THESE DAYS, LOST LOOKS LIKE IT WAS DESTINED FOR SUCCESS.
BUT A DECADE BACK, IT WAS THE WILDEST, COSTLIEST GAMBLE IN TV HISTORY. CAST AND CREW LOOK BACK AT THE EPIC PILOT...
WORDS: NICK DE SEMLYEN ADDITIONAL REPORTING: JAMES DYER, IAN NATHAN, NEV PIERCE, JAMES WHITE
This article was first published in Empire Magazine issue #287 (May 2013).
A handsome man in his late thirties slowly opens his eyes. Blinks.
("LOST" ABC OUTLINE - JJ Abrams/ Damon Lindelof. 1/16/04)*
LLOYD BRAUN (former chairman of ABC Entertainment): The story begins in 2001. I was watching a reality TV show that Conan O'Brien produced called Lost. I remember thinking, "That's the best title for a show ever." The show got cancelled and I stuck the title in a corner of my brain. Cut to two or three years later: I'm in Hawaii with my family at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. One night, Cast Away is on TV. The next day, there was a clam-bake for dinner on the beach. I sat there with a drink, thinking, "Boy, I wish I could figure out how to do a show like that." Shortly thereafter, we had a big ABC retreat, about 100 to 200 people, and everybody had to pitch something.
HEATHER KADIN (former VP of Drama, ABC): Lloyd stepped up and said, "I want to do Cast Away: The Series." All of us assumed, I think, that he meant, "I want to do a series about a guy and a volleyball."
"I WAS BLOWN AWAY, FROM THE FIRST PAGE. THE IMAGE OF A GUY WAKING UP IN A BAMBOO FOREST, WEARING A SUIT, WAS INCREDIBLY INTRIGUING." MATTHEW FOXBRAUN: Deadly silence. You could hear a pin drop. I make some self-deprecating remark and the session ends. But Thom Sherman, who ran drama for me, came over and said, "Lloyd, I kind of like this idea..." I go, "You do? Well, let's find a writer. Let's run with it!"
JEFF LIEBER (writer, original draft): I got a call saying, 'Would you be interested?' I said yes and created a pitch that was all about world-building, society, survival. At the centre were two brothers, like Kane and Abel. After the plane crash, the rich one takes hold inland, in a fortress. The less affluent one takes hold on the beach. The rule structure I was told was: "This has to be hyper-real." I was hooked up with National Geographic to figure out whether it was an islet or an archipegelo. At one point I pitched a shark attack, but I was told, "No, no, no! That's not realistic!"
BRAUN: Over the course of the year, I'd get updates on my pet project. Finally, around Christmas time, I was on holiday and had a pack of scripts to read. Thom had told me Lost was among them, but I couldn't find it. Finally I get to a script called Nowhere. And I'm like, "Oh no. Don't tell me this is it..."
LIEBER: I thought Nowhere was a perfect title. "Where the fuck are we?" "Nowhere." My show was darker, emotionally. At one point in the pilot, a kid runs up and says, "Look! There are people swimming in the water!" And it's all these bodies of people who have drowned. The horror and revulsion of that was the end of Act 3.
BRAUN: I start reading the script and I hate it. It represented, to me, all the pitfalls people were worried about. I'm just enormously bummed out. So I say to Thom, "We have to do this now. And there's only one guy who can save this." "Who?" "JJ."
DAMON LINDELOF (co-writer): ABC were trying to cajole JJ into writing the pilot. But he was very busy with Alias and another pilot called The Catch. So JJ agreed to meet me, as a possible partner. Our paths had crossed before backstage at a Bruce Springsteen concert, but I was too starstruck to introduce myself to him at that point: my wife and I were huge fans of Alias. We met on a Monday afternoon. I was very nervous and wearing a Bantha Tracks fan-club T-shirt, which I've owned since I was a kid. It's my good-luck charm. JJ immediately pointed at it and said, 'Bantha Tracks!"
JJ ABRAMS (co-writer/ director): He was wearing a Star Wars shirt. I loved him immediately. We started riffing on what this thing could be. And then we wrote an outline in five days.
