Damon Lindelof Promises You His New Show Won’t End Like ‘Lost’
A few months ago, inside a house in Douglaston, Queens, Justin Theroux, the star of the new HBO show “The Leftovers,” was in the kitchen, having his feet blow-dried. Theroux had been shooting a scene in which he had to run outside in the snow in bare feet, jump a fence, then put out a fire — over and over. When he retreated to the living room between takes, a conversation about the limitations of human feet ensued among the various people assembled, which led seamlessly to a vigorous and enthusiastic discussion about the magician David Blaine, who was once frozen in a giant block of ice.
Tom Perrotta, upon whose novel “The Leftovers” is based, asked if anyone had ever seen any of Blaine’s card tricks. Damon Lindelof, the show’s co-creator and head writer, got excited and chimed in: “His most amazing trick is he’ll just say, without even a deck of cards: ‘Think of a card. You got it?’ And you just go, ‘O.K.’ And then he’ll go, ‘Four of clubs,’ and that’s the card.” Lindelof, who is 41, wears plastic-framed glasses and has a shaved head and a perpetual day’s worth of scruff, pulled out his phone and searched on YouTube for another favorite Blaine illusion: one in which Blaine puts what looks like a knitting needle through his biceps, to the disgust and delight of Ricky Gervais, and then pulls it out with no trace of blood or puncture wound. Everyone in the kitchen watched the video, horrified.Photo
When it ended, several people talked about ways Blaine might have pulled off the illusion. Lindelof wanted no part in that conversation. “I would never, ever want to be told how he achieves it,” he announced. “I don’t want to feel like that’s a trick. I want to feel like it’s real.”
The conceit of “The Leftovers” is also a kind of trick: 2 percent of the earth’s population disappears one day with no explanation. There appears to be no common denominator to the people who go missing. Condoleezza Rice is gone. The pope is gone. So is Gary Busey. It may be the Christian Rapture — when believers ascend to heaven — or it may not. The story begins on the third anniversary of what has become known as the Sudden Departure, and focuses on characters living in a world that is trying to figure out how to move on.
It’s a compelling but tricky premise for a TV show, because the show’s central mystery may (or may not) be teased out indefinitely. Perrotta’s novel wrapped up its story after 355 pages, but a successful HBO series has to sustain several seasons of intrigue. And because it is Lindelof’s first TV project since he was a creator of “Lost,” the ABC show that famously drew out several mysteries for many seasons — only to end with resolutions that many people found, to put it mildly, unsatisfying — this may be a good time to remember how comfortable Lindelof is with the whole idea of mystery. The short answer: very, despite everything.
When Michael Ellenberg, an executive vice president at HBO, told Michael Lombardo, the network’s president of programming, that he wanted to bring Lindelof on to run “The Leftovers,” Lombardo’s first reaction was: “Damon Lindelof? The guy who was on ‘Lost’?” Ellenberg worked with Lindelof when he was hired to do rewrites for the film “Prometheus,” and he felt as if Lindelof could pull off the strange balance of intrigue and drama they were aiming for in “The Leftovers.” Lombardo agreed they needed a show runner who was willing to take bold chances. And though he hadn’t been a fan of “Lost” — he stopped watching after one season — he began to think of Lindelof as a promising candidate. “ ‘Lost’ had a big and loyal and robust and smart, passionate audience until the very end,” Lombardo says. “I mean, how many serialized shows do that? Most shows peter out, they end with a whimper.”
So Ellenberg called Lindelof and asked if he’d read “The Leftovers.” He told Ellenberg no, and Ellenberg responded: “Read it.”
Lindelof was eager to get back to TV — “It’s what I love, it’s what I’m good at.” He’d spent the years since “Lost” ended in 2010 mostly writing for movies. He worked on “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” with his friends Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. With Jeff Jensen and Brad Bird, he wrote “Tomorrowland,” a Disney movie coming in 2015 based on the section of the Disney theme parks that houses futuristic rides. There was more script-doctor work on “World War Z” and several other movies he declined to name.
