The second season of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” began with the high drama of missing children and a zombie herd descending on a gridlocked highway graveyard. The season ended with two regular characters dead, dissension in the human ranks, waves of zombies pouring down and a tantalizing glimpse of an institutional facility.
The introduction of The Prison, coupled with a katana-weilding first appearance by Danai Gurira’s Michonne and the announced casting of David Morrissey as The Governor has sufficiently whet appetites for Season 3, especially among fans of Robert Kirkman’s “Walking Dead” comic book.
Last week, I went to a pre-season “Walking Dead” junket in Beverly Hills attended by basically every cast member, major and minor. Trying to keep the interview tally under control, I targeted new faces Morrissey and Gurira, as well as four of the show’s producers.
Up first, is my 20-plus minute chat with Kirkman and showrunner Glen Mazzara. Keeping spoilers to a minimum, we discussed the tone and structure of Season 3, while the producers also addresses some fan criticisms from the second season, including what some felt was a slow middle and the trouble-prone adventures of Young Carl.
This interview covers a lot of ground, so let’s just jump into it. Like I said, spoilers are minimal, but probably not entirely absent. You’ve been warned…
HitFix: For fans of the comic, Michonne and The Governor and the Prison, these are things that have been looming from the very first seconds of the show as moments that we’ve been looking forward to getting to. For both of you guys, knowing expectations, have you been looking forward to this iconic stuff with excitement or with some measure of trepidation?
Robert Kirkman: Excitement!
Glen Mazzara: Definitely excitement. This is what we’ve been waiting for. This, to me, is one of the great parts of a great comic book series and I feel really lucky that we’re finally getting to do it. It’s exciting. I think that David Morrissey and Danai Gurira are doing a great job of bringing those characters to life and it’s just been fun, kinda finding our version of them. But yeah, no trepidation at all.
Robert Kirkman: We’ve talked about this a lot about how the TV audience doesn’t even really know what this show becomes. The comic book audience is aware of everything that happens with the prison and all of the evolution that the characters go through and all of the new elements that are thrown in, but if you look at the first two seasons and then look at the third season and it’s almost like a completely different show and in the coolest possible way.
HitFix: Robert, I know that somebody asks you this question literally point by point as we go along on this journey, but to what degree does what’s happening in the third season feel like your books anymore?
Robert Kirkman: A lot. We start in the writers’ room going, “OK. This is a bunch of stuff that happened in the comic. What do we like? What do we not like? What applies based on what happened in the first two seasons? What can’t work based on things we’ve already changed?” And then we sit there with that roadmap and once we have that kind stuff in place, that’s when we kinda get down to the nitty-gritty of crafting a season all together. We pull from those events and some things end up sticking and staying somewhat close to the comic and then other things start from that point and evolve wildly into cool and different stuff. It’s really hard for me to sit here and say, “Oh, well Season 3 is 30 percent spot-on or 50 percent spot-on.” There are cool differences almost in every single thing that we do.
Glen Mazzara: Yeah, it doesn’t work like that. Once you start, “OK. These are our characters, this is our world, these are the stories we want to tell, these are our themes,” that sort of stuff, then you craft the best story you can and you say, “What happens next?” And then those characters have made decisions and now you have to track those in the next episode. We have an overall arc of what we’re doing, but we’re able to keep finding surprises that we think are going to be a lot of fun to write and shoot and that hopefully the audience will respond to. It’s about staying true to the story we’re telling. We’ve always said that the comic book and the TV show are alternate universes to each other, but I think we certainly always take the comic book extremely seriously. We want to stay true to the spirit of that book. We want to do it justice and it sets a very high bar, so it just makes us feel like we’re trying to bring a fully realized world to life.
HitFix: Following on that, the Rick that we have now who’s entering the Prison is not the same Rick who entered the Prison in the comic book. How would you define where the two characters are at different places in their evolutions in the alternate universes, as you say?
Robert Kirkman: Well, to a certain extent, “The Walking Dead” has sorta become Rick Grimes’ descent into madness. That’s what the comic book is and that’s what the show, to certain extent, is. I think that the Rick in the television show might possibly be slightly ahead on his darkening, or whatever happens to him, than he was when he arrived at the prison in the comic book series. I think, though, that they’re pretty much in line. There’s definitely a lot of differences, but they feel largely like the same guy to me.
