'Star Trek's' Damon Lindelof on 'Star Wars' Influences and His 'Fatal Flaw' (Q&A)
The writer of summer's "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "World War Z" reveals how Matthew Broderick inspired him to attend film school, why he has no plans to direct and the "Lost" question he tires of answering.
THR: Want to give it another crack?
Lindelof: No, thank you. This is a question I’ve been thinking a lot about, lately. I think partially because I’m turning 40 in two weeks, and it’s like, "What are the things that I should be doing that I’m not?," and that’s one of them. People ask me that question, "Well we see that J.J. Abrams does it, Matt Weiner does it, Vince Gilligan, other showrunners have done it. Why aren’t you directing?" I always give the same answer, "Because I wouldn’t be any good at it." But I’m starting to wonder if "I don’t think I’d be any good at it" is just me afraid to try. Because the idea of failing spectacularly would be so overwhelmingly depressing that it’s just easier for me to not do it. But what it feels like, honestly, is that I wouldn’t be any good at it. Just that idea of being a general in the field f---ing terrifies me. This HBO pilot that we’re about to do for the summer -- that Pete Berg is going to direct -- if they pick it up to series, I might like to direct an episode of it; just to say, "OK, I gave it a shot." I know that I would go all in and that I would obsess over it. I’m not really good at dealing with failure, so I do everything I can to avoid it. Me, directing an episode of anything, would not be avoiding failure. It would be enticing failure, taunting failure. Sending an evite to failure.
THR: What was it like first coming to L.A. after New Jersey?
Lindelof: My dad took me to L.A. when I was 14. My parents are divorced, so he would have me for two weeks in the summer, and we would go on little adventures together. When I was 14, we came to L.A. From the moment I got off the plane and smelled the air, I was like, "I want to live in California." Certainly, L.A. is the nexus of all things Hollywood -- where all these movies are being made. We did what all the tourists would do: We went to Universal Studios and Disneyland and Hollywood Boulevard, and I completely ate it up. Just seeing a movie in the Chinese Theatre was amazing. I think it was Blue Thunder. But everything about that trip stuck. Oddly enough -- this is a true story, I have photographic evidence of it -- we went to Universal Studios, and at the time, there wasn’t really a CityWalk. There were a lot of restaurants just outside of Universal Studios, one of which was Tony Roma's. It’s like, "We love ribs." So there was a line, and we’re standing in line for Tony Roma’s, and this guy and three kids [try] to cut. I’m like, "Dad! That guy is trying to cut the line!," and he goes, "That’s George Lucas." And it was. It was Lucas and his three kids. I’m like: "Oh my God. We’ve got to go in there. We’ve got to take pictures of him." We waited for about a half an hour, and the line was not moving. We’re like, "No one is ever going to believe that we saw George Lucas, but we know that we did." The next day, we’re at Disneyland in Tomorrowland, and I’m waiting in line for Star Jets -- it sort of exists now, but it was a different ride then. My dad doesn’t like going on rides. So I would wait in line, and he would sit on a bench and read a book. Sure enough, George Lucas, three kids and another dude walk by me and get backdoored on Star Jets. To get on to Star Jets, you had to get on an elevator that takes you up to the top of the ride, and then you go on. … So I leave the line, which I’ve been waiting on for 40 minutes, and I grab my dad and I say: "Dad, George Lucas is on that ride. I shit you not. I’m going to stand at the elevator, and I want you take a picture of me with George Lucas getting off in the background." Which he did. I saw Lucas twice in the five-day trip to Los Angeles; which was pretty much confirmation of me living here.
THR: You were once a development executive, right? One of your first jobs out of college. What did you take from that experience?
Lindelof: I got a job at Alan Ladd’s production company. Laddy had just won an Oscar for Braveheart, and he greenlit Star Wars. They made me a creative executive, and I was able to start developing material with writers. In the three years that I worked there, we didn’t get a single movie made. Probably because I was very bad at it. But all that time, I was writing my own stuff. None of which was good. But by the end of my stewardship, I was maybe 26 or 27, and I had finally written a screenplay on my own time, one that didn’t totally suck. I submitted it to the Nicholl Fellowship under a pseudonym. There were around 5,000 submitted, and I got a letter that said, "You made the top 100." I was like, "Wow, that’s really encouraging." And then I got another letter that said, "You’ve made the top 50," and the next cut is the final 10. At that point, I was like: "I’m probably not going to make the next cut. Let’s be honest." By then, I decided I no longer wanted to be a screenwriter, I wanted to be a television writer. I remember going, "From what I know about television writers, they don’t have to go through this hell that I’m witnessing firsthand in experience 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. … TV writers -- look, it’s getting made constantly." I sent out an e-mail that said: "Attention, friends. I want to be a TV writer. I set aside enough money as an executive to essentially get paid next to nothing. I will do anything -- whatever is the equivalent to an apprenticeship to television writing is -- whether that means working for an executive producer or any writer on a TV show, or even a PA position. Just get me in the door." 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 said: "This show just got picked up, it’s going to be on ABC. We need a writer’s assistant."
