The man behind the lens of TV’s most addictive show spills behind-the-scenes secrets and tackles praise and criticism in equal measure
By Kiel Phegley
Posted March 27, 2007 10:00 AM
Of all the names that scroll along the bottom of the screen on ABC’s hit drama “Lost,” going unnoticed by fans who follow every word spoken by the actors and creators of the hit show, Jack Bender may have the greatest creative impact.
As executive producer and lead director for the series, Bender coordinates the massive staff of professionals and creative types who help to bring everything from the Others’ home base to the black smoke monster to life on film. Having directed 19 of the 60 series episodes that have aired so far, Bender has had a hand in many key turning points for the series, including a majority of season premieres and finales. So for a peek into the mind of the men and women who craft “Lost’s” visual nature, Wizard Universe reached out to Bender with a series of questions and received a virtual torrent of behind-the-scenes commentary from the director on everything from the practical aspect of bringing the show to life to the crew’s creative response to the criticisms that have followed the show throughout its third season.
WIZARD: Hello, Jack. Gee, I’m assuming you’re in Hawaii since the “on hold” music was, well…
BENDER: Hawaiian, as opposed to the young “Hannah Montana” when you call Disney or whatever star they’re promoting during the week. The Hawaiian music, believe me, is better than the insipid pop music.
So not too many people have interviewed you about “Lost,” which seems odd considering how much of an impact the visual style has on the show. Maybe that’s just the stigma of TV being a “writer’s medium.”
BENDER: Well, I think that’s true, and I appreciate you recognizing that. I think that [executive producers] Damon [Lindelof] and Carlton [Cuse] would say the same thing, as would [co-creator] J.J. [Abrams]—that we in Hawaii have brought a lot to the experience of “Lost.” We get these awesome scripts, and then we get to tell the stories.
For you, what are the defining visual elements that make “Lost” its own show as opposed to other kinds of dramas on network TV?
|BENDER: Well, let me go back to the pilot, because when J.J. asked me to run the show here after realizing that beautiful pilot, I looked at it and went, “Woof. How the f--- can I keep that up every week?” It was the most expensive pilot made for TV ever, and it looked it. It was beautifully shot by Larry Fong and directed by J.J., and I looked at it and I went, “Oh, my God.” But when I looked at it again I saw that one of the things that I think J.J. is really inspired at is casting. I felt that J.J. and Damon and [executive producer Bryan] Burk and everyone who put together the pilot did a brilliant job of casting and collecting a group of actors that I hadn’t seen on television before. Of course, I had seen Matt Fox before, but it was the most eclectic, certainly multiracially interesting group of characters and actors that I’d seen since, let’s say, “ER.” I thought, “I really want to know about these people. As a director and executive producer I really want to work with these people.”|
But as a viewer, if we can focus the show on the characters—and from the beginning the intention was to make the show as much about the monster within these characters as well as the monster without, meaning whatever was the force on the island or forces on the island that were scaring them—then I think we can keep the bar on this series up. We can keep telling stories that are going to be worthy of it.
“Walkabout”—which was the second episode we did—because Locke’s world is so sort of cut-and-dry and ordinary and like the cardboard box that he’s trapped in at the company, I said, “Let’s not do any camera moves. Let’s not do any interesting mellifluous dolly movies or any of that stuff. Let’s make it all cuts and very angled. Also, let’s work with wider-angle lenses closer, not to the point of distorting and doing anything obvious.” My approach to the show, as was J.J.’s approach to the pilot, was always that this was the real world, that we’re not going to do something so crazy visually and dim the realities. I wanted the flashbacks to look like the real world. I didn’t want them to look like “Cold Case” where suddenly every flashback is blue. There is a reason that show comes up with that language, and it works for that show, but I wanted our show to always be essentially the real world. So what we did is that we saved all the camera moves and all the moving shots and handheld and longer lenses and all of that stuff for the island story, and we made the flashbacks closer angles, wider lenses so that all of the background would be in focus.
