Director Frank Darabont has been searching for a zombie sandbox of his own to play in ever since he first saw George A. Romero’s “The Night of the Living Dead.” Thanks to Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead,” he’s finally found it. The “Shawshank Redemption” and “Green Mile” director is one of the key figures behind AMC’s television adaptation of Kirkman’s survival horror series, having directed the pilot episode, written the first three and executive produced all six of the first season -Â and if “The Walking Dead” returns for a second year, he’s just getting started.
At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Darabont spoke with CBR News and a small group of reporters about his work on “The Walking Dead,” but the conversation didn’t end there. The filmmaker also candidly discussed his history as a comic book and horror fan, collaborating with legendary artist Drew Struzan, the pros and cons of the rise of geekdom, the influence of “Twilight” and Anne Rice on vampire culture, the unbearable heat of Atlanta and much more.
CBR News: Everyone we’ve talked to has been saying that you’re a comic book geek. They’ve been outing you.
Frank Darabont: Within limits. I have my likes and my I-don’t-really-give-a-shit’s, like everyone else. But yeah, going back to pulling “House of Mysteries” off of the rack at the local liquor store that had the Bernie Wrightson cover on it, and digging that when I was in junior high school – which is so weird when you cut to all these years later and Bernie has been one of my best friends for, god, a decade and a half now. It’s so weird to think back that I was a little twelve year old saying, “Oh my god, this is the coolest guy ever!” [Laughs] It’s fun, though. It’s fun when you get to meet your heroes and befriend them and they prove to be cooler people than you imagined. That’s always fun when it happens. It doesn’t always. I’ve gotten to become really good friends with Drew Struzan in recent years, in the last five or ten. God, I can’t quite remember exactly how long it’s been, now. I’ve been very lucky.
It’s weird. I know so many artists. That was always the coolest thing to me – someone who can really render art – because I lack that gene. For me, it’s like music. I lack the gene entirely, except to appreciate it. I’m not even Solieri! Solieri could at least write music! [Laughs] And he actually wrote some good music, contrary to popular myth. But I can’t even do that. But like him, I can appreciate it, and so these artists that I’ve become friends with, Tim Bradstreet and all of these other guys, they just blow my mind. I can’t believe their talent and they’re all such good people.
How important was it to get [Drew Struzan] to do posters for you these last couple of films, and how hard is it to get him to commit [after he retired in 2008]?
It’s not hard to get Drew to commit at all, because he loves what he does, and he particularly thrives on when what he does is appreciated. You cannot get a more appreciative client than me or, say, Guillermo Del Toro, who always uses Drew as well. I’m proud to say I introduced them. When he’s doing his thing for people who really get it, he loves it. He really digs it. The problem is the sort of corporate robot mentality of Hollywood these days, particularly in that field as well, they don’t want to know about artists and they don’t want to know about art on posters -Â it’s all photo-shopped fucking pictures these days. It’s kind of phased his craft out of the equation to a large degree, except for die hard guys like me, Guillermo and some young guys coming up who really dig Drew’s work and get it.
To me, it’s kind of like when Lucas and Spielberg brought orchestral scoring back to movies after that period where it was only electronic synthesizer shit, right? Suddenly you get this John Williams score in a movie again and you go, “Wow! That’s old school and it rocks!” I hope maybe there might be a swing back towards the more painted poster art, but I tend to doubt it. I think this might be sort of a dinosaur concept, except in a niche way where it’s really appreciated.
I have to say, I was so thrilled with AMC digging the idea [of Struzan’s “Walking Dead” poster]. It’s not that they got talked into it or forced kicking and screaming. When I brought it up, they said, “Really? You think we could get Drew Struzan to do a poster for ‘The Walking Dead?'” And I said, “I bet we could!” They were very proud of this poster. They really like it! They’re as excited about it as I am, and that’s such a pleasure to see. Instead of being batted about by some corporate bureaucracy, Drew has been treated really nicely here. It’s lovely to see him happy about doing a piece of work again, because he feels it’s appreciated and he’s respected. God knows if he hasn’t earned that by now, I don’t know what kind of world we’re in.
As an appreciator of comic books and art, what drew you to “The Walking Dead” in the first place, before the show even began development? What sang out to you?
It all started in 1974 or 1973 in the pre-video early Jurassic era when there was no video and you couldn’t see “Night of the Living Dead” whenever the hell you wanted. This movie had been around for about five years at this point and it had just developed this sort of air and mythos around it. It was almost spoken of in whispers, like it was this really bad pornography or something. Horror pornography. So, of course, my friends and I had to find it. We saw it at a revival house – I can’t remember if it was a midnight screening – but I remember thinking, “I love this sandbox. I love this context.” I loved the movie. It was one of the most potent film experiences that I’d had, and it still remains an incredibly muscular piece of work. It’s on my top ten great horror movies of all time.
