Why the most expensive pilot in TV history was worth every penny

Cursed numbers. Hidden hatches. Miracle cures. Tropical polar bears. Wrinkles in time. Flashbacks, flash-forwards, and, yes, flash-sideways. Over the last six seasons, Lost has taken us on an adventure so trippy and labyrinthian, it’s almost hard to remember how it all started. So before we reach the end of this magical mystery about a group of plane-crash survivors marooned on a freaky island, let us relive the story of the two-part Lost pilot, which in the fall of 2004 made jaws drop across the nation and raised hopes of what a network drama could be. Buckle up for a wild ride involving an out-of-control hunk of flaming metal, a furry killer pillow, and a sweaty Matthew Fox.

Our saga opens on the eye of then-ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun, who, while vacationing in Hawaii in the summer of 2003, formulated a Cast Away-meets-Survivor series pitch. A few weeks later at a corporate retreat, he shared his vision. The feedback? ”Deafening silence,” he recalls. ”I felt like I was the only Jewish guy at a Ku Klux Klan rally.” Afterward, ABC drama head Thom Sherman whispered to Braun that he liked the idea, so Braun instructed him to ”quietly” develop it. Screenwriter Jeffrey Lieber penned a script, but Braun wasn’t satisfied, and in January 2004, he rang up Alias creator J.J. Abrams — who was developing another ABC pilot at Braun’s request, The Catch, starring Greg Grunberg — and asked him if he would take a whack at it.

Lloyd Braun (former chairman, ABC Entertainment) I say to [J.J. Abrams], ”I know it’s an almost impossible drill. But I believe in every bone in my body that in your hands this is a huge hit show.” I’m pleading with him to consider it. He starts to joke about how completely ridiculous this scenario is, but I get him to go home and think about it.
J.J. Abrams (series co-creator) I called him back and said, ”Look, I have a version of this, but you are not going to like it. It’s more Michael Crichton than it is Cast Away. There would be a hatch on this island. And you would start to learn truths about these people that aren’t immediately obvious. It’s a weirder version than you want to do.” And he said, ”No, I love that version.”

Braun asked for an outline for the pilot by the following week, and Abrams signed on — with a caveat: He needed a writing partner. On Monday, Crossing Jordan writer-producer Damon Lindelof, who’d been itching to meet Abrams, was dispatched to Abrams’ office.

Damon Lindelof (series co-creator) I was wearing this Star Wars Bantha Tracks T-shirt. And J.J. accused me of wearing it for purposes of impressing him, which was absolutely correct.

Abrams He had this detail of a guy waking up and having a vodka bottle in his pocket. He was not looking at it from the point of view of the horrors of the crash. He was looking at this crazy detail as a way in, which was the greatest way ever. All of a sudden, we started riffing on characters and ideas and things that we loved — Twilight Zone, Star Wars. And we very quickly realized that this could actually be something very cool, as opposed to a pain in the ass that had been dropped on us.
Lindelof We left feeling completely jazzed. In addition to the Hatch, the flashbacks [which peeked into characters’ precrash lives], and Jack waking up in the jungle as the opening of the show, we had that the ending [of the pilot] would be that there was already a transmission going out that had been repeating on a loop for so long that the castaways knew they were hosed. That all happened on the very first day.

With the help of Alias producers Bryan Burk, Jesse Alexander, and Jeff Pinkner, Lindelof and Abrams constructed a 21-page outline that tickled Braun. But with pilot season well under way, ABC needed a finished show in about 12 weeks. Abrams agreed to direct the pilot, and they began furiously writing placeholder audition scenes, just so the actors would have something to read.

Bryan Burk (exec producer) The casting process was crazy. It was falling in love with people who were not at all what we had in mind for each role.

Jorge Garcia was invited to come in after Abrams saw him on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and he wound up with the tailor-made role of comical lottery winner Hurley. Aging rocker/addict Charlie was made younger after the producers were charmed by The Lord of the Rings‘ Dominic Monaghan. Harold Perrineau (Oz) and Malcolm David Kelley were cast as estranged father and son Michael and Walt.

Malcolm David Kelley (Walt) I had on my red Allen Iverson jersey, so I felt pretty lucky going into the audition.
Lindelof We did not want a lily-white cast. So [we said], ”Bring in people of every color and every ethnicity for every role. And in some cases, both genders.”

