'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.
The Hollywood Reporter: What was the first time you realized that people wrote stuff?
Damon Lindelof: I think it was somewhere in the neighborhood of The Empire Strikes Back. My dad and I were buying Starlog and going through that; and there’s this guy with a beard who’s in these pictures with Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill pointing at stuff, and I’m like: "Who is he? What character is he in the movie?" My dad goes, "No, this is George Lucas. Star Wars was his idea." Directors, screenwriters and producers are totally lost on 8-year-old me. That this was George Lucas’ "idea" -- that made sense to me. At the time, I was always very interested in storytelling. My parents read to me every night. I was really into chapter books. If memory serves, my dad did all the Oz books first, Narnia, then started getting into more self-contained sci-fi. Then I started reading Piers Anthony books and started delving into fantasy. I started shamelessly cribbing Star Wars. All my early writing was very badly disguised Star Wars ripoffs. It’s like "Leo Skystroller." Probably around 11 or 12, Spielberg got very much on my radar, as a friend of George Lucas’, who made Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. I just wanted to see E.T over and over again. My dad said to me, "The same guy who made E.T, also made Raiders of the Lost Ark, which you also love." That made no sense to me. I understood how George Lucas could make Star Wars movies because they’re just Star Wars movies, but it’s like, "Wait, what? Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. are two totally different things." I do feel like a lot of filmmakers of my generation … that was our bread and butter. The first 15 years of my life was Lucas and Spielberg. It just was. Everything.
THR: Was your dad a big genre nut?
Lindelof: Yes, huge. He was raised in Indiana, and his dad was like Mr. Outdoorsman -- wanted my dad to be a Boy Scout, tie knots and play sports. My father -- until the day that my dad died -- didn’t know how many points you scored in a touchdown. He could say there were nine innings in baseball, but no intricacies of the sport. He was interested in gaming and in genre. He was a huge aficionado of television, as well. That was his escape growing up, and he shared that love with his brother. He was an avid comic book collector, and his dad shipped him off to Boy Scout camp, and his mom threw away his entire comic book collection when he got back. But he meticulously cataloged it, so he spent the majority of his adult life reassembling his comic book collection. I remember the day he got his final Walt Disney comic with Scrooge McDuck — you know, diving into his vault of gold coins. It was like, "Finally, complete." But by then, he was collecting all sorts of different comic books and when he died. … Right now his comic book collection is in a storage locker in Burbank because just to go through it all is so overwhelming. We always shared that love. He curated my love for that stuff.
THR: How about your mom? Did she share it or did she tolerate it?
Lindelof: She definitely didn’t share it -- some of it she enjoyed. I’d say one step above tolerance. "Hey, that’s not entirely my bag, but I’ll cry at E.T." My mom has always been a very enthusiastic cheerleader and supporter, not just of me but of most of the people in her life. My father’s and my passion for this … it was always a big event when a Star Wars movie opened up. Really, this only applied to Empire and Jedi -- I was allowed to take those Wednesdays off, and we would go set up lawn chairs at 8 in the morning outside our local movie theater and hang out. That’s pretty supportive, to let me have a sick day.
THR: Were you mischievous?
Lindelof: You’re probably asking the wrong person. In my view of self, I think that … I saw myself as a teacher’s pet but with a little of Ed Haskell mixed in. I was the teacher’s pet, but that didn’t mean that I was trying to pull one over. I would say that my fatal flaw, as a human being, is that I need people to like me, and if they don’t like me, I will obsess over it -- and try to change my personality until they like me --even if they don’t like me for reasons that have nothing to do with me and even if they’re strangers. There is a mischievous quality to the manipulation of people to get them to like you, as opposed to just being yourself. I had amazing relationships with all my teachers. My mom was a teacher. I had a lot of respect for teachers. I liked teachers, especially smart ones. At the same time, I was able to retain relationships with my peers where they didn’t feel like I was a goody-goody or that I completely sold out. I was able to walk between those worlds. I was the kid who did the morning announcements. I was there with Principal Delany. I had an in, but at the same time, I felt like I never compromised my street cred.
THR: Did you like school?
