AMC’s “The Walking Dead” finished up its first season over the weekend, setting basic cable ratings records for the explosive finale.
With success — “Walking Dead” was renewed for a second season very early in its run — comes the sort of breathless, lightly-sourced news stories that might normally be generated for a “Glee” or an “American Idol.”
Charlie Sheen is going to play a zombie! Frank Darabont has fired the entire writing staff!
I talked to producer Gale Anne Hurd yesterday about the way the first season of “Walking Dead” ended, plans for the second season and those widely disseminated rumors. It turns out that when it comes to season two of the zombie smash, Hurd is rather tight-lipped, which makes sense since substantive writing on the 13 new episodes won’t begin until next month. However, the “Terminator” and “Aliens” veteran is more than happy to clear up reports about brain-eating “Two and a Half Men” stars and a possible writer apocalypse.
Click through for the full interview…
HitFix: Congrats on the season and for the ratings, which have pretty clearly been beyond expectations. Were there ever conversations before the premiere about what AMC was expecting or hoping for?
Gale Anne Hurd: Any numbers? No. Nope. I don’t think that’s the way that AMC approaches things and it’s certainly not the way that Frank [Darabont], Robert [Kirkman] and I looked at it. It was always, “Let’s make the best possible show. AMC has a tremendous marketing and promotions department. So let’s make sure that we’re making a show that all of us as fans want to see.”
HitFix: The show you were making was only six episodes, which isn’t usually the way networks, even cable networks, do business in the States. How did you approach the objectives of these six episodes in introducing the series?
GH: Well, “Breaking Bad” had a short first season as well, but we wanted to set up the characters. We wanted to set up the world of the post-zombie apocalypse and we knew that we would leave with characters moving on on their quest to find someplace safe.
HitFix: But with “Breaking Bad,” that was a strike-related shortened season. You guys actually knew you had only six episodes to work with…
GH: Right, it was the writers strike, but I think because AMC had success with that, regardless of the reason behind, six episodes made sense, especially since we didn’t get the green light until March and in order to make an October airdate, it was going to be very difficult to wrap up 13 scripts, when Frank was directing the pilot and that began shooting on June first or second.
HitFix: How would you describe the way the characters have been left? The CDC was a point of hope for the characters. That’s been taken away and it’s been taken away fairly early.
GH: I think the final episode is really about the nexus between hope and dispair. Rick, certainly, is still a leader. He still has hope for himself and for his family, but everyone who survived has moments of despair. I think it’s part and parcel of the human condition, which is magnified in any kind of catastrophe, natural or otherwise. But I think there’s always hope. There’s hope that human society can regroup and build something and that they’ll find a safe haven. With the CDC, it was really about our characters being in Atlanta, so that would be the place you would go to hope to find answers about the outbreak. Instead what they end up with is even more questions, few answers — that it was global — and they’re left wondering if there’s anyone anywhere still working on a cure. Since Robert Kirkman is writing the series of graphic novels that never ends, he doesn’t have an end-point where everything is wrapped up, so I think that’s the way we’re approaching this as well. It’s a journey, both a physical journey, as well as a character journey.
HitFix: You mentioned Kirkman’s particular journey and I think a number of people were surprised, not necessarily in a bad way, at how very quickly y’all left the Kirkman stories behind and went your own way. Was that always the plan?
GH: Well, Kirkman is a full partner in all of this, in every discussion in the envisioning of the first six episodes, and he very much wanted to be able to surprise fans who think they know where things are going, think they know exactly when something is going to happen — a particular event. But then you also just have to adapt the underlying material for a different medium and a different audience, which overlaps the comic book audience, but is not just exclusive to it. That was something that was planned from the very beginning when we realized that we were going to go to series.
HitFix: But there are still pieces of the Kirkman narrative that y’all are hoping to rendezvous with again later?
GH: Our intention has always been to follow the path that the comics have blazed, to make detours off the path, but always to rejoin at some point.
HitFix: Any specific points of rejoining that you’ve targeted for Season Two that you want to share?
GH: No, I don’t. But nice try.
HitFix: And when did you guys pitch AMC on what the second season will be?
GH: We haven’t pitched them the second season yet.
HitFix: Huh. Were you surprised that that wasn’t something the network would want?
GH: There wasn’t time. We got our pickup after the second episode aired. We were still heavily into post-production. So we’re going to pick things up early in January.
HitFix: Have *y’all* determined the structure and story of the second season, then?
GH: We’re in discussions… There certainly will be… I think that fans of the comic book will be happy with some of the choices we make in terms of new characters and stops along the way.
