This Sunday, AMC will air the first episode of The Walking Dead made entirely under the leadership of Glen Mazzara, who replaced his former boss and the zombie drama’s creator, Frank Darabont, as showrunner after Darabont was fired last summer. The reasons for his departure have never been confirmed (although Darabont complained openly about budget cuts). But what we do know is that the show has broken ratings records while leaving critics and many fans decisively disappointed. So the stakes are high for Mazzara: Can he bring The Walking Dead back to critical life? Or will the naysayers finally put a dent in the show’s ratings — a predicament for which Mazzara would bear the blame? Boris Kachka spoke with Mazzara for a feature in New York Magazine. Herewith, a more complete transcript of their candid conversation.
After Frank Darabont left The Walking Dead, you seemed to come out of nowhere. But you did come from somewhere, right?
I’m from New York. I grew up in Queens and my father was a physician at St. Vincent’s Hospital — which you know just closed — for 46 years. So I went to NYU undergraduate then for a Master’s in English, and got a summer job at St. Vincent’s. I was a ward clerk handling everything in an intensive care unit. I like to describe it as being Radar O’Reilly [from M*A*S*H*] on speed. Then I switched over to NYU Medical Center. We renovated their emergency room and then I coordinated construction projects. We built their ten-day surgery ORs. It was a very complicated job.
But not exactly where most English grads end up.
Well, I wanted to write, obviously, so I was trying to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be. I wrote a play that was workshopped at Brown, and someone explained to me that hospital administration was a lot like television production. Tight schedules, people with different agendas, and of course there was no money, so you’re working with tight budgets, and you are always waiting for a cardiac arrest. You are on pins and needles. So I started writing TV scripts and harassing people in Hollywood. First I was calling people in New York: “Do you have a cousin in Los Angeles?” And then I’d call the cousin. And he’d say, “There’s this guy.” I did that for four years. And finally, in 1998, my first pitch meeting was at a show called Nash Bridges with Don Johnson. I walked into the room wearing a black suit and tie because that’s what you wear to a job interview in New York. I didn’t know you don’t wear that in Los Angeles. So I walked in and met Carlton Cuse, who went on and became one of the showrunners for Lost; John Worth, who just did The Sarah Connor Chronicles; and Shawn Ryan, who created The Shield. Shawn was actually wearing a hockey jersey. And I started pitching a very gritty, Sidney Lumet–style Nash Bridges. I [pitched that Nash had an old case that he fucked up on] and Carlton said, “Hold on a second, it’s Don Johnson, he doesn’t make any mistakes. What else do you have?” I started panicking. I literally had a panic attack. They took me to another office and put my feet up and they gave me an ice pack.
It’s true, it’s true. But they brought me back the next week and I sold them an idea, and I was on that show for two years. Then I was out of work for a year and a half, because I was always writing stuff like, “Nash is in the crack house.” And they’d say, “No, Nash is not in a crack house, he’s babysitting a celebrity chimp!” “Okay, well, you know, maybe the chimp’s in a crack house.” And they thought I was an idiot. I had moved my wife and child out and we had a second child, so I’m living on credit cards for almost two years. One night I was crying on Shawn Ryan’s shoulder, and he said, “If The Shield goes, you’ll be the first guy I hire.” And I just thought, What a pipe dream. We’re talking about FX, which was the M*A*S*H rerun network. But I hung in and Shawn kept his word and hired me onto The Shield. I was really his number-two writer for a long time — used a lot of my hospital experience to help him figure out how to run that show. Because Sean had no managerial experience and that was a strength that he needed on his team. So I sort of helped him find his way.
You made the trains run on time, like a chief-of-staff type?
The number two is sort of an unofficial role in Hollywood that I’ve embraced. It’s a person who comes in in a nonthreatening way to help a showrunner attain his vision. And I was good at that in the hospital, figuring out what was the agenda in the hospital and then executing that plan.
But you’ve been in charge of a few shows.
