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Frank Darabont began his career writing screenplays for horror movies like A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and the 1988 remake of The Blob before becoming one of the chief writers on the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. But he made his biggest mark as a director of glossy period pieces. His prison films based on Stephen King stories—The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile—were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture Oscars. Darabont returned to TV to direct episodes of The Shield and Raines, and to horror for another King adaptation, The Mist. His latest project returns to both. He’s the man who’s turned Robert Kirkman’s zombie-filled comic-book series The Walking Dead into a series for an unlikely outlet, basic-cable channel AMC, which has built a reputation as a home for quality dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Darabont talked to The A.V. Club about the creative freedom of working at AMC, shooting on Super 16, and why despair and sex are the basis for most drama.
The A.V. Club: How did you come to this source material?
Frank Darabont: Walked into my comic-book shop in Burbank, saw the first trade on the shelves, and because I have a genetic predisposition for this sort of thing, I immediately grabbed it off the shelf, took it home and read it and loved it, and instantly recognized the value it would have as a television series, assuming I could ever find anybody crazy enough to say yes.
AVC: Can zombies be done on TV?
FD: Oh boy, they sure can. They couldn’t be done on network. You know, if I was doing this for one of the big three… [Laughs.] I can’t even begin to imagine the restrictions and restraints and conversations we’d be having. I would not have even gotten through the first day of shooting, I’m sure. Luckily, AMC is our venue, though, and those restrictions are not hamstringing us, they’re not hampering us.
AVC: They’re okay with the level of violence?
FD: Yeah! Let me put it this way: We have not pulled any punches that we didn’t want to pull anyway. I always say that sometimes in a moment of violence, sometimes less is more. In the case of a zombie thing, though, sometimes more is more, you know, so you make those creative decisions. What’s wonderful is that when we decide more is more, we’re not bumping up against “No! We can’t possibly air that!” So it’s the creative choices that are leading how we portray things, not some Standards And Practices mandating limitations. I couldn’t be happier. I know everyone’s so nervous about it. “Oh, you’re doing a zombie show. I hope you get to show some blood!” Oh yeah, there’ll be some blood there for you. No worries.
AVC: It seems like you’re really attracted to stories about people on the brink of despair. What about that is appealing to you?
FD: I don’t know. [Laughs.] That’s funny. I’ve never heard anybody categorize it quite that way, but you’re absolutely right. Probably because I think it’s, not to get too arty-farty about it, but probably because that’s the keenest definition of the human condition, isn’t it? Are we all not teetering on the brink of despair or riding the knife’s edge between despair and joy, between hopelessness and hopefulness, between optimism and pessimism, between ugliness and beauty? That kind of defines all drama, really. And all art. That, and getting laid. And romantic love, if you will. Or sex. But really, you look at any great story, and there’s a component of that.
One of my favorite movies of all time is It’s A Wonderful Life, which is a pretty interesting choice for a seasonal Christmas favorite, because it’s about a guy who wants to commit suicide and is presented with reasons not to. Man, that’s pretty resonant storytelling. I think a lot of great stories touch on that paradigm.
AVC: You’ve worked as a TV director for other shows. What’s the main difference between TV and film as a director?
FD: Well, speed of shooting. And I don’t mean that to be a glib answer. The reason that I always wanted to get into television… And when I was approaching doing The Mist as a feature, I also wanted to change up my style quite a bit, somewhat radically, actually, so I went and did. One of the great pleasures of my career was directing an episode of The Shield. It let me throw my skill set completely aside and do something in a completely new way, and I used what I learned on The Shield in shooting The Mist, on a very fast scale.
There’s something about shooting quickly, as opposed to the painstaking approach I used earlier, that is liberating. It just makes the process more vital, and it becomes much more fun. As seriously as we take what we do, it ought to be fun sometimes, too. And I love it. I loved shooting the pilot for this in 15 days. We’re longer than an average episode would be. It was hilariously fast.
And what’s great about that is when you really have a lot of time and you can painstakingly construct what you’re doing, that’s great, but when you don’t have that kind of time, it’s almost a greater challenge, because you’re having to rely on instinct and experience, and you do not have time to second-guess your choices. You have time to make and execute your choices at best. Sometimes not even that. So then you have to think on your feet some more, and compensate for the fact that the hours are running out of the day. Something about being challenged like that, I have learned to love. Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t love another “Shoot a movie in 70 days” again, like Shawshank, so I’m not sure I always want to have the hounds nipping at my heels, in terms of schedule.
But I really do think that once you’ve done it enough, and you have the experience, and you’ve learned to rely on your instincts, shooting fast teaches you that you can. If your instincts are good, there’s a limit to how much you can fuck up your own movie, even if you’re going really quickly and having to make very fast decisions. There’s just something more adrenalized about it.
AVC: The Walking Dead series has a distinct visual look, different from anything else on TV. How did you come up with that look?
FD: Well, the pilot is definitely back to a more formalized kind of filmmaking than The Mist was. One of the decisions we made very early on was, we want to shoot not on—and we ran tests on every kind of format—didn’t want to shoot on high-def, because that would have been a disaster for us on a whole lot of levels that I won’t bore you with, unless you want me to, and I also said, “You know, this show really should have the ability to run and gun and move quickly, and do multiple cameras, and squeeze into places that you can’t take a 35mm camera. Let’s shoot it on a Super 16.”
We’re shooting on 16mm here. And because we’re shooting on 16mm, it’s giving us something you’re not quite used to seeing much of anymore: film grain. It’s the difference between listening to music digitally and listening to your old vinyl records; there’s a warmth, a sort of analog quality to that kind of music, right? This kind of warmth and analog quality, almost, to the visuals, in a piece of film where you can actually see the grain and not necessarily be consciously aware of it, but there’s a life to it that is lacking in high-def. High-def is very pretty, it’s very beautiful and sharp and crisp, but I’m not sure I’d want to shoot a movie in it. And for this series, I thought, “Man, 16 is the way to go. It’s only going to give us more of that old-school analog feel.” That’s probably why the look feels different to you.
AVC: AMC is known for deliberate pacing in its shows. The Walking Dead, at least in comic form, isn’t especially deliberate much of the time. How are you going to fit into the network brand, yet stay close to the comic?
FD: Well, we’re giving ourselves lots of permission to veer off the path of the comic book, because the comic book is very smart and provocative. It suggests many things to me as we go, that prove to be worthy detours. I want to always follow [Robert] Kirkman’s path. We’re going to draft in his wake, I believe, in a narrative sense, but we’re going to take as many detours as we feel like taking, because we don’t want to rush it.
As far as the deliberate pace of a show, can I just tell you what a pleasure it is to get back to the kind of filmmaking I used to be allowed to do, where you don’t have to cut to the next thing right away? As long as our running times are what we promised to deliver, you can let a moment live; you can have characters breathe onscreen. You don’t have to constantly go to the next line of dialogue. You can hold a shot, thank God, and I’m finding that such a pleasure, because I do love moments that breathe.
I’ve never been a big fan of the music-video style of editing movies that crept in the last few decades. I like stuff that’s able to take its time. It’s one of the reasons I really love the shows AMC does. So it’s not like they’re imposing a studio or network brand on us, it’s more that their brand is allowing us to do something I’d love to be doing anyway, which is not having to rattle through a story at breakneck speed, simply because we assume the audience has no attention span left. I just don’t believe that.