Comic-Con interview: Frank Darabont on AMC's 'The Walking Dead'
We are in the midst of a great pop culture zombie apocalypse, with scientists estimating that a new zombie movie is released roughly every seven minutes.
A zombie TV show, on the other hand? Well, that’s a relatively novel thing - and that’s why Oscar-nominated writer/director Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”) is so excited by the possibilities of “The Walking Dead,” which debuts on AMC sometime in October.
“The Walking Dead” is adapted from a comic book series by writer Robert Kirkman, in which Kentucky cop Rick Grimes (played in the show by British actor Andrew Lincoln) wakes up from a coma to discover that the world has been overrun by zombies, and sets out in search of the wife and son he hopes are among the handful of human survivors.
Darabont, who says he was born with “the love of zombies gene,” was practically giddy as he discussed how he discovered the comic, the long road to getting it on television, how the TV will differ from the comics, and more. All of that coming up after the jump...
I want to start with the origin of things. Was this a book you found, or was it brought to you? How did it come about?
This was me walking into a comic book shop in Burbank and seeing the first trade edition. It had to be about five years ago. Being that I’ve always had “the love of zombies gene,” I of course grabbed it, took it home and read it, and immediately started pursuing the rights to it. I thought it would make a great TV show. I loved what Kirkman was doing, I saw immediately what he was getting at. And I loved the idea of an extended, ongoing, serialized dramatic presentation set in the zombie apocalypse.
At what point did you realize you had the zombie gene? Was there a particular movie?
Well, we go back to the Book of Genesis - we go back to “Night of the Living Dead,” which I saw when I was 14 years old. That had to be, like, ‘73, and I was in junior high. The movie was a few years old by then, but it was a mythical, legendary movie. This was pre-video. Think back to the early Jurassic period when there was no video and you had to seek this stuff out. “Night of the Living Dead” had this weird vibe that was almost - it was like pornography. It was this talked-about, horrible thing that few people had actually seen, and that if you did see it, you might not survive the experience. It had this marvelously attractive, disreputable draw. So of course I sought it out with my friends. I loved it immediately. It was such a great sandbox, such a great conception.
I am surprised it’s become quite the cultural component it has in the mainstream. It’s far more now than it was even five years ago when I read the Kirkman stuff. I’m shocked at how much in the mainstream it is now, because it was always, sub-sub-genre stuff, most of my life, anyway. But what doesn’t surprise me is that other filmmakers and other authors and other artists have pursued playing in the Romero sandbox all these years. The first real glimmer of that was, there was a fantastic anthology, many years ago, edited by (John) Skipp and (Craig) Spector, called “Book of the Dead.” I recommend it tremendously. They just said, “Okay, it’s Romero’s world; write a short story.” And they threw this premise out to a lot of wonderful authors, and they got this response. The stories are very high-quality, and then they did a sequel anthology, “Book of the Dead 2”? Just knockout, great storytelling.
And that was really fun for the genre nerds like me who loved this stuff. We wanted more zombies. We didn’t know we were getting quite as many zombies as we’ve gotten since then. Filmmakers just keep being drawn back to it. And I understand the impulse. I’ve had it myself. I never really figured I’d want to do a zombie feature, because it’s been done, and done very well - sometimes in a very serious vein and sometimes a comedic vein. Both of which are valid approaches and both of which are welcome if the movie’s good. We all know which ones are good.
So I thought, “Well, I don’t know how I could do something that’s different,” until the Kirkman material came into my hands, and I thought, “Well, that’s how it’s different. You do it as an extended saga. You do it for television, where it’s never been done before, and you do it with conviction and with as much art to it as you can.” And that was very exciting, when that became a possibility.
And that was followed by five years of frustration - or four years, at least, of nobody at the various networks getting it, until AMC. AMC got it. And I have (“Walking Dead” producer) Gale (Anne Hurd) to thank for that. We’ve been friends for years, and she read the script. I can’t remember what the hell prompted her to read it, but she said, “Wow, I really love this pilot you wrote. What are you doing with it?” I said I’d been trying to set it up forever, since Moses parted the sea. She said, “Well, how’d you like to partner on it?” I said, “Great, why not?” She said, “I think AMC might be the place to take this.” She did, and then bam! They were immediately interested. I had to credit Gale, her insight into marrying the material and the buyer. It’s what it’s brought us here.
I’m curious how you’re planning on structuring this first season. Is it just covering the first volume up through the stuff with (Rick’s partner) Shane? Or is that just going to be a handful of episodes? (NOTE: Darabont’s answer alludes to a development from the first “Walking Dead” volume, and also to how the series may treat that story a bit differently, so if you don’t want to know, skip ahead to the next question.)
