'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: And then came World War Z, Brad Pitt’s massive -- and troubled -- zombie movie. How did your name come up?
Lindelof: What Brad said to me was that for a brief period of time, Ridley had engaged him on Prometheus to play the Michael Fassbender role. He read the script and really responded to the script.
THR: You first met with him in his house in the Hollywood Hills. What was the tone of that initial meeting?
Lindelof: I was incredibly nervous. I think you’re supposed to act like that sort of thing just happens all the time. “Hey, we’re all just filmmakers here, hanging out and drinking coffee and talking story.” I’d be lying to you if I told you I was completely at ease. It took about 20 minutes for my brain to stop saying, “Be cool, be cool, be cool.”
THR: What movie would you have made if they came to you first instead of last?
Lindelof: I think I would’ve written the exact movie that Matthew Carnahan wrote. When you’re a writer for hire, especially on an adaptation, especially on a summer tentpole movie, you’re job is to really service the vision of the director and the producer, and in this case, that was Marc Forster and Brad Pitt. I believe, though I haven’t spoken to him, Carnahan wrote that movie.
THR: After seeing the 70 minutes that Paramount had -- a movie without an ending -- what convinced you to sign on?
Lindelof: The idea of a large-scale, epic, $150 million zombie movie starring Brad Pitt sounds pretty good to me. Because I haven’t seen that before. I haven’t seen the go-for-broke, insane zombie movie. What I really liked/love about World War Z was it just completely and totally leaned into the spectacle of large-scale zombie outbreak. Which I had just never seen before on film. 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. 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.” I’ve done gigs like this before, and nobody has ever known that I’ve worked on those movies. I just got through the Prometheus experience, and if the story is, “Lindelof comes in to fix World War Z ending,” it’ll bring, literally, the worst press you can ever imagine. And then, before I even commenced work, it broke that I’d been engaged. I guarantee that I will take all the blame if the movie doesn’t do well. That’s what I’m here for.
THR: If Warner Bros called and asked you to help solve their Justice League problem, would you take that call?
Lindelof: The Justice League problem? I think a lot of that depends on Man of Steel. The Justice League problem is not a problem of, who is the bad guy that Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, Superman, whoever you decide to pit them against. The problem is: What’s the tone of that movie? They’ve been struggling with launching their own tone. The tone of Green Lantern is very different from the tone of The Dark Knight. They clearly inhabit two entirely different worlds. You want to feel like someone is establishing a world where the Justice League can exist, maybe Man of Steel is that movie. If Man of Steel works, and it’s great, I think it starts to make sense where Paradise Island is in that world. Because that’s an entirely different world than the one Christopher Nolan introduced.
THR: I was disheartened when Man of Steel was rated PG-13.
Lindelof: It should be PG. In the spirit of not throwing stones from the glass house in which one resides, the same should be said of Star Trek. The limitation between PG and PG-13, particularly as it pertains to violence -- there’s no sex in Star Trek; there are a couple of “s-words,” but only because we already knew we were going to get PG-13. They are easily excisable. I always loved that moment in Temple of Doom when Indy says, "Shit." Because that’s exactly what he would say. You don’t use it to be gratuitous, but it’s what a character would say in that moment. Donner’s Superman is a very adult movie. It doesn’t feel like it’s being whitewashed or watered down in any way. It feels real, cool, fun, escapist and upbeat. The larger thing for Man of Steel, is like, "Yes, we all are consuming darker stories." Again, glass house. But it’s like, "Is there any way we can get the word dark in it?"
THR: What do you think is the appeal of Star Trek?