THR: And then the show was canceled after two episodes. Was there a lesson in that?
Lindelof: That only way to successfully do this is for that to be the only "thing." It’s like, "You have to be in a monogamous relationship with this show if you want it to work." I could see Kevin wanting to be present for Wasteland but not literally having the hours in the day to make that happen given his other responsibilities. If you look at Vampire Diaries, which is more or less Julie’s show, and now The Following -- that’s what he’s doing. He’s doing this, and this alone. There was an enormous temptation for me once Lost became successful -- even in its first season -- to go and do other things. But I learned that fundamental lesson on Wasteland, and that was reinforced on Crossing Jordan and Nash Bridges, the jobs I got after Wasteland went down. In both those cases, both Carlton and John … all they did was produce. Tim Kring, all he did was Crossing Jordan. So, vision is everything. It’s a full-time job to communicate your vision to everyone else, and that’s assuming that you know what your vision is.
THR: Tell me about the moment when Lost got picked up.
Lindelof: All the other shows were in. We hadn’t even delivered our pilot, and the trades were already saying, "Here’s what ABC is picking up." Steve McPherson [then-head of ABC] was very honest and open about him not really understanding that this was going to be a TV series. The drama elements and heavy serialization, the immense cast, the tremendous budget were all reasons not to pick it up. So my mind-set was, "It’s win-win. If they pick it up, that’s great because that’s exciting, and we’ll get to make some more, but if they don’t pick it up, that’s a huge win because I have no idea what to do next." Everything happened so fast; there wasn’t any time to really figure out what we would do next. I knew that we wouldn’t have the money, the resources, nor J.J to go forward, so it was even beyond me to see what happened next. So, I was hedging. I was like, "It’s actually going to be a huge relief to not get picked up." What we were hearing from our agents was that they might do like a six-episode miniseries. "You can do like four more of these, then essentially wrap it up," or, "They’re not going to pick it up at all. Those are the two scenarios that we’re presenting to you. The best-case scenario being the miniseries scenario, probably for midseason. Sorry, dude." That was kind of depressing. My agents started sending me out for other jobs because it was like, "OK, here we are in the first week of May, and all these other shows are staffing." I had quit Crossing Jordan now and could probably go back hat in hand to Tim and get my job back, but that’s always a weird thing. My cell phone rang, and it was Heather Caden -- who was the unsung hero of Lost, in many ways; she was the one who introduced me to J.J. 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, sans Desperate Housewives." She was like, "I’m just telling you." That was on a Thursday. Then on Friday afternoon, McPherson called and said: "Pack your bags, you’re going to New York. You’re on air, we’re ordering 13." It was such a shock because that scenario had never been presented to us, even as a best-case scenario. That night, J.J was like, "We should go and have dinner." So our wives came; his wife, Katie, and my wife, Heidi -- who wasn’t my wife yet, she was my fiancee. Wait, I hadn’t proposed yet. I had decided to propose. … I went ring shopping in New York … but she was my very serious girlfriend. Katie took Heidi’s hands and looked her in the eyes and said: “Just hold on to each other. It’s about to get really insane."
THR: And was it?
Lindelof: For the first phase -- phase one we’ll call May to October, when the Red Sox won the World Series, that was our demarcation point -- J.J was gone, and I was all alone. I wasn’t sleeping; 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 dealing with production issues in Hawaii. And I’d never done it before, and everyone seemed to think that I was doing a good job. No one was saying, "We gotta fire this guy." I just kept saying, "I just need some help." J.J would materialize in crisis points, but he was already off working on Mission. He never abandoned me. J.J was very clear and specific in his messaging during the production of the pilot. He was like, "You’re going to run the show, right? I’m handing it off to you." He told everybody that that was going to happen; he told the actors, he told the studio, he told the network, [and] he told me. I just didn’t believe him. The one hope that I had was that no one was going to watch the show. My fantasy scenario was that we were going to make 13 episodes of Lost, and that it might be like The Prisoner, where a decade down the line it would have this really cool cult following. It would be this epic, expensive disaster that was actually good.