On Thursday (September 8) morning, a small group of reporters packed into Beverly Hills’ Aidikoff Screening Room to watch a rough (but not very rough) cut of the 90-minute second season premiere of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
I can’t tell you much about the super-sized episode, which airs on October 16, other than to say that it’s a mighty tense block of television and that it ends on a note that had one normally reserved reporter sitting next to me swearing in eager anticipation of the next installment.
“What you just watched is the entirety of the second episode and the first episode put together,” said “Walking Dead” executive producer Robert Kirkman, who also moonlights as creator of the acclaimed comic book source material. “There wasn’t anything taken from later episodes. They were combined together to produce a 90-minute [premiere] just because we wanted to give it more of an event feel, like we did with the first season. We thought the two episodes would work well together, so it was crafted into what you guys saw.”
Kirkman was joined by fellow executive producers Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Glen Mazzara, whose recent elevation to “Walking Dead” showrunner received just a little bit of press on this website and a handful of others.
Remarkably, in a far-reaching 45-minute Q&A, it took more than 15 minutes before the name “Frank Darabont” was mentioned. Of course, we had a lot to discuss about the episode we’d just watched and about the second season in general.
Click through for some highlights from the Q&A, highlights that spoil very little, though “very little” is in the eye of the beholder.
As was announced last week, “The Walking Dead” will have some structural changes in its second season. In addition to seeing its episode order rise from six to 13 (kinda 14, if you figure that two episodes were squished together for the premiere), “Walking Dead” will have the sort of segmented season that fans of USA and TNT dramas have come to expect, with seven episodes airing in the fall and then the final six returning in February.
“We knew going in, essentially,” Hurd explained of the divided run. “With Christmas and then football playoffs and Super Bowl and we now will be airing at 9:00, [so] we felt and AMC also felt that it would be impacted and it would be best to have to have the first few episodes this fall and then pick up after the Super Bowl.”
That means that the seventh episode won’t be an arbitrary pausing point and that there was the opportunity to build the season around the impending pause.
“We knew early enough to work it into our story, so when our break happens, we’ll have big [open-ended] story there that will hopefully keep you anticipating the return in February,” Kirkman promised.
Mazzara added, “We’ve done a lot of work for the entire season designing the arc all the way through, so every episode, I think, will land with this punch. Whether there’s what we call ‘Zombie Gags’ or we have the action or an emotional payoff, you see where we’re really pushing with particular characters, right now we don’t have a bad episode in the can and I think everyone’s been doing a great job.”
One reporter raised a commonly heard complaint that the first season, despite its brevity, perhaps lacked the big moments that the Darabont written/directed pilot led them to expect.
“I think that Season 2 is just jam-packed,” Kirkman said. “I think that it’s a much bigger season than the first season. I think there’s a lot going on. I don’t know that I would necessarily agree with that criticism of the first season, but I will say that this is definitely a bigger season.”
Even if Kirkman doesn’t agree with certain criticisms, Alpert indicated that the show’s creative team has been cognizant of audience feedback.
“We have a very passionate and vocal fanbase and we hear from them all the time and I actually think we’ve listened to a lot of what they have to say. With the email and the web and Twitter, we listen to what they like, what they don’t like, what they want to see. I have to say, I think this season will be very rewarding and the fans will be very happy,” Alpert said.
And what does that actually mean?
“I think people are very happy with the fact that we’re focusing on character, that we haven’t gone in the direction of really hamming up too much the spectacle. The thing that we get are ‘Are you getting to this character?’ or ‘Are you getting to this location?’ There are storylines that people want from the book that they want to see more of and I think people are eager and excited to get there and we’re going to give them some of those twists and turns that they’ve been looking for, but we’re not going to put it out there too soon.”
That comes back, of course, to the questions Kirkman is constantly asked about how closely “The Walking Dead” will or won’t be following his comic going forward.
“I think the comic book is very good, but it would bore me to be watching the show as a fan and know exactly what’s gonna happen,” Kirkman said.
In this case, it helps with the uncertainty that when Mazzara came on last season as a freelance writer for the fifth episode, the veteran of “The Shield” and “Crash” had never read the comics. While that’s an oversight he has corrected this year, he makes a convincing case for keeping the two worlds intellectually separate.
“I love comics, but I wanted to get my own handle on the material,” Mazzara said. “People are asking questions about ‘Are we gonna do this from the comic or that?’ and those things are guideposts, but when you’re inside the show, it unfolds at its own pace. You follow the characters. Things have to make sense. The show is growing in a way that I think is very much its own nature, so I was worried about reading the comic and having that give me something to shoot for, instead of listening to the show and following it from the inside out.”
Fans will still be pleased to know that the majority of the season was laid out by devoted fan Darabont before his abrupt exit from the show back in July. Darabont’s name remains in the opening credits as executive producer and Mazzara indicated that the credit would remain.
