Depending on who you talk to, Damon Lindelof is either God or Satan.
With Carlton Cuse and J.J. Abrams, Lindelof guided Lost to one of the most controversial final seasons of any television show in history. He also co-wrote (with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) the Abrams-directed 2009 reboot of Star Trek, one of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed entries in the film franchise — and one that still has some outraged Trek fans fuming about it on Internet message boards.
Lindelof is doing what every fanboy would like to: creating new worlds and playing around in revered old ones. With a second Star Trek film in production, Lindelof also played a key role in another geek wet dream: working with Ridley Scott on this summer’s space epic Prometheus, the is-it-or-isn’t-it-an-Alien-prequel sci-fi film that will be the director’s celebrated return to the genre some three decades after his seminal films Alien and Blade Runner. We caught up with Lindelof on his way to a meeting and tried to get him to speak on record about some of the mysteries (and controversies) surrounding these projects.
GEEK: How did you get involved with Prometheus? Was there a blueprint or story you had to work off of or did you start from scratch?
Lindelof: Definitely not from scratch. As a huge science fiction aficionado and tracker of all things in the sci-fi realm on the Web, I was aware that Ridley was talking about doing an Alien prequel — that’s what I was hearing, and I was eagerly anticipating any nugget of information to that end. We finished Lost in 2010, and I went away for a month just to get my bearings. When I came back, I told my agents that I would love to work on some movie projects, having spent the last six years in TV, and if there was anything cool or interesting out there I’d be really interested in it.
A day later, I was driving my car and my agent called me and said, “Are you available to talk to Ridley Scott in five minutes?” After literally almost crashing, slamming on my brakes, I pulled the car over and, sure enough, five minutes later Ridley Scott called me. Now Ridley Scott doesn’t know that he’s Ridley Scott, but for me it was a very surreal experience. He just called and sort of dispensed with the introductions and said, “Hey, listen man, I’m going to send you a script and I’d really like to know what you think.” And he didn’t really elaborate on what it was, but again I thought, “Is this the Alien prequel I’ve been hearing about or is it something else?” A couple of hours later a guy with an envelope came to my house, and he said he’d be waiting in his car and I could hand it back to him when I was done, so there was this kind of exciting CIA secrecy surrounding it, and the script was written by this guy Jon Spaihts, and I thought it was very good, and it was indeed what I would define as an Alien prequel in terms of what the story was.
I don’t want to get more explicit than that. I think at that point in time, Ridley was feeling that he wanted the movie to be a little less beholden to the Alien mythology and be more of its own original story, and that sort of dovetailed with what I thought. Good prequels shouldn’t be inevitable, so as cool as it is to see Anakin become Darth Vader, the writing’s on the wall — there’s no real suspense in knowing how the story’s going to end. So a really good prequel should precede the events of the original film, but if there was a sequel to the prequel it wouldn’t be the original film, it would sort of end in a way that it goes off in its own direction. The effect of the prequel helps you understand the original film perhaps a little better on subsequent viewings, but if the original film is Z then there’s no fun in just making a prequel be A to Y. So that fundamental philosophy mixed with Ridley’s desire to make it a little bit more of its own thing began the journey of what eventually became Prometheus.
In talking to Noomi Rapace, she revealed a lot about her character’s background and that her faith is a huge component of her character, and that’s also a huge component of Lost, particularly in its final season. Was that part of your contribution?
Whether it was there or not prior to me coming on, it felt like it was and it was just something I really wanted to bring to the foreground, especially as it related to the characters. And again, for me to take any credit for this story is disingenuous. The movie is really Ridley Scott’s vision, and I just sat there and listened to him talk about what he wanted the movie to be about and sort of translated appropriately. And what Ridley wanted this movie to be about has some very big ideas in it — amongst them, what is our purpose in life, why were we created, what created us, what are we supposed to do now; those ideas and questions really drive the movie. Obviously, every single character had to have a different prism through which they viewed those questions, and I certainly think that, in the case of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, who Noomi plays, as one of the heroes of the movie, she had to have a very specific reason for seeking those answers out. As opposed to, “Oh, this is just something I think about sometimes,” I thought it was important for her character to have a backstory that would make us as an audience understand what’s driving her as she goes on this mission that kicks off the movie.