LINDELOF: Jeff Lieber's pilot was pretty straight-up plane-crashes-on-island. And it took place over about six months. By the end they'd already built Swiss Family Robinson-type structures and were starting to ease into the long-term mechanisms of being stranded. JJ and I collapsed the action into a day: we wanted the show to feel like it was in real time.
BRAUN: They came up with the idea for flashbacks, which is ingenious, because it gets us off the island a little bit.
LINDELOF: I was energised by the character ideas. I said, "If they get off the island, the show's over. So the answer is to populate it with people who don't want to leave." What JJ brought was the mystery. He pitched the hatch and the Others, among many other things, in our first meeting. He felt that the island they crash onto should be really insane.
LIEBER: I always joke that I was doing Lord Of The Flies and they were doing Lord Of The Rings. One was magical and science-fictiony. The other was about the gritty ugliness of people. I guess if you pitch the gritty ugliness of people, the studio might not go for it!
BRAUN: I got the outline on a Friday night, took my daughter horseback riding, then went to see my friend Marc Gurvitz, a big manager. I threw the outline on his table and said, "See this? It's E.R."
ABRAMS: On the Saturday morning, we got a call. They were greenlighting a two-hour pilot. We had 11 weeks to write it, cast it, shoot it, cut it and turn it in. It was insanity.
LINDELOF: We were off to the races.
Jack stops dead. CLOSE on him. His eyes welling up as he processes what he's looking at. The sheer ENORMITY of it. And now we understand why, because it's -
A PLANE CRASH. Passenger
LINDELOF: We built it from the ground up. There were some similarities in terms of archetypes to the Lieber draft. He had a fugitive on his flight - an Australian prisoner in chains - who became Kate. There was a nurse, who became Jack, the spinal surgeon. But really we were starting from scratch.
ABRAMS: We were writing it while we were casting it.
APRIL WEBSTER (casting director): God only knows how it all worked out, because it was chaos. They were adding in characters and changing others all the time. Hurley was originally a 50 year-old redneck NRA guy. He ended up being played by Jorge because JJ had seen him the night before on Curb Your Enthusiasm, playing a drug dealer.
JOSH HOLLOWAY (Sawyer): Early on I was supposed to drop Hurley off a cliff in the pilot, because he was too heavy to hold.
JORGE GARCIA (Hurley): I remember reading some Hurley breakdown and it said "redshirt" in it. I didn't realise it was a Star Trek reference and he was going to die. I thought it was just that he wore a red shirt.
LINDELOF: The idea was: "It's pure survival. Darwin. Dog eat dog." Fortunately, once we cast Jorge, we got pretty married to the idea of not killing Hurley.
ALYSSA WEISBERG (casting director): Jon Hamm came in to read for Jack. Obviously, this was before Mad Men.
"IT LOOKED SO SERIOUS AND SO REAL THAT I JUST STARTED LAUGHING. IT WAS SO MUCH BIGGER THAN ANYTHING I’D EVER DONE." JORGE GARCIALINDELOF: Jack was at one point going to die at the end of the episode, and be played by Michael Keaton. But ABC felt strongly that while there would be incredible shock value to killing him, the residual effect would be that the audience wouldn't trust us. At first we said, "Screw them. We're trying to do something bold and different, and they're scared of it." But the more we thought about it, the more we realised they were right.
MATTHEW FOX (Jack): I got cast ten days before we started shooting, Usually I read things before I go into meetings. But there was no script. When I did finally get to look at something, JJ put me in a room and proceeded to open the door every 20 minutes, saying, "What do you think? What do you think?" I said, "You gotta let me finish!" But I was blown away, from the first page. The image of a guy waking up in a bamboo forest, wearing a suit, was incredibly intriguing.
EMILIE DE RAVIN (Claire): There were so many mysterious things going on. It was a TV show crossed with a Sudoku puzzle.
WEISBERG: We cast Kate at the 11th hour. Evangeline Lily had not really done anything besides a commercial. She was living in Vancouver and sent us a tape.
HOLLOWAY: I was just about to quit acting when I got called in. I had recently tested for Passions, the worst soap opera ever, which had a dwarf, a monkey, a witch, everything you can think of, and I couldn't even get on that. They said, "Sorry, you have bad hair." I had just got my real-estate license in the mail four days before. Lost saved me.
