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Star Script Doctor Damon Lindelof Explains the New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting

Damon Lindelof, the ubiquitous ­screenwriter-producer whose name seems attached to all of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, is doing his damnedest to get small. This summer, he (along with fellow triage artists Drew Goddard and Christopher McQuarrie) miraculously pulled Brad Pitt out of the mass grave that was World War Z’s zombocalyptic original third act and restored the regular-guyness that made Pitt’s character work. He also resisted the temptation to threaten Earth’s existence (yet again!) at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, focusing instead on a personal vendetta—albeit one enacted via a dizzying mile-high pursuit across a 23rd-century cityscape. But, hey, you have to give something to get something.

“We live in a commercial world, where you’ve gotta come up with ‘trailer moments’ and make the thing feel big and impressive and satisfying, especially in that summer-movie-theater construct,” says Lindelof. “But ultimately I do feel—even as a purveyor of it—slightly turned off by this destruction porn that has emerged and become very bold-faced this past summer. And again, guilty as charged. It’s hard not to do it, especially because a movie, if properly executed, feels like it’s escalating.”

That escalation can be felt across the entire film industry this summer, a season of unparalleled massiveness: more blockbusters released, more digital demolition per square foot, and more at stake than ever. The first tentpoles out of the gate did breakneck business, but a late run of expensive flops (and even respectable also-rans) has industry watchers reexamining Steven Spielberg’s prediction, in June, that Hollywood is headed for an “implosion”: An industry that makes only megamovies, prophesied the father of the megamovie, will die of its own gigantism.

But Hollywood’s gigantism, Lindelof points out, is practically algorithmic—and the effect tendrils all the way down to the storytelling level. When ever-larger sums are spent to make and market ever-fewer, ever-bigger movies, and those movies are aimed at Imax screens, then world-­shattering comic-book I.P. and gigantic special effects are expected, with larger-than-life characters wielding those effects. No one necessarily asks for it; it just kind of happens. It’s what Lindelof calls Story Gravity, and dealing with it—whether that means resisting it or simply surfing it skillfully—is the great challenge of writing this new breed of tentpole blockbuster. The question used to be: How do we top ourselves? The new one seems to be: How do we stop ourselves?

“Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world,” explains Lindelof. “And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world—you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there. In the old days, it was just as satisfying that all Superman has to do was basically save Lois from this earthquake in California. The stakes in that movie are that the San Andreas Fault line opens up and half of California is going to fall in the ocean. That felt big enough, but there is a sense of bigger, better, faster, seen it before, done that.”

“It sounds sort of hacky and defensive to say, [but it’s] almost inescapable,” he continues. “It’s almost impossible to, for example, not have a final set piece where the fate of the free world is at stake. You basically work your way backward and say, ‘Well, the Avengers aren’t going to save Guam, they’ve got to save the world.’ Did Star Trek Into Darkness need to have a gigantic starship crashing into San ­Francisco? I’ll never know. But it sure felt like it did.”

With that in mind, I’ve given ­Lindelof—who’s written some hugely embiggened pictures and successfully wrestled others down to human scale—a challenge that only a five-star general in Hollywood’s elite fantasy screenwriting corps would have the chops to attempt: Pitch us a summer blockbuster based on something very, very unblockbustery, a simple American tall tale. Let’s say, the ballad of folk hero John Henry: the nineteenth-century ex-slave who raced a steam-tunneler through a mountain, won, and perished, the first martyr in the great war twixt Man and Machine. Lindelof, not missing a beat, tongue firmly in cheek but mind fully engaged, dives in—no notes, no pauses, barely stopping for breath. Then he goes even further, giving us anticipated revisions as the notes come in, as the blockbuster hormones surge, as Story Gravity takes hold.

“Well, I think the first thing that would happen is you would say the fundamental, most important part of the story is that he dies—[and that] he is victorious, he beats the machine. It’s the triumph of the human spirit over technology. But with that comes a price. And all the studio execs would say, ‘Absolutely. That’s what we love about this story.’ Two drafts later somebody would say, ‘Does he have to die?’ ”

For a guy who writes big and wins big—his box-office track record is pretty unassailable—Lindelof keeps his ego in check. “I am, first and foremost, a fanboy,” explains the co-creator of Lost, the series that launched him from yeoman TV writer-­producer to fantasist-in-chief J. J. Abrams’s right-hand man and the de facto tribune of all things Intergalactic and Comic-Booky. “My skill set as a writer is actually less significant than my knowledge of pop culture in general, and maybe when it comes to these movies, my ability and willingness to crib freely from the amazing comics, film, and TV I grew up on is far more important than actual talent.” He characterizes himself as a very lucky, very well-­compensated writer of fan fiction—his “skill set” having put him in touch with the sacrosanct, fiercely policed Alien and Star Trek franchises, among others. He makes himself perilously available for comment and query online, which has only cemented his status as the fanboy fanboys love to hate. (He took no end of guff over his script for Prometheus, the embattled Alien sorta-prequel; and the know-­nothing hysteria is already at a fever pitch over his merely conjectural involvement in Abrams’s continuation of the Star Wars saga.) Yet he’s never been party to what might be termed a “Michael Bay” movie, a nonstop orgy of digital smithereens. In fact, his most notable achievement of the season was that hushed conclusion of World War Z, a rewrite he helped design and oversee. (If you haven’t seen it, and still want to be surprised, stop reading now.)

As has been widely reported, Z originally climaxed in a giant zombie battle in Red Square, with star and producer Brad Pitt leading the charge in full Troy mass-­murder mode. The scene was so off-key—what was Pitt’s character, a family-­oriented U.N. fixer with no special combat abilities, doing waist deep in gore?—that its makers scrapped it, at great expense, and brought in Lindelof, Goddard, and McQuarrie (doing on-set rewrites) to create a new conclusion: a suspenseful, near-silent infiltration of a zombie-crammed medical lab in Wales, capped by Pitt injecting himself with a deadly pathogen to test a hypothesis: Will the zombies ignore a diseased person? They do! Pitt wins! Humanity triumphs! By being discreet. It’s Story Anti-gravity.

Still, Lindelof isn’t triumphal. “I can honestly tell you that, I think, if Drew and I had been hired to write the first draft of World War Z, if we had had Matthew Michael Carnahan’s job, we would have written exactly the same movie that Carnahan did, with the same third act. We were able to come in and say, ‘Let’s scale it down, let’s make it the intimate zombie experience’ only because they’d shot the other version and it didn’t work.”

Lindelof and Goddard also had the full support of a powerful producer-star, Pitt, who cared about his character’s integrity. Few movie stars and even fewer writers have that sort of prerogative over their creations these days. Even the almighty director isn’t operating in a vacuum. The Gravity is the only constant, and if you want to fight it, you’d best come heavy.

Back in the world of John Henry, the story’s starting to coalesce: ­character-driven and complex, with familiar elements to anchor the riskier stuff. A solid mainstream entertainment, in other words. “I would say that the plantation that John Henry was a slave on was owned by the father of the guy who built the machine. ’Cause we need backstory, right?” begins Lindelof. “This white kid and this black slave were friends, but it was a secret friendship. But this white kid was always kind of looking to Europe, the seeds of the industrial revolution. He becomes an inventor. And he comes to John Henry and says, look at this wonderful thing I’ve invented. But John Henry, who has seen the evil of man firsthand, and now sees the Chinese being exploited on the railroad, says, ‘These machines—in the hands of the people I’ve witnessed? This is a very, very bad thing. I can beat your machine.’

“And the girl—there’s going to be a girl, that’s another thing we have to add—is the inventor’s fiancée, and she starts to fall for John Henry. So we have a love triangle, and the inventor will do anything to defeat John Henry, because if he loses to John Henry, he’s going to lose the girl. Because she’s much more interested in John Henry’s quiet, moral humanity. And then, of course, he has to die in order to make his point.

“And you might even shoot it that way. You might even shoot John Henry dying in the arms of Amy Adams, Anne Hathaway, Maggie Gyllenhaal, whoever it is—but it won’t test well. And by the time it actually comes out, what will happen is that if John Henry’s going to die, it’s not enough to just beat the machine. He beats the machine, but then his adversary, the antagonist, his former friend, basically turns the machine into the red. And John Henry pushes him out of the way—so not only did John Henry beat this machine fair and square, but he also gave his life and made a point.

“I can’t quite graft the fate of the world onto this story,” Lindelof concludes apologetically. “Because it’s ‘period.’ ”

So that’s a draft: And the stakes feel pretty high—life-and-death high, perhaps even historically high—even though life on Earth isn’t threatened. What happens next? “Well,” says Lindelof, laughing, “the first note you’re going to get is, ‘We don’t like the slavery idea … ’ ”

Where do you go after you’ve imploded a planet or two? The first J. J. Abrams–directed Star Trek featured two worlds squished, billions of casualties, and Earth itself on the brink of annihilation. Lindelof and the team behind Star Trek Into Darkness always wanted to conclude the sequel with a simple grudge match between two men. But how to earn all that smallness?

“It was always about Spock and Khan duking it out with the stakes being Kirk’s life,” says Lindelof. “But there were earlier story iterations where the Klingon Fleet was simultaneously heading for Earth to get retribution, only to be turned around via diplomatic intervention by Uhura. We dropped it pretty early on, as it didn’t feel intimate, cool, or earned.”

At least Kirk and Spock, separated from their 23rd-century tackle, are merely mortal. It’s possible to put away the big toys and stage a human moment. But when you’re dealing with superheroes, Hollywood’s new stock-in-trade, conflicts quickly become fights, and fights quickly become cataclysms. How do you tell Superman and Zod to “take it outside”? Outside of what? Reality? They’re already there. The Gravity demands a battle of biblical proportions. Which leads inevitably to the next question: How do we ground this spectacle, these god-size characters? You know, the way that Christopher Nolan fellow does?

“Essentially,” says Lindelof, “Christopher Nolan is the greatest thing that ever happened to comic-book movies. Period. And Christopher Nolan is also the worst thing to ever happen to comic-book movies. He executed it letter-perfect, [in part, because] he took a character like Batman that wants to be grounded and wants to be real.” But not every character, and not every story, is eligible for the chiaroscuro shadings of Nolanization, even though investors and studios, eyeing Nolan’s grosses, would like them to be.

Lindelof cites his own Cowboys & Aliens, where a darker tone became quicksand. “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie,” says Lindelof. “Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.”

There appears to be no simple formula for solving problems of Tone versus Scale, no “beat sheet” like the one espoused by Blake Snyder’s ultrapopular screenwriting bible Save the Cat! (a book Lindelof says he hasn’t read—or even heard of). Snyder advised having a hero commit some token act of kindness at the top of the story so we care about his or her fate later on. Lindelof goes further: “The first 90 minutes of the movie are really an exercise in getting people to care about the people in the movie [so you can put] those people in jeopardy in the final set piece. It sounds so obvious, but it’s really difficult to execute.” Especially since, on a summer blockbuster, you’re unlikely to be the first writer on a project. And you’re unlikely to be the last. Yet each successive writer is carrying all the prior drafts on his back.

In the hypothetical world of John Henry: The Motion Picture, Lindelof’s imaginary first-draft screenwriter is feeling the jeopardy firsthand. “We don’t really want to talk about him being a slave that much,” says Lindelof, adopting the Ultronic voice of the Studio. “Quentin can do it; Django Unchained embraces that. But look, we’re spending $170 million on this movie. If there’s a way to not even say the word slave … We can say, like, ‘in the days of oppression’? But let’s just kind of avoid that entirely. And the initial draft writer would say, ‘No, that’s the entire point. John Henry is, or was, a slave.’

“Okay, you’re fired. We’re going to bring in someone else, and what we’re going to do—we love this forbidden Romeo-and-Juliet love story. It’s going to be Titanic! Maybe the villain should be her father. We don’t need to nuance this; they were never friends. This guy is just like—he’s ­moustache-twirling, he represents everything that we hate. We don’t want to spend too much time on him.

