Was LOST planned out from the beginning, or did they make it up as they went along?
Former LOST writer/producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach has given his own answer to this question in a fascinating, deep-dive account of his experience working on the seminal serialized drama.
While Grillo-Marxuach left the show midway through Season 2, he offers an intriguing point of view on the construction of the show’s formative years that set the foundation for a six-season run.
In his lengthy article, posted on his personal website, Grillo-Marxuach breaks down pieces of the LOST puzzle including how it won the serialized battle against their corporate overlords; the evolution of the Smoke Monster; the conception of the Hatch (Swan Station), and the eternal question of whether they knew where the show was going from the outset, or just winging it.
Selected quotables follow below…
Note: ‘Spoilers’ from LOST Seasons 1 to 6 follow. Continue at your own discretion…
On how they snuck LOST’s sprawling serialized story past ABC by using disguise and trickery:
To some degree, the one-day-per-episode structure combined with the flashbacks provided the best of all worlds: of course the show would be serialized, the time frame of one episode per day demanded it, but this also allowed us to appease the desire for self-contained stories with beginnings, middles, and ends… every next day in series time, someone new would pick up the narrative freight in a flashback-driven tale showcasing the dichotomy between who they were in real life and who they were on the island.
With this construction, we could continue to address holdover threads from the previous episodes while still claiming we were not wholly serialized. [..]
The serialized format, then, was ultimately something that we simultaneously insisted on but also sort of snuck past the goalie by finding a middle ground where stories could also be self-contained.
On the conception of the Hatch:
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.
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.”
It was a brilliant idea that he felt had legs and could be exploited for story mileage…
On whether they knew what the Island was from the outset, and whether it was ‘purgatory’:
There was definitely a sort of “operational theory” for what the island would be — it was liked by some and loathed by others [..] Suffice it to say there was a concrete reason that we openly discussed on several occasions about why the island had an exotic source of power in its core that was able to wreak such miracles as time travel, the motion of the island, and somehow connect with selected people on a psychic level. [..] It is not purgatory. It was never purgatory. It will never be purgatory.
On the question of whether they had a series plan or made the show up as they went along, Grillo-Marxuach argues that it wasn’t one or the other, rather a bit of both given the complexity of the show, the number of minds that shaped the story and the way in which ideas built upon themselves and evolved over time.
He uses the series defining Locke reveal from “Walkabout” as an example, noting that originally Locke being in a wheelchair wasn’t part of the story until one of Damon Lindelof‘s overnight brainstorms which gave the character extra dimension and seasons of extra backstory.
Other major storylines that had early foundations which were improvised over time include Jack’s father (Christian Shephard) not being in the casket (“White Rabbit“) and appearing thereafter as a ‘ghost’, and the answer to “what is the Black Rock?” – an early seeded mystery that was figured out later in the series’ run.
And the Numbers? Grillo-Marxuach notes that they weren’t part of the show’s mythology until well into Season 1, when they became part of the solution to the writers’ struggles with cracking Hurley’s backstory.
The survivors’ interconnected pasts held similar evolutionary story growth, eventually becoming a core part of LOST mythology and leading to Cooper becoming Sawyer’s “Sawyer” and Claire becoming Jack’s half-sister.
Major story elements definitely not mapped out in the time of Grillo-Marxuach tenure: Jacob and the Man in Black and their Island recruitment, and Henry Gale (Ben Linus) becoming central to the show’s narrative (as previously revealed in LOST lore, Michael Emerson essentially made the character unkillable due to his performance).
For more context and insights on the journey of LOST according to Grillo-Marxuach, grab a Dharma beer and give the full piece a read here.