HitFix: Hmmm… OK. How important would you say what Jenner whispers to Rick was?
GH: I think it’s as important as “Did Rick see a helicopter or not in the pilot?”
HitFix: So it’ll get revisited, but maybe not immediately?
GH: We’ll see. We’ll see. You’ve got to have some of these Easter eggs. You have to have things that people paying attention will note. Like the hand grenade that was in Rick’s pocket when he arrived? That turns out to have been a very, very important prop, a very important item that Carol still had.
HitFix: You guys decided not to leave things with a cliffhanger, at least. There was an explosion, but we don’t really have any doubts who survived and who didn’t…
GH: I think it was important to get the characters on the road again. We felt it would have been a cheat to end on a cliffhanger. And, in addition to that, if for some reason we hadn’t gotten picked up, it would not have been a great ending to a six episode miniseries.
HitFix: So you said January. That’s not for production, right?
GH: Oh, no. We still don’t have a storyline.
HitFix: So January to start sitting down with the writers?
HitFix: So what can you tell me, then, about all of the reports swirling around about the jettisoning of the writing staff?
GH: I don’t understand! I don’t understand journalism where no one has to check their facts or talk to anybody and something is simply published and people take it as gospel. Because we didn’t have a two-season order going in, all of the writers were able to and did sell and set up other projects. That’s the way it works in television. Some pilots have gone to script and we have to wait to see if those scripts have been picked up to pilot. That all happens in January and there are some that have chosen to move on to showrun their own projects. But that’s typical. And absolutely there will be writers back who were on the first season.
HitFix: So there was no unilateral decision made anywhere?
HitFix: I held off on writing anything about it because the whole situation sounded so blurry.
GH: It’s just very strange. You notice that nobody was quoted in the original story. No one was even contacted.
HitFix: And the plan is still to have a writing staff, not the speculated “all freelancers” idea?
GH: Yes. Yes! This is all quite unusual and I really don’t know where people got their information, but it wasn’t from any of the principles.
HitFix: Always glad to get things clarified…
GH: I’m happy to! It’s frustrating when there’s misinformation out there that’s taken as truth.
HitFix: So in that case… Speaking of misinformation… Is Charlie Sheen going to be a zombie next season?
GH: That is insane! I’m on Twitter and I just got someone saying, “Say it isn’t so.” We don’t even know what the episodes are going to be, much less stunt-casting zombies. That certainly isn’t our intent to stunt-cast zombies.
HitFix: The story sounded ever-so-reputable, though, what with calling Andrew Lincoln the show’s creator and whatnot.
GH: Oh, then it’s clearly legitimate. That’s hilarious. These are the things I have deal with. It’s hilarious. Thank you for letting me know.
HitFix: Leaving aside whether Charlie Sheen is desperate to be the next zombie, have you gotten a sense of any shift in industry perception toward this project? Was there wariness before that now might have passed?
GH: The truth is, from the very beginning, Frank’s pilot script was so strong, there was already incredible support for it. Now I think the awareness is higher, which is always a good thing, but anyone who’s familiar with Frank’s work or the the terrific underlying graphic novel knew that this was material to be reckoned with. It won the Eisner for Best Continuing Series. I don’t think there was this idea that somehow it was a low-rent property. Genre is no longer the way it was when I was starting out in the industry, considered something you do if you can’t work in “serious important dramas.” I don’t think we had to overcome any perjorative or negative feelings about this. The actors who auditioned for it were very high-level and a lot of well-known names.
HitFix: With the writing process not beginning until January, that presumably means AMC is hoping to have the show back for October/Halloween next year?
GH: We’re hoping for the fall, but that will all be dependent on how quickly we can get up.
HitFix: If you had your druthers, would the show be back sooner than that?
GH: I’d rather have it right than fast. Or I generally put it, I’d rather have it right than right now. I think that anyone who’s a fan of the show would agree with that.
HitFix: No concerns about momentum or anything like that?
GH: You know, you really can’t worry about that. Look at the number of years that transpired between the first “Terminator” and the sequel. In my history in the business, there isn’t diminution in interest in something that’s good and something there’s a desire to see. People do expect shows to premiere in the fall.
HitFix: Are you planning any particularly different approach to a 13 episode season versus six?
GH: We’d like to have a few days off during the course of the 13! It’s hot and humid. It’s hot and humid in Atlanta in the summer. That was real sweat. That wasn’t makeup sweat that the actors were exhibiting in the series. They came by it honestly.
HitFix: And here I thought Greg Nicotero also did “sweat” effects…
GH: He’s capable of that! But we didn’t need it.
“The Walking Dead” will return to AMC in 2011.