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Lost: What Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse Had to Say About Their Show (and How It Would End) Way Back in Season 3

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After two highly acclaimed seasons and numerous honors, including the 2005 Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, ABC's Lost stumbled a bit in October 2006 at the start of Season 3 -- the infamous six-episode half-season. The show was still inventive, surprising and handsomely produced, but some of the magic seemed to be missing. Viewers weren't the only ones taking notice. Critics -- the very group that had exhaustively championed Lost throughout the previous two years -- began grumbling as well (this wasn't the last time viewers and critics would have complaints about the show, but most remained happily or grudgingly engrossed right through to the end).

ABC responded at the time by bringing most of the primary cast members to the 2007 January Television Critics Association tour. Executive producers Damon Lindelof (who co-created the series with J.J. Abrams) and Carlton Cuse were also on hand to ensure everyone that many of the questions and concerns expressed by viewers and critics alike would be addressed as Season 3 continued.

Following the session, Lindelof and Cuse sat with me to further discuss their thoughts about the season to date and their future plans for the show. Here's an edited transcript of that conversation, which proves that they did, indeed, have an endgame in mind many years ago.

Ed Martin: Were you surprised at the level of concern expressed by critics about the direction the story took last fall and their frustration about the many unresolved mysteries on the show?

Damon Lindelof: In my opinion the really good critics embrace the fact that they're fans. I find there is a very rare instance where your fan brain is having one reaction and your critical brain is having another. The level at which questions are asked of us is polarizing. You can tell it's personal. If they don't like it, it's like they're almost offended in a way.

Carlton Cuse: I'm a big baseball fan, and I feel proprietary about the Dodgers. I'm not the owner. I'm not the manager. But I feel passionate about the decisions that they make and I take it personally when they make decisions I don't like. I think you end up in the same sort of position when you are in a position of stewardship on a show like this. Damon and I sit in my office every morning over breakfast and make the creative decisions for the day and decide what we're going to be doing with the show. We use our own internal compass and barometer, but it's very hard to find that balance between moving the story forward in a way that we feel is intriguing to us as storytellers and answering the concerns of fans and critics. "Are you diverting off onto a new story tangent? Are you getting away from what we like about the show?" It feels very hard to strike the right balance there.

DL: The critics have legitimate [reasons] to say, "We propped this show up. From the moment that we saw it we believed in it. We got behind it. We wrote nice things about it. We picked it as the show of the year." Not that the critics are responsible for the show's success in its entirety, but they're a big part of it. The fact that so much buzz was building about Lost before it premiered wasn't just based on the premise. I think that same thing sort of continues. "We have a responsibility as critics, because we launched this thing, to now make sure that the people we said it was really good to understand that we agree with them as fans."

EM: What are the critics' complaints?

DL: That maybe the show has now taken a darker turn. That it's too mythological. We're getting either, "We're not in the beach camp enough and we're not with the characters we love" or "You're not answering enough questions." We find as storytellers you can't accomplish both goals. We have to sort of commit to one or the other. Sometimes mistakes are made. I would argue in some cases that it's just impossible to make everybody happy.

EM: I understand you're going to go back to the beach after the February 7 [2007] episode. Once you move the characters away from the Others' camp, what will be the narrative thrust of the story?

CC: The show is still about the Others. That's what Season 3 is about. It's just a question of how and in what form the show is telling the story about these other characters. When you're on the beach you can do lovely small character stories. There are some episodes like that coming up, beach-based stories, much smaller in scope and dependent on just character interaction. But we're not abandoning our mission this season, which is to tell the story of the Others. We're going to see that play out in other ways.

DL: The audience has seen that, prior to the crash of Flight 815, the Others were all living in sort of an idyllic little Wisteria Lane-like community with nice houses and all that. So we also feel indebted to tell the audience when and if they left that place. Are all the Others over on the prison camp island? Are they going to stay there? If Kate and Sawyer and/or Jack were to escape would the Others then potentially abandon Alcatraz and go somewhere else? Are they more nomadic in terms of the way that they function on the island?

CC: I honestly believe the next group of episodes is really good and a lot of the criticism of the first six will be ameliorated by the grander view of this year.

EM: Many of the complaints about the six original episodes that were telecast last fall had to do with all the time you suddenly spent on the Others.

CC: One of the decisions we made as producers is that the premiere took place exclusively amongst the Others with just Jack, Kate and Sawyer. Originally the second script that we wrote was a Locke story and it took place almost exclusively [outside of the Others' compound]. But because of post-production and needing to do polar bear effects [for the Locke, Desmond and Eko episode] amongst other things we ended up flip-flopping the third and the second episodes, so the second episode ended up being an Other-centric story told from Sayid, Sun and Jin's point of view. So I think right out of the gate the audience started to get the perception of an imbalance. We often ask ourselves, even though there wasn't much choice to be made, had we just aired the episodes a little differently would that perception have been the same? It's hard to look at the first six episodes and make a judgment about the show in its totality for year three. It's just one chapter. It was very specifically designed [as the] first quarter of the season. By the time we get all the way to the end [of the season] I don't think it will feel like we diverted wildly from what the show once was.

DL: Your batting percentage at your first six at-bats could be 800 percent but it isn't until you get to the middle of the season that it begins to even out a little.

CC: To make an honest statement about it, I think we feel like four of the six were good episodes and a couple were not good episodes, but that's what happens when you make a series. You're not going to hit the ball out of the park with every pitch. We struggled with a couple of those first six in terms of getting them to work, and that just happens. There are certain times when you're making a series over the long run that not everything works. It's amazing how much does work on this show.

DL: The thing about Lost is every season feels like it's almost a different show in a way. I think Grey's Anatomy, while the characters evolve, at the heart of it it's always: Patient comes in, patient has illness, doctors are sleeping with each other. It's a [challenge] keeping that show fresh in its own way.

CC: The model for our show has been in a lot of ways [the Stephen King novel] The Stand. In that book you start with a series of characters and they go on a journey and the characters that you focus on change over the course of that journey. It ends in a very different place than it started. There is a natural progression to Lost and as the story goes forward it's going to change. It's not a static story. The franchise of Lost is not characters sitting on a beach. I think sometimes it's hard for people to accept that because they're trained in watching television to [expect] a certain sort of stasis.

EM: You've challenged the way people watch TV right from the beginning by starting flashbacks in the second episode and making them part of the fabric of the show. We hadn't seen that before.

CC: That's a testimony to J.J. [Abrams] and Damon's initial creation of the show. It broke a lot of rules. The rule breaking is sort of an ongoing process -- and part of that is it's a story, not a franchise. That's why we feel we need to define what the end point of the journey is. It isn't like ER where you're in the hospital and you can do 13 years. ER is, for many people, as good an experience as it was seven or eight years ago. That's just a different type of show. Lost is driving toward an ending and that ending is: Are these people getting off this island? What is the nature of this island? What is going to happen to them? What is their ultimate fate? What is their ultimate destiny? Those questions need to get answered.

EM: And you guys know all of the answers to all of the questions?

DL: We can hand you an envelope right now and we could seal it in a safety deposit box and it would say in that envelope: Here's what the island is. Here's why these people came to this island. Here's roughly what the events of the last episode of the show will be. There are certain things that we cannot predict. If we add a new actor to the show like Michael Emerson [Ben] or Ian Cusick [Desmond] we're still telling the same story but we want to get to it in a different way because we'll put it on the backs of the people whom the audience is jelling with. How we got there and which characters would be involved might be a little bit vague, but the actual answers to the mysteries, the nature of the island, what the monster is, the function of the monster, when the Others came here, why the black rock is in the middle of the island, the explanation for the four-toed statue, those things we know the answers to. How we're going to reveal those answers becomes the slippery slope of the show.

EM: There are probably fans with questions you haven't thought of.

DL: Absolutely.

CC: We just printed out something from a Web site where someone has made a list of what they consider to be the fifty most significant unanswered questions on the show.

EM: Were there any that surprised you?

DL: There were some that we felt we had already answered very satisfactorily, like the story of Kate's [toy] plane. In season one we showed that Kate broke into a safety deposit box to get this little plane. We basically said we're going to tell a subsequent flashback story that [connects] the plane to a time capsule that Kate and a childhood sweetheart buried together and that will be the end of the mystery. But when we revealed it the audience was still saying, "What's up with Kate's plane?" as if maybe there's microfilm inside it or something. So we had to continue and in the finale [of the flashback] the marshal gives this big speech before Kate gets on the plane. You want to know the story of the [little] plane? He breaks it entirely down. But there it is on that list of 50 unanswered mysteries!

CC: That's part of the frustration, because there are certain questions we feel we answered. And then there are a lot of questions we don't feel we can answer until the very end of the show. If we did reveal fundamental answers to the underlying island mythology we really don't think there would be a show left.

EM: With all the ongoing flashback stories, do you ever feel as if you're writing 25 shows at once?

DL: Absolutely. Two weeks ago we were breaking a Locke story. His flashback stories have a very distinctive feel to them. And then after that we did a concept episode with Nikki and Paulo, which is not unlike The Other 48 Days. [Days was an episode in Season 2 that efficiently recapped the experiences of the previously unseen crash victims from the tail section of the plane during the seven weeks they had been on the island as of that time.] It allowed us to think outside the box in terms of what an episode of Lost looked like. We felt [the Nikki and Paulo episode] was amazingly satisfying in terms of paying off what seemingly looks like a mistake in the first six episodes. Then we broke a Kate episode, and when you do Kate episodes you're literally writing the show The Fugitive. Her flashback stories have an entirely different sort of vernacular feel to them.

CC: Lost is a really hard show to write because there are all sorts of different tonalities. You look at shows like the CSI franchise. There's such an immense continuity to the way they are written. It's hard to succeed as a writer on our show but if you do it's incredibly rewarding. You get to do a lot of different stuff. We have a Hurley episode coming up which is pretty much flat out comedy. If you were to compare episode six and seven with episode ten you'd go, "My God, these things are in a different bandwidth entirely." And yet that's what's fun for us -- that we can tell all those different kinds of stories on our show.

