10 Years After Lost Premiered, Damon Lindelof Reveals Why He "Broke Down Sobbing" and Opens Up About Show's Legacy

Exclusive: Co-creator reveals never-known show secrets, including the two actors who fought hard not to be in a relationship

By Kristin Dos Santos Sep 22, 2014 12:00 PMTags
Lost Cast, 2004ABC

Something really awful tends to happen when we lose someone we love—especially if the death itself didn't play out exactly the way that we might have imagined. For a period of time, all we can think about is the end, about the death itself, about how the final weeks or days or moments that maybe didn't exactly go how we had hoped.

There's a period of grieving. And shock. And sorrow. But over time, if we are lucky, we start to focus again on what really actually mattered: That person's life. All the moments and experiences that made us love them so very much in the first place. You know, what really actually mattered. The living.

It's time to do that for Lost.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Lost premiere: Sept. 22, 2004 on ABC. And although a lot has been said about the show's finale—which, for the record, so very many of us LOVED (including me), or liked, or felt a little conflicted but didn't feel the need to talk about it quite so loudly—what perhaps has been forgotten is the memory of how absolutely incredible it was to be a Lost fan. The 121 hours of television that left so many of us jumping out of our seats, tossing out crazy-ass theories, shrieking and guessing and swooning and shrieking and guessing. 

Locke was in a wheelchair?!!! Waaaaaalt! What's in the hatch?!! The Constant. Penny and Desmond. Jin in the submarine. Surely you remember.

I know I speak for many fans when I say that I will never love another TV show as much as I loved Lost. It was my first true TV love, my most passionate TV affair, and there just isn't any chance of that experience ever being repeated. Lost, for me, wasn't just a TV show—it was a deeply emotional relationship, and I can't help but get a giant lump in my throat when thinking about how much I miss it. The show. The fans. The cast. The theories. The freakouts. The everything.


That lump was ever-present when I spoke to Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof a few days ago about the legacy of Lost, and what he remembers most about the day, 10 years ago, when the path of his life changed forever. 

What shocked me most (aside from the core romance he once considered to be a "show killer"—we'll get to that!) was that Sept. 22 and 23, 2004, when Lost premiered to huge, record-breaking ratings, were decidedly not the happiest days in Damon's life.

Lost, as you may recall, had perhaps the messiest beginning of any hit TV show in the history of television. The pilot was thrown together, last minute. The show was picked up and the cast was chosen without even a script. Damon Lindelof was brought on as executive producer in the 11th hour, to work alongside a man he deeply respected/worshipped as a long-time Alias fan: JJ Abrams.

And no one had any clue what was about to happen…  

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Tell me what you remember most about the day Lost premiered, Sept. 22, 2004.
Damon Lindelof: What I remember is that JJ [Abrams] had a party over at his house. And I think it was a Wednesday, if memory serves, at 8 p.m. And I do remember that it was premiere week, but Desperate [Housewives] had not premiered yet. And so our experience in the run-up to the premiere was different permutations of the same conversation, which was, ‘Hey, this is a very cool pilot that we like, but we have serious misgivings about what the longevity of the series is. And the real great pilot is Desperate Housewives. That thing is just gonna be a monster.'

It wasn't like we were being neglected, but it was like Desperate Housewives was going to be the great white hope for ABC. So at this party at JJ's, I remember sort of huddling over in a corner with a couple of execs, and they were saying, ‘It's going to be OK, but don't expect anything big to happen. ABC has had a hard time launching shows, 8 p.m. is the family hour, and it has no lead in.' And I remember feeling just tremendous relief over the course of this conversation because my fantasy was that would be this kind of culty 13 episodes and out show. Maybe like a Firefly. That was really the trajectory that I was hoping for.

I was just thinking, ‘Thank god, this is not going to be  that big of a deal.' That was the night of the 22nd.

VIDEO: Kristin's Lost finale party


And then? When did you hear about the insane ratings?
At around 6:15 a.m. the next morning. I remember sleeping fairly well, uncharacteristically, and my phone rang and it was Tom Sherman who had been the executive who had developed Lost at ABC. I knew it was a ratings call and this was going to essentially determine the trajectory of my life in some fairly significant ways. And it was Tom and he said, ‘The show is a monster.' At the time, I think they were the biggest drama numbers ABC had experienced in four or five years.

And I just remember feeling really terrified. And numb and in shock. And it was a Thursday morning, so I had to go in and go to work and break the next story, and Carlton [Cuse] was there and everybody was in this incredibly celebratory mood. Agents and executives, everybody was calling. I remember all these baskets of muffins arriving. Just baskets of muffins. I was surrounded in my office by all of this pastry. And I just broke down sobbing because I was like, ‘Oh shit, I'm gonna have to make more of this thing.' 


And that was an emotional process that, thank god for [executive producer] Carlton [Cuse]. He really helped me out of it and focused on the present. That first season, really creatively, we weren't able to do any advance work until the first season ended, because we had a tiger by the tail. And because JJ and I had met so late in the game and put the pilot together so quickly and it was greenlit without a script, blah blah blah. This sense that the audience was feeling that we were making it up as we were going along was a very real feeling and I was the one that was like, ‘Now there is so far to fall.' 

