character driven and emotional it was, and what amazing performances all the actors had given us, that I started wondering whether or not the show could connect on a somewhat broader audience. But on this day seven years ago, JJ had a party at his house for the premiere. The actors were all in Hawaii shooting, but the entire LA production entity, we all went over there and watched it. And that night there was an ABC executive who was there who said, ‘Hey, listen, we do research at ABC to get some sense of how these shows are going to do and we’re kind of optimistic about this thing. We think it’s probably going to do about a 3.4 in the demo. And if you can stay above the 3 at 8pm on Wednesdays, you’re gonna be just fine.’ And I remember hearing that number and being like, ‘Okay, that’s what we’re trying to hit.’ And that sounded about right to me. At that time, in 2004, that number would’ve been a success or a survivor or a performer, or whatever they would’ve called it. Hit was never really part of the terminology as far as I was concerned and certainly, no one was telling me that this was going to be a massive hit. The show was being really well reviewed; there were a number of magazines like EW and TV Guide that said this is the best new show of the fall, but they offered that up with the caveat of ‘this is a great pilot but where is it going to go from there?’ So, in my mind, that was kind of it. ‘Groundbreaking’ was never an adjective in my wildest dreams that I thought would ever be associated with the show unless it was in front of ‘cancelled after one episode.’”
The landscape of television has really changed in the past seven years and I feel if the show premiered now, it wouldn’t get the same reception. We’re so accustomed to getting everything at our fingertips, we need answers to be delivered at this moment, and we get fed up if we don’t get them after 2 or 3 episodes. We’ve become a lot less inclined to really invest in a show, especially a serial show.
“That pilot asked a massive commitment form the audience. If you watch a pilot with no predetermined end date, what it’s essentially doing is proposing to you on the first date, saying will you marry me for as long as I’m on. Will you stay tuned even if I frustrate you on occasion? And that’s a much bigger deal now in 2011 then it was in 2004, and I think we take some responsibility for the fact that…there are a number of people who watched the show when it started versus when it ended. We lost millions of viewers along the way for various reasons, but those millions that we lost became very jaded and discontent and sort of pledged never to go out on any more dates. So, they’re very vocal…when you see other shows, like The Event, that came along after LOST that were branded in any way as LOST-like, just saying, ‘I’m not going to allow myself to get suckered again.’ Or, ‘I just can’t emotionally invest in a show other than LOST,’ on a more positive spectrum.”
On the creative side, I know you used to write a comic book miniseries. Would you ever go back to that?
“I really loved writing that comic…and then I wrote a very short story for Action 900 this year; a Superman story. The problem with writing comics is I’m super, super slow. And I have such a tremendous amount of respect for comic book writers and artists just in terms of, a comic book issue is 22 pages, and in those 22 pages are 100 panels and essentially every panel you have to describe what’s happening and what people are saying. And there was also the idea that I was doing this completely solo as opposed to collaborating, which is what I’m used to and what I’m much more comfortable with. I really like working with other people, so I’m not going to say that I’ll never do it again, but I do feel that the degree of writing for comic books is so high that it’ll probably be awhile before I go back to it again. Unless I can con someone into partnering with me and letting them do all the work.”
You currently have numerous projects in the works, the Star Trek sequel and Prometheus being two of the most high profile. Is there a project you’re particularly amped about? Or one that you really can’t wait for the public to see?
“It’s a little like asking your parents which child is their favorite. I do think that Prometheus and Trek 2 are such wildly different projects, tonally and everything else. I’m very excited to see both of them come to life. I’m living the dream. The idea that I get to work with Ridley Scott or JJ again is so great…to call those people my creative partners and have the level of involvement that I did in these creative franchises that made me want to do what I’m doing now. I used to write fan fiction when I was 13, 14 and now I’m getting paid to write fan fiction, and it’s getting made. It does not get any better, literally.”
Is there a project, a sequel, a comic book, or anything in particular that you would love to take on one day, whether it’s something you want to remake or rewrite?
“As great as it has been doing remixes of these classic movies, right now I’m really drawn to the idea of doing something a little more original. It never occurred to me to work on an Alien movie or a Star Trek movie until the phone rang and the person on the other end said, ‘What do you think about this?’ And the level of enthusiasm that I felt in that moment kind of governed the next few years of my life in both those cases. So, to answer your question, there’s nothing really out there that I feel is dying to be remade. In fact, I sort of feel like it’s maybe time to move away from the safety of the remake and move into the slightly more terrifying territory of something more original. Because LOST was so satisfying for me…it’s much cooler for me to be able to do Inception and be like, ‘This is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.’ Or people will describe something as Inception and it’s impossible to describe Inception using the vernacular of any other movie. So, I feel like even the idea of ‘sure, I’d love to make a Batman movie, but am I going to be able to make a Batman movie better than Christopher Nolan did?’ Because at the end of the day, it’s Batman; his parents got killed and he puts on a suit and beats up bad guys. I’m sure Christopher Nolan found a way to remake it in a way that’s interesting to the audience, but there’s nothing out there that’s lying dormant that I’m like, ‘Oh my God, the world needs to be see this again, but with my spin on it.'”
Do you think you’d ever return to television? Not necessarily in a sterilized drama capacity, but in any shape or form?
“I definitely want to do TV again. And probably sooner rather than later. But I do feel like the real trick is going to be ‘what are people’s expectations going to be for someone who was behind a show like LOST?’ So that it’s consistent with that idea of ‘I liked LOST, so technically speaking, I should like this other show,’ I’m going to do a show that’s entirely different from LOST, but at the same time, it has to be different enough to justify its own existence. The worst thing I could possibly do to the audience is try to generate my own LOST clone. So, its kind of gotta feel like it has the same genetic make-up of the first show, but standing next to LOST, you wouldn’t be able to tell that they were brothers. And that’s been a real challenge for me in terms of figuring out exactly how to render that idea. I want to create a show that is gong to be polarizing not just for the sake of being polarizing, but it requires a certain degree of risk-taking. So, kind of getting outside my own comfort zone again is a huge part of the creative process.”
It was an unparalleled delight to speak with Lindelof, someone I already consider to be within the ranks of those he admires. Given his sold-out panel and the fan reception following the hour, it’s clear that I’m among many who will continually support the future endeavors of one the business’s most insightful individuals.