Damon Lindelof walks into a conference room on the Paramount Pictures lot, moving at something less than warp speed. It’s the morning after the Los Angeles premiere of Star Trek Into Darkness, which Lindelof cowrote, and he seems to have left some portion of his katra behind at the after-after-party. “People were smoking inside,” Lindelof reports, “which is as close to a speakeasy as Los Angeles gets. Literally, people could be doing lines of coke and I’d just be like, ‘Oh — we’re in L.A.’ But smoking inside? Oh my God.”
An assistant takes Lindelof’s coffee order and we get down to business. In the course of almost two hours, Lindelof discusses the future of the Star Trek franchise, the mysterious Disney movie he’s got cooking with Brad Bird and George Clooney, the TV series he hopes will be his (and your) next life-consuming obsession, and why it’s sometimes necessary to annoy your fan base by keeping secrets. “I’ll take the abuse until the day I die,” Lindelof says. “My gravestone will say
Fair warning: This Q&A contains major, major, MAJOR SPOILERS for Star Trek Into Darkness, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and you’re hoping to experience it with its twists intact, stop here, for real.
Has it been frustrating to be out there promoting this movie without being able to talk about who the villain is?
Yeah, yeah. At first it’s kind of, ooh, you know, we’re planning a surprise party for someone, and they kind of know their birthday is coming up and that some sort of shenanigan is happening, but — and they’re playing along, so that’s phase one. But then you enter into phase two, where it’s like, “OK, come on. My birthday is tonight: What should I be wearing? How many people are in on it? Because I’m talking to my friends, and I don’t know who you’ve invited, and is it going to be small?” Now we’re into the “Let’s get it over with; just tell us everything” zone.
You know, as a fan of other movies, I totally get it. I kind of feel like once a movie is actually released that if people are still being coy then, they should get punched in the face. But this weird thing happened where we were in the U.K. — you know, it’ll have been out for two weeks in the U.K. by the time it comes out here. So we’re in the U.K., and they want us to talk about the movie, and we can’t, because whatever we say will go online. And it’s like, we’ve sat on this stuff for so long. I’m mixing metaphors with surprise parties and Christmas morning, but it’s kind of like going into your kid’s room on Christmas Eve and saying, [whispers] “It’s a bike. You’re getting a bike.” You’ve waited so long: You just might as well let them come down the stairs.
Yeah. I’m surprised nobody’s blown it.
That Benedict is playing a bike?
That he’s playing a bike, which is so weird.
I guess it’s hard to explain.
Yeah, it is. It’s like, how does that even work? And you go, “You have to see it.”
He’s a great actor.
You have to see it to believe it, because when you first see it and you’re like, “Is it a trike? No, wait, it’s only two wheels. It’s a bike.”
The CGI is just incredible.
The technology didn’t exist to do this before.
No, when we first started explaining, that that’s the big secret, he’s a bike — we got blank stares. It kind of must have been what it was like for James Cameron when he was talking about that water creature in The Abyss. It’s like, “What? I don’t under— it has a face? How … but it’s water!” “No, no, no. We have computers that will make it have a face.”
Do you think keeping the secret put too much onus on it?
My perception is — and again, you know, what do I know — that there are two different groups of people. There’s Trek fans, and then people who are just kind of like, “Oh yeah, I saw the first movie” — you know, the 2009 movie, J.J.’s movie — “and I really liked it, and I’m interested in this movie.” Or “I didn’t even see the first one, but I heard it was good.” And so you’re speaking to those two groups in the same voice.
The group who doesn’t have any Trek lexicon doesn’t care who Benedict Cumberbatch is playing, any more than I did when I saw the first Trek movie I ever saw when I was 9 years old, which was Wrath of Khan. I didn’t see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and I was coming in as a Star Wars fan. I loved it. From the moment that Chekov and Paul Winfield kind of wander into the Botany Bay on Ceti Alpha V and then Chekov starts getting really scared, I was like, “OK, this guy, whoever he is, he’s scared. He’s run into this dude before. This is a bad dude.”
And then Montalbán shows up and just monologues about how much he hates Kirk, and I knew Kirk. So that’s all I needed to know. By the time Spock dies at the end of that movie, I was deeply and profoundly emotionally affected, as much as an 8- or 9-year-old could be, because you’re not supposed to do that. Like, I knew that Mr. Spock was, like, the star of Star Trek in my opinion, so: He’s dead?! Like, what?! And so without any working knowledge whatsoever of Star Trek, I was able to completely and totally fundamentally accept that movie, without having to go see “Space Seed” or having anything else explained.