Lindelof: I did. I liked it a lot. I always remember liking school. I had problems in school, just like any kid does -- just figuring shit out, but the act of learning was always something that I looked forward to. By the time I was in middle school -- there were activities before school, afterschool activities and clubs -- I was a less-cool version of Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore. Although, he probably wasn’t even particularly cool, but when I saw that movie, I was like, "That’s the coolest kid, ever." I was the participant in those clubs; I was not the founder of them.
THR: What was college like?
Lindelof: The only school that I ever wanted to go to and the only school I ever applied to was Tisch School of the Arts, and when I wanted to go to NYU Film School because I loved the city -- I grew up in Northern Jersey, my dad worked in Manhattan and my mom taught in Harlem -- I just felt like I already lived there in a lot of different ways. From the moment that I first walked around the Village and I saw all those purple banners, I was like, "What is this? That’s a college." I thought a college was like a campus, and you have to be in a fraternity and all that stuff -- this was all happening when I was 13, 14. "No, this is where these students go to college." "They live here, in New York City?" "Yes." "And they make movies?" All the film students were in Washington Square Park just constantly making movies -- which is what I was doing with my friends on the weekends, anyway. Then I saw, The Freshman with Matthew Broderick, and that sealed the deal. It was like, "Oh, OK. He is a film student." At the time, I had hair and kind of looked like Matthew Broderick. I wanted to meet Marlon Brando; and so I was just like, "It’s going to be NYU or nothing." I loved my experience there. It was just complete and total immersion in three years -- I graduated in three years because I couldn’t afford four years. They were the best times of my life, no doubt.
THR: Did you make a thesis film?
Lindelof: I did, but I couldn’t afford to finish it. We got all the way to answer print, but I wasn’t able to get beyond that. I was able to complete the class. The name of my movie was A Gift for Quinn, and it was based on this Joyce Carol Oates story called The Premonition. I’m not a good enough director, you should know. Good enough to pass the class, but not good enough to feel like I’d ever need to do it again.
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.
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.
THR: Looking back, are there any Lost stories left in you?
Lindelof: No. Because of the way that the show ended, one of the things that we talked about for years was, "Is there a way that we can end this show that will literally make it impossible to do Lost stories with these characters in any meaningful way?" And the answer that we kept coming to was, "Well, if we kill everybody off, we can do that." It started as a joke. Then we began to embrace that idea. The more that we talked about it, the more that we loved it. The wrinkle is, if I heard that somebody else was doing Lost, would I be OK with that? Or would I say that I’m so terrified that they’re going to screw it up that I have to come in and screw it up myself? That is a question I do not know the answer to. That’ll be the test because sooner or later that is going to happen. There shouldn’t more Lost because it was successful, and it’ll make more money. There should be more Lost because somebody has a f---ing awesome idea. Someone comes forward and says, "I just figured out a really killer way to do some more Lost." I haven’t had that idea, so it shouldn’t be me.
THR: Some days it feels like Twitter was invented so that people could shout at you about the Lost ending even now, three years later.
Lindelof: I love the Lost ending. I stand by it, but there are a lot of people out there who hate it. I want those people to know that I can see that they hate it, and I want people who love it to know that there are 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’ve never taken a formal poll, but it’s divisive, to say the least. I feel like when I’m getting heckled, you cannot ignore the heckling. 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. To say, “I read this, I can’t keep this inside so I have to throw it back into the water from whence it came.” I got a lot of tweets; amazing personal tweets about people who loved the show and were changed by the show. I will never retweet those tweets because they’re just for me, and I want to keep them.
THR: You seem drawn to work that deals with faith. Is TV the last place you can tell those kind of stories?
Lindelof: There are multiple canvases in which you can have those conversations, but they are literary canvases. But it does feel like TV is more suited towards going deep because you don’t have to hammer the audience with thematic intent in the way you do in a two-hour-long movie; where it becomes very clear what it’s about. You can Trojan-horse those ideas a little more indirectly. … There was an episode of Lost called “Man of Science, Man of Faith”; there had already been 25 hours of Lost. What’s interesting about TV and writing, from my vantage point, is that I try not to be too conscious of what I want to be talking about. I didn’t realize that that was one of the big deals in the show until we got to that point in the show. If you had asked me, very early on, what Lost was about, I would’ve said, "It’s about redemption." Because all the characters were supersecretive about their pasts, it gave them an opportunity to reinvent themselves. That was the interesting idea driving the show. But it very quickly got either put aside or complemented by the other thematic ideas -- the most pervasive of which was the science and faith idea.
