It looks like we have ourselves a nice little question and answer session provided by a Mr. Alan Sepinwall. The lucky guy got to sit down with Damon and pick his brain in a lengthy interview. There isn’t really anything spoilery in the article, but I’ll give the warning none the less.
In this interview with “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof, we look back on some of the behind-the-scenes decisions for season four, why some fans may be troubled by season five’s emphasis on time travel, and why the worst episode in “Lost” history was also the most important episode in “Lost” history (from a production standpoint, anyway).
For my review of the start of season five, as well as some highlights from the interview, click here.
What material did you have to leave out because of the strike that you won’t be able to get back to?
I don’t think that there’s anything that just got basically junked. There’s stuff that got truncated, so you’re getting the Cliff’s Notes version of the story. Whereas there might have been an entire episode that was Charlotte’s flashbacks if there hadn’t been a strike, now you get the story but not the flashbacks. I think the complete jettisoning of a story plan would take the whole Jenga tower down. We have to do all that stuff to get to where we’re going. Nothing was so expendable that you could just say we couldn’t get to do this. The show would suffer for it. But the Michael story, we wanted to do something that was more redemptive for him than staying with the bomb and allowing Jin to get to the deck as he was spraying liquid nitrogen onto it. But it ended up having to be that, as opposed to something that was probably more heroic, more emotional, by virtue of the fact that we had to collapse our time frame. Originally, we were going to do an hour less than we wound up doing, and we had to beg for that. We were still rolling film, like, 11 days before it was on the air. It was all we could do to cram everything in there, and you go, “What are the major story points you can play?” and you need to connect the dots. The primary story focus was on the Oceanic Six, and everyone else had to defer. We had to explain how Jin died, and so that gave us less time for Michael’s redemptive arc, and we regret that.
One of the things you and Carlton talk about a lot, and I never quite understood until we got to “There’s No Place Like Home,” is that you’re always afraid of doing these episodes where people stand around and explain stuff and you give a lot of answers at once. Those three hours answered most of the questions of that season, and while it was good, it definitely felt like, “Okay… okay… alright…” It was not as thrilling as the hours leading up to it.
Sure. For us, we always think the reason that the show is a water cooler show, or still generates the audience it does and the Internet culture that it does is the audience wants to talk about the show. If the characters are talking about the show, you basically have a scenario where they’re so interested in catching each other up that you can’t propel the story forwards. Now if they need to share info for the purposes of story, then you have to write the scene. But the season four finale was really about bringing everything together. The drama of knowing, “How are these guys going to get off the island?,” well, you’ve known that they did get off since the end of season three, so now we’re just going back and showing you things you didn’t already know about it, like that Penny picked them up. It’s a big reveal, but everything else is, “Oh, they’re in a helicopter… the helicopter’s going into the water… is Demond going to survive because he’s not one of the Oceanic Six?” So you can kind of do these things, but things like the press conference, Kate having dreams about Claire, you need to do them, but they’re more about filling in blanks than moving forward. That’s the nature of the year. You’re telling a story out of sequence, and so the finale wound up being a lot of middle.
Let’s get back to the question that I asked at the summer tour: Watching last season and seeing the Oceanic Six in the present, I start building up scenarios in my head. “Why these six? Why do they have to be so secretive?” And in the end it just turned out that those happened to be the ones who were on the helicopter, and Jack, for whatever reason, gets into his head that they need to tell this specific lie to avoid the wrath of Widmore. Did you know that was how it was going to play out going in?
We knew that the season was going to start with Locke and Jack splitting up, Locke taking a group of people with him, Jack a group with him, Jack group’s mission was to get off the island, Locke’s group mission was to stay on, and when we got to the end of the season, Jack and Locke would have one more scene. And in that scene, Locke would basically say to Jack, “We’re supposed to be here, it’s our destiny, you’ve gotta stay.” And Jack would say, “(Bleep) you, I’m leaving.” And Locke would say to Jack, “If you’re gonna leave, you have to lie.” So the idea to lie is Locke’s. That we knew with great specificity. We also knew for over a year that Locke was in the coffin and that all the actions Jack is going through in the season three finale, reading the obituary, suicide attempt, are in the wake of Locke’s death. The Jack/Locke of it all was incredibly mapped out in detail. The intricacies of the lie were, Jack is lying because Locke told him to, and there’s a part of him that realizes maybe Locke was right. He’s not consciously ready to accept that yet, so the lie’s going to be sloppy, and he’s making that up on the fly…
I pitched to the DVD team that it might be fun to have a documentary crew poke holes in how (bleepy) the lie is, on every level. You see those things about the WTC, on that trajectory. I thought it would be fun, but these guys came back with the film and I was, like, “Wow, the lie’s even worse than I thought.” It’s one of those things where you basically say, if this really happened, if these six people showed up on some island in the South Pacific and said, “Here’s what happened,” no one would ever think to question the story. If there’s any conspiracy, you have to start with the premise, “Why did they lie?”