Alien changed the game in terms of characters you would see in sci-fi films. Before that, you would see scientists and astronauts going out to explore, and here they were blue-collar workers just doing their jobs, and that made that film unique. Prometheus seems more traditional in that it’s scientist-type characters we might have seen in a pre-Alien space film. How do you approach that without doing a rehash of earlier sci-fi films?
That’s a very astute question, and the reality is I have such a fondness and affection for science fiction films that I feel like to avoid anything that’s been done before will lead me down a path of complete and total misery because I love all that stuff. When people go to see a science fiction movie, they have a reasonable expectation that they’re going to get, for lack of a better word, the tropes or trappings of that kind of storytelling. It’s trying to take familiar ideas and present them in fresh ways or dynamically through different characterizations. I tried to look at this material through the prism of just being a fanboy and saying, “If I was going to see this movie — [one that] Ridley Scott is coming back and doing after over two decades — what would I want to see in that movie?” I want there to be a robot, I want it to be scary, I want it to be populated by some characters who are not earnest, who sort of channel the Harry Dean Stanton/Yaphet Kotto aesthetic of the original movie, and is there a hybrid where you can have guys like that who are also scientists? So that was my thinking.
What was your experience of seeing Alien and Blade Runner the first time?
I was seven or eight years old when Alien came out theatrically, so my parents would not take me to it, but I was very aware of it. And I think I saw it either on VHS or on HBO sometime around the age of 9 or 10, and I remember it scaring the living shit out of me, particularly the sequence where the alien bursts out of John Hurt’s chest. That was so surprising and shocking to me, and I didn’t have any sense that it was going to happen. For the next six months, any time I had a stomachache, I was convinced that I had been infected in some way.
I do think that I saw Blade Runner in the theater with my dad, and I remember thinking that it was both the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life, and that it was way over my head. I didn’t really have a fundamental understanding of much of the movie other than that there were bad robots and Harrison Ford was going after them. When Roy Batty dies, I remember the sort of poetry of that moment, as opposed to them just having some big spectacular karate fight on a rooftop, being emotionally affected by that and not really understanding why. The great thing about Blade Runner is that every time you come back to it — and obviously there are a number of different cuts out there for you to watch — you get something different. It’s one of those rare and special pieces of science fiction that keeps on giving.
It’s amazing that Ridley Scott made two science fiction films back to back, and they instantly became two of the most influential movies of all time. There are countless rip-offs and permutations of Alien, and almost every movie made after Blade Runner had to look like Blade Runner.
What’s amazing is he basically created a vision of the future in the early 1980s, and I think it’s easy to look at Blade Runner and Alien as taking place in the same universe because they’re both directed by the same guy, the aesthetics are similar, they both have robots in them that look like humans, and they’re not called replicants in Alien, but it’s not a stretch to say that they’re set in the same world. I think what’s so stunning about that world, even 30 years later, is it still feels like a possible future — it feels very real. When you think about the movies that are set in the future, they’re usually post-apocalyptic — that Mad Max, The Road, Walking Dead, 28 Days Later aesthetic of everything being abandoned and burned out — versus Ridley who took genuine painstaking attention to detail to say, “What is Los Angeles really going to look like? What is advertising going to look like? What is transportation going to look like? What’s the environment going to look like?” And when you watch it, it still feels real in the same way that Alien does. It’s like, “Yeah, I completely and totally buy that we will be mining other planets for resources, and this ship looks like a ship that would do that, and these people seem like people who would work on a ship like that.” It doesn’t really feel like it’s sci-fi — it’s not dealing and trading with fantastic elements the way most science fiction does.