TV interview: “Lost was an experiment”

The showrunner of JJ Abrams’ new series Alcatraz (latest news: production apparently stopped for reshoots) talks about what the two shows have in common…

As a writer and executive producer on Lost for five seasons, Liz Sarnoff became adept at wrestling mythology and character storylines together into compelling hours of television.

Just before that celebrated series ended in 2010, Sarnoff was drafted by JJ Abrams to run a new show he was developing about another enigmatic island – legendary San Francisco prison Alcatraz. SFX ’s Tara Bennett quizzed Sarnoff about how the two shows compare and where Alcatraz will differ.

Asked how working on different shows in the past has prepared her to run this series, Sarnoff explains, “I think you learn on any show that you do. I’ve never done a show that wasn’t an incredible learning experience for me. Even the ones I didn’t love so much are sometimes the best learning examples. It took two seasons of Lost for all of us to figure out what the show was and what the stories were. Lost was in some ways an experiment that gathered so much momentum that it was unstoppable but at the same time that doesn’t mean anyone knew what we were doing,” she laughs. “I would not have signed onto another show like that, because the idea of a ‘What’s the island?’ story every week was very challenging.”

While Alcatraz is first and foremost a procedural series about a government team reacquiring former Alcatraz inmates in present-day San Francisco, Sarnoff says a series mythology will also unfold from the characters – her preference.

“For me everything comes from character. I’ve never been on a show that wasn’t driven by character. It doesn’t hold a lot of interest for me without that, so every scene we look at when we are breaking stories we’re asking, ‘What’s the character moment in each of these scenes?’ Lost was a character show. At its heart it was about the characters and certainly that’s what this show is. Everyone has a personal investment in what is happening and the personal connections with Alcatraz. They are trying to work out their paths in some ways through this present day dilemma. That works very well for characters on the show. I want things grounded and don’t want things that don’t make sense or that we are struggling to explain.”

Sarnoff explains that the core team of Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), Diego “Doc” Soto (Jorge Garcia) and, to a lesser degree at first, Agent Emerson Hauser ( Jurassic Park ’s Sam Neill) will have lives to deal with outside of their new secret mission. “[My writers and I] were just talking about that how they have a lot going on in their lives. They are very big, emotional characters to me. Rebecca, in particular, is driven by a lot of personal motivation and at the same time she has this drive to figure things out on a cop level.”

Interview by Tara Bennett . We’ve interviewed Liz Sarnoff on the site before. Get our Alcatraz issue of SFX (opens in new tab) as a back issue (opens in new tab) here.

STOP PRESS: According to, Alcatraz has put filming new episodes on hold to do reshoots on some of the completed episodes. The series will stay in production but will do additional principal photography on previous episodes before proceeding. The reshoots are expected to last one to two weeks.

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