How did you choose the Oceanic Six?
We basically looked at it as a very simple equation first, which is, “Who would want to leave the island, and who would not want to leave the island?” and that’s what the whole season’s about. Kate kind of waffles, Sawyer doesn’t want to leave the island, and leaps off the chopper when he has a chance to do so. He’s perfectly fine where he is. And clearly someone like Juliet would want to leave the island, so we had to figure out geographically, where people would want to be, and present a lifeboat situation where Billy Zane’s running around the Titanic with a gun, and it’s whoever can get on the chopper in time. Jack and Kate we had committed to, obviously, but when we talked about who the Six would be, we realized the majority of storytelling in season four would involve those people. But we were also setting things up for the ultimate endgame of the show which will hopefully reveal some more specificity about, “Why them?”
I’ve wondered about the team from the freighter, Faraday and those people. When we initially see them being put together, Naomi’s supposed to lead them, they have some specific mission that apparently requires a mercenary, a physicist, a medium and an anthropologist and a chopper pilot. Are we still going to find out what that was? Did that get left by the wayside by the events of season four?
The intent was that their mission was to find Benjamin Linus, then call the mercs and they’ll show up and remove Ben. But Faraday and Charlotte are both there for personal reasons. He’s doing time/space experiments while he’s there, Faraday has a lot of story yet to reveal. As does Charlotte, as does Miles. But the mission they’ve been tasked with to find Ben.
And this particular combination is the best Widmore could put together?
One would assume Miles was selected for his unique abilities. As to why Faraday comes, I think that the strategic thinking in sending those guys over first is, Faraday is the one who can figure how to get from the freighter to the island safely. Charlotte’s an expert in anthropology and dead languages, and Widmore thinks that skill-set would be useful for locating Ben for some reason. Hopefully, once you have all the information from season five, that will not be as much of an unanswered question, and you’ll have a little information as to why those people.
Time travel plays a big part in this season… This gets back to what I’m always asking you about: long-term planning. Obviously, some things get changed on the fly depending on what’s working and what isn’t, but did you know from the start how important time travel would be to the show, or is that something that evolved?
We were being asked, certainly as far back in season two, “Are you guys ever going to do time travel on the show?” And we responded, “Who says we haven’t already?” The time travel elements of the show have been built into the DNA of the show all along.
Obviously, the big question going into this year is this idea of, there’s only two fundamental approaches to time travel. There’s the “Back to the Future”/”Heroes” approach where you can go back and change things, that stepping on a butterfly, suddenly, there’s a different president, people have anetnna, George McFly’s a best-selling author. And the other way is, if you went back in time and tried to kill Hitler, you would fail, because Hitler wasn’t assassinated. What would happen if you were in the past and tried to change the present as you knew it, would you A)Fail, or B)Succeed, or C)Cause the thing you were trying to prevent. And that’s really interesting to us, because there’s no (do-over’s).
You’ve been covering the show since the very beginning. There’s been this very interesting thing for me, in terms of certain audience’s members to grasp the idea that they’re not watching a genre show. To them, I’m like, “What show were you watching? When the big column of smoke is in Eko’s face in season two and he stares it down and it retracts into the jungle, that’s not a genre show?” And they say, “No, it’s not.” And it makes you go, “Okay, this is how there can be both evolutionists and creationists.” You can take the same data and apply it to your own spectrum. You can go, “Oh, it’s not a genre show, because I don’t like genre shows, but I like ‘Lost.’ Therefore, ‘Lost’ is not a genre show.” That’s the logic they apply. Well, we’ve been writing a genre show from the word go. We’re sorry that it’s getting more genre.
