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The Walking Dead Creator Frank Darabont on the Zombie Show Too Gruesome for Major Networks

We're now just three short days from Sunday night's premiere of AMC's new zombie drama The Walking Dead, the Vulture-anticipated TV adaptation of Robert Kirkman's beloved comic-book series. On the show, small-town cop Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes from a coma to find the American South overrun by brain-craving monsters way too scary for broadcast TV. For a piece in this week's New York magazine, we spoke with Dead's talkative creator, director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), about creating American TV's first-ever zombie show, and why NBC turned it down.

How did you first become interested in Kirkman's comic?
It was an afternoon visit to House of Secrets Comic Book Shop here in Burbank, and I saw the first trade paperback, which collected the first six issues. I grabbed it off the shelf took it home and read it in one night. I loved what Kirkman was doing; I loved the character-driven approach — it's less about the zombies than about the journeys of the human beings. It really suggested to me the possibility of not movies, but a television series. So the very next day I called my agent and we started pursuing the rights to it.

You originally took the show to NBC. Why did they pass?
I tried to align it with a kind of overall deal I had at NBC — it was really a blessing that they weren’t interested.

Because they wouldn't let you show as much gore as AMC?
Oh good heavens, yes. It’s kind of funny when you’re dealing with a broadcast commercial network. They’ll say, "Oh, we want to get edgy, we want to stretch the boundaries." But we handed them a script and they went, "Oh my God, we can’t do this! This is horrifying!" I felt a little bad, I wasn’t trying to bait and switch anybody, but that was fundamentally the show I wanted to make. I’m not slamming NBC as a general principle, but it never would’ve been a comfortable fit. But AMC gave us a tremendous amount of latitude and we’ve really not bumped heads at all with standards and practices at all.

Why has nobody ever attempted a zombie TV show before?
I think somehow the zeitgeist finally caught up to the whole zombie thing. It’s been a sub-subgenre for geeks like me for decades. But finally the mainstream caught up with it, to the point where it starts to sound like a sound business decision to a corporate entity, to the people who are running a network like AMC.

Well, congratulations on creating the most disgusting show in history.
Yeah, can you believe what we’re getting away with? It’s awesome! Not to name-drop, but my friend Stephen King watched the first episodes and wrote me the greatest e-mail. He really dug what he saw, but he said, "That second episode ... Oh my God, you grossed even me out." That’s an endorsement from Stephen King as far as I’m concerned.

How faithful will the show be to the comic?
Faithful to a limit, but so many wonderful wonderful ideas come up as you’re developing a narrative and I don’t want to leave those narrative ideas behind. This is the opportunity to tell stories of where everything comes from. We'll follow the narrative path that Kirkman laid out, but detour off of that path wherever it makes sense to do so.

How nervous are you about upsetting the comic's hard-core fans? Fans of Watchmen were simultaneously upset about how faithful the movie was and about the changes Zack Snyder made ...
The funny thing about the Internet nerds is — and I say this with love and a certain amount of suspicion and caution — no matter what you do, there's a certain type of Internet dweller that's going to piss and moan about it. You could hand them a check for a million dollars and they could find fault with it. Something like Watchmen was in development for decades, and I think Zack was almost in a no-win situation. If you’re absolutely true to the material, they’ll bitch about that. If you go ahead and change some stuff, they'll bitch about that — oh no, it’s sacred, why didn’t you stick to the letter of it? You think about this too much and your head can spin in circles. I’m much more pleased not reading that kind of feedback. I feel we made the most entertaining possible series for both hard-core fans of the comic book and people who haven't read it. I desperately hope they'll be pleased with it; we’ve really given it our best shot.

Can you tell me about casting Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes? I think most people only know him as the guy from Love Actually
I know, so did I! Rick was a challenge to find. And of all the names the casting ladies came up with, Andrew’s kept recurring. And I kept saying, "Really? The guy from Love Actually?" He was charming in that movie, but not really the Gary Cooper, Sam Shepard–type guy I was looking for. But Andy put himself on tape and I watched that, and thought, Ooh, wow, there’s something here. So we flew him over and I put him on tape myself, reading with Jon Bernthal in my garage, sitting in my assistant’s Passat. We did the scene that opens the pilot, where they’re sitting in the squad car talking. He was Rick Grimes from the moment he opened his mouth. There’s something quintessentially American about what he’s doing onscreen there, and it was like, "Wow, how does an Englishman come up with this?" He's a spectacular actor.

The first season is six episodes long. How much of the series have you mapped out?
Until the end of episode six. Not to be a smartass, but truly. I haven’t thought beyond that and I don’t think I’ve read any of the issues that Robert’s published this year; I've been too busy. So if indeed there is a second season, we reset to square one and I revisit the entire body of Kirkman’s work. And then I get together with him and we map out what the next thirteen would be.

Related: Nights of the Living Dead [NYM]

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images