This interview with “The Walking Dead” Executive Producer Frank Darabont and Consulting Producer Greg Nicotero was easily the most thrilling for me. You often don’t get a chance to speak with two brilliant, established veterans of the entertainment world like this, let alone have almost fifteen minutes to hear such the amazing stories that they have to tell about their new labor of love.
A few days after this interview Frank Darabont mysteriously stepped down as showrunner of “The Walking Dead.” In the transcript below and just being in that interview in general, I can assure he showed no hints that he was about to do that. His passion for this project was too great. So whatever happened, it really is a shame and I’m now more honored than ever that I got this opportunity.
When we were talking to Gale she told us about the pilot you had at NBC. She said you were pretty much assured that you would never get it on TV.
Darabont: She’s absolutely correct. I give Gale complete amount of credit for this existing really. I had gotten the rights to this from Robert tried to shop it and took it I thought everywhere. Hollywood is fantastically frustrating place because there are entire cadres of people to say no, especially if you’re trying to pitch something that’s outside their wheelhouse of thought. They all pay lip service to “We want something new, different,” but like NBC as soon as you hand it to them they go, “We can’t do this. This is not something we understand.” I thought it was just about tapped out and I got a call from Gale, who I’ve known for years, who just read the Comic book, checked on the rights and found out I had them, and she said “Hey do you want to partner up?” I said, “Gale, I’ve been wanted to work for you for years if you can sell this damned thing.” The first words out of her mouth were “AMC.” That never would have occurred to me. It is because of Gale we took it there so much credit to her.
It seems like each zombie has it’s own unique look, almost like snowflakes. Do you come up with backstories for each one?
Darabont: We’re gonna nickname the zombies snowflakes.
Nicotero: Snowflakes, I love that. (laughs). What we did was we created a lot of custom and then a lot of generic prosthetic pieces and its funny because every once in a while Frank’s like, “Hey, what’s that zombie going to look like?” and I’m like, “Um…” Because what happens is when we have one of our big zombie days they bring in ten people at a time and you literally look at them and go, “Okay, I’ll be right back,” and you go in the back trailer and you grab all the pieces and put it together. A lot of them is attributed to the artists on my crew because every person that comes in is a fresh canvas and we can take the same face three different days and make them look three different ways.
Darabont: Then there are the featured specialties like bicycle girl last season.
Nicotero: Or deer eating zombie.
Darabont: Deer eating zombie. This season as well. It’s a real design effort. It’s a sculpted thing like you would do with any hero makeup. It’s sculpted, it’s designed, and really crafted because it gets featured more.
Nictoero: There are certain zombies that are in the script written as a zombie with specific action. We know he’s gonna get a lot of screen time. If they’re gonna get a lot of screen time we want them to be fantastic. A lot of times I’ll send pictures to Frank and we’ll bring a couple guys in and we’ll do tests and we’ll pick the pieces that we like. “This guy’s going to be this zombie and that guy’s going to be that zombie.” It’s really a combination effort of really finding out visually. If they’re going to have a lot of screen time they’ve got to look fantastic.
How did you get involved Greg in the project?
Darabont: I called him the instant I read this thing. Who else would I call?
Nicotero: We were separated at birth. We all were brought up on a very similar diet of Ray Harry Hausen and George Romero and John Carpenter, The Forbidden Planet and War of The Worlds, stuff that we love. We’re talking about zombie movies one day he was like ‘I’d love to do a zombie thing but I just gotta buy the story.’” If the story suit doesn’t suit it… You were just saying about that having two hours to tell a zombie story versus the medium that we have now. I never really thought about it until you just said it. Makes a huge difference to cram a whole world of information in two hours versus what we have now and with the ability to do what we can do.
Darabont: Yes, the luxury of telling a story a long period of time, which you don’t get to do in a two hour movie. Greg and I have been buddies for twenty years so every time I have a project I of course I call him first. If it’s zombies that goes without saying.
