Exclusive: Frank Darabont Talks 'The Walking Dead'


On Friday, April 16, the Dallas Film Society presented Frank Darabont with a Star Award for his considerable body of work, which includes The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist among other screenwriting and directing projects. Earlier that day, FEARnet sat down with Darabont to talk about the honor of receiving the award, what it means to reflect personally and professionally on his body of work, and what’s in store for horror fans as he moves into production on The Walking Dead, a forthcoming television series based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series about zombies for which Darabont has already been commissioned by AMC to produce six episodes.Late Friday we posted the exclusive casting news he shared with us. Here's the rest of our interview.

FEARnet: What did they tell you when they invited you out to give you this award?

Frank Darabont: Come out, we’ll give you an award – we want to give you this nice award to honor you and your work. I said okay, why not? There’s nothing to complain about there. I kind of wondered why I was chosen, or asked to be the guy for this, but what the heck? Do not look a gift horse in the mouth. Just thank the horse.

Do you see threads that run through your work, either when you’re doing films, or in retrospect? For example, notwithstanding the choice of doing multiple Stephen King adaptations, you did A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 early in your career, and then did The Mist later on? Does it occur to you at any level that you do or don’t gravitate towards material that could be similar in concept or theme to what you’ve already done?

As a writer and as a filmmaker, you do find yourself drawn to themes that are consistent. There’s a certain resonance throughout the work that I’ve found you’re not even really aware of until afterwards – hindsight being the perfect tool, of course. You look back and go, oh, wow, there is a commonality between Shawshank Redemption and The Majestic; there’s a commonality between The Green Mile and The Mist. The specifics are quite different, but sort of the underlying themes – I mean, The Mist is sort of the anti-Shawshank, isn’t it, in that it’s examining hopelessness instead of hope, you know? It’s more condemning human nature than praising it, and yet it pivots on the same fulcrum.

And in a sense, it’s also a prison movie – people are trapped in a supermarket and trying out what to make of their lives. In a way The Majestic is a prison movie too – there’s no prison in it at all, but it’s a guy trapped in his life that is like a prison to him, and given an opportunity to step out of the gate and be his better self. So you do find these themes that do recur in you work, but only after the fact. One of these days I’d like to do something that’s completely different from those.

When I spoke to you about The Green Mile coming out on DVD a few years ago, you talked about the frustrating experience of writing the Indiana Jones script. Talking about the idea of recognizing themes and inspirations in retrospect, do you feel that The Mist was perhaps some exploration of that frustration with Indiana Jones as it related to a sense of hopelessness?

I think The Mist was really my exploration of my frustration with the 21st century thus far, and where the hopelessness and divisiveness that human beings seem to be embracing and which indeed this country seems to be embracing, which I find heartbreaking because I’ve always loved this country. That was really much more of a political film than my personal bitchfest about things in my career that haven’t gone right. But I think the Indiana Jones situation was simply one of those experiences where… hey, there’s a great line in Reservoir Dogs where Steve Buscemi says “some guys are lucky, and some ain’t,” and that’s true of everybody and their careers as well. You never know going in whether something is going to land with a hollow thud or land with grace and beauty, or not land at all. We all weather these peaks and valleys, and I hope to weather my successes and failures with equal grace.
Could you talk about The Walking Dead a little bit? Zombieland came out last year-

A great movie.

It was a great movie, but originally it was supposed to be a TV series. Do you feel emboldened by the success of that film, or does that fact that it was considered better-suited for film prove intimidating?

It’s going to be a very different animal, it really is, so Zombieland, as much as I do love it, because boy is it a great comedy, and I laughed my ass off, it’s more in the world of Shaun of the Dead, another of my favorite movies, that is in the kind of world that we’re going to be trying to create. Robert Kirkman’s comic book series, the graphic novel series, is very much a template for us, and it’s a tremendous opportunity to take the subject as serious as possible, and really as a long-term exploration of characters, which is what television does best when television is really working. That’s our goal, so gosh, I really don’t think that Zombieland is any competition for us nor are we for them.

