When Lost first premiered in 2004, lost among the mysteries of the smoke monster and strange polar bear sightings were some intriguing casting and scripting decisions. It's no great revelation to note that the history of television programming has often excluded actors of color, especially Asian Americans, yet with Lost, three of the main members of the doomed Oceanic 815 flight were cast with Asian or Asian American actors. South Asian British actor Naveen Andrews portrays former Iraqi interrogator Sayid Jarrah, and the star-crossed couple, Sun and Jin Kwon, are played by Korean actress Yunjin Kim and Korean American actor Daniel Dae Kim respectively.
As later seasons unfolded, even more Asian faces popped into the mix, most notably Ken Leung as ghost whisperer Miles Straume, Francois Chau as Dharma Initiative scientist (and orientation filmmaker) Pierre Chang, and in this current, final season, Hiroyuki Sanada as the mysterious (and alas, short-lived) leader of the Others, Dogen. In short, Lost has become arguably the most Asian/Asian American forward network show in primetime history.
To explore some of the nuances of the show and its Asian characters and cast, APA was fortunate enough to have access to three key members of its writing/producing staff. In Part 1, we speak with Melinda Hsu Taylor who recently wrote the episode that finally shed some light on the background of the eternal Richard Alpert. In Part 2, we speak with lead writer s/producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.
We begin with Melinda Hsu Taylor, who joined the writing staff on Lost in Season 5.
APA: I know you haven't been with the show since its inception, but is it strange to you that it's finally winding down?
MHT: You approach it from a different perspective if you know that you're going on a tour of duty, and it's very exciting, but two years from now, you're going to be looking for another job. So I think for me, it's quite different than it is for people who've been there since Season One, and for them, it's a very nostalgic and sad, kind of overwhelming and exciting time.
APA: The writing staff on the show is a mix between veterans like Damon and Carlton and then newer members, such as yourself. How did you end up writing for Lost?
MHT: I was really thrilled and lucky to get the interview after a show that I had been on [Women's Murder Club] had been canceled. I happened to be interviewing for a job at the time that somebody at my level, who happened to be a woman, who happened to be Asian, actually, had left. What that's called is "they had an opening at my level."
I also had a general interview at ABC several years before... they had a script of mine that was kind of a post-apocalyptic pilot. And Carlton Cuse, who was one of Lost's showrunners, read the script, responded to it and thought that it was the right kind of writing. And he said to Damon, "Oh, let's meet this person." I also worked on Medium, which is another genre show. Also, I had written for George Lucas on The Clone Wars animated series. So they could tell that I had sort of the right resume and at least I was in the ballpark.
APA: I don't want to assume too much here, but before you joined the show, just as a viewer of the show, were you struck by just how many prominent Asian and Asian American characters existed on Lost?
MHT: I was actually -- and with the diversity of the entire cast. They had really a kind of global cast, coming into the show, and I was really fond of these characters Sun and Jin, especially as a couple. They were some of my favorites. I'm also very fond of the character Miles who is so funny, and I really admire that actor [Ken Leung]. I like all the characters. It's not because they're Asian or not Asian.
APA: Sure. I don't want to assume too much here.
MHT: Of course it strikes you as a viewer of television, especially knowing that there's not a whole [lot] of Asians on TV.
APA: When you joined, you had mentioned that there had been opening at your level and that person not only was at your experience level but also happened to be an Asian woman (Christine Kim, see Part 2). When you were hired, was there an expectation that you would help write some of the Asian characters?
MHT: I don't think so at all. I think it was a coincidence.
APA: Have you ended up writing for Jin, or for Sun, or for Miles' characters?
MHT: I did write an episode -- this was really coincidence -- called "Some Like it Hoth," in Season Five with Greggory Nations, and it featured Miles and his dad, and his mom had a scene in that too. It wasn't because I was Asian; it was literally because that's where I came up into the rotation and that was the story we were going to do for episode 515.
APA: Of the stories that you worked on, do you have any personal favorites?
MHT: I was particularly proud of episode 609 ["Ab Aterno"] which I won't say anymore about because it hasn't aired yet. [Note: It has since aired on March 25th] I can tell you that it's Richard Alpert-centric. I'm just really thrilled about everything about the episode.
APA: I'm curious, from a writer's point of view, if you find any characters particularly intriguing, regardless if you've written for them or not.
MHT: I do like Miles, actually, maybe because I wrote for him. And I also like the actor. I do like Richard Alpert a lot. Ben...you can't go wrong with. Everybody loves Sawyer. Those would be my top characters, and actually they're not always easy to write for either. Some of them, like Locke and Ben, especially Locke... Locke's very difficult to write for, but I love watching those guys. They're such amazing actors. Everybody on the cast are so incredibly talented.
APA: When you say that they're difficult to write for, what is it about their characters that creates a greater challenge, perhaps?