Being a script doctor is not exactly thankless work — the in-demand ones are thanked to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars — but you’re typically the second or third or fourth person brought in on a screenplay, a process that Lindelof, a born collaborator, likens to “raising someone else’s child with no overlap.” So when Ellenberg called with the prospect of another TV show, he jumped at it, even though — or perhaps because — he was still not quite over what happened after the final episode of “Lost.”
“Lost” was both a critical and a popular hit when it debuted in 2004. The show began with an irresistible premise — a planeload of people are stranded on a mysterious island — then piled on the clues, red herrings, misdirection, blind alleys and smoke monsters. Six seasons later, when the much-anticipated, much-podcasted, much-blogged-about final episode finally arrived, Lindelof and his fellow show runner, Carlton Cuse, felt they had brought the series to a satisfying close. The show’s main character, Jack, dies while saving the world, and there was a well of light, and also the afterlife. The show’s most vocal fan contingent was not pleased. After the finale, they took to Twitter, where Lindelof was an active and lively presence, to tell him how he ruined their favorite show and wasted six years of their lives. Critics similarly decimated Lindelof and Cuse; one declared that “Lost” “ended in the worst way possible.” George R. R. Martin, author of the “Game of Thrones” novels and a co-executive producer on their HBO adaptation, summed up the magnitude of the disappointment when he told The New Yorker his biggest fear in ending his own series: “What if I do a ‘Lost’?”
Lindelof was devastated. He’s a zealous consumer of culture writing, and those critics who blasted “Lost” were ones he otherwise respected and agreed with. He tried not to care, to remember that he loved the ending and maybe that’s all that should matter. “But it’s like no, that’s not all that should matter,” he says. “I didn’t make the [finale] up in my head and sit in my room and basically weep and applaud myself for having designed this great TV show in my brain. I put it out on the airwaves for millions and millions of people to watch, with the intention of having all of them love it, and understand it, and get it.”Continue reading the main story
‘I’m thinking, Where did I go wrong? What can I learn from ‘‘Lost”? How can this not happen again?’
That didn’t happen. Sure, a lot of people liked the ending. But four years later, the negative reaction to the ending still haunts Lindelof. Until last year, his Twitter bio read: “I’m one of the idiots behind ‘Lost.’ And no, I don’t understand it, either.” There, he welcomed his detractors, retweeting their most virulent insults.
“The tweets were unbearable,” his wife, Heidi Fugeman Lindelof, told me. “ ‘You ruined the last six years of my life?’ He was flogging himself constantly.” Then came the finale of “Breaking Bad,” which he watched at his house with Peter Berg, an executive producer on “The Leftovers.” Following the episode, Lindelof signed onto Twitter to say how much he loved the show and to read other fans’ reactions. His whole feed, however, was full of fans spurred by the finale of “Breaking Bad” to start in all over again on “Lost.”
That’s when he knew he’d had it. “I’m inviting it,” he realized. If he was calling himself an idiot, “then you’re allowed to call me an idiot.” Lindelof quite intentionally deleted the account on Oct. 14, which is the date of the Sudden Departure in “The Leftovers.” This was his last tweet: “After much thought and deliberation, I’ve decided t” — ending in midsentence.
This is what he was thinking: “I do not like the feeling that I experience when people talk about how much ‘Lost’ sucked. I can no longer acknowledge it. I spent three years acknowledging it. I hear you. I understand. I get it. I’m not in denial about it. That said, I can’t continue to be this persona. I can’t continue to acknowledge you, because acknowledging you invites more of it, and it really hurts my feelings. Nobody cares that my feelings are hurt. It’s my job for my feelings to not get hurt.”
“Damon is just an immensely sensitive person,” says Carlton Cuse, who has moved on to shows like “Bates Motel” and “The Strain.” (When they worked on “Lost” together, they were christened by fans with the portmanteau “Darlton,” as if they were Brangelina.) “I made peace with the fact that there were going to be people who didn’t like the ending, but that was really rooted in this belief that a lot of people really were going to like the ending. I think if you do anything risky artistically, some people are going to love it, and then there are people who aren’t going to love it.”
