David S. Goyer and Marc Guggenheim take on the challenge of filling the shoes of Lost by building their own unique mystery in the new ABC thriller FlashForward.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
As ABC finds itself up against the final, unimaginable wrap-up season of their hugely successful island tease-athon, Lost, it seems to have found a new Atlas on whom it can rest its global expectations.
The new show is FlashForward, another mysterious, sci-fi-ish thriller based on the 1999 novel by Robert J. Sawyer. Fundamentally, it entertains a scenario where an initially unexplained global blackout gives everyone on earth a sneak peak at their own futures, six months hence.
The fun starts when you ask the question, what would you do?
David S. Goyer, scripter for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and Marc Guggenheim, a writer on such TV shows as Law and Order, CSI: Miami and the feature X-Men Origins: Wolverine, been working, along with fellow producer Brannon Braga to answer that question.
They spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the central question posed by FlashForward, the huge logistical challenge of writing a show with 10 reoccurring roles, and exactly how to fill the shoes of Lost.
As a much sought after follow up to Lost, how has writing under that incredible expectation affected how you handle the writer’s room? Have you done anything to counter that?
Marc Guggenheim: The answer is no because there is nothing to be done to circumvent the expectations. What you really want to circumvent is the impulse to do something in reaction to the expectations.
David S. Goyer: What we often say to reporters who ask what we think of these comparisons to Lost is, “You’ve seen the pilot. Do you think it’s like Lost?” Almost invariably they’ll say no, except for the fact that it has a large cast.
I think it’s death to any show, or movie for that matter, to try to defensively react creatively to things.
Photo: © 2009 ABC
Joseph Fiennes and Sonya Walger in FlashForward.
Do you find it cropping up in the writer’s room either that writers are trying to avoid Lost or are drawn to it, Marc?
Marc Guggenheim: I’ll tell you two things: what comes up in the writer’s room the most are shows that we really like, and Lost is one of those shows. Battlestar Galactica also comes up...
David S. Goyer: The Wire, Breaking Bad we’re all fans of as well.
Marc Guggenheim: So because we tend to approach the show as audience members first and writers second, we are always mindful to avoid tricks or twists or plot beats that always drive us crazy in shows – characters that act really inconsistently, or plot beats that come out of nowhere or when there’s no pre-planning. We’re always referencing other shows, as TV fans do, for the good and the bad. I think more than anything, that’s how other shows enter the writer’s room, just as a discussion of what’s being done, good and bad, in the medium.
And it’s true that you guys are both real TV and sci-fi nerds? You are really consumers of this stuff?
Marc Guggenheim: Absolutely.
David S. Goyer: And I’ll bring this up only because it’s relevant in terms of audience expectation, when Chris Nolan and I were working on Batman Begins and the Dark Knight, there was all this expectation of what a new Batman would be or what the sequel would be and all this hubbub, but at the end of the day, you have to put that aside, as well as the studio’s expectations and say, “What do I wanna see?”
And forget all this comparative stuff that I led off with.
David S. Goyer: What do we want to see?
In the simplest terms, as TV fans and TV creators, what is this show?
Marc Guggenheim: The show is really simple, actually. Everyone in the world blacks out. Everyone in the world sees a glimpse of their future. Some people accept it, some people wanna fight it, and some people are confused.
So that’s the narrative log line. Thematically, what’s the heart?
David S. Goyer: For me, the thematic engine is, I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of nature versus nurture. This has come in different ways on many of the things that I’ve worked on. I’ve always been fascinated by whether we come out of the womb with our life path already baked in by genetics, or do we have a choice? And if we do have a choice, how hard is it to buck the predestined stuff? I think for most people, their life paths are predominately written for them from the day they’re born onwards, but every once and a while, someone comes along and bucks that trend. Those are the outliers that I’ve always been fascinated with.
Marc Guggenheim: What I find interesting is the way fate and destiny can literally move the line of morality for you. You know, today you’re a good guy, the line of morality moves, and tomorrow you’re a bad guy, but you haven’t changed.
David S. Goyer: And that’s the thing, and this goes back to biblical times, if you subscribe to the notion of fate or destiny, to a certain extent you can hide behind it or you can use it to embolden yourself. Depending on where you fall on the line, it can absolve you of moral responsibility. But conversely it can work in a good way because it can push people to do something they wouldn’t normally do, to rise to a level or heroism they wouldn’t otherwise rise to, like in our show.
Often times as a writer when you start with a concept like this, which is clear and interesting on its face, you think you understand it, but when you open it up in the writing process, you don’t really know where it’s going to go. Has this concept surprised you, and if so, how?
David S. Goyer: There are the expected ones and the unexpected ones. It’s funny, we knew this was going to be a complicated show, but I will say, there was that initial month when we first convened the writer’s room and started really fleshing out the plan, that I know I said to myself, “Holy crap, what have we gotten ourselves into here?” Not that the storytelling is complicated, but we had to figure out the ending before we could start, and the multiple characters. The full magnitude of what we’d taken on hit us like a lead weight.
Just the full logistical challenge?
Marc Guggenheim: Yes, and for me, the biggest unexpected challenge was keeping all the big characters and ideas alive – making sure that those are all tracking and that our characters are reacting to the things they’re supposed to when they’re supposed to. You have 10 regulars, so that’s 10 story lines you have to be tracking.
David S. Goyer: Yeah, the mythology we’re creating isn’t nearly as complex as a show like Lost or perhaps Heroes. It’s just that each of these characters has their own story that has a beginning, middle, and end over the course of the first season, and you need to keep checking in with them and moving the ball forward. We definitely had circumstances where we figured out one character’s story and it keeps getting booted out of the next episode because we don’t have time to fit it in.
Marc Guggenheim: We have a lot of story to tell. One of the very first things that David and I decided on was that, the more cynical members of the audience would think, “Oh, they’re going to show me the future in the premier, and then they’ll tread water for six months, and I can just tune in for the season finale and find out what came to pass and what didn’t.” So one of the very first things we decided was that we had to defy those expectations right out of the gate and basically make episodes two through 21 destination viewing. What that means is...
David S. Goyer: You burn through story faster.
Marc Guggenheim: Exactly. We burn through so much story.
Has it surprised you where it goes in terms of what it’s really getting down to, what it’s really doing as a narrative?
David S. Goyer: The pilot starts very broad in scope, and it gets narrower and narrower as the episodes progress. In a way it’s really a paradigm for the whole series. We always viewed the initial blackout as kind of the bait, but the show is about how this event is refracted through all these very personal individual prisms.
We always thought this would be an intense character drama. But then we’ve been surprised. There’s a character, for example – I think it’s okay to say her name – played by Christine Woods. We originally cast her because she was quirky and quite funny and hot, but she turned out to have...
Marc Guggenheim: An emotional range.
David S. Goyer: An emotional range that we did not expect that character to have, so her story line ended up getting very, very emotional. We didn’t expect it, but already by episode five, it’s really gut-wrenching what’s happening to this character.
Seemingly there is an inherent expiration date with this show, since people are able to see only six months into the future. I’m sure you have this figured out, but how bright is the future of the show conceptually after season one?
Marc Guggenheim: Hopefully really bright.
David S. Goyer: The pilot script got a lot of good response, but obviously a lot of the networks said, “This is cool, but where does it go? Can this show last for six or seven seasons?” Fortunately, we’d given that a fair amount of thought and told them what we had in mind. I’ve read a lot of speculation about what’s going to happen in the second season, but I can only say that, in some ways, I look at the first season as just a prologue to the rest of the seasons. We can really take the harness off come the second season.