I created a show called Crash for Starz, which was their first original drama, and that was not a good experience. I had a great time working with the cast and crew, but it was a young network and an intrusive studio, and to be honest I didn’t really enjoy the movie Crash. I was doing Short Cuts the show and calling it Crash, so that wasn’t fair on my part. After a year, when that didn’t work out, I was home licking the wounds and then I was asked to be the number two on a show called Hawthorne — a hospital show starring Jada Pinkett Smith, so I thought it’d be better for me to get back to work instead of being home and depressed. I ended up taking over that show the second season — but that was also challenging because Will and Jada Smith are big stars, and they get what they want. I had a very gritty realistic version of what I thought that show should be. So I guess I made the same mistake I made on Nash Bridges.
And your next gig was number two on The Walking Dead. Gritty enough for you?
Yes! So I came over and we were having a great time, and then things imploded here. Last week on a panel I described my career. I’m the guy in The Hurt Locker. I get sent in in the suit to try to defuse things.
But now, six months after Darabont left, with the first all-Mazzara episode about to air, can you say you have your own vision for the show?
I do. I see it as a horror show, and that just means to me that it needs to be incredibly suspenseful. That suspense could come from interpersonal drama or it could come from the zombie scare of the week. I’ve really been trying — and you’ll see in these next six episodes, but even in the midseason finale, which was the first final script that Frank did not touch — I’ve been trying to amp up the intensity of the show. To make it feel less safe, more dangerous, more in your face, taking away any good options for the characters. Their backs are against the wall and they’re frightened. I’m trying to keep the show as immediate as possible, so that an audience member can imagine themselves in that situation, and wonder, What would I do? That is something that I think I’m bringing to the show. Hopefully you can see that I’m trying to push people into new emotional territory.
Any particular characters you’ll be doing it with?
In the second episode, you’ll see Lori [the lead character’s pregnant wife] make a choice which is very, very different for her and very unique, and I bet you people will have strong reactions on the Internet: Would she do this, wouldn’t she do this? I hate her! or I can’t believe what she’s doing! And I’m just trying to explore new characters.
Do you ever get frustrated by fanboy reactions, which have often been viciously critical?
It’s been difficult. The fans do not understand the machinations of what’s happened behind the scenes. They don’t understand what’s mine, what’s Frank’s, what needed to be done to improve the show. I see the fans as an id for the show. They want it and they want it now and they want it to be great. I’ve recently joined Twitter in an attempt to communicate directly with the fans. Our fans are very, very important to us, and we do pay close attention to what they say. However, we have to stay true to ourselves as artists, because no two people ever have the same opinion. So we are cognizant of criticisms of the show. We are certainly aware of what people like and what people don’t, but at the end of the day we are a bunch of writers in the room and we try to make the best possible show that we can.
And what do you think of the specific criticisms — that the first season was badly written and implausible, while the second was just plain boring?
Number one, this is the first show I’m working on that anyone really watches or pays attention to, and I’ve been doing this since 1998. And two, there’s a high level of expectations. If we do a zombie attack in a particular episode, some people criticize us: “Well, it’s the zombie of the week.” If we don’t do a zombie of the week, people say, “There’s no zombies, it’s a bullshit show.” So, in the midseason premiere, there’s only two sort of throwaway zombies. The next few episodes are very zombie-heavy. Because that’s what fits with the story. It didn’t feel plausible, in that first episode after the zombie massacre inside the barn, that there would be a massacre an hour later.
There’s a great showdown scene in the episode that takes place in an actual saloon. Was that an intentional homage to something?
Well, that’s something else we’re trying to do. Evan Reilly wrote the scene — he’s a phenomenal writer and he grew up on Rescue Me. That’s a scene that we were trying to make as suspenseful as possible. The inspiration was, let’s say, the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, where you’re just sitting on the edge of your chair, completely engrossed in a conversation but on edge. It’s a very long scene, longer than anything else we’ve done I believe, except for maybe the barn massacre, and hopefully just as engrossing.
Something I’d love to see is more living characters, and much more of the world beyond rural Georgia.
It broadens more. I feel that the show has been a little insular, a little incestuous, that it’s been a very small cast of characters on just a farm that appears to be very safe. I want to widen it. All of a sudden the outside world starts encroaching on our farm. And now there’s the suspense of, who’s out there? Are they coming? And all the interpersonal dynamics of the group are at loggerheads over this new threat.
There have been recent news stories about things that Darabont wanted to do with the second season that were overruled by AMC. Were they — and you — unhappy with where he was taking the show?
