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LOST ATE MY LIFE
The Inside Story of a Fandom Like No Other
By Jon "DocArtz" Lachonis, Amy "hijinx" Johnston, Jen Hale
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2008 Jon Lachonis and Amy J. Johnston
All rights reserved.
HOW LOST ALMOST WENT NOWHERE
SOMEWHERE OVER THE PACIFIC OCEAN, between the United States and Australia, a commercial airliner has developed a series of problems. The navigation equipment is off-line, and the transponders are not functioning. To make matters worse, the pilot cannot achieve radio contact with the ground. Tensions mount while the oblivious passengers continue on with mundane flight rituals, without even the slightest idea that the plane they are in will soon crash. Among the passengers are a doctor, a conman, a pregnant girl, a drug addict, a spoiled rich girl, a fugitive and several others who will soon become the only survivors of the doomed flight.
If you think you know where the story is going, think again. In this story, the passengers don't find themselves on a mysterious island that seems imbued with a mystical presence, there are no monsters that thrash through the jungles, and there is no Dharma Initiative. The story is Nowhere and this is the tale of how Lost almost went Nowhere.
* * *
Lloyd Braun did not start his entertainment career as a "creator" of shows. As an entertainment industry lawyer, Braun handled the behind-the-scenes legalese for such luminaries as Larry David and David Chase. Larry David would later cement his affinity with Braun by creating the character of "Lloyd Braun" for Seinfeld. Shortly after helping Chase bring The Sopranos into existence, Braun drifted into the world of television full-time in 2002 as chairman of ABC.
Around a year into his tenure, ABC was lagging in the network ratings race. Desperate to reverse its fortunes, the network gathered its executives for a brainstorming retreat. While there, each retreat participant was expected to come up with an idea for a show. Braun chose the concept behind the Tom Hanks film Cast Away, a move anyone would surely reject as typical Hollywood cookie-cutter decision making. Still, the idea must have held tremendous promise at the time. Cast Away was an air disaster that held an almost archetypal charm that is the antithesis to the still-fresh horrors of 9/11. The concept of survival, starting over and redemption seemed a cathartic and promising message of hope for television viewers.
According to television industry mythology, the idea met with resistance and even ridicule when Braun's back was turned, but he was the boss, so, as you already know, the show moved forward. At this point, the project wasn't called Lost; it probably didn't have a name outside of something like "Lloyd's Cast Away knockoff idea," or "island adventure." What it certainly did not include was anything about smoke monsters, flashbacks or mysterious, disembodied whispers. With the backing of Lloyd Braun and ABC senior vice president Thom Sherman, the stranded-on-an-island story went into the development phase. The first version of the story came from the hallowed halls of Aaron Spelling, via the mind of a young writer named Jeffrey Lieber. Though Lieber gave it the name Nowhere, it seemed to be going somewhere fast.
* * *
The story of Nowhere's careful and detail-oriented development process is the antithesis of that of Lost's rushed creation. Spelling and Lieber were determined to create a shockingly realistic story featuring an ensemble of characters weathering arduous circumstances. As the hope of rescue fades, the survivors begin to jockey for control of the micro-civilization that forms on the island. Spelling went as far as to bring in consultants from National Geographic to help Lieber develop the locale. Lieber had immersed himself in some of the more popular desert island books like Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe.
When Lieber's first draft of Nowhere was turned in, ABC's executives were enthusiastic, but thought it needed another pass. Snippets of the script that have appeared online show an eerily toned character piece steeped with hyper-realistic exposition. One of the characters is a military officer with some experience in crash recovery. This is the sort of move you can get away with on TV, kind of like having the villain start spouting his motivation in the final act. What is immediately clear from Lieber's writing of this character is that he wanted the realism so badly that he was willing to resort to exposition to get it.
