The Walking Dead’s Glen Mazzara Talks Season 2, Tone and T-Dog
Our friends at The Walking Dead ‘Cast podcast have provided us with the transcript from their interview with The Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzarra, conducted shortly before Sunday’s fiery season finale. During the lengthy conversation, Mazzara talks about the departure of his predecessor Frank Darabont, moving the show’s tone closer to that of the “visceral” comic series, his excitement for Season 3, and criticisms about T-Dog’s lack of dialogue.
Read the interview below, or download the audio for free from iTunes.
Glen, it’s good to have you here. We really appreciate it.
Good, thanks so much for your interest and for being such big fans.
Oh, yeah, we are. We’re very much into it. We started this podcast about three or four months before The Walking Dead started on AMC, so when it came out we were glad it was actually good and we could keep going. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well good, I’m glad. What did you think of last week’s episode [S2E12 "Better Angels"]. Did you like it?
Last week’s episode was my favorite of the whole season. And the second half of the season has been so strong.
Oh, well, thanks. Yeah, I think we’re hitting our stride, and I do think last week’s episode was our best. I think we have a great finale to follow up. I’m really proud of how we’re finishing the season. I just think we’ll end strong, and hopefully people will come back in October. It’s going to be fun! I can’t wait for everybody to see the finale.
I just wanted to say first off that we were worried when Frank Darabont left and we were wondering how it was going to go, but after these last five episodes in season 2.5, we’re stoked with the way the show’s going.
Well, thanks. Thank you very much. I think everybody’s come together. I mean, obviously, what went down with Frank was difficult on all of us, but I think the writers and producers and cast and crew just sort of said well, we’ve got a story to tell and we just sort of pulled together and challenged each other. And I’m lucky to be a part of it.
I’ve heard that kind of talk a lot from you guys, like, “We’ve pulled together and we came through and made it happen,” but to me it feels like you really grabbed it by the horns! I mean I’m feeling a lot more moved and even disturbed by things that have happened since the break.The show is more affecting and touching, I think.
Thank you for saying that! With any show, you know, shows improve hopefully as they go on, and you learn how to put characters together and how to write for the actors. And the actors really do have an open-door policy with me to give feedback on scripts. And the writers, I lean heavily on them. And obviously we’ve got great source material from Robert Kirkman, and terrific producers like Gale Anne Hurd and Dave Alpert and others. Greg Nicotero, of course. The whole group came together and what I wanted them to do was, instead of telling one story broken up into little pieces, it was important to me to focus on the impact of each episode. I want each episode to land a punch. Not just to have shocking moments, but to really make sure each episode had a beginning, middle, and an end, and there wasn’t anything that wasn’t driving toward that conclusion.
So for example, in [S2E11] “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” the idea that the zombie that gets away from Carl, that Carl is badgering in the woods, is the one that ends up going after Dale — that was very important to me that that really land a punch. One of the things I learned from The Shield is that when other writers and producers are saying “Oh, my God, what do we do next?” you say, “Well, that landed a punch. We’ll figure it out next week.” [Laughs] So then we all come together and push each other to make sure that the next story is just as hard-hitting. I’ve been lucky that it works for this material. I’ve tried that on other shows and it doesn’t always work, but it feels like that’s the right type of storytelling for The Walking Dead.
Were you a fan of the comic and of zombies in general before you started on the show?
I was a zombie fan. Very much so. I really like the zombie genre. I like it more than vampires, for example. I am a horror fan. I like slasher movies and stuff like that, but there’s something about zombies that’s always appealed to me. It’s visceral. It’s violent. It’s very simple. People get it. So, I am a zombie fan. I actually wrote a type of zombie movie for Guillermo del Toro that’s just sitting in somebody’s desk right now.
Yeah, it never got produced, but it was something I was interested in.
What’s it called?
It was called Hater. It was based on a book, a British novel. Hopefully somebody else will pick it up and make the movie. I enjoyed writing it. It was more like a virus outbreak type of thing. It wasn’t necessarily undead zombies.
As far as the comic book, I have always been a comic book fan. I grew up reading comic books. I wasn’t really familiar with The Walking Dead. My friend had showed it to me, but I hadn’t really gotten into it. And then I was doing a show, a nursing show of all things, called Hawthorne, and I was asked to come over and staff on this show, but I wasn’t available. They offered me a freelance episode and I threw myself into it. But I didn’t read the comics until Frank hired me as an executive producer for the second season. I was sitting in the writers’ room one day talking with Robert Kirkman and he says, “You have not read my comics, have you?!”
And I said, “Ah, I guess I gotta now!” I hadn’t because I really wanted to get my bearings in the world. At some points in my creative process, I need to not take in other creative influences. I need to figure out what I think it is, and if I take in another creative influence it could sort of infect me in a way. So believe it or not, I didn’t want The Walking Dead comic book to infect my approach to The Walking Dead TV.
