Typing Faster

July 19, 2009

Lawsuits and the Genesis of Lost

Filed under: Craft, Stuff I Like, Working — petertypingfaster @ 12:08 pm
Why a picture of Juliet? Why not I say!

Why a picture of Juliet? Why not I say!

Lost became a phenomenon almost as soon as it premiered. It was one of the shows that helped turn ABC’s fate around, moving the struggling network out of the ratings basement and back into contention. Despite Lost‘s huge amount of success, it actually had a pretty rocky start.

The first writer to work on Lost wasn’t JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof or Carlton Cuse, but rather a relative unknown by the name of Jeffrey Lieber. Lieber’s experience developing the initial concept for Lost can be found here. It makes for very interesting reading.

Lieber was initially brought on to write a:

hyperrealistic portrayal of life on a deserted island…Cast Away the series.

Lieber wrote exactly that. A pilot, called Nowhere (excerpts of which I’ve posted here for your perusal), which was:

…like Lord of the Flies-a “realistic show about a society putting itself back together after a catastrophe.”

Things seemed to be going swimmingly. Lieber got nothing but positive feedback. The biggest note up to this point had been to “cut a scene in which a shark killed one of the castaways. Too unrealistic.” Everything was just “minor character refinements” and some “dialogue tweaks.”

ABC loved the project.

And then they fired him.

What happened next to Lost has become industry lore. Braun decided to give the project to a young hot shot named J. J. Abrams, who had helped create the ABC cult favorite Alias, among other things. But Abrams was tied up writing another pilot and he was skeptical that the show’s premise could be extended to a whole season of episodes. Braun told him to take the weekend to think about it. Abrams did, and came back with a far-out idea to get around the show’s limitations: What if the island were a character-a supernatural place where strange things happened? Braun loved it.

By this time, it was extremely late to be starting over from scratch. “But Lloyd was so passionate about it, he wanted to take an eleventh-hour stab at saving it,” Sherman says. So Abrams teamed up with a promising writer named Damon Lindelof, and together they came up with another ingenious idea: a flashback device that focuses on one character each episode and allows the show to get off the island. Four days later, they submitted a 20-page outline to Braun. “Lloyd called me up screaming, ‘They’ve done it-it’s ER, it’s ER!'” recalls Sherman, referring to NBC’s longtime hit series.

ABC picked up the pilot without a script, based solely on the outline by Abrams and Lindelof-an almost unheard-of move; less than three months later the pair were making a two-hour-long, $12-million pilot, one of the most expensive pilots in TV history. “I don’t know if there’s another story like this in the annals of television,” says Sherman.

Talk about getting the shaft. Not only does Lieber get fired, but then ABC picks up the new version of Lost off of an outline. Ouch. Lieber described it as

Not only do they boot me off the island; now I look back and they’re throwing a party on the island, and I’m sitting there floating 100 feet in the water on a shitty raft that’s going nowhere.

Lieber wound up taking ABC to a WGA arbitration, an attempt to get some recognition for all the work he’d done previously. ABC and Touchstone didn’t take kindly to this, and did everything in their power to cut Lieber out completely.

Now I feel like I’ve been kicked off the island, I’m on a shitty raft 100 feet out, they’re having a party, and they’re throwing chum in the water at me.

Lieber wound up writing a ten-page list of all the similarities between his version of Lost and the version that wound up on the air. And it worked.


Lieber got his credit. And all the money that comes with it…low six-figures apparently.

It’s a fascinating story about what can happen when things go sideways on a project, and what everyone has to do to smooth things out.

What’s even more interesting is that it’s happening all over again.

According to TMZ

Anthony Spinner – a producer on “Baretta” and “Babes in Toyland” – says back in 1977 he was paid $30,000 to write a TV pilot which eventually became a 121-page script called “Lost.”

Spinner is now suing ABC and Touchstone Television, claiming the network passed on the show in ’77, ’91 and ’94…then suddenly created an exact replica with Touchstone in 2004.

He even goes on to list a whole bunch of “similarities” that support his case. For example:

Airplane headed to Los Angeles crashes into a tropical, jungle like environment.

Doctor in the group is the humanitarian voice for the survivors and helps Passenger who eventually dies from injuries sustained in the crash, but before death shares harmful information regarding another passenger.

Trailblazer challenges the group to accept that they are stuck on the island and the island can provide for them.

Military man survives and sets strategy in place to take responsibility for leadership in military style activities.

Stubborn and reluctant semi-hero challenges the leadership of the real leader and has a dark father-son past.

Survivor suffers from drug addiction.

Ethnic minority character must deal with racial slurs especially from one character.

There are quite a few more, but you get the idea. If you want to read the whole list TMZ has a copy of it on their website.

And of course it’s a complete and utter crock.

New writers are often terrified of having their ideas stolen, and I’m sure some are going to think that stories like this justify their fear. But if you actually take a look at the “similarities” forming the basis of this latest lawsuit you can see it’s utter bullshit.

These are stock characters in stock situations. An anti-hero with daddy issues? A drug addict? A doctor who tries to save people? We’ve all seen these exact scenarios hundreds if not thousands of times in other shows. They’re not particularly original, nor are they grounds for a lawsuit.

What makes Lost original and unique is the mythos and supernatural elements that Abrams and Lindelof injected into the premise when they took over from Lieber.

Anyways, all in all it’s an interesting behind the scenes look at the genesis of a great TV show. After reading all of that I’m tempted to add a bit to one of my favorite West Wing (via Otto von Bismarck) quotes

Only two things you never want the people see you make, Laws and Sausages.

Throw TV in there and I think we’ve got a winner.


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