I said, “Let’s surround Locke with all the things in the world. Let’s surround our characters with all of the things that they no longer have on the island.” For instance, there was that scene that took place in the lunchroom at his box company, and it was written to be, I think, out in his cubicle or somewhere else. And I said directorially to the guys in L.A., “Let’s make that a lunchroom, because then we can have vending machines, and we can have all the things that are luxuries to people in our civilization as long as we have them, because now our characters don’t have any food machines. They don’t have any quarters that they can put in and get an apple. They’re now stripped of all of these things.” So in order to create the contrast of the flashback world that they left and the present world that they were in, we approached it in that way and started to discover that language. I said, “Okay, let’s keep all blue and green”—which are the primary island colors because of the ocean and the jungle—“Let’s keep all blue and green out of the flashbacks.” That lasted for a little while, but like every rule it was meant to be broken. And there were times where, as we got further into other stories—like we got into a Sun and Jin story when he proposed to her, and it was a more romantic show—suddenly the director who was doing that episode said, “I kind of feel like I should do a long-lens dolly move here.” I said, “You know, you’re right. There goes that rule. There goes the rule of no dolly moves in flashbacks. It worked for the Locke episode, but for this episode it doesn’t really work and it’ll restrict us.”
|But we began to find our way and the visual language of the show. There was an early scene in an episode, and I think that it might’ve been “Walkabout” again, where there was a fight on the beach, and all of the survivors were arguing about the diminishing food supply, and there was panic. So I shot all of that handheld with whip pans and chaos and we didn’t over-rehearse it so that the camera operators never knew where the actors were going to be. So it was with a certain spontaneity, and then Locke takes a knife and he throws it into a chair where Sawyer sits down. It’s like that gesture of the knife hitting the chair cuts through all of their chaos, and I suddenly I went to studio-mode cameras, like on dollies, no more handheld, and we did a low and wide, very slow move on Locke when he took control of everyone and said, “I’m going to tell you what we’re going to do.” So that was an example of the directorial style of not being style over content, but me wanting the show always to be driven by the characters and the drama on the page and saying, “Okay, let’s go handheld here, and then when Locke gets control of the situation we’re going to lock it down and make it much calmer.”|
So we began to throw seeds out into the forest and find our way. Certain rules did come about visually, and we stuck with them. I remember one episode that Stephen Williams directed when we were doing Iraq. We were talking about “Black Hawk Down,” which was a brilliant film, and Stephen was looking at it and admiring it. And we were talking about the look of it and everything, and we said, “You know, [‘Black Hawk Down’ director] Ridley Scott went very sort of bleach bypass and blue for a lot of that film.” And you see a lot of TV shows that suddenly do Iraq now like “Three Kings.” It’s all bleached out, and so you know what? We don’t want our show to look like other shows. We want our show to look like Iraq. Well, Iraq doesn’t really look like that. That’s the language brilliant films like “Three Kings” and “Black Hawk Down” may have used for their language in their film, but that doesn’t mean that we should necessarily adopt that language. So we found a way to make it look like Iraq through production design and some other things, and that was an episode that we had some visual effects in that weren’t too successful, but we rectified that problem.
Nevertheless, this is a part of our show, definitely. I’ve always wanted our show to look like the real world, and then style and content sort of meet in the middle. I remember watching a show that was on recently, and it was a lawyer show. It was a new show about this law firm, and there were these crazy f---ing hand-held whip-pan camera moves and jump cuts and all of this crazy sh-- that looked like a bad music video during a scene when the lawyer was meeting a prospective client in the lobby of their law firm. I’m watching this going, “Wait a minute. This has nothing to do with any kind of visual storytelling. It’s clearly a way to dress up something that’s not working, and if the camera is whipping around fast enough, maybe the audience will be distracted by what they’re seeing and kind of think it’s cool or that something is happening, when in fact nothing is happening.” When stuff is happening with the awesome actors that we have on this show and the great scripts that we get, the camera at times can just sit there, and it can be riveting. So directorially, our show has always been style meeting content as opposed to one or the other.