So we’re talking to that audience for this movie, which is, you know: “Hey, Benedict Cumberbatch is a bad guy who blows shit up, and Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are going to go and get him!” The other conversation, which is the conversation that we find ourselves having 100 times for every one time that the other conversation takes place, because they don’t care, is: “Is it Khan? Are you doing Khan? Don’t do Khan! You guys shouldn’t do Khan! You have to do Khan.” Like, it’s just all different iterations of that conversation, and that started during the first movie, [which] was: “Are you going to do it? Don’t do it! Do it!” Just all that.
And that’s the worst thing you can say to someone. I mean, I’m not — I like watching sports, but I’m not good at them, but I consider myself to be highly competitive, and J.J. and [Into Darkness co-screenwriters] Bob [Orci] and Alex [Kurtzman] and [producer] Bryan [Burk] are all like-minded like that, and it was just — we were getting briar-patched, you know? It was a good old-fashioned Brer Rabbit–ing, when people were saying to us, “Don’t do it.” It was like: We either do it now, and we do it as much of a touchstone back to that original movie as possible, so that no one will ever ask us after this movie comes out again, “What are you doing from the original series?” Because it’s like, that’s all they were really asking us, is “When are you going to do Khan and how are you going to do Khan, and how reminiscent of The Wrath of Khan is it going to be? Are you doing ‘Space Seed’1 or are you doing Wrath of Khan or are you doing both or whatever?”
Now, that question goes away, and so really, what is there left? Are people really going to be asking us, like, “So, are you going to do Gary Mitchell now, or the mirror universe, in the third movie?” OK, those things are in play, but now we’ve kissed the ring, y’know? We did our best version of it. I’m sure there are better versions of it, but we did our best, and now, now it can go to places that don’t service the original series in a way that I don’t think that we could’ve done in the second movie had we not leaned into the Khan of it all.
Do you really feel like this is going to put an end to the questions about which original-series things you’re going to reboot?
It might or might not. There are villains and touchstones in the original series and in The Next Generation and beyond — like, yeah, it would be cool to see Borg at some point, or Ferengi. But most people just don’t care about that stuff — whether or not we do it — in the way that they cared about whether or not we were going to do Khan.
And what was interesting, and when you talk to Nick Meyer — not like he’s my good buddy, but I’ve heard him talk about Khan — and it’s not like “Space Seed” was this iconic episode in the original series, and when you ask even people who are die-hard Trekkers or Trekkies or whatever the cool thing to call yourself is as a Trek fan or not, no one says, “‘Space Seed’ is one of my favorite episodes.” It’s a pretty mediocre episode, actually, of the original Trek, as far as just pure ideas go, but it’s Montalbán that’s amazing.
That’s an amazing guest-star turn, yeah.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, the majority of that episode is basically him romancing the ship’s historical expert and these crazy close-ups of her eyes and his eyes as she’s under his romantic spell. And then a rather fantastic fight between Kirk and Khan, where, like, no attempt is being made whatsoever to disguise the fact that they’re stuntmen. Those are the two sort of memorable takeaways.
Was it always going to be Khan? Was there another idea for what this movie was going to be?
I think that there were two conversations happening simultaneously, if memory serves. The first and foremost conversation was: to Khan or not to Khan? You know, we thought we were very clever; we had this list that we made, “Pros and Khans,” but then we got really confused, because the pros and the Khans were the same thing. It was like, “OK, so, just … we’ll call it ‘Khans and Not-Khans’ … ‘Khan or Not to Khan’ — and then it was like, “Fuck it! We’re doing it!”
There was that conversation, of whether or not it was going to be him, and then the secondary conversation — which became the dominating conversation in terms of the early story process — was, what do we owe because we blew up Vulcan? The thing that we decided that happened was, wouldn’t it be cool if Starfleet starts to militarize? They’ve been attacked. This crazy fucking Romulan with a drill destroys Vulcan, which is sort of the founding planet in the Federation, and then comes after Earth. So, essentially, is Starfleet going to say: “Phew! That was a close one! Now back to exploring!” No! The hawks in Starfleet are going to say: “This can never happen again. We need to start militarizing.” And we thought that was a really interesting story, and in the spirit of Gene Roddenberry: “Let Star Trek basically reflect the time in which Star Trek is being written, as a 300-year-in-the-future mirror of the time that the audience is watching it.”
