The zombie apocalypse is close at hand.
On Halloween, AMC will finally debut the series premiere of “The Walking Dead,” the new hourlong drama based on the Image Comics series from Robert Kirkman. Written and directed by Frank Darabont, “The Walking Dead” tells the story of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), an injured lawman who wakes up from a coma and finds himself trapped in a new nightmare – the world he knew is gone, replaced by a savage wasteland where the dead are walking and every surviving human is a full course meal in the making. Left alone in this broken landscape, Rick is a man with only one goal in mind: tracking down his wife and his son, and ensuring their survival at all costs.
At New York Comic-Con, CBR News participated in a round table discussion of “The Walking Dead” with Kirkman and Darabont about their mutual collaboration process, working with makeup effects guru Greg Nicotero, why they hate cameos and what they would do if bitten by a zombie.
CBR News: Frank, how exciting is it for you not just to be working on a zombie project, but to be working on a zombie project with your good friend Greg Nicotero?
Frank Darabont: Greg is one of the blessings in my life. I mean, as a friend and certainly as a colleague, we’ve been talking about wanting to do zombies for a long time. We were separated at birth apparently in terms of the stuff we like; we come from the same geek gene. For us to actually get to do this and do it together on a project as good as this guy’s material [points at Kirkman] is a blessing. There are so many blessings on this table. The cast – these are not insignificant factors. This is an amazing cast we have. There’s nobody in this who isn’t great. It’s such an indelible ensemble. Everybody’s marvelous. Again, there are so many things going right here that I’m just happy.
Robert Kirkman: Yeah, I can’t gush on Greg Nicotero enough. From day one, the day I started talking about this with Frank, he mentioned that Greg was on board for this. That was a huge part of me being excited about it, just knowing that Greg Nicotero would be handling all of this and [his special effects group] KNB would be involved doing the makeup effects, I just knew this would be well taken care of. We were absolutely right – this show is absolutely amazing. It has the best zombies that you’ll ever see, until Greg Nicotero and KNB go and do another zombie movie. It’s really quite remarkable, the things they’ve been able to do, and you’re going to see it all on television. It’s going to blow people away.
Have you gotten advice [about creating the show] from your fellow [comic book writers]?
Kirkman: I’ve been getting a lot of advice from Todd McFarlane on the media aspect of it all, getting to do adaptations and all of this stuff. But I’ll say that Todd’s experience making the “Spawn” movie just doesn’t compare. My experience on this television show with Frank, Gale [Anne Hurd], AMC and everyone involved, I don’t think I have a very realistic expectation of how these things are supposed to go, just because every step of the way I’ve been allowed to be involved, I’ve been asked my advice, everyone working on this is actually talented and are doing a good job and they’re making a good product. I don’t have to do press interviews where I go, “Well, you know, it’s a very interesting thing and I think people are going to find value in it.” [Laughs] I don’t have to mince words. I can actually just sit here and be honest with you guys, and I don’t think a lot of people who get their books adapted can do that. It’s really been a remarkable experience that has quite frankly ruined me for having my comic books turned into other things. Everything has been perfect and it shows in the final product. I think people are going to see that.
Does it worry you that with something like “Invincible,” you might not ever get the same kind of control?
Kirkman: I don’t know if I’m going to get the same control, but I don’t think I’m ever going to get to work with the same caliber of people. Hopefully I’ll be wrong and I’m sure I’ll say that I was wrong when I’m promoting the next project, but right now, I just don’t see it working out at as well. Everything has gone way better than I could have ever expected it to, and so I feel like I’ve just been pampered and way too lucky on this one.
Darabont: Yeah, you’re fucked in the future. [Laughs] This is rare.
Frank, how important is it for you to have Robert’s involvement in this?
Darabont: We are trying to hue to the spirit of what he’s created, so to have the creator as part of the process is comforting, to say the least. Plus, I want to have him excited about it. I don’t ever want to do something that pisses off the guy who created the thing I’ve adapted.
Kirkman: That kind of means you’re doing a bad job in and of itself, right? [Laughs]
Darabont: Yeah. It’s actually been fun to call Robert on occasion [for his input]. You haven’t heard from me lately because I’ve been in the editing room like a maniac…
Kirkman: I hear from you in the sense that I get edits of episodes.
Darabont: You get edits of episodes! We send him every pass of every show so he can look at it. [To Robert] And wait until you see these things. I’ve actually color-timed these, so the image looks beautiful, instead of that washed-out avid shit you’ve been looking at. It’s going to blow your mind; it’s actually really good looking.
