From Teaneck Boy to Hollywood Icon – Meet Damon Lindelof

Jason GuzmanDavid LindelofJason Guzman – young Teaneck resident, who volunteered to be the Co-Director of Social Media for the Teaneck International Film Festival – spoke to a former Teaneck resident, someone whose fame has grown since he grew up on the streets of this town: Damon Lindelof. The following interview offers insight into Damon’s years in Teaneck, and the path that took him to worldwide recognition.

Take a walk through the doors of the media center at Teaneck High and you’ll quickly come across a wall lined with pictures of some of the school’s most successful alumni. From professional sports figures to military officials and fashion moguls, THS boasts a large pool of alumni who have gone on to make names for themselves in a wide variety of industries. Among the faces on this wall, the most recent graduate to have been included is Damon Lindelof. Since graduating from Teaneck High in 1991, and later NYU, Damon has become one of the most well-known screenwriters in the entertainment industry and has been very active in television and film. He is most famous for his work on the highly acclaimed television series "Lost", which he co-created along with J.J Abrams. Over the past five years, Damon has also worked on numerous blockbuster films such as Star Trek, Prometheus, and World War Z. His current television project,” The Leftovers,” premiered on HBO this summer, and the Disney film, “Tomorrowland,” which he co-wrote, will be released in 2015. In anticipation of the 2014 Teaneck International Film Festival, Damon graciously spared some time to discuss his upbringing in Teaneck as well as his rise to fame.

Hello Mr. Lindelof, I want thank you, personally, and on behalf of the Teaneck International Film Festival for taking the time to do this.

Oh, you got it. There is just one caveat: call me Damon please.

Okay, great. To begin, as a native of the town, would you mind telling us a bit about your upbringing in Teaneck?

Absolutely. For the first 20 years of my life, I lived on Grayson Place between Queen Anne Road and Palisade Avenue, and I was educated in the public school system of Teaneck, which was excellent. I started at Washington Irving, then went to Eugene Field, and on to Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and then Teaneck High. I am a byproduct of the Teaneck Public Schools, and very proud of that. I have a great amount of affection for Teaneck and for New Jersey.

I know that you are a graduate of NYU’s film program, and I read that your aspirations for working in the film industry began during your freshman year at Teaneck High School. What made you come to that realization?

I think that I was always interested in movies and television and then at Teaneck High I met Stan Zak, the head of the audio/visual department who taught a class on television production. We had access to video cameras and editing equipment, and over the course of my time at Teaneck High, with his guidance, we put together a weekly newscast and also did projects for teachers and administrators. My creativity was really fostered by Mr. Zak, and by a number of other high school teachers. Richard Cabezas and Jean Johnson, who ran the theatre program my last couple of years there, were also major influences.

Throughout your career, you have worked in both film and television. Which would you say you prefer writing for more?

It’s the opposite of whatever I’m currently doing. When I was doing movies, I really missed writing for TV because television was a much more, sort of, collaborative environment. You’re telling a story over multiple episodes so you can go very deep with characters. I think that movies have to adhere to a certain structure. They’ve got to be 2 hours long and the good guy always has to win, and there are all these different limitations to storytelling in movies. But, now that I’m doing TV, I’m fantasizing about doing movies because of the idea of just working on a single script and finishing that one script. There is comfort in having some type of formula. So, the grass is always greener on the other side, and I hope to be able to continue working in both.

Your last foray into television was the highly successful series “Lost,” which you, J.J Abrams, and Carlton Cuse collaborated on and raised from the ground up. This time around, with “The Leftovers,” you are basing it on Tom Perrotta’s book of the same name. Do you prefer working with source material or creating your own story and set of characters from scratch?

That’s a great question, I’m not sure that I have a preference. Both of them have their upsides and their downsides but I do think that the excitement of creating something from the ground up like “Lost" was very exciting because you could kind of do whatever you wanted. At the same time, there’s also something tremendously exciting about reading Tom Perrotta’s book and getting completely and totally creatively engaged by it and so I think that inspiration works in mysterious ways. At the end of the day, I’m not the kind of guy who’s just walking down the street and suddenly has an idea for a movie or TV show. Much more for me, something gets presented to me, or I see or read something and I go “Oh, that sounds cool,” and that’s kind of what happened with “Lost” too; I wasn’t just standing in the shower thinking that I would write that show. ABC wanted to do a show about a plane crash and an island, so that was the jumping off point and I jumped all the way.

Prior to working on “Lost,” I know you worked on shows like “Wasteland” and “Nash Bridges” and even before that, you worked at an agency. How did you come about working at that agency initially?

