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A Lost writer's 17,000-word essay reveals which twists were planned vs. improvised

Look, it's Locke. Grillo-Marxuach's post reveals the famous twist involving the character almost never was.
Look, it's Locke. Grillo-Marxuach's post reveals the famous twist involving the character almost never was.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a writer on the first two seasons of the classic ABC sci-fi series Lost and a member of the original brain trust that dreamed up the underpinnings of the series' mythology, has written his own story of what happened behind the scenes in those first two seasons. He paints a picture of an ultra-competitive, ultra-creative environment, where genius happened in sudden, furious bursts of inspiration.

Grillo-Marxuach wrote the post, which is almost 17,000 words long, in order to answer the eternal question of whether the Lost writers knew what was going to happen or were making it up as they went along. The answer he gives is complicated but suggests the writers had most of the series' backstory in mind in those first two seasons, while leaving plenty of room for improvisation. (The character of Jacob, for instance, so important to the final seasons of the show, was not mentioned once while Grillo-Marxuach was on staff.)

The entire post is well worth a read, and not just for Lost superfans. If you have any interest in how the behind-the-scenes TV sausage is made, check it out. When you're done with that, check out our lengthy interview with co-creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof about the series' earliest days. And from there, check out Grillo-Marxuach's recent book, Shoot This One.

Here are five quick revelations from this monumental post.

1) The writers all pitched ideas for what was in the mysterious Hatch before Lindelof came up with the idea out of the blue

As a writers' room, and a think tank before that, we kept pitching possibilities, but nothing we threw out ever overrode Damon's concern that if we shat the bed on that reveal, the audience would depart in droves. 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.

I believe that my idea was that it led into the conning tower of a nuclear submarine that had run aground and been buried in an epic mudslide (I thought this could be a rich area for stories about salvaging equipment, and loose nukes, and such things).

As we trudged through the first half of season one, Damon rushed into the writers room one day with an uncharacteristic bounce in his step and declared that "inside the hatch there’s a room with a guy in it and if he doesn’t press a button every 108 minutes, the world will end."

2) Several writers gathered before a pilot script was even finished to hammer out the series' mythology

During these sessions — which began on February 24th of 2004, exactly one day before Damon and JJ [Abrams, co-creator] finished writing their very first draft of the pilot — a lot of the ideas that became the show’s mythology and format were discussed, pitched, and put into play for what would eventually become the series. Also, to be fair, more often than not, we were paving the way for the good ideas by coming up with a lot of bad ones. Very bad ones.

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.

In that meeting — we had an assistant taking the notes I am consulting as I write this — Damon also pitched out the idea of "The Medusa Corporation" a Rand Corporation-like entity that knew the nature of the island and had thus chosen it as a place in which to perform a series of behavior modification experiments in a series of scientific stations... and who had brought the polar bears in for these experiments.

For all doubters, in the post Grillo-Marxuach provides a picture of the notes from that meeting.

3) Grillo-Marxuach on the notion of killing main character Jack in the pilot: "You can't kill the white guy."

Lost was anything but fully-baked in late February of 2004. As has been reported elsewhere, one of the out-of-the-box ideas featured in both the greenlit outline and the first draft of the pilot was that Jack Shephard — the main character of the series that ultimately aired — was to be killed at the end of the first act by the mysterious smoke monster. At the time, the scuttlebutt around the office was that JJ had reached out to Michael Keaton, who had — at least in principle — agreed to appear in the pilot and even do press pretending that he was going to be a series regular, only to be killed fifteen minutes in. ...

On our second day at work, JJ and Damon brought in numbered hard copies of the pilot for the think tank to read and on which to give feedback. 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.

In truth, my response was a lot less politically correct, informed as it was by my decade-plus experience as a Puerto Rican working in Hollywood.

What I really said was "You can't kill the white guy."

Grillo-Marxuach admits he and the others were later amused when the network said the same thing.

4) Yeah, the young boy Walt was totally supposed to be psychic

Even though we assumed from jump street that the polar bears had been brought to the island as part of the Medusa Corporation's work — there was also a very strong drive from Damon and JJ to advance the story that Walt was a powerful psychic. This explained, for example, the bird hitting the window in the episode "Special." Walt-as-psychic would also help us explain why The Others had such an interest in Walt and would ultimately kidnap him.

Although the genre-averse Powers That Be at network and studio were resolutely opposed to the science-fictional idea of a psychic boy who could manifest polar bears on a tropical island through the strength of will alone, Damon and JJ nevertheless gave themselves a backdoor into this area by putting the bear in a comic book that appeared both in the pilot and thereafter in series.

Frankly, it's hard for me to look at an episode like "Special" and not completely take from it that Walt is a powerful psychic who manifested the polar bear in order to test his father's love once and for all ... but the execution of the episode apparently left plenty of wiggle room to give us plausible deniability — even as Damon would regularly come into the writers' room, throw up his arms and declare "Of course Walt's psychic."

5) Lindelof almost left the show. A terrible story idea brought him back around.

A week later, Damon came back from a retreat to the Palm Desert. No, people, he wasn't out wandering the wastes in sackcloth and confronting the devil, he had been at Two Bunch Palms — which you might remember as that nice spa featured in the Robert Altman film The Player. If he didn't look tanned, rested, and ready, Damon at least appeared willing to climb back into the ring with the now-confirmed-as-pop-culture-defining, massive-audience-gathering, monster hit that was Lost.

If anything seemed to convince Damon of how badly Lost needed him, it was probably hearing the story break developing on the white-board in his absence. Now, there had been times — and, again, I have heard him say as much in interviews — when Damon expressed to us that he felt the show was literally sucking away his soul and that he wished he could jump. Sometimes he would even threaten to do it off a cliff...

However, when Damon Lindelof heard the beats to a story in which Hurley was revealed to be an amateur hypnotist who would use his abilities to pry to the location of the kidnapped Claire from the now-amnesiac Charlie, his pride of ownership came roaring back with bull force.

If ever there was a moment when I knew that there was no way Damon Lindelof would ever leave Lost again it was when he told us what he thought of that idea.

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