'Prometheus' Writer Damon Lindelof on Why 'Vague' Is Good and the 'Sadistically Cool' Fallout From the 'Lost' Finale
The white-hot sci-fi screenwriter talks to THR about de-emphasizing the "Alien" in the "Alien" prequel and the thrill of "knowing that fights are happening out there about something that I've done."
Damon Lindelof is no stranger to controversy. Having written 115 episodes of Lost, including that ending, he’s courted about as many divisive opinions as a storyteller possibly can. And he’s set to provoke a whole new fan base with the release of Prometheus -- a sci-fi opus directed by Ridley Scott and set within the world of Alien -- which probably poses more questions about the origins of the franchise than it answers.
Lindelof spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his mission to take the Alien out of an Alien prequel, his favorite Prometheus character and the delicate art of knowing just how much to reveal.
The Hollywood Reporter: Since the inception of Prometheus, Ridley has said it “possesses the DNA of the Alien series.” What mythology did you inherit, and where did you have freedom to create your own?
Damon Lindelof: When I came in, there was a script that had been written by Jon Spaihts, who I share screenplay credit with, that I thought was quite good, but it was a dyed-in-the-wool Alien prequel. And I fundamentally felt like the best version of this movie would be to strip away its own inherent prequel-ness, which made it feel like you go into it knowing exactly how the movie is going to end. Connecting dots is not that rewarding of an experience. What’s rewarding is putting a puzzle together and popping that final piece in, and suddenly you understand -- this actually does connect to the world I know but in unexpected ways. So it was really about embracing something that felt a little bit more original and unexpected. Not to say that there would not be tips of the cap or strains of the familiar tropes of Alien, but they'd be more like afterthoughts as opposed to the bricks upon which the foundation was constructed.
THR: Today’s Hollywood seems to have the ethos of “why make one, when you can make three?” Prometheus sequels already have been discussed. Did that possibility give you more latitude to be a little more nuanced or vague?
Lindelof: Nobody went into this thinking, “We're gonna do a trilogy.” [But] you have to wrestle with those ideas, because although "vague" is probably not an adjective you and I would be like, “Oh my God -- I'm so excited to go see something that's vague,” I do think there's something exciting and challenging about a certain degree of ambiguity in filmmaking. And when you look at the other two science fiction movies that [Scott] made, the original Alien and Blade Runner, both of those movies are still being debated and speculated and theorized about all this time later. And [we looked at Prometheus as] an archeology dig where we're basically going to turn up some artifacts and we're going to put them on the table for everyone to look at. How these artifacts necessarily connect to each other and what the larger story behind them is going to be a matter of some discourse, and the characters in the movie will be having that discourse amongst themselves. But no one's going to basically come out of the skies and tell them whether or not they're right or wrong. That is very much in tune with the movie that Ridley wanted to make, which is, "This is what happens when mankind is silly enough to think they can go and ask God questions.” First off, God might not necessarily be interested in answering you, but even worse than that, you might just set him off just for the act of trying.
THR: What was the breakdown of the work between you and Jon Spaihts?
Lindelof: It's so hard for me to objectively answer that question because so much of Jon's work already existed. So my work was really a reaction to, and a building from, Jon's stuff. The job that he was given was writing a clear-cut Alien prequel, and by the time I came in, it felt like everybody involved wanted to make a shift away from making it so profoundly about that stuff – the chest-bursting, the eggs, the acid for blood. So the majority of the ideas that I brought were about trying to infuse the movie with the sense of, “It's a movie about creation.”
THR: Was there a part of the script that you’re particularly proud of?
Lindelof: I was really interested in and catalyzed by the robot, David [played by Michael Fassbender] -- I felt like he was going to become the central figure of the movie. Because in the genealogical chain of things, there are these beings that may or may mot have created us, then there's us, and then there's the being that we created in our own image. So we're on a mission to ask our creators why they made us, and he's there amongst his creators, and he's not impressed. Oddly enough, the one nonhuman human on this ship -- that's sort of a prison -- exists to question why it is we're doing this in the first place. And then Michael made me look like I really know what I'm doing, so I'm particularly proud of all the David stuff.
THR: You've always been involved in projects that demand so much secrecy. Does it get easier to know how much to reveal during the making of them?
Lindelof: That's such a good question -- and the answer is, I don't know. It feels like it's a constant exercise in reacting to the last time you did it: If you're not saying enough, people will get frustrated and feel like you're hiding something. Or the marketing department of the studio will say, “People need to know more about this thing in order to get them excited about it.” If you're not talking, it feels like you've got something to hide, and then suddenly you find yourself talking too much and people are saying, "I wish that I had known less when I went to go see this thing." And we all have had that feeling where we see a three-minute trailer and feel like, “I just saw that movie.” So you just modulate it as you go. And the code we try to live by is that if I were not involved in this movie as a fan, what would I want to know? And even if people are angry about me being too secretive, like in the case of the new Star Trek movie [where] everybody wants to know who Benedict Cumberbatch is playing, I'm just not commenting. Is he a good guy, or is he a bad guy? Is he from classic Trek or a new original character? I'm just not saying anything because I don't know what the upside is. And I sort of feel like hopefully with Star Trek 2, we've earned a little bit of goodwill so that we don't have to say as much -- because we certainly don't want to say too much.
THR: What do you learn from the experience of writing something like Cowboys & Aliens or the finale of Lost, where the reaction is so polarizing? Does it make you question the impulse to follow your creativity, or does it embolden you?
Lindelof: The answer depends on what day you ask me. I think that at the end of the day I'm drawn to a certain level of ambiguous storytelling that requires hard thought and work in the same way that the New York Times crossword puzzle does: Sometimes you just want to put it down or throw it out the window, but there's a real rewarding sense if you feel like you've cracked it. And the other kind of story that really sort of draws me to it is one that requires me to talk to other people about it once I've seen it -- creating water-cooler communities around these television shows or movies. It's super-exciting as the storyteller to see that people are doing that. But it's a road fraught with peril because you have to give answers to these things, and when they don't gel with that the audience was theorizing -- or they just don't like it, period -- you're going to be victim to their outrageous disappointment. But you can't really have one without the other. I would love a world where's there's the perfect landing I could stick that literally 100 percent of people who watch Lost would love the ending and there would be no dissenters, but it feels like I keep getting attracted to and generating content for stuff that is fairly divisive. And although it is genuinely painful and disheartening to hear people say that they hate it or that they wish that they'd never watched it in the first place, there's also something sort of sadistically cool about knowing that fights are happening out there about something that I've done.