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A version of this story originally appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Untold Stories issue, on stands now or available to buy right here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
Did you even know there was a volcano on the ABC series Lost? It’s true. And it might have made a bigger impression — and led to a different series finale — if not for a small matter of money. The presence of this geographical feature on the show’s mystical, time-skipping island was established in season 3. You see drawings, images, and even a model of it in a Dharma Initiative classroom. Obsessive viewers spotted it and theorized about it, but when Lost never returned to it, fans assumed the volcano was a red herring or rich bit of detail. Actually, it was one of the first hints of an endgame.
Carlton Cuse, Lost’s longtime co-showrunner, got the idea for the volcano in the early years of the show after visiting Hawaii’s Big Island with his family, taking a volcano tour and marveling at the landscape. He thought it would be cool if The Island had a volcano of its own. “We were always looking to cannibalize anything on Hawaii to aid in the visual storytelling of the show,” says Cuse. “We also thought of the island as a character on the show, so we were always looking for things that would give it more personality.” He didn’t have an idea of how the volcano could be used, “but it was something we banked and thought we could use downstream.”
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The volcano stayed in the back pocket until the producers started developing Lost’s concluding seasons. The premise that developed over time was that the volcano was a mysterious place that forged the ticking, shape-shifting monster, the billowing black mass known as Smokey. By season 6, the writers had settled on the concept that the island was like a cork that bottled up all sorts of bad stuff, some volatile stew of spiritual dark matter stuff that would rob life of meaning and goodness if unleashed. “The question was always, how do you basically visualize and dramatize the idea that the island itself is all that separates the world from hellfire and damnation?” says Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof. “And the answer was the volcano.”
Lindelof and Cuse initially envisioned a finale in which Jack (Matthew Fox) and Smokey incarnate (Terry O’Quinn) would brawl over the fate of the island at Lost’s proverbial Mount Doom. “The volcano had been dormant for the duration of the series,” explains Lindelof, “but based on moving into this endgame, the island had become unstable and the volcano was going to erupt. We were going to have lots of seismic activity, and ultimately, there was going to be this big fight between the forces of good and the forces of evil, which ended up in the series manifesting as Jack and The Man in Black, in the midst of magma. Magma spewing everywhere!”
Lindelof — who currently oversees another, more intimate take on the apocalypse, HBO’s The Leftovers — laughs at the crazy-sounding scale of this notion now. But back in the day, Lost’s producers were full of “why not?” chutzpah. And they had reason to be confident in their producing ability. Lindelof gives much credit to Cuse for this. He says in the writers’ room, he would often play the role of the one who said, “We’ll never be able to do that!” and Cuse would be the one who said, “Yes, we can!”
In season 1, which garnered Lost an Emmy for Outstanding Drama, the writers wanted the castaways to build a giant raft to escape the island. It was a logical, inevitable idea, but it was going to be hard to shoot. How to produce a credible illusion of people on the open sea, piloting a seaworthy vessel of their creation? Wouldn’t it require a lot of green screen and special effects? Wouldn’t it look fake? “And Carlton would be like, ‘No, we’re going to build an actual raft, we’re going to push it out into the sea, and we’re actually going to do it!” Cuse huddled with the Lost’s Honolulu-based production team, led by executive producers Jack Bender and Jean Higgins (two of the show’s great, unsung heroes), and made it happen. The result — the launching of the raft and the drama on the water that occurred after — is one of Lost’s most stirring and terrifying passages. “By the end of season 6,” says Lindelof, “we had this feeling that, any idea we had, there’s gotta be a way to do it.”
And so it went that Cuse and Lindelof decided to end Lost by reigniting an actual volcano and spraying their cast with actual skin-searing magma. Just kidding. But they were determined to fake it the best they could. “It would be visually stunning and really exciting for the audience,” says Lindelof. “After six years and around 121 hours of the show, we had shot literally every part of Oahu that we could for island scenes and flashbacks. So the idea that, for the finale, we could go to this new locale that’s going to look new and different and unique, primal and ancient and end-of-the-world-ish, that would be great.”
The volcano wouldn’t have come out of the blue. The producers planned to take us there in Lost’s third-to-last episode, “Across The Sea,” a major mythological outing that revealed the origin story of The Island’s long-lived protector, Jacob (Mark Pellegrino), and his unnamed brother, The Man in Black (Titus Welliver), and dramatized the latter’s transformation into Smokey. You would have seen Jacob drag his mother-killing sibling up the slopes of the volcano and toss him into its smoldering, monster-making crater.
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And this is where the people who wrote the checks for Lost put a stopper in Operation: Magma Spew. At some point in all the plotting, planning, and prepping for season 6, ABC calculated that it couldn’t afford the transportation cost. Not helping the cause: The set for the temple, a refuge for Jacob’s chosen ones and a key location in the first half of season 6, turned out to be very expensive. Says Lindelof: “ABC was like, ‘Guys, we love you, and we’re letting you end the show; we can’t let you bankrupt the network in the process.’” And that’s how Smokey’s crucible — Lost’s version of Buffy’s Hellmouth — was re-imagined as a cave of light and the fight between Jack and the monster was filmed on the cliffs of Oahu.
Cuse says The Volcano That Never Really Was speaks to how practical factors, models of production, and s— happens variables affect the execution and finale form of big saga serials. Lost was marked by several such stories. Perhaps the most well-known involved Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, whose Mr. Eko was a season 2 breakout. The producers loved writing for Mr. Eko (his showcase episode in season 2, “The 23rd Psalm,” written by Cuse and Lindelof, is one of Lost’s best) and envisioned a prolonged conflict with John Locke (O’Quinn) that would have made the middle seasons of the series quite different. When the actor abruptly ankled Lost the second season, the producers had to create a new story for Locke and other characters impacted by his sudden departure. (Akinnuoye-Agbaje stuck around for a few episodes to shoot Mr. Eko’s death-by-Smokey exit episode.) Today, Cuse is about to roll film on Amazon’s Jack Ryan after spending two years with a team of writers designing and budgeting the show’s world and story. In this model of production, a bit of inspiration during the writing phase, like the volcano idea, could be evaluated and integrated into the whole of a season or series. Lost never had that luxury of development time; most broadcast shows that produce 22-episode seasons don’t.
Still, Cuse and Lindelof do think scratching the volcano was for the best. Lindelof says the producers came to believe during the writing of season 6 that it would be better if some ideas about The Island remained metaphorical or mysterious, things to be interpreted, not explained. “The other thing that happened,” says Lindelof, “was that we remembered Revenge of the Sith, and that big epic battle between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, in the midst of a volcanic planet. We knew whatever we did was going to look Mickey Mouse next to it.” Maybe. But we bet Star Wars fanatic Hurley would have loved it.