Between a scene aboard the plane that walks us through the technical problems in excruciating detail and the blatant exposition of our crash recovery expert General White, there is little mystery left as to what happened to the plane or why it will never be found. These questions are the lifeblood of Lost, even if the reason for the crash was eventually revealed. In an interview with Chicago Magazine (August 2007), Lieber insisted that in his story rescue and escape were concepts that needed to be snuffed out as soon as possible. "The biggest challenge with the show was removing, for the most part, the idea that these people would be saved any time soon. One doesn't want to have to spend every episode dwelling on 'rescuers' or plans of escape."
The result is characters enacting conversations that seem to be culled from the front of a first-time viewer's mind. For instance, in this scrap of dialogue between one of two brothers that survived the crash and our aforementioned crash recovery expert, General White seems all too ready to insert some good questions of his own to Truman's inquiry, along with some peculiarly precise statistics:
How long do you think it'll take someone to find us?
Depends. Was the plane off course when we went down? If so, how far? Were the transponders functioning? I'm sure there are rescue teams looking for us, but there are a million square miles of ocean between Australia and South America. God only knows where they're looking.
So ... days? Weeks?
When I was doing search and rescue, I'd sit new recruits down and go over the numbers. Ninety percent of airplane crash survivors and victims are found within twenty-four hours ... eight percent within seventy-two ... two percent within a week.
As utilitarian as this passage may be, it is not necessarily the yardstick for the script. The story is packed with some genuinely chilling moments. For instance, in one scene, one of the children — yes, there are children in this version of Lost—excitedly tells the adults that she saw more survivors swimming ashore. When the adults arrive at the beach, they find it littered with the rotting remains of less fortunate crash victims who didn't fair quite as well. We see an echo, albeit probably not an intentional one, in the later episode of Lost's second season "The Other 48 Days," in which Mr. Eko gathers the Oceanic Flight 815 dead from the water.
Whether he was deceived by merely casual interest, or was out-and-out misled, Lieber believed Nowhere was on the verge of going into production, with him as the creator. Braun was apparently happy with the script, although according to most reports he had never talked directly with Lieber, and the pilot was sent back for another round of polishing. Lieber was exasperated, but such is the life of a Hollywood scribe. The day before he was to turn in his final draft, ABC dropped a bombshell on Lieber and Spelling. Nowhere was now going nowhere.
* * *
If you have the opening credits of Lost imprinted on your cerebral cortex like most of us Lost fans do, you probably have the notion that the story doesn't end there. And you're correct. Jeffrey Lieber, after all, is listed in the credits as one of the creators of the show. That may seem fitting, in some ways. Lieber did a tremendous amount of work on a show about some plane crash survivors, many of whose character outlines sound quite familiar. There are other similarities, too. In Lieber's Nowhere the only part of the plane to make land is the fuselage.
But these similarities are superficial at best. "Stranded on an island" stories were once considered a genre all their own. In literature, tales of castaways conquering harsh untamed worlds were the canvas of a significant number of early adventure novels. Inspired by the true stories of early castaways like Gonzalo de Vigo, Juan de Cartagena and Pedro Sánchez Reina, usually criminals or mutineers purposely set adrift who later become enlightened and redeemed through the rigors of their isolation, Daniel Defoe set about writing Robinson Crusoe. Although clearly borrowing themes from Shakespeare's The Tempest, written a full century earlier, and even earlier works such as the 11th century Alive, Son of Wake, and Theologus Autodidactus (which, as we'll show later, come close to containing the full set of Lost's more unique elements), Defoe pared away the Bard's signature fanciful and otherworldly mythological tones for a more bare story of a man alone against a strange and forbidding microworld.
The Crusoe story so fascinated readers of the age that the literary genre of "Robinsonade" sprang to existence, with its multitude of Defoe knockoffs, to satiate the thirst for more tales of protagonists adrift, alone, left to find their wits or perish. The Robinsonade movement was no flash in the pan, either. Robinsonades continue to be produced to this day in the literary world, one of the most recent being Yann Martel's Life of Pi, released in September of 2001.
