I love how this article goes through Carlton's journey in finding a new show to run. Great stuff, skip to the last paragraph if you just want to find out what his new show is. Otherwise take your time with this great read!
LAST summer I went hiking with my teenage daughter in the Swiss Alps. On the first day we left the small village of Wengen and climbed above the timberline to a mountain outpost, Kleine Scheidegg, where we stopped to catch our breath. As I was drinking some water and taking in the awesome panorama, I noticed a hiker approaching. He was bearded and sunburned, wearing a kerosene-stained Swiss mountaineering pack and using trekking poles. I thought he was going to warn us of some danger. Instead he walked up to me and in German-accented English asked, “Are you Carlton Cuse, from ‘Lost’?” Startled, I answered, “Yes.”
The “Lost” show runners, Carlton Cuse, left, and Damon Lindelof.
Then he said, “Why did you not explain the polar bear?” As he detailed his own theory of how polar bears ended up in a tropical jungle on “Lost,” my daughter rolled her eyes. Even here in this remote spot I could not escape the last six years of my life. I had spent that time working an average of 80 hours a week writing and producing a TV show. After “Lost” ended last May, the first thing I wanted to do was go someplace far away and clear my brain. But I quickly discovered there was a big difference between getting away and leaving the show behind.
There is a story told in Hollywood about how right after “Tootsie” had its premiere, Dustin Hoffman was walking the streets of Manhattan with a friend when he saw his name on the marquee of a theater. He turned to him and said in all seriousness, “Do you think I’ll ever work again?”
Though probably apocryphal, this story is quite reassuring to those of us who work in the film and TV business. It underscores that even the most talented among us, after an intense period of work on a project, struggle with the question “What do I do next?”
“Lost” was a success in over a hundred countries around the world. It spawned a new term — transmedia — to describe all the associated media content (like Webisodes, alternative reality games and viral videos) surrounding a TV or film project. It was such an overwhelming phenomenon, how could I get past the large shadow it cast over my life? Should I even try?
The magnitude of my predicament seemed apparent to everyone around me. Even before the show ended, the “what are you going to do next” question seemed to be the first thing out of everyone’s mouth. What did it mean that I didn’t have an answer that satisfied me or anybody else? Most of all I wondered what, if anything, would get me excited enough to go back to work.
I was responsible for my own fate. Right around now a new season of “Lost” should be making its heavily promoted debut. Instead, three years into the show my partner, Damon Lindelof, and I did something that had never been done before in network TV: We negotiated an end date. Like J. K. Rowling, who told her readers there would be seven Harry Potter books and no more, we wanted to define the length of the show’s journey for our viewers. We agreed with ABC to make 48 more episodes over three seasons. For us, “Lost” was a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and we wanted the opportunity to tell our story, and wrap up our show, on our own terms. The result was, we canceled ourselves.
In network TV when a show ends, it disappears from sight as quickly as Vladimir Putin’s political rivals. Within two weeks after the finale was shown, the “Lost” offices were emptied out and became the hub for a new ABC show, “No Ordinary Family.” The “Lost” billboard on the Disney lot was replaced by one for “Detroit 1-8-7.” In network promos, the mystery of the island was supplanted by the mystery of Bristol Palin on “Dancing With the Stars.”
I thought “Lost” was finally over, but I was wrong. The next week I went back into the editing room to finish work on a secret addendum to the series that we’d filmed for the DVDs. I gathered with my collaborators for the Emmys, the Saturns and the Scream Awards. And most recently, four of the six mystical numbers that kept reappearing on the show turned up in the Mega Millions lottery drawing, and I found myself back in the news media commenting on the coincidence. I eventually realized there was never going to be a definitive conclusion to the experience of “Lost.” The conclusion was going to be as ambiguous as the ending of the series itself.
Over the six years Damon and I had achieved a level of recognition usually reserved for actors or some movie directors, certainly not TV show runners. We read the Top 10 list on “Late Night With David Letterman,” looking, as one friend said, as if we’d just been beamed down from the Enterprise. We were interviewed by Diane Sawyer. We filmed sketches with Bob Newhart, Jimmy Kimmel and the Muppets, although not all at the same time. We were on TV so often that we were forced to join Aftra, the actors union.
