Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On Writing: The 'LOST' Team...

Lost revolutionized television from its initial promos. A plane crashes on a deserted island, leaving passengers with checkered pasts stranded, injured, and forced to come together to survive. The subsequent seasons that spiraled down the road of the supernatural-- from spontaneously appearing polar bears, smoke monsters, mysterious "Others" who appeared seemingly out of nowhere, etc-- only fed the belief that series creators Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof were those rare Hollywood scribes that still managed to pluck a unique and intriguing story out of the ether of imagination and make it sizzle not only on the page but also the screen.

"There was this moment in the first show where Sawyer is sitting on the beach, wondering just what [the castaways] are going to do about food, and a knife slides across the sand to him. Whip pan to John Locke who simply states: "We're gonna hunt," and at that moment, I just thought...no one's going to watch this show!" Lindelof laughs when asked if the show that is wrapping up its sixth and final season is what he always hoped and wanted it to be.

With so many historical, philosophical, and religious undertones intelligently layered throughout the episodes, it might go without saying that the writers of the show-- Liz Sarnoff, Adam Horowitz, and Edward Kitsis-- are smarter than most. Just how do they manage to do it, though? "We have this tradition that we've always liked to do-- we call it mini camp," Cuse explains. "We take three to four weeks of just all of us writers in a room with a big whiteboard and some free thought. It's during a time when we've just finished writing all of the episodes for a particular season and can just concentrate on sussing out themes and overall arcs. That's why it's like a camp experience."

"And we never like to assume we're any smarter than the audience," Lindelof is quick to add.

Googling is an option, too, of course-- although Lindelof admits that most of the Googling that goes on in their offices is just to settle bets. Instead, he graciously credits his Intro to Philosophy 101 college pre-requisite that he "thought [he'd] never, in a million years, use" for the theory knowledge that led to some of Lost's best allusions and character naming conventions. The writers admitted that many of the characters' last names (such as Jack Shepard, John Locke, and Dogen) have serious significance, and if one were to search the internet for the real life past figures, they will understand a little more about the character and his destiny.

Sarnoff, one of the few on staff who doesn't have a usual writing partner, admits she loves collaborating with others on scripts, especially when such nitty gritty details are involved. Each one of Lost's scripts is written by at least two people, for which she is grateful. "So much crazy stuff happens on our show, it's especially nice to have someone to back you up or help you remember when something happened!" She laughs.

But in all seriousness, Sarnoff relishes the team atmosphere and "big picture" mentality that Cuse and Lindelof have created within their writers' room, which is quite a switch from her previous experience working on Deadwood, under the guise of David Milch. "Working for David, if you wanted to pitch a story, you'd have to write and write and write until he hears it so much he thinks he thought of it!" There she was literally writing the pages they would be shooting that day; there was no planning ahead, and having everyone wait on the material could be quite unnecessarily stressful.

Some of the most fun things for writers to do are to insert little pieces of themselves, friends, and family into their scripts. Sometimes it is done through characters who share their characteristics or even names. For some of the Lost writers, it is much more specific than that. Horowitz enjoys making characters Yankees fans just to "even the playing field with all those Boston people!" Kitsis honored his own family dog by sticking an "I Heart Shih Tzus" bumper sticker on the back of a picture vehicle.

But have there ever been moments when the writers doubt themselves? "Oh sure!" Kitsis chuckles. "We call them the 'sh*t-fairies.' See, most nights we go home pumped, thinking we've just written the best episode ever. But then we'll come in the next morning, look at the copy again, and wonder who came in in the middle of the night and made our work suck!"

And while rewrites are more than common, not only to satisfy a writer's own perfectionism streak but also the network's, Lindelof admits that there have been times that episodes they wrote went to production and then to air with things that they wish they could have altered. "It's not really something we had control over, but the way we built up the character of Eko...I'd like to redo that in a way. Originally the character was supposed to have a much longer, more intricate story arc, but the actor (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) wanted to leave the show so we had to change things."

Perhaps one of the harder things for a writer, then, is to deal with the so many other personalities that come into play once their baby (their script) leaves the safety and sanctity of their writer's room. In the next breath, though, Lindelof points out that sometimes a writer can be pleasantly surprised by what happens after their characters enter the reel world. "Sometimes you have someone-- in our case Michael Emerson-- who comes in and so completely nails a character you thought was only going to be around for three episodes...that you decide to build around him."

The writers' initial vision, therefore, may be what sells others on their show initially, but it is all of the changes, growth, and evolution they allow it that really make it or break it. After all, it won't matter what happens at the end-- or in Lost's case, what does or does not get answered-- if the journey is not entertaining!

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