The way you were talking about developing it, it reminded me of Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan talking about how he develops that show “brick by brick.” You just keep doing what seems to be the next logical thing for the show.
So it makes me wonder … You’ve got this great comic book, but I could see if you tried too hard to stick to it, it might make things feel unnatural. So do you ever feel like just scrapping the whole thing?
No no no no no. I like the comic book! I really admire what Robert’s done. He’s a bright young guy and he’s really talented, and what’s beautiful is, he’s created an entire world. See, this is one of those rare things in entertainment, where you buy into this world. I’ve joined Twitter, and people ask me every day, “What happened to Morgan?” “Where’s Merle?” “What happens during the winter?” So our camera is focused on this farm, for example, and people want to know what’s going on in the rest of the world. Is it happening in other countries? What’s going on in France? You know, that sort of stuff. So that’s fascinating. That’s great. That’s a huge achievement.
Robert and I were just in the writers’ room today working on an episode for Season 3 and there’s a lot of great stuff there. Let me say this about the comic book — and I really haven’t had a chance to say this — part of my intention for the back half of this season is to get closer to the spirit of the comic book. The comic book is visceral. It is shocking. It is scary. It is a page-turner. And that’s not what we had done before. We’re learning how to tell that story in the TV form. In a way, we’re catching up to the comic book.
For example, even just the shot of Rick and Carl over Shane’s body in the field in [S2E12] “Better Angels.” They see that body in the field, and a normal TV drama will sit there in that. We cut away. We immediately pan out to what’s coming next. You’ve got these walkers coming out of the field.
Yeah, there’s no resting.
Yeah, there’s no catching your breath. That, to me, is the spirit of the comic book. So whether or not we dramatize events from the comic book, it’s about “Is this a faithful adaptation to the spirit of Robert’s work?” And I believe it is.
I’ll give you another example. Rick shoots the two guys at the end of [S2E8] “Nebraska.” Instead of sitting there and letting it have its weight, we cut out to a torch. Shane’s lighting a torch. This is an editorial choice. This is my choice. This is me feeling my way through the material, with the editors and the writers. We’re figuring out how to do a more faithful adaptation, and that feels right. People seem to be responding to it. It’s interesting to us. We like it. It’s been a learning process. We’re honing it more in the back half of the season.
I’ve been reading the comic since the beginning and I can totally feel that. One thing I love about Kirkman’s comic is there’ll be these WTF moments on the back page of each issue –
And now you’ve got that going on in the show. But one thing that I think TV can do better than a comic book, and you are doing, is to make it scary. It seems like you’ve been paying more attention to that.
Well, thank you for saying that. When I took over as showrunner I had a lot of choices to make. I really had to focus on a couple of things. You have to look at, okay, where’s the “money” in this show? What’s important in this? It’s about the characters.You know, that Rick/Lori/Shane triangle is very very important. I really wanted to invest in that. And maybe to the expense of some other story lines or some other characters, but I felt like that was worth it.
And I really felt that the horror was important. We have these things called tone meetings and concept meetings, and my No. 1 rule is it has to be scary. You know, what’s scary about this episode? Where’s the tension? Where’s the suspense? So even in “Nebraska,” where you have the scene with these guys in a bar — these guys are just sitting in chairs talking, but it’s a very suspenseful scene. You don’t know where it’s going. Evan Reilly wrote that scene. It was brilliant. And, you know, the flashes of Shane turning into a zombie. That was kind of interesting. I remember that was something that they had done with Jim, these flashes, in my Season 1 script. I didn’t script those. They built that in editorial. That was Hunter Via. And I asked them to do it again here. We’re really trying to make it a horror show every week, and that’s been critical.
The third thing I’ve focused on is the question of Rick’s leadership. And I guess that’s a personal thing. I’m stepping in as the role of a showrunner on a show I did not create, and I have my questions of leadership, so I’ve been hitting that character hard. It’ll be interesting to see how you feel after the finale and where I’m landing with that.
Through this season there’s been this question of whether the survivors can afford to be “good guys,” and in an interview you said “Shane is right in most of the decisions he’s made and I think Rick’s humanity is his flaw.”
Is that a black-and-white, for-sure thing to you?
I think so! What’s nice about this show is that Rick is a hero – he tries to do the heroic thing – and it usually can be seen as a fuck-up! I don’t know if I can say that on your air. I apologize.
The guy tries to do the right thing, and he can’t catch a break! Shane has been a very effective leader, and it’s interesting to put those guys head to head. What was interesting to me about Rick killing Shane is that it’s not a choice of leadership. He’s just sick of this guy! This guy banged his wife. He thinks the kid is his. You know, screw him! He kills him with a knife to the chest. What could be more visceral or primitive than that?
Shakespearean, even. It’s pretty clever.
