Writing 'Lost'

Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006

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Decisions, decisions: Saturday night I had two competing events at the same time. I could go to a haunted house with friends or listen to a former "Lost" writer and Carnegie Mellon University grad speak at CMU. I opted for the latter (better not to let anyone see what a big chicken I am).

Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a 1991 CMU grad from the school's creative writing and literary and cultural studies programs, returned to campus to share tales of his experiences with current students and the public. For anyone with an interest in writing or how the TV business works (that would be me), it was an interesting and entertaining 90 minutes.

Chugging Red Bull before he got started, Grillo-Marxuach explained how a TV script is written. He would know. Currently as a co-executive producer on NBC's "Medium," Grillo-Marxuach has also written for UPN's "Jake 2.0," NBC's "Boomtown," USA's "The Dead Zone," The WB's "Charmed" and NBC's "The Pretender."

To illustrate how the writing process works, Grillo-Marxuach walked us through a first-season "Lost" episode. "All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues," which was originally titled "What It Takes," a title others on the "Lost" staff deemed lame, leading the writer to come up with a new title. And that's lesson No. 1: TV is a collaborative process. You can't be too precious and in love with anything you write. You must have an open mind.

At the same time, Grillo-Marxuach said a TV show script is not just a technical document that has to be interpreted by 150 people working on the show (from the actors to the director to wardrobe and props), "it has to have its own integrity and truth???. It is an art. It is a craft."

In the version of "All the Good Cowboys???" that aired, Boone (Ian Somerhalder) accompanies Locke while looking for Claire (Emilie de Ravin) and Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), who have been abducted by Ethan Rom (William Mapother) of the Others. This is the episode where Locke and Boone first discover the hatch, but in Grillo-Marxuach's first outline it wasn't Boone who accompanied Locke, it was two guest characters made up from whole cloth, Arthur and Sullivan. Instead those characters were scrapped for a series regular, Boone, and in so doing, Grillo-Marxuach said it became the genesis for killing Boone later in the season.

Also searching for the missing Claire and Charlie are Jack (Matthew Fox) and Kate (Evangeline Lily). In Grillo-Marxuach's initial outline, Jack and Kate come under a dart attack by the Others. Executive producer Damon Lindelof deemed that too "cheesy," and the darts were cut. The discovery of the hatch was also moved from earlier in the episode to the end to give it a cliffhanger.

"This is part of the process you go through," Grillo-Marxuach said. "Everyone on staff gives notes. The executive producers give notes."

The episode also features Jack's back story with his alcoholic doctor father. Grillo-Marxuach said he drew on his background as the son of a doctor (albeit, not an alcoholic one) for writing those scenes.

Near the end of the episode, Jack and Kate find Charlie strung up in a tree. Jack tries to revive him, seemingly to no avail for a long period of time.

"The hysterical CPR resuscitation is the biggest clich?? in the book," Grillo-Marxuach acknowledged after playing the scene of Jack repeatedly womping on Charlie's chest. "But the nine people who were writing for the show decided, maybe we earned that. It gave us the emotional payoff for the episode."

Grillo-Marxuach also read the three pages of script that described the action (there was little dialogue) between the time Jack and Kate find Charlie and the time he's presumed dead by the characters and by the audience thanks to a wide shot that Grillo-Marxuach admitted was a trick played on the audience to sell the idea that Charlie wasn't going to survive.

"What we try to do in those three pages, is to give an idea of the tone and rhythm of the scene," he said, explaining that every series has its own house style (set by the show's creator) and it's the job of everyone else to learn to conform to that style. To get satisfaction from the process, Grillo-Marxuach said a writer must find a way to make it his own even as he writes in somebody else's world.

When it was time for questions, no one raised his or her hand immediately. My plan had been to let the students go first, but they started out a little shy. After three beats of silence, I raised my hand and asked what I thought was an obvious question but Grillo-Marxuach deemed it "really political," which I hadn't intended. I asked, "Why did you leave 'Lost'?" It's certainly a hipper show than "Medium," but I also noticed he got a better title on "Medium," so I figured it was an opportunity to move up another rung on the TV writer ladder.

Grillo-Marxuach explained he left because "Lost" had moved in a different direction and he had "fallen out of the mainstream of the show's voice.

"Not every relationship is one for the ages," he said. "You shouldn't stay in a place where you no longer belong. It wouldn't have been a good match. Knowing when to cut and run is a good thing."

He hasn't watched "Lost" since leaving the show's staff, saying, "It's like hanging out with your ex-wife. The parting was amicable, but I don't need to see her for coffee."

Good line!

He also found "Medium" offered him a chance to try something new.

"It's a show with such a strong family element," he said. "It's a place to work those muscles out. The sci-fi side of me is not getting so much enjoyment out of that, so I write a comic book on the side."

Grillo-Marxuach got into writing for TV after he was plucked from a job at Kinko's in Los Angeles for an executive training program at NBC. That helped him learn the language of TV, meet the right people, network with them and helped pave his way into the writing position he'd wanted from the outset.

Today his TV favorites include "24," "Gilmore Girls" and "Battlestar Galactica," the same show I've been raving about for three years.

" 'Galactica' is the most subtle, nuanced show on TV," he said. "It's a shame no one is watching it" compared to other series that get a much larger audience.

He noted how "Galactica," "Lost" and most shows today differ from their predecessors, like, say, 1983's "Hardcastle & McCormick."

"In part it's the post-MTV world where shows ask you to process more visual information than ever before," he said. "It will continue from there. The audience always expects more. TV will continue to evolve and become more complicated. But at the end of the day, it's about whether someone is telling a good story or not."


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