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Frank Darabont and The Walking Dead

Posted by The TV Critic on 28 February 2013 | 10 Comments


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 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. 

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  • Great piece. Thank you for posting this and I really dig the deleted scenes.

    Posted by Fluids, 11/03/2014 3:58pm (6 years ago)

  • More info coming out about the production problems that affected the 2nd half of the season.

    This is the interesting part

    "EW: So how and when did they break the news to you about Milton going down? I’m assuming showrunner Glen Mazzara gave you the call.
    ROBERTS: It was in the fall. They had shut down production for a week or 10 days to retool the third to the last episode so I was back in New York City at the time and the phone rang from Glen. I wasn’t surprised by it, and then he told me how it was going to happen, which varied a bit from what you saw.

    EW: Yeah, I know you guys originally shot a much different version of this whole scene. Walk me through how it was originally shot.
    ROBERTS: Originally, the beating scene that started the episode wasn’t there. Originally, I showed up and was led into the room where Andrea was and I took the tools out – the instruments of torture that were laid on the table — and then he shot me in the stomach, completely unexpectedly. And then I was left to bleed out in the same idea basically — you’re going to kill her now. There was a lot more of Milton trying to open the door and him trying to free her from the chains. And then there was a section where he was going to wrap the chain around the neck and try to choke her to death before he turned so she wouldn’t have to deal with Walker Milton, or Biter Milton, as it were.

    And then at the end of that, it was just Tyrese and someone else who found her. Rick and Daryl and Michonne weren’t there. So it was essentially the same idea, except you saw me taking chunks out of Laurie Holden in that version. And then they called us back a few months later to reshoot it and made all those changes. So now you’re not sure if I’ve gotten her until after that door opens, and I think that’s probably why they did it.

    EW: So they actually shot the scene of you as a zombie biting into her?
    ROBERTS: Yeah. It’s funny, in the articles and on Talking Dead last night, you’ll notice stills of Milton where he has glasses on [Ed Note: See picture above!]. They are from the scenes that we shot and weren’t aired. Because Milton gets his glasses knocked off and never has glasses in the interrogation scene in this finale. But I’ve seen a lot of pictures where Milton has blood on his mouth and glasses on that were from that first shooting.

    EW: So tell me about the part where you were trying to strangle her.
    ROBERTS: They both desperately wanted for that to work but at that point he had bled out so much. So he pulls and pulls and pulls but he doesn’t get it done and he falls against the wall and is passed out. And he never comes back from that until he turns into a walker.

    EW: When you came back to do the reshoot, was that after Glen Mazzara had moved off the show?
    ROBERTS: Yes, it was after he and AMC had decided to part, but he was still theoretically in charge of the back half of the season. I didn’t see him there. I don’t know if we was in L.A. pulling those strings. Scott Gimple, who ended up taking the showrunner position, was there, so some of those changes may have come from him."

    This show just seems doomed from a production standpoint. I've also been made aware that they had to rewrite a lot of the 1st block of episodes of this season because the actress who plays Andrea badly injured her back. We were originally going to be introduced to the pair this season with them in action on the road.

    Posted by Rob H, 02/04/2013 12:19am (7 years ago)

  • Thanks so much for the update. GM was on the After Buzz podcast the other day and said similar things. Even though I think he did a largely poor job on the overall arc of this season I respect his attitude about leaving the show. He doesn't seem to be bitter nor has he revealed anything that would spoil stories. If he can't write the story he wants to then why stay?

    Posted by The TV Critic, 26/03/2013 11:35pm (7 years ago)

  • Glen Mazzara has given more details on his exit from the show and it looks like we may have been right about the reasons

    " A clash with the network seemed to similarly fuel Mazzara's exit, with the seasoned scriptwriter admitting to "creative differences."

    "And it was an accumulation of differences -- it wasn't one specific storyline or character's fate or anything like that," Mazzara says of his departure.

    "I think we're all proud of the tremendous success of 'The Walking Dead' but after awhile we were at a bit of a stalemate. We thought it was best to split amicably. And I've done this before on shows where I realize if I'm not the creator of the show -- and it's AMC's show -- then it's only fair that we split and they have the opportunity to make the show that they want to make."

    Although he's open to collaboration, Mazzara notes he's fiercely protective of his vision when helming a TV project.

    "When you hire me or buy a project from me you know that I'm going to have a strong point of view," says Mazzara, whose past projects include "The Shield," "Crash" and "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behaviour."