But I remember the day – do you know what my favorite conversation with Robert was? We were just really starting to prep this thing and I had written the first two episodes. I had this question that I had to ask him. I got on the phone with him and said, “In this world of ‘The Walking Dead,’ in your comic book, can Rick walk into a video store and pick up Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ for example? Does the DVD for ‘Dead Alive’ exist? Does the zombie exist as a concept in this world, or is this thing that’s happening unique and fresh to this?” I kind of had my theory, and he gave me the exact answer I was hoping you would give me. Do you remember what you said?
Kirkman: I don’t at all. [Laughs] I’m sorry!
Darabont: He said, “No, I don’t think so. In this world, you could talk about ghosts and witches and vampires and ghouls, but the idea of the zombie – a living dead creature, a person who comes back hungry for human flesh – doesn’t exist in this world. It should be a unique occurrence to their perceptions.” He said the same thing that I was feeling. Let’s let this be fresh for them. That’s why we never used the word zombie in the TV series. It doesn’t exist as a pop cultural thing. If you could walk into Barnes & Noble and buy the Max Brooks book, it would just be weird.
Kirkman: The entire show would fall apart the second someone says, “Hey, it’s just like ‘Day of the Dead,’ right?” Way too inside baseball.
Darabont: Yes, exactly! We didn’t want it to be too self-referential, and it would be so impossible not to if Max Brooks had published his books in this world, or if Romero had made those movies.
The show has the advantage of building from your body of work, Robert. Are there lessons that you’ve learned from the stories along the way or complaints readers may have had, like who was taking care of Rick at the hospital, that the show builds in or avoids?
Kirkman: You know, there are things like that that I think are boring. Obviously, there was a way that he was able to survive in that hospital bed. I imagine that things went to hell and there were people still taking care of him until the last minute, and they abandoned him shortly before he woke up. There are ways that it makes sense and everything. The show is doing a very good job of this, too. There are things that could be said to explain stuff more, but that stuff is boring. You want to start at the most interesting moment and just move on. That’s the way that the show does it.
Darabont: One thing you discover if you’ve been a screenwriter for a while, the audience always needs just a little bit less explanation than you think they do. This is the one thing you discover in the editing room, too. You’ve put the scripts in front of the camera and you think [the audience] is absolutely going to need to know this scene or this part of the scene or this line of dialogue. Once it’s in front of you, you realize, they don’t need to know that. Cut that out of there. The audience intuits a tremendous amount. There’s a shorthand that’s developed with the audience that you don’t have to explain everything. That’s fantastic. You don’t have to show everybody driving up, parking the car, getting out, walking across the street and going up and knocking on the door, for example, to know that the guy came over and now they’re having a conversation. You can just cut into the scene. Look at some of the older movies in the ’30s and ’40s and everybody is always walking out of the car and across the street and knocking on the door.
Kirkman: I didn’t see that doorknob turn. How did that door open?!
Robert, are you going to [film a cameo] as a zombie in this?
Kirkman: No. I didn’t want to, just because I feel it’s gratuitous. I can’t stand cameos, to be honest with you. Every time I see Peter Jackson in “Lord of the Rings,” I just go, “Bah, there he is again!” It’s just a pet peeve of mine and I didn’t want to do it. I asked to play Rick, but they wouldn’t let me, so I was pouting a little and I refused to be a zombie.
Darabont: It’s the same with me. I’ve never done cameos in any of my stuff. If another director asks me, I’m happy to show up. I’ve done a few things in “Entourage,” which was great fun, and a little thing in a John Carpenter movie.
Kirkman: I would be a zombie in a Romero movie, I just don’t want to do it in this.
Darabont: Yeah, the self-referential word comes up again. I find it distracting when directors do that.
If you were bitten by a zombie – a fresh bite – what would you do?
Kirkman: What would I do? I don’t know. People often ask me how I would exist in this world and how I would get by, and I would say, not very well. I would probably hang myself or jump off a building very early on, because I’ve written this comic book and I know how bad it can get, and I don’t want to get there!
Bitten by a zombie, though? I don’t know. That’s an interesting question, because everyone in the movies – and it’s something that I’ve never done in the comics and it’s something that I don’t think is really true to life – everyone always kills themselves immediately. “Oh, I don’t want to turn into a zombie.” I would kind of wonder what that’s like. Maybe it’s great! Maybe you’re walking around as a dead guy and it’s like fields where everybody is a chocolate bar walking by. Maybe it’s a good thing, you know? Yeah, I’d go for it. I’d go for it. I’d get away from anybody that I could hurt, and I’d go for it.
Darabont: Maybe it’s not so much bitten by a zombie as it is touched by an angel. [Laughs]
The 90 minute series premiere of “The Walking Dead” airs at 10/9 p.m. central on AMC this Halloween and “Walking Dead” fans won’t want to miss SPINOFF ONLINE’S unboxing of the freshly turned “Walking Dead” Press/Survival Kit!