As the biggest and most expensive television series of all time, Lost became a global television phenomenon, with a near-hysterical following and dense multilayered mysteries of plane crash survivors on an island. With gloriously whack-a-doodle storylines (amid accusations that they were just making it all up as they went along) and a huge cast, the six-season epic returns this month for the final 18 episodes. Esquire meets the co-creators and executive producers, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof — the only two men who know what it all means and how it will end.
Now be honest, did you really have this whole thing planned out from start to finish or have you made it up as you’ve gone along?
CC: At the beginning, no one thought it was going to run more than twelve episodes. That was actually very liberating, because it allowed us to sit down and say, “Well, we’ll make the twelve best television episodes ever.” The Prisoner was actually our reference. Here’s this great show that lasted seventeen hours and still has an incredible cult reputation. When the Lost pilot first aired and was an enormous hit, that’s when we said, “ We really have to figure out the mythology behind this.” It was after the first couple of episodes of the show when it became apparent that we had something that was going to have longevity. So we sat down and really cooked the mythology in great detail.
Even the recent time travel elements?
CC: We had already planned to do the time travel thing; it was embedded in the show way back. Sayid is messing with the radio, and he starts hearing little bits of sound from the forties, so that was a hint of what was to come. This island was really in a different place in space and time. Like the Indiana Jones movies, it would start off very naturalistically and end with people’s faces melting off. We’d always imagined Lost would become more fantastical as it went along. That’s why there were these fantasy and science fiction elements embedded in the show that would become more overt over time.
DL: The tapestry is getting very big, especially when you start moving into the past. It used to be very easy in terms of you hear the whooshing noise, it’s a flashback. This is where Sawyer was, for example, back when he was doing time in prison. Now the characters are actually moving through the island’s history. We hope that when you come to the end of the show, you care more about what happens to Jack, Kate, Hurley, Locke, Sawyer, Sayid and those guys than…
CC: [interrupting] If they are all still alive…
DL: … than you do about the nature of the island, or the origin of the Monster. You will get those answers, but we have been talking a lot about Battlestar Galactica and how they gave you the fifth Cylon in the season premiere. That meant you knew you weren’t going to wait until the end of the series to get that. And with Lost, we can move forward and really be more character-centric. Has there been a sense of relief that you’ve been able to get on with the development of the characters?
CC: The most significant event that occurred during the course of the show was being able to negotiate an end date with the studio. Most television series just go until they die. They’re like the proverbial Pony Express horse that you ride until it drops dead underneath you. So for us to actually know the length of our journey was enormously helpful.
DL: The reality is, a few months from now you will be able to see all six seasons of the show and you’ll get to judge whether or not we were making it up as we went along. The debate will still be raging, we can guarantee you. And no one will watch that final episode and go, “Oh, my God, it’s so clear that they knew where they were going from the moment they wrote the pilot.” It’s an exercise in creativity.
And nobody but you knows the ending? Matthew Fox claims he knows.
DL: Matthew Fox knows things that are relevant to Matthew Fox, and I don’t think he’s really interested in stuff that isn’t relevant to him. He’s never asked us “What’s the Monster?” He wants to know what’s going to happen to Jack.
Is it all about the characters discovering the meaning of life?
CC: This certainly is about them discovering what the purposes of their lives are. It’s pretty clear by now that these characters have a destiny. The return of the Oceanic Six who left the island is completely on the axis of them believing that they have a greater destiny that involves this island. But what is the purpose of their return? We’ll see…
Each character seems a model of typology: the doctor, mother, good guy, lover and so on. Is that an influence from classics like The Island of Doctor Moreau or Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island?
DL: I’d say it is all of those things, certainly. It is a bit like Jules Verne in a more contemporary setting. Stephen King, Star Wars, you know, those Joseph Campbell myths and this idea of a hero’s journey. Traditionally, the hero’s journey involves a protagonist going along on an adventure and there is a mentor character. They have this call and must fulfil their destiny. Whereas we’re doing that fourteen different times and we do the hero’s journey with each and every character. So for us Hurley is just as important as Jack or Sayid or Sawyer or Kate or Claire. Even Charlie, whose hero’s journey is now over because he sacrificed his own life for the good of the island. We look at it through the prism of all that and we’re trying to tell redemption stories. In Lost, the island is ultimately an opportunity to erase your past, to start over again. It doesn’t matter if you were a doctor or a musician or a torturer. Now here on the island, you’re just you. What does that mean? Are you able to shed your sins of the past and start over? The characters are clearly struggling with this idea of who they were versus who they are becoming. That’s essentially what we’re trying to do.
CC: There are many influences on show. Twin Peaks is one. The Prisoner is one. The Bible is a huge influence. There is no singular source of inspiration. The one literary work that probably had the most influence for us was The Stand. It’s a thousand-page Stephen King novel and it has a very high-concept premise. People die as a result of this weird super flu. Only a few survive and they go on this journey. What sustained the story across one thousand pages were the characters. It became a road map for the fact that you could tell very people oriented stories that hang on a curtain rod of a high-concept mythological idea. So we said, “Well, Stephen King can do it in this novel, we can do it on a TV show.” That was a great model for Lost; it was a type of storytelling that didn’t have any precedence in television.