And obviously we don’t want Starfleet to militarize, so that’s going to be the force of antagonism in the movie, is that that’s happening, either in secret or openly. And then our protagonist is obviously the crew on the Enterprise — those guys have to fight for the soul of Starfleet somehow; they have to sort of make an argument against militarization. That being said, that’s going to be a hard argument for them to make, because maybe Starfleet should be militarizing. So the bad guy in the movie is going to be a guy who’s, like, going one step too far. It’s Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. We want him on the wall, but he’s lying about the code red. Spoiler alert: He’s lying. Jessup is lying.
So now we’ve spoiled that and Wrath of Khan.
Yeah, exactly. And then we were like, “So if Starfleet’s the bad guy, how does Khan fit into that mix? Somewhere in this movie, someone’s going to have to say, ‘As a result of the destruction of Vulcan, dot dot dot, which led to Khan being woken up earlier.’” And we didn’t want to do ‘Space Seed’ — the original series already did that. The whole reason that we’re doing these movies is these things are unfolding somewhat differently. So wouldn’t it be cool if Khan actually got woken up before this movie started, and he’s in play? Once we came upon that idea, then it became absolutely mandatory to call him something else, because if Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise didn’t know who this guy was or were being lied to about his identity, we needed to replicate that process for the audience.
And so while none of us felt comfortable lying to the audience — you can’t say, like, “He is not Khan” — we had to say, like, “He is John Harrison. He is a terrorist. He is inside Starfleet.” We just wanted to make sure that when the audience went to see the movie, that they were having the same subjective experience that Kirk and Spock and the crew were, so that when Kirk and Spock and the crew hear his name for the first time, that’s when the audience is — you know, the savvy audience, the fanboys and -girls — are getting confirmation of something that they really intensely suspect, but weren’t sure of until it happens.
What was the best theory you heard about who it was, aside from Khan? Were there any that made you think, Wow, actually, that would have been cool?
Gary Mitchell was a popular one. But one theory was that he was Spock from the mirror universe, but he’d had reconstructive surgery done — because [Benedict Cumberbatch] looked Quintoesque enough. Can you imagine the expository scene where he has to explain, “I am you, Spock, and I had some facial reconstruction, and I’m from” — like, how could we pull off such a thing? But, you know, that was a good one.
The fans would have been mad at you for not giving him the goatee.
Of course. Yeah, that’s hubris.
It’s so important. To do the mirror-universe Spock without the darkest-timeline Vandyke —
I think you can not do the Latino accent, but if you don’t do the goatee — and Kirk would need a ‘stache.
Do you know what your future is with this franchise, post-J.J.? I assume that conversation has started by now.
It started in London, yeah. Up until that point, I think that there was a fundamental understanding, like, yeah, let’s keep making these. And then reality intervenes. Between the first and second movie, we were much more specific in saying, “There is going to be a second movie,” but it was like, “Well, see you in a year before we even start talking about this.” This time, it’s a lot different, because there’s no way that Paramount is going to wait four years again for the next movie to come out. J.J. taking the Star Wars gig — that’s pretty much going to be two years of his life.
So for me personally, the only way that I can answer the question is, right now, what I am doing is I’m shooting this HBO pilot. Peter Berg is directing it. In New York, this summer, essentially the month of July we’re shooting it, and the month of August we’ll be posting it, and then HBO will decide whether or not they want to make it, and if they want to make it, I will immediately convene a writers’ room, and we’ll write however many episodes they order, but if it’s HBO, it’ll be somewhere between 10 and 13, and that will be my fall. Because if I’m running a show, that’s all I can be doing. When I was doing Lost, the only movie work that I was able to do was producing the original Trek; that was during the fourth season. There also happened to be a writers’ strike, which made me more available to produce Trek while it was in production, and then I did, like, a draft of Cowboys & Aliens between Seasons 5 and 6, I think, with Alex and Bob. But other than Lost, that’s the only work that I was able to churn out.
So if The Leftovers goes, I don’t think that I’ll be able to engage on Star Trek this year, in 2013. And then on top of that, this Disney movie that I’m producing and I cowrote with Brad Bird, who’s directing it, Tomorrowland, we start shooting that in August. But the real wild card for me is if The Leftovers gets picked up to series — and I hope that it does — I won’t be available until, like, next spring, and I just don’t know if Paramount’s going to wait that long for me, and they probably shouldn’t. But that’s my answer to that question. I don’t know what the other guys are doing — they’re all kind of trying to figure things out for themselves.
