Damon Lindelof on Struggling With Depression and Why Knowing J.J. Abrams is "A Bit of a Curse"
As part of THR's Hollywood Masters interview series, the executive producer of 'The Leftovers' explains how success triggered his depression and why he doesn't ask his friend J.J. Abrams anything about 'Star Wars.'
Weeks into working on his iconic ABC TV series Lost, Damon Lindelof says he fell into a serious depression, at the very time in his life when things were going the best.
It was, he says, a “profound disconnect from the universe, total sort of exhaustion — like a desire to not do anything, loss of appetite, fantasies about — never suicidal — but fantasies about getting in car accidents that would prevent me from having to go into the work that day, because at the time that the ratings came in, we were writing episode seven, and I was like, ‘They’re going to make me do this 15 more times? And now, everybody’s watching!’ ”
Lindelof notes he was unprepared for the sheer level of Lost’s success and the immensity of the challenge that lay ahead, especially when co-creator J.J. Abrams left the series early on to direct Mission: Impossible III.
“Suddenly [there was] this idea of feeling so exposed and a terror that the emperor had no clothes,” the writer-producer said on Nov. 4. “All these things actually began to manifest themselves over time, which is: What if I fail? I’m going to fail and everyone’s going to see me fail… And I was like, ‘I don’t deserve this, I’m not entitled to it, I haven’t earned it. What am I supposed to do with this?’ And the fact that everybody was telling me that it should be great made me feel like there was something wrong with me. I’ve never struggled with depression; I don’t think anyone who knew me prior to this would basically say like, ‘Oh yeah, Damon’s a sad guy. This has been something he’s struggled with all through adolescence.’ I am a happy guy. And so when this happened, it was so aberrant, and it was incredibly lonely, and things didn’t really shift until Carlton [Cuse] came along [as executive producer].”
Lindelof, now in his second season as executive producer of HBO’s The Leftovers, said, laughing, that he did not work on The Force Awakens, directed by his friend Abrams, because, “He didn’t ask… J.J. was asked and I think that he was inheriting something from George [Lucas] and [screenwriter] Michael Arndt, that they had been working on, and then J.J. teamed with [writer] Larry Kasdan in order to generate their story at a certain point, and Kathy [Kathleen] Kennedy, who’s one of the greatest producers in the history of our business. So there wasn’t a need, first of all; and secondly, I was deeply entrenched in the first seasons of The Leftovers and Tomorrowland, simultaneously, so even if he had asked — I tell myself that he didn’t because I was completely and totally tied up.”
Did Abrams talk to him about the franchise as it proceeded? “When he first came on and said there was going to be an episode seven, he did try to engage me in a conversation about: here’s what we’re thinking. And I said, ‘I don’t want to know anything. I want to experience this movie as a fan. It’s a bit of a curse knowing you. Even though you’re my friend and I love your stuff, everybody assumes that I know everything.’ So for the last two years, everybody I know has been like, ‘What do you know about Star Wars?’ And I’ve been able to say, ‘I don’t know anything, I’m going into it just as blind as you are.’ ”
Lindelof was taking part in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters, at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV. A full transcript follows.
GALLOWAY: You grew up 3,000 miles away from Hollywood, in New Jersey.
LINDELOF: I did.
GALLOWAY: No connections to the entertainment business.
GALLOWAY: But as a teenager you got your first job in entertainment. What was it, and how did it change you?
LINDELOF: My first job in entertainment was, I was an usher at the Route Four Cineplex Odeon Tenplex, which was a movie theater in Paramus, New Jersey. I was 14 years old, and they hired me, and I worked Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays. My mom would drop me off for my five-hour shift. And I got to be close to my favorite thing, which was movies. And what was really great about the tenplex was, there were ten movies playing at any one time, so I would rip tickets and show people to their seats, clean the theaters, et cetera. But I would get a 20-minute break per shift, and during my break I would go and sit in the back of the theater and watch 20 minutes of whatever movie was playing, whatever 20 minutes was on. So for those four years between the ages of 14 and 18, I saw probably 300 movies out of order. And any movie is interesting if you watch out of sequence, because if you come in in minute 40, and two people are screaming at each other, even if the movie sucks, you’re sort of like, why are they screaming at each other. And so I would schedule my break the next shift to basically see the first 20 minutes of the movie. But then there would be 20 minutes in-between those two things that I hadn’t seen, so I think that — you know, Malcolm Gladwell talks about this thing: the 10,000 hour rule — and that’s kind of the period where I got my 10,000 hours, but they were all out of order.
GALLOWAY: Do you believe that? What Malcolm Gladwell says? I say this with a voice dripping with skepticism — that if you do something for 10,000 hours, you’re going to be great at it?
GALLOWAY: You don’t have to be born Mozart. True or false?
LINDELOF: I think that it is true, if you have innate talent. I work with Brad Bird and he [made] The Incredibles, which is this very subversive movie. What’s subversive about it is this idea of not everybody is born incredible. And you should demonstrate your incredibleness, and so that idea of, if I invested 10,000 hours in shooting free throws, I would have a very high free throw percentage, but I would never play in the NBA, because I don’t have innate talent, also I’m very short. And so there are a number of other factors that determine how well you’re going to do. That said, the non-cynic in me — and I know you’re kind of supposed to say this, but at 42 years of age, I do find it to be true now — I place a higher value on work ethic than talent now, because, in certain areas, you, you know, you just need to cast, you need to cast actors with talent, you need to hire directors with talent, but I’ve worked with very talented people who have a poor work ethic, and the outcome is less desirable than people who are less talented and have an incredible work ethic. So, there I think he’s onto something.
GALLOWAY: I remember when I was growing up, Elaine Stritch, a great, great theater actress...
LINDELOF: Also in New Jersey right, that’s where you’re from?
GALLOWAY: Of course, you can tell, right?
LINDELOF: It’s the accent.
GALLOWAY: You got past this phony front, and — we were talking about the Malcolm Gladwell blink theory [before the interview] — you could tell in a second...
LINDELOF: I know.
GALLOWAY: So growing up in New Jersey...
LINDELOF: ...northern New Jersey, sure.
GALLOWAY: — Elaine Stritch was doing a performance, and I remember somebody saying, “Twice a week on stage, she is extraordinary,” and defending her for these two performances. I thought, well what if you catch the other six performances? It’s kind of unfair.
LINDELOF: And were they always the same? Was it like, she’s magic on Thursday nights and, you know, the Sunday Matinee?
GALLOWAY: No, no.
LINDELOF: You didn’t know which two they were going to be?
GALLOWAY: Right, so you have to see it a lot.
GALLOWAY: What was your innate talent growing up? What did you think it was?
LINDELOF: It always felt like it was storytelling. You know, I make no distinction between writing and storytelling; I’ve always wanted to tell stories, and I think that when someone asks a kid, “How was your day at school?” the majority of kids will basically say, “fine” or “good” or “I’m going to my room.” And I would always say, “Sit down, you are not going to believe this shit.” [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: And then you made it all up?
LINDELOF: And I made it up, right.
GALLOWAY: Things haven’t changed.
LINDELOF: I’ve always been into having stories told to me. I was a voracious reader, my father was also a teller of tales; and the kind of Baron Munchausen proxy of a tall tale was much more interesting than a true tale.
GALLOWAY: You told me something that I’ve been thinking about. It’s extraordinary that, after your father died, you discovered that he was a secret writer.
LINDELOF: I knew that he was a writer, because he was a creative entity, but I didn’t fully understand that he had generated pages and pages of stuff. When my dad died he was a banker at Citibank in New York City, and a corporate guy, an executive who put on a suit and tie and got on the bus and went into Manhattan every day. But he also had this huge love of science fiction films, fantasy stuff, and curated all that stuff for me growing up, and I knew that when he was in college he had kind of started like his own literary magazine and stuff like that, so I knew that he had it in him, but I didn’t, you know, but I was like basically this is what my dad does, he’s a banker and we watch like a lot of these sci-fi movies and television shows together. And when he died he had all these file cabinets in his apartment, and he was also like a fastidious, borderline OCD keeper of records. So you know, the IRS says you should keep your tax records for seven years; he was like, just to be safe, let’s make it 21 years. [LAUGHTER] But it was all very meticulous, and so I was like, “I’m going to have to go through his file cabinets and shred all his tax documents, because I don’t want anybody stealing his identity posthumously,” and I started opening up these file cabinets and there were scripts in there. And he had written, I don’t know, nine or ten screenplays, multiple drafts, that he had never told me existed...
GALLOWAY: He never told you that?
GALLOWAY: And he knew you were writing?
GALLOWAY: How do you think he felt about your success?
LINDELOF: That is an excellent question, and my therapist asks it on a regular basis. [LAUGHTER] He was...
GALLOWAY: You don’t have to pay me for therapy.
LINDELOF: We’re going deep so fast... [LAUGHTER] I think that everybody sort of has a defining… This is a what I’ll refer to as a middle-class, suburban problem, because I have to acknowledge that there are much bigger problems out there, not just in the United States but in the world, so there’s a part of me that feels almost guilty saying: this was the grist that I had with my dad, but in a lot of ways, it’s very clichéd, which is, my dad’s whole jam was that he would never tell me that he was proud of me, for anything. Just as a general rule. That’s the way that he was raised, and it was just, “If you do something awesome, you should be proud of yourself, but you’re just basically performing to my expectations. So I’m not going to say I’m proud of you, because that’s what a parent is supposed to say.” Also, my mom, her parents had done the same number on her, which is of their generation; they were raised in the 1940s and 50s, and that’s the way kids were parented. For my generation, which is one step removed from most of the people in this room’s generation, it’s kind of de facto for your parents to love you and support you and, “Oh you want to play the violin this week? And next week you want to play soccer?” Their parents were basically, children are seen and not heard, and you’re sort of left to your own devices and the last thing you’re done is basically nurtured and hugged and loved and told how great you are. So my dad of course, he was like, “That’s the way you parent,” and my mom was like, “I am going to go 180 degrees away from that,” and she just told me that everything that I did was completely and totally amazing, and whatever I wanted to be when I grew up, I would be the best at that, and I was special and amazing, and so somewhere in-between those two poles, my psyche formed. I think it’s human nature to basically be like, “Dad what do I have to do to get you to say that you’re proud of me?” and “Yeah, yeah, mom, when you tell me that everything I do is great, then nothing that I do is great, because you haven’t really created any sort of spectrum for me,” even though she was completely and totally well-intentioned. And so, I say all this in a very long-winded way to essentially kind of come around to this idea — my father died in 2002, and at the time, I think I was a writer on an NBC show called Crossing Jordan, so not like this big, amazing TV show, but I was making my living as a professional television writer, and so I had broken through, I had made it, and I’m sure that he was happy for me, but I think that the idea that I had actually just pursued the thing that he clearly wanted to pursue and never did, for a variety of reasons in his life — he married my mother when they were in their mid 20s, and you get a job and then you have a mortgage and then the next thing you know, you’re 45 years old — so, I never got the sense that he was jealous or resentful, but he also never said like, “Wow, kid you’re really doing it, this is amazing.”
GALLOWAY: Is there a moment in your career where you felt, “I’ve really done it, this is great?”
LINDELOFI think that when... I met J.J. Abrams on a Monday, as a huge fan, you know. This is a guy who I worship and adore and I’ve seen Felicity and I’ve seen Alias and I just, you know, “Oh my god, J.J.” And I just want to be J.J. And I had a meeting with him on a Monday afternoon, and then five days later on Saturday morning, I got a call from the president of ABC saying, “We are making Lost,” based on this outline that J.J. and I had written together, and both our names were on it. And so I looked down at this document, like a 23-page document that just [had] Lost with quotation marks around it, and it said, written by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, and that was when I was like “Whoa, this show is never going to get made, and if it gets made, it’ll never picked up to series, and if it gets picked up the series, it will be cancelled after nine episodes.”
GALLOWAY: But other than that you’re a real optimist, right? [LAUGHTER]
LINDELOF: As I’m fond of saying: I’m not glass-half-full, glass-half-empty; I’m like, “There’s a glass?” [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: That’s a great line.
LINDELOF: I gave it Jack Shephard in Lost, ’cause he’s wired in the same way that I am, and has a dad almost as loving, but I looked down and I was like, I, you know, six days ago, this guy was as unreachable, he was on the highest of pedestals, and now there is an ampersand separating us. People talk about overnight successes, and ultimately, there’s a certain amount of, you want to call it luck or fortune or good fortune, or whatever, but when your moment arrives, you have to have been at a point where you paid your dues, or done your 10,000 hours or have the requisite talent or whatever. But the stars aligned and that thing happened, and it was a whirlwind, it was tectonic, it felt like my life really just kind of completely and totally shifted, in the space of a week, and has never been the same since. And I did have the sense that that had just happened at the moment that it did.
GALLOWAY: I want to come to that, but before we do, you went to NYU film school, you saw a lot of films. What in the film school experience shaped you, or what did you learn from that?
LINDELOF: A number of things. I went to film school from 1991 to 1994, and the biggest influence was that the curated life around me was that everybody that I spent time with was into the same stuff that I was in. So all my friends, who I basically met at film school — ’cause you all come in not knowing anyone, and you have this common language that you develop — we’re all passionate about the same things.
GALLOWAY: Which were?
LINDELOF: Which was cinema, for lack of a less pretentious word, and we were of a generation that had been raised in the early 1970s and the television was our baby sitter, and I think probably the first generation going to film school in the 90s that really had an influence of television as well as film, ’cause prior to that, if you were the class of like 1985, you didn’t, you probably weren’t raised in front of the television in the same way that we were, and we were watching quality television when we were in college, Hill Street Blues was happening, and ER was happening, The Sopranos was happening. So, we’re going to go to school together, and then we’re going to go and watch TV together, and then we’re going to go and see Barton Fink, and when Barton Fink is over, we are going to stay sitting in the theater and watch it again. And I was a freak for doing that in high school, but in film school that’s what you did. And so, I think that the experience of being around like-minded individuals was the most formative. And then I had great faculty and was exposed to a lot of movies that I never would have seen had I not gone to film school.
GALLOWAY: Then you had to find your first job — what all these guys are going to do soon. I heard you worked for Scott Rudin, for a day. Do you know who Scott Rudin is, everybody? Probably the most — well he is the most brilliant producer alive.
LINDELOF: He’s brilliant.
GALLOWAY: He won an Oscar for No Country for Old Men. He’s also somewhat famously difficult.
LINDELOF: Yeah, he had a reputation, especially in the early 90s. There’s a movie called Swimming with Sharks out there, if you’ve never seen it, with Frank Whaley and Kevin Spacey. It’s about an assistant to a movie executive, and at the time sort of the way that you earned your strips in town was that you worked for the most abusive individual who would literally —
GALLOWAY: And there were many in those days, which I don’t think there are now.
LINDELOF: I think it’s illegal now to basically be [abusive]. You know, you would just tweet out, “Do you know what my boss said to me?” and then they would be arrested, I think. So you can’t shame anybody any more, like hashtag inappropriate.
GALLOWAY: There were these guys and you’d hear stories about them.
LINDELOF: Scott was New York, mostly based out of New York, and was also producing a lot of theatrical stuff, and had a reputation for just having amazing taste, and all top-level directors and actors wanted to work with him.
GALLOWAY: You worked with him for one day. How come?
LINDELOF: Not even one day. What happened was, I got a job at his fourth assistant in Los Angeles. So he has four assistants in L.A., and then a number of assistants also in New York, and, on the day that I was fired, he was on the East Coast, and so I came in for my first day of work on a Monday, at 7 am, or 7:30, and they handed me a list of names and phone numbers, and basically said, “Call these people for Scott, and leave word.”.
GALLOWAY: Which, we should say, is the famous think he’ll do. He’ll call when he knows you’re not there, and there’ll be a message, “Scott Rudin called,” knowing it’s six o’clock in the morning.
LINDELOF: Well Stephen, I did not know that. [LAUGHTER] I did not know. I felt the objective in calling somebody on the telephone was to speak to them on the telephone. So, and it was 7:30, and I started running down the list, and lo and behold, you get people’s voice mail, and you say, “ey I have Scott calling for Brian, you can reach us at such and such a number.” When I got to the sixth name on the list, the dude answered the phone. And because he had had messages left for him, this guy answered the phone. I was like, “Hey I have Scott Rudin calling for you,” and he’s like, “Great.” So I called New York and I said “Hey, I’ve got so and so for Scott,” and his assistant said, “Leave word.” And I said, “No, we called him,” and then there’s a pause, and I hear someone else in the background say, “Who’s that?”, and then the guy just says, “Tell him you lost Scott.” So I get back on the phone with the dude, and I say, “Sorry, I was trying, I couldn’t connect you, I lost Scott,” and the guy’s like, “Sure,” and he hung up on me. And then a minute later my phone rang, and I answered the phone, and I said “Hello, Scott Rudin’s office,” and he’s like, “Who’s this?” and I said, “This is Damon. Is this Scott? I’m you’re new assistant.” And he said, “Not any more.” And that was it.
