The 28th Annual William S. Paley Television Festival — PaleyFest2011 for those who like to save characters — kicked off in Beverly Hills on Friday (March 4) night with a packed house to celebrate AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
For those seeking information about the zombie drama’s 13-episode second season, details were decidedly scarce. After all, the show’s writing staff — Yes, sensationalistic rumors aside, “Walking Dead” will have a writing staff, featuring a number of returning scribes — only returned to work a week ago.
So what do we now know? Well, production on “Walking Dead” will begin in May or June. The series will return to AMC in October.
And other than that? Well… Not too much. The show’s producers and stars were already tight-lipped last fall when they’d shot a full first season and knew exactly where the story was going for six episodes, so it wasn’t surprise that Friday night’s PaleyFest2011 event wasn’t long on specifics, but thanks to fine moderation by TV Guide’s Mike Schneider and perhaps thanks to a very sick Frank Darabont’s consumption of Theraflu, it was still a spirited, entertaining and obliquely informative panel.
Click through for some “Walking Dead” PaleyFest highlights…
The panel began with familiar introductory information on how Robert Kirkman’s popular comic came into Darabont’s hands, with the simple explanation that the “Shawshank Redemption” helmer was shopping for comics, saw the zombies and felt that it was right up his “nerdy alley.”
Darabont cryptically observed “It was the perfect answer to a question I’d been asking myself.”
Of course, other people had been asking Kirkman for permission to tackle “The Walking Dead,” usually as a feature film, a concession that allowed his perfect answer to keep being “No.” As he put it, “I just wanted to do the comic.”
“I was sitting there in Kentucky writing the comic book, having a good time with it. It was paying the bills and I was happy with it, so any time somebody came to me with something crazy, I’d just say, ‘Yeah, no. Not gonna happen.’ And then Frank came along,” Kirkman recalled.
Their first discussions went well, as Kirkman put it, “We had a very brief conversation and it was every single thing I wanted to hear: Oh, it’s all about the characters, the zombies are a backdrop, I want to do it as a TV show…”
Darabont’s pitch may have brought Kirkman on board, but both men were quick to credit producer Gale Anne Hurd for her role in actually shaping things into a form that could be a series, after NBC passed on a pitch for the property.
The material, in turn, drew the strong cast, which was well-represented at PaleyFest.
“I was attracted by the insanity of it,” said Sarah Wayne Callies.
She added, “This thing kind of went one of two ways, right? You either do the version where you take a deep breath, you shoot a little girl in the face and you just go all the way there. Or you just fall flat on your face and it’s something that’s an embarrassment for everybody involved. It seemed to me like to take that kind of creative risk, you’re going to have a whole group of people who are just going to pour themselves into this thing.”
As Andrew Lincoln put it, “We’re having the best, grungiest, wackiest, wildest time,” though of his own casting as noble lawman Rick Grimes, Lincoln added, “I’m still convinced I only got the gig because my son had just been born and I hadn’t slept for 12 days and I looked like I’d survived a zombie apocalypse.”
It was a grateful cast, right down to Emma Bell, whose Amy met with a mighty unfortunate end last season, but who still said, “I was just happy to be a part of it for as much as I was.”
But with the actors grateful to have the job and the creative team grateful to have their strong cast — Darabont apologized to to Bell, “I’m sorry, Emma, Every time I look at her, I feel guilty” — there have been changes made to Kirkman’s creatively ruthless narrative, including extending the life-spans of several key characters.
“Once you start fleshing these characters out and they’re brought to life by these extraordinary actors, you really are loath to get rid of them too quickly,” Darabont said. “And then you second-guess every murderous decision you make, because you fall in love with the characters.”
Kirkman continues to write the “Walking Dead” comic and he’s also a key piece of the TV show’s writing team, but as fans of both versions know, the AMC drama wandered off on its own for much of Season One, including the season-ending arc at the CDC in Atlanta, a conceit that was entirely Darabont’s.
“We don’t want to limit ourselves. We don’t want to put ourselves in just the box of making the comic book fans happy. We’re making a show for everybody,” Darabont explained.
And for his part, Kirkman has been vocally enthusiastic about the ability to change things up.