Look, I’ve always loved this stuff. I’m a horror guy from when I saw “Dracula” and “Wolfman” on TV when I was five. It’s a genetic predisposition. You guys know what I’m talking about. So when I walked into my comic book shop in Burbank – Christ, I’m blanking on the name. House of Secrets, shout out to them. I walked in and I saw this first trade edition of “Walking Dead,” and of course I grabbed it. It’s the first thing I took home that day! I immediately started reading it that night and I thought to myself, “Okay, this is the zombie sandbox I’ve always wanted to play in. I get it. I get what Kirkman’s doing here. I’d love to follow in his tracks and get this going as a television show.”
And it’s not a feature. It’s where zombies haven’t been done yet. We’re doing it in a new way -Â it’s an ongoing, highly serialized story about a group of people. I was instantly drawn to it for that reason. I don’t think I ever would have done a zombie movie, particularly because it’s been done and it’s been done very well any number of times. I just thought this would be a very cool idea.
What surprised me is the amount of attention we’re suddenly getting. I’m a little…not taken aback, but certainly surprised by it. I wasn’t really expecting to have so much excitement built up around this. I just thought, “Oh, geez, AMC – we talked them into doing a zombie show! Hope we get to do a few more before they come to their senses!” [Laughs] I also thought, well, this Kirkman thing is really good, but it’s such a little – and of course five years ago it probably was – such a cult readership. I’m now realizing that it’s actually kind of a big deal comic book! It’s kind of hilarious. I’m a little bit late to the game! But I’ve been busy these last five years, and certainly the last year has all been getting this thing into motion as a series. But I’m beginning to realize, yeah, this is kind of a big deal, this comic book. In a way, it wasn’t necessarily when I found it.
But also, the whole zombie thing has suddenly become – I mean, for a guy who grew up back in the day that when you liked horror stuff, or fantasy stuff, or all of the stuff that is all of the highest grossing pictures of any summer these days, back then, if you liked that horror stuff, you were a weirdo and you were ostracized! The only thing that kind of melded that community together was Forry Ackerman and his magazine [“Famous Monsters of Filmland”]. The little handful of weirdoes in any given school would band together and they’d be the ones the jocks would kick in the hallways as they passed. Now, it’s in the mainstream. I never imagined that this zombie thing would filter in with the mainstream in the way that it has, and it’s far greater even now than it was five years ago when I read Kirkman’s material. It’s just become almost crazy. Ten years ago, five years ago even, I don’t think you would find grandmas buying “How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse” joke books by Max Brooks in Barnes & Noble, and now, everyone has some zombie thing out there. Oh, jeez! I don’t know if it feels like we’re jumping on a trend here or not. When I had the idea, it felt like we’d have the leading edge of it, that we’d be jumping into uncharted waters a bit, but not so much now.
I guess the plus side of that is, suddenly, there’s all of this attention being paid and the show may really have a good shot at being successful because of it, so I don’t know. We’re all from the same country, fundamentally, the geek country. It’s a weird feeling, and it gets weirder as you get older, the little hidden thing you always treasured is now suddenly in the zeitgeist and in the pop culture on a mass basis. It’s almost like they broke into your little box of cool shit. [Laughs] And they suddenly mass-manufactured copies all over the world, and you go, “Oh, I used to dig that it was a little hidden, weirdo thing.” I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. It doesn’t hurt [the bank account] and it doesn’t hurt the opportunity to tell more stories and do more shit in the genre that we love. It only expands the opportunities. So that’s all the good part.
And let’s face it, at the end of the day, when people look back on this stuff, probably even ten years from now when they look back on the “Twilight” films, I’m sure they’re not going to be held in the same regard as the stuff we hold, like “Night of the Living Dead.”
The “Night of the Living Dead,” you know, there’s a reason that it’s in the national registry. I have a really good friend, Dave Scout, who said something to me that still makes me laugh. I always liked the vampire thing – not lately, because I feel like it’s raining from the sky now and it’s either romance novels for teenage girls or softcore for the older girls. I don’t know what the hell it is anymore. But ten years ago, Dave said, “You know this vampire thing? It’s like the ‘Star Trek’ of horror now. It’s everywhere.” That was ten years ago. I don’t even know what it is of horror [now]. You can’t even categorize it as the “Star Trek” of horror, because it’s just everywhere. I’m not even sure I can define it anymore. I’m over vampires. Give me a good flesh-eating zombie. Unless we go back to old school, go back and look at the original “Night Stalker.” That still works. I kind of like my vampires being that Douglas Drake thing, you know? The beast-like monstrous thing. I think Anne Rice was such a game-changer that it all turned into, you know…
Frilly shirts and long hair.