In part, Lindelof may be a victim of a situation he didn’t create but helped nurture: He became, with “Lost,” a celebrity show runner, a species that was previously very rare in television. A show runner — basically the person, usually a writer, in charge of a program’s creative management and direction — of Darlton’s generation never hoped to be known to the public, except perhaps by way of a post-credits vanity card for a production company. But with the advent of the Internet, fans could not only lionize (or heckle) show runners but interact with them as well, peppering them with questions and even influencing the outcomes of plot lines.
Initially, for Lindelof, this kind of fame was very attractive — he interacted eagerly with the fan base of “Lost,” stoking their expectations and ruminations about the show’s labyrinthine plot. The writers eagerly threw out new clues, despite the fact that Lindelof and Cuse didn’t even know how long the show would last until about midway through its six seasons. “For the first 55 episodes of ‘Lost,’ we didn’t know how long the marathon was,” Lindelof says. “Am I running a 100-meter dash, or am I running a marathon? How many laps is this thing?’ Because that’s really going to change the way that I run.”
The success of the show also created outsize expectation for new surprises. “The longer you tell a story, the larger the stakes have to be,” he says. “It’s no longer satisfying to say: Are these people who crashed in this plane going to make it out O.K.? Are they going to fall in love? Are they going to live? Are they going to die? It’s like no, are they going to save the world?”
In the end, they did save the world, but the way they did it left some faithful viewers unhappy. Cuse has made his peace with this; Lindelof still hasn’t.Photo
“So that’s what I’m living with,” Lindelof says. “I don’t have the self-confidence or whatever it is to say, ‘Well, screw those guys.’ I love the show, and I wouldn’t change a thing.” He sighs. “But that’s not what I’m saying to myself. I’m thinking, Where did I go wrong? What can I learn from ‘Lost’? How can this not happen again?”
Part of what affected Lindelof so deeply about “Lost” is that he created the show in his own image. Jack, the show’s hero, became an avatar for Lindelof, at least in Lindelof’s mind: a man who had just lost his father, who had been given the burden of leadership that he didn’t feel ready or willing to handle.
Lindelof grew up in Teaneck, N.J., the only child of an outgoing schoolteacher who was raised in a traditional Jewish family, and an introverted banker who was an atheist. “There was this real fungible kind of romantic love,” he says. “But there was no pragmatic basis for it.”
He and his mother, Susan, were close; he would tell her stories from a very young age — as early as 2 ½ years, she recalls — mostly about robots and spaceships, asking her to write them down, which she would. His father, David, was more distant. He would often retreat into the attic of the house, where he kept a study. When Lindelof was 11, his father moved out. Lindelof moved from his bedroom to the attic, into his father’s old space. It was cold, and he often hit his head on the A-frame, he recalls, but it was easier to transition to an older version of himself without totally turning his back on the “Star Wars” sheets and “Batman” alarm clock that remained in his childhood bedroom.
His relationship with his father got a little better once, in the wake of his parents’ divorce, they began to spend time alone together, and also once Lindelof got older. They were never able to trade in emotion, but they were able to trade in the popular culture of comic books and sci-fi that the older Lindelof loved so much. “Look, who isn’t withholding?” Lindelof asks. “Especially in our folks’ generation, that was actually the way everyone was until Dr. Spock came along. My mom decided to break from the way that she was parented and do the exact opposite.” But his father resisted. His father’s philosophy, he recalls, was: “I can love my son. I can hang out with my son. I can share things with my son. But I’m not going to tell my son that I’m proud of him or that he can do anything that he wants because those things are not necessarily true. He never said to me, ‘You don’t have what it takes.’ That was just my deduction based on not being told that I had what it takes.”
Lindelof attended the film school at New York University, then moved to Los Angeles for what he decided would be his own, self-styled grad school: Working in the business, learning as much as possible from anyone who had it to teach to him. He worked at an agency, where he became engrossed in trying to figure out why some writers worked and other equally talented ones didn’t.
He eventually got a job in development, where he read scripts and sat in on meetings, and it was there that the mystery was solved. “Writers who got fired tended to not collaborate well, and as talented as they were on the page, they didn’t seem to understand that they were being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to do whatever they were told even if what they were being told to do was bad.”