“Listen, you know, I came over to be Frank’s No. 2. I believe in Frank. Frank’s a talented individual. I think he’s a terrific guy who was a mensch to me in everything and I really loved working with him,” Mazzara told us. “We all did a lot of work in plotting this season under Frank. I think part of the reason that we’ve had such a smooth transition is that it’s a fully articulated world, both coming from the comic and what Frank’s been able to put on-screen, what everybody here has been able to put on-screen… There’s been all this concern that I’m gonna f*** up the show and all this stuff and really, we’re just trying to get it done. I think this is consistent with the material we did last year. I think, like any second season, you work out the bugs, you try to improve, you find what you can do, and what you’re seeing is the usual growth of any TV show, creatively.”
For a variety of fully expected reasons, Mazzara and the other producers shied away from discussing the exact circumstances behind Darabont’s departure and while he called the transition smooth, he also admitted that in the moment, there were challenges, particularly breaking the news to the “Walking Dead” gang.
“You know, it’s painful,” he said. “People are working on a show. You’re working hard and stuff and I realize that the cast, he’s the big daddy figure and they care about him and they’re going to auditions and they’re blowing gigs and stuff like that and then, all of a sudden, The Great Frank Darabont picks them, puts them on a hot show. So there’s an emotional connection to Frank that they’re never gonna have to another writer-producer. They’re just not. So now I’m in this situation where I have to take over and try to fill Frank’s shoes. Well, that’s a dangerous situation.”
He continued, “I went in there asking for their support and then I had to go and talk to the crew. And the cast said, ‘Well, don’t do that until we can get there and stand behind you.’ And that was really a win, that they are such professionals, care so much about the work, are so dedicated to making sure the show does well. Listen, the show could collapse and that’s a big scare for everybody, but I don’t believe that’s going to happen. I think we’re coming out strong and all the material is just as good or better. When they stood behind me, it really felt like they were invested in saying ‘OK, this is confusing, but we’re going to try to make this work. We’re all in this together.’ And that’s been the case.”
Hurd added, “The other important thing is that this wasn’t like a palace revolt. It wasn’t like someone was brought in from the outside who wasn’t invested in the show. The other thing that was incredibly helpful is that Frank blessed Glen as showrunner and made it clear to the cast and crew that he had his blessing. That, I think, is what assuaged everyone’s concerns of ‘OK, is this an okay thing to embrace?’ Because that’s the other thing, is ‘Are you being disloyal?’ That’s a very human response and Frank was very clear that Glen being the showrunner had his blessing.”
Bottom line from Mazzara? “The material continues to be good. It doesn’t maybe necessarily have the Frank Darabont Feel, but I believe in it and I believe we’ll execute it as best we can. And I think they’ve really, really risen to the challenge. I think it was a hard punch to take and I think we’re moving on.”
While Darabont has been silent about his departure, scuttlebutt consensus has said that the series developer and AMC went to war over a lowered budget for the hit drama in its second season. The premiere, which features an unusually large number of roving zombies and the usual percentage of outdoor set pieces, certainly doesn’t look any cheaper and Hurd insisted viewers wouldn’t notice the results of any cutbacks.
“I don’t think anything will be evident,” the “Terminator” veteran said. “Over 13 episodes, the economy of scale was such that the actual per cost of the episode is less, just by function of how long it’s spread out over. Plus, there are costs of getting the show up and running that we had to deal with last year. Now we’ve got a stable cast and stable crew base.”
Added Mazzara, “I think last year they were given a chunk of change to make the whole season and so it averaged out to a particular figure… But I’ve done a number of cable shows, I’ve done some network shows, and yeah, I’d love to have that budget from last year, but the budget that we’re dealing with now is extremely consistent with any budget I’ve dealt with. So you have a weekly challenge on any TV show where you’re like, ‘Oh, we don’t have the money for this’ or ‘We don’t have that.’ That’s just business as usual. I don’t feel like the show is cheap. I mean, ‘Crash’ was filmed in my mother’s kitchen, so I know what it’s like to do a cheap show, but that’s not the case here. I don’t think we’ve pulled back on scale and I’m thinking about now for the first time, but I don’t think there’s anything we’ve asked for where we said ‘We can’t afford this.'”
Want a couple additional plot-specific highlights?
*** Of the number of unresolved mysteries from the first season, Kirkman stated, “We’ve very mindful of the various cliffhangers we’ve left out there, the little plot threads that are still dangling, like Morgan and Merle and the Jenner whisper and it’s not something we’re going to be ignoring.”
*** There has been online guessing, based upon arcs from the comic, regarding those whispered words from the CDC’s Jenner and Kirkman would only say, “There are a lot of theories out there, some of them are close to accurate and some of them are wildly inaccurate. But we’ll get to that answer very soon. We’ll try not to tease you to the point of boredom.”
*** We’re getting to The Farm this year. Kirkman won’t say when.
*** Responding to speculation that Michael Rooker’s long-absent Merle may turn out to be The Governor, Kirkman said, “I’m trying to decide whether I should debunk that. Merle is a character we like and I don’t think that we’re ever in the mindset of taking a character and turning it into another character. The Governor is something that I know Glen and I are very excited to work into the story and we will hopefully be doing that eventually and whether or not that will relate in any way to Merle remains to be seen.”
“The Walking Dead” returns to AMC on Sunday, October 16.