'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: When did Carlton Cuse -- your mentor from Nash Bridges -- get involved?
Lindelof: Around the sixth episode. I said: "Cartlon, please. Are you available? Will you come and partner with me? I need you to come and do this show." I sent him maybe two or three cuts of the first episodes that we had done. He loved them and agreed to come on board. I was like, "Finally, now there’s somebody I can quit to." I hired you so that I could quit to you because no one else is accepting my resignation. He was like: "Don’t worry. I’ll take a lot of this stuff off of your plate. You just be in the writers room and you write."
THR: And then it premiered.
Lindelof: We premiered on the Wednesday before Desperate Housewives. It was the biggest drama number that ABC had. At that time, ABC was like where NBC is right now, which was: "Oh my God. I don’t even know if it’s a viable network anymore." Baskets of muffins are showing up. Everyone is wanting 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. About two weeks later, I told Carlton I couldn’t do it anymore, I quit. He said: "Don’t quit. Take a week off. Be with your own thoughts. You just need to let go off the show. When you get back, you’re not going to want to not be a part of this. This is amazing. It’s really, really special and you’re a big part of it."
THR: What’s the question that you’re most tired of answering about Lost?
Lindelof: It’s a legitimate question, but, "Were you making it up as you went along?" I totally get it because if I were a fan of Lost, that’s the question I would be asking. It’s a mystery-based franchise; you do want to have the sense that the creators are playing fair. If they are making it up as they go along, it’s not possible for you to guess what the resolution to the mysteries are going to be because they can change their mind, intermittently, at any moment. Now that the show has been over for three years as of this May, the idea that they’re still asking, "Did you make it up as you go along?" I feel like I’ve answered different variations of that question in every form that I possibly can. The fact that it’s still popping up might be a fundamental rejection of the answer -- which is the truth -- but it could be just the textbook case of, "The only acceptable answer to me is that you say yes." You can't say, "No, but …" which is the honest answer. It’s television. I wish that we could live in a world where a writing entity on a television show could have complete creative control, like: "We just basically have this entire plan that we executed to the letter. Every single thing fell into place. All the actors wanted to do it, and the studio wanted to pay for it." It neglects the idea that you make mistakes. The first year, we made 25 hours of Lost -- you have to generate 55 pages of material every eight days; you’re going to make mistakes. The key is to recognize your mistakes and not double down on them but try to learn from them and be better. That’s making it up as you go along. That’s the very process. Our process was happening onscreen every Thursday night, right in front of everybody. So, yes, to a certain degree, that’s what it had to be. But when you say, "Yes, we were making it up as we go along," that completely takes away from all of the planning that we did do. There was a significant amount of it.
THR: And you answered that every which way but loose.
Lindelof: Then this new question started to emerge, which made the "Are you making it up as you go along?" question get really frustrating which was, "How much impact did the fans have on the show?" You want the answer to that question to be: "A lot. We really care what you guys think, and we want your input." Of course we care that you like it. This is an audience-driven medium. We’re going to do what we’re going to do. Our course is set, and you’re responding to our course, 8 chess moves back. Usually if we did something that didn’t work, we realized it before you did. I can’t really think of a lot of instances on the show where we thought it was awesome, and the audience rejected it. There were a couple cases where we thought something was terrible, and the audience let it escape by. When the show wasn’t taking risks, that’s when it wasn’t any fun to write. The problem with taking risks is they’re risks, so you don’t always come up aces. We did this episode called “La Fleur” in the fifth season. The big risk that we took in that episode was, not only that we were going to jump ahead three years in time with all the castaways on the island -- who basically got indoctrinated into Dharma -- but the big risk was that Sawyer and Juliet were going to be a couple, and you weren’t even going to see it develop. You saw one glimmer of them having a scene together, and in the next one they’re full-on in a relationship. We were just going to fast-forward to it all. When we saw the first cut of that show, we were like, "This is literally going to … it doesn’t work at all. This is going to fail." But we already shot three episodes beyond this, we were committed. Elizabeth Mitchell and Josh Holloway both told us, "We’re not sure if we can sell this." Our gut told us that Sawyer and Juliet was going to work if we just give it time and believe in it. It was like Tinkerbell: Just clap your hands, and it’s going to work. Somehow, through the editorial process, we willed that episode into working. But before it aired, we had already started coming up with a plan, as writers, to cut Sawyer and Juliet. We were fairly sure that we had done enough damage control for the episode not to be terrible -- but the audience was going to reject that relationship. When they saw the episode, they loved it.
THR: What’s the one question you wish you had been asked but never was?
Lindelof: It’s not a question per se, but I wish it was something that we talked about more. The idea to end the show, and how unconventional it was for us to be begging the network -- as early as the space between the first and second season -- to declare an end date and how incredible it was that they agreed to do that in the third season. And how that really saved the show. A lot of people say, "What was the original show? How many episodes would there have been?" And we say, "Oh, well we wanted to do 100 episodes in five seasons," or something like that. It’s arguable as to whether or not we went out on top. But what’s not arguable is if people were still watching the show when it ended. They were. Lost could’ve been on for another season or two, except the catch-22 is, if we had told them in season three, "There’s five seasons left," people would’ve checked out. They had to know that they were halfway through the story by the time we told them that the story was going to end. The way all that went down is something I wish we talked about more. Nobody wanted to do it. In fact, everybody who we talked to about it said that it was never going to happen.
THR: Networks who want to stay in business don’t drop shows that make them a lot of money.
Lindelof: I kept saying, "You guys have to time travel back and remember why you were nervous to pick up this show in the first place -- which is that you didn’t think this show would sustain." And here we are now, 40 episodes in, and just because people are watching it doesn’t mean that your initial instinct was wrong. We’ve figured out a way, so far, to keep them on the island. As soon as they start leaving the island, as soon as one of them gets off, we’re into the end game of the show. Now the process of just keeping them on the island is not interesting to watch. We’ve been sitting on this story piece that is really exciting to us, which is the story of the Oceanic six, but we can’t let anybody go until you give us an end date. So we were having a creative conversation, and they were having a business conversation, and somewhere between those two things, we were able to arrive at cancelling our own successful drama.
THR: Lost was one of the first shows to be victim of the recap phenomenon. Where do you come down on the recap issue? Can any show withstand that level of scrutiny? Is it fair to judge a serial show on its individual chapters and not as a complete work?
Lindelof: It transcends whether or not it’s fair. Ultimately, is it entertaining? Is recapping, in and of itself, its own really cool art form when it’s done well and the person has a strong point of view? Is it coming from an honest place? Which is, first off, if you’re taking the time to do this, there’s something that you fundamentally like about this show. Smash is elevated. The process of watching Smash is elevated by reading recaps of it by good writers. If you just watch Smash, you’re having an OK experience, but if you’re reading the recaps, it elevates Smash. In some senses, some shows demand that ongoing commentary, where there are shows that I want to read to recap. It’s amazing because-- and I have no shame admitting this -- I’ll watch an episode of Mad Men, and I’ll go: "Did I love that episode of Mad Men? Or did I not love it? I better go read the recap." It’s not that I don’t trust myself, but some episodes are in the space of, "It’s either brilliant, and I’m too dumb to understand, or it was just a subpar episode." Then you go and read some recaps, and you realize that there is some sort of debate happening between a number of people. Then you start to really realize: "Yeah. I felt that too in that scene," or "Oh my God. How did I miss that?" How could I possibly not like recapping when I engage in it regularly? I would never have the balls to write one about another show, but I like reading them.