It came as a shock when news broke that Glen Mazzara was leaving his post as showrunner of The Walking Dead. Under Mazzara’s watch the zombie drama set record ratings, and he’d been credited with orchestrating a creative turnaround after the departure of original showrunner Frank Darabont; at least one report suggested that the split was forced when his vision strayed too far from Robert Kirkman’s, the author of the comic and an executive producer on the show. Vulture had already spoken with Mazzara back in December about what’s coming up in the remaining season-three episodes on which he worked (those eight episodes kick off on AMC Sunday at 9), but we reconnected with him Monday morning to talk about his exit, and how his approach to the series had differed from both Darabont and the comic.
You’re still promoting the show and talking to fans about it over Twitter. Was it difficult for you to leave?
That is a great question. You’re actually the first person to ask that. Sure, of course it was difficult to leave. I really am very, very proud of this season and have worked with a lot of great actors and directors and crew. I’m also connected with the fans in such an interesting way. People are sending gifts and making me things. This one fan in France made this incredible book about the Dixon brothers — I have to take pictures of that and tweet it — so it’s really been endearing. To be honest, as we were talking about moving ahead with the show, there are genuine creative differences. So we together, AMC and I, reached a decision that it was best to part ways. I’ll let my work stand for itself, and I’m very happy with it and they’re happy with it. I’ve moved on to my own project now, and I’m excited about that. It was a difficult decision but I think it was the right one for the show and for me as an artist.
To clarify, you’re saying the creative differences with AMC began when you were discussing the plan for season four? Or midway through season three?
This is all a question of season four and beyond. It was creative differences about how to push ahead with the story.
Critics were pretty happy with what you’d done so far, and judging by the ratings, so were the fans.
Listen, that’s the holy grail as a TV writer, to work on a story that you care about and to put it out there and for it to find the audience and connect with fans and connect with critics. It’s been a great ride, and I’m happy that people are responding to the story I’m telling. It’s been gratifying.
So having said that, were you surprised that AMC was not on the same page with where you wanted to take things next season?
You know, I think all I want to say is that there were creative differences. To be honest, I don’t want [my exit] to become a distraction from the material we’re putting out there. It’s a great back half of the season. I just really want the fans to enjoy it. So, let’s just say again it was creative differences and a mutual decision to move on.
What were the challenges of adapting the comic? Was part of your job to make sure the two didn’t line up?
It’s something that’s always been an issue. It’s always been a challenge on this show: How do you adapt [comic author] Robert Kirkman’s material in a way that still surprises that hard-core comic book fandom? Robert has always said that he would love the TV show to diverge from the comic book in a surprising way so that people are guessing. He did not want a straight adaptation, and I think that was something Frank Darabont started doing in season two by developing the Shane-Lori-Rick triangle as a much bigger piece than it was in the comic book. In the comic it was just six issues. Then I took that model and pushed it even further. And once we got into developing season three and we had our basic arc — we were going to introduce the prison and the Governor and Michonne — then I sat down with the writers and really plotted a course the way you would on any other TV show. What happens next? What feels real? What’s surprising? What’s a good twist? You start breaking those stories and I think now the TV show has taken on a life of its own.
Right, and we’ve talked about how you wanted this season to feel like a war zone, and how it should feel like historical fiction. That wasn’t Frank Darabont’s vision in the first two seasons. Why did you make that shift?
I thought that it was important to tell a story about this band of survivors, and some of the reading I had done on soldiers in battle is that each soldier ends up being willing to sacrifice their own life for the good of the group, and also that everyone fears letting their fellow soldiers down. No one wanted to be the weak link. I felt that that paradigm was the only way this group could survive, and that that would be endearing to an audience: It’s a family fighting for survival, and that’s what TV shows are a lot of the time, they’re family stories. So that was the way I wanted to approach this material. I even wrote a document about war and these questions of soldiers in battle and gave it to our writers over the 2011 holiday break, so we had that weeks before we came into the writers room. Once that fell into place, then we did things like look into post-traumatic stress syndrome, which you see with Rick now. You see questions of leadership, questions of other people surviving trauma. At the top of this season we have Hershel surviving the loss of his leg, Maggie having to confront being assaulted by the Governor and how much of that she can deal with before it becomes an obstacle to the group’s survival. Will it blind her the way it’s blinded Glenn, who’s now focused on a personal agenda and not the group’s best interest?
Had you ever considered or pitched killing off Rick? We’re starting to see other leaders emerge, like Tyrese and Michonne.
For me, everyone is fair game. You’re implying that I don’t kill off Rick, so I’m not going to say anything else.