What happened when J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof met their idol

On Friday, Aug. 11, Stephen King unexpectedly found himself beset for autographs by three of his biggest fans. Fortunately, fulfilling their request fell far short of the author’s notorious definition of Misery. After all, he was a fan of these guys, too. ”I give your DVDs to everybody,” King, 59, told the executive producers of ABC’s trippy mystery drama Lost, after EW brought the foursome together for a lively chat in King’s office in Bangor, Maine. ”You guys could buy Cadillacs just on the royalties from me!” Carlton Cuse, 47, brought his copy of On Writing for King to sign. Damon Lindelof, 33, brought a rare first edition of The Gunslinger, inherited from his late father. And J.J. Abrams, 40, brought…nothing. ”I didn’t know we could!” lamented the Mission: Impossible III director. No worries: King had copies of his new novel, Lisey’s Story, for each of them.

After the signing session was over, King asked the Lost boys if they’d like to grab some dinner and see a movie. A horror movie, of course — The Descent. Afterward, King wished them well with season 3 and left them standing in the theater parking lot frozen with pinch-me wonder. ”Did that just happen?” marveled Abrams.

It did. But just as surprising as the greatest geek date ever was the revealing conversation that preceded it, in which the Lost creators were passionately pursued by their writing hero for an answer to a burning Lost question. Not ”What is the Monster?” Not ”Do you guys know what you’re doing?” Instead, it was this: ”Will you be able to end Lost on your terms?” The creative conundrum, which the producers confessed colors their current storytelling choices, became the central focus of the sprawling 90-minute discussion. Let’s listen in.

Stephen King: How much did you know when you started?

J.J. Abrams: I was going to ask you that about The Dark Tower.

King: Not a whole lot.

Abrams: We didn’t have much time to know anything, because it began the way it will end, which is…

Damon Lindelof: In chaos. [Laughter]

Abrams: Well, no — as commerce. It was a network saying, ”We want a show about people who survive a plane crash, and we want the final product in 12 weeks.” Damon and I, who had never met until ABC brought us together, began writing an outline. After five days, there was one. They greenlit it, and we started writing scenes just to cast the thing. We would meet actors. We would write characters based on the actors, and it went from there. During the period of preproduction, production, and postproduction, we worked on a bible of the series. Ideas have fallen by the wayside or haven’t happened; some ideas actually have. But for the most part, it was a leap of faith. It was beginning something that had a lot of big ideas, and believing in an ending.

King: That’s the way I work. I just start writing a story. It doesn’t make any f—ing sense to me.

Abrams: I’m so happy to hear you say that! A leap of faith — that, to me, is the essence of the show. Just embrace the absolutely over-the-top absurd nature of the story. Because when that kind of story is told with respect for the characters, the story, and the audience, you’ll buy into it. That’s my favorite thing about your work. You could argue that it’s pulp stuff, but told with conviction.

Carlton Cuse: For us, The Stand has been a model. Lost is about a bunch of people stranded on an island. It’s compelling, but kind of tiny. But what sustains you are the characters. In The Stand, I was completely gripped by everyone you introduced in that story — how they come together, what their individual stories are, how they face the premise. That was such a good model for Lost.

Lindelof: The first meeting I had with J.J. about Lost, we talked about The Stand, and it kept suggesting ideas throughout the process. The character of Charlie was always going to be a druggie rocker, but when Dominic Monaghan came in to audition we started saying, ”What if he was a one-hit wonder?” I said, ”Like the guy in The Stand! The guy with just this one song.”

King: Yeah. ”Baby, Can You Dig Your Man?”

Lindelof: His entire character sort of is constructed around that. The thing about The Stand is that there are all the archetypes, and we embraced the same thing. The strong, silent, heroic type. The nerdy guy. The techie. The pregnant girl. All those characters exist in The Stand, too.

King: Well, Lost has done a great thing in developing these characters — like opening a fan of cards with all these faces on it. People have gotten to know and enjoy these characters in a way only TV can do. Now, if you start to narrow the deck — kill them off — you have a chance to do something that’s probably never been done on TV before, which is to really grip an audience and wring them like a dishrag. [Laughter] Maybe I’m a sadist, but I think that’s part of the dramatic experience. Networks don’t like it. They want those characters to be there forever.

Cuse: But the show’s already violated a lot of conventional wisdom about television.

Lindelof: It had to. The storytelling choices [the fan of characters, the flashbacks, the mystery] were an evolution of ”S—! We have to do this 24 times a year!”

Abrams: Do you ever make big shifts in your writing, Stephen? Or do you map out enough so you kind of know what you’re going to be doing? Because in our show, Kate wasn’t originally going to be ”the convict,” and Jack was supposed to die.

King: I don’t really map anything out. I just let it happen. But once it happens, it’s always there. If it’s laid, it’s played. If I get to page 300 and it’s not working, I junk it. But it’s just paper; it’s not like a TV network giving you millions of dollars. But for you guys, you’re at a point where it doesn’t matter whether this jazzes you or not, you’ve got a responsibility to roll with this thing, right? To your fans, to the cast, to your network.

Cuse: We have an obligation to do that, absolutely.

Abrams: But it’s also about the business. It has nothing to do with creativity.

King: You are three of the most creative guys I know, and you sit there and say, ”It has nothing to do with creativity”?!