Lindelof: There are a couple of things, but the main thing is -- and this keys into Tomorrowland a little bit -- I just don’t think that anyone is getting a vision of the future like the one that Star Trek is giving them. Since the moon landing, the only version of the future that we’re getting from pop culture are different iterations of the post-apocalypse, or the apocalypse itself. With the exception of Demolition Man. Star Trek is the only series that has the balls to say: "We worked it out on Earth. We’ve figured it out. We have problems with other alien civilizations, but as far as humanity goes, we’ve sorted it out. We’re no longer pointing nuclear weapons at each other; we didn’t kill the Earth; the atmosphere is still breathable; the robot singularity never occurred." The primary colorness of it and utopian future that Star Trek presents is still something that we like to see, even though we no longer buy it. We’re never going to sort it all out.
THR: Speaking of Tomorrowland, what are you willing to spill?
Lindelof: What I will say is: The beginning of it for me was when I had lunch with [president of production] Sean Bailey and [vp development] Brigham Taylor at Disney right around the time … I was already working on Prometheus, so it was at some point in late 2010. I was like: "What is a Disney movie? What kind of movies do you want to make here?" As much as I was enjoying Prometheus, I had the desire to do something original -- to not do Star Trek or Iron Man 3. Those were all offers I was getting for obvious reasons: Because I was looked at as a genre guy. I love to be looked at as a genre guy because I am a genre guy. He kicked it back to me and said, "What do you think a Disney movie is?" And I said Pirates of the Caribbean; when I first heard Disney was making that movie, I was like come on; it’s a theme park ride. That just seems lame. Then I saw the trailer, and I was like, "OK, I’ll be there." I love that movie. The first one is just fantastic. I was like, "Pirates of the Caribbean. To me, that’s the perfect Disney movie. Duh. It’s made you guys billions of dollars." But it’s like, you take something in the parks, and you think you know what it’s going to be, but there’s a lot more malleability that you think that there is because you get to do a totally original story, inhabited by totally original characters underneath the banner of something that feels completely and totally familiar to everybody. But if I told you I was writing a story called Tomorrowland, you would go, "Oh, what’s that going to be about?" in a good way because that’s really evocative of all these awesome things." He just looked at me. That led to a meeting with he and Brig and I. Then that meeting led to me hiring Jeff Jensen to help me understand more about the history of the Walt Disney Co. and the theme park as it pertained to Walt splitting off from Disney and starting WED, which was his own black ops version separate from the company -- while he was still running the company.
THR: Have you had any conversations about Star Wars with J.J.?
Lindelof: When George first sold Star Wars to Disney, J.J. was one of the first people that I reached out to. We were editing Into Darkness, so we were talking about it a lot in terms of, "Oh my God, it’s so exciting. There’s going to be a seven. What do you think that’s going to be?" Me asking, "If they come to you, would you do it?" He said, "I think there’s a billion different things that could go wrong, and I would rather just attend it as a fan. Right now, we’re working on Star Trek, and I can’t even think about Star Wars." That was his mind-set. Then, things progressed. There’s stuff I don’t want to talk about, other than to say: "I’m here, Disney. Very close to where all the decisions are being made." My attitude about Star Wars … having all these out-of-body experiences where I was like: "I can’t believe I’m in these conversations about Star Wars. I never thought that there would be a seven; and this has nothing to do with my involvement, but all these people who I am intimately associated with -- who are my partners on other projects -- there’s a very, very good chance that one of them might end up having something to do with this movie. What does that mean for me?" I didn’t know whether or not I wanted to be involved; and I didn’t know whether or not I didn’t want to be involved; but I did know that no one wanted me to be involved. When the news first broke that Disney was going to do it, two hours into it people were already tweeting, "Just keep Damon Lindelof away from it." It was like: "Why would they even say that? Let’s just embrace the fact that there’s going to be a seven." When I saw that, I started realizing that it would be a lose-lose for me. Although it would be the experience of a lifetime -- to play in that universe, which is entirely responsible for me being here right now -- it wasn’t going to be on seven. The good news was it feels like Disney is going to own Star Wars for a very long time, and hopefully I’ll be writing for a couple of more years. If not seven, maybe eight or nine; that’s what I started telling myself. In the meantime, no one ever asked. Disney hasn’t; J.J. hasn’t; as soon as I saw those tweets, on the day, I started telling everyone I knew that I didn’t want to do it, and couldn’t do it. So I closed that door, lest I face the possibility that nobody will open it for me. God forbid someone actually said, "I want you to be involved in this." I honest to God don’t know how I could ever say no to that.
