Murtzcellanious: Murtz Jaffer Talks To Lost Co-Creator Damon Lindelof

I will let the interview speak for itself. Mr. Lindelof is just as sharp and witty as you would expect him to be.

Murtz Jaffer: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Damon Lindelof: I am from New Jersey originally. I went to NYU film school for college and then as soon as I graduated, I came out to LA. I just sort of did the learning process here. I worked for an agency for a year. Then I worked for Paramount for three years. In all that time, I was writing. I finally decided to take the leap and I got a job as a writer’s assistant on this TV show called ‘Wasteland’ which was on the air in 1998 or 1999. That was sort of my break. It was Kevin Williamson’s show who did the Scream movies and Dawson’s Creek. He sort of gave me my shot and made me a writer on that show right before it got cancelled. The next job I got after that was Nash Bridges. I worked on that show for a year. That was its sixth and final season. After that I went to go work for Crossing Jordan in its first year and I worked on that show for its first three seasons and then J.J. and the rest is kind of history.

MJ: How old are you right now?

DL: 32.

MJ: That sounds like a pretty extensive resume for a 32-year-old. Is that usually how it works for all TV writers?

DL: The average age of a television writer is probably in the age-40 range. I am on the low-end of it and there are writers on the staff that are over 40, but most of them are in their mid-30s. There are younger staffs I am sure on shows like Family Guy. I am sure there are people over there that are in their 20s. On some of the procedural dramas like C.S.I., they are probably all over-40. It all depends.

MJ: Does it help being younger in the environment because I know that you can bring fresher ideas to the table. Don’t older TV writers basically stick to being formulaic in their approach?

DL: I wouldn’t say that is their default position. In fact, I think the longer that you are stuck writing the formula, the more eager you are to break out of it. If you take a guy like Marc Cherry for example, the creator of Desperate Housewives, he was a journeyman television writer who had worked on sitcom staffs going all the way back to the Golden Girls. He still created Desperate Housewives which was very fresh and innovative and had a fresh voice. I think it all comes down to who the writer is and I hope that I am still writing cool stuff into my 40s.

MJ: Can you tell me a little bit about the timeline of Lost and how you first heard about it?

DL: I got a phone call at the end of January (2004) from a friend of mine, Heather Kadin, who was at ABC at the time. She basically said that Lloyd Braun (who was running ABC at the time) wants to do a show about a plane that crashes on an island. I said ‘what’s the show’ and ‘how is that a series.’ I didn’t understand what would happen every week. She said that was exactly the issue. She said that Braun was trying to get J.J. Abrams to involve himself. J.J. of course was doing Alias and another pilot and she said that he didn’t have the time but if somebody were to come in to co-write it, he might get involved. I was a huge fan of Felicity and Alias, so I said that any opportunity that I had to meet with J.J. was something that I would take and this was a Friday evening. Over the weekend, I just sort of started to turn the idea around in my head of how you could maybe get a couple of episodes out of that idea. On Monday, I came in and met with J.J. for the first time and we really hit it off. By the end of that week, we generated a detailed outline of what the pilot of our show would be. Essentially, 11 weeks later, we delivered the finished two-hour pilot to ABC. It happened all over the course of three months. From that first meeting to writing the script, to casting the show, prepping the show, shooting the show and cutting the show.

MJ: Was it an advantage to get it done that quickly. If you have an exam, if you study for it for like three weeks, you can stress yourself out. If you cram the night before, you tend to learn more. Was it the same thing here? Did the pressure produce a good product?

DL: I think that has a lot to do with it. I also think that the benefit of there being no time to really stop and think about all the reasons that it didn’t work… I think that’s the comment that we get the most (even with the second season) which asks how long are we going to be able to sustain the show. I think if we had just had a lot of time to just sit around and think about that, we would have completely talked ourselves out of it.

MJ: Heather Kadin said that they wanted somebody who would work well with J.J. Abrams. Why do you think that she thought you guys would hit it off so well?

DL: I don’t know. She and I go way back. She was one of the first people that I met in Hollywood and she had been working as an executive on Alias for three years and I guess she just felt like, creatively, J.J. and I had the same lexicon of stuff that we loved. Like the Star Wars movies, anything that Spielberg has ever done, we had sci fi interests and we both loved The Twilight Zone. She felt like the talking points were the same. That we were horses of a similar color.

MJ: You developed a show with her and Thom Sherman. In hindsight, was it a blessing that that show didn’t go through?