Well, I would like to say that the first part of the season was something that Frank Darabont had a large hand in, and I helped design that under his direction. That was a vision that we both believed in. It was not a vision that he had and I didn’t believe in or that I had and Frank didn’t believe in. It’s not true that Frank had a particular vision of the show that was rejected by AMC and then I was brought in to create a demonstrably different vision of the show. That’s not accurate.
Any other inaccuracies you’d like to clear up?
There was no budgetary crisis on the show — that’s not accurate, that’s not accurate. I’ve been nickel-and-dimed by studios before. They have not nickel-and-dimed this show. They have put money into making this show the best possible show. I don’t want to talk about why Frank left, that’s his business, or why he was asked to leave or whatever you want to say, but the idea that there was a budgetary crisis that was AMC’s fault is completely inaccurate.
You can understand why people are curious. Even some of the actors seem not to know why Darabont got fired.
That’s Frank’s business and that’s AMC’s business. What happened was I was in the number-two position. I was really, let’s be honest, the only high-level executive with any extensive TV experience, and the only person with any showrunning experience. So they asked me to run the show. And I felt like I was at great risk, because if the show did not come together, if I did not improve some of the footage we had —
So it’s true, as reported, that there was a botched episode at the heart of this — the season opener?
It was not coming together in a way that we intended. Some of the storytelling, the pieces, the arcs — unfortunately sometimes you write things and you have to make adjustments, if that makes sense. That’s true on any show. I won’t say if that was issues with Frank, but I’ll just say that was a path that I needed to address when I came in, and some of the solutions were not readily apparent.
Did you hesitate to take the job?
Yes. The hesitation was that Crash was not the success that I had hoped. Hawthorne was also a situation where other people had an agenda and I stepped up to be helpful and wound up with egg on my face. So now here’s a third situation where someone needs help. And do I need to be the hero on this one? What if it doesn’t work? It could be three strikes and out. It could have been a very public failure if it didn’t break my way. And in all three cases, this wasn’t material that I had originated. Part of the reason I came over to the show was that it would be great to just be the number two while I figure out my cop show, my hospital show, my vision. And so now here was the third instance where I was signing on to execute someone else’s vision and what if it didn’t go right? I really felt like it could have killed my career.
Were you worried you might come off as the studio’s stand-in?
No, absolutely not. Don’t forget I’ve been fired by studios; I’m not the studio’s guy. I’m a guy who can work with studios, but if you ask any studio, I stand up to these people.
And how did the cast and crew feel about all this?
I had to convince them that this was not my coup. I had turned down showrunning offers to be Frank’s number two, so I had no interest in running the show — let’s make that clear. I felt horrible for Frank. I had been replaced on Crash, so I know that it’s a very painful thing to lose a show and a cast and a crew that loves you. I knew from firsthand experience. What I did was I came in and I met with them and said, “It’s not that there’s a new sheriff in town. This is just someone who’s here to try to help us stay on track and weather this storm.” And the cast and crew were incredibly supportive of that. They stood behind me and said, “Let’s give this guy a chance.” And some of them I’d never even met until the day that I was addressing them in Atlanta. Then I met with the writers and I said, “Let’s be honest — everyone expects us to fail, because we are not Frank Darabont, and Frank Darabont is a huge pair of shoes to fill.” So the writers really buckled down, and AMC did not interfere. They actually backed off and just let us make the show that we felt needed to be made. I’m very lucky that everybody was so supportive and that things came together. And the show premiered, it had record-breaking ratings, and I think that by the end, by the time we delivered the season finale, people felt that I had stepped up and delivered a show which was very, very in line with what Frank had intended. Any tweaks that I made felt honest and thoughtful to the cast and crew, so it did not feel like I was trying to swing my dick around.
But you did start making changes to the second-season scripts, right? Things you’d disagreed with Darabont about?
