A chat with Franka Darabont and Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead

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AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is one of the most anticipated new series of Fall 2010, so when Bullz-Eye was offered the opportunity to sit in on a series of roundtable interviews with members of the cast and creative team, you can imagine that we jumped at the chance. Based on an ongoing comic book…or graphic novel, if you prefer…by Robert Kirkman, “The Walking Dead” has been transformed into a television saga by Frank Darabont, perhaps best known for his work on such Stephen King adaptations as “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” and “The Mist.” We were able to chat with Kirkman and Darabont together, thereby giving us an opportunity to better understand the collaborative process of expanding the original source material into a weekly television series without losing the ingredients which were key to its success the first time around.

Frank Darabont: (Excitedly) A roundtable! Well, I am going to sit next to Mr. K… (To Robert Kirkman) I’ve got to catch up with your comic book, dude.

Robert Kirkman: (Scoffs) No, you don’t.

FD: I do, actually.

RK: You’ve got, like, seven seasons before you’ll get to that stuff!

Robert Kirkman: "I was assured every step of the way that AMC was committed to doing a zombie show, and they knew that they had purchased a zombie show, and that they were going to do everything that you needed to do to do a zombie television show…and, even then, I thought, 'Well, maybe they will tone things down a little bit.' But I am shocked. Seeing the final cuts, with the visual effects and everything completed, it’s just remarkable. It’s absolutely amazing."

FD: (Laughs) I know! It just feels so weird. We just got so busy…as you know…and I haven’t had a chance to read anything this year.

RK: It’s kind of a pain in the ass, because they keep putting it out, so…there’s a lot to read.

FD: Well, I don’t know where you have the time, flying off to Europe…

RK: Uh, I get more work done on a plane than I do in my office, so that actually kind of helps. (Laughs)

FD: There you go! (Picks up comic book from table) Oh, this is the first one!

RK: Yeah, it’s a reprint of the first issue.

FD: I went, “I recognize this! I shot this!” (Laughs) Awesome.

RK: So are you guys ready to get started?

FD: Oh! Hey, everybody! I’m just babbling. I don’t know if we’re waiting on anybody or not.

RK: Is this everybody?

FD: Just say, “Darabont! Pay attention!” (Laughs)

Journalist: So what was the challenge to take the graphic novel and do it on television, and were you limited, like, as far as how far you could go with the gore factor?

FD: Not so far, baby! (Laughs)

The Walking DeadRK: Well, I was assured every step of the way that AMC was committed to doing a zombie show, and they knew that they had purchased a zombie show, and that they were going to do everything that you needed to do to do a zombie television show…and, even then, I thought, “Well, maybe they will tone things down a little bit.” And…I think Frank can probably go into more detail on this, but I am shocked. Literally, seeing the final cuts, with the visual effects and everything completed, it’s just remarkable. It’s absolutely amazing, and I think people are going to be watching television and I think that, as they get through the episodes, they will forget that they’re watching television. I think people are just going to be absolutely shocked.

Journalist: I noticed after watching the first two episodes that the tone of the show fits very well with AMC’s properties, like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” but it has zombies in it. (Laughs) Was that something that you kept in mind, trying to appeal to the other AMC audience as well?

FD: Not really. Not in those terms. I mean, you know, my perception of the main task here is really to hew to the intention of what Robert’s done here, which is to tell these stories in the most unflinching and adult character-driven fashion possible. That kind of backs us into what may be a really nice match with AMC, because they like that kind of storytelling, but it certainly isn’t done for AMC. It’s really out of respect and deference to the material we’re adapting, and the material’s so good that it makes it possible to tell those kinds of stories…and, yeah, to get really gross on occasion. (Laughs) Which is really fantastic, because we’re not holding back. If I was doing this as a feature, I wouldn’t be doing those moments, those effects, any differently than I’m doing them now.

RK: Did you even tell (key special makeup effects supervisor) Greg  Nicotero that this was for television? Did he know?

FD: No, apparently not. (Laughs)

Journalist: You started, obviously, working on television with “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” so you have this wide canvas as an artist to tell a story, and then you’ve had success in the feature films, where you’ve got a two-hour window. In your opinion, which is more restrictive or more conducive to the artwork to tell the story? Is it the TV serial format, where you can go on and on and on, or do you have to work faster to get to the punch because you’ve got a two-hour movie and you’ve got to get the audience involved and deliver a climax?

