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THE PRODUCERS: J.J. Abrams, left (showing off a Lost fan’s artwork), and Damon Lindelof, right, replaced Lieber and transformed his ultrarealistic script into the supernatural phenomenon currently on the air.
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.
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Lieber went into a funk for weeks. “I was angry and depressed and confused,” he says. The hardest part was that he never saw it coming. “It’s the flip between ‘We love it’ to ‘There’s a problem’ that I’ve never really gotten over. Had somebody said, ‘Lloyd thinks it’s too real-maybe we need a monster or an otherworldly element’-I would’ve said, ‘OK, no problem.’ But I just never got the chance.”
Sherman acknowledges that Lieber did “yeoman’s work,” but he says that ultimately ABC felt more comfortable putting the show in Abrams’s hands. It was nothing personal, adds Sherman: “Business is business.”
In May, ABC announced that it would put the show in its 2004 fall lineup. Lieber felt even more disheartened: “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.”
But before ABC could put Lost on the air, the network had to straighten out the credits mess. By tradition, the Writers Guild of America settles disputes over who gets screenplay and story credit for film and television productions. The guild’s arbitration process amounts to high-powered fisticuffs, with fame and fortune-sometimes millions of dollars-potentially at stake. Each side makes its case with a detailed and laborious examination of all the written material that goes into the evolution of the final script. A committee of three anonymous guild members makes a final ruling.
ABC and Touchstone, another Disney unit that co-produces Lost, initially tried to head off a potentially nasty arbitration battle, claiming to the guild that Lieber (and Spelling) had no creative input on Lost-that his project was completely different from the show that was eventually made. “They just tried to write us, particularly Jeffrey, completely out of the picture, as if we had nothing to do with it,” recalls Gold.
“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 says.
Photography: (Abrams) Albert L. Ortega/Wireimage.com; (Lindelof) ABC/Craig Sjodin