The writers who were better at maintaining their scripts (and therefore their jobs) till the finish were more collaborative. “And by collaborative, it wasn’t saying, ‘Great note,’ if a note was idiotic. It was about taking everything that came at you and acknowledging there might be a note behind a note.”
At 27, he got a writers’ assistant job on the short-lived “Wasteland,” where he was quickly promoted to staff writer. He then came onboard at “Nash Bridges,” the Don Johnson drama headed up by Carlton Cuse, his future collaborator. In 2002, his father died. Two months later, he started dating Heidi Fugeman, an associate producer. They married in 2005 and now have a son in first grade.Continue reading the main story
‘There are people who are comfortable with mystery,’ Lindelof explained. ‘And there are people who are uncomfortable with mystery.’
When they first got together, Lindelof was very much in mourning for his father, and Heidi would tell him that he should talk to a therapist. “I said: ‘Why do I need to talk to a therapist about my dad’s death? He died. I’m sad. I miss him. This is the natural order of things.’ ”
Not long after that, Lindelof started on “Lost,” where he’d been called in as a co-creator by J.J. Abrams on the recommendation of an ABC development executive who admired his work. Abrams and Lindelof liked each other immediately; Abrams was impressed with the heart Lindelof planned to bring to the show, particularly the perspective of the island’s de facto leader, Jack, a man of science who had little tolerance for discussions of faith and magic. “It was a blast to stumble upon someone who allowed me to dream bigger,” Abrams says. “It’s playing tennis with someone better than you. It just felt like it’s better for the game.”
They cast, scouted, wrote and directed the pilot in 13 short weeks — and then Tom Cruise called Abrams with the opportunity to direct “Mission: Impossible III.” He accepted, leaving the show in Lindelof’s hands.
“I’m 30 years old,” Lindelof remembers. “This is a juggernaut that we’re shooting in Hawaii — there’s no way J.J. is just going to just leave me holding this baby. I’m completely and totally unqualified as a parent.” But he did, and almost immediately, it was too much for Lindelof to handle on his own.
Lindelof called Cuse and brought him on. Together, they were sure what they were doing was weird enough that it would be this bizarre half-season series — a cool DVD gift set for nerds.
But that’s not what happened. The pilot was broadcast, the critics loved it and the ratings were huge. “When I got the call the next morning as to what the ratings were, I literally cried,” Lindelof said. “Not with joy, but sort of like, this is too much.” By then he’d been working for five months without a day off. Network shows are grueling, and he was expected to make more than 20 episodes that season. “I wanted the ‘Firefly’ trajectory. Like, we’re going to be kind of pushing up against cancellation, and we’re going to make 13 of these things, and then it will be like this cool cult success.”
“When you’re a show runner,” Cuse says, “the Holy Grail is if you could have a show that’s both critically acclaimed and a ratings success. I remember Damon walking into my office and saying: ‘Oh, my God. Does that mean we have to keep making this?’ ”
The first thing Lindelof did when he assembled the writers’ room for “The Leftovers” was to set his eight writers on the task of trying to understand the world that would come to exist in the years following an event as huge as the Sudden Departure. Two percent of the population isn’t a lot of people, he explained, but it’s enough to have affected many families, as well as rocked people’s notions of faith. In the wake of this, he asked his writers, how would the world react? Some people would find religion; others would leave it.
“ ‘The Leftovers’ is not constructed as a cliffhangery show,” Lindelof says. “It’s not built to be like, oh, my God, we’ve got to watch the next episode immediately. But at the same time, it is built so that when one episode ends, you want to keep watching the show. So by virtue of that, [we are] finding the spirit of: Well, what will make someone excited to watch ‘The Leftovers’ this Sunday night?”Photo
He also wanted a different perspective on the Departure than the book provided. The book’s protagonist, Kevin, was the mayor of a town, but for the pilot Lindelof recast him as the police chief. “I just wanted him to be on the front lines of stress and aggravation,” Lindelof says. “If the world is on the precipice of tipping toward the brink, if people are losing their minds, if people are destabilized, if people are acting violently or they’re depressed, the cops are constantly going to be dealing with those issues. And I want him to be on the inside of that as opposed to the outside of that.”