Is that also why you’re not going to be involved in Episode VII?
Yeah, look, I’ll be completely honest with you: It’s not possible. I remember what it was like to be doing Lost and how creatively immersive it was. I just couldn’t really engage on anything else, other than Lost; I was just thinking about it all the time, and then there was just the pure workload, the 70- or 80-hour weeks. And Carlton [Cuse] and I were doing that show together. So, The Leftovers I’m doing with Tom Perrotta, who wrote the book. It’s going to be an incredibly immersive experience — which is just a very fancy way of saying if J.J. asked me to work on Star Wars, of course I would.
But there’s no way that I could be writing it, and no reason that I should be. I mean, Michael Arndt, that guy — you’re just supposed to say nice things about other writers, but I worship Michael Arndt. I mean, when I first read the announcement that Disney had bought Lucasfilm and there were going to be more Star Wars films, I think, like, two days or three — maybe it was just a week later — Arndt’s and [Lawrence] Kasdan’s names came up, like, “These guys have actually kind of been working on Episode VII.” I was, like, (a) super jealous, and (b) super psyched, in equal parts, and both of which are good signs for the movie.
And then, you know, it’s easy to think that my shtick is like, oh, I’m self-deprecating and blah blah blah. That’s not [my shtick] — that’s what I am. Like, I really believe that I suck a lot of the time, and my Twitter feed was confirming that on the day that the Star Wars news leaked. Because there was, for a short period of time, this assumption: Because we hadn’t revealed that 1952 was, in fact, Tomorrowland, that, like, 1952 — well, 5 plus 2 equals Episode VII. And so we actually had to come out and say, “1952 is not Star Wars: Episode VII.”
But for that brief period of time, people weighed in on what it felt like for me to be writing a Star Wars movie. Everybody was very excited about the fact that Brad Bird might be directing one, but it was like, “Oh, good God. Keep Lindelof away.” So that part of it, there’s a certain degree of — like, I’m sleeping really well. Like, uncharacteristically well right now. But if I was writing on Star Wars or working on it even producerially or my name was attached to it in any official way, the fact that everyone I met and everyone that I interacted with, both in a virtual space and a real space, would be asking me: “What is it? What’s it going to be? Is it going to suck? Are you going to screw it up? Are you going to fuck it up? Who the hell do you think you are?” — all that stuff I’ve kind of been spared. It is a comfort, and I’m not just talking myself out of it. Like I said: Honestly, if J.J. said, “Will you read this” —
But I see what it is now to be Michael Arndt. He was at the premiere last night, and he’s carrying it very well, but every single interaction that he has with every human being on the planet — like, I introduced him: “Hey, Steve, this is Michael Arndt,” and I could see Steve’s brain instantly go “I’m going to need to ask him 50 million questions about Star Wars, and I know that he can’t answer any of them, but I’m going to ask them anyway.” And I sort of felt like, “OK, it’s kind of nice to not have to be that guy this time.” Now, it does sound, based on what I’m hearing, like Disney is going to make 14 Star Wars movies a year, maybe 15 if they can squeeze it in.
I’ve heard that, yeah.
So there’ll be a January Star Wars movie, a February one —
I joke, kind of, but clearly, they’ve got a number of different projects, and if I were a betting man, I’d say they’re going to have to flirt with killing the golden goose, and then they’ll pull back. But I’d say over the next decade, you and I are going to get five Star Wars films, and it won’t be Episode VII, but I may be involved in one of them when the pressure isn’t as intense.
So, Leftovers. I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like there’s a huge overarching mystery as well as a religious element, obviously. Why do you keep driving into this wall? Why do you do this to yourself?
I would say it’s not even a wall that I’m running into; it’s a buzz saw. I can’t help it. I’m not sitting around thinking of ideas for TV shows. What happens to me is I get inspired or activated by something when I’m not really actively looking for it, and I was reading the New York Times, and by reading the New York Times what I mean is the “Arts & Leisure” section and the Book Review, and maybe like, one article on the front page so I can feel like I can understand what’s happening on NPR that week. And Stephen King was reviewing this new Tom Perrotta book, and I had really loved Little Children, and I love Election, and I love Stephen King, so he’s reviewing a Tom Perrotta book? What’s this all about? I just got, like, one paragraph in — it’s about the Rapture, and because King was reviewing it, it was like, [heaven noise]. It was, like, as close to love at first sight as happens creatively. I was just, like, “I must now will this into existence. I must be a part of this in any way, shape, or form that I can.”
