Lost's Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse
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Neither Damon Lindelof nor Carlton Cuse came up with the idea for ABC's cult favorite Lost, but while any number of people have had a hand in shaping the show—from producer J.J. Abrams to ABC to the show's signature director, Jack Bender—when fans want to complain about a dangling plotline or an implausible scientific explanation for what's going on with that crazy island, they hold head writer Lindelof and show-runner Cuse responsible. The duo have embraced that role, by hosting podcasts, appearing together at Comic-Con, and doing whatever they can to answer curious viewers' questions, without revealing too much. On the heels of a strong end to season three of Lost and an even stronger start to season four (give or take a couple of episodes), Lindelof and Cuse spoke with The A.V. Club about plotting the final third of this season (which begins airing Thursday, April 24), writing a geek-friendly series in the Blog Age, and whether fans misunderstand what kind of show Lost is.
(Two notes. When this interview was conducted, Lindelof and Cuse were in the middle of writing a two-part, two-hour finale. Since then, it's been expanded to a two-part, three-hour finale. Also, this interview contains numerous spoilers, though only for episodes of the show that have already aired.)
The A.V. Club: Are you done writing the finale yet?
Carlton Cuse: We were literally just talking about our weekend logistics, because we have been holed up in our office here, working very late every night. It's like writing an equivalent to a feature film in two weeks.
AVC: It'll be two hours long?
Damon Lindelof: It's going to air in two separate hours this year, because Grey's Anatomy has a two-hour finale that airs on May 22. They run from 8-10 p.m., and then the second hour of our finale will run from 10-11 p.m. So Hour One will air the week before. They're going to air it like they aired the original pilot, which was shot as a two-hour, then split up into two parts.
AVC: Which means you also have to think about how to end the first hour too, right? So it's on a cliffhanger?
DL: We do that with our two-hour finales anyway. We hope that hour one ends with some degree of momentum going out, because, believe it or not, ratings-wise, our two-hour finales always pick up viewers every half hour. We have to design hour two like you're just coming into the show anyway.
CC: To as much a degree as anyone can ever just drop into Lost.
AVC: Before you even started writing the finale, did you already know what was going to happen? Would you have known, say, three years ago?
CC: We don't have a detailed map, but we knew, for instance, that this year we'd be going from Denver to Kansas City.
DL: But our car broke down for a hundred days, and then we had to get there twice as fast. [Laughs.]
CC: [Laughs.] Yeah, we'd planned a lot more driving on the rural byways, then we ended up having to get on the interstate. The episodes after the writers' strike have been a real push, because we were going to do eight hours, and now we're doing five.
DL: Basically, the entire writing team sat in a room between Valentine's Day and the middle of March, and over a five-week period, we broke down all five hours of the show that we're going to produce. Then one entity would peel off and start writing as the rest of the room pressed forward. So we finished breaking down both hours of the finale just about a week ago, and everybody is taking a scene here and a scene there. Carlton and I have spent, as he said, 'til 1 or 2 in the morning every night this week whipping hour one into shape, and now we're proceeding with hour two.
AVC: Do you write in L.A.?
DL: Yes, we do.
CC: We're on the Disney lot, where we do all the stories, script work, casting, and post-production for the show. The filming itself is done on the island of O'ahu, but everything else is done here in Burbank.
AVC: So right now, they're filming in Hawaii without you?
CC: Oh, yeah. Several crews simultaneously, in fact.
DL: They'll be shooting through the first week of May.
AVC: You mentioned having to change the road map. In a recent interview, you both said you felt like the strike-enforced break was good in some ways, because it gave you a chance to reflect on what you'd already completed, and think about what you needed to do. What do you think has really worked well in the season so far, and what maybe not so well?
CC: Well, I think the thing that Damon and I were most concerned about was whether the flash-forwards would play. Had there not been a strike, by the time the show started airing, we would've been writing the finale, so we would've already been positively committed to the idea of flash-forwards, without any viewer feedback. So I think the thing that was most gratifying for us was that the strike allowed us to see how some of these episodes were playing before we started writing the remaining five. That the flash-forwards did seem to engage the audience was something we were very pleased and relieved about.