The writers eventually spent a full month just discussing these issues, both specifically and generally — studying the Old Testament, debating personal philosophies, and then working to create a sustainable mythology for the show before they started scripting episodes.
“There are people who are comfortable with mystery,” Lindelof explained to me in his writers’ room, sitting at the head of a conference table. “And there are people who are uncomfortable with mystery. I’m very comfortable with mystery; I think most of the people in this room are comfortable with mystery.”
This spring, I met Lindelof at his office on the Warner Brothers lot, which is decorated with: a portrait of Lincoln in a Stormtrooper mask; a “Star Wars” poster; a bust of Iron Man; a “Twilight Zone” pinball machine; a near life-size print of a painting of William Shatner as Captain Kirk; a replica of the bike from “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”; and all manner of “Lost” paraphernalia — a polar bear, a cartoon painting of the cast, Dharma Initiative-brand cans of beer and the original hatch from the island. There’s also a dart board that was custom-ordered by Lindelof and that consists of a photo of his face.
He’d been up till about 1 or 2 each morning that week, alone in the night with an editor, making sure each episode of “The Leftovers” met his exacting desires. One thing Lindelof loves about television is that it allows writers to be auteurs, with a degree of control they never got in films. Yet as he was nearing the end of the writing process on the first season, he still wasn’t quite sure how it was going. They were still trying to figure out, he said, “what the show wants to be,” and he felt a bit unmoored.
“There might be a lot of noise around the show, and people might love the pilot, but it might completely and totally sputter and burn out,” he said. “We have not written a script or produced an episode yet where I go: ‘Booyah! That’s what I’m talking about!’ They’ve all been a gargantuan struggle.”
Having seen the pilot for “The Leftovers,” I can report that it is lovely and scary and haunting; that it is full of overtones of sadness and undertones of magic; and that it is a spiritual cousin to “Lost” while also being a very different show.
The one striking similarity is that “The Leftovers,” like “Lost,” is filled with recognizably Lindelofian characters: people conflicted by the tension between faith and science and burdened with a desire to do good in a world that doesn’t make doing good all that easy. Lindelof himself exists as a kind of Lindelofian character, too: a boy born into a home that is ultimately destroyed by the struggle between faith and pragmatism. His father, who never told him he was special, departs, and the boy moves into the space he once occupied. The father, who has remained distant, dies, and the man is torn between his mother’s faith and his father’s lack of faith, so much so that he creates a TV show about it. It stars a doctor who is cast away on an island and asked to lead a group of people, struggles, but eventually learns that he was built specifically for just this challenge.
But Lindelof doesn’t live in a Damon Lindelof world; he lives in this one. And in this world, there’s no way to stop people from reminding you of all the ways you’ve failed them, even when the perceived failure is long past. In this world, all you can do is sit yourself down and start again and muster the confidence that you might please more people — maybe even all of them.
As he and his writers were finishing the writing part of this first season, he told me he was full of doubt. He was wondering: ‘Why did I ever take this on? This is really, really hard. I don’t know if I can do this without failing. All of which I’m experiencing at this very moment in the show.” It’s not lost on him that, for all the residual conflicts he has about “Lost,” he’s not only back on TV, but back working on a show that revolves around a prolonged mystery — one that will eventually have to be wrapped up in a satisfying fashion. “More than anything else, me taking this show says: ‘Yeah, I’ve made my persona into the guy who is clearly emotionally affected by your dislike of “Lost,” but here we go again.’ I’m getting back on the roller coaster because I can’t help myself.”
At his office, I mentioned to him that I had become consumed with finding out how David Blaine pulled off that trick in the video Lindelof showed me, the one with Ricky Gervais and the giant needle. And that I had learned the answer. I asked Lindelof if he wanted to know it. He answered immediately, without hesitating: “Yes.”
So I told him.
He sighed and said, “I can’t pretend I’m not disappointed knowing that.” I told him I was, too. After a minute, he exhaled slowly. “I guess that’s what this is all about,” he said. “We prefer the magic to the knowledge.”
Then he asked me: “You’re not going to ruin David Blaine’s illusion, are you? You’re not going to print it?” I promised him I wouldn’t. I told him I would never tell anyone else what I knew, and he told me he wouldn’t, either.