There certainly was no Twitter or Facebook presence, but you could feel the buzz happening around the show. And it was absolutely and totally terrifying and overwhelming. I was 30 years old and sort of driving this car with a sense of a tremendous amount of honking behind me. It was like, ‘Why are you all following me?! I don't know whether to go left or right!' So my memories of September 22 and 23 should be, ‘Oh my god, that was one of the greatest days of my life,' and in hindsight, of course it was, but it just didn't feel that way at the time.

Looking back now, what do you hope Lost is remembered for? What do you feel is the show's legacy?
I hope it's remembered for the experience that happened in the six days in between the airings of the episodes. As a TV viewer, for so long I had been feeling, with the exception of some of the things that were happening on cable like The Sopranos, that there weren't really any watercooler shows that gave that feeling of, 'I can't wait to see what's going to happen next.' The last time I had really experienced that feeling on network TV was with the X-Files and then more recently Alias, which I was just as obsessed with as you were. 


It was about that level of anticipation. I understand that Christmas morning is really important. But I'm a Christmas Eve guy. The level of excitement that I felt as a kid on Christmas Eve, and now as a parent that I watch my kid experience, that sense of anticipation and excitement, I just feel like it's so hard to generate that feeling in people. We are inclined to be cynical because we protect ourselves from potential disappointment, but just that sense of, 'Oh I really can't wait for this' is so cool. As much as I love binge-viewing myself, you cannot experience that while binge-watching a show. I binge-watched the first two seasons of Breaking Bad and then I was caught up for season three, and then I started to have that feeling of like, ‘Oh my god, it's so exciting now that I'm now anticipating what is going to happen next.'

The other thing I remember so fondly is that feeling that you were a part of something. The feeling that you were a part of this community of people who were watching the show and arguing about this show and theorizing about this show and and just the intense  speculation about the mythology. The passion in people's voices when they would talk about the show.  

I think that the show was so full of life for so long and that's what I would wish is to just kind of remember that level of excitement that people experienced as they were watching the show.


I've started to realize lately that I don't really enjoy TV as much in the era of Twitter, because there's so much inherent negativity that can spiral out of control. Lost was really the first big finale that aired in the age of Twitter.  So, how do you feel that social media changed the viewer experience of Lost? It was such a dramatic shift during the run of the show.
It's hard for me to say. And for my own emotional well-being, I'm not really talking about the finale and the reaction to the finale, because I feel like I obsessed on it in a very unhealthy way for a period of time. But I do think, and this isn't me denying that there is certainly a community out there that is disappointed in the way that Lost ended, but I sort of let that opinion affect my own sense of what we wanted to do and what we accomplished and that we ended the show on our terms and we didn't peter out. Something that a lot of people forget and this isn't to say that the Emmys often don't get it right. But we were nominated for writing the Lost finale, a writing Emmy. They nominate five scripts a year. And the show was nominated in its final season for drama series and there's time travel and smoke monsters chasing people through the jungle. 

So I started focusing more on that idea of no, this was good, and this was what I wanted to do. And if you want to argue over whether it was good or bad, that's an argument that can never ever be won. It's totally subjective and based on your opinion. But it has become clear to me that social media is not inclined for people to come out and say, ‘Hey, let's give this thing the benefit of the doubt. There were three shaky episodes in a row but boy I still really love this show.' It's actually sort of more inclined the other way which is, ‘Screw this, this show wasted all my time, this show's going to betray me.' And then that idea basically becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As I've gone out into the world on both sides, more often than not I experience people who say ‘I loved the finale,' but they say in this almost apologetic way, that they're acknowledging that that's a minority opinion. But the reality is that the people who hated the finale, when I encounter them, I ask them, ‘When did you actually start not liking the show? Were you like totally on board until hour 120 and then the finale just totally and completely screw it up for you?'  And then they look at me like they've never been asked this before and then they quietly admit that somewhere early in season two, they stopped liking the show but they kept watching it.


And so once I realized that the show can be a lens for pessimism or optimism, and social media really just has that overall function, and there's a sense of which way the zeitgeist is basically going and people want to say, ‘This is what the zeitgeist says… this thing is great' or  ‘It says that it was great and isn't any more.' I'm still a guy that says I love Homeland and I'm going to love the show Homeland until they don't make the show any more. And there are going to be great seasons and there are going to be seasons that are less than great. Because you can't be great unless less than great is part of the equation. And I can't function like that and also be a consumer of social media because it won't let me do that. It wants to judge the now. It wants to judge the immediate space. It wants to say, ‘I didn't like this episode and therefore I'm worried about this show.' I want to call up the people who write those things and say, ‘Are you married? Have you been divorced 50 times? Is that the way that you treat the people in your life when they disappoint you?'

We made 121 hours of a show that should have never made it to hour 10, based on how limited its premise was, and I respect you, I hear you but I'm really proud of what we did. 