We’re expanding Kirkman’s narrative. I re-read that first trade not long ago, actually. Because you go through this huge process of adapting the material. The pilot I originally wrote I wound up slitting into two episodes, just to slow the narrative down and dig into the characters more deeply, so it’s not just plot-driven, event-driven stuff. You really want to drag these characters into the equation. So I re-read the first part of what Robert had done, recently, because you forget as you go along, and I was shocked at how quickly Shane was no longer in the thing! “Oh, geez! Are you kidding me?” I had forgotten it was handled that quickly. Because I can see Shane being around for a while. Certainly, we’re not even close to scratching the surface of that yet at the end of six episodes.
We’re definitively following the Kirkman path, the breadcrumbs that he’s left us to follow. But we’re veering off the trail, to whatever degree we can. Because there’s so many great ideas in what he’s done that suggests other things along the way, and we don’t want to leave anything on the table. So we’re giving ourselves permission to veer, to detour. My conception is that as long as we come back gracefully onto the path that Kirkman has set, anything’s fair. It’ll only make the thing richer if we give ourselves that permission.
Kirkman’s dialogue is very wordy. It can work on the page, but I imagine you have to streamline the hell out of it, or else just start over from scratch to make it work on screen.
You really do discover a lot about the characters you’re writing as you’re working on these scripts. They do take on a new life because there are actors portraying them, and they become another thing that has been lifted from the page of the comic book, and is its own reality. One of the things I’ve discovered is that the more terse my dialogue for Rick is, the better the moment, the better the show, the better the scene. It’s not that Andy Lincoln can’t deliver dialogue - he’s a very accomplished actor - but this particular character? It’s almost like the less he says, or the fewer words he uses to say what he’s saying, the better it is. So I’m constantly slashing his dialogue as much to the bone as I can. Because if I have that character get too wordy, it starts to sound false to me. Andy has really embraced it. He’s got this Gary Cooper/Sam Shepard thing happening, and you wouldn’t think it, having seen “Love, Actually,” that he’s got that going on. But he totally does. So there is that big component.
We’re redefining. Some people use more words than others, let me put it that way. And some people will make a virtue of volubility. Others, it’s a virtue to say less. It’s the Clint Eastwood thing. When is he at his best? Although every once in a while, he pulled a monologue out of his ass that had me floored. Like in “Outlaw Josey Wales,” when he goes out to face Ten Bears, and he’s got this 10-page monologue, “My word is in my guns, and I come to give you life,” and it’s, “Whoa! Where’d that frigging monologue come from?” And Eastwood delivers it to perfection. It depends on the moment. And the great thing about a character like that is, they really save it for when they really have something to say, and it winds up meaning so much more. That’s the fun of screenwriting, really: finding the right balance of things.
Basic cable has fewer content restrictions than broadcast, but there are still some. What have you run into in terms of the gore?
None. Surprisingly, none. We’re not finding that we’re having to pull our punches in what we’re shooting, which is a tremendous pleasure.
Our biggest drawback is that we can’t say “fuck.” I’m allowed other swear words. There’s a limit to how many, but you know what? It’s an interesting discipline. It’s like defaulting to a certain pair of cargo pants every day when you get dressed; you wind up relying too much on that kind of language as a writer. When you’re forced to be very choosy, it’s actually a fantastic exercise. It’s a great discipline. I’m finding I’m coming in under the word count of what I’m allowed. It’s forcing me to write more artfully. And it’s kind of cool that way. It’s not just the default mechanism of saying “shit” in every sentence. I can say it four times if I want to, and that winds up being interesting.
I’m a writer. That’s what I do. I sit down to write every day, even when I’m not writing to publish or sell. I have to. And I’ve always said that there’s so much writing out there that’s sloppy, so if I ever taught a writing class, I would take people’s adjectives and adverbs away, and say, “Learn to write without these components, and then we’ll seed those components in properly. But first let me tie one hand behind your back.” Because there’s so much over-reliance on the seasoning that you don’t know how to cook the dish first. You get adverb-happy. And it’s hard to read after a while. Same thing with profanity. Be selective. It means more.
Going back to Romero, he used zombies to comment on the state of society. What do you feel the zombies and the way people react to them in “Walking Dead” has to say about who we are?
I don’t know that our show is going to say anything new about zombies, in the sense of being a sociological commentary. I feel like all that commentary’s been made, and made very, very well. What I do find fascinating about the mythos - and of how in the mainstream it is now, of how in the public consciousness it is now - there’s definitely a millennial dread occurring. I think we’re coming to grips with the fact that we’ve created something here that is unsustainable as a civilization. The sheer numbers and resources we’re consuming, there’s a real sense of great potential death about to befall us. And maybe we’re just being nervous Nellies, or maybe there’s something to it. But I really think there’s this weird death thing happening in the human consciousness at the moment, and I think that’s why zombies have become so fascinating to so many people.
In other words, it winds up being its own sociological commentary, and I don’t have to comment on it. All I have to do is tell the stories. It’s interesting to me. It’s fascinating to me.
Why do you think zombies are so popular? All this arty-farty shit aside, it’s really fun to see zombies in a show.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org