Few creators of hit television programs are afforded the luxury that has been granted to the team behind ABC's "Lost." For years, fans have known that the sixth season would be the final installment of "Lost." This unusual path to an ending is not because of falling ratings or fleeing talent but rather comes at a time and in a manner chosen by the show's makers.
On the eve of their final season premiere, "Lost" Executive Producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse sat down with ABC News' "Nightline" to discuss how Harry Potter inspired their demand to be canceled, why they aim to "cause agony" for their obsessed viewers and how it's all going to end.
ABC NEWS: What has it been like to take the show all the way to its completion?
Carlton Cuse: When we started making "Lost" we had no idea that the journey would be like this, that it would end up being six years and 120 episodes . I mean, the beauty of the show was, we thought we were going to make 12 episodes and be done with it. So, we said, "Well, if we are going to go down in flames, let's really go down in spectacular flames." So we broke a lot of conventional rules of television storytelling and lo and behold, that turned out to be the exact thing that the audience embraced.
ABC NEWS: You did something that sounds counter-intuitive. You demanded a lot from your audience.
Damon Lindelof: If you assume that the audience is made up of idiots, then you are going to write the show for idiots. But if you assume that the audience is incredibly intelligent and savvy and sort of wants a much more complex and rich puzzle, then write the show for those people and see what happens. Anybody can ski the bunny slope, but we wanted to see how many people were willing to ski the black diamond.
ABC NEWS: How hard of a sell was it to make this show really hard for people to follow?
Cuse: I remember actually...it was between season one and season two and we were going to be pitching to all the network executives what was in the hatch. I remember telling Damon that we are about to tell those guys that there's a guy in this hatch and he is pushing a button every 108 minutes and if he doesn't push that button, the world might end. Damon was like "That's right." And we were like this is, this is...
Lindelof: We are getting fired! We are going to get fired, right. Maybe we can get jobs on another show...We pitched it and everybody was like "Wow, that's cool." And it just sort of seemed like the crazier the plot turns in the show, the more the network actually embraced it and it's kind of counter intuitive to what you hear about normal network television situations. I think our show is an anomaly in that regard.
ABC NEWS: You are blessed and cursed because after every episode the fans are rabid and active online and dissecting everything. Were you expecting that kind of response?
Lindelof: No, I mean never.
Cuse: "Lost" is like running a sports team. I mean, I feel like actually the owner of the Dodgers...because people are incredibly proprietary about "Lost." In the same way that you are a fan of a sports team, you can take issue with management's decision whether to keep players, fire a coach or do this or that. I mean, there are often times where Damon and I will have an idea about the show and the fans will actually come back to us and say, "No that isn't actually our interpretation." They feel more of a sense of proprietorship than we do.
ABC NEWS: They will give you a hard time and let you know if they don't like what you are doing, right?
Lindelof: Yes, absolutely. You know, people have a very intense bond with the show. We have spent the last six years of our lives basically writing it, and investing our blood, sweat and tears into making it. But there are people out there who have invested more time on "Lost" than we have. They have watched every episode nine, ten, eleven times...we have to share the show with them.
ABC NEWS: You guys get your revenge too. You are merciless with your cliffhangers.
Cuse: The cliffhanger is a huge part of "Lost" and it's something that we work really hard at... if we really can cause you an incredible amount of agony when an episode of "Lost" is over, we feel like we have done our job.
ABC NEWS: You were looking to finish the story, and there was a point after your initial success where you didn't know when you were going to end the show. What was that like?
Cuse: Once "Lost" was up and rolling...we didn't know if it had two seasons or nine seasons so consequently we felt really hamstrung. At the beginning of the third season of the show, we had our characters locked in cages, and I think looking back on it now, that's metaphorically how we felt. We felt like we were locked in cages, because we didn't know how long we had for the mythology to play out. So, we went to the network on the third season of the show and we were like "Please let us negotiate an end date. Let us end the show on our terms because otherwise the show is just going to die." We sort of took our model from J.K. Rowling who had announced that were going to be seven Harry Potter books and that was incredibly satisfying for her audience to know...and kind of a light bulb went off for us and we said, that's what we really need to do for "Lost."
ABC NEWS: At some point, there was a meeting with the decision makers where you said, "We want to cancel 'Lost.'"
Lindelof: It's a mystery show and mysteries demand a resolution. At a point in the third season, it became clear to ABC that creatively we were struggling and we said, we have a solution to this creative struggle, which is announce an end date. We need to tell the audience exactly how much longer the show is going to live...We can finish our middle and move in to the end. And that was the meeting... It's incredibly rare. It's easy to find writers who want their show to end, it's very difficult to find networks end something that's successful.
ABC NEWS: Do you think the decision at that point saved the show? Do you think it was that critical?
Cuse: The decision to end the show absolutely saved the show...We are absolutely convinced that had we not been able to negotiate an end date to the show, the show would have just sort of faded into irrelevancy. That was absolutely the central decision. It wasn't just a question of, you know the normal model in television is sort of like the old pony express where a television show is like a horse, you just ride one until it drops out from under you then you get on another one. And we didn't want that to happen with "Lost."
ABC NEWS: That begs the question of how organic the process is for the story. Do you know how much you were going to be explaining ahead of time?
Cuse: We get asked the question a lot, how much of this are you making up as you go along? The answer is, some of it, but not all of it. So, we basically had an overarching mythology which we knew we were going to be working towards an ending. Before each season of the show, we do what's called a writer's minicamp, where we sit with all the writers and we spend about a month, and we talk out what the narrative of that season is. We figure out the stories for each episode, one episode at a time, and there's a lot of discovery that goes on in that process. So, we try to kind of make it into a cocktail that some of it is preordained and a lot of it we allow ourselves to discover in the moment.
Lindelof: We wish we were smart enough and talented enough for the plan that we have to always work, so we always have a plan, but it doesn't always work...Some of the greatest innovations on the show have basically come out of our mistakes. We have to be willing to say, "Uh-oh that wasn't a good idea. Let's see if we can make something good out of it now."
ABC NEWS: "Lost" fans want to know, at the end of this season, will they say, "Oh, I got it!" Or will they say "Oh, those guys!"
Cuse: I think how people react to the end of "Lost" really depends a lot on how you approach the show. People who have approached the show as "It's more about the journey and less about the destination," will probably be more satisfied than the people that are like, "I gotta get there, I gotta get there, I gotta get there." We believe that there are certain things on the show that if we try to explain, it will just be lame.
Lindelof: It's impossible to predict what the reaction to the final episode of "Lost" is going to be, but you know, we can almost guarantee that it will be polarizing because if it's not polarizing then it won't be "Lost." What we have set out to do is make ourselves love it....This is kind of the defining work of both our careers and most of the writers' careers and most of the actors' careers. If we can make ourselves happy, then that's really all that we can achieve.
Spoiler alert! Catch a sneak peek of the first few minutes of "Lost," which premieres this Tuesday, Feb. 2 on ABC at 8 p.m. ET.