GALLOWAY: Well, at least he fired you himself. That’s a badge of honor.
LINDELOF: The good news is, I think I have the record, because Scott was infamous for going through a high degree of assistants, I was told that someone was fired after three minutes.
GALLOWAY: Three minutes?
LINDELOF: Yeah. At 17 minutes, I didn’t even have the record. Preface this by saying though, I would still work with the guy again, it was an honor to be [fired].
GALLOWAY: Who would you not work with?
LINDELOF: Who would I not work with?
LINDELOF: Oh, I’m not going to answer that question.
GALLOWAY: Are there people?
LINDELOF: They know who they are. Of course.
GALLOWAY: In film or TV?
LINDELOF: You know, there are people who I would not work with again. Reputation is a very interesting thing, and I always give people the benefit of the doubt, and I think that there’s a part of all of us, especially in a generation where a lot of this stuff gets recorded, where you go, like, “OK, you listened to Christian Bale’s tirade on the internet” —.
GALLOWAY: With a cameraman.
LINDELOF: That’s on Terminator Salvation, and you basically go, “This guy is a lunatic and I would never work with him,” but it’s absent context. What you’re really hearing is someone who’s completely and totally committed to their craft on every single level and had a bad day.
GALLOWAY: Without naming names, what is the experience —
LINDELOF: I would not work with Bill Cosby. [LAUGHTER] I would not work with him.
GALLOWAY: You can’t get away with someone that easy, right? What is the worst experience that you’ve had working with somebody, where you said, “Never again?” You don’t have to name names. Am I allowed to guess the name?
LINDELOF: No. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: I had to try. What’s the worst?
LINDELOF: I don’t want to get anecdotal about it. For me there is a line that is crossed and that line is about respecting your collaborators. And we all know what the difference is between a temper tantrum, and creating an unsafe work environment, either physically or emotionally. And if you cross that line, that’s it, you’re done, and I will not work with you any more. So there was a situation with an actor, for example, who wanted to not be involved in the project any more, and it was like, “No, you’re contractually bound to the project, and we’ll figure out a way to write you out at some point, but in the meantime we’re going to ask you to fulfill what you’ve signed up for, because we’re already in process.” You know, we’ve already shot stuff, and they then said, “Oh, I know how to get myself fired. I will behave badly by mistreating members of the crew.” And that was that.
GALLOWAY: And the actor did get himself —
LINDELOF: I didn’t say it was a him, did I?
GALLOWAY: I was probing. So we’ve already found out it was a woman. [LAUGHTER] And it could have been...
LINDELOF: It was Bill Cosby. It was Bill Cosby.
GALLOWAY: You went from Scott, you worked at Metropolitan Talent Agency, you worked as a writer’s assistant. How did you get that first break as a writer?
LINDELOF: I was a writer’s assistant on a show called Wasteland, and just very briefly, I was working as an executive for a producer named Alan Ladd, Jr., who’s sort of a great legend, yeah. He ran 20th Century Fox.
GALLOWAY: He’s the guy who green lit Star Wars.
LINDELOF: Star Wars andBlade Runner. And he was now producing. He had just won the Oscar for Braveheart as a producer, and I worked for him for a number of years as an executive. So you now, I wore a tie and I read scripts and I gave notes to writers and was like, I want to do what you do.
GALLOWAY: So you’re responsible for Brady Bunch 2, the classic?
LINDELOF: Yes. Well, partially. And all the time, writing my own stuff. I wrote a screenplay and submitted it to a number of competitions, including the Nicholl Fellowship, through the Academy. I was like, OK, so there’s 5,000 submissions for Nicholl. If I can get into like maybe the top 500, the top 10 percent, that would be enough validation for me to believe that I should make a go of it. So that’s the promise that I’m making to myself, and I don’t want to burden any of my friends with reading my material.
I will say this: take it or leave it, the worst thing that you can ever do to a friend is have them read your material before it’s been evaluated by someone other than a friend. It’s a very, very uncomfortable position to put them in, because they have to tell you that it’s great. Or they have to stop being your friend. [LAUGHTER] And if your friend is critical, you have to have a very thick skin and a thick skin is something that only builds up after it’s callused for awhile. So, I was like, I need to be evaluated by someone who doesn’t give a shit about me, and this is the way that I’m going to do it, and I got the first letter [which] said, “You’ve made the cut into the top 500,” and I was like, OK, it’s go time. Because the next letter may say I’m out. And then I got another letting saying that I was now in the top 100 or 50, or whatever the semi finals were. And so I sent out an email to everybody, I had been in the business now for five years at this point, everybody that I knew, saying: “I want to be a writer. I know that I am a novice, I’m not really to be professional writer, I don’t have any representation. I want to write in television; even though my background is fundamentally in movies, TV is where I feel like I’d be best because I’m a good collaborator, and like, put me on the ground. I will wash writers’ cars, I will bring them coffee and lunch, but if you can just get me close to them, if there’s a job like that that exists, an apprenticeship if you will, I will take it no questions asked, I don’t care where, I turn up my nose at nothing.” And I hit send, and within an hour, a friend of mine, Julie Plec, who is now the show runner of Vampire Diaries, and is a huge — all the Kevin Williamson shows, she was running Kevin’s company at the time, he had had great success with a show called Dawson’s Creek, and they had just had a new show green lit called Wasteland, and she said — this is on a Thursday — “Can you start on Monday?” And I’d been working for Laddie [Alan Ladd, Jr.] for three years, and I went in and I said, “I have this opportunity, and I want to go for it,” and he said, “I’ll be here if it doesn’t work out.”
And so I started on that Monday, working at Wasteland, and I was what is called a writer’s assistant, and this job still exists in very much the same form that it did then, now. Which is, you’re the low person on the totem pole, but you’re in the room, and you are synthesizing and editing notes. It’s different than it is in comedy and drama, but I was suddenly in this amazing environment, surrounded by writers, and we had to generate 55 pages of material every seven days, once a week. So you come in on Monday, and there’s nothing, there’s just a blank white board, and the following Monday, there’s a script. And it was amazing. Within three weeks, 80 percent of the writers had been fired. And the show was spinning out of control, and it was a Miramax television show for ABC, all the executives were sort of on the verge of shutting the show down, and I said, “I’m going to write a script, because I’m about to lose my job, and there’s no material.” So if you’re the guy who basically shows up with coal at the locomotive, they will put it in the train. Like, they won’t even assess whatever or not it’s good coal, you know. [LAUGHTER] Just throw it in there. So I was able to see the landscape; and when I tell the story sometimes, people say, “That took a lot of courage,” or “There was tremendous risk.” In my opinion it was the exact opposite. There was no risk, because if I hadn’t done it, the show would have ceased to exist anyway. So I went home over the course of two nights I wrote a spec episode of Wasteland, and gave it to the young, baby writers on the show, and I said, “Take this, if it’s legible, great, if not, rewrite it, put your names on it, so that we can all get paid for another two weeks.” And they went in their office, and they closed the door, and about an hour later, Kevin Williamson, who was the show runner, who I’d never really spoken to prior to that, walked up to my desk, and he said, “Are you Damon?” and I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Do you have an agent?” and I said, “No.” And he said, “You better get one.” And then he went into his office and I was like, “What just happened?” And then the two writers, the baby writers came out, Jim and Andy were their names, and they’re like, “We loved the script, we called Kevin, he’s coming in,” and I was like, “He was just here.” And that night, I found a lawyer and negotiated a deal with ABC and the next morning I was a professional television writer.
GALLOWAY: At what age?
LINDELOF: I was 27. Or 28. Yeah, I think I was 27.
GALLOWAY: So you go from being a baby writer to very quickly becoming one of the best known writers in Hollywood with Lost. You’re at this incredible high point — the pilot is a phenomenon, the whole series was a phenomenon, and yet you went through the worst time in your life when that happened, I want to talk about that, but let’s look at a clip from the very opening, the iconic opening of Lost. Here we go.
GALLOWAY: So you have this meeting with J.J., you both get on. This was an idea that Lloyd Brown, who was the executive running the network, initiated. You start working with J.J. and how did you jointly create this? What was the conversation, what was the very inception and how did you move forward from that?