The biggest audience that ever watched the show was the premiere of season two, where we revealed that Desmond was down in the hatch pushing the button every 108 minutes because he’s told the world will end. The show had a critical mass at that point, we’d just won the Emmy, people were talking about it, and they tuned in to see, ‘What is this thing?” And they saw that, and went, “Alright, it is exactly what I thought it was. No thank you. Not for me.”
But there’s been a steady attrition over the years, because the show demands that you watch every episode. And Lord knows, I wish there was a way we could do the show where the casual viewer could come along, but once you start writing for those people, the long-term fans will (bleeping) kill you, as well they should. We always thought it would be a cult show, and that’s the show we’ve been writing. But the fundamental strength of the characters — and our ability to say, “Nobody’s perfect, we’ve made mistakes, we’ll continue to make them” — as long as everyone’s acting in a way that makes sense, even when the story doesn’t entirely make sense, you can understand why they’re behaving the way they are. If you introduce a time travel element on the show, maybe one character will say, “I don’t want to be on the time travel show. I don’t like time travel.” That might make it more palatable to those viewers who don’t like it, either.
And the other thing is, nothing on “Lost” lasts forever. These are books in a series of six books. If season five gets a bit too far out there in terms of its genre for you, it’s just 17 hours in the grand mosaic of the show. Our hope is that, I feel like the greatest achievement that the show could have in terms of its legacy value, is that, 10 years from now, there’ll be an active debate about what were the best and worst seasons of the show, and two people will be able to say to each other, “My favorite season was this season,” and the other would say, “That’s my least favorite season! It was terrible!” And they’d still be fans of the show as a whole.
Let me put it to you this way, then: Up until the time you cut the deal to end the show (after season six), you and Carlton had to write not knowing when you could move certain stories forward. If you’d somehow known going in that it would be six years and out, what things would you have done differently in those first three years?
It’s a question that’s impossible to answer, because that wasn’t the condition of it. I think there probably would have been less internal pressure to introduce new characters into the show, but at the same time, new characters make it fresh. What would the show be without Ben and Juliet as series regulars? I think many shows that are on the air for a long time require a certain degree of cast turnover. We were certainly going to be killing people off and you then need to bring new people in.
But I think there would have been a lot more confidence in the storytelling, particularly in season’s two and three. There’s a stutter-step feel to season two and the first part of season three where you’d take two steps forward and one step back and one step forward. Even though the storytelling was emotionally-based, we’d realize that we didn’t need to do 25 episodes in a year, we only needed to do 17. For us, the big win wasn’t just setting an end date; it was also that the remaining seasons would have a reduced episodic order, so you could never get to a point where you’re like, “Wow, we really want to activate the endgame of the season, but we’re seven episodes away from that, so we need to just do a rollicking boar-hunting episode.”
That being said, some of my favorite episodes of the show are ones like Hurley in the van. Which doesn’t advance the plot in any way at all, except that they find Ben’s dad, that’s cool, but did you really need any of it?
No, but it’s a really good episode.
A good episode of “Lost” is not necessarily one that gives you major plot revelations. It’s one that works emotionally and kind of justifies its own existence. And there’s some episodes that never needed to have existed.
I think that’s what would have been different. If we’d known we could be six and out, we wouldn’t have done 25-pisode seasons, the narrative would have been a lot tighter, but I wonder if those episodes like finding the Dharma bus would have existed. So I don’t know that I would go back and change it.
Not only was it a good episode, but it sets up that wonderful moment in “Through the Looking Glass” where Hurley saves the day with the magic bus.
That’s right. That was all (Edward) Kitsis and (Adam) Horowitz (who wrote “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead”), that pitch. They were saying, “Well, Hurley finds this bus and then uses it to save them in the finale.”
What’s interesting is, it’s almost a time travel conundrum, which is, if I could go back in time and be more convincing about saying, ‘I will write this pilot, but we need to be six years and out,’ and therefore those episodes don’t get written, would I do it? The answer is no. The journey is the journey. But more importantly, if “Stranger in a Strange Land” — which, universally, is (considered) the worst episode we ever produced — had not been produced, we would not have been able to convince the network that, “This is the future of the show: how Jack got his tattoos. Everything we’ve been saying for two years about what’s to come, is now all here on the screen. You argued that an hour of Matthew Fox in emotionally-based conflicts, it doesn’t matter what the flashback story is, it’ll be fine. But now that we’re doing his ninth flashback story, you just don’t care.”
