Coping with zombies in ‘The Walking Dead’
In a nondescript office building on Cahuenga Boulevard, Frank Darabont is putting the finishing touches on the end of the world. The writer-director, famed for such Oscar-nominated feature films as “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” is now masterminding the zombie apocalypse with his new television series, “The Walking Dead.”
FOR THE RECORD:
“The Walking Dead”: An article in the Sept. 19 Calendar Fall TV preview section said that the lead character in AMC’s new series “The Walking Dead” is searching for his wife and daughter. He has a wife and son. —
Adapted from Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, “Walking Dead” follows a band of survivors struggling to retain their humanity in a nightmarish world overrun by the undead. While it might seem at odds with the prestige pictures for which he’s so widely known, Darabont insists that the show, which debuts on AMC on Halloween night, is allowing him the opportunity to marry that A-list sensibility with his inner geek.
“Shawshank” and “Green Mile” were based on Stephen King novels, after all, and early in his career, Darabont wrote the screenplays for projects including “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” and “The Fly II.”
“My earliest memories are of watching the great Universal monster movies when they were in television syndication in about 1965 — I’ve always loved the cinema or the literature of the fantastic, it’s always been my special bent,” Darabont, 51, says. “Having made those more mainstream dramatic films, people are surprised to know that I can converse in the secret geek language.”
Certain elements of “Walking Dead” will seem familiar to anyone who shares that particular fluency. In the pilot episode, which Darabont wrote and directed, smalltown sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) awakens in a deserted hospital after being shot in the line of duty. Determined to find his wife and daughter, he sets off — on horseback — toward a rumored survivors settlement in Atlanta, fending off flesh-eating ghouls along the way.
It’s difficult not to think of director Danny Boyle’s haunting thriller “28 Days Later” during those hospital scenes, and the zombies themselves are straight out of the George Romero school, the latter point being something that Darabont himself proudly acknowledges. But “Walking Dead,” he maintains, is unique because it’s serialized, meaning that he can explore how Grimes and the other characters cope over the long haul.
“We’ve all seen the one-off zombie movies,” Darabont says. “I didn’t want to try to compete on that level because it’s been done and done very well, either as a serious film or as a comedy. We can name those really great ones. But to do it as a television series, to really invest in those characters over the long term, that struck me as a pretty exciting notion.”
Exciting, perhaps, but it wasn’t easy for Darabont to convince television executives that the premise could work. Zombies and vampires might be ubiquitous figures in popular culture these days, but that wasn’t the case when Darabont was first attempting to get “Walking Dead” made, not long after he’d stumbled upon the title during a trip to Burbank’s House of Secrets comic book store.
“We probably appear to be following a cultural trend; we’re not really,” he says. “I tried to set this up five years ago. The idea was, ‘Let’s do something off the beaten path from what one expects from a television series.’ Hopefully it still is, but in the meantime it’s been Zombies R Us in the culture.”
He originally took the project to NBC, where he had an overall deal at the time, but wound up at AMC after he partnered with the show’s executive producer Gale Anne Hurd. She was the one to suggest that the cable outlet responsible for groundbreaking dramas “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” might be willing to take a chance on a series that is essentially an ensemble character piece masquerading as a horror movie.
“Walking Dead” was shot on location between April and August in a sweltering Atlanta. Darabont describes the heat as “debilitating,” but Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays Grimes’ wife, Lori, said there were some benefits to working in real-life locations as the temperatures soared.
“It gives you an immediate physical response to the story,” she said, speaking by phone from the set just before the shoot wrapped. “You’re hot and you’re sweaty and you’re dirty and you’re burnt. Right there, that’s a whole bunch of acting you don’t have to do. It’s reality.”
Callies said she’d never read a comic book or seen a zombie flick but was attracted to the role because of the way the series’ outré setting amplified the interpersonal dynamics among the characters.
In a separate interview, Lincoln said he too was excited by the prospect of playing a man struggling to remain honorable in such a threatening environment — he likens “Walking Dead” to Greek tragedy “because it’s life or death situations continually,” says Lincoln, an English actor who watched “a lot of Gary Cooper movies” to prepare for the part. “You have incredible combustible scenes between all the characters because of the situation, and it makes for great drama.”
Both actors also responded to the bigger questions the series’ premise poses — namely, how do people retain their humanity in the face of great calamity? Darabont believes the show taps into what he calls “millennial dread,” the anxiety looming in the broader consciousness about, say, chronic oil shortages or the devastating impact of climate change.
“There’s a sense of doom settling into our species because clearly what we have built here is not sustainable as a civilization and we’re all starting to get the idea that the fish tank has been poisoned and sooner or later all us little fishes are going to float belly up if we don’t do something about it,” Darabont says. “Even people who generally don’t stop and think about these things are starting to understand that we are facing some species-threatening problems.”
But he’s quick to add that he has no intention of using “Walking Dead” to flog viewers over the head with weighty messages about the end of the world. He’s simply looking to satisfy his urge “to play in the zombie sandbox.”
“I’m not out there proposing that it’s the metaphor of the week show,” Darabont says. “All I really want to do with this series is tell really good stories and get people hopefully addicted to this fantastically entertaining and smart narrative.”