Scriptnotes: Inside the Writer’s Room with Damon Lindelof

On April 18th, 2017, John August spoke with Damon Lindelof, show-runner of Lost, and writer of The Leftovers speaks to the motions of the writer’s room, going through the processes of gathering a writing team to creating ideas and how an outline, in terms of a television series, forms into a script and how everything works with the network/studio.

To begin, Lindelof notes that how a show-runner selects someone to be in the writer’s room is based on the spec that was written but also based on whether that particular writer has the correct personality for the room as a whole: “So you read somebody’s sample and that gets them in the room, but the intangible is, you set down with them for an hour and ninety minutes, if the interview is going particularly well, and you ask yourself: can I hang out with this person in a room for 9=10 hours a day and enjoy hanging out with them? And that’s just a gut instinct, there are some amazing writers, incredible on the page,who just had an awkward interview” (August and Lindelof 2017). Lindelof continues by saying that the room, to use a buzzword, has to be “diverse”, particularly with people of color and gender, and as a de-facto rule, Lindelof says that the writer’s room has to be 50/50.

Of course, even though the show-runner makes the decision on who is in the writer’s room, it is ultimately the studio who has a voice in the room. August asked a question of how scripts are read and Lindelof notes that it was the studio or the network. “If they’re staffing a show that had just gone done or they have deals with talent, probably less so than before, or someone that they’ve been monitoring that they’re big fans of… [with The Leftovers] they came from a whole spectrum- some of them were playwrights, some of them were novelists, very few had television experience before and I think the thinking was like let’s put people in this room who haven’t done it before because they’ll come up with more out of the box ideas” (Lindelof and August 2017).

The next step, once the writer’s room is put together, is to brainstorm on a white board, at least for Lindelof and after ideas are bounced around, a detailed outline is created and then the script is written. All of this takes place in roughly the span of three weeks due to Lindelof and another writer from the room working on a script with everyone working on the outline (that the studio executives see) (Lindelof and August 2017).

A question from a listener came in: “I wrote a co-pilot a few years ago… one of the major studios loved it… a few days, the deal fell apart when it went to business affairs because of a production company attachment we had that the studio did not want, their attachment deal has now expired and we have full control of the project again, but the development people that wanted the show are no longer there and we’re starting from scratch. [Our agents are telling us] once a project comes around once, it is old news and no one wants to look at it again. In your experience is that true and do we have any shot at reviving this?”

Lindelof answered with: “Yes and yes.” The industry, he notes, has a bias towards anything that is rehashed or old news (this begs the question of reboots and remakes then). Usually people want to be the first to say that something started because of their enthusiasm for a project rather than to pick something up that was rejected. Ultimately Lindelof answered: “Strong material, if available, people will snap it up” (Lindelof and August 2017).

The moral of this story that Lindelof ultimately gets to is that it is not the end of the universe, it is possible to revive or re-purpose something. Mr. Robot, for example, was originally a film script, but it was re-worked as a television script and was picked up. The same is true for Mad Men. Working in a writer’s room is a tough business, but similar to film, you are dealing with studios who make the decisions for you and sometimes that could be a pain and heartbreaking, but it shouldn’t be taken personally or as the end of something. You can always bounce back and return with a little elbow grease involved, to use a phrase.

Work Cited

August, John, and Damon Lindelof. “296 – Television with Damon Lindelof.” Audio blog post. Scriptnotes. N.p., 18 Apr. 2017. Web.