DL: Totally. That was the first pilot that I ever wrote and I learned a lot from writing it, but I think that I would not have all been prepared if the show had been picked up. It was a cop show which there is nothing wrong with, but I think the idea that it was much more between the lines of what a normal television show is as opposed to the big, grandiose, outside-the-box idea that Lost was. The good thing about that show was that it put me on ABC’s radar as a writer that they wanted to work with again.

MJ: How do you explain the popularity and phenomenon?

DL: I don’t know to be honest with you. If I sat and really thought about why it’s popular, I would have the formula for creating a hit show everytime out. I think a big part of it is a matter of timing, in terms of the American public and the worldwide public was just ready for something fresh, exciting and new. I think that our cast is amazing. I think the fact that the show is shot in Hawaii and it looks different than everything else in TV really sort of attests to the success of it. We try a lot of stuff. The show is bold in many ways and it’s not afraid to fall on its face in many ways. People sort of watch it like a car wreck. It’s like a freeway chase. It’s exciting and you don’t know how it’s going to end but you better watch the journey.

MJ: Do you find that there is something in particular that appeals to males 18-34 because I find they are the buzz group? Those are the ones who are talking about it every Thursday morning.

DL: It’s interesting because for me, as a male between 18-34, I am sort of a member of the PlayStation generation. We sort of were like gamers. I think that men want to watch something whether it be a sporting event or something on TV that we can play along with. That is interactive. If I was a fan of the show, as opposed to writing it, I love the sort of Easter Egg-y quality. It allows me to theorize. It doesn’t tell me what to think. It just gives me things to think about. As opposed to a traditional and procedural drama like C.S.I. or Law & Order which basically tells you at the end of every episode, who shot who. I think male brains like to figure things out. We’re problem solvers. It is like a big adventure game. You get to watch and say here’s my theory about this and here’s what I think will happen if they do this. I want them to do this. Why are they doing that? It is a story as opposed to a condition. As a male in that demographic, that’s what I respond to.

MJ: How important are the influences that you use? Alfred Hitchcock. Rosemary’s Baby. Twilight Zone…

DL: I think that everything that I have ever seen and ever liked goes into the collective melting pot of the show. Obviously, Carlton Cuse (who came on very early in the first season), we work the show together, day-to-day, create the show. We sit in his office every morning and have breakfast and talk about stuff. He is a big Narnia fan and the fantasy and the influences that everybody has all contribute into the stories that we want to tell on Lost. Some movies (more than others) directly influence the show and obviously, one of the seminal key influences on the show is Stephen King’s ‘The Stand.’ J.J., Carleton and I have all read it, and it is sort of very similar in good versus evil playing out in a dramatic and supernatural context. That is a work that is often referred to.

MJ: Originally, in the pilot, I heard that the Fuselage was supposed to start the show but that J.J. wanted to have Jack wake up in the jungle to lead. I am curious as to how the decision-making process works between you?

DL: Actually, in that case, in our first meeting I pitched the opening of the show. I pitched the Jack wakes up in the middle of the jungle idea. The decision-making process is all built around ideas and the thing is we find ourselves, all the creative collaborators, very rarely is there any incident where there is a disagreement about where to take the show or what to do. The best idea wins.

MJ: That’s what I find so interesting. I would think that on a show that builds itself on so much theory and that this has to happen for this to happen and for that to happen, you would disagree more. Especially when you’re working with a team. Usually isn’t it just one guy calling the shots?

DL: I don’t know. In my experience in television, there is a show runner or a single visionary that is basically there to distill whether to turn left or turn right. At the end of the day, television shows can only function as a collaboration because you are writing a script every eight days. Right now, you and I are talking on a Thursday afternoon. A script will exist a week from Monday that hasn’t even been concepted yet. The rate of speed with which these things are created is astonishing. If you look back at season one of Lost, and we did 25 episodes between the months of May and April, so that’s 11 months. A two-hour movie is produced in that same time period.

MJ: One of my favourite quotes of yours is when you said “sometimes we get frustrated ourselves and decide it’s time to download a big chunk of mythology and then the audience says that they find this confusing and alienating and too weird. So then we pull back and they say that you’re not giving us enough.” How do you respond to what the audience wants and how much does that effect what you put out?