“I get to sit around a room going, ‘Oh, why didn’t I think of that?'” Kirkman said. “We have like seven people in a room coming up with cool stuff and there are all of these different angles I never thought about. To be a creator and to be sitting there going, ‘Oh, those ideas aren’t valid because they weren’t in this book that I wrote…’ And I wrote some of those issues in like a week. They’re cool, but it’s not law. To be the guy who’s like, ‘These ideas aren’t going to make it in because my ideas are better,’ is ridiculous. I love all of the new stuff and the more of that stuff we can do, the better, because it keeps people guessing.”
It sounds as if the writers’ room is an astoundingly open environment. In the past week, Callies and Lincoln were invited in for extended discussion of their characters and Jon Bernthal and Laurie Holden and Steven Yeun will also get to come in to give feedback.
I chatted with many of the actors before the show and those brief interviews give an idea of where they want to see their characters go, but needless to say, they’re all deeply invested.
As for the actual direction of the show, like I said, details were scarce.
Where will Season Two pick up? Well, Darabont said, “I want to see them still in the reactive phase of this heated and intense thing that happened,” so don’t expect a big jump into the future, though it sounds as if this season will spend more time on the road.
Darabont implied that Michael Rooker’s Merle Dixon, now one hand short, would be returning at some point, but didn’t say when or how, except to clarify that Merle will not turn out to be The Governor, which had been a popular hypothetical among fans of the comic.
Certain things that viewers were teased with in the first season will be relevant again in the future, things like the helicopter Rick thought he saw over Atlanta and the words whispered by Noah Emmerich’s Jenner in the finale.
“What kind of horrible Communist turds do you think we are?” Darabont cracked at the accusation no answers would be given.
But certain things won’t be revealed. Although the CDC detour offered slightly more explanation for the zombie epidemic than Kirkman’s books have, Kirkman said, “I think that the origins are less interesting than how our characters deal with what’s going on” and Darabont added, “We nibbled around the edges, but there are no real answers.”
Of the upcoming season’s drama, Lincoln said, “I want to hear about a small indiscretion” (referring to Rick’s wife’s post-outbreak affair with his best friend), but Callies said, “I want to not have that conversation.” She was joking. That conversation is coming. At some point.
Want a few more highlights from the PaleyFest2011 “Walking Dead” panel?
*** It’s unclear when we’re getting there, but one aspect of the books that isn’t going to be changed is the prison where the characters attempt to take refuge. Said “Shawshank” and “Green Mile” director Darabont, “It’s the joke of my career now. I’m the ultimate recidivist. I keep getting sent back to prison.”
*** Of another possible upcoming plot twist, Kirkman pointed out that AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” both featured main female characters dealing with pregnancies in their second seasons.
*** Another key return that’s not being specifically confirmed, but also not ruled out: Lennie James’ Morgan and his son Duane.
*** Schneider asked one of the questions I’ve always had about “The Walking Dead,” which pertains to the role that zombie fiction has in the world of the series. “They exist in a pocket dimension where there are no zombie movies. It’s a very sad dimension,” Kirkman explained. Darabont added, “That was exactly the answer I was hoping to hear, because I came to the same conclusion. If the world of Rick and these characters is one where you can walk into Borders and get the Max Brooks ‘Zombie Survival Guide,’ somebody’s going to make a wisecrack, somebody’s going to not take the thing as seriously as we want them to.” You’ll notice that “The Z-word” is never used on the show. Now you know why.
*** Regarding the show’s use of “sympathetic zombies” — kids, wives, etc — Darabont observed, “If we don’t have sympathy for those who have died and come back, I don’t think we can have sympathy for those who are still here.”
*** Yeun was one of the scene-stealers of the panel. When asked about how he came to the show, he admitted, “I wish I could be so cool like all these guys, like ‘Oh yeah. I picked up the script and I really liked it, so I thought I’d put my name in the hat.’ For me, it was like, ‘I need to book a job. NOW.'” Later, referring to one of the physical changes his character undergoes in the comic, Yeun said, “I’m gonna tell you right now, I have a really ugly head.”
*** A very good moment featured Laurie Holden saying that Emma Bell’s character was “the cutest zombie ever.” Bell doesn’t want to necessarily believe that her character is gone forever, though a pitched spin-off focusing on Amy in Heaven didn’t really sound all that promising.
Stay tuned for more Paley Festival coverage over the next two weeks… Including “True Blood” tomorrow night…