Lost a “once in a lifetime” series
It was greenlit on just an outline. But nobody knew what Lost was until they got into the Writer's Room.
NB: Story refers to finale plot.
Lost remains one of the most ground-breaking dramas of the last decade.
It was filmed on location with a multicultural cast, it had a cinematic score, there were flashbacks that saw characters U-turn from hero to villain, episodes where principal characters went unseen for a week, and foreign language with subtitles used in primetime US television. The 2004 series seemingly did it all.
But as writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach recalls, the show barely knew what it was when ABC Network greenlit what would become the most expensive Pilot in their history.
Head of ABC Lloyd Braun had an idea for CastAway meets Survivor which JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof would eventually develop, adding supernatural elements. But even they hadn’t worked out the details when the project was fast-tracked into production.
“For Lost to be greenlit from an outline and ABC to release the money for a fuselage to be barged to Hawaii, without a script –was humongous!” Grillo-Marxuach recalls.
He worked on the series for its first 2 seasons, writing and co-writing 7 scripts including “House of the Rising Sun,” “All the Best Cowboys have Daddy Issues,” & “Hearts and Minds.” He recalls a Writer’s Room where the show’s universe was created and rules were broken -including during production.
“They didn’t know what the show was going to be,” he says.
“The flashbacks weren’t even conceived when the Pilot was written. They were something that the room came up with after the Pilot was finished.
“JJ said ‘At the end of the Pilot they find a hatch!’ But Damon asked ‘What’s the hatch’ and JJ said ‘I dunno, mystery box!’
“So Damon didn’t want to put the hatch in until they knew what it was. That’s why it didn’t show until Episode 10.”
“You can’t kill the white guy”
Before Matthew Fox had been cast, there were plans for Michael Keaton to appear briefly as Jack and be killed off. He would still do press for the series with the death to serve as a big twist.
“But I told them, ‘You’re killing a white male who has a profession as a doctor, one of TV’s traditional professions. You can’t do that!'” he insisted.
“Then the network sent them notes that said ‘You can’t kill the white guy.’ So it was re-written with Jack as the main character and he stayed in the series.”
For the “In Translation” episode he wrote the backstory for Jin-Soo Kwon (Daniel Dae Kim) visiting Sun’s (Yunjin Kim) in Seoul.
“It was exceptional to write an hour of TV where more than 30% of it was entirely in Korean and subtitled. That was something very special for American network television,” he says.
“The next year Heroes was doing it with their Japanese characters and other shows were doing flashbacks and flash-forwards. We weren’t inventing the moves but we created a show where we could do a lot of them.”
Lost also helped reignite serialised television, adopting weekly cliffhangers that broke away from current TV hits CSI and Law and Order which were not asking audiences for such commitment. It was a renewed trend that served others such as Desperate Housewives and Prison Break well.
“How does your past life keep coming back to you?”
The flashback device enabled writers to force the audience to rethink their characters: Kate (Evangeline Lilly) was a fugitive on the run, Locke (Terry O’Quinn) had been wheelchair-bound and Hurley (Jorge Garcia) had won the lottery.
“It was a flashback show, a soap opera, a cop show, a fugitive show, a lawyer show, a doctor show, a con artist show,” Grillo-Marxuach explains.
“We were coming up with incredibly varied backstories for characters. Originally we thought everything would take place on the island. Then we realised the show was about who you can be when you pretend to be anyone. But how does your past life keep coming back to you?
“Everybody fantasises about living on a desert island. And everyone fantasises about what they would do if they faked their own death.
“It spanned genres and it allowed us to work in so many different genres to reveal so many different characters.
“The first season of Lost especially was a rollercoaster ride, that you’re lucky to have once in a lifetime. It was something that in order to be a part of its creation, you had to embrace chaos.
“If you look at the matrix of things that could have gone wrong –there are 10 million ways that this should have been a disaster. And there is one way that it could have been the amazing first season of television that it wound up being. We were able to grab the bolt of lightning and spear it into the eye of the needle to get to what we did. And win an Emmy for Best Series.”
“The island is not purgatory”
After his two seasons, Grillo-Marxuach never watched the show again until its infamous finale at the end of Season 6. After so much mythology and supernatural elements, viewers were ready for answers. Debate still rages over whether the pay-off was worth the wait, but Grillo-Marxuach insists the religious ending was not a depiction of Purgatory.
“The island is not purgatory. They all died,” he declares.
“There was never a conversation in the writers room where we settled on purgatory. We never intended it to be purgatory.
“There was a grace note at the end of the final episode that because the characters had such a significant experience on the island they all waited for each other to transcend. But that doesn’t mean the island itself was purgatory. Everything that happened on the island happened in reality.”
So was he personally satisfied with what he viewed?
“I don’t know! It was very emotional, I guess!” he laughs.
“Michael Emerson (‘Benjamin Linus’) was supposed to be a 6 episode guest star in the second season and 7 years later he’s still around. That was weird!
“We had an idea, but I’m not going to tell you what it was, that was a working-hypothesis of what the island was, for the 2 years I worked there. I was surprised that the people who ran the show punted on forever defining what the island truly was. I don’t know what their train of thought was or why they decided to never specify it. I thought that would have brought a lot of closure to a lot of people who stuck with it.”
Despite being so forward on the inner-workings of Lost, Javier Grillo-Marxuach refuses to spill on what that original plan, as discussed in 2004, was.
“There is a code of honour. If they decided to punt on that I can’t second-guess them. The show has given me a lot and it would be really dishonourable for me to say ‘This is what it’s supposed to be.’
“But it’s not Purgatory.”