|All Who Wander Are Not Lost
Showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof lead a new generation of writers into terra incognita TV.
1. A confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.
3. Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance.
Sometimes, you've got to let go and have faith. Because right now, I'm lost. Literally. I mean, what do those Others want with Jack, Kate, and Sawyer? What are they even doing on this island in the first place? What am I supposed to think? And who the hell are those chess-playing dudes in that observation station keeping tabs on? Something for that Penny Widmore chick? I mean, seriously.
Don't even get me started on that polar bear or the monster that appears to simply be a plume of black smoke.
Trying to wrap one's head around the series Lost in order to write about it with some insight is intimidating. More than just a TV show at this point, it might be the biggest phenomenon to hit network television since Laura Palmer washed ashore in a plastic sheet in the early '90s. The dense, complex, and wryly metaphysical series dares do something few shows on network television attempt in this age of micromanagement and test surveys: Its writers trust the audience's intelligence and level of patience. In fact, Lost might occasionally overestimate the audience. Thankfully, there are fan sites, blogs, and weekly columns devoted to analyzing and dissecting this intricate puzzle box of storytelling brilliance.
Leading a staff of eight writers are a pair of smart, crafty storytellers who share showrunning duties: Carlton Cuse (Nash Bridges, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.) and Damon Lindelof (Crossing Jordan, Nash Bridges). The pair collaborate, writing as a team, and are Emmy-nominated for co-writing last season's episode “The 23rd Psalm.” Along with their staff, both excel at introducing archetypal characters and then pulling the rug out to reveal how textured and layered these castaways are, by flashing back to their lives before the crash. Sure, Lost is a roller-coaster ride, replete with spectacular action sequences, exciting chases, and close calls (not to mention murder, torture, incest, intrigue, sex, love, madness, deception, drug use, and sailboats, all on display in the show's first two seasons)-but it's also got a heart and a brain and plenty of faith.
That's the here and now. Like our Oceanic Air Flight 815 survivors on the screen, Cuse and Lindelof have personal backstories that intertwine, leaving each cast away on that mysterious beach with the rest of the survivors. It all started over margaritas in Studio City...
Crash and Learn
“So, this thing just happened with J.J. Abrams and they're giving us a shitload of money to write this crazy pilot about a plane crash on an island,” Lindelof remembers telling Cuse in 2004, “and we're going to write it, but they're never going to do it.”
This was during one night in a long-running series of meals at their favorite Mexican restaurant, gossip sessions shared by peers and close friends. They'd been getting together for years. Their relationship began when Cuse read a spec script by an unknown while showrunning his '90s cop series Nash Bridges.
So let's go back: “I was talking to Damon's agent,” Cuse recalls, still amused by the memory of their first encounter. “The agent was saying they have this young writer they were just starting to represent: 'We're very excited about him.' I said, 'Does he have any original material?' and they were, like, 'Let us get back to you.'” Days passed and the agency contacted Cuse again: “Well, we've got a one-act play we can send over.” Cuse immediately responded to Ollie Klublershturf vs. the Nazis: “The pages were funny and well-written, and I was extremely impressed. And then Damon came in and was equally impressive in person, and we just hit it off.” The back story? “Little did I know that Damon wrote this original material for the purpose of the meeting.”
Return to 2004 where Lindelof, after a successful run on NBC's Crossing Jordan, had struck a deal at ABC alongside J.J. Abrams and Jeffrey Lieber to write a pilot about the survivors of a plane crash, marooned on a desert island. The perfect story for Lindelof to share over margaritas.
“We were just sort of exchanging war stories about how potentially ridiculous it was,” Lindelof remembers. “But I could instantly see that Carlton was activated at least on what the idea was.”
Defying Lindelof's expectations, Lost was picked up by ABC. He was suddenly the showrunner-his baptism in such a position. From the get-go, Lindelof sought the advice and guidance of the more experienced showrunner. Lindelof recalls “having a lot of difficulty figuring out how to manage the show, and I would call Carlton and basically pick his brain about what to do. And one of those conversations ended up in complete anxiety on my part and expressing the desire to quit and run for the hills.”
