Sunday, October 09, 2011

It’s Never Really Dead in Zombieland

The New York Times
Published: October 6, 2011

THE production offices of “The Walking Dead” do not resemble the burned-out remnants of civilization struggling to survive an undead holocaust, but they don’t exactly feel like the headquarters of one of the most popular shows on cable television either. Tucked away in a spacious but spartan Kodak building in Hollywood, the workplace is an array of cream-colored walls, olive carpets and fiberglass ceiling tiles that Robert Kirkman, the big, bearded writer of the “Walking Dead” comic books and a producer of the AMC series, seemed mildly embarrassed to be showing off a couple of weeks ago.

“It’s not as cool as you’d think,” Mr. Kirkman said. “It’s like a bank office, but people are expecting, like, animatronic zombies.”

Taking his seat in a conference room ringed by photographs of “Walking Dead” characters living and deceased (as well as, for some reason, a photograph of Charlie Sheen digitally altered to look like a zombie) Mr. Kirkman joined a small team of colleagues, including Gale Anne Hurd, an executive producer, and Glen Mazzara, the recently appointed show runner, to put the finishing touches on Season 2 of “The Walking Dead,” which will have its premiere next Sunday.

Missing from the scene was Frank Darabont, the “Shawshank Redemption” and “Green Mile” filmmaker who developed “The Walking Dead” from the popular Image Comics series.

Although Mr. Darabont ran the show’s first season and was widely credited with its success, AMC made the surprising announcement that he was stepping down from “The Walking Dead” in late July, days after he appeared at Comic-Con International in San Diego to promote the series and weeks after Season 2 started shooting. The news was bookended by a tense and public contract renegotiation between AMC and Matthew Weiner, the creator and show runner of “Mad Men,” and a similar face-off with the producers of “Breaking Bad.”

Mr. Darabont declined to comment for this article, and neither the “Walking Dead” staff nor AMC executives would discuss why he left. An article in The Hollywood Reporter suggested that one point of contention had been the show’s budget, which was reduced after its first season but remains one of the highest for cable: one person with firsthand knowledge of the production said its per-episode budget was $2.75 million, while a second person said it was nearly $3 million. (These people were not permitted to speak for attribution about financial matters.)

Yet Mr. Darabont’s presence looms large on the show, where he worked on about half of the second season and is still credited as an executive producer, and at its offices, still decorated with posters for his film “The Majestic” and “Ferrari,” a movie Mr. Darabont was involved with on the HBO comedy “Entourage.”

Here producers pored over a map of a fictional farm and its environs that will be the epicenter for the latest adventures of a group of survivors in an American South overrun by cannibalistic ghouls. In a nearby editing suite, the producers reviewed footage of a surprise attack perpetrated by a not-fully-decapitated zombie whose head dangled perilously from his body.

Asked if a human character in this scene would stick around for subsequent episodes, Mr. Kirkman offered a sardonic chuckle. “I can’t say,” he replied. “She could die right here. Nice try.”

A similar and strangely fatalistic air hangs over the production of “The Walking Dead,” which exploded onto television in a six-episode arc last year, drawing six million viewers for its finale, a figure more than double the typical audience for prestigious AMC hits like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”

But instead of marching triumphantly into a new 13-episode season, “The Walking Dead” sometimes feels as if it is lurching forward, burdened by its own success, the tremendous expectations of the audience it cultivated and a perception that it sheds creative staff members as abruptly as it dispenses with characters.

Discussing the intense scrutiny of the show he was placed in charge of barely two months ago, Mr. Mazzara said: “The microscope itself can be a distraction. It’s important not to listen to all of the chatter and just focus on making the best show possible. And by doing that, the microscope becomes less relevant because the work will stand on its own.”

One immediate effect of Mr. Darabont’s departure was that it brought together Mr. Kirkman, 32, who has no previous television experience, and Mr. Mazzara, 44, a veteran writer and producer who has worked on shows as disparate as the TNT hospital drama “Hawthorne” and the gritty FX crime series “The Shield.”

Having met only briefly during the writing of the first “Walking Dead” season (“Almost like ships passing in the night,” Mr. Kirkman said), it seemed as if the two men were trying to figure each other out while they figured out the series for which they are now responsible.

Mr. Kirkman, who in February moved to Los Angeles from Lexington, Ky., to contribute full time to “The Walking Dead,” said his work on the comics did not entitle him to any additional control over the screenplays of his colleagues.

“Everybody’s got a voice,” he said, “and the whole idea of a television show is to take everyone’s voice and use it.”

Mr. Mazzara, a goateed New York transplant with salt-and-pepper hair, said Mr. Kirkman’s voice was “the first among equals.”

Yet when he made his first freelance-writing contribution to the series, a Season 1 episode in which the human survivors regroup after a zombie attack on their camp, Mr. Mazzara said, he did not read Mr. Kirkman’s comics to prepare.

“I didn’t want the graphic novel to infect my writing,” Mr. Mazzara said, with Mr. Kirkman sitting next to him. “I wanted the story to reveal itself to me and say, ‘O.K., what would actually happen?’ ”

He added: “It was confusing because I didn’t really have a handle on a lot of the characters. But I felt if I could get inside that situation and let it unfold, that would be the right way to do it.”