LINDELOF: You could write a book in response to that question, and I would only be a part of that book. I think that the short, sound-bitable answer to your question is that there was another writer by the name of Jeffery Lieber who, along with Aaron Spelling, generated a script based on Lloyd’s pitch. At the time, the reality show Survivor was the number one show in America, it was a cultural phenomenon, and so the idea of like, “This reality show is very hot. Why don’t we make a drama version of Survivor, and that way it would be scripted?” That was the genesis of the idea. And they didn’t like the way that that was heading, ’cause there were a lot of restrictions that they put on Jeffery, one of which was, “serialized” was a very dirty word. The most successful shows on TV were standalone, formulaic procedurals, you know, mystery shows like CSI or cop shows, and the idea was in the pre-DVR era — there was a time, kids, when you could not record television shows, or watch them at your leisure; if a show was on Tuesday nights at nine o’clock, you had to watch it on Tuesday night at nine o’clock or put it on a tape, which was very nerdy — and so the thinking was, if a show was heavily serialized, and you missed an episode, you would just stop watching it, so don’t serialize shows.
And the other thing was genre. Sci-fi, supernatural, anything weird — can’t do that, ’cause the only show really that had broken through that had any level of success into broadcast was X-Files, which was also — they did serialization in a very clever way, which was they mixed standalone episodes with an overriding mythology — but other than that, the show shouldn’t be serialized and it shouldn’t be weird. And when J.J. and I first met on Monday — given not even the script that had been written, but just, “the plane crashes on an island: go! — both of us were like, “It needs to be serialized, and it needs to be weird.” And the good news is, they want us to do this, they were asking J.J; I had been basically just brought in as a wildcard, because he was still running Alias, and was developing another pilot at the time. We both became infected with this idea of they’ll let us get away with whatever we want to, because we’re not pitching to them, they really want to make this thing. Lloyd was very passionate about the idea. I think he understood what nobody else did at the time; he was the only one saying, “This thing is going to work, television needs this thing.”
GALLOWAY: And then he was fired.
LINDELOF: And then he was fired. I think that he knew that he was going to be fired, and so you had, between J.J., myself, and Lloyd, three individuals who were basically like, “Why the f— not?” That was sort of our operating principal.
GALLOWAY: Did you sit in a room with J.J. and go, “What about this? What about that?” How did that work those first few days?
LINDELOF: You know, you have to put everything through the prism of storytelling and hindsight. I preface this by saying, like, I would come home from school and say, “You can’t believe that this happened.” This is all my memory, my memory of what happened in that first meeting was: I knew that I needed to come into that meeting with something, ’cause J.J. didn’t know me, and he had never read me, and so I needed to impress him, and I couldn’t just say, you know, “I love Alias and here’s all the reasons I love Alias.” I needed to have some ideas. And so what I came into that meeting with was what you just watched, which was the opening of the show. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if the opening of the show had no dialog whatsoever, and we woke up in the jungle with this dude in a business suit, and we have no idea how he got there, and he’s wounded, and pulls the little bottle of alcohol out of his pocket, and this dog comes running up to him, and he hears a noise, he’s drawn to the noise, and that’s how we realize that he was just in a plane crash.” And the reason that I’m pitching it like that was this should be a mystery show, because the one thing that is successful on television show is mystery.
People love like mystery. And so this idea of, not just who killed the bad guy on Law and Order, which was a very highly rated show at the time, but who is this guy? Like, what can he do, why is that girl screaming, why has this guy got tape on his hands, who’s Walt and why is this guy yelling out for Walt, what’s up with the bald dude who sits —
GALLOWAY: So you come in with this idea, and then how do you both move it forward from there?
LINDELOF: He just goes, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. There should be a hatch,” you know. This was like 15 minutes into the meeting.
LINDELOF: Yeah. And that I do remember very specifically.
GALLOWAY: What about the number sequence? Not the Fibonacci —
LINDELOF: Yeah, Valenzetti Equation. The numbers came later, but he said, “There should be a hatch.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he’s like, “They should find this thing in the middle of the jungle, and they should spend all season long just trying to get in.” [LAUGHTER] And I was like, “What’s in it?” And he’s like, “I don’t know.” But he immediately —
GALLOWAY: At what point did you find out? Because there was some sense that — I know Twin Peaks had a huge influence on you —
LINDELOF: Sure, huge.
GALLOWAY: — that, like Twin Peaks, you were making it up as you went along?
LINDELOF: Yes, I mean, I think that that’s fair, and I talk about this, and I apologize for those of you who’ve heard me mention it before, but I do think that it bears mentioning, that the two things that I hear most, not just as it relates to Lost, but the kind of storytelling that I’m interested in doing, which has a certain degree of mystery and ambiguity and improvisation to it — which makes it exciting for me — is the two things on Lost: number one, are you making it up as you go along? Like, is there a plan? And people who ask me this question, the way that their arms are crossed, like this, “Are you making it up as you go along?” They’re not like, [taking a sweet tone] “Are you making it up as you go along?” I read them. I’m a poker player, and I go, “They want there to be a plan. They want there to be a huge binder that has every single [note].
So I met J.J. on Monday, this show is going to go, we should have a design for all 121 hours of Lost by the end of the week? Like, that’s the plan, and we’re going to stick to the plan and we’re not going to deviate from the plan, ’cause you don’t want me to tell you that I’m making it up as we go along. When you look at mommy and daddy, you don’t want them to think that they’re just driving aimlessly through the streets. You know, you want them to have a map, right? So that’s the answer to that question. Thing number two: “Does the audience have an impact on what you do? We’re watching the show, we’re into the show, we have theories about the show, do you care about us? Do you listen to us?” And you want the answer to that question to be, “absolutely.” Like, I’m making the show for you, of course I care. You guys like Sawyer? There’s going to be more Sawyer, if you don’t like Ana Lucia, she’s f—ing dead. Like, we’re in the coliseum, you know, we’re watching your thumbs, and we’re modulating accordingly, and what people failed to realize is that there’s a huge paradox between these two ideas. If there is a plan, then I don’t care about you, you have no effect whatsoever on the storytelling. And if you want to have an effect —
GALLOWAY: Can I —
LINDELOF: Please. I want to hear you. challenge the paradox.
GALLOWAY: OK. So, you’re casting it in black and white. You know there’s a discrepancy between those ideas. But to bend slightly, even quite a lot, doesn’t mean you don’t have a long-term view, you don’t have a long-term plan. Charles Dickens — not a bad writer —
LINDELOF: Not bad.
GALLOWAY: — was writing, I think it was Our Mutual Friend or another novel, I believe...
LINDELOF: Featured in Lost, by the way.
LINDELOF: Our Mutual Friend is featured in Lost.
GALLOWAY: Oh really?
LINDELOF: Oh yes. You should watch it. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Tell me how.
LINDELOF: It’s the one book that Desmond has.
GALLOWAY: Wow. Because you liked it or J.J. likes it?
LINDELOF: That was actually [executive producer] Carlton Cuse, because John Irving, who’s a huge Dickens fan...
GALLOWAY: The American novelist?
LINDELOF: Yeah. He’s read every one of Dickens’s books except for Our Mutual Friend, and his plan is that when he is diagnosed with some terminal illness, he will finally read [it.] I just hope he doesn’t get in a car accident, like... [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: By the way, I have that same thing.
GALLOWAY: I love Dickens and there’s some I haven’t read because I’m waiting...
LINDELOF: Right, you’re saving.
GALLOWAY: ...for that moment when I get the terminal diagnosis.
LINDELOF: But I interrupted your anecdote, which will prove my belief system wrong.
GALLOWAY: He would go on walks all night. He would go on these walks across London, 10, 12 miles every day. And he bumped into this woman, who said, “Mr. Dickens, I’ve read your book” — she was very small, strangely misshapen, and she said to him — and she was the villain in the book — she said, “You know, you don’t realize how bad that makes me feel, and you’re looking at me, you were looking at me as a small, fat, misshapen person, and you think that’s my soul, and you’re wrong.” And you can see in the book, he switches the character, and she becomes one of the great characters. But he always knew where he was going.
LINDELOF: Well, first off, I’ll challenge that, because he infamously rewrote the ending of Great Expectations.
GALLOWAY: Absolutely. We haven’t even gotten to our second clip yet.