British actor Naveen Andrews was tapped as former Iraqi Republican Guard officer Sayid, a role that was originally female and not Iraqi. Korean film star Yunjin Kim auditioned as Kate.

Abrams The [foreign] couple was going to be German. Then Yunjin came in, and she was so good, we thought, ”What if the couple was Korean?”
Yunjin Kim (Sun) J.J. had this idea that it would be really interesting to be isolated on this deserted island but not speak English.

Daniel Dae Kim nabbed the role of her onscreen husband, Jin.

Daniel Dae Kim (Jin) I’d never acted in Korean before. I was really nervous about pronunciation.

Abrams dialed Alias‘ Terry O’Quinn and offered him the role of enigmatic man of faith John Locke.

Terry O’Quinn (Locke) It was a very tumultuous time in my life. I wasn’t making a lot of money. [J.J.] said, ”There’s not going to be a lot in the pilot. But we’re hoping to develop the role.” The fact that I didn’t have to do an audition, I just had a role? It was a godsend.

Josh Holloway’s Hollywood struggles were about to come to an end as he was asked to audition for the role of con man Sawyer.

Josh Holloway (Sawyer) I was done. I was saying, ”Acting, f— off!” Acting had kicked me in the teeth so hard. I had just received my real estate license in the mail four days before. I was going to build my real estate empire. The chance to audition for this came along, and I was like, ”Ahhh, f— it. One last hurrah.”

After a protracted search for fugitive Kate, the audition tape of Evangeline Lilly — a Canadian actress with ”a blank résumé,” as she says — caught Abrams’ eye, and she ultimately scored the role. Other cast additions included Ian Somerhalder and Maggie Grace as stepsiblings Boone and Shannon, and Emilie de Ravin as pregnant Claire. The search for Dr. Jack Shephard wasn’t a priority early on: In a move designed to surprise the audience, our apparent hero died halfway into the original script. (Michael Keaton was briefly considered to guest-star.) Network and studio execs ”really resented” the twist, recalls Abrams.

Lindelof J.J. and I made the impassioned plea as to how it’d be like killing Janet Leigh off in the middle of Psycho, suddenly switching perspectives, and it was Anthony Perkins’ movie. And [then-Touchstone Television president] Stephen McPherson said, ”There’s a difference between a movie and a television show. If you get the audience to love this guy over the first hour, killing him will make them feel like they cannot attach themselves to anybody else, because they can be plucked away at any time.” That was the first time that we fundamentally understood, ”Wow, this guy’s right.” So we went back to J.J.’s office and said, ”All right, what does the show look like if Jack survives?”

Enter ex-Party of Five star Matthew Fox. After Fox auditioned for Sawyer, the producers handed him the revised script and asked him to read it in the other room before trying on Jack.

Matthew Fox (Jack) I was blown away by it. I immediately felt that I wanted to do this very bad. It was such an all-in feeling. The premise. The quality of the writing. The people behind it. Where it was going to be shot.

Lindelof When he came [back] in, he was out of breath, he was sweaty. It was like, ”What was this guy doing before the audition?” Matthew was the first actor who played it as: I was just in a plane crash an hour ago. He completely sold that reality.

While casting and writing, the Lost team was also shopping for a jumbo jet to drop on the North Shore of Oahu. Producers Sarah Caplan and Jean Higgins procured a Lockheed L-1011 from a Mojave Desert boneyard and had it cut into pieces so it could be sent by freighter to Hawaii. (”I’ve shipped things all over the world all my life,” recalls Higgins, ”but I’ve never shipped anything as big as an L-1011.”) That nifty set prop cost a total of $1 million; the pilot’s price tag would hit a record-setting $12 million. The network and studio had other concerns besides financial ones, though. This was the era of CSI — serialized shows weren’t thriving in the ratings. Nor were sci-fi series, and Lost featured an unseen monster that terrorized the castaways.

