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Lost: Flashing Forward and Back With the Producers

Sorry, 24 and BSG, but there's no returning series I'm looking forward to this winter more than Lost. After a shaky third season, the show returned to gloriously mind-bending form last spring, culminating in an amazing finale. So one week before the release of Season 4 on DVD, and just over six weeks before the January 21, 2009 start of Season 5, it was a thrill to participate in an online media roundtable with executive producers/masterminds Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Of course, getting spoilers out of them is harder than moving an island, but they did drop a few tantalizing clues about the new season, along with plenty of insights into their storytelling process, the characters that surprised them, the Stephen King novel that's still an inspiration, the cult TV show they may have ripped off and much more.

Looking back at season 4, what, for you, was the pivotal moment in that season, and why?

Damon: Hard to pick, but the one that immediately leaps to mind is the scene in the finale between Jack and Locke in the greenhouse. Obviously, the ramifications of Locke telling Jack (once again) that he's not supposed to leave the island, but if he does, he must lie about everything that happens is essentially what kicks off the entire story of the Oceanic Six. We think it's really cool that it was actually Locke's idea, even though Jack doesn't present it that way. And now that Jack is standing over Locke's coffin, the relationship between these two men becomes really central to the endgame of our story.

How did last winter's writers' strike impact the show? Watching season 4 on DVD, is there a noticeable difference between the pre-strike and the post-strike episodes?

Damon: Hopefully not. The fact of the matter is that we designed out -- at least roughly -- the entire 16-episode season, planting flags as to what would happen where in the grand scheme of things. In that original design, there were a couple of episodes focusing more on the Freighter Folks (Faraday, Miles and Charlotte) that got pushed into this season, but more importantly, things like Jack's appendicitis and Keamy arriving at New Otherton and killing Alex happened sooner than we had planned due to the collapsed schedule. I think if there's a sense of separation between the first eight episodes (ending with "Meet Kevin Johnson") and the final six hours, it's that the story is really moving at a much higher rate of speed than we're traditionally accustomed to.

Did season 4's structure of flashbacks and flash-forwards embolden you to experiment even more in season 5?

Damon: Yes, the fact that the audience embraced switching gears on the show from "reverse" to "drive" emboldened us to get a little more loose with how we drive (as long as we're never in neutral!) the story. The cool thing about season 5 is that it takes a little while for your brain to fully absorb how the story is unfolding... but hopefully, once it does, you'll realize we're trying something new yet again.

Will there still be flashbacks and flash-forwards in season 5?

Carlton: Yes, there will still be flashbacks and flash-forwards, but we are not limiting ourselves to those ways of transitioning between stories. We still love doing them and will when appropriate. There are still some cool flashbacks left to tell for our characters.

We saw a lot of Christian Shephard in season 4. Does his re-appearance tie into the empty coffin Jack discovered back in season 1?

Damon: Indeed it does... and I think its safe to say you'll be seeing Christian again in season 5. And what's up with those white tennis shoes he was wearing back in season 1?

You've previously confirmed that Michael is dead and it would appear that Claire has also taken a dirt nap. But we're still left hanging on Jin's fate. Will the latter two characters' fates be resolved in season 5?

Damon: I would beg to differ on Claire's alleged "dirt nap" (unless you mean taking a nap on dirt) -- didn't we see her last sitting in a cabin with the mysterious Christian Shephard? As for Jin, we'll definitely be seeing more of him in season 5. But as we're moving through past, present and future, who knows when we'll see him.

There is a lot of concern amongst many fans over how the show will work without the chemistry of the full ensemble. Is that separation something you will address in season 5?

Damon: We're concerned, too! I think everyone, writers and fans alike, feels the show is at its best when our characters are together, but the fact of the matter is that the story is constantly twisting and turning to keep them apart. Let's face it: absence makes the heart grow fonder, but there's nothing sweeter than a reunion. All we're willing to say at this point is that if we were to spend the entire duration of Season 5 with the Oceanic Six trying to get back to the island, we are fully aware that the audience would strangle us.

Speaking of sweet reunions... Desmond's reunion with Penny at the end of Season 4 was one of the greatest moments of the series so far. Nothing's going to happen in the new season to jeopardize their happiness, right? Right?

Damon: I'm sorry. Wrong. Wrong.

Are we ever going to see backstories for Rousseau, Libby and/or Walt, or will they fall by the wayside now that there are only 34 episodes left?

Carlton: Let's just say you will get more information about Rousseau and Walt at least. We can't comment about who will or won't get full-on flashbacks. Obviously as the story moves forward we'll be answering questions at a faster rate. But some stories -- like Libby's -- we feel are pretty much finished.

Will we ever get an answer to lingering questions like what's up with the four-toed statue from the season 2 finale?

Carlton: Yes, more on the four-toed statue to come! In fact, (spoiler) the four-toed statue might come to life in the Zombie Season. As we roll into the end of season 5 and certainly in season 6, the show will definitely be much more in answer mode. [Note: The never-to-exist Zombie Season 7 is a running joke on the official Lost podcast.]

