Glen Mazzara divulges how he and the writers of AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead moved on after showrunner Frank Darabont’s sudden and unexpected departure.
Written by Denis Faye
Last year’s sudden and unexpected departure of Frank Darabont from AMC’s The Walking Dead left a lot of people scratching their heads. Although based on a popular comic book, it was widely considered to be the veteran filmmaker’s baby. Would his absence turn The Walking Dead into a dead show walking?
Not if Glen Mazzara has anything to say about it.
With a mile-long resume of gritty television dramas including The Shield, Crash, and HawthoRNe, Mazzara joined The Walking Dead between seasons one and two with the intent of becoming “Frank Darabont’s number two.” When Darabont left, he suddenly became number one. He knew that, just as the characters on the show narrowly escape zombie evisceration week after week, he and his writing staff were going to have to do some serious work to keep critics and naysayers from feasting on their entrails. (Metaphorically, of course.)
Mazzara gathered the troops. “I met with the writers immediately,” he explains. “I said, ‘Look, we have a successful show and all the pressure is on us. I believe that there are people who now expect us to fail. We have to support each other and get each other’s backs and challenge each other and make sure that doesn’t happen.’”
The new showrunner made some massive organizational changes, breaking down walls between the writers, the crew, and the talent. He also gave his staff greatly increased ownership of their material. “The core group of me, Robert Kirkman, Evan Reilly, Angela Kang, and Scott Gimple really did what we needed to do to make sure that every single episode was as good as possible.”
Photo: © 2011 AMC
A scene from The Walking Dead.
Apparently, the plan worked. After season two premiered to explosive ratings, AMC renewed the show for a third season, so for now, the undead shall continue to roam the earth (Phew!). Mazzara took a moment to talk with the Writers Guild of America Web site about how he and the rest of the crew pulled this off. Basically, the formula is one part cooperation and one part gritty realism, mixed with a tiny dash of awesomely cool, brain-splattering zombie-induced death.
What’s the trick to picking up a hit show midstride?
That’s a great question. I will say that I didn’t really pick it up in stride. I signed on to be Frank Darabont’s number two in between seasons one and two, so I came into season two working with Frank. We hired a writing staff and worked out a lot of the starting points for the season with those writers, so when I stepped up as showrunner, I just looked at trying to stay true to the characters that we had established, trying to stick to the roadmap that we had. I had also written a freelance episode for season one, so I was already acclimated to the culture and the style of the show and Frank’s intent, so it wasn’t necessarily a case of me being an outsider coming in.
But I’m assuming that you have a different leadership style, so I’m curious how the writers’ room changed.
Immediately, I gave the writers a sense of ownership of their episodes, of which they were now going to produce. That was something that Frank chose not to do, have the writers involved throughout the entire process. We really made sure that the episodes being produced were as close to our intent as possible.
I also started having concept meetings where I would talk with the other producers and the director and the production team and talk through what was our intent so people knew what sort of episode to prep. I started having tone meetings with the directors – and those can be a few hours – where we talk through the writer’s intent.
I also opened up the process where I had a very open door policy with the actors where they would give feedback on scripts, and we would talk about particular storylines and by sending the writers to set, the actors now had a direct relationship with the writers. My methodology was to use the writers’ room as a bunker so that we would really push each other as much as we could to make sure the material was as good as it could be – then when it came time to release that material into production, we had a very transparent, open door policy where the writers were now introduced into the production process where that had not been true before.
How do you create something horrific as a zombie story and still stay within the boundaries of television?
Like with any horror, less can be more. There can be periods of time where we want to have some juice, where we want to show some horror. There are certain expectations that fans have, we have to scratch that itch, but we pick and choose those moments. We had an episode on last night that did have a lot of gunshots, a lot of killing zombies – a man was attacked by a zombie and ripped apart. That was our third episode. Our next episode doesn’t have any of that. We really are very selective about when we do that because if it becomes too heightened or too commonplace, it won’t feel real. It still needs to feel like an extraordinary event.