Upon returning from Switzerland to Los Angeles, I was happy to discover that things were suddenly much quieter. I was able to stick my nose into my wife’s business and offer her indispensable advice on her daily routine that she had somehow managed to survive without. Now the phone was not ringing endlessly, and every time I checked my e-mail there weren’t 20 urgent production questions. I felt relief but also great uncertainty.
Much of the pressure I was feeling was internal, but it was magnified by the expectations of those around me. As a television show runner you are required to put out a prodigious amount of creative work. We wrote and produced as many as 25 hours of “Lost” in a single year. As an artist, if you succeed in making something fresh and new, it often looks easy: Warhol’s soup cans, for instance. And when you make it fast, it seems even easier. A tortured novelist who takes seven years to write a book gets cut a lot of slack. But if you are capable of producing a well-honed hour of filmed entertainment every eight days, how big a deal can it be to come up with a new idea?
I opened up the file where I’d dumped thoughts for new projects I’d had no time for during the run of the show. Reading them over, they felt like an elliptical diary of those years. For example, in the dark early days of Season 3, facing servicing 15 actors and the sprawling mythology, with no end date yet in sight, I was struck with what apparently seemed like a great idea for a tiny two-person romantic, comedic ... stage play.
I started going to movies and reading through long neglected piles of books. I also started watching TV again. During the series, after writing scripts and editing episodes all day, it was nearly impossible for me to come home and watch scripted television without my critical brain kicking in. Instead of being caught up in the narrative, I could see only what was underneath — the blueprints and building materials. But now, removed from the process, I was able to actually enjoy episodes of “Eastbound and Down,” “Modern Family” and “The Walking Dead.” My creative batteries started to recharge.
One day I was e-mailed an “Unfair Employer — Do Not Work Notice” from my new union, Aftra. I was not allowed to take a job as an actor on a new cable series called “Sordid Lives.” Whew. I scratched that off my to-do list.
I discussed projects with a variety of producers and executives. They ranged from the sublime — an adaptation of Stephen King’s wonderful novel “Under the Dome,” which for a variety of reasons did not work out — to some decidedly less so: a guy and a ghost are a detective team. Or my favorite: a show about a hot dolphin trainer and her dolphins who work at an aquarium by day but perform secret missions for the government by night. (I know what you’re thinking: No, I don’t know how they get the dolphins back to the aquarium every morning by dawn.)
As the months marched on, my agent displayed great patience as I turned down show-running jobs and writing assignments. I was proceeding with caution but also enjoying the liberation of not being tethered to a show.
In Hollywood there is no bigger commitment you can make than to a TV series. Even marriages pale in comparison. Marriages don’t require signing iron-clad multiyear contracts. At least most first marriages don’t. In success, I would be working unremittingly on that one project for what could easily consume the next five or more years of my life.
Before my kids started back to school, we took a family trip to the East Coast. On a stop in Washington, we walked over to the Lincoln Memorial. Deep inside that Doric temple I found myself reading the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which are etched in the north wall. As I absorbed them, the back of my neck started tingling. Despite a tendency toward hypochondria, I knew this was a good sign.
Lincoln’s words were an attempt to heal the rift between a North and South deep into the Civil War. One-eighth of our population was still bound in slavery. Having majored in American history, I knew this was a period of rich and compelling drama. But more important, as I read those words about the deep divide between two very different groups of people sharing one set of borders, they felt very relevant for today. And there was something else very appealing about the Civil War: no polar bears.
The idea of a story set in this era took hold, characters sprang to life, and pretty soon it was all I could think about.
I expected my agent to scream or cry, but he did neither. Instead, he told me he had another client who was interested in working on a Civil War project, a writer-director named Randall Wallace. Would I want to meet with him? I knew Randall Wallace from his work on “Braveheart,” among other films. I said absolutely.
As Randall and I started talking, I realized how much I’d missed the creative collaborations that are at the heart of making film or television. Together we built a story, “Point of Honor,” which in its simplest form is about the journey of a Confederate family in Virginia through the turmoil of the Civil War. And while it is vastly different from “Lost,” it feels no less compelling.
As I embark on this new project, I know what is looming ahead. Immense challenges of making a period show under tight constraints of time and money. Network battles and production crises. And inevitable comparisons to “Lost.” But as tumultuous as it all can be, I realize this what I truly love doing. Because nothing outshines the thrill of having a good story to tell.