With 75 issues of “The Walking Dead” and a freshly earned Eisner award under his belt, it’s safe to assume that Robert Kirkman knows a thing or two about zombies. But the comic book creator and Image Comics partner is exploring unchartered undead territory as he brings a television adaptation of “The Walking Dead” to the AMC network alongside director-writer-producer Frank Darabont and executive producer Gale Anne Hurd. As an executive producer and one of the show’s head writers, Kirkman has a rare opportunity to reexamine the earliest days of Rick Grimes and his not-so-merry band of survivors -Â and based on the crowd’s response to footage premiered at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the fans are on his side.
At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Kirkman spoke with CBR News about “The Walking Dead,” the differences between writing for television as opposed to comics, revisiting the early days of the series, interacting with the cast, joining the AMC family and much more.
CBR News: Robert, let’s get the big scoop out of the way -Â is Carl wearing a Science Dog T-shirt on the show?
Robert Kirkman: Technically, that looks a little bit like a bear paw to me. [Laughs] It’s kind of a funny thing. Yes, that is a Science Dog shirt. I know that Carl wears a Science Dog shirt on the cover of issue #3 and I think he wears it at some point in the comic, but I’m not really sure. But I just ended up in the wardrobe trailer and I walked by and saw that shirt. I was like, “What?!” I took a picture for [“Science Dog” co-creator] Cory Walker and sent it to him.
It’s awesome, because I don’t think that AMC technically has the rights to that image, but I’m not really going to say anything. It’s fine. It’s a fun Easter egg. Or maybe AMC now owns that logo forever! I was telling Cory that I want to have them walk by a derelict donut shop in “The Walking Dead” comic that’s called “Bear Claws,” and it has that logo. See, it’s just a bear claw! That’s not Science Dog. So basically, that’s not the Science Dog logo. It’s the Bear Claws logo.
Obviously, surreal is the word that keeps getting batted around with this project…
Surreal is the word I have to say in every single interview. Please don’t make me say it.
But is this starting to get a little bit real now? You’re going around doing a lot of interviews for the show, you’re talking about it more, you’re writing episodes and you’ve been on set for a decent amount of time. Does it feel like it’s starting to getting more and more fleshed out?
Yeah, it definitely does. It’s coming together and it’s looking amazing. Everything I’ve seen looks really good. It looks like there’s a real TV show and people really like it. I was talking to the people at AMC, saying that you don’t really get comic book adaptations where people aren’t complaining about something. I think “Iron Man” is the only real example where they started releasing photos and people were like, “I approve!” You don’t get “I approve” a lot. But AMC is releasing great photos, we have a great cast and you have guys like [makeup and special effects creator] Greg Nicotero doing effects. They’ve just done a really good job. I haven’t seen anybody saying, “Well, I’m not too sure about this.”
It’s not my work, so I’m not sitting there going around saying, “Alright, good job!” I am incredibly pleased with myself for picking a good team and letting them make this thing and seeing how good of a job they’re doing with it. I mean, look. It’s a series. It could jump the shark at any minute. But right now, for now, it looks amazing. The pilot is looking really good. I think people are going to be blown away. They’re not expecting what they’re going to see. It’s not anything you’ve ever seen on television.
Comics is a very collaborative medium by its nature, and you’ve worked with some amazing artists. This is a different kind of collaboration, but there are some similarities. Can you talk about the learning curve between going from comics to working on television?
It’s kind of a test as far as your insecurities with yourself go. It’s really kind of remarkable, because the writers room has guys like Chic Eglee, Jack LoGuidice and Adam Fierro, and Glen Mazzara is coming in to do some freelance writing, then Frank is writing the first two episodes. But it’s guys who really respect each other sitting around in a room shitting on each other’s ideas. [Laughs] It’s a lot of fun, because you’ll go around and it’s like, “I think this should happen. I don’t think that should happen because it’s stupid.” “Well, actually, that would lead to this, and that would be a problem.” Every single angle that could possibly be thought of for a story is all worked out, and that’s kind of amazing.
Sometimes I just sit there and watch one guy suggest, “Hey, we should make this guy drive a car.” And then this other guy would say, “Oh, that would be kind of cool if he drove a car. We could do that!” Then someone says, “Well, if he drives a car, maybe he could drive it this way.” Then another guy will be like, “Oh, yeah, do that!” Then the first guy who suggested the idea will go, “You know what, that’s probably not a good idea. Let’s not do that because of this.” You just suggested this! What’s going on?! [Laughs] But it’s just a bunch of guys talking about story in a room, which is something I’ve never really experienced before.
To be honest, I really enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun feeling like you’ve kind of beaten the crap out of your story. With the book, people seem to like it and I don’t like to second guess myself. I usually like to plow forward and if that seems like a good idea, let’s do it. If it seems like a mistake, I’ll deal with it, you know? I like that for the comics. That’s a lot of fun for me.
You wrote the script for episode four. What was that process like? How different was it from writing the comics?
It was a lot of fun. Like I’ve said, it’s a collaborative process. I wrote the episode, I actually worked on the physical script, but I sat in a room for weeks talking with the guys about what I was going to do and what they thought about it, so there are a lot of hands on that script, just like there is in any television script. But it’s a thrill. It’s also incredibly nerve-wracking to be writing dialogue and imagining that someone is going to be reading this in front of other people – that’s a little crazy! But it was a lot of fun. I was on set for most of the filming of that episode, and they’re still shooting it right now. AMC was kind of like, “Hey, we really like having you on set and everything, but you need to be at Comic-Con.” So I’m not getting to see most of it, but the director on that episode is Johan Renck. He’s a Swedish fellow and a totally cool guy, and I had a lot of fun spending time with him. It’s fun seeing him shoot scenes from a script that I wrote. It’s pretty cool.