Lindelof The network kept coming at us, over and over again, saying, ”Does there have to be a monster?” And that’s where J.J. and I entrenched. The monster is representative of all the unknown forces of the Island, and it has to not just make a noise in the pilot but be an ongoing threat, so that every time they’re walking through the jungle, that thing could potentially show up.
Maggie Grace (Shannon) We didn’t know if we were shooting Godzilla or Lord of the Flies.

Production began on March 11, 2004, on an L.A. soundstage and included a close call in which Lilly almost had to be replaced — her work visa didn’t clear until the night before her first scene was shot. Soon after, cameras rolled in Hawaii. The first things shot: Jack, Kate, and Charlie trekking into the rainy jungle to find the plane’s cockpit and running from the monster, which slaughtered the Oceanic Flight 815 pilot (Abrams’ old pal Grunberg).

Evangeline Lilly (Kate) It was intense, it was treacherous, it was insane. We were shooting in the jungle, with cameras tied to zip lines, running full tilt through mud up to our knees, screaming and yelling….. I got some sort of spore in my eye and it swelled to twice the size. It was baptism by fire.

Shooting the show’s iconic opening scenes — in which Jack wakes up disoriented in the jungle and stumbles out to the beach to find chaos and carnage everywhere — was an elaborate and overwhelming experience.

Fox There’s people screaming and smoke and s— happening. At that time, that was the biggest stuff that I’d ever been involved in. I couldn’t f— it up. I remember feeling really exhilarated by it, challenged by it, excited by it, awed by it.
Jorge Garcia (Hurley) I was a little scared. I remember talking to Matthew, saying, ”Hey, so when the plane blows up behind us, are we supposed to jump out like they do in the movies? Does that really happen?” And he’s like, ”I dunno, we should probably at least drop down to our knees or something.” And immediately after that, J.J. gets on his megaphone: ”Okay, and when you hear the explosion, dive out into the sand!” We were so excited about getting to do that, we started high-fiving.
Emilie de Ravin (Claire) I’ve got this whole pregnancy outfit on. I was so concerned that it would look like I hurt the child while falling that I was trying to fall gently, yet make it look realistic.

Things got awfully realistic while filming the moment in which a fiery plane chunk plummets to the ground, narrowly missing Charlie.

Abrams We had this crane lift it up on this wire and we lit the thing on fire. The heat of the fire snapped the wire. This two-ton piece of metal could’ve killed people. It was horrifying.
Dominic Monaghan (Charlie) I do remember when they yelled ”Cut!” that everyone was like, ”Whoa!” We didn’t get a second try at it. It seemed to work out well.
O’Quinn When Locke was running around, trying to help Jack pull somebody out from under the plane, I wasn’t aware that I had just gotten up from the ground after years in a wheelchair. I thought, ”Wow, he’s pretty spry for somebody who was just in a plane crash.”
Abrams We didn’t know in the pilot that Locke had been in a wheelchair. When we were working on the [series] scripts, Damon pitched me the idea.

Back in the jungle, Sawyer was to gun down a charging polar bear. Alas, the stuffed animal was hardly threatening. They tried tricks like putting visual-effects guru Kevin Blank in polar-bear chaps. And even better…

Holloway I’m firing away at this thing rushing through the forest at me, and J.J. throws a furry pillow at me — and it’s supposed to be a polar bear. I was like, ”Are you serious? J.J. Abrams just hit me with a pillow?”
Lindelof We launched it off this hydraulic platform. It was like, ”Everybody stand back, we don’t know how high this thing is gonna go!” They fired it, it went up a foot, and just flopped down. Everybody burst into laughter. And I said, ”This is like Bela Lugosi wrestling the octopus in Ed Wood. What are we going to do?” And J.J. kept saying, ”Hey, man, Jaws worked. And the less you saw of the shark, the better it worked.”

The less-is-more philosophy also applied to the heard-but-not-seen beast, which was later revealed as the Smoke Monster/Man in Black.

Harold Perrineau (Michael) Is it a dinosaur? Is this Land of the Lost? We sat around for the longest time trying to figure out: What could that thing even be?
Lindelof When we wrote the pilot, people were constantly asking us, ”What’s the monster?” And J.J. and I did have a conversation where one of us said, ”Wouldn’t it be interesting if the question wasn’t ‘What is the monster?’ but ‘Who is the monster?”’… And that was the catalyzing idea that started defining all future conversations about Smokey.

