Pair of opposites keeps 'Lost' attractive
By BILL KEVENEY
By BILL KEVENEY
BURBANK, Calif. — The second-season finale for "Lost" — "Live Together, Die Alone" — might be a good motto for the men who wrote it.
Longtime friends and executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof are at the center of the success of the third-season ABC drama, which airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays. Their spinning of the tale of plane-crash survivors in an isolated world, and their miserly parceling out of clues to the island's mysteries, enthrall millions.
The creative partnership, forged by a call to Cuse when the show's co-creator J.J. Abrams had to ease away to direct "Mission: Impossible III," works because of, rather than despite, their contrasts on many levels.
Cuse, 47, who gave Lindelof his first TV writing job on "Nash Bridges," is the mentor — tall, wearing a crisp oxford shirt and jeans, with an authoritative voice made for voice-overs. Lindelof, in Cuse's office as they review a script, is younger (33) and shorter — the protege in jeans, purple T-shirt and Yankees cap. He has what he calls a "hyperbolic" nature, tempered by Cuse's calm.
Cuse, father of three, is the early bird, ticking off his tasks as the sun rises. Night owl Lindelof, sleep-deprived as a new first-time father, works in the wee hours. Both write, frequently together.
Lindelof enjoys spending three hours breaking down scenes in the editing room. Cuse is the problem solver, working out details with producers in Hawai'i, where "Lost" is shot.
"We have complementary talents," Cuse says. But "we see the show very similarly. There's very little we don't fundamentally agree on, whether it's the direction of the show, the aesthetics or the stories we want to tell people."
The prospect of bringing an island world to life once terrified Lindelof. Now, they both say, the show has become its own entity. Cuse says it guides them like The Force in "Star Wars."
"Lost" "is bigger than us," says Lindelof. "It's like, when one of us has an idea, we feel that's what the show wanted us to do."
The Force obviously is with them: "Lost" has achieved cult-worship status, marked by numerous books and fan Web sites, with appeal broad enough to draw an average 15.4 million viewers (down 4 percent versus season 1) while facing No. 1 "American Idol" part of last year. It won an Emmy and Golden Globe for best drama; Abrams won a directing Emmy.
It's the most popular ABC show on iTunes, with more than 8.5 million downloads. Sales of season 1's DVD have topped 1.6 million copies, trailing only "24's" first season among drama series, and the season 2 set was No. 1 in sales for the first full week of September. This summer, "Lost" experimented with a multimedia Web hunt called The Lost Experience.
The series spawned a wave of serialized mysteries that feature large casts, unite strangers or touch on otherworldly elements: "Invasion," "Surface" and "Threshold" last year; "Jericho," "Heroes," "Vanished" and "The Nine" this fall.
To remain a success, Lindelof and Cuse say they need to make sure the characters come first.
So far they've succeeded, says author Stephen King, whose apocalyptic "The Stand" influenced "Lost." "They're great storytellers," says King, a fan. "Very few TV show creators seem as able to convey the sense of awe the unknown causes in us and the hold it has on our imaginations."
IN SYNC FOR SUCCESS
The concept for "Lost," an island drama with elements of "Castaway" and "Survivor," was devised late in the 2004-05 development season. Abrams, skilled in action and suspense from his work on "Alias," was set to make it. With the time constraints, Lindelof, an up-and-coming writer with an interest in sci-fi and comic books, came on.
He was "completely in sync" with Abrams, says Bryan Burk, a longtime Abrams associate who heads the extensive post-production for "Lost" from the Disney lot. At their first meeting, "he walked in wearing a 'Star Wars' fan club T-shirt. We're like, 'Hey, how are we not best friends already?' "
"Damon has an incredible sense of story," Abrams says. "We immediately clicked in terms of the importance of character and emotion." Presuming "Lost" was the longest of long shots, the pair decided to make the pilot they wanted, breaking traditional casting and plot rules.