LINDELOF: We had a rule on Lost that we did follow, and the rule was, if we introduced a mystery, a question, not matter how mundane it may be, or whether it was seismic. Like a bigger question on the show would be, the very end of the pilot, Charlie asked, “Guys where are we?” And the answer to that question, I believe after a 120 episodes, the answer to that question is different than perhaps what the answer to it was at the end when Charlie asked it, which is, you’re on an island that can’t be detected, but it becomes much more longwinded as you go. So, if Sawyer is reading a letter, we basically had to know what the contents of that letter were and have a basic idea of when we were going to reveal those contents. So, mystery by mystery, whenever we presented a question, we had to know what the answer was.
Where the making it up as we go along part came in, was the idea that things didn’t work out the way that we wanted them to. You know, the development of certain characters or character relationships, or love triangles or friendships that we wanted to cultivate, didn’t work out. And then, on the up side, things started happening that we couldn’t have possibly anticipated, like you write a scene between Hurley and Jack, and then Jorge Garcia and Matthew Fox have this amazing chemistry which is oh my God, like Matthew Fox, who is the most unfunny actor on the planet. He’s a funny guy, but he just plays the character with a complete and total — you know, he’s just that guy, versus Josh Holloway who’s very funny — suddenly like, Jack was funny in scenes with Hurley and so you look at that and you go let’s do more of that. So, there has to be a degree of, let’s write more of what’s working and less of what’s not working. But the single biggest issue on the show where you can’t really compare us to a novelist is that a novelist is completely in control of what the ending of their book is, if they want to write a 300 page book, it’s 300 pages, if they want to write a 900 page book, it’s 900 pages. But it’s a novel, it’s going to end.
And you can also be, you can also say I want, this is the first book in a trilogy and I’m going to design the, you know, I’m going to write it accordingly, so when you watch Star Wars, it’s a fascinating exercise in terms of saying like, George [Lucas] was using the word trilogy, but you know, what did he know at the time that he wrote Star Wars? And if he knew that Luke and Leia were brother and sister, why are they flirting with one another. You know, if he knew that Vader was Luke’s father, why did he make this choice, and why didn’t he embed a clue in there, etcetera, etcetera. So things became evident as the story went on, and then he capitalized on them. And that storytelling can be very exciting, but the audience now is very sophisticated and they just know when you’re employing shenanigans. And that almost started to happen on Lost, largely because of this other thing that I’m talking about, which is we didn’t know how long the show was going to last. So if you basically are standing at the starting line in your short shorts and your tank top and the gun goes off and you start running, and you turn to someone and you go, “Am I running a 10-K or am I running a marathon?” And they just say, “Just f—ing keep running.” You're going to create as many mysteries as you can, because you don’t know what the duration of the run is. You’re out of control.
GALLOWAY: Tell me about J.J. What kind of person is he?
LINDELOF: Uh, terrible, horrible. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: There’s our headline.
LINDELOF: No, he’s amazing on every level, I mean I think that amazing as a human being, because we can say these are the narrative beats of the story, but I think when you really say here’s a person who achieved a huge level of success, so at the time that I meet J.J., he’s had two hit shows that have broken through the pop culture Zeitgeist. He’s already a writer, like Joss, it was J.J. and Joss for me, Joss Whedon. They were the two writers that I was like, I want to be these guys, I want to do what they do: he’s on the cover of Rolling Stone, next to Jennifer Garner. He’s a writer, you know, writer/director. And so and then he meets me, and partners with me, like that. So just the ego involved, you know, the sublimation of the self.
The confidence that one has in their own talent to share, is a very big deal, especially in our business, people, it’s very hard to share or to give credit to others for you know, for their ideas etcetera and he did that right out of the gate. Like, you know, suddenly I was in meetings with J.J., meeting with network presidents, I’d been a professional television writer for five years, I never had a conversation with a network president and then J.J.’s basically sitting in a room basically, oh that was, you like that, that was Damon’s idea. So there’s a graciousness and a grace to him as a human being. And then as a storyteller — this idea of the mystery box is now.. You really should go and you watch J.J.’s TED talk, you.
GALLOWAY: Tell everybody what that means.
LINDELOF: The mystery box. It harkens back to this idea of the hatch, which is: the idea of what’s in the box is and how do you make that interesting, is always going to be much more interesting than what’s actually in the box when you open it. So J.J.’s a guy who basically collects mystery boxes and he doesn’t open them. The idea of imagining what may be inside them, is more interesting. And so can the storytelling basically emulate that idea, knowing that inevitably you have to open the box, but I think he’s doing it again with the marketing for [Star Wars]. When the prequels came out, the way that they were marketed is, “I know what this movie is. This is Anakin Skywalker, he’s a young Jedi; there’s Liam Neeson, he’s going to be kind of his trainer; Ewan McGregor Obi Wan” — like you’re telling me what the movie is. Star Wars is coming out in three weeks and we don’t know anything. Everybody wants to know, nobody knows, and that is very exciting.
GALLOWAY: Have you seen it?
LINDELOF: I’m not going to answer that question.
GALLOWAY: Have you seen it? Can I assume you’ve seen it?
LINDELOF: I’m not going to answer that question.
GALLOWAY: When are you seeing it.
LINDELOF: I’m not going to answer that question.
GALLOWAY: J.J. left the show to do Mission: Impossible. My understanding was that they wouldn’t let him out of the deal at first for Mission: Impossible. Which is why they delayed it, they delayed the picture a year, maybe two years. And you then spiraled into a terrible depression. Why?
LINDELOF: There was an issue of scale, and an issue of emotional maturity. I was 30 years old when the Lost pilot was shot. Which feels probably to you guys like, old. But to me it felt very young, and inexperienced. And the production was massive: we were shooting the show entirely in Hawaii, really without sets. And we had to generate a script every eight days for a show that had no format. So it wasn’t like, “Oh, they’re doctors, and so the story is people come in and they need to have surgeries,” or “They’re cops and the phones going to ring, and so there’s been a murder.”
Any episode of Lost was a closed environment. Every episode had to have multiple stories, a story that was happening on the island and then the story that was happening in the past, relating to one of these characters. And if we could do it just right, there’d be a thematic resonance between the two. So the degree of difficulty in making an episode of Lost was very, very high. And I was running [it]. I was the boss. So, when J.J. left — which was right after the pilot got picked up — he was like, “You are going to run the show,” and I was the CEO of what amounted to a $60 million a year corporation, with no management experience. I was a writer. And I was not prepared to manage the show. Let alone overcome the creative obstacles at that speed and that rate of time. And so, what I told myself was, “You’re running the 10-K and you can make it. What’s going to happen is you’re going to do your best; nobody’s going to watch the show. The show is going to be canceled, and it’ll be like The Prisoner,” which was this other show that I loved growing up, a cult classic, 'cause they only made a season — I think there’s 13 episodes. “You’ll be a cult classic. And that’s how you’re going to survive this, ’cause you can do anything for six months.” And I had just recently proposed to my wife Heidi, and this was our first year of basically living together, and everything needed to be put on hold so that I could go and make Lost. And so I created this construct for myself, that was based on cancellation — that that was going to happen.
And even the night before the show premiered — the show premiered on a Wednesday night, I had conversations with ABC executives; the show was going to be on at 8 o’clock, and as you know, ABC was the last place network the previous seasons. And although the show was getting some critical love, the thinking was, it’s too weird, and nobody wants to watch a show about a plane crash, and also the pilot’s good, but what’s episode two going to be, let alone episode five. And I was like, right? Like, do you have any ideas for episode five? So I started to feel like a real sense of comfort then, and we went over to J.J.’s house, and we watched the show live on the air, and I started to feel this feeling of relief wash over me, because this ABC executive came over and said, “We’ve done our market testing, and we don’t think a lot of people are going to watch the show. Sorry, Damon. Like, you know, you should be very proud of it.” And I was so happy. I had manifested this reality for myself: I produced something of a very high quality, that nobody was going to watch, and that was going to be my escape clause. And then the next morning, my phone rang at around 6:10 a.m., and I’d slept like a baby that night. And it’s Thursday, I’m going into work, 6:10 a.m., my phone rang — and as soon as I heard it ring, I knew, because nobody calls you in this business with bad news. As soon as it rang, the first ring, my life changed. And then I answered the phone, and it was this guy Tom Sherman, who at the time was an executive at ABC and he said, “20 million people watched the show last night.” And I have never been more sad and depressed and overwhelmed and trapped in my life.
GALLOWAY: That sounds funny, but I know this was a pretty serious depression, which manifested itself how?
