Damon Lindelof only wanted a gig writing for “Alias” when he agreed to meet with JJ Abrams about “Lost” — and the pair threw in lots of wild elements just because they never expected it to get on the air.
One of the main calling cards of the show — the flashbacks to characters’ lives before they crash landed on the island — was simply a way to cut away from the same old tropical locale. And the out-of-sync storytelling was inspired by Quentin Tarantino‘s “Pulp Fiction.”
If it seemed like the writers were making things up as they went along, by the way, they often were. And also? Lindelof tried to quit the show, again and again.
These were just a few of the admissions Lindelof shared about one of television’s most beloved shows Thursday on the seventh anniversary of its first airing on ABC. (You can find audio here.)
He spoke during a keynote at the New York Television Festival, a gathering where independent writers and producers try to meet with executives and find homes for their pilots.
Lindelof was an established TV writer himself, working on NBC’s “Crossing Jordan,” when he first met Abrams. He told interviewer Andrew Jenks, host of MTV’s “World of Jenks,” that he had been “stalking” an ABC executive friend for years to get a job on Abrams’ spy series “Alias.”
Eventually the executive, Heather Kadin, called him in January 2004 saying he could meet Abrams about a project.
“The bad news is,” he recalled her saying, “it’s this ridiculous show idea about a plane that crashes on an island and everyone here doesn’t think anything is ever gonna happen with it. But Lloyd Braun who was the president of ABC at the time, just thought he had lightning in a bottle: He wanted to do a drama version of ‘Survivor.'”
Braun had told Abrams he had a script for an island drama but wanted him to “work your magic on it,” Lindelof said. He said Abrams told Braun he was too busy, but would supervise another writer.
“So Heather told me, you meet with JJ, this pilot goes nowhere, but then you get a job on ‘Alias’!”
But the pilot went somewhere. Lindelof came in with plenty of ideas, including non-linear storytelling and flashbacks.
“The biggest issue with a desert island show was the audience is going to get very frustrated that the characters were not getting off the island,” he said. “My solution was, hey, let’s get off the island every week. And the way we’re going to do that is we’re going to do these flashbacks. We’ll do one character at a time and there’s gonna be like 70 characters on the show, so we’ll go really, really slow, and each one will basically say, here’s who they were before the crash and it’ll dramatize something that’s happening on the island and it will also make the show very character-centric.”
Abrams liked the idea, and also had another: “‘There should be a hatch on this island! They spend the entire season trying to get it open. And there should be these other people on the island,'” Lindelof recalled Abrams saying. “And I’m like, ”We can call them The Others.’ And he’s like, ‘They should hear this noise out there in the jungle.’ And I’m like, ‘What’s the noise?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t fucking know. They’re never gonna pick this thing up anyway.'”
Lindelof said the idea to tell the story out of chronological order came in part from “Pulp Fiction,” in which John Travolta‘s character is killed about halfway through — and viewers learn only at the end that he had failed to heed Samuel Jackson’s speech in the diner about the path of the righteous man.
“That sort of flipped the switch in me, and was something that I really wanted to do as a storyteller and ‘Lost’ was really the perfect opportunity to do it,” Lindelof said.
Abrams and Lindelof quickly wrote an outline, and within days, Braun picked up their pilot. (He was soon fired after greenlighting not only “Lost” but “Desperate Housewives,” and famously vindicated when both shows became huge hits. “Lost” ensured he would always be a part of the show by making his the voice that said, at the start of each episode, “Previously, on ‘Lost.'”)
Lindelof said he almost immediately felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities of running the show — and repeatedly decided or tried to quit. By its eleventh episode, he convinced Carlton Cuse, who had been his boss on CBS’s “Nash Bridges,” to come in and help him lead the show.
“I was living, breathing, sleeping the show, it was all I thought about, and I would wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, thinking about Jin,” he said.
He said he agreed with critics who said the show could never last more than a season.
“If we put it on the air and we’re like, there’s a polar bear in the jungle, somebody better know where the fuck that polar bear came from,” he said. “That pressure was enormously debilitating.”
Abrams, meanwhile, had “plausible deniability” because he had left the show in Lindelof’s hands to focus on movies, Lindelof said: “When the torch-wielding mob shows up at his house, and they’re like, ‘Where does the polar bear come from?’ he could say, I’m working on ‘Mission Impossible,’ go to Damon.”
He said he resolved to quit after 13 episodes, then after the first season. Eventually the show went six seasons with him and Cuse in charge.
Lindelof eventually recognized unintentional parallels between himself and Jack, the show’s lead character. He said it didn’t occur to him at first that both he and Jack, played by Matthew Fox, were reluctant leaders mourning the recent deaths of their fathers.
Eventually he was given his out from the show that was making him “miserable,” he said. In its third season, ABC agreed it would go six seasons in all.
A turning point came at the end of the third season, when he watched dailies of Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) dying. He cried over not only the character, but the impending end of “Lost.”
He also said the show might not have lasted more than three seasons without the Internet, because it allowed fans and the show’s creators to spur each other on. He noted that 23 million people tuned in for the first episode, and only 13 million for the finale — a sign that the show lost many people as it went on. But those that stayed with it did so in part because the Internet gave them somewhere to vent, he said.
“What got them through those periods of doubt and ‘Are you gonna break my heart?’ was their feeling that they were communicating with us,” he said.
But trying to please fans was a Catch-22.
“There were these two things happening on the show from the minute it began. The first thing was that the audience really wanted to feel like they had an impact on the show,” he said. “And the other thing was, you didn’t want us to be making it up as we went along. You wanted us to have a plan, you wanted us to have a big binder with the entire show and you didn’t want us to deviate from it. And the audience didn’t realize that there’s a huge contradiction between these two ideas. If you want to have a say, then there can’t be no binder. And if there is a binder, then we’re basically gonna be like, we don’t care what you guys have to say. We’re just turning to page 365 and we’re doing Lapidus.”
He added: “The show had to become sort of an exercise in, ‘Here’s what it’s gonna be, guys: We’re gonna come out and we’re gonna play our set, and once the set is over you guys can shout out what songs you wanna hear and we’ll do those for the encore.’ And that was the way that we modulated it, and maybe it worked and maybe it didn’t.
“But the interaction of the Internet and our genuine desire to hear what the fans were saying and make ourselves accessible to the fans was absolutely essential to the show’s success. I am absolutely convinced that we probably would not have made it to season three or season four at the most if the Internet didn’t exist.”
As for that job on “Alias”? It never panned out. The show wrapped after five seasons in 2006, four years before “Lost.”