'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.
"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.
"We were attempting to create a show based on an idea [then-ABC Entertainment chair] Lloyd Braun had pitched about a group of people who survived a plane crash," remembers Abrams, who was producing Alias at the time and couldn't do it alone. "And I had heard about Damon Lindelof from an executive at Disney named Heather Caden. I thought, 'Let's bring him in.' Damon walked in wearing this old, small Star Wars T-shirt, and I immediately knew I liked him. It was like talking to someone I had grown up with."
Given the green light by Braun -- who then would leave ABC, with Steve McPherson being installed as the head of ABC Networks -- Abrams and Lindelof wrote, cast, shot and edited the two-hour pilot in 12 weeks, from January 2004 to April 2004. "Serialized" was a bad word then, and Lost was an expensive gamble, one Lindelof was sure ABC wouldn't take. Maybe they'd do a miniseries. Maybe.
While he was in a staffing meeting for a new job, he got a call from Caden. "She said, 'Look, you didn't hear this from me, but we just got the testing in from Lost, and it tested higher than all the other shows, save Desperate Housewives.' That was on a Thursday. Then on Friday, McPherson called and said: 'Pack your bags for New York. You're on air, we're ordering 13.' "
Abrams had made it clear during the pilot process that he wasn't going to be around to help run Lost -- he was committed to directing Mission: Impossible 3 -- which meant that Lindelof would have to run his first TV show alone.
"I wasn't sleeping," he says. "I was commuting back and forth to Hawaii; everything that could go wrong was going wrong; I was having a hard time breaking stories and writing scripts. And I'd never done it before. But everyone thought I was doing a good job."
About halfway through the production of the first season, Lindelof asked Cuse to help him ease the pain -- and "so that I would have someone to quit to, because no one else was accepting my resignation." But Cuse persuaded him to stay, offering to take much of the production duties off Lindelof's desk, freeing him to run the writers room and, more importantly, to write.
"The one hope that I had was that no one was going to watch the show," says Lindelof. "My fantasy scenario was that we were going to make 13 episodes of Lost, and that it might be like The Prisoner. It would be this epic, expensive disaster that was actually good."
And then it premiered and immediately became the only thing that anyone could talk about, nabbing 18.6 million viewers that first night. "Baskets of muffins are showing up," recalls Lindelof. "Everyone wanted to hoist me on their shoulders. Literally, I had to go into my office, close the door and cry. I was like: 'We're going to have to make more of these. And not just the original 13, but maybe even a second season.' It just felt horrible."
Compounding it all was that Lindelof still was reeling from the loss of his father -- an atheist -- who died a year before Lost began. "When he died, it was a profound spiritual experience for me," says Lindelof, who was raised Jewish but let his faith atrophy as he got older. "When you don't have the religious institution to fall back on, you don't get to sit shiva, you don't get the funeral at the church. Every time someone would say to me, 'He's in a better place, now,' I would have to say, 'Well, he didn't think so.'
"I wanted to believe that he was in a better place, so I channeled a lot of those feelings into Jack Shephard, who was basically flying back from Australia with the casket of his dead father and was struggling with the same idea of wanting to embrace a system by which he could find comfort. But if you had asked me, in 2004, was I grieving my father? I would've said, 'He died a year and a half ago, I'm bummed and I miss him, but no.' But I was."
Lost firmly is behind Lindelof, though, like with most rearview mirrors, objects are closer than they appear. Some days, it feels as if Twitter was invented so that people could vent their feelings -- even three years after the fact -- about the controversial, divisive Lost finale.
"I love the Lost ending," says Lindelof. "I stand by it, but there are a lot of people out there who hate it. The conventional thinking is that it's universally hated, and that's not necessarily true. The loudest people are the haters. I cannot live in a world where I pretend not to hear those voices. When someone says something that really hurts me, I have to retweet it to let it go. If I were a healthier person, I possibly wouldn't be on Twitter at all, but I can hear them whispering at me."
Instead, Lindelof is looking forward. Star Trek Into Darkness is on the immediate horizon, opening May 16 and, despite its foreboding title, Lindelof thinks the reason Trek continues to resonate with audiences is because of its optimistic vision of the future. Some of the early reviews, though, have been less than sunny, but Lindelof shrugs them off: "I have seen them. How could I resist? I find some overly kind, others unfairly mean and most of them right on."
What isn't on Lindelof's plate is the one thing he'd kill to dig into: Star Wars. "When the news first broke that Disney was going to do it," he says, smiling a smile that doesn't extend to his eyes, "people were already tweeting, 'Just keep Damon Lindelof away from it.' When I saw that, I started realizing that it would be a lose-lose for me in every way, shape or form." (For his part, Abrams says: "I consider both of us part of each other's pitching cabinet; we're both there for each other, officially or otherwise, no matter what. I know for a fact that, moving forward, I will bend his ear on this.")
Instead, he's nose-down on Tomorrowland, the secretive feature he hatched with journalist Jeff Jensen that will be directed by Bird, who met Lindelof when the writer helped out with Mission Impossible 4's ending. Lindelof is reluctant to reveal much about Tomorrowland, other than to say that it springs from the history of The Walt Disney Co., specifically, WED Enterprises, Walt's "black ops" division that invented the theme parks. Lindelof was inspired to do something original. Everything he's done to date has been based on something that wasn't his, a world someone else created.
"Honestly, I think Tomorrowland will be the first really original credit that I've produced in my career," he says. Lindelof prefers finding new partners, as he is a collaborative beast at heart: "My writing powers do not work in a vacuum, they can only be unlocked -- as limited as they may be -- by the presence of someone else. I feel like you need to play me a lick before I can start playing. I would just sit at the piano and stare at it if you asked me to play.
"I could never do what J.J. is able to do," he continues, "which is executive produce and develop several different shows because I just don't have that skill set."
As a member of the elite club of TV writers who also are showrunners, who also have created landmark programs, he gets calls all the time from networks who want to be in the Damon Lindelof business. And his answer, to date, always has been no. "There's this idea that I have a trunk, and in that trunk are 20 great show ideas that I haven't had the chance to develop yet. The truth is, there just aren't. I have cool ideas, things that excite me on a regular basis. They are scenes, moments, frameworks, concepts, characters …but none of them are a concept for a show.
"I'm taking a page from the Quentin Tarantino playbook; he's always said, 'I just don't want to make any bad movies.' I've already got 'Make Bad Movies' crossed off my list. I don't want to make any bad TV shows."
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