The Rapture happens. That’s the premise of the book. Like, 2 percent of the world’s population disappears in an instant, and they don’t like, float up. Their clothes aren’t left behind. They’re just gone. You go, “Two percent of the world’s population? That’s not a lot.” But it’s 170 million people, and if you think about big things that have happened — like 9/11, which changed the world forever: [almost 3,000] people died. One hundred seventy million people disappearing is a pretty big deal.
Yes. You’d notice that.
But it’s not the Apocalypse. There aren’t zombies walking around, and it’s not a postnuclear wasteland, so essentially, tomorrow morning, you’ve still got to wake up and go to work and pay your taxes and put food on your table. And so the book starts three years after this thing that they call the Sudden Departure; religious people believe it was the Rapture, but the world at large refers to it as the Sudden Departure, because the people who disappeared — there doesn’t seem to be any selection process. The Pope disappears, but also Gary Busey disappears. So it’s sort of like, in the Venn diagram of Pope and Busey, what are the intersections?
Is that an actual plot point?
That Busey disappears? Yes, it is a plot point. So there are people who are obsessed, for obvious and personal reasons, with discovering — what was the selection process? Was it just good people? And that’s what people graft on to it, obviously: “These people had something that I don’t have.” That’s why the book is called The Leftovers. The world is left to look in the mirror and say, “Am I good? And what does good even mean anymore? Because I thought I was good, and my neighbor down the street, who is a real shithead — well, he’s gone. Should I just throw my Bible out the window?” But the whole show takes place in this one town in New Jersey, and it’s about this family, and so it’s like this John Cheever novel with a supernatural air about it.
The book — going back to what launched this rant — basically says, “If you are reading this book to find out where those people went, why them, or if they’re coming back, that is not going to happen by the end of this book.” It’s just about the state of living in this world. It’s called The Leftovers, and it’s about these people trying to move on. It’s not quite grief, because these people aren’t dead; there’s nothing to bury. It’s just a very interesting world to be in, and that’s all the novel wants to be. But as soon as you make it a TV show, the polar bear of this show is: “Where’d they go? Are they coming back? Lindelof, are you just going to jerk me off for, like, another six years?’” To which I would say: That sounds like heaven to me! Getting jerked for six years? I mean, you know, sounds pretty good!
Interesting choice of metaphor, but yes.
If, God willing, the pilot gets picked up, my hope is that the television show will clearly convey what you can and cannot expect. I do feel like I watch a guy like Matt Weiner and how he handles it, or a guy like David Chase and how he handles it — I would much rather be like those guys and just understand that people are going to be pissed off and frustrated, but at the same time, it’s kind of a lose-lose situation for me to be out there saying what I am and am not going to do on the show. Carlton and I were talking compulsively about Lost while it was on — we needed to have that ongoing dialogue with the audience. But the show ultimately kind of has to speak for itself, and The Leftovers is potentially, you know, the beginning of a new era for me, which is, “Just shut the fuck up, Damon.” Like, “Get off Twitter, make the show, put your head down. The slings and arrows will come your way. That’s your job, to take them, but hopefully people will still watch it. But you have to get out of the explaining business, because it’s not doing anybody any good.”
It seems like Twitter is this pain box that you can’t stop sticking your hand in.
Yeah. I mean, I can’t — right now, I can’t resist sticking my hand in the pain box, and it’s driven either by complete and total narcissism or, you know, just like, “Oh, people are talking about me. That’s cool. I finally feel popular. This is a new feeling for me, and I want to embrace it.” But it’s a bottomless pit of need that can never be filled, and it’s more toxic than it is good, because the voices that are the loudest and most hurtful are the ones that stay with you, and the ones that are supportive — it’s nice to have people say nice things, but it’s very transient. But the guy who says, “You’re a hack and you’re a fraud, and I can see you for what you are,” you basically go, “He knows me.” But I kind of feel like I need to seek it out. I don’t know. I tell my therapist that it’s because if I don’t do it, then I feel like I’ll get a big head and think that I’m awesome all the time, and I don’t want to be that guy. You know, it’s a little — I’m too much of a pussy to, like, whip myself on the back like Paul Bettany in The Da Vinci Code, so Twitter is my —
Yeah, my little self-flagellation. All I have to do is tap my iPhone twice to get pain, you know? It’s masochistic, but I keep going back for more, so it’s doing something for me.