I came out to California and I didn’t really know anybody at all, and at the time there wasn’t really an internet. It was in the early 90s, so you would just buy newspapers and look through the open job assignments in the film and television industry. At the time, what I had been hearing was that a [talent] agency was a good place to work because they dealt with writers, actors, and directors, all the things that I wanted to be, so it just felt like the closer I was to the business the better. It was just the matter of going out on a number of interviews and being patient before I found someone dumb enough to hire me.

We kind of touched upon this before, but how has being raised in a town like Teaneck influenced your career and writing style? Have you had characters in your past work that were inspired by people you knew growing up?

The only character that I ever named after a teacher was Dr. Arzt who was a character on “Lost”. He was a physics teacher and he explodes after mishandling dynamite. He was based on a physics teacher that I had in high school named Dr. Arzt, but the character was much more arrogant than the real Dr. Arzt. I just thought it was a great name, but we [screenwriters] pull all of our characters and all of the things that we write about from our personal experiences. Right now on "The Leftovers", the show is set in a suburb of New York that to me in many ways is not that unlike Teaneck, so I’ve had the suburban experience and I can write from that place.

What do you feel are the benefits to having an event like the Teaneck International Film Festival in our community?

I just think it’s a great piece of culture. Teaneck to me has always been a place that’s very forward thinking, and the people who live there really want to be connected to the arts, and so the idea of having a film festival that will expose them to movies that they otherwise may not see is a fantastic thing.

Speaking of art in the community, one of the town’s older landmarks is the movie theatre on Cedar Lane. Can you recall any movies that you saw there over the years?

Oh yes, many movies. Most notably, I remember “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. It was playing there almost the entire summer in 1981 and I would have my mom drop me off and would watch it two or three times before being picked up. I think I saw that movie close to 100 times that summer, in all of the theatres, so lots of popcorn and candy were consumed.

Since getting involved in the film and television business yourself, you have worked on a number of big projects. Do you have a favorite?

I can’t really pick a favorite. I mean for me, “Lost” is probably the piece of work that I am most proud of and the piece that is the most defining for me because I spent close to seven years of my life working on those 120 episodes and I feel enormously grateful for it. I feel that the show opened up the door to all my other projects. It’s every writer’s dream to basically tell the story that they want to tell more or less on their own terms and I wouldn’t say that it [“Lost’] is my favorite to the detriment of others, but it is the one [project] that I had the most attachment to.

I can only imagine the amount of pressure you felt when J.J left and placed you at the helm of the show, but was there ever a time during the seven year production of "Lost,” when you got more accustomed to being a show-runner and the pressure sort of eased off?

Never, I always felt like I had a tiger by the tail. The show was just enormously difficult and it always felt like we could make a number of bad creative moves that would lead to a really horrible thing. There have been other shows that came out after "Lost" that started off very, very hot and then completely imploded. We had to reinvent the show to some degree almost every season so I never got comfortable.

Speaking of J.J, can you give us any word on any sort of involvement you might have with his current “Star Wars” project or any of the upcoming spinoffs?

You know, I’m a huge “Star Wars” nut. I love those movies; they’re kind of responsible for everything I wanted to be in this business, but I swear, nobody believes me when I say this, but it’s true, I know nothing about the new “Star Wars” movies other than what I’ve heard on the internet. Although J.J and his producing partner Bryan Burke have come to me and asked “Do you want to know what it’s about?” I have just said, “No, I don’t want to know anything.” I want to experience it just the way everybody else will, and I’ve been so buried in "The Leftovers" and this movie that I’m working on, “Tomorrowland,” that I’m just not able to take on any new jobs right now. I haven’t been asked to work on a “Star Wars” movie and if I were, it would be a huge conflict for me because I’m not really available to do it and it would be heartbreaking.

Being that you have been working in the industry for over the past decade, is there any advice you could share for those who aspire to get involved in film and television?

I think that the best advice I could give is to just be enormously persistent. Obviously, talent is important but I don’t think it’s as important as hard work. So really apply yourself, learn as much as you can, watch a lot of movies, read a lot of scripts, and really immerse yourself in the field and educate yourself. The best experience you can get if you want to get involved with film and television is to watch film and television, not just as an audience member but also as someone who wants to make this stuff. Try to understand and take apart what you see, and then, essentially, just believe in yourself and keep gutting it out. A lot of people don’t reach a desired level of success until their mid-forties or late-thirties. Ridley Scott [director of “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” and “Prometheus”] directed his first movie at 40, so you just have to keep pounding the pavement.