DL: I think that, obviously, the “audience” is relative. If you trolled the boards, that audience is a very vocal mythology-driven audience that wants answers constantly. The audience that I sort of respond to most is my wife or my mom or the people that are just watching the show and they like certain elements of the mythology, but they also want Jake and Kate to get together and all that stuff. You have to basically distill out what you think the global sense of things is. For example, after the finale last year, Carleton (Cuse) and I heard uniformly across the entire audience ‘we wish that you had given us more than just them looking down at the hatch.’ We don’t regret the decision that we made. In fact, we stand by it. In fact, it was the only decision to make because at the end of the day, you need a cliffhanger. You want people talking all summer long about what is in there. We knew that we had something really cool in there and we knew that when people saw what it was, they would feel like it was worth the wait. Essentially, we try to be the audience ourselves and say ‘wow, when was the last time we did a mythological episode, are we doing too much mythology, it’s been awhile since we have seen Kate…” We try to be the audience in our own heads.

MJ: Can you give me an example of too much mythology, if there is one?

DL: There have been sort of moves along the road, for example in Episode 7 of last year, Raised By Another where Ethan takes Charlie and Claire that the mythology would have advanced considerably beyond where it did. We would have seen a couple of the other “Others.” We pulled back and decided not to do that because it was infinitely more interesting to sort of understand ‘wait a minute, there have to be more of them because this one guy is moving this pregnant woman and this guy through the jungle very quickly.’ Isn’t it scarier to not see how many of them there are or what they look like? To just keep them mysterious. When J.J. and I were breaking the pilot, we originally were going to discover the hatch at the end of the pilot. But we said that would be too much mythology. It’s enough to just say that there is this f—— monster on the island and that’s frightening, but let’s dole it out in smaller doses. The too much mythology is stuff that we were thinking about doing and in fact didn’t do and I feel like it was the right decision at the time that we didn’t do it.

MJ: I know that a theme that you keep bringing up is how intelligent the show is. Do you every worry that the show is going to get so involved that people are just going to be like ‘oh, it’s too complicated, I can’t watch it because it gives me a headache?’

DL: All the time.

MJ: Really?

DL: Sure. The thing is that is where I think that the X-Files… a lot of people look back on that show and they sort of grumble about it as opposed to how many great episodes they did produce. Mythology is another word for story. We all know that stories have beginnings, middles and ends. The audience begins to get frustrated if they feel that they are not being worked toward an ending and you just keep piling on the middle. When you’re piling on the middle, it odes become dense and complicated and you can’t ever satisfactorily answer things because you are just stalling. That is a fear of ours. The key is that we stick to the original plan.

MJ: Speaking of that plan, I know that Javier Grillo-Marxuach (supervising producer) said that you had a plan in place for several years in advance. When you told me that you basically have to write every episode in a week, how does the dichotomy work between having a plan and producing episodes so quickly.

DL: We always use the roadmap analogy which is basically that you do it season by season. There is the Rand McNally atlas of the world and that book is basically the entire series. Prior to that, every page is a map and we have a destination and that’s a season. How you’re going to get to a certain place and what route you’re going to take… are we going to take the northern route? Are we going to take a rural road? Are we going to go through St. Louis? That is the sort of day-to-day amorphous process where we know that there are stories that we are going to tell but we don’t know when we are going to tell them or how they all relate to each other. Nobody can come up with a plan that detailed and obviously that plan is contingent upon so many variables like whether or not its working. You can have an original design like it would be really cool if Shannon and Charlie hooked up. Then you see a scene between Charlie and Claire and you go ‘wow, there’s something there that I am really interested in writing toward so let’s do that.’ People might label that as making it up as you go along, but we say that the show is an organic thing and there has to be some degree of improv in the plan. It’s like when you hear a band play a song that you love. When they play it live, it’s great if they do something that they haven’t done on the album that you have listened to a billion times. People want to be surprised. We have so many creative partners in the show, including the actors, that the actors do things all the time that you didn’t put on the page or didn’t anticipate and you just go ‘that’s great, I am going to start writing to that.’

MJ: Can you give me an example of when that happened?

DL: I’d rather not. Just because I don’t like to go on record as ever having to say we changed our minds about anything.

MJ: Can you tell me about Javier Grillo-Marxuach in general? When did you first meet him and how did he get involved with the show?