LINDELOF: You know, profound disconnect from the universe, total sort of exhaustion — like a desire to not do anything, loss of appetite, fantasies about — never suicidal — but fantasies about getting in car accidents that would prevent me from having to go into the work that day, because at the time that the ratings came in, we were writing episode seven, and I was like, “They’re going to make me do this 15 more times? And now, everybody’s watching!” So when I said it was an issue of scale, I wanted to be a successful television writer; I had worked on and written scripts on shows that had like 10 million people watching, but they weren’t my shows. And suddenly [there was] this idea of feeling so exposed and a terror that the emperor had no clothes. All these things actually began to manifest themselves over time, which is: What if I fail? I’m going to fail and everyone’s going to see me fail. It’s like Peewee’s Big Adventure where he wipes out on his bike and there’s like nine other kids basically just standing there, who witnessed it, versus just wiping out on your bike and nobody sees it.
Also, I had a dream in terms of what I wanted to achieve in my life, and when I got that call, it was so above and beyond anything that I had ever dreamed, that I felt I didn’t deserve it. And I was like, “I don’t deserve this, I’m not entitled to it, I haven’t earned it. What am I supposed to do with this?” And my wife and I would go out for breakfast on the weekends, even though I would go into the office afterwards, and we’d be sitting there, eating, and the people at the table next to us were talking about Lost. And I was like, this is not a normal thing that should be happening right now. And Heidi my wife was smiling, like, isn’t this the greatest thing in the world? And it was the worst thing in the world. And the fact that everybody was telling me that it should be great, made me feel like there was something wrong with me. I’ve never struggled with depression, I don’t think anyone who knew me prior to this would basically say like, “Oh yeah, Damon’s a sad guy. This has been something he’s struggled with all through adolescence.” I am a happy guy. And so when this happened, it was so aberrant, and it was incredibly lonely, and things didn’t really shift until Carlton [Cuse] came along.
GALLOWAY: And when you brought him into the show, that lifted you out of the depression?
LINDELOF: Yeah. Hugely.
GALLOWAY: Thank you for talking about that, too. Because I think it’s important for people to know. Everybody thinks, “Oh, when I have success, my life is going to be perfect,” and that’s just not what life is.
LINDELOF: I’ll be honest with you, and I’m glad that you said that because there was a part of me prior to this happening where whenever someone who had achieved their dream, like an actor, was complaining, saying like “This isn’t easy,” I’d be like, “Oh come on.” You know, “Boo-hoo, Russell Crowe.” Russell Crowe is gunning for me now. I would work with him, and Scott Rudin in a second.
GALLOWAY: But not together?
LINDELOF: No, no, yeah. But if I can be completely and totally precious about it for a second, we are artsy folk, you know? I mean, we all fancy ourselves artists and we are wired as artists and part of being a good artist is tapping into some sort of emotional reality and trying to communicate it to others, through our art. And that requires a certain amount of vulnerability, and nakedness. And that’s hard. You know, if you’re doing it well, it’s really scary, and in order to do it well you have to make a lot of mistakes, and when you make mistakes you get scared. And it’s very hard for me to say I’m scared right now, or I’m sad, and fear and depression can sometimes manifest themselves as anger. Anger is not a real feeling. Every time in my life I’ve ever been angry, it’s because I was scared, or because I was sad and I didn’t know it. Like, anger doesn’t just come out of a vacuum.
GALLOWAY: It’s interesting, you went from Lost and dealing with those very public pressures —
LINDELOF: Speaking of sad.
GALLOWAY: — to something I would have thought, would have been as pressured as anything, which is rebuilding a franchise, which has millions of fans. All of whom are going to be unhappy with what you do. Let’s take a look at a clip from Star Trek.
LINDELOF: I think every clip should just feature people running right through stuff. Yeah. You don’t have to write as much when people are running.
GALLOWAY: Why did you take this on? You weren’t a Trekkie growing up.
LINDELOF: I am of the Star Wars generation. Star Wars was the defining movie of my childhood. And what I would consider myself to be a huge fan of. That said, I saw The Wrath of Khan with my day camp. There was a rainy day and they brought us to a movie theater and we ended up seeing Wrath of Khan back-to-back-to-back, three times in a row. And I was like, “This is very cool. It’s like Star Wars, but it’s not quite like Star Wars, it’s obviously a little more cerebral.” I understood that I was in the presence of myth, started watching the original series, and then my dad and I would watch The Next Generation, which was really my Star Trek in the 80s and 90s. So while not a Trekkie, I would definitely consider myself a fan. And I did watch it. You know, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, that stuff I’m less verbose in, but in terms of the original series — and this all basically started with J.J. [who] had developed a great relationship with Paramount through Mission: Impossible, [when he] and Bryan Burk, his producing partner, called me up and said, “Hey, do you think Star Trek is cool?” And I was like, “I do think it’s cool.” And he said, “Paramount is asking J.J. if he wants to do something with it. Do you think like we could do something cool?” And I was like, “Yeah, I do think we could do something cool.” And so that triggered a meeting between J.J., Bryan, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Bob is very deep Star Trek all the way, like novelizations, every episode of everything. Alex knew even less than I did, and J.J. liked the original series. So we had kind of a roundtable of a wide range of knowledge about Star Trek and we sat down and essentially said, “What would be a cool story to tell? Is there a way to do a reboot without erasing everything that came before it, because there’s a legacy there? So, can we honor, can we not say that didn’t happen? Is there a way to restart the franchise and say all of that did happen, and this is almost a spinoff in a way?” And I was like, “We could do time travel.” I love time travel. I used to love time travel. Now no more time travel.
But, we all got pretty fired up about it, and J.J. wanted to direct it, and so the opportunity to work with him again, after the Lost pilot which was kind of our last collaboration when we wrote something together and then he directed it, was just… and I was still running Lost at the time that this was happening. So, I came on as a producer, and Alex and Bob, I felt, wrote a fantastic script and we did it like a TV show in terms of how collaborative it was. Obviously, J.J. directed it, but the story-making process and the writing process and the editing process and all that was really a group thing, the way that Pixar kind of makes their movies as well. And that’s what I love most about this job and I think that Star Trek is myth and so I did feel perhaps because I was so entrenched in the Star Wars universe, I would feel a certain degree of deification that would inhibit me from doing my job well on Star Wars, but when it came to Star Trek, I kind of felt like, “Oh I love this, but I don’t deify it. So I can probably.”
GALLOWAY: Why did you not work on Star Wars with J.J.?
LINDELOF: Well, he didn’t ask. [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Why didn’t he ask?
LINDELOF: J.J. was asked and I think that he was inheriting something from George and [screenwriter] Michael Arndt, that they had been working on, and then J.J. teamed with [writer] Larry Kasdan in order to generate their story at a certain point, and Kathy [Kathleen] Kennedy, who’s one of the greatest producers in the history of our business. So there wasn’t a need, first of all; and secondly I was deeply entrenched on the first season of The Leftovers and Tomorrowland, simultaneously, so even if he had asked, I tell myself that he didn’t because I was completely and totally tied up.
When he first came on and said there was going to be an episode seven, he did try to engage me in a conversation about: here’s what we’re thinking. And I said, “I don’t want to know anything. I want to experience this movie as a fan. It’s a bit of a curse knowing you. Even though you’re my friend and I love your stuff, everybody assumes that I know everything.” So for the last two years, everybody I know has been like, “What do you know about Star Wars?” And I’ve been able to say, “I don’t know anything, I’m going into it just as blind as you are.” And I want to experience the movie that way because I do deify Star Wars, I use hyperbolic language because I’m a writer, but watching Star Wars in 1977 was a religious experience for me. The way that people talk about religion was the way that I felt when I saw the movie. My generation was born in the early 70s; when you ask us, “Do you believe in God or what religion are you?,” people say, “I don’t really believe in God, per say, as a judgmental entity, but I think that there’s this energy that kind of binds everyone together.” “Oh, so the Force? We’re talking about the f—ing Force.” [LAUGHTER] This is our religion in many ways, and so I want to experience it in that way.
GALLOWAY: Did you see the original Alien when it came out?
LINDELOF: Not when it came out. I was seven years old, and it was rated R. And I was aware of it, and had an Alien toy. And I knew that the things came out of eggs, and stuck to your… We, all the kids, were talking about it, but I was not allowed to see it. Aliens, I did see in the theater. Which came out in the late 80s.
GALLOWAY: You tackled the Star Trek franchise, and you then joined the Alien franchise when you got a phone call out the blue from Ridley Scott saying, will you work on this?
