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Lost Endweek: Cuse and Lindelof Interview, Part One

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It’s now less than a week until Lost is no more. For this last week before the Lost weekend—call it the Lost Endweek—I’m going to post some daily transcripts from my on-set interviews with Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, and some of Lost’s cast members. I visited the set on April 19, and hadn’t seen any advance episodes, so naturally my questions don’t address specific episodes that aired since then.

When I met Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof on the Lost finale set, they were coming off an emotional night of shooting, as several of the show’s cast shot their final scene ever. “My soundbite had been, this is a celebration,” Lindelof said. “We’re ending the show on our own terms, it’s not like we got cancelled. And then Saturday night I started sobbing for like an hour, because we were wrapping so many actors.”

“It’s like going to a funeral for six people at the same time,” said Cuse.

“And you killed them!” Lindelof added.

After shooting for the day wrapped, I met Cuse and Lindelof at their hotel bar for a longer talk. (I had a mai tai, because, you know, Hawaii.) I’ve cut the long transcript into chunks: in today’s we begin at the beginning and talk about how Lost began and evolved, and about the legendary “They’re making it up as they go along!” accusation (and why that should even be a bad thing):

* I was looking over things that I’d written about “Lost” since it started, and after I saw the pilot, I wrote possibly the dumbest thing that anybody has written about “Lost”: that there’s not going to be much room for guest appearances on the show like this. Back when it was at the pilot stage, did you — how much idea did you have, how huge the universe of it was going to become?

Damon Lindelof: Well, I think that we knew that the longer it went, the bigger it would have to get. And that the real sort of stealth thing that we knew very early on was that we were going to do two shows, it was going to be the show about all the shenanigans that were happening on the island, but then there was going to be another show that we only hinted at in the pilot by doing a couple of flashbacks to the plane crash itself, which is there was going to be this show, off the island, and that the show off the island needed to have an emotional commentary on the island, but also we could begin to expand out and meet other characters, show other characters crossing through each others lives, etc., etc. So, we did have a sense that the longer the show went, the more story we could potentially generate based just on the characters’ pasts.

But I don’t think it was, I cannot now with 20/20 hindsight misrepresent my own personal feelings where I was after the pilot, and even up through the 9th, 10th, 11th episode, which was, I never thought that there was a series there.

And it wasn’t really until Carlton came in around that time and said, “You don’t really have to worry about what season three is, let’s just worry about what episode 10 is. And he had experience making other television shows and, you know, the only way you know how to do it is to do it. And he said by the end of the first season, we’ll start to have a paradigm of what a story on “Lost” feels like, and then ironically by the end of the first season, with 25 hours of the show under out belt, we had many, many, many more ideas than we did after just one episode. You’d think that there was this big fertile ground there, but the ground actually became more fertile, the more seeds we planted which was sort of a contradiction in many ways.

* Was there then like a point like between the first and second season where you sort of hunkered down and said, okay, so now what’s the rest of the show?

Carlton Cuse: You know, it wasn’t, there weren’t sort of clean delineation points, I mean, basically the great thing that happened at the beginning of the show, especially in the sort of vacuum period before the pilot aired is that no one actually thought the show was going to work. I mean, you know, and so –

DL: As a series.

CC: As a series. But the pilot was great, but there was no expectation that this was going to be – that this would work as a long-running series. And so, therefore we were given I think a lot more freedom and we felt a lot more freedom to kind of do what we wanted to do and basically we kind of felt like, we were going to make the show that we wanted to make and the very kind of clear feeling that like, if it didn’t work, we would have very proudly have one of those DVD’s that geeks could pass around and go, this is like Twin Peaks or like The Prisoner–“Have you ever seen the 12 episodes of Lost?”

And we were like, we want people to think those 12 episodes of Lost are really, really cool. And that was really empowering because it allowed us to break all these rules that you’re never supposed to break in television, you know, and to kind of pursue a sort of storytelling that other shows hadn’t done. And the network was kind of, you know, was pot committed. They made the pilot and they ordered the 12 episodes and I think they were — they didn’t have any sort of specific set idea as to what the show was or was supposed to be. And that was also good because oftentimes if the network orders and buys a show, they have a very specific idea what they want it to be and that may or may not be in concert with what the show runner wants it to be.

So, we – and then we started making the show and really the experience of making a television show is one of, trial and error and you also are sort of learning lessons as you go along. And what Damon said is correct, I mean, I had done enough that I knew that if we basically got in there and started tinkering around and trying things out, we’d start figuring out what worked and what didn’t work and that a paradigm would evolve. And by the end of the season it did and we kind of got through that.

And then once the ratings came out for the pilot and I remember Damon’s like look of despair when he came into my office and was like, does this mean we have to keep doing this? Because they were huge, you know, it’s like the –

DL: It was like 19 million or something like that–

CC: Yeah, it was just massive. And then everybody’s like, wow, you know, it won’t last you know. And the next episode came on and the ratings were just as big and so then we really started saying, we started talking about, okay, we really have to kind of fashion the mythology, but the problem was, there wasn’t really time to do it in a detailed fashion, so we sort of made it clear that anything we set up in the show, we had to have an idea where we were going with that. But then we really allowed us time between the first and second season to really work out things in much more detail. So, by the time the Dharma film and orientation and the third episode of the second season was really emblematic of the fact that we’d really built a lot of mythology and we wanted to kind of put it out there and tell the audience, it’s okay, here’s were we’re going and here’s a sense of what the show is gonna be now.