“More important, what’s the bet? Like, if John Henry wins, what does he get? It’s not enough to just beat the machine, he has to be playing for real stakes. What happens if he loses? [Let’s say the villain’s] going to knock down this town. John Henry says, ‘If I can beat this machine, you cannot build through my town. And more importantly, you’re going to pour a million dollars of commerce into this town.’ Now those are stakes, those are the repercussions. It’s not enough to have a moral win against the powers of industry; we need him to save lives. We need slow-motion shots of all the people who’ll be dispossessed. This is the second writer’s pitch.”

At this point, I throw Lindelof a curve. Doesn’t this story feel like it wants to be, oh, bigger? John Henry’s a folk hero—isn’t that kind of like a superhero, something Hollywood already knows how to sell? And as a superhero, shouldn’t he be a lot stronger, a lot more powerful?

Lindelof takes a deep breath, and the wheels turn: A new writer is coming aboard the project. “You still kind of want to ground [the fantasy]. I think the idea that John Henry is from another planet is unrealistic, which basically leaves some sort of accident. I think the idea that he’s bestowed his powers by natural sources, like a lightning strike, is pretty good. I picture him out there in the rain one night, working on the rail and getting struck by lightning, and when he awakens he now has the strength of, say, ten men. Let’s not be unreasonable.

“But! He is able to suddenly pull doors off of hinges, that kind of thing. And he has sort of enhanced speed. So now he’s actually capable of not just potentially beating this machine, but also a couple of good second-act heroics—maybe there’s a fire in the town and he goes running into the fire, like some good Bruce Willis Unbreakable stuff. Again, he can’t fly. I think again, like, you want it to be a fair fight between him and the machine, but that’s as far as I’d be willing to go.”

But?

“Probably, that wouldn’t be far enough. So the next writer is going to come in and have to pitch some variation of some scene where John Henry has always had these abilities for reasons that he does not entirely understand. And as, like, a 20-year-old man, he discovers some sort of mystical Obi Wan figure who’s been following him around, and that character sits down with him and says to him—and this will be in the trailer—‘John Henry, you’re not who you think you are.’ He works for the Vatican, so he should definitely have an accent. You know, ‘I went into this secret room in the Vatican, and the scriptures revealed that you would be born somewhere in Louisiana.’ Let’s go with the Buffy kind of iteration: Once every 75 years, someone is born into the world to restore humanity’s balance when it’s in danger of tipping into the abyss.

“ ‘But now this is your job. And I have some bad news for you, John Henry. It’s great that you have these powers—but you will die. You know, this is the arc—Jesus did it, so it’s, like, you’ve kind of got to, too.’

“And then John Henry says, ‘I don’t want this responsibility, I don’t want to die. I love this girl. I don’t want the fate of humanity on my shoulders, especially given my past.’ And then the guy says, ‘Well here’s the thing, John Henry: You have free will, you can choose. Many have denied the mantle in the past, and following those periods of denial, well, you know, the Black Plague happened, and the Crusades,’ and he basically runs down all these [catastrophes].

“So now we’re setting up this great choice that John Henry has when he realizes this contest that’s going to take place in the third act is literally going to save the world. It’s not just, ‘Will I beat this machine?’ If he doesn’t do this, then the cosmic balance, which he was born to preserve, tips. And history as we know it will have an entirely different outcome.”

And there it is: John Henry, Superhero. Shaped by Story Gravity. So what are the odds that bits and pieces of all of these drafts end up in the final cut? And that the trolls all blame Damon Lindelof, screenwriter, no matter which draft he wrote?

“Possible and probable,” he says. “The odds of all these takes being written by the same person are slim. But each take has its own virtues and strengths, so it’s very likely that the writer who came in to make John Henry a superhero retained the tone of the first draft—a love story featuring a former slave. This arranged marriage between something intense and emotional and grounded to something fantastical and otherworldly and action-based could potentially be … problematic?” Potentially. But really, in a business where nobody knows anything and the fans think they know everything, who’s to say? We’ll just have to wait until some future summer, when John Henry strides onto that three-story Imax screen, every muscle straining against the Story Gravity, to find out if the Man beats the Machine.

*This article originally appeared in the August 12, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Illustration by Gluekit