GALLOWAY: Tell me about going to his office.
LINDELOF: I had just finished Lost, and my wife and I, and my son, went to Italy for a month. And when we got back, all that time I was like, “I can’t take any other work, I’m doing Lost.” My agent called me up and said, “Ridley Scott is going to call you in five minutes. Are you available?” And I almost crashed my car. I pulled over. I was on Ventura Boulevard in the Valley. And I was like, “I’m going to be waiting here for two hours.” But sure enough, five minutes later, my phone rang, and it was Ridley and when you are Ridley Scott, Sir Ridley Scott, you don’t introduce yourself, you’re not like, “Hey uh, Ridley. Big fan of yours.” I was like, hello. And he’s like, “Hey Damon, it’s Ridley. So, I’m sending you a script. You know, read it and let me know what you think.” “OK.”
And then a couple of hours later, a guy showed up at my house, and said, “I will be waiting in my car outside your house read the script bring it back out to me, and are you available to talk to Ridley tomorrow at 10 a.m. to come into his office?” I read the script. It was called Alien Zero. It was written by Jon Spaihts, who I was honored to share a writing credit with on Prometheus, that’s what it ended up becoming. I thought that there were a lot of really great ideas embedded in it. But when you are reading a script in this context, you’re being essentially asked to replace someone, right? I have to ask myself, “Why is Jon Spaihts not continuing on in this project?” And this is something that’s very unfair that happens to writers, which is, the way that filmmakers signal the studio that they’re ready to make a radical or drastic change is they replace the writer, which never happens in TV; it’s the exact opposite. I felt Jon had done a number of really smart things, but I tried to figure out why is it that they are sending the script to me? What is it that they think that I can do? I anticipated what those things might be, and then I sent an email.
GALLOWAY: Namely what?
LINDELOF: Well, namely, the language of Alien Zero was very much an Alien reboot, in my opinion. There were facehuggers, and xenomorphs, and eggs, in the language of that movie, by page 30. I had heard this thing was a prequel, and there’s a problem with prequels; there’s something I don’t like about prequels, which is there’s an inevitability, that you’re just connecting dots.
So this idea of the Star Wars prequels, for example, is you’re going to make three movies where you basically just tell me what I already know. At least embed a new idea in there that I didn’t already know, or introduce a different thematic. Like, what if Obi-Wan Kenobi had stolen Anakin’s girlfriend away from him. And that way, when I watch Star Wars again, I’d realize, “Oh, that’s why Obi-Wan Kenobi is letting Darth Vader strike him down, ‘cause he feels guilty. That’s why Obi-Wan Kenobi is watching over Luke, the progeny of the guy that he screwed over.” So you know, embed a new idea. And in Jon Spaihts’ script for Prometheus was this creation myth. The opening of Prometheus as you see it was in Jon’s script. Oh this is a movie about scientists who are searching for the existence of their creators, and so there’s this kind of religious spirit, a pseudo-spiritual thing told in scientific language. And then what was really interesting to me was there was a robot along for the ride, an android, named David in Jon’s script, and I was like, “Oh this is cool. These idiot humans are basically going and looking for their creator.” And anybody who’s ever watched a science fiction movie knows, all great sci-fi is: don’t cross this line; there are questions that mankind should not answer, do not reanimate dead bodies. And it’s like, “Well let’s f—ing do it anyway,” and then it doesn’t turn out well. And because it’s an Alien movie, we know how it’s going to end.
But that was an interesting idea, because the android was there, and he’s there with his creators, and they’re seeking out their creators. And he’s not impressed by his creators. The android, he’s the smartest guy in the room, and I was like, “I’m going to take those ideas, and I’m going to say that’s what the movie is, and we don’t even get to anything, any familiar Alien language, until the end of this movie and if there was a sequel to Prometheus, it would not be Alien — it would go off in its own direction. And therefore it would be exciting to watch because we’re not just connecting dots.”
GALLOWAY: I remember you talking about going into Ridley’s office and it’s like a vault. He has offices in West Hollywood?LINDELOF: He has offices in West Hollywood and it’s like the Scott Free complex, and Tony Scott, his brother, God rest his soul, the two of them also had a commercial production house, RSA, and so they’ve got these compounds down there; but Ridley’s office — I went in, and there is literally a room that has a vault door, like when you go and see movies, heist movies, and they open up the vaults. It’s that thing that you turn. And they open it up for me and I went in and there were nine guys sitting behind laptops and Arthur Max is the production designer of Prometheus, and there are all these amazing drawings that he had done of the engineers, and of the space suits and the planets and the ship, which was called the Prometheus. And it was another J.J. moment, where I’m basically like, standing there with Ridley, and this is just the way that you’re supposed to feel in these moments, which is like, “How did I get here?”
And then right on the heels of that, “I’m here, and I better act professionally, because Ridley Scott is not going to hire me if I just ask him questions about Blade Runner for the next half hour,” which is what I want to do. I have to act like I belong here and start explaining to him: “Look, embedded in this script are these amazing ideas, and if you want to hire me, I play up this stuff and play down this stuff, but I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water because obviously there’s a lot of great things in Jon’s script.” And that’s my pitch, and Ridley responded, and then we went to Fox, and pitched to them. And they responded and, in all great traditions, you’re told that this is going to be a six-week gig and it was a year of my life.
GALLOWAY: So a couple of years after that you get a call from another iconic industry figure, Brad Pitt. And you crafted the end of World War Z, which was an extraordinary troubled film. It wasn’t working. They asked you to help fix the ending, but you ended up writing something like 60 pages of the script, and they spent $20 million-$30 million reshooting it. Let’s take a look at, very late in the film, when Brad Pitt has to go into this laboratory, and retrieve some drugs, while dodging zombies.
LINDELOF: So he’s running?
GALLOWAY: He’s not running. You’ve seen the film.
LINDELOF: He doesn’t make it.
GALLOWAY: Right. It’s Hollywood, there’s always a happy ending. I’ve never heard of this before, where a film’s been shot, they spent $150 million-plus, and then they called in the writer to fix it. What happened? And how did you go about it? And honestly, I think the end salvages the film, so you pulled it off.
LINDELOF: That’s very kind of you to say. I mean, I’m used to making the epic mistakes and not used to fixing them, but I think that the idea of script doctoring or even movie doctoring is immensely appealing, because you arrive at a crisis point and you’re either the hero or you basically say, “Sorry, the patient was [dead].” They showed me the first 70 minutes of the movie, and I thought it was scaled incredibly, and there was this incredible opening in Philadelphia, and then they had this sequence in Jerusalem, that was just this massive [thing and] delivered on the promise of a movie called World War Z.
But the problem with the movie was inherent to the scale of it, which was: it’s so big that all it can ever be is Brad Pitt running away from zombies. How do you give the hero any sense of victory? Maybe we need to scale it down. Maybe the ending of this movie needs to be much more intimate and personal. And also you’ve got Brad Pitt.
GALLOWAY: That’s actually an interesting idea. With most movies, there’s a great Sam Goldwyn line: you start with an earthquake and work your way to a climax. And this is the opposite, it’s just the opposite of what you expect; it doesn’t end big, it ends incredibly small, but with such intense emotion.
LINDELOF: Well the other thing was exactly what you say, which is, as formulaic as “Tell my family I love them” may be, this is an immensely relatable idea and this is something that we see time and time again, in movies of this scale, the Campbellian hero’s journey, which is that the hero has to sacrifice their own life for the greater good. How do we do that? How do we demonstrate that idea? Brad is basically tasked with nothing less than, “How do we beat these things?” And he’s been all over the world and he is not a medical doctor, but he begins to witness behavior in these zombies that seems to suggest that they will not come after you if you are sick or infirm.
And so there’s the novel idea of, if we inject ourselves with some sort of virus or a disease that we have an antidote for, we could walk right by these things and they will not attack us and we would be camouflaged. And that idea was already embedded in their movie, but they essentially had already gone and shot a third act that was scaled. They went to Russia and there was a huge battle between the Russian army and zombies and he was just running around again, and you’re not really feeling any sense of fundamental direction. So you know, it seemed intuitive to say, “Let’s just do the opposite of that.” And also in the zombie genre, there are no new ideas, so movies like 28 Days Later, which I loved, are scaled very intimately. I said, let’s scale it down. We’ve got one of the biggest movie stars in the world. I can watch Brad Pitt in a room for 10 minutes saying nothing, just looking at f—ing jars.
GALLOWAY: Your first meeting with him, you went to his house.