DL: What Twin Peaks really did — and I remember watching it with my father when I was a teenager — is that when the show was over, it created this culture where people who would talk about it for hours afterwards. They would get together and they’d develop theories as to why certain things happened. And not just about the central mystery of the show — who killed Laura Palmer — but other aspects like “What’s the Black Lodge”, “What’s the story with the Log Lady?” There were fifteen major characters in addition to Agent Cooper, so we liked that idea. It helped create a culture around the whole thing. “Twin Peaks” was obviously a hit show with a huge audience, but in it’s DNA it was a cult series. We feel the same way about Lost because it’s complicated. We admit to the fact that you have to be watching almost every episode to appreciate it for its true worth and Twin Peaks was the same. But where Twin Peaks had thirty episodes, we’ve just written our 102nd hour of Lost.
Do you have the courage to kill off a main character soon, or is that too risky?
CC: I wish we could answer that question. We have discovered that if we say yes, then it helps create this culture of discovery. It’s not actually that hard for people to find out secrets about our show because there are 425 people who work on Lost. We also shot in publicly accessible places in Hawaii. As a result there have been pictures all over the Internet of things that are coming up in the new season. We feel like if you are watching Lost, it should be a really pristine experience. Unfortunately there is a spoiler culture on the Internet of people trying to promote their websites and make a living based upon that. It’s one of the horrible things that has happened, particularly for a show like ours. It’s like watching The Sixth Sense and knowing he’s dead.
DL: Oh great, you’ve ruined The Sixth Sense for me….
CC: You’ve seen the movie, right? So for us the spoiler part of that is, yes, we feel like characters dying on our show is very important because it makes the stakes real. If somebody put a gun to David Caruso’s head on CSI: Miami, well, you know he’s probably not going to get shot. More’s the pity. [Lost is only second behind CSI: Miami in global viewing figures]. You don’t really believe that that character is going to die. We kill main characters so that the audience understands that the jeopardy is real. And, as we move into the end game of the show, of course, that becomes easier to do with major characters because the story itself will be ending in a few short hours. Is there a risk that people will come up to you for the rest of your lives with questions about things they feel went unanswered?
DL: We don’t really look at it as a risk as much as an inevitability. We’re going to answer the questions that matter to us the storytellers. We want to be responsible in the sense that if we were fans of the show that’s the stuff we would care about. But sometimes we have to make decisions that are based on actor availabilities. For example, if we want to finish up the story and the actor doesn’t want to come back to Hawaii, then we can’t do it anymore. So we have to lock down the actors that are central to the mysteries that we care about or find ways to answer them by other means. But certainly when the show ends, every single “i” won’t be dotted and every “t” won’t be crossed when it comes to questions like, “Are you sure there wasn’t more to Kate’s plane?”, or “What was Libby doing in the mental institution with Hurley?” Those are stories that are certainly interesting, but they are not integral to the story of Lost as a whole.
So the focus is more about answering the broader questions?
CC: The end of the show will be about trying to answer some of the mysteries that the audience still cares about. What is The Four-Toed Statue all about? What’s the Smoke Monster? We are going to answer the Skeleton question, but we don’t want the show to become didactic in the end run. There is also the notion of mystery in life too. We try to learn lessons from things that influence us. In Star Wars when George Lucas tried to break down and explain what exactly “the Force” was, saying it was midichlorians in the Jedi’s bloodstream, it took away the mystery and the magic of it as an element of that storytelling. So we’re not going to explain all of the mysterious workings of the island. We feel like we understand what the fundamental questions are that the audience wants answered and we are going to try to do our best to try to answer those. Hey, it’s not all happening in a snow globe [That’s how St Elsewhere ended]. And we’re not going to end the series by saying it all took place in a dog’s mind. Is the show logistically hard to put together, given the size and location?
CC: We have 425 people who work on the show between Los Angeles and the islands of Oahu and Hawaii where we shoot it. It’s the biggest, most expensive complicated production of any television show in the world.
DL: We are trying make a movie every week and we do it in ten days, which is not a lot of time. If you look at cable shows like The Sopranos, they have a lot more time to shoot and they can be off for ten months.
Do you imagine work after Lost, because it’s been so much a part of your life for the past six years?
DL: If what you mean by the question is: are you going to do more Lost related stuff? Our feeling at this point is no. Clearly it would be the biggest rip-off ever to get to the end of Season Six — and it’s not just six years of our lives, it’s six years of the audience’s lives too — and end the show in a way that basically says, “In two years the movie is coming out and then you’ll get all the answers you really care about”. Or doing a spinoff series called The Adventures of Hurley and Sayid… which I would watch by the way. For us finishing Lost is like is our Sistine Chapel. We want to be able to stand and look up at it, smile, then just walk out and then go somewhere else.
For Esquire Magazine, February 2010