Nicotero: It was exciting for years to be talking about doing zombies and then all of a sudden he’s like, “Guess what? We get to do zombies.” It was really fun. You would anticipate or think that after 25 years of doing makeup affects and zombies and things you’d be like, “Oh zombies again?” Literally I took the bite of the apple to make the zombies great and memorable. The fact the people got it, that was what really meant a lot to me. People knew that we had really pushed it. We gave zombie fans the zombies that they’ve been wanting to see. To me that’s the ultimate compliment.
(Alice) Do you find that the television is limiting? What are the challenges with TV compared to doing a feature?
Nicotero: There’s nothing television about what we’re doing. I’ve literally said every episode is a movie. No one treats it like TV. We’re doing things on TV that they don’t even do in movies that often anymore. I’ve often said it’s mini movies we’re making.
Darabont: For me, the writing process is freer if you’re writing a feature. This is four acts, it’s minutes and seconds down to the frame of what you have to do. It’s like writing a sonnet or x number of lines. You have to craft it precisely to that and that’s a new and very interesting way to tell a story in my experience. I had written for television before but not extensively. It’s really interesting to get that thing figured out to the second for every cut of the show. Besides from that you’re still telling a story and the basic heart of is the same, there’s an added technical challenge to it. That makes it kind of interesting from time to time.
That actually leads into what I was asking. You had six episodes to work with the first season and you’ve got over twice that for the second season. Does that make it easier since you have more material to work with or more challenging because you’re trying to tell a longer story arc.
Darabont: You always tell yourself these things that don’t turn out not to be true. I thought, “Oh boy, we’ll have thirteen this season I won’t fell like we’ll have to compress narrative so much like we did in the first six.” There’s so many great layers to the ideas that we were dealing with. I thought, “Oh, we’ll have twice as much.” It’s the same thing. We’re still doing the exact same thing. The net result of it, I don’t think the first season felt rushed at all, but boy it felt eventful. It felt like there was a lot in every episode. It’s very satisfying to me to be able to tell this story and cram as much into it as we are. It’s really cool, I really like it.
Have you broken the whole season? Do you know how it’s going to end?
We have (evil laugh). They haven’t been written yet, they’ve been broken though. I have pulled the trigger on my writers, they’re going to start in this week getting the first drafts in. We’ve got the first eight written, we had the first eight written before we actually started the season. We’ve been rewriting and honing and refining those eight, but it’s been a tremendous advantage to have 8 scripts by the time you’re shooting, as I discovered isn’t common in television. This going one at a time thing really doesn’t work, it doesn’t make any sense to me. The more scripts you have the perspective you have on the arc and what the connective tissue needs to be. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t work that way. We’ve got a roomful of writers here, we’re all gonna write a script, we’re all gonna write a first draft and refine it from there. It’s a great approach.
Nicotero: We start shooting 2.05 on Monday. I was thinking, “Wow, last year we would almost be done.” It was two and a half months shooting last year, thinking that we would be in the second to the last episode. I think somebody said, it’s like sprinting a marathon. There’s an endurance. How long did we shoot “The Green Mile?” Four months maybe?
Darabont: I think it was 105 days.
Nicotero: Even on your longest movie shoot, shooting for five months on something as emotionally intense and grueling, the hours and the location and the heat, it’s hard. I’m like ‘Wow, I’m 48 years old, and there were 2 days last week I had 24 hour days. Because I came back and forth to LA. I would shoot all night, flew to LA for one day, and then got on a plane and flew back and went to the set that night. I was all proud of myself. I didn’t think I could do it. I’m not as old as I though I was. I do it because I’m so proud of the show and I’ll do it for him in a heartbeat.
Darabont: You do it because you love the show and you don’t want to let it down, and most of all you don’t want to let your colleagues down. This past week I did a solid week of 16 hour writing days. Have you ever stared at a computer for 16 hours? I’ve been doing that kind of thing for 25 years. My secret superpower is I can sit in front of a fucking computer for 16 hours a day getting up only to pee. It’s exhausting, but I know that these people are busting their ass on the set and I want to make sure that they get the best that I have to offer and I’m not going to slack off just because I’m feeling sorry for myself and I’m 52 and I’m tired.
Nicotero: The truth is we don’t know how to do it any other way. We really don’t. That’s why we’ve worked together for so long. You don’t know how to do it other than that’s what needs to be done for the best of the show.