You know, look — no offense to you, people who I’m about to single out, because I am jealous of your ability to do it, but when people say, like, “I’m quitting Twitter,” I want to be like, “You fucking — you don’t have the stomach for it? Boo-hoo for you.” As Artie Lange on the Howard Stern show would say: “Wah.” If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen, and guess what? If you are in show business, your job is to fucking stand out there on the stage and see what the audience has to say. So now Twitter exists, and there you are. You can’t just use it to crack jokes and make fun of Fancy Feast; it has to be a two-way street. That’s a very long-winded way of saying I know it’s bad for me, but there’s gotta be something good in it; there’s gotta be vitamins and nutrients in there somewhere, or else I wouldn’t keep going back for more.
Do you think there’s actually a risk you’d start to think you were the shit if you didn’t have Twitter there to tell you that you suck? I imagine that if social media didn’t exist you’d still find a way to self-loathe.
I hope that my self-loathing is deeply embedded in my genetic code, and if you told me that I could take a pill to make it stop, I wouldn’t want to take that pill. Because it’s not really self-loathing in the traditional sense, but is something that drives me. Like, in the spirit of the 10,000-hour rule: It doesn’t come naturally to have a work ethic. Maybe it does, but not to our generation, certainly, and for me, my work ethic is largely derived from a competitive spirit of people telling me what I can’t do. I was never the guy who looked at myself in the mirror and said, “I feel special, and I’m going to achieve great things.” I always felt like, “Man, I love writing so much that it would be a real sick joke if I can’t make a living doing it, but in order to accomplish that, I’m going to have to really work my ass off, long and hard, and face a tremendous amount of rejection, and then once I break through, I’m still going to face a tremendous amount of adversity. And when I’m not feeling the adversity, I need to go and find it.”
Because, to answer your question: Yes, I do think that I would get a big head. Because this town is full of sycophants. If you’re like, “I’m sorry, I just don’t read reviews,” I want to go, like, “Who the hell do you think you are? You have to read reviews! That’s your homework, man! You put it out there. You gotta — you owe it to everyone who you’re asking to buy a ticket to hear what they have to say about it.” Right? “I will go to the Oscars and sit there because I’ve been nominated, but I will not read reviews.” I mean, that’s obnoxious.
When I take the blame for something, when I fall on my sword and I say, “Hey, I made a mistake; I wish it could’ve been better” — that feels good. Like, it feels good for me to say it, and I think it feels good for people to hear it. Because I love hearing it from filmmakers that I love and respect, or even sports figures, who are basically saying, like, “I friggin’ missed the shot. I shouldn’t have even taken the shot.” I have so much more respect for them than the guys who basically say, “I just knew if they gave me the rock that it was going in.” It’s like, no you didn’t! What are you, Nostradamus? There’s no way you did! And this all goes back to — you know, one of the fundamental moments of my adult creative life was — George Lucas was so impactful on everything. I just wanted to be him, and still do. Like, I mean, he is the creative individual that I look up to most, and in my Back to the Future story, had he not existed or those films not existed, none of my work would’ve existed in any way, shape, or form; he’s just an inspirational figure on every single level. When Phantom Menace came out, and the other prequels, I just wanted to hear him say, “I know that some people don’t like these movies,” and I just never heard him say it, and it drove me batshit.
So I was like: I have to practice what I preach now. The Leftovers could be perceived as a huge “fuck you.” Like, “Oh my god, he’s going back for more? He’s doing another serialized show that’s vague and ambiguous and spiritual and may or may not have any definitive answers? Like, seriously, guy: We get it. What are you out there to prove?” But what turns me on turns me on; I don’t know any other way to say it.
You got it on Prometheus, too. People had different issues with that movie, but I feel like a lot of the response was residual Lost anger.
Absolutely. It was the first thing that I did after Lost. There was also, “Who do you think you are, to get to play in the Alien universe?” And, like, “Ridley’s doing his first science fiction film in three decades, and it gets to be you?” Trust me: I was feeling that, too, but I had a job to do.
