Frank Darabont and The Walking Dead
Robin (The TV Critic) is writing in Bold Italics.
A while ago on "The Walking Dead" podcast listener Rob H offered to summarise the information we have on why Frank Darabont left the show. Rob's finally had the time to put something together for us and it not only sheds light on Darabont's departure but also on the potential reasons for Glenn Mazzara's firing. More comments from me afterwards but here's Rob:
The Walking Dead (TWD) was conceived as the zombie apocalypse story that never ends. Like all good zombie movies, the zombies are just the background for the story of the characters to be told and the creator Robert Kirkman has often said he was more interested in what happened after the credits rolled in zombie movies than what preceeded them.
The Walking Deads journey to the small screen began when Frank Darabont read the first trade paperback (TPB) and bought the rights to the comic from Kirkman in 2005. Darabont then pitched it to HBO and NBC with Thomas Jane playing the role of Rick Grimes but neither were interested and the pilot, written by Darabont, sat on a shelf gathering dust. Gale Anne Hurd then read the first TPB, loved it, and, like Darabont, envisioned the story as perfect for television. Hurd then pitched it to AMC in 2009 who immediately said yes and the project was greenlit in August of the same year. AMC were so impressed with Darabont's pilot that he was installed as showrunner and 6 episodes were ordered in March 2010 to test the audiences appetite for a zombie show on tv.
As pre production began, Darabont called in a lot of favours from friends on the movie side of the business and had them working for far less than they would normally command as this was to be Darabonts dream project. Darabont also brought some of his regulars and people he had worked with before to the cast in Laurie Holden (Andrea), Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale), Juan Gabriel Pareja (Morales) and Melissa McBride (Carol). The rest of the parts went to the normal casting process. Jon Bernthal (Shane) was cast first then Sarah Wayne Callies (Lori). Andrew Lincoln was called to audition for the part of Rick after sending in a tape he made a few days after his wife had given birth to their baby. He's always attributed his success in getting the part of Rick as being exhausted through lack of sleep due to the newborn.
Shooting the pilot began on May 15th 2010 in Atlanta with the remaining episodes starting filming on June 2nd. Darabont revealed on August 31 that the show had been picked up for a 2nd season already before it had even aired. This, for me, was the beginning of Darabonts problems with the network as AMC contacted news sources to "dispel the rumour that TWD has been renewed". Its worth noting that TWD wasn't officially picked up for a 2nd season until November 8th after opening to record viewing figures for AMC.
The first seasons writers room consisted of Darabont, Jack LoGiudice, Chic Eglee, Kirkman and Adam Fierro with Glen Mazzara writing an episode on a freelance basis as he was tied up acting as showrunner on another show after the original creator had been fired . Darabont had also met most of the team when he worked on an episode of The Shield.
The original plan, revealed by Darabont himself, was that he would run the series for the first season and make sure everything was in place for a consistent and successful show. He would then hand the show over to Chic Eglee at the end of the season and return to the movie side of the business. On December 1st rumours started to appear in the press that Darabont had fired all of the writing staff. This was quickly denied and explained that Darabont had decided to stay on as showrunner and as a result Chic Eglee would be leaving to run his own show with the other writers leaving to work on other projects. It has since been revealed that Darabont was so unhappy with the drafts submitted by the other writers that he ended up rewriting all of them except Kirkman's and most of Mazzara's. This was virtually confirmed on the Special Edition DVD/Blu ray of the first season when Noah Emmerich who played Dr Jenner said that the script he said yes to on the Friday before shooting started was not the same script he received on the Monday when he arrived on set. Director Ernest Dickerson also talks about how his episode (Ep 5 - Wildfire) originally opened with a flashback showing scientists at the CDC watching the outbreak unfold on TV monitors.
Just before shooting the 2nd season began Darabont started talking in the media about budget cuts that AMC had discussed with the showrunner. It has since been divulged that these cuts were down to the contract dispute that AMC were having with Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, who had asked for a sharp increase in budget to keep Mad Men on the channel. It's worth noting that TWD is WHOLLY owned by AMC so they can do what they want with it.
On July 22nd Darabont appeared on a panel at the San Diego Comic-Con, so it was a big shock when AMC revealed 3 days later that he had been fired from the production. The apparent final straw for AMC was when footage for one the first two episodes was turned in and was deemed "unusable". Insiders have said that Darabont was actually pulled from the editing room and fired while he was trying to fix the footage. As a result of this, episodes 1 & 2 of Season 2 were combined into one 90 minute premiere as production had moved on too far ahead to come back for reshoots. An extra episode was then added to the schedule to complete the full 13 episode season order. Interestingly, a 13 minute section that wasn't included in the premiere was released for the season 2 box set and can be seen here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFOQZ6Sr_dI. It shows the group heading back to the Vatos hideout straight after the CDC explosion at the end of season 1.
My own personal take on Darabonts' firing is as follows: There is absolutely no doubt in Darabont's love for this genre and The Walking Dead. His almost childish exultation on set can be seen in the fantastic documentary on the season 1 box set. I think he just couldn't adjust to the extremely fast production process of television. I remember it being quite a surprise at the time when he announced he was staying on as showrunner for season 2, so maybe certain problems could have been avoided had he decided not to stay. He also got embroiled in a dispute with a network who have become infamous for playing hardball with showrunners over budgets and in some cases interfering with the production process to incorporate sponsors wishes.
It has now been announced that Darabont's successor, Glen Mazzara, will be leaving due to "creative differences with the direction of the show". Since taking over from Darabont, Mazzara has repeatedly said he sees the show as having a 7 season lifespan. With the ever increasing ratings the show is posting, I think that AMC and Robert Kirkman want to keep the show on the air as long as possible and certainly as long as the market will take it.
To put TWD's ratings into perspective, the show has more viewers on its 2nd showing and sometimes 3rd showing than Mad Men has for its first airing on the night.
I am not a reader of the comic but have always understood that their story is a never ending journey for Rick or whoever is left among the survivors. Although procedural shows and sit coms can go on for a decade without much change it would be highly unusual for a continuity drama to attempt this. It seems likely that AMC will push to have the show continue for as long as it's succesful and this may mean turning it into a Dexter-style show where each season the survivors find a new shelter only to see it overrun by seasons end. If that's the approach they take and if Glen Mazzara stood against that then I think he deserves sympathy. The show is crying out for characterisation, some humour and a sense that it isn't developing predictable formulas.
The news came out on February 27th that staff writer Scott M Gimple was being promoted to be the Show Runner for Season 4. Gimple doesn't have a strong resume to be handed the reigns of one of TV's hottest properties. This is highly speculative on my part but it's possible that AMC is promoting someone who will follow orders rather than someone with a vision for how to make the best show possible. I hope that's not the case.