LILLE, France — In town for a keynote address at this year’s Series Mania, the first edition since moving from Paris to Lille, preeminent Hollywood TV writer and showrunner Carlton Cuse addressed a packed UGC center for the better part of two hours in which he addressed his early career, the “Lost” finale, and the need for diversity in a writers’ room.
The keynote started by looking back at Cuse’s grade school years, when his parents split and he found himself with afternoons free to sit and watch reruns while his mom worked. It’s clear that period had a major impact on Cuse as a creative.
From “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” to Jack in “Lost,” to Norman in “Bates Motel,” many of Cuse’s leads have estranged relationships with their fathers that they are working to resolve, if a resolution is possible. It’s also worth noting that Brisco County Jr. went to Harvard, as did Cuse, and that Jack was pushed into the field of medicine by his family of doctors, both pages torn from Cuse’s own storybook.
In 1980, writers of the smash hit “Airplane” came to screen the film at Harvard. It was then that Cuse first considered that someone could write for a living so, after university, he moved to L.A. After a few years spent running errands for a Hollywood executive, he was promoted to the position of reader, where he found inspiration.
“I read a lot of those scripts, and felt emboldened,” he remembered. “I was reading scripts by guys making a living that I thought I could do it as well as them. What I didn’t realize was the gap between a simple constructed script, and how much went into writing that script.”
His first creative success came in the form of a writing partnership, in reality if not in title, with Jeffery Boam, where he contributed on the second and third “Lethal Weapon” films and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
After the success of the Indiana Jones films, Fox’s Bob Greenblatt approached Cuse and asked if he could do something similar for TV.
“I visited New Mexico with my wife,” he said, “and I had the idea for ‘The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.’ A Harvard educated lawman who was kind of a bounty hunter.”
It was his first experience as a showrunner, and Cuse admitted, “I didn’t know what I was doing so it was on the job training, making one episode every seven days.”
While discussing the successful run of Don Johnson starrer “Nash Bridges,” Cuse recalled a time during Season 6 when “I hired a junior baby writer named Damon Lindelof for his first staff job on a TV show.”
Cuse says he knew right away that Lindelof was a special talent, and when Damon asked him to work on a new project, he dropped everything to go.
He described the show’s not-so-humble beginnings: “Lloyd Braun was an exec at ABC at the time, and knew he was about to get fired, and he greenlit this $12million pilot which was the most anybody had ever spent on a pilot.”
Cuse said that he and Lindelof had only ever hoped to make 12 episodes of the show, which liberated them to break every established rule there was in network TV at the time.
“In 2004 there was no sci-fi on network,” he explained. “No serialized storytelling on network TV. A normal cast was seven or eight, we had 16. They said we had to kill a bunch of them and we said no. We had characters that had done really bad things.”
He also addressed the series’ infamous finale, with the benefit of hindsight.
“We told the ending we wanted to tell,” he explained. “’Lost’ was not a show about people lost on an island, but in their lives, searching for meaning and purpose. (The finale) speaks to this notion of how we need other people to get us through our journeys in life.”
After discussing his other successful programs, such as A&E’s “Bates Motel,” the keynote turned to the future, and the upcoming Tom Clancy adaption “Jack Ryan,” starring John Krasinski. He even treated the crowd to two as-yet unseen clips, one which will feel familiar to Krasinski’s “The Office” fans, and another on a crowded Middle Eastern street.
It was here that Cuse emphasized the importance of a diverse writers’ room in modern TV, especially when dealing with something as volatile as international terrorism.
“I think it’s important in Hollywood to be inclusive, and have as much diversity and representation as possible,” he said, “and I think Hollywood is movie rapidly in that direction.”
He pointed out that the writers’ room for “Jack Ryan” had three female staff writers, one of whom was a Muslim, and a number of Muslim script consultants.
On portraying international terrorism in a series he said: “I think the danger is in not demonizing a culture, but a character. This is about a bad character, not a bad culture.”
The keynote ended with an audience Q&A before those in attendance flushed back out into the rainy streets of Lille.