DOMINIC MONAGHAN (Charlie): I had a general meeting with JJ and Damon. We sat down and talked about The Office, Alan Partridge, all this English comedy. The day after Return Of The King won all the Oscars, my agent called to say I was offered the part. I was in a bit of a state.
LINDELOF: Sun and Jin were a much older couple, a grandma and a grandpa. And they were Japanese. But Yunjin [Kim] came in to read for Kate and was so amazing that we made them Korean and younger.
DANIEL DAE-KIM (Jin): I had definite reservations about my character. Being someone who has been very careful not to portray stereotypes, when I saw that Jin didn't speak any English and was, shall we say, not kind to his wife, I hesitated. JJ and Damon said, "Trust us. Things on this show are not necessarily what they seem."
LINDELOF: Because JJ was directing, he focused his energy on location scouting and production decisions. Especially transporting the L-1011 jumbo jet from the Mojave Desert to the north shore of Hawaii.
BRYAN BURK (producer): I produced Matt Reeves' thesis film at USC. And ironically there was a scene in it where a plane crashes. For that one, JJ built the tail of a Cessna out of balsa wood and we used smoke machines. Different story with Lost!
BRAUN: The plane was a logistical monster. We found it in a junkyard, cut it up, got it there on a barge and reassembled it on the beach. Besides the craziness of pre-production, this was the most expensive pilot in history. It was enormously expensive.
YUNJIN KIM (Sun): All I knew was that Lost was gonna be huge or fail terribly. It was never going to be mediocre.
*THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
A SOUND. A NOISE. A THING.
Jack sits up. Fires around the fuselage just embers now. DARK. The others hear it too. Begin to move together... their fear UNITING THEM. The sound comes again --
It's close. Just a few hundred yards away. Unlike anything we've ever heard before, so why describe it? It's just SCARY AS HELL.*
TERRY O'QUINN (Locke): When JJ offered me the job, he said, "The downside is, it shoots in Hawaii." I said, "I'll take it!"
EMILIE DE RAVIN (Claire): I was in snowy Edmonton, Canada, when I got the job. I bought some bikinis, then headed to Hawaii to defrost.
HOLLOWAY: The first person I met was Naveen, on the plane over. He was a very refined Englishman, all dressed to the nines. I'm a redneck from Georgia. I think he was wary of me at first.
NAVEEN ANDREWS (Sayid): I remember being quite close to Maggie [Grace]. She's the only one I still sort of see from the show.
GARCIA: When I arrived I shared a long van ride with Terry O'Quinn, from the hotel in Waikiki to the other end of the island. I'm shy, so getting a conversation started is a big thing for me, especially if I know the person from movies or TV. So I just said, "I really like you in The Rocketeer, when you say, 'The son of a bitch will fly!'" After that, the conversation rolled.
KIM: The first thing I saw on my first day was the plane-crash set on the beach. My heart skipped a beat. My whole body tingled with so much excitement. It was exciting and horrific at the same time.
FOX: That whole sequence was just holy-shit big. Wings dropping, explosions blasting, shit burning, people screaming...
GARCIA: We were dropped right into the chaos. It looked so serious and so real that I just started laughing. It was so much bigger than anything I'd ever done.
O'QUINN: It was a full-blown movie set.
DE RAVIN: We had cars stopping every five seconds and people reporting to the police that there had been a plane crash.
FOX: Because the Steadicam was following me, there was a lot of pressure. I mean, you've gotta hit the beats. It's not the kind of take where you stop in the middle and go, "Uh, you know what, I'm not crazy about how this is going down..."
GARCIA: When I got told I'd be running away from an explosion, I got really scared. I was sitting there talking to Matthew and said, "Are we meant to dive out like they do in the movies?" Then JJ gets on the megaphone and goes, "Okay, guys, I want you to dive onto the sand." Matthew and I started high-fiving each other.
"THE IDEA WAS: 'IT'S PURE SURVIVAL. DARWIN. DOG EAT DOG.'" DAMON LINDELOFLINDELOF: Another big sequence was the animal attack. We were having all these conversations about boars and whether we were going to have a trained boar or an animatronic one. Then Sarah Caplan, one of the producers, said, "I thought this island was weird. Shouldn't it be something that doesn't belong here?"