THR: Was faith a big part of your childhood?
Lindelof: It was a part of it. My father was an atheist by the time I was born. He was raised Lutheran, in the Midwest, in Indiana. His folks were both religious, and he bounced on it. And a very interesting atheist , because he believed in the supernatural. Not that he was a cultist, but he believed in ghosts, aliens and all sorts of things. My mom is still practicing Jewish, and I was raised Jewish. The arrangement was that when I was bar mitzvahed, I’d never have to go to temple again; as long as I could go through my bar mitzvah. I think my mom felt like, 'Just get [Damon] in the door, and of course [he’ll] want to be Jewish.' That bar mitzvah was the last time I set foot in a temple for many, many, many years. I still have the positive association, culturally, with my Jewish identity; religiously, it was a complete and utter disconnect. As I went through college, I think it was cool to say, 'I don’t believe in God.' But I wasn’t ever comfortable enough to say I was an atheist, so I embraced agnosticism, which just sounded like a cooler thing to call myself. Then, when I got married, my wife was/is a practicing Catholic. I went to church with her a couple times [and] liked it a lot -- the sense of community there and the devotional energies applied. For some reason, because it wasn’t my religion, I was able to embrace it without taking it literally. My wife had been pushing me to reconnect with Judaism and expose our son to it. All that felt good. I always wanted to have a good relationship with religion; but I’ve always also been in search of what my own belief system was. The pivotal thing that happened, right before Lost got created, was my dad died -- an atheist. And it’s true, what they say, that there are no atheists in foxholes because although he didn’t verbalize this sentiment to me, I was there in the moment that he died, and it was very clear to me that he would’ve been more comforted if he had a belief system. When he died, it was a profound spiritual experience for me. Not just emotionally. Then, I created Lost a year later and, still reeling from the loss of my dad, had to cope with that. 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." In the spirit of my dad, I must debate. I wanted to believe that he was in a better place, so I channeled a lot of those feelings into the Jack Shepherd character on Lost who was basically flying back to 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 was unable to do so for a variety of reasons. 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 I’m not grieving him." But I was.
THR: What’s the first thing you wrote, post-Lost?
Lindelof: It was Prometheus. Lost ended in May 2010, [and] I went to Italy for a month with my wife and son. We left on June 1 and came back right before July 4. A day or two after July 4th, I got a call from my agent at CAA, who said: "Ridley Scott is about to call you. Are you free?" I was driving on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, and I slammed on my breaks -- because that’s what you do. So I pulled over -- he called in like five minutes. Ridley Scott doesn’t introduce himself when he calls. He’s like, "Hey dude." That’s what he always called me -- not sure if he knows my name. He goes, "I’m sending you a script, will you read it tonight?" and I’m like, "Sure, Ridley." He didn’t tell me what it was, but we all had an inkling that it was the Alien prequel.
THR: You ended up doing a massive amount of press for that movie; odd for the writer, of all people, to be one of the most visible faces.
Lindelof: Me being out in front of the movie was because Fox was getting a shitload of press requests, constantly. And Ridley just didn’t want to do all that stuff. I wasn’t necessarily comfortable being thrust into the spotlight, in that regard. I just wanted to make an alien movie with Ridley Scott. More importantly, it’s not my vision; it’s Ridley’s vision. This isn’t to shirk any responsibility that I had for Prometheus. I shared screenwriting credit, and I earned it. I have an executive producer credit, and I feel that I’ve earned it. But at the same time, a director, particularly a director like Ridley Scott -- it’s called a Ridley Scott film for a reason. So, suddenly I’m part of the stage show. I’m not going to lie to you, that feels awesome. It feels awesome standing next to Ridley Scott and being a part of this story. Independent of how people feel about the movie, that part of it was great. Any time they want to give the writer credit … the downside of it is: You’ll also get the blame. But I think it was worth it.
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?