DL: And we were nervous. We loved the ideas of the flash-forwards in terms of liberating the show from what it was, and pointing us in a new direction. But whereas the flashbacks before had been an emotional storytelling technique—like, "Here's how Sawyer became a con man, here's the time that Jack ratted out his father, here's when Kate held up a bank"—on a story level, they weren't that complicated. They were sort of the one thing the audience could grasp onto, no matter what sort of wackiness was happening on the island. The flash-forwards are the exact opposite of that. When you see Sayid in the future killing people for Ben, that's all story. Or when you see Hurley being approached by Matthew Abaddon, that's all story. So the show actually becomes vastly more complicated. And also in terms of the time frame of the show The audience had to figure out that they saw a flash-forward at the end of season three, when Jack was bearded and popping pills and yelling at Kate that they have to go back. But the Jack that you see at the beginning of season four hasn't come to that point yet. The narrative wheel of these things is tricky, and we were sitting in the editing room going, like, "Oh, shit! We made a terrible mistake here."
AVC: Do you pay a significant amount of attention to fan response and critical response? Does it affect how you proceed?
CC: Well, you know, we do, but in sort of a filtered manner. We don't really get on the boards and read all those comments. It just feels like people who are writing on the boards tend to be more focused on the mythology, and for us, we're making a character show. The thing that we spend the most time on are the character dynamics of a given episode, and what we're learning about these people. The mythology is sort of the frosting on the cake. But that's what everybody talks about, and what we're asked most about.
DL: And we find that the boards can be really toxic. Nobody goes on the boards to say: "Wow! That was awesome!" Traditionally, they go on the boards to nitpick and say, "Oh, I don't understand how Michael could have gotten off the island, gotten back to New York, parked Walt, then got indoctrinated by Friendly all in a month." Well, I don't understand how [on 24] there was a coup in the Oval Office, Jack's daughter got abducted, and there was a nuclear attack in Van Nuys, and it's not even lunchtime yet. But it's television. The reality of it is, if you go on the boards and people are saying, "I saw that coming," or "This is lame," or "I can't believe they're doing this again " Having been one of those people myself, I know better, and try to avoid it. [Laughs.]
But there is a groundswell of what we hear about the show. When we were in season three after the break last year, it was a much different vibe than it is right now, in terms of how the audience responded to those episodes. If people are loving the show, Carlton and I will be walking around on the Disney lot, and some guy will literally pull over in his little fire-marshal truck and go, "I'm loving the show this year! What's the monster?" That won't happen if people aren't digging the show. So we do get a sense of what the fans are thinking and feeling. And what the critics are saying, because it's in the paper. The day after a really good episode airs, we'll get a lot of e-mails from people we know. After the "The Constant" aired, I don't think Carlton and I had ever gotten more e-mails. You just get a sense of, "Wow, that episode really landed with the fans."
AVC: Can the intense interest of the fan community interfere with how the show is enjoyed? For example, between the set reports and the message-board conversations, the fans had pretty much predicted that Harold Perrineau's character, Michael, was going to be Ben's "man on the boat," and when that turned out to be the case, a lot of them were disappointed that there wasn't some crazy twist.
DL: Well, we would argue that we brought back Harold in front of 4,000 of our most intense fans at the San Diego Comic-Con, and basically said, "He's coming back to the show." So the fan community had a huge hint. And then they saw his name in the opening credits, in the episode where Ben says, "I have a man on the boat." We're not complaining that people saw it coming. We wanted you to know that it was coming! So why are you bitching about the fact that it wasn't as surprising as you thought it would be? The fans would like us to pull the wool over their eyes every time, and I would basically say, "What would've happened if we hadn't brought Harold out at Comic-Con?" What would've happened is that people would've seen him in Hawaii, people would've found out that he closed a deal to come back to the show, and then we would've had no control over how they found out. And there'd be the same result.
