As World Screen celebrates its 35th anniversary, we want to present a series of articles that recap and highlight the best of the interviews we have conducted. We are focusing on the evolution of scripted TV series.
In our last article, we heard Viola Davis and Shonda Rhimes talk about How To Get Way With Murder and their commitment to featuring women as they exist in real life, in all their strength, vulnerability, sexiness and even disarray. While the broadcast networks took greater risks in subject and storytelling techniques, cable channels continued innovating with must-see shows. The Walking Dead is a prime example, and we look at that show today.
THE WALKING DEAD
Halloween 2010 was the appropriate premiere date for The Walking Dead, the post-apocalyptic series based on Robert Kirkman’s comic books. The show tells the stories of a group of survivors struggling to stay alive while under constant threat of attack from zombies, also known as walkers.
The Walking Dead was not only critically acclaimed; after bowing on AMC, it became the most-watched drama series in basic-cable history in the U.S. among the 18-to-49 demographic. It was also the highest-rated show in pay television in most of the 120 countries where it aired on Fox International Channels.
Frank Darabont, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, adapted Kirkman’s comic books for the small screen. He explained the genesis of the series in a 2011 interview. “Five years ago, I walked into a comic shop in Burbank and came upon the first trade edition of Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic,” Darabont recalled. “That edition contained the first six issues. Having the ‘love of zombies’ gene I immediately picked it up, and as soon as I read it, I began pursuing the rights to it. I loved that Kirkman created a smart, character-driven drama set against this edgy zombie apocalypse. I’ve wanted to do my own take on the zombie mythos ever since I saw one of my all-time favorite movies: the 1968 black-and-white [George A.] Romero film, Night of the Living Dead. This was in 1973; I was 14 years old.”
Although Darabont left the series during season two, after reportedly falling out with AMC management, he had successfully tapped into the main themes of Kirkman’s comics: maintaining one’s humanity in desperate situations, dealing with despair and honing survival instincts. (Considering those topics in 2020 is entirely different than it was in 2011.) “Those things define most drama and art, don’t they?” said Darabont. “I think if you look at any great story you will find those components expressed in some fashion, whether subtle or grand, because aren’t those themes essential to describing the human condition itself? Aren’t we all teetering on the knife’s edge between joy and despair, between hopelessness and hopefulness, between life and death? That’s the well from which most storytelling is drawn.”
Kirkman was one of the executive producers on the show. When asked in a 2014 interview how he decided when to take the show in a different direction from the source material of the comic book, Kirkman replied, “Thankfully it’s a group decision, so no one can shoulder the blame! Some of the writers are a little bit more immersed in the comics than even I am, which is at times very embarrassing. There’s been more than one occasion where they’ll say, ‘I really want to adapt that scene where so-and-so says this thing.’ I don’t remember specific things people said! That’s always a fun treat. But we sit down and look at the original comic-book stories and then we do our work in the television writers’ room. We look at the different characters we have. We look at how the characters that exist in the show that don’t exist in the comic would affect and change stories we want to adapt from the comics. As we get into the work of doing that, new storylines start to arise, and every now and then one of them leads to a fairly unexpected death. That’s how you get characters like Andrea who die earlier in the show than they do in the comic book. It’s all just a group of writers working to craft the best story. Sometimes that follows the source material; sometimes it doesn’t, which I support 100 percent. If we were adapting the comic book directly, I would be bored. Despite the fact that sometimes I don’t remember all the ins and outs of a story, I do know that I’ve already written it before. So I wouldn’t want to write it a second time.”
The Walking Dead was a huge hit for AMC, continuing the cable channel’s streak of culturally defining shows that started with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The zombie apocalypse also became a pop-culture phenomenon around the world. The show’s producers and cast did not expect such immediate success.
“We were completely surprised,” said executive producer Gale Anne Hurd in 2012. “The general ratings success or even critical success of most genre shows has been fairly limited. There are a few exceptions to that, like True Blood, but for the most part, your expectation is that you hit maybe 2 million viewers. That’s essentially what AMC normally gets. No one expected 5 million, or even the season finale last season of 9 million. That far exceeded not only all of our expectations, but our hopes and dreams.”
Andrew Lincoln, who played the lead character, Rick Grimes, through the ninth season, was equally surprised, as he explained in a 2013 interview. “When my agent sent me the script, this is what happened: it said, AMC, and I was like, Woo! Because I love the channel, I love Breaking Bad and Mad Men. And then it said Frank Darabont and I was like, Oh my lord! And then it said Gale Anne Hurd [executive producer of the series], and I was like, Holy crap! And then it said, The Walking Dead, and I said, What a title! And then it said zombie, survival, horror. And that’s when I called my agent and said, Really? It’s zombies now? I’ve been working for 19 years and we’re doing zombies? Then I read the pilot episode and it was remarkable—spare, almost a distillation of humanity, it was an extraordinary thing. I’d never read anything quite like it. That’s when I started to get incredibly excited. Frank Darabont and this extraordinary team—Gale, Greg Nicotero [special effects and makeup], Robert Kirkman, AMC, all the development people there—had the courage to say, let’s try and make a family drama set in hell. The zombies sort of become incidental to a lot of the character scenes, which is brilliant, because character should always drive plot.”
Sarah Wayne Callies, who played Rick’s wife Lori Grimes, also did not expect the series to be so successful, as she said in a 2012 interview. “I did not see this coming. I figured that maybe if we were lucky, there would be a million comic book fans maybe in the U.S. who would keep us going until we were canceled halfway through the second season. I thought, let’s just do something we will be proud of, and if we fail, we’re going to fail big and take risks. A lot more people have come on the journey with us than I ever expected. It’s so humbling. It’s incredible.”
Wayne Callies did not feel added pressure given the show’s enormous fan base. “No, actually, I think it does the reverse. It gives us the license to take even bigger risks. This is not—at least to me—a show that on paper you think would appeal to as wide a demographic as it appears to have. So you think, people are going to go there with us; let’s really go there. That is what the third season is about. It’s looking around at what happened the last two seasons and say OK, if they let us get away with that, then let’s see what happens if we go over there. It’s exciting. It gives you a little bit more free range.”
To the shock of many viewers, Lori died in childbirth in season three. She was but one of many characters killed off on the show, most per Kirkman’s comic book series; others not.
In 2012, Hurd commented on the challenges of taking out a character that is liked by fans. “It’s very difficult for all of us, but if we are to be true to Robert Kirkman’s comic book, unfortunately, the body count for characters we love is pretty high. We do change it up, so there are characters who are still alive in the comic book that we’ve sadly put to rest, and there are characters who are still alive in our show that have died in the comic book. There is the threat from walkers—the zombies—and also from the humans that they might encounter. And it just wouldn’t be believable if every one of our fantastic cast survived.”
When asked in 2014 what environment Kirkman tried to create on set to prepare the cast for these changes, he replied, “It’s always hard. There are traditions—we have a big death dinner where everyone goes out and celebrates the actor that we’re losing. Those traditions help people a little bit. I think everyone knows that it’s around the corner for [them as well]; to a certain extent, it’s a matter of time. People do sign on to the show now thinking, Am I going to be around for a season? Two seasons? Three seasons? Everyone knows that this is a show that portrays a very dangerous world where anyone can go at any minute. In order to honor that, we have to lose characters from time to time. It’s certainly an emotional thing for me coming from the comics. Telling these stories in comic-book form, it’s just artist Charlie Adlard and me deciding not to write and draw an imaginary character. The show is different. [The cast members] are very close on set in Georgia. They all get together on weekends and their kids get to know each other. They’ve become a big family, so it is an emotional thing when we lose a character. But we have to do it for the sake of the show.”
Not only did the cast face the continued challenge of saying goodbye to beloved actors, but they also had to deal with the extreme heat conditions in Atlanta, where the series is shot. So did the crew and the unnamed extras, who played the roles of the walkers.
“They’re incredible,” said Lincoln in 2015. “The people that play the zombies—the walkers—are hard core. This season, in particular, it’s been very, very hot, and wet. It’s probably the same temperature as it was when we first started the show, which was brutal. When you’re feeling sorry for yourself and sweating in your cowboy boots, all you have to do is look across and see somebody with prosthetics on and then you shut up and get on with your day.”
The heat and humidity of Atlanta were among the reasons AMC decided to split a 16-episode season into two sets of eight episodes with a gap in between. Lincoln explained in 2015 that breaking up the season became vital.
“Not necessarily so much for the actors, but for the crew,” he said. “The crew are magnificent and most of them have been on this show since the beginning. Anybody that’s been to Atlanta, Georgia, in mid-summer knows how brutal the weather can be. We shoot an episode in eight days, which is impossible, actually. Because the bar keeps getting set higher and higher each season, 16 episodes of story is the maximum for the writers’ room. I would hate to speak on Scott’s [Gimple, executive producer] behalf, but I know how much of a perfectionist he is and how much he cares about this show. He says he never wants a stagnant episode. You don’t want a filler episode, ever, in this show. AMC deciding to do eight and eight not only gives breathing space for the crew to stand down, but it gives the writers an opportunity to do two arcs within one overarching season. You have a season premiere, a midseason finale, and then you have a midseason premiere and an overall finale. You can shape, within one season, more story, more compelling story arcs—and maybe more ambitious story arcs—because of that.”
As The Walking Dead’s success increased, fans became more impatient for spoilers of what was to come. We asked Lincoln in 2017 what was being done to ensure secrecy on the set and after shooting ended.
“Remarkably, very little,” Lincoln answered. “Everybody on set and who works on this show is as proud of it as you can imagine. Everybody involved doesn’t want the story to be spoiled; everybody, in every part of the machine, cares about it deeply. Spoilers generally happen either because of overly enthusiastic fans spotting something or in the very last stages of production, when perhaps languages get changed or there’s a final edit. It never comes from anybody working on set. They want the secret to be kept as much as anybody on the show.
“Of course, the insatiable need for news and information is part of people’s lives now,” Lincoln continued. “There is a never-ending stream of “what’s next?” It’s a blessing for our show because it’s one of the reasons that we became what we became, because of social media. It’s also the enemy. We are very cautious about who gets scripts. We even shot two days’ worth of extra footage of scenes that would never see the light of day to combat it. Certain characters who weren’t scripted to had a baseball bat hit them—which is a really unfortunate way of avoiding spoilers. It’s what we have to do to keep the sanctity of the story.”
GROWTH OF A FRANCHISE
The Walking Dead’s story lent itself to spinoffs. The series Fear The Walking Dead premiered in 2015.
As AMC Networks president and CEO, Josh Sapan, said during a panel discussion at MIPCOM in 2018, “Fear The Walking Dead gave irrepressible birth to itself from the world of The Walking Dead because it began the question of what happened when, and what was it like before the zombie apocalypse, which is really a rich question that has not been answered. It’s, of course, metaphorical-ish today because we deal with many things that feel like they could have profound global negative impact of biological, chemical and social variety. We have told the story of what happens in adaptation. We hadn’t told the story of what happens before the fact. We began in a different location with what happens before the fact, and then followed a parallel group of people who were living with those same dynamics.”
Also on the panel was actor, playwright and director Colman Domingo, who stars as Victor Strand. “When I first got the script for Fear, I thought it was some of the most sophisticated writing I’ve read,” he said. It was such a complex character. I had never seen a character like Victor Strand on television. I had a lot of interesting thoughts about it and so did [executive producer] Dave Erickson and his team. It began this journey and I had no idea, to be very honest, that it would take me from shooting in Vancouver and L.A. to Mexico for two seasons to Austin, Texas, and that this show would keep evolving as the characters are evolving. I joke around with my fellow castmates and say, remember when I was in a Ralph Lauren suit? I thought that was what I was actually going to be in the entire time! I thought I would be witty and sipping on a cocktail! I had no idea I’d be fighting an alligator looking terrible! But that’s been a wonderful journey because the show is harkening on all of our fears, on this possibility that it can all fall apart. It’s such great and epic storytelling. Every single time I was able to step behind the camera this season and I’ll do so next season, as well, we’re creating short films. The show has visual effects, stunts and special effects, but still, it’s [about] beautiful human stories. At the end of the day, the zombies are just in the way and Victor Strand and John Dory are just trying to understand one another. They are polar opposites put together to teach the other some beautiful human lessons [about] how to survive and move forward.”
Another spinoff, The Walking Dead: The World Beyond, premiered on AMC in October 2020. It’s set ten years after the initial outbreak and follows four teenagers coming of age during the zombie apocalypse. There is also a feature film in the works centered on Rick Grimes. The mother ship of the franchise, The Walking Dead, will end in 2022, with a 22-episode season. Its current showrunner, Angela Kang, along with former showrunner, Scott Gimple, will work on another spinoff slated for 2023, with Gimple also reportedly overseeing an anthology series, Tales of The Walking Dead. Passionate fans can rest assured that like zombies, the franchise has no plans to die.
The Walking Dead gave AMC yet another must-see hit show. In our next post, we will look at how the cable network FX brought back with anthology series.