You’re getting to revisit a portion of “The Walking Dead” that you haven’t been near in a long time. As you’re going back, are there any moments you wish you had done differently or any moments you don’t want them to change for the show?
There have been times where I’ll be like, “You know, we can do this, but what that led to in the series was this. I don’t know if you guys want to go there.” But it’s nice having the benefit of hindsight to go, “Well, this worked and this didn’t work.” Not that there isn’t a lot that didn’t work in “The Walking Dead,” let’s be honest. [Laughs] But there are things, like cutting off Rick’s hand. That didn’t end up being too problematic for me because in the comic, I’ll just have bottled water open and he’ll be drinking it. No one goes, “Now, wait a minute – did he call someone over to open it? Did he put that in his mouth?” There are a lot of problems that come from being one-handed and there are a lot of cheats I’m able to get away with in the comics that they can’t get away with in the show. You can’t just have a guy putting a shirt on and have it be on – someone else has to do those buttons. There are things like that where I’m kind of thinking that maybe it’s good to go a certain way.
That said, they’re cutting Rick’s hand off in the second episode, which really shocked me, to be honest! [Laughs]
The comic books are at a very interesting and different point than you are in the show, but do you ever find that there’s cross-pollination between the comic and the TV series, where you see something that’s going on in the show and you think it might work for the comic, or vice versa?
It’s a little bit tricky. There isn’t really anything I can set up on the show and pay off in the comic or anything like that, but working on the show is kind of fun to go back to a different era than the comic and do things a little bit differently and get to play with characters that are long dead in the series. They’re so vastly different that it doesn’t really apply. I mean, the early issues of the comic and the early episodes of the show are going to be very similar. But the comic has gone on for so long and so many different things have happened to these characters that they’re just so completely different at this point.
Speaking of characters, how involved have you been in the casting process?
They ask my opinion. I’ve told them if I don’t like this guy or I don’t like that guy, and for the most part, it’s always been like, “Hey, what do you think of Andrew Lincoln?” And I say, “I think he’s great!” And they say, “Oh, good, because we’re going to cast him.” It’s later on in the game that they really ask my opinion, but so far, I’ve been really happy with everybody.
Have any of the actors ever asked you for guidance on their characters?
I’ve talked to Jeffrey DeMunn a little bit about Dale. He was asking me about stuff and we had a nice conversation. I think that Andrew is trying not to read the comic, because I’ve heard his brother-in-law is a huge fan of the series and he pushed him to take the role, so he’s very excited about the whole thing. Andrew is having to tell him, “I don’t want to know where it goes. I don’t want it to inform my character. I want to live in the moment.” They’re really good actors, so they’re really trying to do this stuff. Glenn, played by Steven Yeun, read the comic before he was cast, so he kind of laughs because he’s one of the few characters who’s still alive in the comic. I’ve joked with him so many times, “Well, you’re dying in the next issue!” [Laughs] But yeah, he’s kind of enjoying himself.
This first season is six episodes, and judging on fan reaction, people want to see more. Do you feel that six episodes are enough for this first season? Does it feel like enough room to stretch around?
I would look at it more as a six-hour pilot as opposed to a six-hour first season. It’s a nice first step, you know? Things are looking good for a second season and the second season would be full-length, like a nice 13-episode season. Assuming that it happens. It’s probably going to happen. [Laughs] I’m just messing with the AMC executives who may be reading this. But they told me it’s going to happen, so it better happen! I’m holding them to it!
But yeah, six episodes will be good. They’ve done a nice, tight story for the six-episode arc. It’ll make a good DVD that everyone can go rent out and purchase.
Between “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” AMC has a very solid reputation, and I know you’re a big fan of “Breaking Bad.”
“Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Rubicon” is great, too. It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s going to be awful if “Rubicon” ends up getting all kinds of Emmy nominations and then “Walking Dead” doesn’t. [Laughs] Come on, give us some of that AMC Emmy love!
No, it’s a great network. I love the fact that “Mad Men” is on its fourth season, “Breaking Bad” will soon get its fourth season. They’ve really kind of expanded slowly and taken their time, not loading down their programming with a lot of shows. They’re really impressive. I have to say that their network notes for all of the episodes that have come in are really spot on and thoughtful. You can really tell why “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are so good from working on them, because the executives who are passing down all of their [notes], it’s like they’re all writers or something. It’s really kind of impressive. I have to say, they really do know what they’re doing. Maybe they’re the Pixar of television. We’ll see!
For AMC, the level of violence that we’re seeing here is through the roof. It’s a very gritty, gross looking show. Have you been surprised with how much you’re able to get away with?
Going into it, I knew that AMC was a cable network, not a pay cable network. I knew there would be certain limitations. I don’t think we’re going to miss the F-word, you know? I kind of liked the aspect that there were going to be limitations on the gore. One of the main concerns was that we’d get some crazy person doing blood and guts, but that’s not really what the comic is about and that’s not what the show should be about. So there are built-in limitations that make you focus on the drama and the character interactions and do real stories. But I’ll be damned if AMC isn’t going, “Oh, no, there’s tons of gore in this, too.” So we’re getting the best of both worlds. You’re getting all of that emotion and stuff that you get in the comic book, but you’re also getting dripping entrails and all of that.
To AMC’s credit, they’re fully aware that they purchased a zombie show, and by God, they are making a zombie show. I found out that their standards and practices guy, who is actually in charge of making sure that [the network] doesn’t get sued by the FCC, is a huge zombie fan. He actually said to Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd, “I’m going to be watching the dailies, and if you pull your punches, I’ll be upset. Do not worry about me -Â I’m going to do what I have to do and make sure that the show is able to air -Â but I really want you to push the envelope.” They’re really kind of diving in feet first.
“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.