CC: I also think that it's rewarding for the audience to not always be frustrated and behind. We have certain mysteries on the show that we hope the audience figures out on their own, and can have the satisfaction of saying "Aha! I knew that! I knew that the guy on the boat was going to be Michael!" But there are other times when we have real surprises, like Michael shooting Libby and Ana-Lucia, where we go to great pains to make sure that nobody sees it coming, so you're genuinely surprised. We intentionally mix up the degree of difficulty in solving the puzzle.
AVC: You mentioned the road map you generally have for each season. How detailed is the map for the rest of the series?
CC: The most liberating and significant event that's happened for us was getting an end date for the show, negotiated with the studio and the network. Before that, Damon and I didn't know if the mythology we'd created was supposed to sustain us over two seasons or six seasons, so it was very hard for us to do any sort of planning. But once we agreed upon a number of episodes before we were going to end the show, then we were able to start a situation where we could sketch out the rest. Once we finish writing the finale, we'll have a mini-camp on season five. We have a mini-camp every year, but because we're getting close enough to the end, the mini-camp on season five will also involve a lot of discussion about what's going to go on in season six.
AVC: Do you both already know what's going to go on?
DL: Do we know the absolute end of the show? Yeah. We've had that in mind for quite some time. But can we hand you a script for the last episode of the show right now? No, because there are market fluctuations that we are unaware of at this point. Certain characters that you want to write more for sort of wear out their welcome sooner rather than later. New characters are introduced, and pop in unexpected ways. The essential nature of that last episode is more specifically about what the last three or four scenes are, and us working toward those has always remained pretty constant.
AVC: At some point, is Lost going to have to shift from flashing forward and flashing back and having mysteries and character moments, and instead become a straightforward action-adventure, in order to get to that big finish?
CC: In terms of abandoning mysteries, no. Fundamentally, Lost is a mystery show, so I think that would be stripping the franchise of sort of its essential nature. In terms of how we'll tell the story, that's something very much in flux. This year, the degree of difficulty went up, as Damon was alluding to before. Before, we were putting the tiles of the mosaic in the present and in the past. Now, we're putting tiles in the present, the past, and the future. But what you consider the present, the past, and future is dependent on where your point of view is. The only rule that we have about that is that we're not bound to any rules. We will basically tell the remaining stories in the way we think is most compelling from a narrative perspective.
AVC: Is it right to think of Lost as one big narrative, like a novel, or should it be thought of as episodic?
DL: You know, both. Ultimately, the legacy value of the show will function more as a novel. On your bookshelf there will be a DVD set, or maybe on your hard drive, you'll be able to click on any episode you want to watch at any time. That's the way people read books. Fundamentally, you can digest what will be all 122 hours of the show over the course of a marathon viewing session in one week. Or, you can watch one every couple nights, or however you want. Ultimately, that's the way the show is going to live on. The way you're watching the show now is incredibly unique. You know there's going to be a season finale on May 22, and then you'll have to wait all the way until the end of January 2009 to see the next episode, whereas three or four years from now, people who are experiencing the show for the first time will basically only have to wait a day or an hour or a minute before they decide to slide in the next DVD. It's like Harry Potter. Now, all seven books exist, but when we were reading them, we waited up to two and a half years between books. We're writing the show to stay in the zeitgeist as it's airing. We have to write finales that are compelling enough to bring the audience back for the next season. But at the same time, the superstructure of "every season is a book" is the way we've always talked about it, and every episode is a chapter in that book. That feels like the most apt metaphor.
AVC: Going back to your comment about "market fluctuations" and how they affect character arcs, are Fisher Stevens and Zoe Bell going to be returning?
CC: You know, I think we'll duck that question.
AVC: How about this: Were the "tailies," particularly Eko, Libby, and Ana-Lucia, always going to be funeral-home fodder, or did you have other plans when you first introduced them?