Glen Mazzara: The central quality is always that Rick has a core group, probably centered around Carl, that he wants to protect. [Implied spoiler redacted.] That’s consistent and he’s willing to do incredible things to protect the people that he cares about, so I think that’s the same character and the same story.
HitFix: What did you guys learn last season from The Farm in terms of working with largely single-setting storytelling?
Glen Mazzara: One of the things that we learned about The Farm is that, in a sense, the story we were telling was that the outbreak occurred in populated areas and since the farm was in a remote, rural area, it took a while for the herd and the outbreak and everything to fully reach The Farm. Now, the entire world is lost. So there’s no safe place. The walkers are very close and living in this prison is sorta like living in a shark tank. It’s just there. They’re all around and the fact that everybody’s infected, anybody within the walls could die and become a walker. So it’s an advancement of the story. It’s a different chapter. It’s now that the walkers are everywhere and we’re living in the middle of it.
HitFix: You guys did such a good job of keeping Michonne’s arrival a secret, rather remarkable in this day and age, but now AMC’s is promoting “Welcome to Woodbury,” there’s The Governor on posters, there’s Michonne slashing people up… They’re even promoting Michael Rooker. For you as storytellers, would you prefer that these ads and stills show absolutely nothing? Do you feel like that takes something away from what you’re trying to do?
Robert Kirkman: I would prefer they show absolutely nothing, but at the same time, you have to recognize the realities of doing anything in this day and age. If you don’t advertise something, nobody shows up. I will say that one thing I’m really proud of this season is we’re very careful of showing just enough for marketing purposes. There are quite a bit of surprises this season from minute one. Really the name of the game now, when you’re doing TV or comic books or whatever it is, is picking those certain things that you decide to market and then protecting the other things around it, so that there are still big surprises and cool shocking moments left for the audience, even if they have been paying attention to every stitch of marketing leading up to the premiere.
Glen Mazzara: We’re lucky. We have an incredibly devoted fanbase. People want information. They’re out there. There’s a very large presence online. People are very savvy. So because of that technology, we have to put certain information out there so that we are putting it out. It’s a shame when things get spoiled and I think if you put out enough information that satisfies the appetite, hopefully, that people have, hopefully you can protect the big twists and things that are coming, or even just the character moments. We are very involved as executive producers in going through every bit of information that’s released, so every shot goes through us so we are careful to protect the story so that the fans have the best experience possible.
HitFix: Last season, you guys knew what the last two episodes were going to be. But then, online there’s the whole “Not enough zombies! They’re not killing people!” contingent. There’s that vocal part of the fanbase, as you know. How did you guys respond to those criticisms both in general and knowing where you were going in those episodes?
Glen Mazzara: Well, those episodes were in the process of being written and being shot after some of those criticisms maybe came out, so we were telling the story we wanted to tell. And, you know, we listen to our fans. Obviously we love having an interaction with the fans. But we tell our story, you know? I think that we, as storytellers, wanted to really stick the landing and have a big ending. We had 13 episodes and we wanted to make sure that the show feels epic, that there’s large scope. We knew we were always building to those two episodes, so there was never a moment where we heard criticism and made any adjustments to anything we shot or wrote. We were already in that zone.
Robert Kirkman: This is something that I’ve been dealing with in the comic book series for almost a decade now. You watch the fan reaction come in — cuz this is a show that has a very vocal following, which is awesome — and as fan reaction comes in, just to me the fact that they’re complaining about anything shows that they’re engaged and you have them and so even the negative comments can taken in a positive light. But it’s just a whole lot of fun hearing people complain about the lack of something that is coming in a matter of weeks or days or whatever. You kinda get a sense of, “Just sit back and relax.” It’s kinda comforting to know that the things that you have coming up are exactly what the fans want and so, in that respect, it’s extremely rewarding to see those kind of comments.
Glen Mazzara: One of the things about this coming season is we’re telling the story we want to tell, so if there are reactions to it, this is very much, we’re putting out material that I think we’re both proud of, that we both love, that we’re excited to tell and I’m sure that fans will say, “OK. We’re seeing this. Are we gonna see this? Are we gonna see that?” And they’re very hungry. They have a huge appetite for seeing the entire world and we, as artists, are making choices to tell a particular story this season and putting it out on a weekly basis and we understand that people will have their feedback, but I couldn’t be prouder of what we’re doing this year and I feel like this is something that hopefully people will respond to.
