Friday, May 07, 2010

How Lost was made

Thanks to a poster at The Fuselage, I found my way to this great interview from GQ with some of the people behind Fringe and Lost where Damon and Carlton talk a lot about the early days of Lost and how they shaped the show's universe while trying not to freak out the network. Very interesting read!

Lindelof: Not to make this about Lost, but when we introduced Ben Linus in the middle of Season 2—I can't imagine the show without that.
Cuse: We were struggling, because we didn't have any force of antagonism. It wasn't the tenth iteration of a cop show, or a law show, or a medical show—and that was a real struggle, at the beginning of the show, to figure out every week, "What is the force of antagonism?"
Abrams: That's why I think your instinct, so early on, to bring the Others in sooner…
Lindelof: That was always the issue—when are we going to bring them in?
Cuse: And then once we'd brought in Benjamin Linus and established him as the leader of the Others, it kinda helped kick things into a higher gear. Because we were kind of out of the natural-disaster-of-the-week zone at that point. It's funny, because the networks always make you write out synopses of possible stories, and try to get you to pitch things out, and it's a completely ridiculous and ludicrous exercise. The only way to basically find a show is to make it. And hopefully, somewhere during the first season of the show, you start to figure out what the show is. But it's a process of trial and error. You do certain things and they work, you do certain things and they don't work. You have to treat the show organically, and the show will sort of tell you what's working and not working, and eventually you'll figure out, "Okay, this is what we need to make an episode." So now we have a paradigm for Lost episodes. We kind of know what the elements are that it takes to put together the cocktail that is a Lost episode.
Lindelof: It's like saying to a pregnant woman, "So you're having a girl—would you like to sign her up for soccer, or ballet?" And you go, "I don't know, all things being equal, ballet sounds great, I like ballet"—but you haven't had the baby yet. Until you get to know your kid, you can't really make any plans whatsoever. It's a farce. But you do it every time. My favorite story is that those guys who do 24 had to basically do this same exercise. Because 24 is a premise that everybody thought would never work in a million years, myself included. Like, how do you do a real-time show? And the pilot promises—someone is threatening to assassinate this presidential candidate, David Palmer, and Jack Bauer, Keifer Sutherland, has to stop the assassination, and the plan that they pitched the network was, in episode 24, he stops the assassination. And then they got into the writing of it, and they realized, "Because it's a real-time show, we have to move up our entire timetable." So he stops Palmer from being assassinated in episode 5 or 6. And then they had to wing it! They were only a quarter of the way through. That's why the Others thing is so interesting. Because the first day that Bryan and JJ and myself, and a couple other guys—Jeff Pinkner and [Lost co-executive producer] Jesse Alexander were there too—were talking about Lost, JJ pitched the Hatch. He said, "They find a hatch." We talked about the Others. We talked about Rousseau. We talked about all that, in the very first meeting. It's like you're a football coach, and you have these plays, but you don't know when to run the play. You're basically like, "Okay, when is the right time? When should they find the hatch? When do we need to bring the Others in? And how do we bring them in?" So the compromise was, Ethan starts farting around with Claire, and you realize he wasn't on the plane. Where did he come from? But that's all you get in Season 1. It isn't until the end of Season 2, or midway through Season 2, that you start to see the faces of these indigenous people.
Burk: I remember Damon doing that outline of what some of the episodes would be. And I remember the word "submarine" was on there. And I was like, "A submarine's gonna show up?" And it did—it just didn't happen in the first season or 2. But there were just these crazy ideas that would pop in.
Lindelof: And it's hubris to save it, too. Sometimes. Because you're like, "Let's hold that back." Like right now, David Goyer's talking about FlashForward, and he's saying, "Everybody sees six months into the future, so in our season finale, in May, they're gonna catch up with this vision that they saw." And I was like, "You might not want to be promising that, before you get into the show!" Because you might change your mind. Don't tell people what you're going to do-- because wouldn't it be interesting if, in episode eight, suddenly you decided to compress the time scheme and then figure out where you're going to go from there?
GQ: You're saying their finale might be too late to play that card, or too soon?
Lindelof: Well, who's to say they're going to get to May? I mean, y'know—that's the hubris, right there. It's like that show The Nine. It was all these hostages in a bank crisis. And they promised that at the end of the season, they would reveal the mystery of the crisis. It got cancelled after thirteen episodes! Good, they took their time—but it doesn't matter. We had a rare opportunity-- we were in the sweet spot. We were writing the seventh episode of Lost when the show premiered. And that was when we were engaged in our most intensive creative battle with the network. It was about how weird the show could be. Because Claire went and saw a psychic, and the psychic said, y'know, "Get on this plane," and the implication was that the psychic knew the plane was going to crash. And that was also the episode where we introduced Ethan. So they started freaking out. And then the show premiered, and we were able to kind of cram it down their throats.
Burk: I was on the dub stage doing—what was Sayeed's first episode, episode six?
Lindelof: Eight. "Solitary." Seven and eight, we were doing them at the same time.
Burk: I was on the mixing stage, finishing that. And as scripted, at the end of the episode, Sayeed is walking through the jungle, and he starts hearing whispers. And it's now seven o'clock, I'm an hour over, I gotta finish the mix. And I get a call from the network. "Under no circumstances do we want to hear the whispers."
Lindelof: And you've got Naveen Andrews onscreen going like this [looks around, terrified]
Burk: …for no reason! And I said "Guys, there's going to be wind, there's going to be other things, but here's the thing—if you don't hear the whispers, there's going to be an actor just looking around and acting crazy for no reason." But that was it. They were very nervous about how far we were going to push anything that seemed like science fiction.
GQ: It's funny, because stuff like the whispers in the jungle seems so bush-league now compared to what's happened since.
Burk: Sure.
Cuse: You have to take your territory inch by inch.
Burk: And in defense of the network, there had been a plethora of science fiction shows before that, that all failed, for a variety of reasons. So they were obviously nervous about what we were going to turn this into.
Abrams: And we were going to kill Jack, in the pilot. And they said "Don't kill Jack." So they have given us some good notes.
 I love reading about how they worked the show out. I know many people think they've just been making it up as they go along, but I do think they had a game plan from the start. HOW you tell the story you want to tell may change depending on the actors you hire to play the characters (Desmond, Alpert and Ben worked out so well that their additions probably shaped the story differently) and what ideas catch on. But the fact that things like the sub, the hatch and the whispers were in the story right from S1 makes me think TPTB have always known WHAT story they're telling. Some heated (and bitter!) discussions about this right now at The Fuselage for example.