LINDELOF: Yeah, well my first meeting was with Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, the producers of the movie. And they showed me this movie. I also should I not neglect to say it is, that Drew Goddard and I — Drew was a writer on Lost, and has gone on to direct Cabin in the Woods, and he wrote The Martian, an immensely talented guy — he and I did this work together. And then it was basically like a four-week blitz that Drew and I were engaged on, then they actually had to go and execute it. Christopher McQuarrie is a great, unsung hero of World War Z, so I have to sing his praises. He came in after Drew and I, and basically honed the material so that it could be shot. And tightened it and made a number of incredibly smart decisions.
GALLOWAY: So your first meeting with Brad...
LINDELOF: My first meeting with Brad, went over to his house. He asked me, like, what kind of coffee I wanted, and I was like, “Brad Pitt’s asking me what kind of coffee?” He was like in a tracksuit.
GALLOWAY: Did he make it himself?
LINDELOF: No. But he did ask. And he sat down, and essentially my meeting with Brad was before I saw the movie. The call that I got was, “Brad wants to meet with you before you see the movie, to basically set up the movie.” And he’s a producer on the film, and he did this thing that nobody in our business ever does, and basically said to a stranger, “I made a mistake.” You know, “The movie isn’t working, parts of the movie are working, let me explain to you why we made the mistake, and here are the things in this movie that I’m passionate about. I want you to know them before you see the mistake.” And that was the meeting.
GALLOWAY: I don’t want to close without talking a bit about The Leftovers, your TV series. Watch carefully. Don’t be squeamish.
GALLOWAY: Instead of moving forward with film, you went back to television. Why?
LINDELOF: I love TV, I love the canvas of it; I feel the grass is always greener but I feel like I’m better at television than I am in movies. One of my fatal flaws as a storyteller is I have too many ideas, and you want to pack them all into 120 pages, and you don’t get to develop them all. I fall in love with different characters at different times. And also I think that movies have become very formulaic, and there’s this idea of story gravity, sort of pulling at me, in terms of the scale of these movies: it’s got to be save the world, this has got to happen, this guy’s got to say goodbye to her, and blah-blah-blah. Whereas in television, I don’t feel the same constraints. I feel a lot more freedom to maneuver.
GALLOWAY: What do you mean by story gravity?
LINDELOF: Story gravity. Any summer movie that comes out with a budget of $100 million-plus has to have the world is at stake. The hero has to save the world. And when the hero has to save the world, there is either a portal that’s going to open at the end of the third act and all the bad guys are going to come through, and the hero has to close the portal; or there’s something that’s going to explode and kill everybody, and the hero’s got to stop that from happening. And you go into these movies and you say, “I’m not going to do that.”
You know, even in Prometheus, it’s like, “I’m not going to do that.” And then you get notes, and things aren’t working, and then you’re like, “Oh what if the ship lifts off and it’s headed for earth and if they don’t stop the ship from getting to earth, it’s going to destroy earth,” even though they are lightyears from earth. They’re so far from earth they have to go into cryo-sleep to get to the place where this movie is taking place. And so there is sort of a fundamental familiarity with the moves of one of these movies, and when a movie comes along like Ant-Man, which is like, “We’re not playing for the fate of the world here,” it’s just a heist movie and that’s the outcome of it. If it falls into the bad guy’s hands, it will be bad; but every Avengers movie now, you can’t just have the Avengers not saving the world. It has to be bigger and louder every single time. And I will go and I will see every Avengers movie ever made, but I don’t think that I’d be particularly good at writing them.
GALLOWAY: With The Leftovers, do you know — going back to what we were talking about earlier on — do you know how it’s going to end? Is there an explanation?
LINDELOF: For those of you who don’t watch The Leftovers, or are unfamiliar with it, the premise of the show is that two percent of the world’s population disappears like, so like, in this room right now, four of us would just blink out of existence. And there doesn’t seem to be a reason for who goes and who doesn’t go. People think maybe there’s a moral reason, maybe all the good people went, or maybe all the bad people went. But they can’t figure out what it was. And they can’t figure out why it happened. Was it God, was it some sort of scientific anomaly, was it aliens?
The show starts three years after this thing occurs; it’s called the sudden departure, and essentially it’s a post-apocalyptic story, where the apocalypse happened, but no one wants to talk about it. And so the world looks exactly the way that it looked before, but it was scaled small enough, just two percent of apocalypse, so it’s not The Walking Dead, where there are zombies trying to eat you. But it’s apocalyptic storytelling. It was very engaging to me. And it’s based on a book by Tom Perrotta, who’s one of my favorite authors, and the novel was like, “Oh, we’re not interested at all in explaining why this happened, or why these two percent disappeared.” The novel is about the state of living in a world where this happened. Coming out of Lost, I was like, what a relief to basically do a story where I don’t have to answer that question. And the show is about living in an ambiguous, mysterious space without resolution.
GALLOWAY: And still there are these mystical illusions. You have a very mystical sense — in Prometheus, the same thing. I’m going to turn to questions.
QUESTION: I was just wondering, what are some of the best scripts that you’ve ever read, scripts that maybe students and writers would find useful for story structure, character, format?
LINDELOF: That’s a great question. The Truman Show is a great script. That’s what all of us were reading when I first came out to LA in the early 90s. Anything written by Charlie Kaufman is amazing. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an amazing script. And then the go-to is William Goldman, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Still, you know, obviously screenwriting has changed a lot. He wrote a book called Adventures in the Screen Trade, which is an amazing piece of writing about writing. And the idea of telling the story on making a screenplay [and making it] interesting to read in and of itself is amazing. And then any Tarantino script is always so amazing, not just the dialogue, but the way that he writes. I think those would be my off-the-top-of-my-head recommendations.
QUESTION: Thanks for being here. The most cinematic aspects of Lost, in my opinion, were the production design and the music, and I consider them to be some of the most demanding I can imagine, with them having to establish the scope and mythology of the show. But they’re filming production in Hawaii, and Michael Giacchino the composer only has a few days to compose the music. So as a showrunner, how did you approach supervising these two important aspects of the show?
LINDELOF: The honest answer is that you hire immensely talented people/artists and then you give them complete and utter autonomy. [LAUGHTER] And that empowers them to do their best work and it’s a little bit terrifying, but you can control what you can control and you can’t control what you can’t control. And Michael Giacchino, I don’t know if you know this, but basically was discovered by Bryan Burk because he had written the music for Medal of Honor, for video games, and then introduced Michael to J.J., and then Michael started doing the music for Alias. And several Oscars later … Here’s somebody who really knows what they’re doing, who is really dialed into the aesthetics of the show, and the idea that Michael Giacchino is going to send me a cue and I’m going to give notes to him, and I’m going to say, “I don’t know man. I’d bring the cellos in here” — like, what?
GALLOWAY: Not going to happen.
LINDELOF: Hire people you get along with, and then let them do what they do best. I’m hard pressed to think of a single note that I gave Michael Giacchino over the six seasons of Lost. All I did was feel immense gratitude to be in the presence of his music. And he knew what he was doing. Thank you.
QUESTION: I’m an urban studies major, and my question is: what within the writing process do you find to be like the most challenging aspect of actually putting into reality? In terms of just finding a way to, like, within the doctoring of, like, your scripts, finding the way to, like, blend your own writing with that which is already there?
LINDELOF: The biggest challenge is pushing through this idea of getting it right the first time. Especially when you’re adapting something that already exists, or rewriting another writer, or even writing something your own. I think that people call this writer’s block; it’s not, there is no writer’s block in television, because the deadlines are — when you feel the heat under your feet and the spear in your back, those are great things for a writer ’cause there has to be something to shoot.
But I do feel a mistake that I made early in my career was that I was very precious about my writing and so I wanted the first thing that flowed through my fingers onto the page to be the thing, versus basically doing what I do now, which is saying, “This thing that is coming out of my mind and my fingers right now is not what they’re going to make. I’m nine iterations away from that. Nine drafts away from writing the thing that’s good. This is going to be shit. And three or four drafts from now, it’s going to start to be less bad, and four drafts after that, it actually might be good.” And that really relaxes me in terms of my process, because I think that a lot of us hold ourselves to a very high standard — that’s great, but the first thing that comes is very rarely going to be great, and in fact for me, it’s never the first thing, [that] has never been great. This is a very longwinded answer to a very simple question, but that challenge still exists for me, which is I want everything to be great, and it’s frustrating when it’s not. But it very rarely is. The path to making something great is drafts.