Abrams: No, I’m saying that the reason they would want the show to continue isn’t because they care about the characters. It’s because there’s an economic model that says the show must go on for five years. Twin Peaks did not make them money. We love it because it was cool…

Cuse: …but it was a cult thing.

Abrams: And a cult doesn’t pay for it.

King: Obviously, ABC wants it to go on forever, and at this point, it becomes a struggle for the soul of the show. And by transference, it becomes a struggle for your souls as artists of integrity. Obviously, it can go on forever — are you going to let that happen?

Lindelof: It’s a bit more complicated for us. An artist such as yourself, you basically have total control over your characters. But we don’t own Lost. While the network is committed to the show creatively, their job is to develop shows and hope that they become hits and then support them so that they stay hits. When we pitched Lost, part of it was convincing ABC we could keep it on the air for as long as they wanted. If we told them we could only do the show if we ended it after 100 episodes, they never would’ve agreed to it. And who could blame them?

EW: How does not knowing when Lost could end affect your current storytelling choices?

Lindelof: We’re proceeding as if they are going to allow us to do what we plan, which is a four- or five-season arc with potentially a movie to wrap it up. My guess is they’ll realize that the endgame is in play when major characters start getting bumped off.

King: Unless, of course, you run into the kind of situation I had at this [August] event in New York with J.K. Rowling and John Irving. This kid said, ”You can’t kill Harry [Potter]! We, the fans, don’t want him to be dead!” You could run up against that too.

Lindelof: It’s the Sherlock Holmes-and-Moriarty scenario, the perfect example of artistic integrity. That was Arthur Conan Doyle saying, ”I’m done. Holmes has solved enough mysteries.” What better ending than to have your hands around the neck of your mortal enemy, and both of you fall to your death?

King: Right! Over the falls you go!

Lindelof: But he cheated. Doyle brought him back. The fans demanded it. Everybody says that they want answers and an ending — but do they? When book seven of Harry Potter comes out, I’ll be the same way I was at the end of The Dark Tower. I didn’t want it to end, and I started to read it much slower and started feeling a sense of depression as all roads sort of inevitably lead to the end. The fact is, once our characters are no longer ”lost,” the show is over.

King: But my point is just…if you decided to end it, I don’t see how the network could stop you.

EW: Could they veto a script? Could they say they’re just not going to produce it?

Lindelof: Absolutely. We wrote a script last year called ”Dave.” It plays out a version of the idea that all of this is happening in Hurley’s head. The original draft was a great cause of concern; ABC felt it was advancing an idea that offered an explanation for the entire show.

King The story’s the boss. And one of the great pleasures of Lost is how things happen you don’t expect. I was shocked when Ana Lucia got shot — and then Michael turned around and shot Libby. That got in under my gaw — and I’ve got a trained gaw. One of the other great pleasures is the way that those Numbers have been worked in over and over again in ways that seem completely inexplicable.

Cuse: We didn’t expect that to have as much resonance as it did!

Lindelof: My father was into the Illuminati and the number 23, so he was a big reader of Robert Anton Wilson. So there was some intentionality behind it, but we had no idea, no grand design behind the Numbers. But suddenly, the No. 1 question stopped being ”What is the Monster?” and went to being ”What do the Numbers mean?” This isn’t to say that the Numbers don’t mean anything. We just had no idea it had this potential to get totally out of control.

King: However you end it, based on my experience with The Dark Tower, you will hear from thousands of people who f—ing hate it.

Cuse: No question. There were many complaints about The X-Files, which in the minds of many faltered in its last two years and tainted the whole thing. That’s a profound lesson for us.

EW: Last year, Stephen, you wrote in EW that you were a big believer in the popular Lost theory that the island is purgatory. Now that the producers have said it’s not purgatory, do you have a new theory?

King: Well, I don’t really have a theory. But if somebody put a gun to my head and said I had to end this series or they would shoot me or shoot my dog, this is what I would do. I would take the main guy, Jack — the first shot of the whole series is his eyeball close up, right? What that always said to me was that from now on, everything that I see, Jack’s the eye of the beholder. So I would do something at the end where I flashback to the airport when they were getting on the plane, and I would have him taken away by people who wanted information out of him. I would have them hook him up to a machine or something, or feed him drugs, and reveal that the whole series had been Jack’s hallucination, built out of fragments of his real life — people from his past, people in the airport, his father, of course, and the Numbers. The whole thing would be a lot of shuck and jive. I’d make it work somehow. It would creak, but I’d make it work.

Cuse: You figured it out! [Laughter]

Abrams: Actually, we did an episode of Alias just like that. I love your idea, though!

Lindelof: Do you want a job?

King: Believe me, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t be good enough.

Lindelof: Please. Anytime.

King of the Island
A guide to some of the Stephen King allusions this season on Lost.

The favorite book of Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell), the melancholy Other. Explains exec producer Damon Lindelof, ”What fascinated us about Carrie was that her religious mother could believe that Christ performed miracles, yet when her daughter demonstrates miraculous abilities, she deems that satanic.”

After their meeting with King for EW, the Lost creators wrote the scene in which Ben (Michael Emerson) appears to kill a bunny — it’s based on a cryptic passage in King’s 2000 writing guide that involves a rabbit branded with an eight.

King inspired several Lost characters: Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) is loosely modeled on Larry Underwood in The Stand. And the possibly psychic boy Walt (Malcolm David Kelley) ”is a living, breathing, walking Stephen King book,” says Lindelof.