You’re coming in with your Lindelovian bullshit …
Yeah. It’s actually sort of flattering — this narrative where Jon Spaights has been working on this movie for fucking two years of his life, writes a really good script, and then I basically come in and say, “Here’s my vision for what this next Alien movie should be, and you’re going to direct it, Ridley Scott, and 20th Century Fox is going to give you $100 million or whatever the movie ended up costing, $120 million, to execute my vision, because I don’t know if you know this, but I’m kind of a big deal. Prometheus, bitch!” It just couldn’t be further from the truth. But at the same time, the fact that some people built that narrative is very flattering. It’s like, you really think that I could pull that off? Great, OK, whatever. That is not what happened at all, but …
You’re not doing Star Wars. You were potentially going to work on the adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but now you’re not. I imagine at one point these would have been lifelong-dream projects for you. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but are you feeling burned out on being this fixer and caretaker of preexisting properties? Are you looking to do something brand-new?
Yes, very much so, but also, you know, when the phone rings or those dream opportunities sort of present themselves, it’s really difficult to say no. I think there’s a part of all of us — writers or directors or fanboys or whatnot — that, when you went into those worlds, imagined what you would do with it. And when somebody calls you and says, “I’m going to give you the opportunity to manifest that, to make it real,” you just say yes. That’s what happened with Dark Tower. Entertainment Weekly brokered this little summit between us — J.J. and I, and Carlton — and Steve King. I’m just going to refer to him as Steve King, as if we are, like, best pals.
Steve. You know, Uncle Stevie, my buddy. We went to Bangor and spent this amazing, like, nine-hour period with him, the result of which afterward was that J.J. and Stephen started exchanging e-mails, and J.J. ended up optioning The Dark Tower series for 19 bucks — I was like, “Oh, that’s clever,” because 19′s a recurring number in The Dark Tower, and J.J.’s like, “What?” So J.J. and I had several conversations over the course of maybe a year or a year and a half. But once we actually started having those conversations, I just became filled with, like, “Oh my god, I’m going to screw up this thing that I love. It’s so hard to do it exactly right, and I’m just going to say that I’m too busy on Lost.”
Also, you’ve seen, like, amazingly talented filmmakers really struggling with those books. Is it a movie? Is it a TV series? Is it both? How do you work the time-travel elements of it? There’s a boy, Jake, in the series, who becomes this pivotal sort of time-traveling lynchpin [throughout the books], and therefore you either have to have a 12-year-old who doesn’t age, you know, or shoot, like, 50 hours of material while the kid is 11 to 13 — and since you can’t do that, you either say, “We’re doing it as an animated thing, or we have to throw out that entire plot point of Jake.”
It’s the Walt problem on a massive scale.
Yes. Oh my god. And the pivotal emotional moment in The Gunslinger, which is the first book, is Roland decides to let Jake die so that he can continue to go after the Man in Black, and then you revisit that moment like, five times over. Like, I ran into Akiva Goldsman, who was adapting it, and I was like, “What are you going to do about Jake?” And he was like, “We’ve got a plan.” If I’d taken on The Dark Tower I would’ve become Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. It would’ve happened very, very quickly.
Can you tell me anything about Tomorrowland at all?
You say it with such a sort of resigned —
I’m saying it that way because I know you wouldn’t tell me anything about it even if you could.
Well, I’ll try to tell you something slightly different than what I tell everybody else, which is I’ve always been fascinated by Disneyland and Disney World, and my favorite part of the park was always Tomorrowland. But there’s no story there. Like, if you go into Fantasyland, there’s just story happening all around you everywhere, whether it’s sort of a direct kind of connection to a movie that you know or a fairy tale that you know, and the same with, like, Frontierland, or when you go in the Haunted Mansion. My son, who’s 6, when he went on Pirates of the Caribbean for the first time, Jack Sparrow is a part of that ride. He’s going to see the movies in two years, when he’s old enough, and he’s going to think that the movies were the inspiration for the ride, versus the other way around. I would love to do that for Tomorrowland, you know? I would love to give Tomorrowland a story, because right now, Tomorrowland is kind of being taken over by Star Wars — which is great, but it’s called Tomorrowland. Star Wars is a galaxy a long time ago, far, far away. Star Wars is not about our future.
And there’s this Neil deGrasse Tyson speech — you can YouTube it — and he gave an eloquent and beautiful talk about how the abandonment of the space program after we landed on the moon is responsible for the fact that we no longer have an optimistic view of our future. I just said, “There’s a movie in there somewhere.” And that was the beginning of me curating this rather fascinating “is it or isn’t it?” Disney history in this kind of Dan Brown, Da Vinci Code way. Like, all these things that I didn’t know about, the history of Tomorrowland in the park, and could that be the basis of something? Even though the movie is not about the park — I will say this exclusively to you, that none of the movie takes place in a Disneyland park.2
OK, I was about to ask. I was curious.