DL: Our deal with Michele Rodriguez was always for a season-long arc. And then when we came to the moment when Michael was going to kill her, we also thought that if we killed Libby, it would be a one-two punch. Because Ana-Lucia is a character that a lot of the audience had mixed feelings about, but Libby is a character that nearly everybody loved. So to make Michael's act as heinous as possible, Libby ended up dead. Eko there were deal complications with the actor going into that season, and though we did have plans for that character that would have extended well beyond season three of the show, as a result of the practical considerations of producing a show, it just didn't pan out.
AVC: So with a show as well-planned as yours, what do you do in that case? Do you move pieces of Eko's story to somebody else, or do they die along with him?
CC: Television shows aren't made in a vacuum. They're made in the real world, and the real world is complicated by the fact that you are coordinating your creative plans with hundreds of other people. In the case of Adewale [Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the actor who played Mr. Eko], he wanted to go back to London. People go to Hawaii, and either they love it or they get island fever, and Adewale was sort of in the latter camp. He just wasn't happy being in Hawaii, so we had to accommodate that. We made adjustments. You can sort of dictate to a certain degree what you want the show to be, but you have to listen just as hard to what the show is telling you it wants to be. Certain actors we write for and they pop, like Michael Emerson, and we find ourselves doing a lot more with him than we originally planned. Other ones like Mr. Eko, we had bigger plans for, but, just on a practical level, they didn't mesh with that actor's desires.
DL: We've got time for one more question, by the way.
AVC: How about a two-parter? a) During your partnership, have you ever have any major disagreements about the direction you want to take the show in? And b) Are there any story decisions that you now regret?
CC: Do you want to take A or B?
DL: I feel like we've talked about B ad nauseum, so I'll take B. As obnoxious as this sounds, we really regret nothing. Though we acknowledge that we've made significant mistakes, the reality is that the intent behind all those mistakes was the right intent. You take something like Nikki and Paolo, or spending nine episodes with our characters trapped in cages—at the time we made those decisions, our heart was in the right place. For Nikki and Paolo, we kept hearing fans saying, "What's going on with the other 30 people on the island? Why don't they go on any adventures?" And we were like, "That's a good and legitimate gripe, and let's see if we can figure out a way to get some of those guys into the show." And fundamentally, it just didn't work, but we don't regret having made the decision, or else fans would still be griping about [the background players]. Plus, it was a question we had ourselves.
As for the people in the cages, it's been pointed out to us recently that when we were writing that arc, basically we were trying to negotiate for an ending to the show. We ourselves as storytellers felt like we were trapped in cages. And the story could not progress until it was progressing toward something. Which is why the second half of season three really felt like we were answering questions, moving forward, introducing Cooper, having Locke and Sawyer acknowledge their mutual connection to the guy, and so on. All of those things were about us being able to move forward, as opposed to finding new ways to stay in place. We don't regret having written that storyline, with everybody trapped in the cages. It was an issue of necessity. You have to make mistakes in order to get it right.
CC: You know, I think for us, we're always going to try to push the envelope with the show, and when you try to push the envelope and fly close to the sound barrier, that plane is going to shatter, and sometimes it's going to break apart. And sometimes it's going to blow on through, and it's going to be exciting when it goes supersonic. We're always going to keep trying that, and sometimes, we're going to miss. But I think if we didn't do that, then people would really get upset.
As for your first question, the kind of beautiful thing about the show is how well we do collaborate. We see eye to eye on virtually everything. Occasionally, when we do see differently, it really just comes down to who feels the most passionate. We've always agreed that if one or the other feels more passionately about something, then the other one will yield. But you would be surprised how infrequently that happens.
DL: And Carlton and I aren't writing this show in a vacuum. There are six or seven other incredibly talented individuals that we spend many, many hours with in a room. The fact is that nobody can get territorial about any one idea, because it fundamentally always becomes a hive mind, and the best idea always wins. Carlton has always said, and I think he's right, that we're just trying to write a show that is cool for us. And the reason that we all work so well together is, we all think the same things are cool. We've never gotten to a point where somebody pitches something, and they think it's really cool, and everybody else goes, "Oh, that's not cool." We all sort of get onboard and rally around it.