EM: As you know, fans and critics don't always agree with some of the story turns you take.

DL: A really interesting issue is one that creates Democrats and Republicans around it. A really boring issue is one where everyone is unified and the answer is clear. The audience would never be surprised by our show if it were completely obvious as to how to proceed. They would just watch it every week and go, "That was pretty much what I was expecting." With [NBC's] Heroes, Season 1 is all about the discovery of their powers and [the characters] beginning to be intertwined in the sense that their destiny is to save the world. But what's Season 2 going to be? It's going to be entirely different is all I can tell you, because in the finale this season they will save the world. They can never again do the story where the cheerleader realizes that her dad adopted her and he's a bad guy. They can never again do the story about the stripper discovering the fact that she is actually a dual personality. The show has to become something different. They'll need a hatch! And it better be good, or else they're going to become victims of the same sort of rumbling [we're getting]. We were untouchable in Season 1 because it was so interesting to just come along on the journey.

CC: In the first year all of the stories were so compelling because [fans] were so curious to know anything about these characters. That's one of the reasons why Lost has to end, because we can't sit around and envision, "What is the flashback for Jack in year nine?" It doesn't realistically exist.

DL: (Laughs) Jack starts flashing back to what happened on the island in Season 1.

CC: There is an intersection between our plans and viewing the show as an organic entity. That's what I think is most rewarding for us as writers and producers.

EM: I'm interested in the fact that Michael Emerson [the actor who plays Ben] was originally contracted for only three episodes. Now, I can't imagine Seasons 2 and 3 without him. You've done so much with Ben it's hard for me to imagine that he wasn't a huge character in your initial plan.

CC: We knew that we were going to catch an Other and that he was going to be a prisoner of war in the hatch.

DL: And that he was going to pretend to not be an Other and then he would be revealed as an Other and then he would escape. That was the three-episode arc.

CC: There was another germ which was, it would be cool if once he's escaped we realized he was the ostensible leader of the Others. Then you cast somebody, but you have a safety valve: If the actor isn't great you don't have to play all those cards. That doesn't mean we don't know there is a leader of the Others and that he has a role in the story. It's just that in this particular circumstance Michael Emerson was so great that after he did the first couple of episodes we were just so engaged as writers we wanted to write more and more and more for him. That's the part of running a television series that I think is the most satisfying because you're doing it in response to what you're seeing on film. You write to relationships. In season one we had a similar thing. We were going to make Michael and Jin enemies but they got along so well and there was so much chemistry between them we threw that idea out. We decided to buddy them up and they became pals on the whole raft project. I think you have to listen to what the show is telling you as you try to guide it. One of the things that has been weird about this season is, because [of the three-month break] we've made a lot of episodes without audience feedback [to ongoing storylines]. We've had to do it completely based on our judgment.

EM: When something or someone in the story grows so unexpectedly and beneficially it also takes up a lot of story time. Does it displace or delay other stories you had intended to get to sooner?

CC: It's the dinner metaphor: You buy seven things and then you only can eat one. We ended up as writers getting really engaged in the story of the Others and Ben. That came at the expense of some of the other characters like Sun and Jin and Claire who have had less to do because we've been telling that story. The book of Lost for Season 3 is Our Characters vs. the Others. That's really what the season's about. It sort of necessitated having less stuff for those other guys to do.

DL: I honestly believe that if we had Jack, Kate and Sawyer get abducted by these people and had done less story time with them everybody would be grumbling about the fact that we still know nothing about the Others. "We don't know why they took Jack, Kate and Sawyer. Why are you spending time on the beach camp with people arguing about the diminishing food supply when we want to be closest to the story at the center?" The reality is when we had Henry Gale [now Ben] down in the hatch he was the most interesting thing happening on the island. So as writers you want to write to that. It doesn't mean there aren't cool character stories happening between the cracks, but certain characters like Jack or Kate or Sawyer or Locke or Sayid gravitate towards conflict and other characters like Hurley or Claire or Charlie or Sun or Jin don't.

EM: A lot has been written in recent months about ongoing concerns or complaints from fans. What are the positive things viewers come back with over and over again? Is there anything that surprises the two of you?

CC: I think people are really engaged by Ben and Juliet. I think people love to hate Ben so there's this sense of, "When is he going to die? What's going to happen to him?" And the mystery of whether Juliet is good or bad is something else that I think people are really engaged in. We've heard a lot of good feedback about that.

DL: It always comes down to the characters. With people who love the show, the feedback always takes the form of, "I love Sawyer. Don't do anything to Sawyer." Or, "I love Desmond." The fact that people still think of the show in terms of "It's a Jack episode, It's a Juliet episode, It's a Ben episode," is very cool, because that tells us we're still character centric.

This column was originally published in the MediaBizBloggers section of JackMyers.com.