Javier Grillo-Marxuach was part of the original team of writers on ABC’s Lost, and even though he left the show in the middle of the second season, he stuck around longer than any other writer besides showrunner Damon Lindelof. He has since gone on to produce TV shows such as Medium and The Middleman, but is most often asked about his time on Lost—particularly the question “Were the writers just making it up as they went along?” In a very long but fascinating blog entry he posted on March 24, 2015, he gave his personal account of his time on the show in hopes of no longer having to answer the same questions about it.
Below is a snapshot of some of the most interesting revelations, but there is so much more in the original entry and Grillo-Marxuach tells it in such a compelling way that any Lost fan should go and read the whole account for themselves. For those of you that are years behind on Lost, I should warn you there are many spoilers within.
1. The writers didn’t have it all planned out from the beginning—but for good reasons.
No, they most definitely did not have everything planned out from the beginning and, yes, they were still making up new aspects of the island’s mythology all the way through the series. But Grillo-Marxuach explains in exhausting detail that this is how writing for a longform network television show works. Plus, Lost’s origins were complicated by the fact that the pilot was greenlit based on a one-line concept from ABC network president Lloyd Braun (“Survivor meets Castaway”) and a rough outline quickly developed off that concept by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof that "so blew Braun and his team away that they chose to strike while the iron was hot.”
Usually, network pilots aren't greenlit without a clear course for how the series will work. While Abrams and Lindelof hammered out the pilot script and locations were being scouted, Grillo-Marxuach and a quickly-assembled “think tank" of writers were hashing out that future course as quickly as they could.
As much as many -- fans, critics, and sometimes even those of us who create the stuff -- want to believe in the possibility that greatness is sui generis (or conversely the cowboy myth that "We didn't know what we were doing -- we were just kids with a dream and gosh darnit we pulled it off with spit and bailing wire") both of these explanations rob us of the truth: inspiration is always augmented through improvisation, collaboration, serendipity, and plain, old, unglamorous Hard Work. I will, however, strenuously make the point that the notes from our think tank prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that if we knew anything, we sure as shellac knew what the polar bear was doing on the island.
2. Lost was always about an island at the center of a battle between good and evil.
As the pilot’s script was being finalized, the writers generated a stream of ideas, many of which would form the mythology of the series. But the overarching concept was in place from day one:
On the first day alone, Damon downloaded on us the notion that the island was a nexus of conflict between good and evil: an uncharted and unchartable place with a mysterious force at its core that called humanity to it to play out a primal contest between light and dark.
Grillo-Marxuach holds back from speaking for Lindelof on any specifics of what the island actually “was” and how it did the things it did, but he definitively answers one of the consistent fan questions about it:
It is not purgatory. It was never purgatory. It will never be purgatory.
3. “It’s going to be that unless someone can beat it."
Lindelof used a rolling method for establishing the “truths” behind various island mysteries, intending to slowly dole out answers over time but leaving those unrevealed answers to be open for competition. A healthy rivalry developed with writers trying to “dethrone the accepted wisdom”:
As questions of mythology and backstory came up during the development of Lost, Damon and the staff -- first in the think tank and later in the writers' room for the series -- would come up with explanations. The ones Damon liked just enough to not dismiss outright would be discussed at greater length and eventually, something would become a kind of operating theory. Damon would eventually declare “it’s going to be that unless someone can beat it.” When we finally refined these ideas to the point where Damon was OK putting them on screen -- committing to them as canon -- then we would incorporate them into the show.
A good example regards the mystery of The Black Rock:
One afternoon, Damon rushed into the writers room and asked to no one in particular "So what is 'The Black Rock'?" Paul Dini lifted his head from his sketch pad (he was and is an accomplished doodler) and plainly stated "It's an eighteenth-century sailing ship that got beached on the island." Damon exclaimed something to the effect of "Sold!" and quickly left the room: a new piece of canon born from raw improvisation colliding with something that had been planted in the pilot script months before.