As it turns out, whether intended or not, Braun's inclination to build a television show around the mythology of Cast Away was a far safer bet than any of the executives could have figured. Our fascination with the redemption and even enlightenment of a character stranded on a deserted island (or even in the belly of a whale) is an enduring one. With a literary history stretching back hundreds of years, it would seem that when a fan becomes engrossed in a story like Lost, or even Nowhere, it might be an unconscious reflex.
Perhaps it was the rigid confines of Nowhere's premise that initially turned off J.J. Abrams when Braun approached him about rescuing the fast-sinking project. Abrams would only proceed if the story could have supernatural overtones. Already busy with other projects, Abrams was soon buoyed when Damon Lindelof was introduced as a potential collaborator. Possessing a healthy dose of sci-fi geek cred, Lindelof energized Abrams' approach. The two dove head-first into the creation of an alternate outline to Braun's pitch. Unlike Lieber's carefully plotted, fact-checked realism that took weeks and weeks of careful research and prepping, Lindelof and Abrams produced their first outline of the pilot after just a week of late-night cramming sessions. In contrast to Braun's tepid response to Lieber's Nowhere, his response this time was beyond enthusiastic. The executive, who in the meanwhile had found himself on the tight-rope with Disney's senior management, declared the outline the best piece of television ever created. Backed by the largest budget in the history of television pilots, 13 million dollars, Lost's breakneck, 11-week production was off and running. Lieber and Spelling's Nowhere seemed destined to fade from TVscape's collective memory.
* * *
In reality, Lieber never asked for the lion's share of the creator credit that he received. Concerned that he was not being fairly compensated or credited for his work on the story that, like it or not, had some modicum of influence on what would later become Lost, Lieber filed a grievance with the WGA (Writers Guild of America). In Lieber's own words, he never sought to lay claim to the work of Abrams and Lindelof, just to be recognized as having created a part of the DNA of the show. The question of the correctness of Lieber's claim is, at some level, a philosophical argument. This literary movement that has, in various forms, been burned into the collective unconscious of virtually every society on earth, and expressed in hundreds of folk stories, novels, movies, comic books and sitcoms, suddenly seemed to be the claim of three writers, or at least one.
Fans have argued that while some of the characters in Nowhere are similar to those of Lost, the collection looks more like a generic assortment of dull modern archetypes that anyone could have come up with. Beyond their topical similarity, there is nothing functional shared between the characters in Nowhere and those in Lost. Still, Lieber was convinced that the blood of his Nowhere could be found in the veins of Lost, and with ABC seeking a clean break, he created a memo detailing the similarities, and submitted it along with his grievance to the WGA.
The contents of that memo have never been published.
In the end, it is probably diplomatic caution that caused the Guild to find in Lieber's favor. Lieber had worked on a script that featured an ensemble cast stranded on an island with no hope of rescue; the very premise that had seemed too generic for Abrams and Lindelof was nonetheless a major part of their script.
Nonetheless, the WGA ruled that not only did Lieber deserve credit, but the majority of it. An independent council, whose identity has been kept secret, awarded Lieber 60 percent of the creator credit, determining that the scribe not only receive billing but the largest "creator" share. Lieber would later recall sitting nervously next to Lindelof at the 2005 Emmy Awards. Along with Lindelof and Abrams, Lieber had been nominated for the pilot — more specifically for providing the "story" of Lost. Since that time it has hardly mattered what happened before Lindelof and Abrams sat down to meld minds in the common purpose of honing Lost's real story. Like the hundreds of Robinsonades that came before it, it is that wide divide between more typical castaway stories, better represented by Nowhere, and Lost's unique landscape that will decide its place in TV history. What cannot be denied is the indelible impression that Lost itself has made on the fandom — an impression that has been deepened by the World Wide Web.
Excerpted from LOST ATE MY LIFE by Jon "DocArtz" Lachonis, Amy "hijinx" Johnston, Jen Hale. Copyright © 2008 Jon Lachonis and Amy J. Johnston. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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