“I think we’re going to kill a lot of the characters sooner than they died in the comics,” joked “The Walking Dead” co-creator Robert Kirkman at the opening night of the 28th Annual William S. Paley Television Festival on Friday. Following a screening of “Wildfire,” the AMC TV show’s fifth episode, moderator Mike Schneider introduced cast members Andrew Lincoln, Sarah Wayne Callies, Jon Bernthal, Steven Yeun, Emma Bell, producer Gale Anne Hurd, executive producer Frank Darabont, and Kirkman to a theatre full of the show’s fans. CBR News was there as the group looked forward to the second season which is scheduled to debut this fall and recalled their earliest encounters with the project.
Darabont revealed that planning for the second season began recently. “We’ve been going full time for about a week now,” he said. “It has been fantastic and a very productive week. The more we talk about this coming season, the more pumped we get.” Every aspect of the coming season is in flux, even its opening moments, though Darabont suggested it would start shortly after the explosion at the Center for Disease Control that closed season one. “I want to see them still in the reactive phase of this incredibly heated and intense thing that occurred,” he explained. “I think that’s where we’re going to start.”
In preparing for the second season, Darabont invited the actors to come into the writing room and discuss their characters. “I don’t know if this is common at all, because I’m making the show as I go along,” he said. “But they’re such interesting and intelligent people that I said come in and talk about your character.” Callies visited the writers earlier in the week, an experience Darabont called a “marriage therapy session” as the writers and the actress circled around the triangle between Lori, Rick and Shane.
“The danger of the secret that I’m holding involves everybody,” she said. “These are our two greatest protectors for the whole camp… and if I say something to either one of them that causes them to fight or causes one of them to leave, I could not only be leaving myself unprotected, but my son, and everyone else.” When Schneider danced around the possibility of other complications impacting the triangle, the actress offered back, “Oh, like what?”
Kirkman then added, “‘Mad Men:’ the main female lead [was] pregnant in season two. On ‘Breaking Bad,” she’s pregnant, so …”
“So it’s an AMC thing?” asked Schneider.
“I don’t know what they’re doing at that network,” Kirkman teased. “They’re great, I love them all.”
Asked about dangling plot points like Merle Dixon, the helicopter, and that infamous whisper, Darabont offered mostly sarcastic answers. On the topic of Merle, he responded, “You expect us to answer that?” As for Dr. Jenner’s whispered statement to Rick, the executive producer said, “Sure! What kind of communist turds do you think we are?” Without giving specifics, he admitted viewers will learn what the doctor said. “We’re not like other shows,” he joked. He also said they are “investigating the possibilities” of Morgan and his son returning after their memorable appearance in the pilot episode. He also stated definitively that Merle is not the Governor seen in the recent comic book storyline.
In fact, Darabont chose early on to diverge from the Image Comics series whenever a “fantastic idea” appeared — such as the CDC storyline. “It was something I had to do,” he said. At the same time, the freedom to stray from the comic came from the solid direction it offered the show’s writers. “The stuff that Robert has laid out [in the comic book] is a fantastic path,” Darabont explained. “It’s a great template and there are some things in it that are just too cool not to do.”
One such thing is, of course, the prison storyline. “It’s the joke of my career: I keep getting sent back to prison,” he lamented when Schneider brought up the possible location. Darabont directed “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” both set inside of prisons. In the case of “The Walking Dead,” he was intrigued by the inversion. “The worst place in the world is now the best place,” he said, but did not mention if it would be a second season locale.
Kirkman enjoyed returning to the initial group of characters and working with other writers in fleshing out ideas from the early days of the comic book. “I get to sit around the room going, ‘Oh, why didn’t I think of that?'” he quipped. He also found himself willing to let go of concepts from the book in favor of new ideas. “I wrote some of those issues in a week! To be the guy that says these good ideas aren’t going to make it in because my ideas are better is just ridiculous.”
Schneider asked if his presence in the writer’s room had an effect on the comic. Instead of an answer, Darabont jokingly accused Kirkman of stealing the Darryl Dixon character. “Is it cool or are you going to sue me?” asked the writer to the laughter of the group.