4. J.J. Abrams had the idea for the Hatch but didn't even care what was inside.
J.J. Abrams’ philosophy was that "the mystery was as good a journey as the reveal and would be so tantalizing it would keep the audience clamoring—even if the subject to be eventually revealed was not forethought,” whereas Lindelof’s one hard and fast rule was "he would not put anything on screen that he didn’t feel confident he could explain beforehand.” Abrams had the idea of the survivors discovering a mysterious “hatch” on the island and pushed to have it appear in the show’s pilot but was disinterested in figuring out what was in it. Lindelof pushed back on introducing it right away, but the writers brainstormed many ideas for what the hatch would actually contain:
The hatch was pitched as a gateway to a frozen polar bear habitat, the mouth of a cave full of treasure that would so entrance the castaways with dreams of avarice that Jack would ultimately be forced to seal it shut with dynamite, the door to a bio-dome whose inhabitants could only breathe carbon dioxide, and even a threshold to an Atlantis-style lost civilization.
One morning, Lindelof came in with a brilliant idea for what the hatch would contain, and by the tenth episode of the first season, it was introduced.
5. "You can’t kill the white guy."
It’s been written about before that the original outline planned to pull the rug out from underneath the audience when Jack Shepard, the character that was built up to be the hero of the series, would get killed off by the smoke monster at the end of the pilot episode. The original plan was even to have Michael Keaton cast as Jack and to have him do a lot of publicity for the show as if he was going to be the star of the series.
It was Grillo-Marxuach who told Lindelof “You can’t kill the white guy."
My most salient note on the pilot was that murdering the one white male character with a discernible skillset that could serve to generate stories -- at the very least Jack was a doctor -- would not go over well with the network.
It would turn out that the network agreed with him and quickly nixed the idea.
6. The writers lied when they said all sci-fi elements would be grounded in reality.
It’s almost hard to believe when you look at the type of entertainment that populates TV today. but back in 2004, networks shied away from ideas that were steeped in science fiction or fantasy. Abrams and Lindelof had to calm executive fears by promising that "our sci-fi would be of a grounded, believable, Michael Crichton-esque stripe that could be proven plausible through extrapolation from hard science," Grillo-Marxuach writes, noting that:
Of course, that was a blatant and shameless lie told to network and studio executives in the hopes that either blazing success or crashing failure would eventually exonerate us from the responsibility of explaining the scientifically accurate manner in which the man-eating cloud of sentient smoke actually operated. Nevertheless the onus was on us to generate tons of exciting stories that could stand on their own without leaning too hard on genre, and in television there is only one way of doing that: have great characters who are interesting to watch as they solve problems onscreen.
7. Damon Lindelof nearly had a breakdown in the middle of Season One.
Grillo-Marxuach makes the point again and again that Lindelof was the creative force behind the first season, especially after Abrams stepped back his involvement. But Lindelof was young and new and very quickly found himself shepherding the most important network TV drama of its time and he constantly worried that he was not going to be able to deliver.
One afternoon, I was sitting in a colleague’s office -- we were working out some piece of scenework -- when Damon entered to tell us that he was leaving, but that we should be fine in Carlton [Cuse]'s capable hands. After much conversation, we said some confused and emotional good-byes and he left... and not just from that office... he quite literally walked out of the building and wasn't seen for the rest of the day... or the following day... or the day after!
Lindelof would return after a week of recovering from fatigue in a Palm Beach resort. He and Carlton Cuse would go on to share the work of running the show for the rest of the series.
8. Jacob and the Man in Black were not in the original plan.
While it does seem that the nature of the island was figured out early on, some elements that would end up factoring into the finale were very late additions—notably, the embodiment of that battle between good and evil: Jacob and The Man in Black.
There are also lot of things that developed long after I left the show, things that -- when mentioned to me by friends still on the series, or fans whom I befriended during my time there -- often made me go 'huh?' For example, while the idea was that the island called out to people and brought them in as part of a greater Manichean conflict, I didn’t once in two years and change hear the name “Jacob” or “the man in black.” The idea that people were being recruited to come to the island as part of this greater agenda was never brought up during my time on the show, even though by all accounts it eventually became the crux of the series' final arc.
9. They originally only intended to use flashbacks in the pilot episode.
The flashbacks that show the past lives of each character, something which made the show unique and was the source of its most interesting acts of storytelling, were only intended to be used in the pilot episode:
Now, however, as we truly tried to put our ideas into practice, the episodic format finally took shape around the notion that “flashbacks are there to demonstrate what you are in the island is a contrast to what you were in your other life." This conceit became the theme of Lost, our central concern in the development of the stories, and the glue that held seasons of the show together.
10. The Dharma Initiative was originally "The Medusa Corporation" and The Others were the “jungle creeps.”
The ideas for both of these important elements of the show were established at the very beginning, but had very different names until just before being introduced into the show.