[Laughs] Did you ever see – there was this issue of “The Goon” that Eric Powell did, another artist friend of mine that I love and he’s brilliant. He kind of takes the piss out of the Anne Rice crowd a little bit with the covenant of vampires, and it’s the frilly shirt version, until they run into the real version. It’s really, actually hilarious on the one hand, and it’s rather poignant and moving on the other. It’s a really great bit of storytelling, and he did it all in one issue of “The Goon.” I remain deeply impressed.
Well, now that you’re playing in the zombie sandbox, are you having fun?
You know what, I’m having a blast. This is all in the context ofÂ it’s ass-kickingly exhausting and it’s not a rollercoaster of fun from moment to moment, but then, production never is. But that’s not why you get into it. You don’t get into it to have fun. If you want to have fun, go to Disneyland, you know? [Laughs] Go do something else that’s not so challenging. But in the context of that? Yeah man, I’m having a blast, because the challenge is part of it. When you have so many problems thrown at you on any given day that you feel like you’re being beaten, and you go, “Okay, here’s how we solve that. Do this, that and the other.” Or, you look at your colleagues and you go, “Here’s a problem. What are your solutions? Oh, that sounds great, let’s do that. Thank you, Greg Nicotero. Thank you, so-and-so.” It’s great. You really feel like you’re in the ring. You feel like you’re taking punches but you’re landing as many as you’re getting, and at the end of the day, you’re happy with what you’re doing and you’re proud of the result.
If I could change anything, it would be the heat of Atlanta. [Rolls eyes] Fuck! We didn’t make a mistake, because it looks so great on film. Everything we point our camera at, we’re finding so many great locations there and we get so much cooperation. It’s fantastic. I mean, we were able to put more on screen than our budget would have ever suggested by being clever, by having people working for a common cause who are coming up with really bold and clever solutions, but also because of the way that Atlanta is laid out, you can find nooks and crannies downtown where it’s not that big of a deal to shut down six blocks on a weekend. Suddenly, because of the way that the streets are laid out, it looks like you’re in a massive, deserted city. We’re getting tremendous production value for a television budget because of the city and because of the cleverness of the people who are doing the show.
So, no, Atlanta’s great -Â but it’s the fucking heat and the humidity. Oh my God. When I shot the pilot, I was sweating through my clothing five minutes into the day and I never stopped sweating through my clothing. You feel disgusting by the time…it’s not even lunch and you feel disgusting, let alone when you get home and crawl into the shower.
That makes me think about the poor bastards playing the zombies.
Oh, man! Tremendous kudos to them, by the way, because yeah, very uncomfortable. But their commitment and their enthusiasm was unshakeable. You should have seen these people when Nicotero was loading the fake horse with all of the intestines and blood and everything like that. At one point he comes up to me -Â I’m busy with something else – and he comes up to me, I turn around, and he has blood up to his shoulders. He says, “You know this thing where the zombies tear the horse apart? You better shoot that really soon, because I’m not going to be able to hold these people back.” I went, “Okay, grab these two cameras and let’s get over there right now.” They cut loose and were just so into it. There are a couple of images that, I swear to god, remind me of old school Romero “Dawn of the Dead” era zombie frenzy, with the blood on the hands. It’s just so cool. And that’s the zombie sandbox that we love to play in.
The story eventually starts going towards winter, which is a rarity in horror itself. “The Walking Dead” has zombies in the snow. Is that something that you’re excited about for season two, that maybe you can get away from the heat?
When we get to season two – knock on wood – it will obviously be expanded from six episodes to thirteen. I’m hoping that we might actually be able to shoot part of it in that kind of environment. It would be great not just to get out of the heat, but to present a different idea to the audience visually and tonally by having it be winter. There’s some really cool stuff that Kirkman did, where they find the one zombie that’s frozen to the ground. I’d never seen that before and that’s really cool.
Or when Michonne shows up – and boy, is she a character I can’t wait to get to – when she comes striding out of the wasteland like a Clint Eastwood fucking spaghetti western character cross-melded with some samurai movie, like the Baby Cart character with the fucking sword, and there’s just a little drift of snow in the air. I would love to put that on film! [Laughs] So, maybe. Who knows. It just kind of depends on what a production year would be like, but man, I would love to do that. And it does snow down there. I’ve been in Georgia when it snows. I wouldn’t mind that at all. That would be great.
And then we’ll be bitching about how cold it is, because it gets cold. It’s never comfortable on a set, I’ve discovered. [Laughs]
“The Walking Dead” premieres on AMC in October as part of the network’s annual Fearfest program. The series comes from director-writer-producer Frank Darabont and executive producers Gale Anne Hurd and Robert Kirkman.