'Star Trek's' Damon Lindelof on Brad Pitt, Having Power as a Writer and His Agony Over 'Lost'
The scribe for two $200 million productions this summer, "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "World War Z," Lindelof reveals what he and J.J. Abrams talk about -- and why he'll never do "Star Wars": "It would be a lose-lose for me in every way, shape or form."
"I think you're supposed to act like that sort of thing just happens all the time," says Lindelof of his first, nerve-racking meeting. " 'Hey, we're all just filmmakers here, hanging out and drinking coffee and talking story.' It took about 20 minutes for my brain to stop saying, 'Be cool, be cool, be cool.' "
Pitt knew what the problems were with the film -- in which Pitt's character, Gerry Lane, is crucial to helping not only his family but all of mankind survive a zombie outbreak -- and was convinced that Lindelof could help. And, after watching the 75 minutes of the movie that worked, Lindelof signed on.
"The idea of a large-scale, epic, $150 million zombie movie starring Brad Pitt sounds pretty good to me," he says. "Because I haven't seen that before. I haven't seen the go-for-broke, insane zombie movie. One of the things that Brad said was, there are so many tropes we've come to expect in zombie films, and he wanted to do something different. And the only way to do it different was to do it big."
It became clear that fixing World War Z wasn't going to be as simple as suggesting a few changes, writing a few pages, then riding off into the sunset (work for which a writer at Lindelof's level can expect between $200,000 and $300,000 a week). It would, rather, entail writing 60 new pages (and Paramount agreeing to spend a reported $20 million on top of the $170 million it already had dropped on the production) -- so Lindelof called in some help. Namely, a former Lost writer named Drew Goddard, who, since his time on the island, directed and co-wrote The Cabin in the Woods. Together, they hammered out the pages in three weeks.
"One of the things that I said when I first agreed to do it was, 'Guys, we have to do this completely and totally under the table,' " he says. "I just got through the Prometheus experience, and 'Lindelof comes in to fix the World War Z ending' will bring, literally -- it'll be the worst press you can ever imagine. I guarantee that I will take all the blame if the movie doesn't do well. That's what I'm here for."
Lindelof was born a nerd. His father, David, a bank manager in Manhattan, loved all things genre and passed that love down to his only child, while his mother, Susan, a teacher in Harlem, blithely tolerated it. "When a Star Wars movie opened up, I was allowed to take those Wednesdays off," he recalls, "and we would go set up lawn chairs at 8 in the morning outside our local movie theater."
After an illustrious high school career -- "I was a less-cool version of Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore" -- Lindelof attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. "I graduated in three years because I couldn't afford four years, but I loved it," he says. "My roommate and I, this guy Eric Buyers -- who is my best friend and was the best man at my wedding -- we were doing bong hits when it suddenly occurred to us that we didn't have a plan for what we would do when we graduated. So we decided we should get in our cars and drive out to L.A."
Which is exactly what they did. The 21-year-old would-be writer spent a few years bouncing around -- in the mailroom of the Metropolitan Talent Agency, working for Scott Rudin ("I was employed for a day; that's a story for another time") -- before landing a gig as a creative executive at Alan Ladd Jr.'s production company.
But he still was writing. And, in the process, he realized that he wanted to work in TV. "I wanted to be a television writer because they don't have to go through this hell that I witnessed firsthand in experiences with screenwriters. The idea of committing three years of your life to writing the same script over and over again, and then maybe it gets made?"
He wrote a script he liked, entered it into the Academy's Nicholl Fellowships and … didn't win. But he made it to the top 50, which served as a well-timed kick in the ass. He sent out an e-mail to everyone he knew, begging for any job anywhere near writing for TV. "The next day, my friend Julie Plec e-mailed me back. She was Kevin Williamson's producing partner -- they had just had a lot of success in Dawson's Creek, and Kevin had just created a new show called Wasteland" -- and they needed a writer's assistant.
Lindelof parlayed that into a staff writer gig and, after Wasteland got wasted after two episodes on ABC, he jumped to CBS' Nash Bridges, where he met his mentor and future collaborator Carlton Cuse -- and, later, NBC's Crossing Jordan.
Then came Lost.