HitFix: And what are the challenges to balancing the two-tiered narrative with the Prison, but also the Woodbury side of the story and keeping the momentum in both worlds? That’s not really a kind of storytelling that this show has done before…
Glen Mazzara: It’s interesting and we’re doing something that I haven’t seen on TV before. We’re telling one story in several locations. This is not a mixture of different storylines where every storyline is being advanced. This is one unified story being told over 16 episodes and some pieces are told in the prison and some pieces are told in Woodbury and some pieces are told elsewhere. And it’s one complete story. It’s something that I think is unique to “The Walking Dead.” I think it’s something that we’ve surprised ourselves by figuring out how to do. I think it works. But it’s not about a balance between those different things. It’s about telling one story in the best possible way.
HitFix: How does that make the storytelling feel different?
Robert Kirkman: It adds an extreme sense of diversity to the storytelling. I think that being able to say, “Here’s a prison location and here are the kinda stories that we’re telling in a prison… Here’s the Woodbury locations and here are the kind of stories that we’re telling here” and having almost entirely separate casts and having those two different locations and then watching those two stories converge has really turned into kinda a pretty awesome season of television that I think people are really going to dig.
HitFix: The show keeps growing. It was a short run the first season and then 13 last season and 16 this season….
Robert Kirkman: We’re doing 60 episodes in Season 4.
HitFix: That was going to be my question. The extension of the additional episodes happened sorta in the process, you guys got those three additional episodes. Was that because you needed them to tell the story?
Glen Mazzara: No, no, no. The show was picked up for 16 at the beginning of the season. This was never a 13-episode order that was expanded to 16.
HitFix: I’m pretty sure AMC announced it differently. [For what it’s worth, AMC announced the renewal in October, but didn’t mention an episode count, then at January TCA, the network announced that the episode count was for 16, saying previous orders had been for 13, but that may just have been AMC milking a new “Walking Dead” story from a group of assembled reporters.]
Glen Mazzara: Is that true? Well, that’s news to me. That’s fine. I was always told 16 and we always designed the story for 16 episodes, which is important, because there’s no filler. Sixteen, that’s a lot of material to film and write and our cast and crew and writers are working hard to make sure that every single one of those episodes is a home run. There’s no filler in this season and that can happen sometimes on network and I’ve seen that happen. That is not the case here. This is 16 episodes and as we get to the end of this season, we had a conversation this morning about, “Oh, if we do it this way, we can get into Season 4 and have this storyline,” so we’re just excited to watch the story unfold.
HitFix: And you don’t know yet how many episodes you’re going to need for that?
Glen Mazzara: Like I said, 16 takes…
Robert Kirkman: It’s a bear.
Glen Mazzara: Yeah, 16’s a tall order and what I would not want to do is go over some tipping point and end up having one or two weaker episodes. To have 16 episodes where I feel every episode is great is a great accomplishment. If we can do it with a larger order, I would have to make sure that we have the story for it. I wouldn’t want to commit and then have any filler.
HitFix: You seemed to age a little bit as you said “larger order.”
Glen Mazzara: Yeah, you just don’t want to have filler. The show’s too important.
HitFix: You mentioned them a little bit earlier, but talk a bit about Danai and David and how you came to these two actors for these two key roles.
Robert Kirkman: I haven’t cast a lot of shows. This is a very new world for me, so it was a long process. Definitely a lot of work went into bringing a lot of actors in for both roles and seeing who was the perfect fit. At the end of the day, and I think Glen would agree, Danai and David were the absolute perfect fit for both of these characters, from the minute we first saw them in both of their tests, it was clear that they really understood the characters and were definitely bringing something to the table that would translate onto the screen and really showed that they were as invested in the characters as we were, which is something that we always look for in all the actors.