Cuse sympathized and said at the time: “[Being a showrunner] is not just about coming up with the episodes each week…it's also about managing a company that has 225 people-it's a giant enterprise. It's a little bit like being an air traffic controller. The episodes are like the planes that you're trying to guide into a safe landing, but at the same time you're trying to manage the seven other planes that have their own flight patterns.”
No wonder Lindelof was about to run from the show. But ABC proposed a solution: pair him with a veteran who also happened to be among Damon's best friends. Still, “it never even occurred to me that Carlton would want to come over.”
And Cuse did hesitate. “I had no desire to go work on someone else's television show,” he says, looking back. But he was intrigued by the “sprawling, complex, and ambiguous storytelling,” elements that made it “incredibly compelling.” Cuse had just entered into a deal with Sony Television but managed to extricate himself and join Lindelof as co-showrunner on Lost.
Becoming a team did not quell their skepticism. Cuse remembers “the general consensus-this was going to be a meteor entering the atmosphere. It was going to burn bright and then vanish.” And so he and Lindelof felt “liberated to make a show that appealed to us.”
But their collective experience on procedurals had always focused on contained episodes and storylines. Such wisdom had to be jettisoned in exchange for a somewhat radical rethinking of how to tell this story on primetime television.
“It was very challenging at first because there was no defined force of antagonism, which is where stories start in drama television,” Cuse explains, reflecting on the genesis of the Lost story and its inherent mythology. “And every week we were searching for, Well, what's the force of antagonism? And sometimes that can be a natural phenomenon, like a landslide or a rainstorm. Other times it's a character conflict between members of the survivors. And at times it's them versus other people on the island. But the search for the force of antagonism has always been at the core of how we construct our episodes.”
Lindelof quips, “I have a lot of fun absorbing the unique challenges of Lost, but at the same time find myself longing for a nice, simple cop story.”
Two highly rated seasons and numerous accolades later, there's an answer to co-creator/executive producer Lindelof's early question, “Is anyone going to want our crazy island show?” Conventions, a series of novels, message boards, websites, blogs-the Internet is abuzz with the musings of Lost fans, raving about the show, griping about all the unanswered questions and postulating their own theories about what's happening on that island. Lindelof himself must respond to at least “eight interrogations” in the “Quarantine & Analysis” section of each issue of Lost: The Official Magazine.
Fan expectations even played a role in the scheduling and storytelling of the coming season. So rabid is the fans' desire for new episodes and continuation of the plot that a unique strategy was devised to sate the clamor and limit their disappointment. The show returns in October and will air for six uninterrupted weeks, with one complete story arc, before taking a brief hiatus and returning in January for another uninterrupted run through the end of the season.
“I think the new paradigm in television viewing, where people have access to shows when they want to watch them-the whole idea of the traditional mix of originals and repeats was just-” Cuse thoughtfully pauses, then: “Suddenly something that used to be accepted by television audiences is no longer accepted. In a heavily serialized show like ours, that was a source of enormous frustration. We had a lot of conversations and discussions with the network to arrive at this new scheduling model for season three.”
“And no reruns,” Lindelof adds. “That literally takes money out of our pockets and our staff's pockets as writers. But I think everybody agreed that it's what's best for the show by far, that actually airing reruns of Lost is like saying, 'Just read chapter four of a book.' And it's out of context.”
“This is truly the most complex and difficult show that is produced on television anywhere in the world,” Cuse believes. “We [now] have almost 500 people working on this show, between Los Angeles and Hawaii [where Lost is shot]. It's just an enormous creative and logistical challenge. So we value our collaboration in terms of working out the creative details together, but also the fact that there are two of us to divide and manage all the myriad tasks involved in being a showrunner.”
Much like the Flight 815 survivors, working in shifts to make sure the button gets pushed every 108 minutes, Cuse and Lindelof guide a true collective. “We break the stories in great detail in the writers' room, and basically we put the stories up beat for beat,” says Cuse.
Lindelof adds, “As far as script assignments go, it's sort of helter skelter. We have certain writers who have characters they favor, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll write scripts that are those character's flashbacks. Take [staffers] Adam [Horowitz] and Eddie [Kitsis]-they write Charlie well, or Hurley well. So if there's a Charlie or a Hurley scene in someone else's script, they will just kick it to Adam and Eddie. A fair amount of collaboration and group writing happens, especially as we get deeper into the season. But it's more a byproduct of what the writing rotation is. Carlton and I try to get in there every fourth or fifth script, and then the other writers rotate in and out and we like to have our writers write in teams. It speeds up the process.”