The critical and audience reception confirmed others wanted it, too. But Abrams was taking on his first feature film directing assignment, and overseeing "Alias" and more pilots. And Lindelof was spooked by the looming challenge. "I quit the show three times," he says.
Cuse talked him out of leaving and eventually joined the show.
Lindelof "was suddenly, in my absence, besieged by all this stuff. Carlton provided the bolstering he desperately needed," says Abrams, who wrote this season's premiere with Lindelof, and hopes to direct an episode this season. "They've taken the show we created and continued it in a way that I really admire."
"Initially, I thought it would be Damon the pure writer-artist-auteur, and Carlton would bring skills from having run so many shows successfully," ABC entertainment chief Steve McPherson says. "But it's like they morphed into one person. They seem to do everything together."
CREATING THE PUZZLE
In the writers' room, decorated with pictures of Hawai'i and the show's cast — with one board featuring photos of departed characters, under the heading R.I.P. — Lindelof is chatty, giving his fellow writers an update about caring for his month-old son, Van, and the toll it takes on sleep: "I'm reacting like five minutes after things happen."
After a few minutes of chatter, Cuse tries to get the staff focused on the season's eighth episode.
"Yeah, kids are great, all right," says writer Adam Horowitz, drawing laughs by gently mocking Cuse's businesslike transition.
As writer Edward Kitsis lays out the episode, broken down into five acts on a dry-erase board, Lindelof and Cuse do much of the talking. Lindelof free-associates more, as Cuse crystallizes points of the discussion. The episode is part of a season the producers say will offer more romance and adventure, examine the dynamic of Us vs. Them and, in one of their many cryptic references, play with our conceptions of time.
During the hourlong meeting, pop culture and literary references are tossed about. The discussion caroms from "Peggy Sue Got Married" to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "A Christmas Carol," "Eyes Wide Shut" and Wonka bars.
Lindelof is a fount of pop culture details; Cuse knows science facts. "Carlton is the guy you'd want to be on the island with," Lindelof says. "I would be entertaining at the campfire."
In one scene, a knotty problem is suddenly solved by a character switch that both stokes a new romance and stirs jealousy. Cuse says later, revisiting The Force metaphor: "As we were working toward a solution, the show told us what needed to happen."
As the plentiful religious references in "Lost" might suggest, both men seek spiritual meaning. Lindelof approaches from a Jewish upbringing, with Cuse having been raised Catholic.
On this day, Lindelof and Cuse are dealing with elements of seven episodes, including revisions to a script they are writing together. As they head to an editing room to assess a scene from the second episode, a visual-effects coordinator walks up with a laptop to show a riveting season-opening sequence. Abrams comes out of a room where he's reviewing scenes from his new series, "Six Degrees," and the three watch intently. "That's cool. That's crazy," Abrams says.
Later in Cuse's office, which features two old Dodger Stadium seats, numbered 15 and 16 (from the infamous sequence 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42), they review their script, then discuss another one with fellow producer Jeff Pinkner.
On most days they're together only about half the time, splitting up duties. "He trusts me to do the things I do, and I trust him," says Lindelof, whose nearby office is a "Lost" mini-museum, with Mr. Eko's "Jesus stick," a concert poster for Charlie's band Driveshaft, and a model of Oceanic Flight 815 — angled downward.
The trust extends to their experienced colleagues. "In the same way that Damon and Carlton and Bryan trust me to be in the jungle supervising and executing the show, I trust them to do the final cut of the show," says Jack Bender, who oversees operations in Hawai'i.
But organization only goes so far when plotting a series with no specific end date. Cuse and Lindelof, signed through the end of this season, say they can see the show concluding after five seasons, but they know it could go longer with TV's economics.
Regardless, they have "a superstructure" set up to keep the story on track, and a definite endgame. But that doesn't mean this TV entity will stop evolving.
"We're putting this puzzle together, but there's no picture on the front of the box. And people keep adding new pieces, but they still have to fit together," Lindelof says.