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'Lost' showrunner reveals his career's highest, lowest point

For Damon Lindelof, the best and worst times were both on ABC’s ‘Lost’

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Mario Perez/ABC

Over the past decade, Damon Lindelof has enjoyed a metoric career, having worked on big-screen features like Star Trek: Into Darkness, Cowboys & AliensWorld War ZPrometheus, and Tomorrowland, plus he’s currently showrunning HBO’s The Leftovers. During a recent interview for EW’s upcoming Fall TV Preview issue, we asked what he considered his career’s highest and lowest points. Both of Lindelof’s answers were about working on the 2004 breakout hit ABC show Lost. Here’s Lindelof: 

Highest: “In terms of a sustained career high, the summer between the first and second seasons of Lost. The show was in the zeitgeist, and there was that strange feeling of being in a restaurant and people at the next table are talking about what they thought was in The Hatch, and then it culminated in us winning the drama series Emmy. [Fellow Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse] came in about halfway through season 1, but it was just triage. This was the first breath that we were able to take. And I think that because Carlton was a much more experienced guy, he was able to say, ‘You need to take a step back right now and just look at what is happening, because this will probably only happen once, and I’m not saying that because I’m being a fatalist.’ And I think that I was able to. That entire summer basically started with me getting married — the season 1 finale aired, and two days later I married my wife. And the end of the summer was winning the Emmy. So that was like firing on all cylinders. There have been amazing highs following that, but they weren’t sustained for that chunk of time.”

Lowest: “The one that leaps to mind, oddly enough, was the entire period from July until February preceding the period I just described to you. That was when I was writing the first season of Lost after finishing the pilot. I had an idea in my head that we were going to make 13 episodes of a cult show. I was going to try to make the episodes as good as possible and then we would be canceled. Suddenly it became a phenomenon, and that did not feel good. The ratings were massive and the critical response to the show and the audience response was overwhelmingly positive, and those things made me feel more and more upset and isolated and stressed out. 

I felt like everybody was watching. I was 30 years old, and [Lost executive producer] J.J. Abrams was off directing Mission: Impossible III, and this was before Carlton came on, and so I was running a show without ever having run a show before, a show of an incredibly ambitious scale, commuting between Los Angeles and Hawaii, and writing a script every eight days for a show that really had no procedural element — they’re not cops, they’re not doctors, they’re not lawyers. So every story needed to be generated from the ground up, and the story was, ‘This week this is going to happen, this week this is going to happen, this week this is going to happen,’ and any misstep that you made in terms of the mythology risked jumping the shark.

We were hearing ‘jumping the shark’ all the time in the first season. People were already saying it. They were saying, ‘If they do not answer this mystery satisfyingly, I’m going to be really pissed.’ And so there was all that pressure, and I hadn’t put any thought into any of those things as J.J. and I were writing the pilot, because there just wasn’t any time to doubt it. [ABC] was just like: ‘You have 12 weeks to generate two hours of material — Go.’ Not 12 weeks to write it, but 12 weeks to write it and make it and edit it, all of it. So once it was done and it existed and it turned out well did I start to become victim to my own insecurities. So that was an incredibly dark time, and nothing that I’ve ever experienced emotionally has come close.”

Now before you jump too hard onto that “I hadn’t put any thought into any of those things” part, Lindelof is being a bit modest. For those interested in a deep-dive insider’s take on the creation of Lost‘s first season, one of the show’s writers Javier Grillo-Marxauch, wrote this essay, which is pretty essential reading, that reveals the team knew more than most people assume. 

Added Lindelof: “I know that you asked ‘career’ in terms of a metric of success — a movie makes a lot of money or doesn’t make a lot of money; a TV show generates a lot of ratings or it doesn’t generate a lot of ratings. But for me, success is really just completely and totally based on how I am feeling. Like, success is an internal mechanism, and I have enough experience now to know you cannot tell someone that they are successful. If they do not feel successful internally, it doesn’t matter what you tell them. And then I know a lot of people who by all metrics are complete and utter failures who view themselves as successes, and the difference between the two is razor-thin. It’s all determined by how you feel about your own work.” 

HBO’s acclaimed drama The Leftovers returns on Sunday, Oct. 4. See the trailer here

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