“I feel we have our own version of the New York Yankees of writing staffs,” boasts Cuse. “We have tremendous talent. We picked up four awesome writers off of Alias when it went down. Liz Sarnoff came out of the David Milch camp and is a wonderful and experienced writer. Eddie and Adam not only work well with Hurley and Charlie but also bring enormous talent as character writers to the show. Across the board everyone brings enormous passion to the room. One of the greatest virtues of this staff is the ability to work collectively. All the writers pitch in on every story and script. And they are fun. Fun helps when you are breaking stories on a show that is almost defined by its intensity.”
The show is challenging to its faithful viewers, but also offers challenges inherent in the conception. “Any given week, who knows what's going to happen?” Lindelof explains. “There is no franchise to Lost in that they don't work in a hospital, there's no phone ringing with the latest legal case to be dealing with. And that is both incredibly liberating as a storyteller, but also alternately terrifying, because the castaways on the show are going to have to generate their own stories.”
The writers' solution? Going deep. Exploring the lives (external and internal) of their characters, before and during their time on the island. “We try to keep the emphasis on the character side of the storytelling,” Cuse elaborates. “All the questions that we get asked about the show tend to be on the mythological axis. That's the frosting on the cake, and it creates a lot of intrigue. But if we were just focused on the mythology, we would have a small, genre cult audience of 5 million or 6 million viewers. The reason we have 16 million to 18 million viewers is because the emphasis for us is always on character, and what is the character drama in any given episode.”
In this way, they manage to create their own original franchise, according to Lindelof. “We've learned that the complexity became the franchise of Lost, gave it its water-cooler quality.” Lindelof believes they had to make that choice: “If you didn't do that, the show would just be about hunting boar or trying to make fire every week.”
Cuse and Lindelof might be the guides leading this staff, but there is an invaluable member of the team who even they defer to: script coordinator Gregg Nations.
Photo: Tom Keller
In the writers room.
Cuse is the first to defer: “Gregg as script coordinator is the true keeper of the facts of Lost. He has every single detail in these very complicated documents. These have become sort of our bible and reference point. We can go back and make sure that we're not putting things in that don't follow the continuity of all that has come before it.”
Lindelof humbly points out that Nations just recently “busted us” on a line in the script claiming Jack went to Stanford medical school. Nations had to point out that Columbia was Jack's alma mater. “Okay, good to know,” Lindelof says. “Occasionally, we slip.”
Wait, wait, wait. So a show's complexity is its selling point to the audience? Hard to believe, but clearly it's a fact of Lost. And Cuse is happy with this outcome. “It's been incredibly satisfying to see that the audience embraced Lost despite its complexity and the fact that we, at times, attempt to deal with issues like faith versus empiricism, with metaphysics. Those kinds of things are embedded in the show and it's still popular.”
As Cuse and Lindelof continue to show faith in their audience, they have been shown similar confidence by their studio (Touchstone) and network (ABC), whom Cuse respects for being “immensely supportive.” The network clearly knows what's working for them and why it's working-the execs trust the writers to continue delivering the goods.
This was demonstrated at the outset of season two when Cuse and Lindelof had a crucial meeting with the network. “The place where the rubber met the road was at the beginning of last season,” Cuse says. “Damon and I went in to first pitch Mark Pedowitz [Touchstone Television president] and then subsequently Steve McPherson [ABC president] on the idea that what would be revealed in the hatch was a man and he was down there pushing a button on a computer every 108 minutes. And if he didn't push that button, the man believed the world as we know it would end. They heard us and said, 'Cool. That's compelling.'”
Lindelof, laughing at the recollection, adds, “They were like, 'All right!' They actually embraced it.”
Under the Hatch
With such island mythology, and the show's rich character development, Lost often seems tailor-made for the current television-viewing climate, where numerous viewers have TiVo and the eventual DVD releases of the show allow for repeat viewings. In the case of a show like Lost, additional viewings truly reward the astute, focused viewer wanting to unwrap the many layers of exposition, allusion, and character dimension. Cuse and Lindelof are keenly aware of who is watching their show and how they are watching. And although they do their very best to satisfy each and every one of the show's fans, there is a fine line between detail-oriented and complete navel-gazing, a line they tread carefully upon.