It doesn’t, but that history became the inspiration for this amazing story. I brought Jeff Jensen in, who had come up with all these amazing theories about Lost while it was on, some of which were just so much better than what we were coming up with in the room. I said, “Come in and look at this stuff and talk to me about it,” and then we started coming up with the germs of a really cool story, and then at the same time, I was hanging out with Bird, because we were both in the Bad Robot universe; he was posting Ghost Protocol as we were working on Into Darkness. I kind of got my hooks in him because I started asking him all these questions about Disney, because he worked there for a number of years and was basically trained by a couple of the original Imagineers, and he was like, “Why are you asking me these questions?” and I said, “I’m working on this project regarding Tomorrowland,” and then he was in. And then we went and picked up George Clooney, and we were off to the races.
But I think that, you know, there’s a lot of things out there about the movie, some of which are completely and totally erroneous, some of which are completely and totally dead-on, and I don’t know why I keep finding myself being a secret-keeper, but at the same time, the movie’s going to come out Christmas of ’14, which is 19 months from now. So to just say like, “Here — this is the story of a blah blah blah that then goes to so so so and discovers a blah blah blah, and then everybody lives happily ever after” — I just, I hate that feeling when the trailer is, like, awesome for the first 40 seconds, and then they show you that one thing and you just go, “Ugh, I wish I didn’t know that.”
Now I’ve seen —
Yeah, too much. So I’m just going to try to — in a landscape that is constantly trying to give people too much, somebody has to be representing “not enough.”
Which can be taken in more than one way.
Appropriately. Yeah, exactly. That’s my raison d’être, as the French say.
So, part of the process of dreaming up this movie involved you digging into deep, forgotten Disney-history kind of stuff?
Like, research that they did for Tomorrowland? I know I’m going to hit a wall with these questions at some point.
Here’s what I’ll say. Bird and I tweeted this box.
I saw it, yeah.
This box. This box is — ironically or fortuitously or coincidentally, or maybe this is why I was interested in it, it’s another infamous mystery box, except this mystery box can be opened and displayed and shared. I will say that by the end of this summer, summer of ’13, we will be giving an explicit sort of curation of what inspired the movie, and then people will at least have a sense of what we’re excited about doing, if not the story.
That history of the company is really amazing, particularly the history of the parks. The Disney company went public, and then Walt started WED, which was his little black-ops division. He hired these guys to start developing these really interesting ideas, some of which got made and some of which didn’t, some of which have been seen, some of which haven’t. This stuff — it’s a little bit like that Ark of the Covenant room, except it’s not just one room; it’s spread out over these three campuses in Burbank. And nobody’s going through this stuff. There’s just not enough time in the day. Like, if it’s the original cel art for Lady and the Tramp, that stuff is fiercely guarded and catalogued, but if it’s just random miscellany that nobody knows what to do with, it’s just kind of sitting there. So this particular box, the box we tweeted — Disney was developing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. [David] Fincher’s developing it now, but before that, I think McG was developing it, and I think he requested all the design work from the original ride in Disneyland, the Nautilus ride. And this box was in with that stuff. You know, what was it doing there? Who knows — but what’s more exciting is there’s probably, like, 50 boxes like that waiting.
So the How I Met Your Mother guys have finally revealed who the mother is, and next season is going to be their last. Do you have any advice for them as they negotiate their endgame?
My advice is you can’t win, and just tell your story. People are completely and totally engaged by your show, and they had their theories as to who the mother was, so a lot of them are going to be wrong, and it’s very hard for a human being to say, “I was wrong. You got me! Your way is better!” Most people say, like, “My way is better, and because my way is better, I know your show better than you know your show.” I don’t have to tell them this; I’m sure they’ve been experiencing it for quite some time. Just the fact that they have a quote-unquote sitcom where they’ve built in a serialized mystery element is so audacious and awesome that it’s worth getting beat up for, because they took a risk, and that should be celebrated. I will always celebrate the guy who tries the dive that could’ve broken his neck and ends up getting, like, a .3 from the East German judge more than the guy who just basically, like, goes in without a splash but it’s just completely and totally boring.