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Thursday, February 21, 2008
'Lost' and found

This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.

As the hit series returns to TV, the brains behind the show pontificates on crazy plot points and his Jewish upbringing.

The television was always on at Damon Lindelof's New Jersey childhood home. Despite being advised by his parents that his brain would rot, Damon spent the majority of his childhood watching television. As a young boy, it was The Incredible Hulk, followed by Twin Peaks when he was a bit older. Typical "guy shows" like The Dukes of Hazzard and Miami Vice were also weekly favorites.

Things have changed for executive producer and writer of the hit series Lost -- or have they? In Lindelof's office 2500 miles away from where Lost shoots its episodes on Oahu, hangs a huge white board blocked with scenes for an upcoming show that will shoot next week. And television still plays a major role in this 34 year-old creative genius' life. The Wire, Heroes, Prison Break and sometimes an inspirational Oprah episode have replaced former youthful programming favorites.

"Books and movies were specific inspirations for Lost," he admits, "but I did watch an incredible amount of television growing up and I still do." In fact, the self-professed Stephen King fan has placed many references to King's work into Lost, referencing most notably The Dark Tower series. "The first meeting I had with J.J. (Abrams), we talked about King's The Stand, and it kept suggesting ideas throughout the process. The character of Charlie was always going to be a druggie rocker, but when Dominic Monaghan came in to audition we starting saying, 'What if he was a one-hit wonder?'. I said, 'Like the guy in The Stand! The guy with just this one song."

Lindelof's imagination and dreams actually began during his freshman year at Teaneck High School. "I always wanted to be making movies, doing something in television or writing a novel", says Damon who, prior to Lost, wrote for Nash Bridges and Crossing Jordan. "I didn't quite know yet what I would write about, but I always liked making up stories that had elements of the fantastic or supernatural in them."

Fantastical storytelling was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams, whom together managed to make a completely weird, ridiculously untenable and vastly expensive pilot for ABC that centered on the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 somewhere in the South Pacific. "The first thing I said to J.J. was I wanted to start with a guy waking up in the middle of nowhere, very disoriented and reaching into his pocket to pull out a tiny bottle of booze. That would give the audience a form of reference to a plane. That's how we would introduce everyone to Lost and then we'd have flashbacks detailing what happened prior to the crash. The opening ended up being shot for shot. Very cool."

Cool indeed. But then again, Damon always had the swagger to consider himself cool. "I was involved in academics in school but not the valedictorian of the class by any stretch of the imagination. I was more into the theater crowd and didn't play many sports in high school. Looking back, we were nerds who thought we were cool."

But his childhood wasn't all about TV and theater. He and his family attended the local synagogue on weekends and a 13 year-old Damon had his bar mitzvah in Teaneck. A crazy theory recently popped up about three seasons of Lost and 16 episodes per season structure as a clue and reference to Damon's former bible studies and John 3:16. "Wow, but no," he says seriously as if asking himself 'why didn't I think of that?' But he does say his childhood and Jewish background have added to who he is today. "The area was culturally diverse and that is one of the reasons I loved it. I didn't have the experience of some other people I've met who say they were 15 before they saw someone who wasn't white or that they hadn't met a Jewish person yet. The idea was that I was a Jewish white kid growing up in Teaneck, but at the same time, I had black and Filipino and Asian friends and to have that experience all through high school while getting an awesome education was wonderful. I often think about what my path would have been if I was brought up on a farm or had I been born in New York City."

After a brief flirtation with movies by way of a film degree from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Damon hopped in his car and traveled west to Los Angeles. But his childhood memories have crossed over to the mysterious island where the Lost characters are stranded. "Well, 23 is my lucky number and it was my father's as well," he explains of the significance of the number in the show. "My father was into the Illuminati and the number 23, so he was a big reader of Robert Anton Wilson. There was some intentionality behind using 23, but we had no idea, no grand design behind the numbers. But suddenly, the number one question stopped being 'What is the monster?' and went to being 'What do the numbers mean?' The number also has a great cosmic importance according to some science fiction circles. So 23 is a number in Hurley's string of lucky numbers and 815 appears often in the show as well, which is a derivation of 23 minus 15 plus 8 so all of the numbers are derivations of 23 in some way or another."

But as we know from the Emmy winning addictive drama that gives millions of viewers island fever each week, the hit show has not been without its ups and downs and Lindelhof has weathered those peaks and valleys with optimism. "There's a tremendous amount of pressure to keep the momentum going," admits Lindelhof, who along with his co-creators signed a deal to end the series in 2010. "But it comes from each other, those involved in the show. We try really hard to keep the show great and keep it in the zeitgeist. Lost was never supposed to be a hit; it was always supposed to be more of a cult success so the fact that it has crossed over and has this worldwide audience, can be alternatingly petrifying but also emboldens us to keep doing what we think is cool."

Almost immediately after the plane crash on its first Wednesday night at 9PM, websites started popping up with island theories. Does Lindelhof take into account audience feedback and change where he was originally going? "We never change the show after receiving negative feedback because the audience traditionally doesn't know what they want; they only know what they don't want. That can present you with a certain negativity because that can fence you in terms of the stories you can tell. You have to not be afraid to do something that might anger the viewers or the show will get boring. The reality is sometimes people don't want to know what's for dinner or they'd be eating pizza every night."

Any clues? "I know there are 'Save Charlie' t-shirts popping up around." Nothing more on Charlie's fate. How about the hatch? "Well the hatch imploded according to Locke. But there is definitely more to this story. You will get a better picture of what happened later." And the mysterious Jacob who Locke and Ben visited and who doesn't have Jack on his "list"? "The answer lies further downstream in the ongoing story." If there are any clues, Lindelof reminds us that character names on the show are not assigned without a reason. And yes, that is a clue. And the third season's finale definitely set up season four for its return to television last month. "It will make you realize that the house you are standing in actually has a lot more rooms than you thought when you came into it."

--Text by Bonnie Siegler / Photo courtesy ABC

This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.
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