Mr. Mazzara and Mr. Kirkman acknowledged that neither was in contact with Mr. Darabont. “I had some correspondence when things went down,” said Mr. Mazzara, who was rapidly promoted after Mr. Darabont hired him to be his right-hand man. “I didn’t know if Frank would give his blessing, but I did sympathize with the change.”

Mr. Kirkman said simply, “We’re all very busy.”

Some of that pressure has been self-imposed, as the modest five-person “Walking Dead” writing staff (and one freelancer) has been working since the winter to provide material for the cast and crew based in Atlanta, where the show will be filmed through November. The blistering summer months were especially challenging, filled with ticks, chiggers, leeches and at least one red-ant hill Mr. Mazzara almost stepped on.

While the “Walking Dead” producers say their primary storytelling goal this year is to build on the momentum from Season 1, there is an underlying sense that they also want to better distinguish their ensemble cast, led by Andrew Lincoln, who plays the stolid former police officer Rick Grimes.

Ms. Hurd, who has produced films like “Aliens” and the “Terminator” series, acknowledged that the show’s first season “didn’t have as much time, with only six episodes, to delve into each one of those characters and get to know them.” Season 2, she said, will find them “less on the road and on the run,” with more opportunities to distinguish themselves as individuals. (If Episodes 1 and 2 are any yardstick to measure by, the new season has hardly lost its appetite for vivid depictions of gore and innards, nor its willingness to put its young characters in as much danger as its grown-ups.)

The issue of character development was also a point repeated at the “Walking Dead” writers’ table, where Mr. Kirkman debated his fellow producers Evan Reilly and Scott Gimple on how Rick Grimes might handle his group’s demands to execute a living person. Mr. Mazzara ruled the room, firmly but subtly. When Mr. Mazzara says no he means no, though he is more apt to say, “I’ll think about it.”

At one point the conversation turned to whether a character might wet himself in terror. “I think it shows he’s quaking in his boots,” Mr. Reilly said.

Mr. Gimple added, “There’s already so much blood and brains and bile ——”

Mr. Kirkman interrupted, “But not enough urine.”

Leaning back in his chair Mr. Mazzara said, “I’ll think about it.”

The “Walking Dead” producers said they were not subjected to any extra scrutiny from AMC, which also produces the series through its AMC Studios, than their counterparts at other shows. (“They’re letting artists be artists,” Mr. Mazzara said of AMC. Mr. Kirkman said, “They know when to shut up and get out of the way.”)

Joel Stillerman, AMC’s senior vice president for original programming, did not deny that “The Walking Dead” represented a crucial part of that channel’s portfolio, particularly as series like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” have announced plans to produce what will be their final seasons.

“When you’re not in the business of making 15 hours of prime-time television a week,” he said, “each show becomes exponentially that much more important.” He added it was “certainly nice to have something that is in its early seasons and, if we can pull it off, it’ll be around for a while.”

As if to reinforce this point, AMC recently announced that it had made Greg Nicotero, the Emmy Award-winning makeup effects artist of “The Walking Dead,” a co-executive producer of the series and signed him to a first-look deal. The network is also introducing a live “Walking Dead” after-show called — what else? — “Talking Dead,” that represents an inexpensive opportunity to retain its zombie-obsessed viewership for an additional half-hour a night.

Among the “Walking Dead” cast members there is excitement for what the new season holds, tempered by a sense of loss.

Norman Reedus, the New York actor who plays a hotheaded, crossbow-wielding survivor named Daryl, said that when he learned he had been cast on “The Walking Dead,” “I pretty much ran down the streets of Chinatown naked, screaming at the top of my lungs.”

“We all came here to work for Frank,” he added. “I’d do a tampon commercial with Frank Darabont.”

Even so, Mr. Reedus said that with Mr. Mazzara’s takeover of the series, “it’s not like some alien came in and started speaking a different language.” He added, “Glen picked it up right where Frank left it and Glen’s been doing an amazing job.”

Outside of “The Walking Dead” Mr. Kirkman and Mr. Mazzara lead different lives: Mr. Kirkman is a family man but is also focused on writing his comics and developing other series for film and television; Mr. Mazzara’s major extracurricular activity is coaching his 8-year-old son’s soccer team. (His assistant coach is the “Shield” creator Shawn Ryan; both were reprimanded recently for talking back to the referees.)

Yet the two are building a personal shorthand: a lexicon of phrases like “zombie gag” (meaning the weekly scene of undead mayhem) and “volcano of murder” (which they would not explain yet).

And if “The Walking Dead” survives for as many years as they would like it to, there is much the two might learn from each other.

Mr. Kirkman, who makes no effort to restrain his enthusiasm, sounds almost serious when he says he hopes “The Walking Dead” will run at least 20 seasons. “Zombies are the new ‘Simpsons,’ ” he said.

Mr. Mazzara, more seasoned in the ways of show business, is mindful of the considerable pressure but is not overwhelmed by it.

“It’s a good problem to have,” he said with a laugh. “I have worked on shows that have not done well their first season, and you don’t get the chance to try to make it up. It’s a high-class problem.”

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