There's more behind-the-scenes goodness here, where we find out some inner workings of the writer's room and how a show is shaped not just by one person or one writing session.
a good example of how the writers room works in a series such as "lost"...is the creation of the story that eventually became [the] emmy-nominated episode "walkabout."

...an episode which is rightfully hailed as a turning point in the series and a signature moment of "lost."

however, like all episodes of this - and almost any television show - that story was "broken" in the writers room. it was discussed, conceived and divided into acts and scenes in an environment where a group of writers sat together, shared their best ideas and thoughts, and collectively filtered out the chaff to come up with the best possible version of that story...

the original conception of the final revelation of "walkabout" was that, after placing all of his hopes and dreams on a genuine australian walkabout vacation, john locke was crestfallen to find that his "genuine" aboriginal experience was indeed a tourist trap - a cheap and watered-down experience devoid of spiritual meaning.

in this version of the episode - which never got farther than the dry-erase board in the writers room - the final scene of the flashback would have been a profoundly disgusted locke, miserably sitting in the walkabout bus surrounded by screaming children... his life devoid of the meaning he has hoped to find.

this conclusion would have completely worked within the conceptual framework we had laid out for locke during the pilot phase of the show - that he was a profoundly unhappy office drone whose dreams of a grandiose destiny were continually dashed by cruel reality but given a new lease on the island. in our plan for the series, locke was always intended to be a man driven to faithful zealotry by a belief that the plane crash was predestined, and this formulation of his story would have served that theme well.

notice, however, that this version of the story does not include what many consider to be the "big twist" of the episode - the revelation of locke as wheelchair bound and healed by the island.

that's because it didn't exist until damon pitched it in the room as an idea to further push locke's misery into a physical reality that would play on film.

and there was strenuous opposition to this idea. some of the writers and producers of the show felt that it pushed us into too mystical a terrain - that it robbed "lost" of a crucial human dimension that was necessary to maintain an illusion of reality given all the fantastical things we had already established.

...other possibilities were discussed and entertained. we cut the guts out of the story to see if the wheelchair idea - and several other alternatives - held water.

it was ultimately decided that a wheelchair-bound locke was the way to go, and the show is better for it.

that's what the writers room does. it forces every idea, good and bad, to stand up to scrutiny and either live or die on its own merit.

after that, it's up to the writer to make those ideas come to life: and there is a big difference between a good story break that is well-executed by a writer and one that isn't.

It's more organic and more of a collaboration, which really is a cool thing imo. The idea that you could work out a show in detail seasons in advance is BULLSHIT. No one knows how long their show will last. Lost's writers finally did get their end-date which freed them up to set a better pace for the story and work out the mythology in peace. Lost is a flawed show, but imo it is the best and most original show I've seen on TV for a long time. Kudos to the powers behind it for making this weird and wonderful creation such a hit and slipping in all that wonderful weirdness under the noses of TV-company execs who would have balked at any and all time-skipping and alt-verses if they had known of them in advance!

Screencaps thanks to Lostpedia and Lost-Media.

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