* I guess one thing that helped was that in the pilot, you probably didn’t lock yourself into anything–there’s this disaster situation, and then there’s a Polar Bear. And you didn’t have to find out until Season Three why that Polar Bear was there.

DL: Right, the functioning metaphor of the first season of the show was, we only had to show you the hatch, we didn’t have to show you what was inside the hatch. Once we started showing you what was inside the hatch, the show had entered into a new phase of storytelling and a new phase of writing entirely, which is can you make the answer to the mystery as satisfying, period. Can that lead to new mysteries without making the audience feel like, you dodged a bullet, but also can you make it – can you effectively convince the audience that when we showed you the hatch, we already knew what was inside it, and this sort of connected into the, “Are you making it up as you go along?” phenomenon. Which is clearly–you know, in television writing just in order to do your job you have to make up a certain degree of it as you go along, but the question becomes, what are you making up as you go along, and what is fixed?

CC: We always, you know, and I think whenever it seemed like we should turn right, we always said, you know, we intentionally tried to turn left. And we basically said, can we turn left here? So certain things that you were talking about like the things that we could have done in the first season that would have been huge mistakes would be to do sort of some of the predictable things that you might expect on an island show which is society building things. Like, they should forma government, someone should be elected leader. They should have a system of laws.

DL: Currency.

CC: Have a currency, you know. And they needed to –

DL: We talked about these things, though.

CC: They need to be working overtime on building an elaborate shelter, and like all these things that like, you know, they just seem like okay, these were the predictable things. And then we said, let’s make the criteria be, why? Like there’s an assumption that you need to do those things in a survival show, but the answer to the question really was, why do they need currency? Why do they need a government? Why do they need laws? Like, what, in reality, what drives that? And the only thing that drives it is some sort of sense that that’s what you need to do.

And so the more we did that, the more that became engrained in terms of how we approached everything. And so anything that was sort of expected, we sort of always asked the next question which was, why? Well, if it’s expected, is there really a good reason that we have to do it. And sometimes the answer is, yes, but most of the time, the answer is, no you don’t. And that led us kind of down the untrodden story path.

* I’ve never really gotten that criticism, “They’re making it up as they go along.” I mean, I wouldn’t want you guys to have no clue – but whenever, you know, when novelists talk about their work, they talk about how the characters have to speak to them, and they surprise you. If you didn’t to some extent make it up as you went along, it would suck.

CC: Totally.

DL: It wouldn’t just suck, I think it’s enormously audacious and conceited and you know, obnoxious to say, our plan is going to work. The plan that we had five years ago, and we are not going to change it no matter what. Like, that completely doesn’t allow for the idea that something could go wrong, which it often does.

CC: It’s like deciding that, you know, when you’re 10 years old you want to be an astronaut, and then being unyielding in the face of whatever exists including the demise of NASA. I mean it’s like you have to be malleable and we, we tried to find that balance sort of between thinking about the future and being organized, but at the same time giving ourselves a lot of latitude for discovery along the way.

DL: Yeah. That question only existed because of the way that the story was presented. If the story was presented as, here’s six seasons of “Lost”, there’s a beginning, there’s a middle, and an end, as it will be presented from now on, that question become moot because you’ve got the entire thing. But when you have, you know, a whole week in between hours of the show to basically talk about it, it becomes an enormously germane question to be asking.

CC: You know, Stephen King, who really helped catalyze our push to get an end date to the show was like, “I make it all up as I go along.” I just start writing my books and then they go where they go. But he’s got, as Damon said, He’s got a complete book when he gives you the book. He can say, “You know what? I made it up as I went along.” But now you have the whole Stand, you have the whole copy of Misery, or whatever it is.

* Yes, and he has the ability to rewrite before it’s done.

CC: Yeah, he does.

* You can’t do a first draft.

CC: That’s true.

DL: J.K. Rowling actually, who we’re are both massive fans of, actually jammed Lost in a lot of ways because at the same time that “Lost” came on the air, Harry Potter-mania was sort of hitting its big year and sort of like between Azkaban and Goblet of Fire and she – it was like, it was such a talking point of hers: “I outlined all seven books before I started writing the first book.” So, this idea of, oh okay, this is – the Stephen King way, we like this way. We like the version where they tell us they’ve outlined all seven seasons except we didn’t know if they were going to be three seasons or nine seasons or 15 seasons or anything.

CC: Right.

DL: And that’s why we – and we talked about this ad nauseam because you’ve followed the show, I’m sure. But there were two creative periods in the show. The period prior to the middle of the third season when we didn’t know how long we’d have to go, and then the period following that moment, where we knew exactly how long we had to go, and there were two very different ways of writing.

Tomorrow: Shark-jumping, Nikki and Paolo, Easter eggs and the importance of the Internet.