'Star Trek's' Damon Lindelof on Brad Pitt, Having Power as a Writer and His Agony Over 'Lost'
This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The first thing you see when you walk into Damon Lindelof's office suite on the Disney lot is a rusty, orangey hunk of metal laying on the floor, as if a junkyard forgot to eat half of an old VW Beetle. It seems like an odd bit of refuse to find in the workplace of a man who perhaps is the most omnipresent screenwriter in Hollywood -- his movies have grossed nearly a billion dollars, and he's got a shiny Emmy Award on the shelf.
And then it clicks: It's the Hatch, the one that was buried on the island in Lost. The item that defined, for better and -- if you're one of the ABC show's detractors -- for worse, the 21st century's first television phenomenon, a TV series that inspired more passion and rage, theories and bloggery, tweets and tattoos than any other show before it.
Move a little farther into Lindelof's tastefully appointed space, and you'll find the office of a nerd of means. Three massive framed Star Wars posters -- gifts from Lindelof's friend and collaborator J.J. Abrams, who co-created Lost with him and will direct the next installment in the Star Wars series -- adorn the walls.
But Lost never is far from sight. A model of the Oceanic 815 plane, whose crash kicks off the series; a can of Dharma Initiative beer; a smashed desktop computer, the very one that used to be the recipient of pop-culture's most notorious series of numbers since 867-5309: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42.
It is both a Fortress of Solitude, where Lindelof does much of his writing, and a shrine to the show that made a kid from Teaneck, N.J., one of the most lauded, in-demand screenwriters in Hollywood. But Lindelof's relationship with Lost is … complicated.
"I feel really guilty telling you the truth, and it is the truth," says Lindelof, the humming of the Twilight Zone pinball machine in the corner fading into the background. "The year that Lost started and premiered was, without a doubt, the most miserable year of my life. The level of despair and anguish that I was feeling; I was clinically depressed, and anyone that you talked to who knew me at the time will tell you that."
Abrams confirms it: "I sensed it every time he tried to quit. And there were so many. Every time, I sympathized with him. But luckily he didn't."
With Lost, and that despair, behind him, Lindelof stands on the precipice of an astonishing moment, the kind that every writer dreams of. He's about to have a pair of $200 million blockbusters hit theaters with his name on them -- Star Trek Into Darkness (on May 16) directed by Abrams, and Brad Pitt's troubled zombie odyssey World War Z (on June 21); he's in preproduction on the pilot for HBO's The Leftovers, his first post-Lost dip back into television, which will be directed by Peter Berg; and he's prepping Disney's Tomorrowland, a shrouded-in-secrecy film he's producing and co-writing, with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol's Brad Bird directing and George Clooney starring.
At a time when franchises are driving the box office, and those who can craft addictive stories to back up mere concepts are in high demand, Lindelof has proved invaluable. He arguably is the single most- visible screenwriter in a town that traditionally marginalizes them, in great part because he's taken to social media like an irate town crier, engaging his quarter of a million Twitter followers -- about, among other things, the relative quality of his own work -- when he should probably turn the other cheek. And yet … and yet.
"A lot of writers whom I love, admire and call friends share this feeling," confides Lindelof, "which is this fundamental idea that we're frauds. That we will be pushed out on to the stage, and it will be revealed that the emperor has no clothes. That was always like a fun, self-deprecating thing that I said. But it was always something that I felt."
On this day, a couple of weeks before his 40th birthday -- which will be spent with a few close friends (and a cake modeled after a ridiculous yellow hat worn by Lindelof's recent Twitter obsession, Justin Bieber) at a party at L.A.'s Osteria Mozza -- Lindelof looks tired. His brown eyes, framed by thick black glasses, still are alert, but there's an occasional sigh in his barrel chest that conveys exhaustion.
Which is understandable, given that since Lost ended in May 2010, he's been working nearly nonstop.
After a monthlong Italian vacation with his wife, Heidi, a former producer who worked on Almost Famous and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, and his now 6-year-old son -- and some time spent marathoning the TV that he missed while his life was all Lost all the time; specifically The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Justified, Breaking Bad -- he answered a call from Todd Feldman, his CAA agent. " 'Ridley Scott is about to call you. Are you free?' I was driving on Ventura, in Studio City, and I slammed on my brakes," recalls Lindelof. "So I pulled over. Ridley Scott doesn't introduce himself when he calls. He's like, 'Hey dude.' That's what he always called me; I'm not sure he knows my name. He goes, 'I'm sending you a script, will you read it tonight?' and I'm like, 'Sure, Ridley.' "
That script was called Alien Zero, written by Jon Spaihts, and it would -- after an extensive rewrite by Lindelof that made the film less about setting up the Alien franchise's mythos and more about the folly of man's search for his creator -- be released into the world as Prometheus. Scott's 2012 film would go on to gross $403 million worldwide, though it was viewed, by fans and critics alike, as something of a misfire. And Lindelof, for better or for worse, took a lot of that heat. "Me being out in front of the movie was because we were getting a shitload of press requests," says Lindelof. "And Ridley just didn't want to do all that stuff."
About a month before Prometheus hit screens, Lindelof got another heads-up from his agent, who seems to deal mostly in crazy-ass phone calls: Pitt wanted to meet him to talk about his out-of-control zombie flick, World War Z, which was in dire need of someone to come in and invent an ending, as the one they had simply didn't work. For a hot minute, Pitt was interested in starring in Prometheus and, apparently, really responded to the script. So he called Lindelof up to his house in the Hollywood Hills to discuss World War Z.