How has having a fixed end date for the show impacted you as writers?

Carlton: Our approach to the storytelling changed drastically once we were able to negotiate an end date to the show. Before that, we didn't know if the mythology had to last two seasons or seven seasons. Once we knew there were only going to be 48 episodes of the show left, we were able to start charting out the remaining journey. We approach it on three levels: First we have discussions about the uber-mythology and plant the big landmark events in rough locations. Then at the end of each season, we have a writer's mini-camp where we discuss the arc of the upcoming season in great detail. Then we break each individual episode and see where we end up at the end of each break. We give ourselves a fair bit of latitude to listen to the show and react -- writing more or less for various characters or situations depending on how they play.

The storyline has really progressed to the point where the science-fiction/fantasy elements can't really stay in the subtext anymore. Is that liberating for you as writers, or did you prefer the science vs. faith ambiguity of the earlier seasons?

Damon: It actually is liberating... but at the same time, the show constantly forces us to evolve. We can't go back to the ambiguity of Season 1 because our characters have experienced so much since then. Carlton and I often talk about [Stephen King's] The Stand: the story starts with something scientific, an epidemic that kills off 99 percent of the world's population, but slowly and steadily transforms into a mystical tale where people are having prophetic dreams and, finally, literally ends with the hand of God coming out of the sky and setting off a nuclear device. Our story has always been about a journey, but just because we're embracing some of the more fantastical aspects of the island doesn't mean we're completely abandoning the science vs. faith of it all.

By having shorter seasons now, do you feel the storytelling has become much easier -- or do you sometimes wish you could have three more episodes?

Damon: The storytelling has never been easy, but we've always felt that less is more. The complaint that we got most often in the first couple seasons of the show is that we were not moving the story forward fast enough -- "stalling" -- which, unfortunately, is a necessary tactic when you're doing 25 episodes a year. The truth is that we actually liked those episodes low on incident ("Claire sends a message on a bird," anyone?), but the show is much more fun to write when we can just power through and give you guys a hearty meal as opposed to a zillion little courses that never quite get you full.

Growing up, was there a show that you watched that particularly influenced your career in television or your writing style?

Damon: I was a TV junkie growing up. Other than watching endless hours of cartoons (Thundercats, Voltron and yes, Smurfs), I loved watching "grown-up shows" with my folks... like Dallas. Perhaps that's where I got my love for melodrama! The show that really affected me, however, was Twin Peaks, which I'd watch every week with my dad. He'd tape the show on his VCR (remember those?) and we'd watch the episode again right after it aired in our quest to pull every last clue out of the show. The idea of a TV show being a mystery and a game that spawned hundreds of theories obviously was a major precedent (that's a fancy way of saying we ripped it off) for Lost.

It's common knowledge that the character of Ben was originally intended to be a more minor character, but he clicked with audiences so much that his role was extended. Which other characters or actors suprised you in terms of how much audiences did or did not take to them?

Carlton: Good question. And you're right about Michael Emerson. He's the biggest example of a character that we just fell in love with beyond our expectations. I would say Desmond would also be in that category. The audience really fell in love with him right from the get-go and he quickly moved right into the mainstream of our cast. Nikki and Paulo were less successful. We tried to introduce them out of the show's chorus as it were and the audience cried foul. We listened and killed them off.

In light of that, where do you draw the line between making the audience happy and telling the story you set out to tell?

Carlton: It's now kind of a moot point. Moving forward it will be virtually impossible for us to adjust in-season to audience feedback. By the time the show premieres on Jan 21, we will have written 14 of the 17 hours and probably will be deep into the specific scene plotting for the finale. This season we're going to be completely relying on our on instincts and judgments -- combined with the feedback of our collaborators here on the show and at the studio and network.

With the end of the series in 2010 looming, is there a possibility of a Lost feature film after the show is over?

Damon: The answer is no. At least not by us. We've always felt that the show should definitively end the same place it started... on television. To bring our characters to some sort of cliffhanger where the audience gets none of the answers that they really care about and then say, "Now give us ten bucks, buy some popcorn and we'll give you the rest!" would pretty much be the worst thing ever.

How does it feel to know that you're in the home stretch of the series? Has it brought our any personal reflections or feelings that you didn't expect about the process or the story?

Carlton: I think all of us who work on the show know what a special experience it is. Our ability to negotiate an end date to the show so far in advance was, I believe, unprecedented in network TV. It has given us a real sense of what the journey is going to be. Normally when you work on a TV show you never know when it is going to end; you're just trying to survive season to season until the proverbial horse drops out from underneath you. We're not quite far enough along yet to start to wax nostalgic, but I think we all recognize that we've had a chance to do something really extraordinary. I was watching all the bonus features [on the season 4 DVD] and thinking about the special alchemy of Lost. You can do your best as a storyteller but on TV you also need a great cast, crew, directors, composer, etc. You really see on those features what a collaborative art form it is. We are truly blessed that this assembly of talent came together for this project. The journey of making a show over six years and the hours it takes really makes you a family -- and we're about as happy and as functional a TV family as I've ever seen or worked with.

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