Glen Mazzara: They were both fans of the show and when we met with them and I had some conversations with David, he understood what we wanted to do. Sometimes you can cast somebody who says, “Yeah, I know this is a villain, but…” and they don’t want to commit. But both of these actors really committed to the challenging material we were asking them to do and it’s been a lot of fun to see them bring these characters to life, to see them flesh them out, to continue to have conversations and then to see what they’re doing on-screen and incorporate their work into the writing in future episodes and say, “Oh, well if we’re trying this over here, maybe this is something we could develop a scene out of” or what have you. It’s really been great. It’s kinda hard to imagine the show without them at some point, looking back. It feels like they’ve just really become part of the family.
HitFix: You’ve obviously proven that you aren’t wedded to the individual endings that characters have in the book. Does that continue to be the case?
Glen Mazzara: Yeah, it’s a free-for-all. Whatever is not only the best for that character, but gives us future story. We never want to have a gratuitous, shocking death just for the sake of adding some juice to an episode. Other shows may do that. That’s not something we do. We take these matters very, very seriously. We know how invested our fans are in these characters and it’s important for us to always feel that any character’s death is the beginning of another story.
Robert Kirkman: Absolutely. These characters do have certain storylines and certain endings that have been established in the comic book series, but you have to recognize that we’ve got Glen Mazzara, we’ve got a talented writing staff and as you’re in the room crafting these stories and really cool things come up, it would be absolute lunacy to go, “Well, no. Actually this comic book that was written six years ago actually did it this way, so while that is a good idea, I think we should stay on this track…” That’s never anything that I would want to do. I like the fact that as we get into the writers’ room and we start talking about these characters and watching these stories unfold, we do come up with these really interesting divergent paths that I think make the show that much richer.
HitFix: And what do you guys have to say to fans who are, say, a little skeptical of Carl and his evolution.
Robert Kirkman: I’d say to watch Episode 1.
Glen Mazzara: Yeah. Watch the new season. Watch the new material. I think Chandler Riggs does a great job with that character and Carl feels very believable to me. I do think that a young boy in those circumstances would makes the choices that he’s made. So if fans disagree, they’re free to disagree.
HitFix: But I’m sure you guys are aware that there are some tensions between certain fans and Carl…
Glen Mazzara: Well sure.
Robert Kirkman: I think that a child in this world ends up being a burden and burden on a cast like this is something that fans are never going to really respond to, so I think that while the stories that we were telling with Carl in Season 2 were incredibly important to the life of that character, I can understand how some fans would be like, “Oh, that guy’s gotta be watched and he’s causing problems for the other characters, so that’s a character I don’t necessarily respond to,” but I’m really excited about the way that we’ve been evolving him over the course of this third season and I think that much like all of the characters in this show are going to be very different from season to season, Carl’s a really good example of that and I think that no one will be wondering if he’s in the house or who’s watching him this season.
Glen Mazzara: When you see what this kid is able to do this season…
Robert Kirkman: In Minute 2 of the premiere…
Glen Mazzara: I guarantee by the end of this season, people will look at the Carl storyline and see that it made sense and see that some of the choices made in this season could only have been made because of mistakes that that character made in the past season. This is an unfolding story and it takes time to get someplace sometimes and that’s something that’s important. People are free to have their opinions on the show, but again, they’re doing their best.
HitFix: It’s impressive to see a show this successful where the entire cast still shows up for events like this or at Cons or at Gale Anne Hurd’s Hollywood Star ceremony.
Robert Kirkman: They all hate each other, they just hide it really well.
Glen Mazzara: They love to have their picture taken.
HitFix: From your point of view, though, what is the key to why this cast seems to be, at least currently, staying fairly down to Earth and united.
Robert Kirkman: They go to war every year in the summer of Georgia. They’ve got more important matters to worry about and I think it’s an extremely strong bonding experience for them every time they shoot a season of this show.
Glen Mazzara: Yeah, they’re living together in Georgia, away from Los Angeles and New York. They spend a lot of time together and they also care about the material. This cast works so hard on every single scene. They discuss every single line of dialogue and they prepare so much and they’re so committed to delivering their best work and making sure that we’re happy and that the fans respond. They’re together because they have that common experience, not only of shooting, but about caring about the show so much. They really all love it.
“The Walking Dead” returns to AMC on Sunday, October 14. Stay tuned for my interview with Danai Gurira later this weekend, my interview with Gale Anne Hurd & Greg Nicotero next weekend and my interview with David Morrissey before Episode 3…