BURK: The polar bear is one of my favourite things about the episode. That incongruity offered all the possibilities in the world for where the show could go.
HOLLOWAY: A polar bear! What the fuck, right? My first day was actually JJ throwing a furry pillow at me. The pillow was standing in for that beast.
LARRY FONG (cinematographer): We needed to do close-ups of people running through the jungle and we didn't have time. So I said, "Why don't we go really tight, shake the camera and wave branches in front of the lens?" It looked ridiculous at the time, but JJ made it work.
FOX: The first thing I did was the jungle sequence where the smoke monster is after them. Suddenly we were thrown into this wild world: beautiful and big and scary and cool.
ABRAMS: We shot for 20-some days. Every day it would rain spontaneously and then suddenly stop. It was like Ireland.
GARCIA: What I wasn't prepared for were the bugs. Where we were shooting is usually a dark place in the nighttime. Suddenly we arrive with all these lights and the bugs just went for us. They found their way into my hair. I don't know if they wanted to be there or if they got stuck there. Between takes, people would run over and pick them out. Then at the end of the day, I'd take a shower and deal with the bug nest going on there on my head.
O'QUINN: I didn't notice the bugs. I grew up in Michigan. Jorge's a California boy.
FOX: I felt a bit of responsibility to be the leader, given the role I was playing. And yes, the cast skinny-dipping was my idea. At the time I thought that everybody taking their clothes off was a good way to bond.
O'QUINN: I was not one of the ones who took Matthew up on that offer. I figure, as a general rule, if what you're going to show isn't good, why the hell show it?
GARCIA: There was a karaoke place we'd all go to. I remember hearing Daniel Dae-Kim do Dire Straits' Romeo and Juliet song. I'm more of a Tom Jones guy. Delilah is my thing.
FOX: I use Hotel California as a warm-up. After that, all bets are off.
DAE KIM: Those were heady days. There was a summer-camp feel to the whole thing. Some nights we'd all go and see Dom Monaghan DJing.
MONAGHAN: When I wasn't surfing or hiking, I'd be sipping a Mai Tai or Hawaiian ice tea.
HOLLOWAY: We did get drunk a fair bit, and that's where Sawyer's nicknames came from. Two of my favourites were "Stay Puft", for Hurley - mean but funny - and "Mr. Clean", because it so described Terry O'Quinn. I kept calling Maggie Grace "Sticks" because she had the long, skinny legs, you know? Have I got a nickname for JJ? Well, it would have to be something to do with perfect hair. Let's go with "Hair Boy".
MONAGHAN: Nothing fazes JJ. He's never flummoxed. He always has an answer.
HOLLOWAY: One day on the pilot, he got a call. His daughter had fallen and hit her head. She was in the emergency room - fine, but getting checked out. And JJ just said, "That's it. Shut everything down." It was a major day - 160 people on set - and I was like, "What a badass." His values are in the right place.
KIM: Every take, he'd give me a thumbs up and say, "Genius!" I'm sure I wasn't all that great, but that's just his style.
GARCIA: When I did a take, he'd come up and be like, "That was good... That was good... Okay, just do it again."
O'QUINN: There was this wonderful feeling I had from JJ and Damon, that this show was wide open. Nothing was set in stone. It occurred to me one day, as I was sitting on the beach and pondering my toes, that the possibilities were endless.
*THE ISLAND - MORNING
And we're with JACK, his eyes focused out across the perfectly calm water. He stands on the beach, completely alone. As the sun breaks the horizon and lights up the sky, we play the moment of pure ISLAND BEAUTY. A serenity to it all.*
CARLTON CUSE (executive producer): We were very much flying by the seat of our pants. At that point, there wasn't any time to figure out the big picture. Which was exhilarating, but also terrifying.
LINDELOF: My journal entries were filled with panic. Everyone was saying, "How are you going to sustain this intensity? What's the 15th episode going to be?" And I was thinking, "I don't even know what the fourth episode is going to be! I didn't pitch this to you guys." I wouldn't have been at all surprised if this thing had been a catastrophic failure. Really.