We can’t go back and apologize for the creative mistakes that we made, because we had to make them. If that episode hadn’t been made, we weren’t able to get a notes call that said, “We don’t like this episode,” and where we could then say, “We don’t like it, either, but it’s the best we can do if we’re not moving the story forward. And we’re now at a point, guys, where we can’t move the story forward.” And they asked, “Well, what would you do if we allowed you an end date?” And we said, “Give us an end date, and we’ll tell you what we’ll do.” And the conversations then reached a new pitch.
Everything has to happen the way it happened.
You brought up the introduction of Ben before, and people who are agnostic to atheistic about the idea of a master plan will say, “Well, geez, they hired (Michael) Emerson to be a day player for an episode or two, and now he’s the fulcrum of the show.” Could you clarify?
We have plans, but the big plans have trap doors. Basically, the plan on the table was Rousseau captures the leader of The Others, but doesn’t know who he is. She turns him over to Sayid, Sayid tortures him, he claims he’s a balloonist, it’s a case of mistaken identity, and it becomes a David E. Kelley story of “Will Sayid believe him or will he not?” It’ll be a three-episode arc, at the end they’ll realize he was lying all along and he’ll escape. That was the plan all along. The trap door of the plan is that, once it’s revealed that he’s an Other, he’ll admit to it and talk about the leader of The Others being a great man, in the third person. So if the actor is awesome, he’s referring to himself. But if the actor is not awesome, he’ll just be a lieutenant. He’ll go running off, or get killed, and we’ll meet the actual leader of The Others in the finale of this season when Jack and Kate and Sawyer and Hurley are double-crossed by Michael. We already had the spinal surgery story in our back pocket, and that’s where the story was going. Emerson basically, not quite guaranteed, that the story ballooned from a three-episode arc to a six-episode arc that tied into Michael’s return and the killing of Ana-Lucia.
At the beginning of the year, we have all these ideas, but we’re writing a script every eight days. I love that people think we’re smart enough — I understand why there are atheists and agnostics out there, because they believe in a subjective reality of it. They believe that JK Rowling outlined all seven Harry Potter books because she had unlimited time, nobody to answer to and an unlimited budget. She could make her characters do whatever she wants. WE can’t make our characters do whatever we want; our characters are played by actors. if we were just writing a novel, “Lost” would be uncompromised in its vision, and probably a lot worse than it’s been for being realized by a cast and crew of 500 who helped realize it in their own separate ways. The idea that Michael Emerson, the way he played Ben, is more Napoleonic — when you had thought of the leader of The Others, you thought of a big scary dude, and the fact that it’s him is fascinating. Which was our thinking when we cast him. We cast the leader of The Others, but we didn’t commit to it until Michael said, “You guys got any milk?”
Okay, lightning round. The story keeps moving forward, and therefore there are certain things you might never get back to. You don’t have to tell me what the answer is to any of these mysteries, just whether they’ll come up again
The four-toed foot?
You will see it again.
Why Libby was in the hospital with Hurley?
Hopefully, but contingent on factors beyond our control.
What happened between Alex and Rousseau during the brief period between their reunion and their deaths? Or was that another casualty of the episodes you lost to the strike?
Will we ever find out why Dharma (or someone else) is still making supply drops to the island?
I sure hope so.
Will the superpowers (or lack thereof) of Others like Ethan (superstrong and/or healing factor?) and Richard (immortal?) ever be clarified or explained?
Ethan works out a lot. And everyone heals fast on the island. Hasn’t Sawyer been shot like, fourteen times by now?
That last question really got me thinking. I remember watching the first season, and seeing Ethan whoop Jack all around the jungle. At the time, we’re all left wondering “Who are these crazy superhumans on this island?” I always wonder if that was supposed to be the plan with The Others. Were they supposed to be super strong people? As time went on, and more was revealed, it seemed like Ethan may have been a one of a kind case. Since then, we’ve seen The Others throw down a few times, and all of these times they’ve managed to display some pretty sweet fighting skills, but nothing like what Ethan threw at Jack the first time. He was so threatning and menacing. He was so powerful. He was just…different. But it seems that he just goes to the gym a lot…