[Can we pause for a moment, and those of us who remain married to our love of Lost, just give Damon a HELL YES. Thank you. Also, not to harp on this already overdone finale conversation any longer, but hundreds of thousands of Lost fans took our poll the night the finale aired, and only ELEVEN PERCENT said they hated it. 53 percent loved it. And 22 percent liked it. Take that, "zeigeist."]


Now, let's wrap this up with five fun questions for Damon as celebrate the life of Lost

1. Favorite fan theory that was totally wrong.
That the island was on the back of some sort of gigantic sea turtle or leviathan, that it was actually the toupee of this giant creature or something, and at some point it was just going to kind of rise up. And I remember that we wanted there to be some seismic activity in the finale so that whoever was still holding out hope that the turtle would rise above the water line would say, "Ha! I knew it! I knew it!"

2. Favorite character to write for. 
God, I only have one kid so I can avoid this question. I hate picking favorites! I loved writing Jack and Locke but it wasn't always fun to write those guys because they were so tortured. But Ben Linus was really fun to write. I just felt that guy was talking in my ear as I was writing. Like, I could just feel [MichaelEmerson standing behind me saying, ‘This is what I would say.' And so Ben Linus didn't even feel like a character that I was writing, he just felt like a character that I was listening to.


3. Storyline you didn't think the fans would love, but they did.
Putting Sawyer and Juliet together. The "LeFleur" episode where we essentially said, we're not going to give the fans the opportunity to see them flirting with each other and developing feelings over time…we're just going to stuff it down their faces. We're going to do a time card so like, they basically travel back in time and then the next time we see them, all within in the span of the same episode, they've been living amongst the Dharma initiative for a period of time, and they are now together and they are into each other.  

And so it was just sort of like, this is not a build. It's a law. It has happened. We got excited about that story because we loved Elizabeth Mitchell so much, but as we started talking about it, both Josh [Holloway] and Elizabeth were not happy. They were like, ‘Hey guys, we love you, we trust you, but it ain't gonna work.' And Elizabeth was just saying, ‘There is just no chemistry between us, I love Josh as a human being but you have done nothing to build this up. You haven't laid any of the groundwork.'

And we were like, ‘That's why we love it so much. It just comes out of nowhere. You just have to totally commit!' And they were like, ‘We'll do our best.'  And I just started to have that feeling in my stomach like, this is a real show killer. Like, when you put two beloved characters in an intimate relationship with each other and they don't have chemistry, you end up making the characters look like fools and you can really piss off the audience. Then we saw the episode, and we said, we think this kind of works! But it could be a complete and utter disaster. And it wasn't until it aired and the audience was like, 'OK, we are OK with this, we are going to go down this road. We are now accepting Juliet into this sort of love dynamic that was previously only occupied by Jack, Sawyer and Kate.'

4. Storyline that that you thought the fans would love but they hated.
Two of them. One of course was Nikki and Paolo, which we thought was going to work like gangbusters. It didn't. And the second one was the "Across the Sea" episode, which aired three weeks before the series ended. And we were just like, I don't think anybody is expecting the Jacob and the Man in Black origin story. We're going to go all the way back to as far back as we want to begin this story and give the audience a big chunk of mythology, all the questions that people really want to have the answers to, we're going to provide them, in this very unconventional way, where the characters that you've been tracking from the previous five seasons aren't even going to be a part of it. We thought that was a really cool idea and the fans did not share our enthusiasm. 


5. Character death that still haunts you.
Charlie is the one that got me. It got me. I think that in season three we had Desmond have these predictive premonitions of Charlie's death and right then it became a question of, Is Desmond going to be able to save Charlie or is Charlie then going to have to die? And the more we talked about this show, the more we felt that you couldn't change the future or the past. Things were fixed. And that there'd be a lot of drama in Desmond trying to stop it, but ultimately the gravest death that Charlie could ever have is he'd be the first character to sort of recognize this and that he'd sacrifice himself in a very meaningful way.

And in the season three finale, which is one of my favorite episodes, if not my favorite episode, is that what Charlie does is what enables the following three seasons to occur. By making the island visible and having Penny see the island and then send the freighter basically sets forth a series of events that results in the Oceanic Six getting off the island. So his death was this sort of mega moment in the show and when we actually got in the editing room and saw for the first time Dom underwater pressing his hand up against the glass, resigned to it. I just started sobbing. I had formed such a close bond with Dom and the idea of him not being a regular on the show any more and probably him having bad feelings towards me and Carlton for having made this decision, even though that it's what the story wanted to have happen, it's the death that stays with me.

Damon Lindelof is currently working on HBO's The Leftovers, which has been picked up for a second season—and which, in case you hadn't already heard, got insanely good by the end of its first season. (I highly recommend you give it a chance.) According to Damon, season two will not follow the book and will be all new stories.


If you're still reading, I think I can safely say: Thanks for loving Lost with me.

"Live together or die alone." Ammiright, Lost fans?

Now here's a look back at the first ever set visit we did in Honolulu in September 2004, with Matthew, Evangeline, Dominic and Terry...See how the Lost set looked in the very beginning! Fun fact: It was indoors!