ABRAMS: I got a call from the head of ABC, telling me to make sure we shot an ending, so they could air it as a movie when it didn't get picked up to series. I remember saying, "If you tell me how to end it, I'll shoot it!" They never responded.
HOLLOWAY: Before the pilot got cut together, Bryan Burk invited us to a get-together in Los Angeles to watch the unsweetened dailies: no music, no colour-grading, no nothing. And my wife and I, we were almost in tears when we left. We were like, "This is going to be cancelled right away. It's terrible."
DAE KIM: I saw the pilot before the public did, and even then I wasn't sure. I knew it was good. I just didn't know if it would stay on the air.
MONAGHAN: I'm not sure how much confidence we all had at that stage. I loved Cloud Atlas last year, but no-one watched it. You can never account for taste.
O'QUINN: I didn't think it would become huge. I had no idea.
ABRAMS: We had nine days to edit the show.
"WHEN THE RATINGS CAME OUT, WE ALL WENT TO A BAR CALLED THE TROPICANA. THAT WAS ONE OF THE BEST FEELINGS OF THE WHOLE RIDE. WE REALISED THAT WE HAD A PHENOMENON HERE." JOSH HOLLOWAYMICHAEL GIACCHINO (composer): I felt uncomfortable and uneasy watching the episode, and I was hoping to get some of that feeling into the music. I didn't want it to sound like a normal jungle movie, with woodwind and flutes.
LINDELOF: There was a lot of talk about what the smoke monster would sound like. Bryan Burk brought that great ticka-ticka noise, which he recorded in a New York City taxicab, to the aural mélange that made it up.
ABRAMS: We really didn't think ABC was going to pick it up, because it was such an odd thing. But it tested really well and they ended up airing it.
LINDELOF: Being on a network turned out to be perfect for Lost. The pulp storytelling mechanism of having five cliffhangers an episode, because of the commercial breaks, infused the show with an adrenaline I'm not sure it would have had on, say, HBO. That said, it would have been great to say "shit" and "fuck" whenever we wanted to. Because those characters would have been swearing all the time!
JACK BENDER (series director): I watched the pilot with my wife and two daughters. My first thought was that it was phenomenal. Every dime they spent was on the screen. And although it was about a scary, mysterious island, somehow it was beautiful. My second thought was, "You son of a bitch, JJ. This is so fucking good, how am I going to keep this up every week?" I suddenly became very insecure.
DE RAVIN: We had a cast and crew screening and we were speechless in our chairs afterwards.
ANDREWS: All I ever saw of the series was the pilot. I thought, "I should get some idea of what kind of show I'm in." And I was blown away. It had the sweep of an epic feature film - Lawrence Of Arabia or Dr. Zhivago.
BRAUN: When I saw the numbers, I was staggered. I was like, "It worked!"
LIEBER: I have no hard feelings - what Damon and JJ did was amazing and I'm proud to have my limited association with it. That said, when I saw the pilot and the trees shaking at the end, I chuckled to myself. Because I was so handcuffed to reality with my draft that I couldn't even have a shark attack. I should have pitched it as a polar-bear attack!
HOLLOWAY: When the ratings came out, we all went to a bar called the Tropicana. That was one of the best feelings of the whole ride. We realised that we had a phenomenon here. It was just a really wonderful night; we were standing on the precipice, you know? Shots were drunk.
O'QUINN: When you've got good writers and they're in a productive stage of their lives, you're in the cat-bird seat. And that's a happy place to be.
BURK: Lost is just one of those experiences where none of it makes sense. We were beyond lucky.
BRAUN: JJ called me up when the show was picked up, and it was one of the sweetest calls I've ever gotten. He said, "This show was your baby. It's important to us that you're tied to it in a tangible way. So we want to send over a sound crew and have you be the voice that says, 'Previously on Lost...'" I agreed, on the proviso that no-one other than JJ, Damon and I would know. I spent an hour in a Beverly Hills hotel doing the words a thousand times or so, and that was it. Just one more secret...
This article was first published in Empire Magazine issue #287 (May 2013).