“We're writing the show for the masses who watch once on a Wednesday night with commercials, because the reality is the TiVo and downloading audiences are a small percentage of the overall audience,” Lindelof explains. “We like to give them what we call 'Easter eggs' for looking at the show so carefully. But at the same time, once you find yourself writing for the cool Easter egg, you run the risk of getting too complex or thinking that the overall audience cares about the Dharma Initative.”
However, Cuse believes this approach allowed them to produce a show that stands out. “What we've been able to do, which I think is different than most network shows, is leave certain things ambiguous and open to interpretation. And that allows people to get on the boards and theorize about what's meant by a given story or scene, or move in the show's direction. It allows people to feel participatory about the process.”
Permitting this level of access to their work is clearly a priority and the pair embrace new platforms of storytelling. As a result, Lost has become a true multimedia, fan-friendly enterprise. “We're interested in expanding the technological boundaries of what traditionally was a television experience,” Cuse readily admits. “Whether it's on the Internet or on your cell phone, that's something we're just curious about as storytellers. And so we're experimenting along with everybody else to see what storytelling is going to be like in these new formats.”
Earlier this year, they participated in a groundbreaking deal with the WGA to get mobisodes-episodes written directly for cell phones that will later be available online-covered by the Guild.
This expansion beyond the weekly televised dose of the show has led to new material appearing on the Internet and elsewhere, generated by the show's creators, blurring the line between fiction and reality. When it's suggested that the Hanso Foundation is a make-believe entity created for the show, both immediately jump all over the insinuation. Cuse insists that “Hanso Foundation is real. We just expropriated it like Opus Dei was expropriated by Dan Brown.” Modest research online tends to back up their suggestion: Hanso actually has a detailed corporate website. Other Lost story elements-like Oceanic Airlines, the Dharma Initiative, the Widmore Group-also have sites. This points to either complete lunacy or a consuming passion for storytelling.
Not to mention those convincing (though fake) commercials for the Foundation, which air beside more familiar ads during commercial breaks. Lindelof says they are keenly aware of the audience's demands in this realm. “We're trying to come up with innovative ways to make people not zip through the commercials. We're trying to break the fourth wall in some ways too and make Lost more than a show-an experience in many ways. That sort of thinking is in response to our fans who want to continue to interact with the show even when the show isn't on. We feel it's our duty as writers to continue to give them stuff like that.”
The mythology of Lost has most definitely seeped off the page and screen and into the real world. During this year's Comic-Con, a woman stood in the audience to disrupt their panel, protesting the representation of the Hanso Foundation on the show, and was escorted from the room by security. Seriously.
The Black Box Flight Recorder
“You have to play it [Lost] for quite some time before you get the answer to our mysteries,” explains Lindelof. “And some mysteries come simpler than others. It requires a very tangled web of storytelling in order to keep the audience engaged and not frustrated.”
Although Cuse also enjoys keeping the audience in the dark, he knows they will only follow him so far. “We are like a pendulum swinging back and forth between those poles of trying to make the show simpler and more character-oriented and then on the other hand trying to answer questions and delve into the mythology, and not frustrate people by having to wait too long to get answers to their burning questions.”
Cuse and Lindelof cannot imagine working on this show without each other. “The show has naturally evolved to be a combination of both of our visions of the world and those visions are very much in alignment,” says Cuse. “We have a shared aesthetic about what Lost should be. It's rare that another writer will pitch a story idea, or even a scene or a beat, that we disagree about it. At some fundamental level, we have the same DNA programming about Lost.”
Ultimately, they want us to know that their vision of the show might not be ours, that the fans aren't on the island-but still, it remains open to interpretation. Yet, as Lindelof says, “It's like reading a book in high school: 'Oh, this is a story about a group of people who move from the dust bowl in Oklahoma and trek west'-suddenly you realize, well, it's about that but it could also be about a hundred other things. It's all subjective.”
Their legion of loyal fans would probably agree. Each has a theory, their own subjective take on the show and its mythology. In the end, though, they've just got to have faith that Cuse and Lindelof will not steer them wrong.
They haven't so far.
(But seriously, what is the deal with that polar bear?)