There was never any conflict between Frank and me. I want to be very clear, I worked extremely well with Frank, and I chose to work with him and he liked working with me. We had a great relationship and that’s why he brought me on as his number two, because we challenged each other. But one of the changes that I added after he left was when, in the episode before the midseason finale, Lori admits her affair to Rick. That was something Frank did not want to do. He wanted that to come out another way. I felt that her back was against the wall during that confession. It’s very underwritten, by the way. She just says, “Shane and I”— and he just nods, and he says, “The world went to shit and you thought I was dead, right?” And in that “Right?” he’s asking, Was I a failure? Was this affair about our marriage? Or was it simply the zombie apocalypse? And when she looks at him and she just says, “Yeah,” she’s stunned by his emotional honesty and his vulnerability. That’s something that we have not seen from these characters! I felt that the show was very big on speeches and I wanted to write to the acting choices between the words, not necessarily about the words.
And Darabont didn’t want that scene to begin with?
Frank did not want that made. A lot of his storytelling style is told with the entire picture in mind, which works on a feature. If you look at those seven episodes, that’s a feature. But having worked in episodic TV for a long time, I realize that the audience does get hungry for stuff and the audience cannot be too far ahead of the characters. Otherwise they become frustrated with the characters, and they feel the characters are stupid or not worth their time. One of the things you can see from The Shield — and I think that you can see a lot of The Shield in The Walking Dead — is a lot of the intensity. What my goal is is to accelerate things and then figure out more story after the fact. And I think Frank had a feature approach of: Just wait for it, just wait for it, then you’ll be satisfied. Whereas I think people, again, are watching the show in sort of an id fashion: “We have an expectation, we need it, we need it now,” and if they don’t get it there could be some frustration. So I’m not saying that I have to give the audience everything they want at any particular moment, but there have to be big payoffs along the way, not just at the end of the run.
So you agree with the critics who complained that the show was moving too slowly.
Without a doubt. Knowing the behind-the-scenes work, I’m happy about that criticism. What has been surprising about it, though, is that we’re on a network that has Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Killing — these are pretty slow, so I am surprised that we’re getting branded as the slow show, especially since we do have zombies in every episode.
Any other stylistic differences?
Believe it or not, I’ve tried to make the show actually more cinematic. I felt that we were not having enough shots of the farm, and I was trying to bring in a seventies style of filmmaking into these back six episodes. This was something that I think was, surprisingly, not executed as well in the show as much as we had intended. Frank is obviously a world-class director, and he didn’t direct anything except the pilot and some scenes here and there. I wanted to go back and use some of Frank’s style, try to work it into the weekly episodes on a more regular basis.
It couldn’t have been an entirely smooth transition, from the cast’s perspective.
I said from the beginning that I was not going to try to parrot Frank’s style — that would not be honest. And the script of the first episode, when that was published, it did create a panic, just as I anticipated. And I could have told everybody, “Go fuck yourself.” Instead, because I’m a collaborative person, I listened to everyone, I took their notes, and then we rewrote the script. And we didn’t take every note, we just did what we needed to make it more honest. When we did that, when we showed that we really did care, I think people responded to that as well, and then it was pretty smooth sailing after that.
Darabont was much less collaborative, I’ve heard — much more the auteur.
But I am not an auteur, I am not. Okay? I have little interest in directing, I love being a writer, and I love being able to make a show. So that’s something that’s important to me. I am not an auteur who needs to create something by myself and have everyone say I’m brilliant. That hasn’t happened yet, and that’s probably not gonna happen.
I don’t know — hopefully, you know. But what I do love is the process. Let me say this about myself. If you want to know who I am, this is who I am: I hate when a show I’m working on is being broadcast. I like making the shows, I like writing the shows, I love staying up all night and writing the script with another writer. I love going to set and hanging out with the actors, I love being in the editing room, I love doing notes with musicians, I love sound mixes. I love making TV. I don’t like it when it’s on. I don’t like people Facebooking about it, I don’t like people tweeting about it — “I hate this scene, I love this scene.” I don’t like interviews, and I don’t like being in the public eye — believe it or not. And when this event with Frank pushed me into the public eye, that wasn’t my choosing. And I’m dreading when the show comes back on. I’m sure people will like it, but I don’t like the spotlight and I can’t wait for the last one to run and I can get back to work. When my mother calls and wants to talk about the show, I just can’t take it.
Well, thank you so much for your time, and best of luck with the show.
Hopefully I was helpful and I hope, uh — don’t slam me. I’m just a guy who just stepped into a difficult situation. I’m always worried about these pieces or whatever, you know?