Sunday, April 05, 2015

Lost And Found

Just when you think you've read everything out there about Lost, there's some new information.  And this time it's from the horse's mouth (maybe not the leading horse, but he finished in the money)--Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a writer in its first two seasons.  He has a long entry on his website trying to answer the classic question "Did you make it up as you went along?" (Grillo-Marxuach went to high school in Ann Arbor and gave a great speech at the University of Michigan about the world of TV.  It's due to him that Lost has an Ann Arbor connection.)

The basic story of Lost's origin is well-known.  President of ABC Lloyd Braun (who was on his way out, though he didn't know it--he left just as ABC rose to the top with titles he greenlighted) had an idea for a show that mixed Cast Away with Survivor.  He ordered a script that was deemed unsatisfactory, then, at the last second, J. J. Abrams, who brought along Damon Lindelof, came up with a killer pilot, after which the show was cast and the pilot shot on an expedited schedule. The rest is history.

But Grillo-Marxuach (I'm gonna call him Javier) tells the story behind this story.  Around the time the pilot was delivered, there was a think tank of writers who helped developed the show.  Many of them--in fact, pretty much all but Javier--didn't become regular staff members, but were instrumental in creating a lot of what would be thought of as Lost.

ABC was skittish about certain things, particularly bizarre sci-fi storylines, so J.J. and Damon famously promised everything on Lost would be explainable in scientific terms and each episode would be self-contained. In other words, they lied.  Still, the expectations of the network played a part in determining how far the writers could go.

The group would meet and brainstorm, guided by Lindelof, to figure out where the story was going.  They were guided much less by Abrams, who'd soon leave the show entirely to shoot Mission Impossible 3, while co-executive producer Carlton Cuse was only brought in by Lindelof halfway through the first 13 episodes.  Javier notes that while everyone asks about how they developed the mythology of the Island, no one asks about what they spent much more time on--the character's backstories. They had a fine script to work from, and much of their ideas came from its intimations, but they had to tease everything out.  They'd pitch to Lindelof and he'd usually reject what they had, but if he felt something worked, it'd be developed further.

Even more important, at first everyone figured all the action would be set on the island, and they'd fill in the backstories where they could.  They came up with a lot of ideas for plots on the island (often bad ones, like fighting for sunscreen, or at least stuff that couldn't be dramatically sustained) until they realized they could do flashbacks.  Though the pilot has flashbacks to the crash, no one had figured the whole show could be built around them to create and explain the characters--this insight became Lost's signature.  Now suddenly they had a lot of great stories to tell, and, if nothing else, could change the scenery and allow their stars to clean up and wear nice clothes.

As to the more mystical aspects, much of it was planned, but only in vague ways.  From the start, Lindelof insisted the Island was a nexus of good and evil helping to determine humanity's fate, that the Island was off the maps, and that there was a secretive group (originally the "Medusa Corporation") that knew of the Island's magical powers and did experiments there.  Also around this time came the idea of creepy people in the jungle (eventually known as The Others) who'd mix in with the castaways, as well as other survivors from the tail section.

Abrams liked the idea of a "mystery box"--something that would keep the audience guessing and, thus, watching.  In particular, The Hatch.  What was in it?  That could be figured out later. Lindelof insisted before it go on the show they understand enough about it so they were sure it could go somewhere dramatically.  This led to a lot of pitches--a cave full of treasure, a bio-dome holding creatures who breathe carbon dioxide, a former nuclear sub--all rejected.  Finally, one day Lindelof came in and said inside the hatch there's a guy who has to press a button every 108 minutes or the world will end. And that was that.

Some ideas were there from the start but developed as they went along.  The Smoke Monster was in the pilot (if not shown), and soon enough it became clear it somehow policed the Island and could probably see into your soul.  But the idea of what it all meant was still being developed after Javier left the show.

There were many other ideas they came up with during the first season.  For instance, there was talk of "Black Rock" but no one really knew what it meant until one writer pitched it was an old shipwreck.  Another idea was Jack's father's casket being on the plane, and then found empty, while Jack has a vision of his father on the Island.  One of the most troublesome backstories was Hurley's--he had the last character flashback in the first season, and his story kept changing.  At first they saw him as a repo man who could talk anyone into anything. He was also going to have the power to hypnotize Claire and look into her past. (Lindelof put a hard brake on that.) Finally, someone came up with him as a lottery winner and it just took off. In fact, it wasn't until that moment that the numbers became a major part of the show.

Even better, writer David Fury had pretty much finished his Locke flashback script when Lindelof had a brainstorm--reveal at the end he was in a wheelchair and that the Island cured him.  Fury fought against it--he'd already written a fine Willy Loman-type script where Locke was a defeated man being given a second chance on the Island, no magic necessary. But this change led to one of the great TV moments, and  "Walkabout" was the episode that signaled to millions (including me) that Lost was something special.

As the show went on, Javier's views on the direction of the storyline didn't always fit with those of Lindelof and Cuse, and in 2006, the day after Lost won the Best Drama Emmy for its first season, Javier resigned.  Many aspects of the show that were there already would go well beyond how they had started out.  Henry Gale became Benjamin Linus who became central to the action.  The whole Jacob/Man in Black opposition fit the Good and Evil nexus, but very little of it was specified until much later.  And so on.

Let's give Javier the last word:

First we built a world. Then we filled it with an ensemble of flawed but interesting characters -- people who were real to us, people with enough depth in their respective psyches to withstand years of careful dramatic analysis. Then we created a thrilling and undeniable set of circumstances in which these characters had to bond together and solve problems in interesting ways.

Soon thereafter, we created a way for you to witness their pasts and compare the people they once were with the people they were in the process of becoming. While that was going on, we also created an entire 747s worth of ideas, notions, fragments, complications, and concepts that would -- if properly and thoughtfully mined -- yield enough narrative fiction to last as long as our corporate overlords would demand to feed their need for profit and prestige, and then, just to be sure, teams of exceptionally talented people worked nonstop to make sure the 747 never emptied out.

And then we made it all up as we went.

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