    "When I look at groundbreaking TV shows of the past 10 years -- like 'The Sopranos,' 'The Wire,' 'The Shield,' 'Lost,' 'Battlestar Galactica,' today 'Justified,' 'Sons of Anarchy,' 'Game of Thrones,' 'Walking Dead' -- all of those shows have benefited from having a strong point of view and a strong showrunner. None of those shows have been written by committee and I think that's important.

    "I think you need to have the definitive point of view, you need an artist behind the vision saying: This is the story that I want to tell. I think once you start having people in the boardroom trying to tailor something for different age groups and different target groups you're probably just going to end up with something that's not as special."

    Posted by Rob H, 26/03/2013 6:30pm (7 years ago)

  • I hate to say that in this purported conflict between Mazzara (following Darabont) and Kirkman it seems Mazzara was the one with the show's best interests at heart, creatively speaking. A 7-season run sounds perfect, and more than enough to tell a serialized, tense, thriller/horror series - it's hard to imagine how you can keep escalating that stakes for plot and character development beyond that, and sad that the original creator of the series seems less protective of its integrity than the showrunners. It's much easier to stick with a series when you can see the endpoint, even if you're temporarily frustrated with its direction, but if there's every indication that they just plan on dragging it out forever, I think a viewer's willingness to stay the course decreases dramatically (I know mine does). I agree that Gimple's promotion reeks of AMC just wanting a malleable yes man. How disappointing.

    Posted by Gabby, 10/03/2013 11:25pm (7 years ago)

  • Fascinating post and very interesting reading. I always thought Kirkman being the creator of the comic and protective of it, would be a cause of some of the friction with the previous showrunners.

    Posted by beverly, 08/03/2013 2:37am (7 years ago)

  • I think this was a really fascinating article/post and especially with Tiredofthis post if it's true and I have no reason to doubt that it is. It concurs with what I heard about Glen Mazzara's firing that it was "creative differences" wtih Robert Kirkman that forced him out. I have no trouble believing that Kirkman, not because I know him personally, might be the problem because he is a creator of multimedia huge entertainment franchise, it's not hard to imagine that going to his head.

    Posted by Derek, 04/03/2013 2:26pm (7 years ago)

  • Great post. I really appreciate this from both of you guys (and also the follow up by "Tiredofthis"). I love Darabont, mostly because of his amazing track record in film, so was disappointed when he was forced off of the show. Oh well, hopefully things will ultimately work out for this show.

    Posted by Brando, 04/03/2013 3:12am (7 years ago)

  • Im glad someone is almost accurate on what happened.. I work for AMC and I want to clarify what really happened..
    Most of the beginning is correct... up to where e got fired "the last straw"

    AMC hired a new director to Direct the episode and Frank was having to fix it.. he was not fired for how they were turning out.. AMC was frustrated bc Darabont was upset with the budget cuts.. and YES the budget cuts were unfair.. it was not by the contract... 2..Darabont brought Kirkman on the project.. (he could have just had him as a "consulting producer" but Frank made sure he was more.. fought AMC nail and tooth to have him and then Kirkman became too big for his britches.. and helped booting Darabont bc he whines to AMC.. and they listen.
    Frank was in the editing room when he was fired.. but he was not pulled away AMC leaked a release to Deadline and a PA told frank he was "leaving" and he called a meeting together...AMC didnt have the balls to give this guy the news to his face first. They new they were going to let him go before the Comic Con Panel.. (I knew)

    I am quitting this week bc Im tired of these young TV guys.. trying to run a network.. but they shoot the nice guys in the face and dont look back. Darabont fought nail and tooth for this project.. and was not at all Outrageous with the things he was asking for...its AMC against this one guy... I think after they fired Glen.. you should finally see who the real problem is...

    And just for the record.. Im tired of hearing around the office that Darabont is suing AMC... actually its the other way around.. they are suing Darabont to take him off the project and Franks just saying no... and he has every right too he put 7 years into this project and begged people to give it a shot and now its going.. he deserves his dues..


    Posted by Tiredofthis, 03/03/2013 5:08pm (7 years ago)

  • Thanks for sharing this information, Robin. This is kinda disappointing but no entirely a surprise.

    Walking dead has created an interesting world. I've even read the novels, Rise of the Governor and The Road to Woodbury to enrich it.

    I am not sure yet of my threshold for the indefinite/formulaic vs a character driven story.

    I do know I have lost a lot of my enthusiasm for Dexter as it has devolved into a formulaic story.

    Posted by Yogabon, 01/03/2013 9:16pm (7 years ago)

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