The nature of violence is it’s usually unexpected, brutal and over very quickly. We’re not interested in having any torture porn on this show. There’s a type of visceral violence we’re open to, but it has to be earned.
Your background is not supernatural at all – it’s gritty realism. Did that help you adapt to this genre?
Without a doubt. Let’s not forget that Frank Darabont directed an episode of The Shield. He used a lot of our crew to shoot The Mist [Screenplay by Frank Darabont], so there’s a sensibility in the DNA of this show that I think comes out of The Shield. A lot of our directors come out of The Shield. Some of the first season writers had done The Shield, so there’s certainly something here that goes back to the idea of a complicated character drama that also has a lot of adrenaline, a lot of juice, a lot of visceral unexpected twists. Both The Shield and The Walking Dead are on the edge-of-your-seat storytelling. That’s something that led me to want to write this material. I felt like I was a good match because I understood that these are characters who have very, very high stakes and are making horrible decisions as they go along.
Let me continue along this line. The Shield was a story in which rogue cops took it upon themselves to mete out justice, so there is a breakdown of a larger infrastructure. What’s interesting is that there’s a breakdown of the rule of law and our protagonists take it upon themselves to impose that rule. In The Walking Dead, there’s a complete breakdown of society and government structure and our everyday men and women are forces to try to recreate that structure by themselves. They create the law. They have to decide what this society will be. So there are larger themes in both works that I’ve always been interested in exploring.
You’ve remained somewhat faithful to the comic book. Is that part of your long-term plan?
Actually, other people might beg to differ, but I’d say no. There are major plot points and certainly major characters that we’re interested in exploring and introducing that have nothing to do with the comic book. We’re now conceiving season three, and it’s very, very different. Those things are headlights in the fog, and you can gravitate towards them, but if you embrace them too fully, you’ll end up getting run over, so we’ve done a nice job. We see the comic book as pitches for the show and, like with any pitch, you need to take it and make it your own. This show has revealed itself to be something very different from the comic book. I wouldn’t give it any more merit than anything any of the writers came up with. Robert Kirkman has been very generous with letting us deviate from the comic book, so we’re not under any pressure to be faithful to the comic book. We just have to focus on the show itself.
When you say he’s generous, does he have any control over that?
He doesn’t have control, but he certainly has input. He’s an executive producer on the show; we speak a hundred times a day. He’s in our writers’ room. He and I are co-writing our finale right now. He has a big voice in the room, just like any writer, so perhaps generous wasn’t the right word. He’s very open and amenable to it.
Do you have a big, overarching master plan for the series?
I will say that I personally do have a big master plan for the show, and I have not shared that with anyone, including AMC, or Robert or the other writers. I’ve been focused on finishing season two, and then I will end up writing, when I get some breathing room, my thoughts and sharing them with the other writers and saying this is something that seems to me to be a fitting direction, given what we’ve already explored.
I like to collaborate, that’s my favorite part of the whole process. So I’ll have my goofy ideas and show them to the other writers, and they’ll end up making them better. But that’s something I haven’t done yet because I want to focus on the task at hand.
It must be hard keeping your mouth shut.
I’ve learned a lot from Shawn Ryan [creator of The Shield]. He plays a lot of things close to his vest, so I try not to speak until I’m ready.
According to Max Brooks, author of the Zombie Survival Guide, zombies have a shelf life. Have you ever considered that as the show progresses?
Yes. Given our apocalypse has just happened, that we’re not even six months down the road, those zombies that are occurring are all just recently created. As the season progresses, those first generation zombies will become more and more rotted and newer zombies will obviously be in different states of decay. That is something that we’ve had conversations with [special effects artist] Greg Nicotero about.
You guys sit around a lot in the writers’ room and geek out on that kind of thing?
Sure! That’s all we do. We have to talk about this stuff. One of the things that’s been a lot of fun is to come up with situations that encounter zombies that don’t feel repetitive, that feel fresh, that feel different. I just watched a scene in the cutting room in which I think we have a stunt involving a zombie that hasn’t been done yet. This is fun. I like writing for these creatures.