FD: It is really…I wouldn’t necessarily say that one is superior to the other or better, but I’ve got to tell you it’s very exciting to slip into this serialized approach to telling story. Because you’re right: with a feature… (To Kirkman) Hell, even you’ve talked about this, because with the zombie movies, you’ve got two hours…or, in my case, two hours and change… (Laughs) …to tell a story with a set of characters. So there’s a finality to that. You’ve got to kind of get everything said with that span of time. With this...? We’ll be talking about who these characters are as long as they let us continue to make these. I love the long-range thinking that goes into something like that. We’re already talking about, “Well, in the third season, maybe this, that, and that…”

Journalist: So you’re not locked down to the books, saying, “This is exactly what we have to do”?

FD: Not slavishly. And this is one reason why I appreciate Robert so much: when we first talked about this, I said, “I intend to stay on your narrative path, but I also want to detour when and where it makes sense for us to detour off that path, because so many great ideas are going to come up as we go along, why not step off the path and explore this little area off to the side, and then get back on the path?” And he was always very, very supportive of that.

Frank Darabont: "My perception of the main task here is really to hew to the intention of what Robert (Kirkman) has done here, which is to tell these stories in the most unflinching and adult character-driven fashion possible. It certainly isn’t done for AMC. It’s really out of respect and deference to the material we’re adapting, and the material’s so good that it makes it possible to tell those kinds of stories…and, yeah, to get really gross on occasion."

RK: Well, how arrogant to do you have to be to say, “Oh, Frank Darabont is going to adapt my comic book? Oh, by the way, Frank, can you not change anything? I don’t want any of your ideas to be included.” No, between Frank and the writers in the writing room, there are a lot of really talented people involved in this show, and there are a lot of great ideas that come up when you’re discussing what to do with this. And there’s a lot of new characters added that I think are amazing, that I think people are really going to fall in love with, and they all have their own stories. So what you do is, you get the comic book, which is kind of a nice road map, and…it’s all right. I think it’s a good comic book.

FD: (Laughs) It’s a very good comic book, yes, Robert.

RK: But when you do the television show, you get to add all these different pieces and kind of expand it into something that’s bigger than what it started out being. So the television show is kind of the comic book expanded into the best possible version of the comic book.

Journalist: As a director, is that the ultimate storyboard? To say, “Hey, I can go here as a starting point and create a visual that I have in my head,” or don’t you reference it too much?

FD: Well, not too much, but sometimes, in a very real sense, we do. I was actually…the stuff filters into your brain, and I was actually shocked once I finished shooting the pilot, I was cutting it together, I went back to the comic book, and I realized, “My God, I actually did pull a lot of visual ideas out of this!” It’s not like I was on the set going, “Okay, we have to get this,” but, boy, it really sank in there. I mean, there’s some really iconic shots, you’ll see. Just go back to reference the work that these guys did on these pages, and you’ll see there’s a lot of it from there. (Flips through the comic, then points to a particular panel) Oh, look, it’s Leon Bassett! I love that!

Journalist: One of the benefits that you have in doing a series is character development, having a lot more opportunity and time to develop the characters than you would in a movie. Is that one of the reasonings for doing this as a series rather than as a series of movies?

FD: (Looks at Kirkman) Yeah…?

RK: Yeah.

The Walking DeadFD: Yeah, I guess the simple answer is “yeah.” I don’t know how one would do these as a series of feature films. I think…you know, with features, I feel like they would get so blown out of scale, blown out of proportion, because that’s all that features seem to want to be anymore. They’re spending $200 million on board-game movies. It’s, like, is that actually necessary? I like that the series is really being true to the comic book in the sense of its intimacy, its focus on these characters. I like that every story doesn’t have to turn into a big action scene. The sort of quiet, focused, intense storytelling that we’re doing, often, is very reflective of what Robert has done in the comic books. And I like that. It’s not blown out of proportion. And Hollywood…this is not to put anyone down, by the way. I’m not here to slam anybody. But “I Am Legend” is a great example of what I’m talking about. It’s one of the most quiet, focused, brilliant little books of all time, and by the time they put it on screen, it’s this gigantic-scale thing with these huge action sequences. And it’s, like, uh, okay, I guess that works…

Journalist: You’ve had great success adapting properties from books to film, especially when it’s really hard to find people who are happy with both versions. What is it that you look for that helps you adapt them?

FD: You know, I always say that I don’t want to adapt anything that I don’t love. And when I love it, I want to be as true to it as possible. Even when things change, because it’s a different language being spoken, of course, I want to be true enough to the spirit of what I’m adapting. And I think that’s why, say, people who love “Shawshank Redemption” also feel like I did right by the original material. I never want to just throw out the spirit or the intent of what the author brought to it. And that’s kind of been my philosophy all along, and I guess it’s served me well enough so far. I hope! (To Kirkman) You tell me, dude.

RK: I think you did a very good job, sir.

FD: Oh, thank you!

RK: (Laughs) No, I couldn’t be happier about how things have turned out.

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