But it wasn’t just sci-fi curiosity that the producers wanted to cultivate. There were also character-based mysteries, like Sawyer’s letter.

Abrams Josh was like, ”Well? What is it?” I was like, ”It’s just insanely important to you, and it’s very painful.” It was more important that we allude to the character’s pain than to wait until we’ve figured it out. As much as the monster and polar bear are the obvious go-to ”Oooh, what’s that?” [mysteries], the far more important hooks that we were hoping the audience would bite on were things like: What’s that pain that he has? What does that letter mean?

While Lindelof and Abrams were mapping out the episode’s final scenes, they received a request from the network: Can you shoot a closure-providing ending in case the pilot becomes a TV movie instead of a series?

Lindelof In the wake of ”What’s the series going to be?” which was the pervasive question in the development process, we tried to design the show [with] enough mysteries to make people have to watch the second episode. So, to write a five-minute scene at the end that answered all of those mysteries, it’s like telling somebody to design the fastest car in the world, and they do that, and five minutes before they start up the assembly line you say, ”Can it also be a boat?”
Abrams I said, ”You tell me what you want me to shoot, and I will do it.” I think they realized there was nothing really that would have been a satisfactory ending.

The producers proceeded with their ending, in which our castaways hike up a mountain to send out a distress signal, only to detect a 16-year-old looped SOS in French. The pilot concluded on a wonderfully eerie note, punctuated by Charlie’s now-legendary question: ”Guys, where are we?”

Iam Somerhalder (Boone) I remember those scenes because every actor was so f—ing committed.
Naveen Andrews (Sayid) It had a kind of otherworldly energy. It set the whole thing up beautifully. That’s when we knew we were onto something.
Monahan After I said it, Bryan Burk came over to me and he said, ”I don’t know what you just did, but that was amazing.” I said, ”Oh. All right.” I thought he was being a smart-ass. It didn’t feel like a big deal to me. Then over the course of the pilot, the crew started saying it. People would come over to me and go, ”Where are we?” I’d be like, ”Whoa. Are you doing me?”

Following a swift editing session, the pilot was submitted to ABC, and the waiting game commenced. The producers were nervous: Braun, their champion, was dismissed by ABC in an executive shakeout during the pilot shoot, and his replacement, Stephen McPherson (whose studio produced Lost), had voiced some early concerns, as did higher-ups in the company.

Abrams I didn’t really feel optimistic. I kept hearing that it wasn’t for sure. And then the testing came back.

When ABC showed its pilots to test audiences, Lost scored high and was ultimately given the green light.

Stephen McPherson (president, ABC Entertainment) I can remember saying to Damon, ”Aren’t there GPS systems in this world? Wouldn’t these people be found pretty quickly?” The premise was a reservation from the get-go…. [But] once it was shot, it was a pretty phenomenal piece of work. I don’t see how anyone could have looked at it and said, ”Let’s debate this one.”

Lost buzz built over the summer — the pilot thrilled thousands of fans at Comic-Con — and when the show premiered on Sept. 22, 2004, it drew 18.7 million viewers, which was ABC’s best drama-series debut in nine years. (Another new show, Desperate Housewives, would top that mark 11 days later.) Lost won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama in 2005, and Abrams scored the directing Emmy for the pilot. (After Abrams stepped away during season 1 to co-write and direct Mission: Impossible III, Nash Bridges creator Carlton Cuse assumed executive-producer/showrunner duties alongside Lindelof.) Although ratings tailed off in later seasons, Lost continued to cement its status as one of the most beloved cult hits in TV history.

Fox I just never dreamed that it would be as globally accepted as it has been.
Abrams Without the work that Damon and Carlton have done since, the pilot would be a cool but forgotten couple hours of TV. But because of what they’ve done, it feels like what it’s become, which is the beginning of an epic story. Granted, it was an epic beginning — but that’s all it was.
Lindelof We didn’t dare to be different. We ended up being different because it was the only way we could figure out how to make it work. I would love to rewrite history and say we were innovators and revolting against the system. But what it really was, and this is how the show is written to this day: Every conversation started with the phrase ”Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and if the answer was ”Yes,” we did it. (Additional reporting by Jeff Jensen)