It’s really going to be I think two different animals. We’re much more beholden to Kirkman, which is a comfortable place to be because he has blazed a fantastic trail for us to follow. We will take detours along that path – we will take steps off the trail – but always wind up veering back onto the trail that Robert provides for us, because it’s fantastic stuff.

Does that source material provide you with a pretty complete template for the rules of that world? Because notwithstanding Zombieland last year, of course there’s a great legacy of zombie films.

Okay, that’s the intimidating part (laughs). Because that actually proves to be actually a deep pool of very, very good stuff. Boy, there’s a lot of good stuff that’s been done. You see all of these home runs along the way and you go, how will I do? I don’t want to posit ourselves as being competition for any of those films, but I hope that we’ll be considered at least in the category of that good stuff as we go along – that it was worthy stuff to do. And I think Robert has given us a tremendous leg up, a head start in that sense.

Have you thought about what sort of platform will be required to execute these stories as the show progresses? Network broadcasts might limit what you could do in terms of gore, but cable channels like HBO would give you greater latitude.

I think there’s going to be obviously an ongoing dialogue with standards and practices, but I think we have a friendly venue in AMC, if you see the kind of edgy stuff that Breaking Bad is doing, which I adore, by the way. I don’t think we’re going to be lacking for adult content or the ability to depict the world that we’re depicting. I don’t think we’re going to have that many constraints, and if there are they’ll be in minor increments that will not affect the storytelling that we’re doing. It will just give us an opportunity to maybe do an enhanced cut on DVD or something, but I really don’t think we’ll be constrained too far. I’m certainly not getting the sense that AMC is there to interfere; they are a fantastic group of folks, and they’re very excited about this. They really want to enable rather than hinder this process.

Is that what’s immediately next on your slate?

Mmm-hmm. Oh yeah, hell, I just got off the plane from Atlanta where we’re scouting. We’re in prep right now, we’re casting, and we’re shooting the first of six episodes in June, the top of June. So we’re what, seven weeks out now?

How many of the cast and crew people are assembled at this point?

We are right now looking to cast the two female roles in the ensemble. We’ve also just gotten Jeff DeMunn; I’ve always said Jeff DeMunn is my good luck charm, and I can’t make a film without him. We’ve just gotten him on board as one of the ensemble members, which is a great joy for me. One of the great pleasures of doing anything is to be able to reconvene with those colleagues who have the talent and provide you with the comfort zone of great collaborative, positive energy. Not to sound like Andy Hardy here, but if you’re going to go do a show in a barn, do it with people who have really got the talent and are great to work with, and so far that’s all coming together. Not just in the cast end, but on the crew end. I’m working with people I really value and really treasure. And it may not mean anything to the general public, but to have my first A.D. K.C. Colwell on this means the world to me. To have my production designer Greg Melton on this means the world to me. I’m going to get to work with David Tattersall again, and he’s going to shoot the pilot for me. I haven’t had the chance to work with him since The Majestic, so it’s been about ten years, and he is one of the great gentlemen in his line of work, and one of the great talents. All of these people are. So I’m very lucky that way, and these are people that will have your back. They will go the extra mile.

Does David’s participation mean that you’re planning to shoot it digitally?

No! Actually we’re not going to shoot it digitally. We’re going to go old-school – we’re going to go film. I tested all of the different camera systems that are available at the moment because I was very keen actually on trying out the digital approach, and then I realized that I was really going to shoot myself in the foot because I did, simply because the nature of this particular show [made me consider] you want what you’re shooting on to help the make-up instead of hurt the make-up – let’s start there. Hi-def is a little merciless when it comes to these things, so we’re shooting on film. This is going to be a show where people are hiding places and looking out windows and doors and stuff; well, if what’s outside that door is completely blown-out, nuclear white because digital doesn’t have the latitude that film does, you’d better shoot on film because you want whatever is outside to look like outside. You want to see walls and trees, and even if it’s overexposed, there’s a sense of reality to it. if you’re shooting digitally and you point at the door and all there is is white, you might as well shoot on a sound stage and hang a white silk out there. By necessity, you pick the thing that you think will help the show the best, and yeah – we’re going to be shooting old school.