Darabont recalled the first time he saw “The Walking Dead” in print form while on a visit to the Burbank, CA comic shop House of Secrets. “I saw the first trade collecting the first six issues; because it featured zombies on the cover, I immediately grabbed it and took it home.” What he found inside intrigued him. “The stuff that I was reading that night really lent itself to something I’d been toying with. It was the perfect answer to a question that I’d been asking myself,” he explained. Soon after, he inquired about the rights.
According to the Kirkman, Darabont said all the right things after hearing other pitches that left him cold. “Half the time, they had stupid ideas: ‘Oh, what if we had super-zombies and dogs that turned into rocket ships!'” he said. They were also movie people looking to make a motion picture. Instead, Darabont came to him saying, “Let’s talk about the characters. The zombies are the backdrop. I want to do it as a TV show, not a movie.” The genuine interest in the material pleased Kirkman.
Even when a deal was made, it was some time before the show found a home. Producer Gale Anne Hurd takes the blame. “That’s what a producer does, we take responsibility,” she joked.
“The truth is [that] it instantly happened the moment she joined up with me,” added Darabont. Initially developed for NBC, the show found its way to AMC, a channel more comfortable with zombies, headshots and relentless grime.
The project’s unusual setting and the emphasis on the human drama drew in the assembled actors. “I hadn’t read anything like it,” said star Andrew Lincoln, who was convinced the recent birth of his son won him the part. “I hadn’t slept for twelve days and I looked like I survived the zombie apocalypse.”
Callies received the script and was attracted by the “insanity of it.” She explained, “You either take a deep breath and shoot a little girl in the face and go all the way there or fall flat on your face.” She believed a script willing to take that creative risk would attract the right group of dedicated people. “No one was going to get involved with this because [they thought], ‘Oh, I’m going to look pretty in this,'” she joked. She also claimed that she sat outside Darabont’s house in tears until she finally got the part.
“I cried after my audition, too,” recalled Jon Bernthal, who plays Shane. “[It was] a pilot script that had such a richness of atmosphere,” he said of his initial impressions. “Everything was really carved out. I immediately saw this world.” The actor was so taken with the script that he turned down other offers to guarantee his audition.
Steven Yeun, despite having read “The Walking Dead” in its comic form had a more pragmatic relationship to his audition. “I need to book a job, now!” he joked. The comic relief aspect of Glen came easy to him. “I cut my teeth in Chicago with the Second City [Comedy Troop], so comedy is something that I love.”
In the case of Laurie Holden, who plays Andrea, it was really Kirkman’s book that keyed her in. “I didn’t know what to expect and couldn’t believe the storytelling, the characters and how dark it was. I was up until 4 o’clock in the morning and crying [while] reading a comic book,” she recalled.
“You’re all a bunch of cry-babies!” teased Yeun.
To Darabont, the visceral reactions the actors had to the script and the comic book underline the real power in “The Walking Dead” as an evolving story. “It’s the human journey that is the most interesting,” he said. The emotional stakes involved are provocative to him as a writer and producer. Using Amy’s zombie resurrection from “Wildfire” as an example, he emphasized that it was a deliberate decision not to play the scene for horror. “That’s horseshit, we’ve seen it a million times!” he shouted. By playing the scene for its emotions, it involves the viewer in the characters and actually becomes a richer experience. “That’s what keeps us engaged. Then, when we do cut to something horrible… you’re so invested that the horrible thing seems even more horrible.”
With the second season still forming in the writer’s room, Darabont, Kirkman and the rest cannot wait to return to the world of “The Walking Dead” and explore all the horrible things the characters have yet to encounter. For Yeun in particular, there is the possibility he may have to shave his head. “I’ll do it,” he said. “But I have an ugly head.”
“The Walking Dead” Season One arrives on DVD/Blu-Ray March 8th. The second season airs on AMC in the Fall. “The Walking Dead” ongoing series is published monthly by Image Comics.