Interview with HUMANITAS Trustee Damon Lindelof
Ten years ago today, Lost premiered on ABC and launched a new world of television, effectively becoming America’s new water-cooler show. The drama remains divisive (the ending!), but there’s no denying the impact it had on TV and the way we talk about TV. Lost was absolutely inescapable; fans shared theories, the cast took over media, and the showrunners became celebrities. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse created such an intricate and engaging show that fans made them just as popular, if not more, than the actors — for better or for worse, as Lindelof even famously quit Twitter. They were praised as much as they were scrutinized, and Tara Bennett’s Showrunners: The Art of Writing a TV Show (a companion to the documentary) remarks on the showrunner-as-celebrity phenomenon. In this exclusive excerpt, WGA Showrunners Training Program Founder Jeff Melvoin and Damon Lindelof himself discuss how Lost changed showrunning and the way we view showrunners:
DAMON LINDELOF I think the decision to become frontmen/our own kind of P.T. Barnums for the show, never felt like a decision that we actually sat down and contemplated. Had it been, I don’t think we would have chosen to do that. I think it was more something that just kind of happened to us. J.J. and I were certainly experiencing that when people watched the pilot, across the board, they all had the same reaction, which is, “This is pretty cool, I like this.” But how is the show going to sustain itself? What’s the next episode going to be? You can’t just have the monster chasing these people through the jungle every week. It just feels too complex and too intricate for us to track. So as a result of that being the criticism, it almost forced us into a defensive posture where we had to start going out into the media and saying, “Here’s what we’re actually going to do. We have these flashback ideas, and it’s going to be very character-centric.” People would say, “Is the show going to be weird? Is it supernatural?” And we’d say, “No, it’s not that supernatural.”
Obviously, that evolved over time, but in a lot of ways, we likened it to the idea of after a football game the coach has to put himself in front of the press and explain why the team lost the game, or why the team won the game when, in fact, arbitrarily, he’s just the coach. The team has a mind of its own. There was this demand for us to constantly get out and explain things, and we felt like if we denied our audience, if we basically said, “Sorry. The show speaks for itself and we’re not going to talk about the show at all,” that actually would have hurt the show. And so by making ourselves available, ultimately sometimes to criticism as well as praise or questions or anything, we felt that that was in the best interest of the show.
That evolved to where, by the end of the first season of the show, Carlton and I were asked to do a special that would air before the finale which, basically, recapped the entire season, where we explained, “Here are all the things that you need to know in order to enjoy the finale.” So suddenly, I’m just a writer who occasionally does interviews with the press and then I turn on ABC, and there’s my ugly bald head trying to explain what the Black Rock is. And Carlton and I just turned to each other and said, “How the hell did this happen?”
Carlton and I have a very interesting dynamic. Carlton is the glass-half-full guy, and I’m the glass-half-empty guy. I always looked at doing anything on- camera as a chore, and it was taking our attention away from where it should be, which was actually working on the show itself. But over time I was convinced that it was a necessary part of the job, going out there and saying, “Hey, we stand by our work.”