Due to circumstances beyond my control I had to miss the Times Talks interview with Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse that took place Thursday evening. Happily, Back to the Island reader "Gravyboat" attended. Here's his report. Hope it's enjoyed! GB, thanks for taking the time to write this out for your fellow fans:
By now, Lost show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are possibly the most-interviewed storytellers in at least a decade. For the past six years, they’ve steadily released podcasts, recorded DVD commentaries and cut interviews with media outlets, educational institutions and hobbyist communities around the world. In addition, they’ve been the cornerstone of a press blitz leading into the show’s final episode that rivals the publicity pushes behind most major tent-pole films.
As a result, most Lost enthusiasts already know what to expect from a “Darlton” interview: Collegial and self-deprecating banter, an obligatory reminder that they care more about character than about mystery, coy evasion of questions no reasonable person could expect them to answer, a comment about having known the very end from the very beginning, and gentle jabs at the over-enthusiastic nature of their own fan base.
Their nearly two-hour interview with The New York Times’ Lorne Manly on Thursday night didn’t do anything to undercut the affable, geeky and slightly self-important brand they’ve built for themselves, but it did introduce some new areas of discussion for them and offered viewers deeper, more honest answers to some familiar questions. It also probably helped many fans in their respective grieving processes, serving as an appropriately sweet and exciting send-off to something that has been much more than just another adventure show to so many of us.
Conducted at the Times Center in New York City and simulcast to select movie theaters across the U.S. and Canada, the interview bounced between the behind-the-scenes process that goes into making the show to their takes on the story’s literary resonance to—of course—fan questions about the plot minutiae of seasons past.
As is to be expected after putting the finishing touches on the final episode—they finished scoring the finale Monday, a process that Lindelof’s loud weeping apparently made difficult—a significant portion of the interview was retrospective.
Lindelof never expected the show to become popular, and fully expected it to be canceled after ten episodes. (He also expected to be “revealed as a fraud,” and “for people to come to [his] house with torches.”) Cuse’s influence is what he said helped the writers and producers keep going in the early days.
“He infused us with a sense of optimism,” Lindelof said. Cuse encouraged the crew to take the show one episode at a time and not project two or three seasons ahead.
“The day the pilot aired, the ratings came out, Damon came into my office holding the ratings sheet, practically in tears,” Cuse laughed. “And he asked, ‘Does this mean we have to keep doing this?’”
Manly was plainly a fan, and had a keen interest in the shepherding process they went through as they ushered the show from freshman success to the glorious mess that it’s become today.
They looked at the climactic scene from season two’s “Orientation”—the iconic argument between Jack and Real John Locke about whether the button really does anything, and about the fact that Locke can’t handle the pressure of believing alone—as a case study in how they handled the show’s science fiction elements in a way that has a broader thematic relevance.
“In most science-fiction genre shows,” Cuse said, “the approach to the scene might be that the characters are sitting around talking about how this button is connected to whatever detonation device. ‘How do we dissemble it? How do we take it apart? How do we stop the timer? Who built it?’ Those kinds of mechanical questions that are very plot-oriented—this scene distinguishes the way we approach story-telling differently than other shows that are in this genre. Instead of having characters talk about that, we take this theme of faith and use that as the nexus of what would actually drive the discussion between these two characters.”
They managed to keep the more fantastic elements of the show relatable and interesting by, as Cuse put it, trying to change "what" questions into "who" questions: We may have spent half a season wondering what's in the hatch, but when we finally found out, we cared about it because we were now (presumably) more curious about who was in the hatch. When the Smoke Monster started to play a more significant role in the plot this season, whether it could go past the circle of ash and which dead faces it could assume didn't matter to the story nearly as much as who the Monster was and what he wanted.
Over the six years of the show, they never had any major battles over where to go with the story, a fact they credited to the intensely collaborative nature of the way they worked out each season’s arc and each episode’s story. Enthusiastic fans are already familiar with the process: At the “very beginning of the show” they came up with “what the very end of the show should be, and that actually has stayed the same since then.” Between seasons one and two, free from the pressure of day-to-day writing and production, they fleshed out the show’s mythological outline. Between each season, they hold a “mini-camp” where they plan the details of the coming season’s arc with the other writers. Finally, episode-by-episode, they work with the full team of writers to break each story and assign script duties.
“We’re not J.K. Rowling,” Cuse said. “We’re not completely in control of our own universe. We collaborate with 425 people on Lost.”
Lindelof said that the two questions people ask most frequently are whether they are “making it all up as they go along” and what impact the fans have on the development of the show.
“People want the answer to the first question to be, ‘We are not making it up as we go along. We have a binder, and everything we’re going to do is in there,’” he said. “And they want the answer to the second question to be, ‘The fans have enormous impact on the show!’ But both things can’t coexist … We have to live between the space.”
They cited a few examples of subtle ways in which the fans actually have impacted story-telling decisions over the years, including the season two story-line centering around Hurley hoarding foodstuffs from the Dharma Initiative’s storehouse.
“We thought it was kind of odd,” Cuse mused, “because everybody’s really well-groomed and nobody’s saying, ‘Why does Kate’s hair look so nice?’ Nobody looks like Tom Hanks in Castaway on our show, but for some reason the fact that Hurley wasn’t losing weight seemed to be bothering people.”
The long-standing common wisdom amongst Lost fans has been that the introduction of the characters Nikki and Paulo in season three was another example of the producers responding to fan questions—this time a recurring question of who the rest of the 50-odd survivors of Oceanic 815’s tail and fuselage sections were.
Lindelof, though, says that that’s only partly true:
“We introduced Nikki and Paulo at a time where we didn’t have an end date yet, and had to start packing our refrigerator full of food—even food we didn’t want to eat … We needed to start stacking the deck.”
In an attempt to give themselves story-telling fodder for—well, they didn’t know how long they’d need it—they were going to once again introduce new characters at the start of the season, much the way they opened season two by introducing the audience to Desmond and to the tail-section survivors. They knew that they would be introducing Juliet, Ben and several minor Others, but added Nikki and Paulo to the roster as a capitulation to fan pressure.
Now that the end is in such close sight, the question they’ve been getting asked most often recently is, “Am I going to be really disappointed by the finale?”
The writers said that by following the show for six years, one of the things fans should be prepared for is the fact that they may find the finale disappointing.
“One of the reasons we believe people watch the show is because you’re like ‘This could end catastrophically,’” Lindelof said. “There’s a part of all of us that, when we go to see the high-wire act at the circus, we’re like, ‘I kinda wanna see him fall. It would be terrible—but it would be interesting.’”
“There’s been a spiritual quality to the final season of the show,” said Cuse, referring to the hard nod back toward the mythic that irked some fans this season. “And we felt like that is something we wanted to be very much a part of the concluding episode of the show.”
So, they didn't come right out and say whether they think people will be disappointed or not, but throughout the evening they did tease the audience with information about the finale. Some teases were minor (there is apparently going to be a Star Wars reference in the first seven minutes), others were larger (the interview mentioned at least three people the audience will be surprised to see Sunday) and some were just abstract (Desmond’s second-season advice to Jack to “lift it up” may or may not be of thematic relevance).
The tidbits--including a complete scene from Sunday's episode--were just enough to stoke the audience's excitement for the finale without satiating any of our curiosity. That's a difficult tightrope to walk, but Lindelof and Cuse are good at it. They've had a lot of practice.