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(latimes.com)

Through the looking glass: Perspective from the Lost writers’ room

a/Arts & Entertainment/Film and TV by

If you’ve watched any high-quality TV drama in your life, then there’s a good chance that you’ve been taken aback by at least one perfectly executed scene or storyline—one that made you shake your head and marvel at the writers who were able to come up with something so brilliant.If you were a fan of Lost, then this happened fairly regularly.

Even the harshest detractors—the estranged fans who believe the show ended horribly and didn’t answer a fraction of the questions it should have—will likely still concede that Lost produced some of the most well-written and engrossing television ever. What began as a pitch by ABC executive Lloyd Braun for a show about strangers surviving a plane crash and living together on a deserted island somehow morphed into a groundbreaking series with an island that featured polar bears, a black smoke monster, and longstanding mysteries about cryptic numbers and fertility problems. Early on, Lost established itself as a show that was willing to throw just about anything at viewers, which is why fans speculated endlessly about what kind of shocking revelation would come out of the writers’ room next.

One person who had that kind of insider information was Leonard Dick. A writer for seasons one and two of Lost, Dick has since written for other popular series such as House and, currently, The Good Wife. When Lost premiered ten years ago on September 22, 2004, Dick—who had previously left a business job on Wall Street to move west and pursue entertainment writing—was a relative newcomer to the world of network television. But shortly after Lost’s wildly expensive pilot episode drew in millions of captivated viewers and made it the most popular show on television, a lucky break gave Dick the coveted opportunity to jump on board with the series.

“There was turmoil in the writer’s room and some of the writers’ options weren’t renewed,” explained Dick. “So they hired three new writers in the middle of the season and I was one of them.”

Despite the fact that Lost was a megahit, Dick hadn’t even been watching the show when he found out that he would have the opportunity to interview for one of its writing positions.

“Between work and raising my kids, I watch very little TV,” he said. “My wife had been watching the show and she said, ‘This is incredible, you have to watch it.’ And I kept planning to watch it but I never got around to it. So then I had my interview and I had to binge-watch the first few episodes.”

His verdict?

“I thought it was the most original show I had ever seen. Probably like everybody, the episode that completely hooked me was the John Locke one, the fourth episode called ‘Walkabout.’ To me, that episode has one of the greatest twists in TV history.”

Once he joined the Lost writers’ room, Dick relished the chance to learn firsthand from the man who manufactured that staggering on-screen moment.

“Damon Lindelof is brilliant,” said Dick. “I’ve been off of Lost for about eight years now, and the lessons I learned there I use all the time. The one phrase that I use every time we pitch a story—and I’m almost quoting Damon verbatim—is ‘What is the last thing the audience is expecting?’ Damon was a master at finding an unexpected twist that felt real.”

Lindelof’s ability to astonish viewers kept the momentum that the pilot had generated alive, giving him the kind of successful project that any writer dreams of having. He was also incredibly overwhelmed—even before an event beyond his control would further complicate his situation.

“Damon and J.J. Abrams created Lost together, J.J. directed the pilot; but then, because J.J. was so busy with movie stuff—he was doing Star Trek and Mission Impossible—he couldn’t help run the show, so at first Damon was doing it by himself,” said Dick. “And then he brought in Carlton [Cuse] because it was such a big show, and they ended up running it together.”

What could have been a devastating blow to the series turned out to actually work in its favour. As a second showrunner, Cuse gave Lindelof the short-term support he needed at the show’s helm, but also proved instrumental in executing Lost’s long-term goals—which included orchestrating a network television manoeuvre that had never been done before.

“Damon and Carlton realized very quickly that the show faced the risk of meandering,” began Dick. “A network will run a show into the ground; at the end of the day, networks aren’t concerned about quality, or winning Emmy’s, or what critics think—the networks are interested in ratings.”

“But Damon and Carlton, who are genuine artists, did care about the quality of the show, and knew that if it ran indefinitely, it was going to feel flabby and meandering. They wanted to honour the show and they wanted to honour the audience. So what they did was—they did something unprecedented, and J.J. participated too—which is they negotiated with the network [ABC] an end date for the show.”

Those negotiations happened three years before the series finale aired in 2010, and in many ways, this was fitting for a show that had already broken new ground with its ethnically diverse cast, unique flashback component, and ambitious storytelling risks. As Dick noted, the showrunners brought a relatively free-flowing approach to a series that gave the impression that it had been meticulously planned out.

“At the beginning of the season, we would always do a boot camp where we would spend the first week or two discussing what the arc was for the season,” he explained. “The best analogy is: We knew we were driving from New York to Los Angeles, but what we would find along the way is, ‘Are we going to take the highway, or a back road? Are we gonna visit the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon?’ [….] We had a general sense of what the year was going to look like, and then week to week, we would decide which character we needed to spotlight.”

That process began with all the writers planning out the episode storyline together, and then it would generally be the responsibility of two writers to put together a script—one writing the on-island story and one writing the flashbacks. In terms of deciding who the spotlight should go on, sometimes the reasoning was based on critical season benchmarks, or—like the case of Dick’s co-written episode “The Long Con”—a more responsive logic.

“What happened there was [that] we hadn’t done a Sawyer episode [recently], and Damon and Carlton thought that Sawyer had started to look soft,” said Dick. “So they wanted to do an episode where they gave him his spine back; he was turning into Fonzie from Happy Days; he was too soft.”

Although the showrunners always had the final say regarding content, they encouraged ideas from the other writers, and Dick was directly responsible for several episode plots.

“My first episode was ‘…In Translation,’ which I wrote with Javier Grillo-Marxuach,” said Dick. “We had already seen Jin come in with the bloody hands in the Sun episode [‘House of the Rising Sun’], and I said, ‘What if it isn’t what you think it is? What if it was a benevolent beating where he beat the crap out of a guy to save his life?’ And Damon and Carlton loved it, and that’s what we did.”

He also devised an episode for Sayid, his favourite character to write for.

“In season one, there was a episode called ‘The Greater Good,’ and that was completely my pitch,” he said. “I was flying to Toronto and I was reading an article, and it sparked an idea. As soon as I got to my mother’s apartment, I emailed Damon and Carlton and said, ‘Here’s an episode for Sayid: What if we found out how he ended up on [flight] 815, and he went there because of a friend who was a terrorist?’”

By the time Lost ended, Dick was watching it as a fan rather than a writer. The series finale—and later seasons in general—had a polarizing effect on much of the fan base, but he was on the satisfied end of the divide.

“I found the ending unexpected, and thought it was beautifully written and beautifully directed,” said Dick. “They picked a path and they committed to it; and while not everybody liked the way the show sort of changed directions, I give them kudos.”

Even though those detractors will always be a part of Lost’s legacy, Dick was able to put the show’s true impact in perspective.

“Two points: One, you’re never going to satisfy everybody. And number two, God bless that your show has people who are unhappy with an episode or two—that means they’re watching [….] We should all be so lucky to have created something that people have that emotional attachment to.”

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