Frank Darabont spent five fruitless years of pitching an idea for a zombie television series. But he’s back on Hollywood’s A-list after The Walking Dead, which he created from Robert Kirkman’s original comic book, generated higher ratings in its first season than any of AMC’s previous original shows. Now Darabont has two Hollywood Guild award nominations to go with his three Oscar nods for writing and directing The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. He talks about his longtime love affair with the undead with Deadline TV Contributor Ray Richmond:
DEADLINE: Are you such a fan of zombies because you work in Hollywood?
FRANK DARABONT: Yes, there are plenty of zombies working in the industry. But I’ve always wanted to tackle the zombie mythos since I was a kid and saw Night of the Living Dead — the original black-and-white version — at a midnight screening. It was just a niche thing then. But I think in the past five years it’s become far more widely embraced. Now it’s like we’re riding the crest of a wave.
DEADLINE: But Walking Dead wasn’t an easy sell.
DARABONT: Oh god no. I’d been trying to set this thing up for five years before AMC took it. It was the first time I’d tried to set up a television series, and it sure seemed like a long time to be out there without a deal. It was considered pretty different and cutting-edge through most of that pitching process. My mantra had been that people were waiting for a really good zombie show. It takes a rare bit of courage to take a chance on something that hasn’t been proven elsewhere. I’ve got to hand it to AMC for that.
DEADLINE: Have you given much thought to the Emmys?
DARABONT: You know, a little bit. And it’s awesome to be a part of that chatter. We were just blown away to get nominated for a Golden Globe, a DGA award, and a WGA award in our first year. But that stuff is out of our control.
DEADLINE: There’s a lot of hostility directed toward you on the Internet: how you’re impossible to work with and off-the-scale with attitude. What do you think that’s about?
DARABONT: I honestly haven’t a clue, because I’m a pussycat. I’m honestly the easiest guy to work with unless there’s something wrong. I do fi ght for what I believe in. A lot of it, honestly, I ascribe to simple Internet chatter.
DEADLINE: But it made headlines last November when you dumped your entire writing staff after finishing up Season One.
DARABONT: Let me just begin by stating the obvious: that it was all pretty overblown. It left the impression that I walked in one day and murdered 12 people. Would you like to know how many writers we were talking about? Two. My thought had been that they’d under-delivered, and a change was necessary. I had to do too much of it by myself last year, and that was only six episodes. This season, it’s 13 and we’ve hired a fantastic writing staff. We hired Glen Mazzara as our Number Two in the room. We consider him our head writer and he’s just a fantastic asset. We’ve also got three other staff writers in Scott Gimple, Evan Reilly from Rescue Me, and Angela Kang. Plus Executive Producer Robert Kirkman, who wrote the original comic book, is also writing for us.
DEADLINE: How proprietary is Kirkman with this world he created?
DARABONT: We’re really grateful to him. He realizes how different the mediums of comics and television are from one another. One of the things that really attracted me to this material in the first place was how smartly Kirkman incorporated the characters and their journey in trying to survive and better themselves in this world. It was a really adult approach. And because we’re a TV series, we’ve hopefully got years to flesh out that story and all of the aspects of who they are.
DEADLINE: How are things going to evolve on Walking Dead in your second season?
DARABONT: It’s fair to say that the fi rst six episodes were teeing up a lot of conflicts that will be more fully explored in our second season. We find a growing conflict with our two main guys, Rick [Andrew Lincoln] and Shane [Jon Bernthal]. We’re really excited about putting all of the characters on a chessboard and seeing how wonderfully and effectively we can toss conflict into the game.
DEADLINE: What has been AMC’s input in the process?
DARABONT: We certainly get notes, but nothing that we believe doesn’t make sense. We feel very much in partnership with AMC. Sometimes we have to compromise, sometimes they do. But we have to admit that a lot of the stuff they’re telling us is sensible, and none of it’s dumb. Believe me, I’ve gotten a lot of dumb notes in my time, and after 25 years in the business I can tell the difference.
DEADLINE: How does working in TV compare to film?
DARABONT: You know, at the end of the day, your actors are still acting the same way. Your crew is still dedicated to the goal in the same fashion. The major difference is that you’re writing short stories rather than novels, as it were. In TV, you have to get ideas across in a more economical way. But the process is fundamentally the same, just accelerated. And it’s exciting to tell stories at this kind of pace. There’s no time for second guessing. The wheels are in constant motion. I love that about television. If I’d known how much fun it was, I’d have done it years ago.