THR: There’s a shortlist of guys who run television shows. There's an even shorter list of people who've run multiple-season genre shows. And then guys who've run shows that have become pop-cultural touchstones? You can probably count them on one hand. You’ve got to be getting calls from every network and studio head ... and near as I can tell, you keep saying no. Why?
Lindelof: 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 true is, there just aren’t. I have cool ideas [and] things that excite me on a regular basis. They are scenes, moments, frameworks, concepts, characters … but none of them are concept for a show. In the case of Lost, I figured out a way to execute the show that was presented to me by Heather Caden that was presented to her by [ABC's] Lloyd Braun. Then I got in a room with J.J. Abrams, and we combined our ideas, and that became Lost. That’s different than me being a show creator. I’m not entirely sure I have that skill because I don’t have those ideas. So the way that I’ve always responded to those calls is, "I don’t have any ideas." Are you calling me and saying, "We’ve got this idea but …" then maybe I can riff on it. 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 really feel that way. So, the first thing -- after Lost ended -- was this book called The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta. This is totally a television show. It’s a really cool novel that has a beginning, a middle and an end; everything about it screamed TV show to in me. I could never do what J.J. is able to do, which is executive produce and develop several different shows, because I just don’t have that skill set. I don’t know how to do that. I can spin other people’s ideas or remix stuff. If you look at the stuff I’ve done … honestly, I think Tomorrowland will be the first really original credit that I’ve produced in my career; and even that is based on pre-existing materials. I’ve never had ideas for a TV show. I’ve never had ideas for a book. It’s never happened.
THR: So you decline because it’s something you don’t want to do — or is it because you want to feel the ownership over it?
Lindelof: It’s both. You have to be inspired by the material, but … the only job I know how to do is: All the way in. It’s the 70-hour-a-week, this is my baby, I’m not doing movies anymore, this is my only job. This and only this. I can’t be doing five different things at the same time. When you are imposing your vision onto a television series, I really don’t think there’s room for anything else. Therefore, to make that commitment, it has to be superspecial. What they would say to me -- not just ABC, but other networks -- was: "You’d just be the godfather. So and so has actually written the script, you’ll just supervise." And I’ll go, "That’s not going to work for them, and it’s not going to work for me because I go whole-hog and I’m a control freak." It will be me wanting to do what I did on Lost. That’s the only way I know how to do it. And that’s the only way that I want to do it. This is taking a page from the Quentin Tarantino playbook, but he’s saying, "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. Every single television show that I executive produce I want to say: "I took full responsibility for this. This is me all the way; I can’t blame anybody else for its failure, and I am responsible for its success -- if it is successful." In order to have that level of preciousness, for lack of a better word, I can only go where I am deeply, deeply inspired. It’s love at first sight. That’s how television shows work.
THR: Do you prefer endings or beginnings as a writer?
Lindelof: Very insightful question. I think that the honest answer is definitely beginnings. The initial idea is the one that drives everything. The "What if?" question is the rabbit hole that I like to go down. It does feel like it yields endless possibilities -- that is both a wonderful thing and a potentially destructive thing because you cultivate so many of them that it gets the point where it’s impossible to grow the branches back together at the top of the story tree, again. I can’t really help where my mind goes. I do like beginnings probably more than endings. There is something sad about endings, too -- aside from the fundamental degree of difficulty in having an ending be satisfying not just on a story level but on an emotional level. The idea of finishing something, putting it down, being done with it. I talk about endings a lot, but never in the way that you framed it. Is there such a thing as an ending, anymore?