DL: Basically J.J. wanted to hire a writing staff immediately after we had the pilot green lit so that we could start thinking about what the show was going to be and start building this atlas as I referred to. Javi was probably the first or one of the first writers that we met with. He was always hired to be the resident sci fi expert. He had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction television. In fact, he had written a lot of science fiction television and had worked on the show that was the most similar in construct to Lost in its early stages which was this thing called Earth 2 when he was an executive at NBC. I just remembered having a great meeting with him and saying that this guy has definitely got to be part of the core group of visionaries that begin to build the show.

MJ: So basically, he’s the sci-fi guy. Does everybody on the writing team have a role like that?

DL: You try to build a writing team like a good baseball team. Everybody’s a great hitter but if nobody’s a great fielder, then you have a lot of offense but no defense. You pick people that play well together as a team. It’s a constantly morphing process. Javi is the only original writer who is still on the show.

MJ: He mentioned something that I found absolutely riveting. He said that at the beginning of the show, you had the writing team pick names out of a hat to determine which writer would develop a character’s backstory. Why did you decide to do that?

DL: I just thought that it would be a fun exercise for certain writers to begin to form bonds with specific characters, or else I feared that certain characters would fall by the wayside because there were obvious favourites out of the gate. Who isn’t going to love Hurley? Who isn’t going to love Jack or Sawyer? I wanted to make sure that Sayid and Claire and Charlie were also getting the same sort of care and attention to their backstories and character intricacies as everybody else.

MJ: The reason that I find that interesting is because you just said that Javi was the sci fi guy and I know that he worked a lot with Daniel Dae and Yunjin Kim. Those characters are so diametrically opposed to sci fi, so do you think that your plan worked out (it obviously did)?

DL: The thing is that at the end of the day, the show is a character show. It’s not a sci fi show. It was that particular credential in Javi’s resume that got him in the door.

MJ: He said that he worked very closely with the characters of Jin and Sun. Is there any reason why he got the Korean storyline, was it just the random draw?

DL: He pulled their names out of a hat I believe… I think he pulled Jin’s name out of a hat. I mean it’s not like he got it, he wrote House Of The Rising Sun, but again, that episode was broken by the entire staff. Who’s name ends up on the script is a byproduct of whoever does the majority of writing on that script but every single story is broken by eight people and signed off on by Carleton and myself. Different writers have developed different amenities for specific characters just as the show goes on. Obviously, I think that Javi sort of keyed into the Korean characters in a way that is endemic to whatever Javi’s personal tastes are.

MJ: Daniel Dae Kim said that he appreciated the beginning of the first season when the writers went to Hawaii a lot and discussed what they wanted with the cast. How often does this happen and is it hard to translate your vision from LA to Hawaii?

DL: The process is great because the show in Hawaii is run by Jack Bender and Jean Higgins is our line producer. She figures out how to do everything. We hired a guy this year named Stephen Williams. Basically Carleton and I are the primary conduits. We speak on the phone with them a lot, Carleton more than myself actually (to make sure that the script gets translated in the best way possible). But I think that it’s good that we’re not down in Hawaii, because I think that the process has to sort of be built around a system of trust. That they can do their job and once we have birthed the script, we want to make sure that it gets realized. If we were down there, breathing down their necks, that’s another script that is not getting written. It wasn’t an incredibly proficient process to send a writer down to Hawaii for two weeks to sort of supervise the shooting of their script.

MJ: And finally, how important is the internet to the show and where do you see the show going? Not in terms of storyline, but in terms of internet, audience and theme progression?

DL: We’re actually starting to finally do what we wanted to do from the very beginning. I think that now that the show has caught on, especially in the Easter egg construct of it. We have a couple of websites that we run, like Oceanic815 and HansoFoundation. We’re also starting a couple more that we’re not going to announce and ones that people will hopefully find. That whole idea that you can go on the ‘net and continue your interactive experience and find nuggets of information about the island that are not presented on the show or that the show will later payoff, I think is going to be really really cool.

MJ: So basically just keep going with the interactive aspect?

DL: That’s the plan stan…

MJ: Congrats on the Emmy. Is it weird having an Emmy at 32?

DL: It is weird having it period.

MJ: Who keeps it? Is it in your office?

DL: All the producers get their own. You go backstage after you win, and they immediately take the one that they handed you out of your hands and there’s a table over there that has a big pile of them and each producer signs a sheet and gets their own individual Emmy.

MJ: Is it in your office?

DL: No, it’s at home. If it was in the office, I think I’d get distracted.

MJ: I think it’s the best show on TV right now and given how much I watch and cover, I think that is a pretty bold statement to make.

DL: Thanks a lot man. I really appreciate it.