‘Walking Dead’ creator Frank Darabont explains the need for ‘the occasional ripping flesh’

Oct. 29, 2010 | 12:14 p.m.

Oscar-nominated writer-director Frank Darabont is gearing up to unveil his new AMC series “The Walking Dead” on Halloween, and for the next few days, Hero Complex contributor Gina McIntyre will be talking with some of the show’s key figures about bringing Robert Kirkman’s respected graphic novel to the small screen with a big splash. Today, she chats with Darabont about the secret to great adaptations and indulging his inner geek.

frank darabont1 Walking Dead creator Frank Darabont explains the need for the occasional ripping flesh

Frank Darabont (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

G.M.: People who know you as the director of “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile” might be surprised that you have a background in the genre.

F.D.: It’s funny, people walk into my home or my office and I wear my geek on my sleeve, truly. I’ve got toys and vintage posters all over the place, every little item that you could imagine that screams genre geek. I always have been since I was a child. My earliest memories are of movies or watching the great Universal monster movies when they were in television syndication in about 1965.

G.M.: Did you see this project as an opportunity to marry your interest in drama with your affection for the genre?

F.D.: Yes! Absolutely, and I’m always looking for those opportunities. Even “Green Mile” was really a marriage… That was really a marriage of certain kinds of magic realism fantasy with a very real-feeling dramatic film. I was led toward that kind of stuff by my love of the genre as well. It was that that got me reading Stephen King in high school. Because I was such a rapid reader of his work, it led me to his less obviously horrific material — the broader public didn’t really realize he wrote stuff like “The Shawshank Redemption.” He told me a great story once. He swears it’s true, and since he swears I believe it because it’s Stephen and he doesn’t lie. He called me up one day and said, “You know, I was at the market earlier in the aisles.” And this sour-faced little old lady with her shopping cart comes up to him and says, “You’re Stephen King, right?” He nods and says, “Yes I am.” She says, “I don’t know why you write all that horrible stuff. You should write something nice like ‘Shawshank Redemption.’” He said, “Ma’am, I actually did write that.” And she said, “No you didn’t” and turned and walked off. That she would pull that title out of her head somehow is kind of remarkable. Poor Steve.

G.M.: How did you first discover “The Walking Dead” comic?

F.D.: I found it by walking into the House of Secrets comic book store in Burbank, a place I love to visit when I have the time. I saw it and said, “Oh, cool, a zombie thing that appeals to my special interest as a genre geek.” So I immediately grabbed it and took it home and read it and instantly flipped for it. I thought, OK, to me, this is the venue to be telling the zombie story that I’d been looking for. I thought it would be really smart and different to tell the story of this group of people as Kirkman had done. Since we’ve all seen the one-off zombie movies, I didn’t want to try to compete on that level because it’s been done. Who needs another zombie movie from Frank Darabont? Probably nobody. But to do it as a television series, to really invest in those characters over the long term, that struck me as a pretty exciting notion. I spent some time trying to set it up, failing of course because Hollywood is designed to say no to anything and everything that you want to do. It really became a viability once I partnered up with [executive producer] Gale Anne Hurd. She knew AMC was looking for provocative material, something very different, so we took it there, and they responded right away. They got very excited about it and here we are.

G.M.: Is it true that you originally wanted the series on network television?

"The Walking Dead"

"The Walking Dead" (AMC)

F.D.: It first fell into an overall deal I had at NBC, and thank god it never went forward there because it couldn’t possibly be the same show it is now. It was perhaps naive of me to even try there. Looking back, I’m real glad it didn’t find any traction there because it just would have been so diluted and drained of its blood, so to speak, its content. We’re doing stuff for television we would not be able to do on a network, the standards and practices here are very much in our favor. We’re doing some harder-edged stuff and doing some horrifying stuff for television. You need that freedom to be able to do it, otherwise it winds up being marshmallow instead of a spicy meal.

G.M.: Well, if you’re doing a zombie TV show, you kind of need that freedom to be able to show the zombies and the havoc they wreak.

F.D.: As I always say, if you’re going to do a Western, you need horses and hats and six-shooters. If you’re going to do a zombie TV show, you just have to have those moments where something truly horrifying happens, the occasional ripping flesh. It’s not the tail wagging the dog of this show, mind you. It’s not about wanting to shock the audience or layer gore on top of everything. That’s not really the raison d’etre of the thing. It’s really a fantastically observed ensemble character piece. But you don’t want a tail-less dog either. If that’s the dog, you want to be able to wag the tail on occasion and deliver on the promise of it’s a zombie show.

walking dead1 Walking Dead creator Frank Darabont explains the need for the occasional ripping fleshG.M.: You’ve said that the show very much exists in a George Romero-type universe. What did you mean by that?

F.D.: I’m calling the original “Night of the Living Dead,” which was released in 1968, our book of Genesis in terms of zombies mythos, behavior, etc. We go back to that for questions when they arise. Romero really did invent the idea of a flesh-eating dead person as we understand the idea today. Romero invented that idea in 1968 and subsequently has made other films. He invented this mythos and has been the chief practitioner of that. Acolytes have come along and done honor to that idea. I love Edgar [Wright]‘s movie “Shaun of the Dead,” it’s so tasty and lovely. I was a big admirer of Zack Snyder‘s movie, “Dawn of the Dead.” It sounds like such a crass idea, let’s remake “Dawn of the Dead,” but it just goes to show that if somebody really cares about the movie they’re making, it’s not just a crass commercial idea. Somebody goes in to make a really good movie and it winds up being a great movie just on its own terms — so much respect to Zack Snyder and his colleagues. Now here we are. The zombie trickle-down from George Romero in 1968 is we’re doing this TV series.

G.M.: Have you talked to Romero?

F.D.: This was a great night. I once had George Romero, Stephen King over to dinner at my house. I made a big pot of spaghetti, and a whole bunch of other folks [including] Jonathan Hensleigh was there that night, [also] Greg Nicotero, who’s a very dear buddy of mine. I can’t quite remember who else was there. There is actually a picture, famous to my small circle of friends who were there, a photo of all of us at this dinner with Steve and George Romero and my dog Rosie, she was still around then. It was fun. I certainly respect and admire the fellow.

G.M.: Robert Kirkman wrote the fourth episode. Did you always intend for him to be very hands-on with the series?

F.D.: Kirkman’s been very involved. My feeling is if you’re adapting somebody’s material there’s no reason not to maintain involvement. It seems arrogant and high-handed not to. We’ve invited Robert to the table with everything. What’s lovely about it is that he’s been very trusting with me in terms of handling and redefining his material as we go along. He’s been very encouraging about coloring outside the lines of what he’s done, which I always felt would be necessary. What Kirkman has done in the comic book is laid down a fantastic path for us to follow, but it doesn’t mean we can’t diverge off that path and make detours as we go because so much of the stuff suggests other possibilities as well. In the long term, I do believe we’re going to be following his path, but we’ll be making every interesting detour along the way that we can. If you have a terrific idea for an episode, why stop yourself simply because it’s off that particular path? As long as we keep veering back to where Kirkman has led us, I think everything’s fair. He’s been very encouraging of that and very accepting of it. He’s said from the get-go [that] the series as a comic book and the series as a television show can owe a lot to each other but they don’t have to be carbon copies.

walking dead2 Walking Dead creator Frank Darabont explains the need for the occasional ripping fleshG.M.: They exist in different mediums.

F.D.: They completely exist in different mediums, and ultimately the television show in certain ways will make its own demands on us. It’s not the same. Having a cast of living, breathing actors who bring something to it changes the tenor of so many things as you go along versus a comic book, which is a much more controlled medium. It consists of illustrations and words. Living, breathing people bring something else entirely to it. It takes on its own shape; that’s not just true of a television show. I’ve found that with every movie I’ve ever made where the actors who embody the words on the screen and deliver the words you’ve written bring a whole layer of things to a movie that you can’t plan for, legislate for, beg, borrow or steal. You can only be open to mining the gold that those actors will give you if they’re good or great actors, to encourage them to inhabit those roles as fully as they can. I could never have imagined really the layers of things that Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins brought to “Shawshank,” for example. You can’t. That part of it becomes their movie. They may be saying exactly the words that I wrote but it’s their essence that’s being captured on screen even more so than my words. You have to allow for that to happen.

themist Walking Dead creator Frank Darabont explains the need for the occasional ripping flesh

Jeffrey DeMunn, Laurie Holden, Frances Sternhagen, Thomas Jane and Nathan Gamble in "The Mist" (Weinstein Co.)

G.M.: Did you find working on the pilot to be different at all from making films?

F.D.: Just faster, which has been a great learning curve for me. I realized when I was going to shoot “The Mist,” I needed to do it faster than I was used to working. I went and directed an episode of “The Shield” for Shawn Ryan, who was kind enough to invite me to his party to do that. I love the show. I’m such a rapid fan of that show. It’s still like the best TV show ever, or at least one of the top three or four, certainly. It let me get into the working-much-faster kind of mood, which is awesome and I’ve really enjoyed it. “The Mist” was shot in six weeks. The average pilot gets 16 days to shoot, we did mine in 15. It was fast. It’s a lot of zombies and a lot of work to cram into 15 days. It’s really fun to work like that. Not everything needs the brain surgery approach of a “Shawshank” or a “Green Mile,” although I’m certainly willing to do it again should the material call for that and the budget allow for it. I’ve learned the joys also of moving fast and loose, which is great training. It allows you to lean on your instincts more, not second-guess or overthink everything that you do. At a certain point in your life , you don’t want to overthink. You don’t want to second-guess because you reach a point where you kind of feel like you know what you’re doing and your instincts should prove out.

G.M.: What’s the official word on a second season of “The Walking Dead”?

F.D.: It needs to earn its place, it needs to earn its keep. And if it does, we’ll do a second season. If not, I’ll be wandering around Hollywood like Willy Loman with another project under my arm.

– Gina McIntyre

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