MHT: Well, Locke is such a heavily mythological character, especially this season, and what he says tends to be a little bit cryptic but loaded with all this hidden meaning. Damon and Carlton always have a specific idea of exactly how they want what he says to come across. It's just a high degree of difficulty writing his stuff, whereas Miles says something funny, very often. Lapidus will have some great aside that is the wry, every man -- I do love Lapidus, actually.
APA: Back to Miles - you mentioned writing his "background" episode, "Some Like It Hoth." What's it like to write for Miles?
MHT: Writing for Miles is fun. I guess the challenge and benefit of Miles is that he has a tendency towards snarky one-liners, which actor Ken Leung delivers so perfectly, so there's always an opportunity for him to be sardonic and witty and give an Everyman commentary on the weirdness surrounding him; but you also want to keep his emotions real and trackable. We've been helped by the fact that Miles developed a close friendship with Sawyer during his Dharma years, which gave us moments like how he helped Sawyer bury Juliet's body in the Season 6 premiere. During that scene, Miles is very compassionate and genuine with Sawyer. At the same time, you have the ability to put Miles' psychic talents into play, so in that same burial scene, Miles realizes that Sawyer's real agenda is for Miles to "read" Juliet's last thoughts, and the scene spins into an even more raw and intriguing place because of that.
APA: Stepping away from the show, what got you into television writing in general?
MHT: I had come out to Los Angeles, and I had struggled for many years to get screenplays produced. I had written a lot things, but nothing was making me any money. And my husband, Tom Taylor, finally said, "Why not TV writing?" And I said, "Oh, I don't watch TV. I don't like TV. I don't like to work with others. I write alone." [But] I applied for a workshop, and I got in, and that changed everything because I suddenly realized that there are people out there who are getting a weekly paycheck for TV, and I actually like working with other people. It turns out I was really social, and I did like TV.
APA: Ha, who doesn't? You were mentioning before about the post-apocalyptic script that helped you get into the door at ABC, and many of the shows that you had written for before leaned towards science fiction or the paranormal. Is that a coincidence, or are these themes things that appeal to your imagination?
MHT: It's not a coincidence. My favorite movie of all time is Star Wars, and that's true for a lot of writers in the room. It really is an influential thing, growing up, feeling like there was another planet. I was a huge Star Trek fan of the original TV shows. Anything to do with science fiction, or rocket ships. I do like paranormal stuff too, not because of any preoccupation, but I just like storytelling that allows you to explore human nature, but set in some kind of heightened circumstance. In the apocalypse, people don't have to obey normal rules, and on The Island, people aren't bound by a job, or necessarily a family, or anything except very basic survival. It allows human nature to come out, and people are pitted against each other in these very supercharged, emotional, and stake-heavy conflicts. I really admire the writing of family dramas or quiet TV shows, or shows where it doesn't seem like anything's happening. The writing's really good, but for me, it's like, "Let's have somebody dropped dead; let's have the island disappear. What are we going to do next?" It's, I don't know, liberating for me as a writer to write that.
APA: I think what you're saying is that you're not really bound by conventional rules, that you can pull something out of your hat, and it actually fits within the logic of the show because it's so illogical some ways, right?
MHT: Yeah, there are times on Women's Murder Club, where it's a show that I really enjoyed and I really loved the people I worked with, but you have to think, "Well, she's a reporter, how is she going to get passed the crime scene tape?" You're bound by all these mundane details. Don't get me wrong, the mundane details can also be great.
APA: You said that you hadn't watched a lot of television before, but I'm wondering, over the years, do you have any particular favorite sci-fi series? Star Trek, I think, would be an easy touchstone, but something perhaps a little more off the beaten path?
MHT: Well, I really like the recent Battlestar Galatica. I thought it was brilliant particularly in the early seasons. I actually really liked the original Battlestar Galatica. It's silly, but it tapped into my imagination as a kid.
APA: One thing that strikes me about science fiction in general, and maybe this is just the legacy of Sulu being on the original Star Trek, but it seems to me that sci-fi series have been among the most welcoming of Asian and Asian American actors. Do you think that's a coincidence at all?
MHT: I can only imagine that when you're casting something like that, you want to feel like you're including everybody in the world in this vision of the future, whether it's dark or cheerful. The more of a palette that you get when you take in the cast at a glance, the more you feel like, "We're speaking to something more universal and human, and not just about a white upper class family and their dinner table" -- not that there's anything wrong with that. Maybe it makes it feel like there's a scope to it, or that people have evolved in their relationships. That's one of the things that I really loved about the original Star Trek: this idea that the Starfleet and the Federation, everybody was so okay with each other -- that it was no big deal what color anybody was.
APA: I think I follow what you're saying here; sci-fi represents a sort of utopian -- or dystopian -- vision of the future.
MHT: But you want the kind of representatives of all these different walks, and you want to externalize that. In a disaster movie, I think very often, you get all these little weird walks of life people, but there's tend to be a very diverse cast because you want to feel like everybody all over the globe is affected by this.
Part II: interview with lead writer s/producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse