Lost is one of the most influential shows on television, but also one of the most influenced. Executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (or "Darlton," as they're known to fans) have created a baffling, intensely seductive story that blends sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, romance, and more than a little comedy. You can probably guess both men are obsessive consumers of pop culture, from Star Wars to The Prisoner. But they're also well-read writers whose obsessions stretch from ancient mythology to Stephen King. Fans obsess over whether the show is rooted in Greek myth, the Old Testament, both, or something else entirely. We spoke to Lindelof and Cuse, who are among the influential television industry players interviewed for TVGuide.com's Best of the Decade section, about who inspired them, why they set an end date for the show, and how they created their own myths.
TVGuide.com: Tell me about how each of you got involved with Lost.
Damon Lindelof: I got a call from an executive at ABC named Heather Kadin. It was late January. She was tasked with trying to coerce J.J. Abrams into rewriting a script that they had about a plane that had crashed on an island. J.J. said that he did not have time to do this because he was writing another pilot for ABC at the time and running Alias and trying to launch his feature career.
[Since I was a] stalker of J.J. and his work, Heather basically felt like this was a prime opportunity to put me in a room with him, even if the project went nowhere. I jumped at the chance. I met with J.J. on a Monday afternoon and we ended up geeking out for four hours, and five days later we had the outline for Lost. Ten weeks after that, we had the two-hour premiere completed.
Carlton Cuse: I created and ran a show called Nash Bridges and I hired Damon to be a writer on that show. We not only had a really good professional relationship, but we developed a really strong [friendship]. After the pilot process that Damon described, J.J. left to go do [Mission: Impossible 3] with Tom Cruise. Damon and I had been talking about the show and I had sort of fallen in love with what J.J. and Damon had done in the pilot and the world that had been created.
There were very few people who believed this premise was sustainable as a series, and that was incredibly liberating for me. Damon and I would sit down and have breakfast every morning — as we continue to do to this day — and we kind of approached it like it was just 12 episodes and out, how do we make these the 12 greatest episodes of television that we would want to see ourselves? We basically liberated ourselves from all the rules of traditional television narrative. We thought this thing would probably end up on DVD and would be like Twin Peaks or The Prisoner.
TVGuide.com: Did you ever think about syndication when you were creating the show, in that it's so mythology-heavy?
Lindelof: I think at the time that Lost and Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy came along, serialized was a dirty word. But those shows basically proved that you could create a water-cooler zeitgeist around a show because it was serialized. To [ABC president] Steve McPherson's credit, I think that there was a lot more focus on being successful while you were on the air, as opposed to thinking forward to what the possible syndication deals would be.
Fortunately for us at this time, the DVD television market was exploding. That provided a revenue stream for them that made up for the fact that the show probably wouldn't [syndicate] well. But if you watch the first season of Lost, the heavy mythological elements were not really in play. There was character serialization, the romance, that kind of stuff, but in Season 1 it took them eight episodes to build a raft; in Season 5, they jump through time four times in a single episode. I don't think we could've gotten away with that in Season 1, nor did we want to.
TVGuide.com: How do you respond to the criticism that people who were passionate about the show at the beginning have gotten "lost" along the way? Do you ever think: We've made things too complicated. We need to be simpler.
Cuse: In order to sustain a show over what ultimately will be 120 episodes, it has to be complex. If you took a non-Harry Potter viewer and asked them to watch the fourth or fifth movie, I think they'd be very confused about what's going on. We feel like Season 5 was the highest degree of difficulty. We hope that a lot of viewers who left will come back for the end of the show. We tried to design the show with a certain circularity and we feel like Season 6 will be very much like Season 1 and while you do need to know backstories to follow what's going on in Season 6, it's very character-centric.
TVGuide.com: At what point did you decide: We really need to set an end date for the series. And why?
Lindelof: For us, the primary belief in the first season of the show was that we would not be able to sustain this premise forever because that's what the story tells you. If the story starts with a plane crashing on an island, the story's going to end when the people get off the island, and for us, the process of keeping them from leaving the island was going to be very finite.
By early in the second season, we engaged in a series of dialogues with the network, saying, hey, these flashbacks are not going to last forever. Once we answer the seminal mysteries of what it is that Kate did or how Locke ended up in the wheelchair, why Hurley ended up in a mental institution, then that phase of the story is done and we have to move into the next phase of the story, which we knew was basically the flash-forwards and the story of the Oceanic 6. We didn't pull the trigger until we were allowed to move to the inevitable conclusion.
We always did our best to make the show great, but when you're halfway through Season 3 and you're doing episodes about Jack flying a kite in Thailand, then the network finally said, "Oh, this is what you guys were talking about." So we were able to agree upon how many episodes were left and at that point we knew exactly how much time we had to arrive at our destination.
TVGuide.com: Have you always known what the end of the series would be? Has it changed at all?
Cuse: Always is the operative word. We developed a mythology, as I said earlier, in the first season and between the first and the second season, and we're actually moving toward that exact end point. I mean, that has not changed. Certain details of how the show ends have evolved over time but that's mainly on a character level as we've gotten to know the characters and seen how the actors interact. So there are parts of the ending that are still living and breathing, but the actual mythological endpoint has been constant since we developed the show.
TVGuide.com: Damon, during the writers' strike, you wrote a piece for the New York Times mourning the loss of TV. I'm wondering how you think it's going two years later.
Lindelof: I think that mourning the loss of TV was a very clever angle into [the way] the editorial was shaped but what I was really feeling was a tremendous level of excitement about the way television is watched. The fact of the matter is, people are still watching a lot of what we call "television," except my brother-in-law goes to [college] and none of the kids in his dorm have televisions, they have laptops. They don't watch television at 9 o'clock on a Wednesday night, they watch it on Hulu or ABC.com or the Comedy Central player. So can you really call that TV anymore? They don't say, "I'm going to my dorm room to watch 'computer.'"
Mourning television is this idea of [mourning a] traditional sort of broadcast, but the fact that content is so pervasive that anybody in the world can watch it is very, very exciting if you're a storyteller. Two years later, what's really great is all the things we went on strike for [and that we said] were going to happen are happening, and two years from now it will be even more profound.
TVGuide.com: What TV shows or entertainment figures inspired you or your work?
Cuse: For us, a lot of literary heroes, ranging from C.S. Lewis to Stephen King to Kurt Vonnegut and even the Bible, have been real sources of inspiration.
Lindelof: I think that there are also a number of TV writers, from David Kelley to David Milch to David Simon — the guy basically changed the form of storytelling on TV, character-centric storytelling. Carlton and I went to a panel at ComicCon this year that was Peter Jackson and James Cameron and one of the things that really struck me personally was, here are two guys that are willing to commit six or seven years of their lives to just one thing. Peter Jackson did it with the Lord of the Rings trilogy; Cameron does it every time he makes a movie.
So the idea that we were inspired by, you know, we saw this thing through. We were there in the beginning of Lost, we're going to write the last episode. There have been a lot of times when we had very tempting offers to go off and do other stuff or leave the show and leave it in the hands of others, but the ideas we've committed this chunk of our lives to — this show is something that was inspired by guys like that.