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The Walking Dead Author Robert Kirkman on His AMC Show, Plus the Worst Idea for a Dead Movie He’s Ever Been Pitched

Regular readers of our blog probably know how excited we are for The Walking Dead, AMC's upcoming Frank Darabont–produced TV adaptation of Robert Kirkman's awesome long-running zombie-apocalypse comic-book series. Premiering in October, Dead centers on Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a cop leading a group of survivors through an American South ravaged by flesh-hungry reanimated corpses. Production on the show's first green-lit six episodes began yesterday in Atlanta, and to celebrate, we spoke with Kirkman by phone about the series, the cast, and why he never made a Dead movie.

How did the AMC deal actually come about?
I'd been shopping the comic around in Hollywood, seeing if anybody was interested, and I guess Darabont sort of fell in love with it and wanted to adapt it into a television show. It took awhile, but eventually he hooked up with AMC, and the rest is history.

The Walking Dead never felt like a comic in search of a movie deal. The characters are complex and the long story arcs couldn't be easily collapsed into a two-hour zombie film. It's perfect for TV, though. Had you been turning down offers for movies?
I turned down a few offers from various people. I had gotten it set into my head that if I could get some kind of deal that included multiple movies, I would consider it. But I was not really looking for a feature film, because the core concept of the book is that it’s like a zombie movie that never ends. So by design, turning it into a zombie movie that, you know, ends, would be kind of stupid. I really did hold out for television and, by God, it seemed to work out. But at no point was I ever kind of sitting around and going, “Oh, if this thing doesn’t get turned into a movie or a television show, I’m going to be super upset.” I was fine turning down offers until the perfect thing came along. Luckily, the package we got with Darabont and AMC was the perfect situation.

How closely will the show follow the comic?
Closely enough that it’ll be interesting and it’ll have the same flavor of the comic. A lot of your favorite moments from the book will pop up in the show, but it will be different enough where, if you’re extremely familiar with the comic, you’re not going to be sitting there bored, going, “Oh, I know when this is coming” or “I know where this is leading to.” It’s a faithful adaptation of the comic, so all of the characters are going to be there, and they are the same characters that they are in the comic. They have the same behaviors and, for the most part, the same backstories. They’re going to make some things cooler and I’m pretty stoked about that.

So far just the first six episodes have been green-lit. How far into the comic series will that take us?
I can’t really say because it would sort of give certain things away, like, "Oh, it goes to issue eight." Then somebody can be like, “Oh, it goes to that thing that happens in issue eight. I know what’s going to happen.” It covers a lot of ground from the first six issues, but it doesn’t touch on everything that happens within the first six issues. We’re saving some cool stuff for later on.

How involved are you in the everyday of the production? Are you ordering people around on the set?
I will be on set when they start filming. I’ve already been down to Atlanta. I tagged along on a location-scouting expedition, and that was pretty fun — watching Frank Darabont walking through the streets of Atlanta as if he owned the entire city, daring cars to hit him. That was a lot of fun. We were all on Darabont Watch because he would just walk into the middle of the street looking for the perfect shot like, “Oh, this street would look great on film.” He wasn’t paying attention to the cars zipping by at all. I’ve been out to Hollywood; I’ve been in the writers’ room for a week, working with them on the plots for the first season. I’ve been fairly hands on, but I'm trying to back off as much as I can, because my main focus is the comic-book series. As a comic-book reader, I hate it when a comic gets adapted and the writer just takes a vacation. I don’t want to take a vacation. So I’m trying not to spend too much time working on the show, but I’m fairly hands on. Now having said that, if people end up not liking the show, I had nothing to do with it.

How much gore will AMC let you show? Will we see zombies having their brains macheted?
I think that people who like zombie fiction are kind of going to be blown away by this show. I don’t think there’s ever been anything put on television like it. I was looking at storyboards, and I’ve read the scripts, and I know what they’re going to be showing — I’ve been blown away by it. AMC is actually enthusiastic about pushing the limits of what can’t be shown on cable. A good rule of thumb is, anything they’ve done in Breaking Bad, we can do every five minutes, because there’s no limit to how much violence you can do per episode. So anything they’ve done in Breaking Bad, we can do over and over and over throughout the show.

Did you have any input into the casting?
They asked for my input as things were moving along, but I’m not an expert on acting so I’m not about to assert myself and be too hands on with that. Every time they’ve shown me something, I’ve liked it. They’ll be like, “Here’s this Andrew Lincoln guy. We’re thinking of him for Rick.” And I’ll say, “He’s awesome.” And then they cast him. I could convince myself that they cast him because I said he’s awesome, but maybe that’s not the case.

It seems right now that the magic number for TV seasons is about five or six seasons. You’ve been writing your comic for years, there’s no end in sight. How long could the Walking Dead TV show go on for?
I’ve been talking to the top brass at AMC and I think we’re trying to at least top M*A*S*H. If we pull that off, then we’re going to go for The Simpsons. Andrew Lincoln will probably hear that and be like, “Oh my Lord, what’s going on?”

This is more of an observation than a question: All of AMC's male protagonists, including the one on Walking Dead, seem to fit a certain profile — they're flawed, they have marital problems, and their wives become pregnant at really inopportune moments. Have I just cracked their secret formula?
That is a keen observation; I have never noticed that. I will say that when we pitched it to AMC, they did ask if the guy’s wife got pregnant, and I didn’t really think of it at the time, but that’s a really odd question. You may have come upon something that AMC is going after. I wonder if that’s a plot in Rubicon.

How much will the show look like the comic? Obviously it won't be in black and white ...
It’s definitely going to be in color. It’s definitely important to me that the show looks like a good show. I don’t think anyone’s going to be watching the show and thinking, “Oh, I wonder what this comic looks like.” Some of the fans were asking, “Is it going to be black and white?” and I think that would have been a neat choice and it definitely could have worked, but I just want it to be the best television show it can be. I don’t want it to have anything that can be viewed as a limitation. They’re going to be basing some of the costumes off of the comic, some of the locations look like the comic, and it’s definitely going to have the same feel and tone as the comic. Visually, I don’t want there to be any sort of comic-book elements or anything like that. It’s just going to be a solid-looking television show.

Will the show have a theme song?
Yes, somewhat. That’s all in the works right now.

So you can’t talk about that yet?
Yeah, I don’t know exactly where they’re at with that.

You mentioned that you'd turned down offers to adapt your comic. What’s the worst pitch someone's ever made you?
I don’t want to name any names, but we did meet with a director who’s fairly big-time. He directed a big-budget action movie that came out last summer — that’ll be our code for that — and we were on the phone with him and he said, “You know, when you came back and he dug up Shane, and shot him because he was a zombie? You really missed an opportunity there, because when he arrives at that grave, Shane could have busted out of that grave and started fighting him and you could have had Shane become, like, a super zombie and then he could have been made the main villain for the rest of the book. And he could have superpowers and be leading the zombies. It would have been really cool." So I had to get off the phone pretty quick after that. But yeah, some people just didn’t get it.

Why do you think nobody has made a TV show about zombies before? There are so many vampire ones.
I think AMC is the first one that’s had the guts to move forward with it. I know that there have been some zombie pilots floating around, but nothing has ever actually come together. I imagine that networks shy away from the subject matter because you can pretty up vampires pretty easily, but there’s really nothing you can do with a zombie. They kind of are what they are.

Photo: Albert L. Ortega/WireImage