Yeah, yeah, fuck ‘im! You know? [Laughs] That was the attitude. When we came up with that, everyone was like, “A knife?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s gonna be a knife. Right in the chest!” He wants him dead, you know. He wants him close. Rick’s immediately saying, “This was you. This wasn’t me. I gave you every chance. I beat the hell out of you two episodes ago. I even gave you your gun back.” And if you look at that scene where Shane gets the gun, Jon Bernthal actually lifts his eyebrow. And you don’t know what he’s thinking. Rick thinks they’re at a crossroads, and actually they’re, you know, somewhere else.
Yeah, the whole time everybody’s debating on whether or not to kill Randall, and I’m like “Shane is a big threat!” [Laughs]
That’s right, it’s true, but look at how Rick treats death. I mean, he steps forward, he shoots Sophia. He has no choice. When he shoots these guys in the bar, that’s a clean police shooting. That is a cop scene. My brother’s a New York City cop. I was just in New York and he had a bunch of his friends around and we were talking about that, and they really felt like the way Rick handled that, he played it as a good cop. But then, it’s not easy. We play these human deaths as real as possible, so it’s not easy to just execute this kid Randall. He’s handcuffed, he’s on his knees. That’s something that Rick’s having trouble doing. He can’t bring himself to kill Dale even though Dale’s eviscerated. That’s difficult. And then when he does commit, it’s this tragedy against his own best friend, who really probably deserves it, and yet it’s still painful. You know, Andy Lincoln did a phenomenal job. He’s on his hands and knees, just wailing. He’s like King Lear, reduced to an animal state. You just write this stuff down, and then when these guys come back with it you’re like, “Oh, man, thank you so much.” They really did a great job.
Plus, the cinematography was amazing, with the moon over the field. Gorgeous!
That’s Ron Schmidt, our [director of photography]. I got very close with him. He was the DP for our entire run of The Shield. He has really stepped up. He joined us just before the midseason break, I believe in Episode 5 or 6, and we talked about, “Can we make the show more filmic?” It’s so funny, we get this feedback, “When are we leaving this goddamned farm?” And I like the farm! I think the farm’s gorgeous. It photographs beautifully. I don’t know why everybody’s crying about the farm. [Laughs] It looks great. I mean, look at [last week's episode]. It looked gorgeous.
Yes! But I think we’re about to leave the farm. I don’t know anything that’s going to happen this week, but from the look of the swarm of zombies coming, it looks like they’re about to leave the farm.
Well, you’ll have to tune in and find out.
[Laughs] Carl’s gonna run them all off.
Yeah, Carl’s running around somewhere. He’s causing trouble.
What’s your favorite moment of Season 2 so far?
You know what’s lovely? I woke up today and I must have had thousands of tweets and dozens of emails of people really, really moved and excited by TV. To be able to be paid to do a job, and you write this stuff down and everything, and you coordinate … I love TV. I love the people I work with. And to be able to tell a story that people really care about, and people are so invested in and so enthusiastic and so passionate, and already people area saying, “Oh, my God, when are the DVDs coming out? I gotta watch it again.” And “When’s the show coming back on for Season 3?” What’s fun about all of that is that I know what’s coming in Season 3. The script Robert and I are working on is Season 3, Episode 8. So we are deep in Season 3 as far as writing and breaking those stories, and I’m giddy! It’s like buying a Christmas present for somebody in July and you put it in the closet and you’re like, “I can’t wait for these guys to get this!” And you’re just kind of sitting there and just knowing that people will hopefully enjoy it. It’s fun! It’s exciting!
Whenever I love a TV show and it ends, I have this thing where I’m like, “Ah, crap, what if there’s never gonna be any more good TV on after this?” But these days there’s tons of great TV on.
There’s a lot of great stuff. It’s funny you mentioned Vince [Gilligan] before, because I do my email and sometimes I play a DVD in a window on my laptop, and I’m actually catching up on some Breaking Bad.
You know, and I’m just like, “Ah, shit, Vince is so good! How can I rip him off?” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Do it! Do it!
While I’ve got you, I want to ask, are you aware of people ribbing about how T-Dog doesn’t get any lines?
Yeah. Let me say this: T-Dog’s got a beautiful scene coming up. I will say that. I’ll give you that, if that doesn’t spoil anything. But I think we’ve had to, again, focus on our main characters. I mean, there’s no slight there. IronE Singleton is a terrific actor, and it’s unfortunately just the idea that some characters have storylines and some don’t, and he has not been organically tied to a major storyline in a way that, if he survives the finale, we will certainly make sure that characters in Season 3 are tied in. Again, it’s the show finding itself. It’s the show improving itself, you know what I’m saying? But I get that ribbing, and I think that’s a fair criticism.
It seems like when doing a TV show, there’s so many different things that you have to balance. Plot. Character. Believability. Are all the characters getting their due? Surprising people. Having emotional moments. All these different things. And I wonder, do you get a real kick out of that? Is it stressful? How do you do it?
It’s not stressful at all. I mean, we’ve got an amazing team of of writers and producers. We’ve got this great source material. I think we all know what feels right and what doesn’t. We know what’s too big and what’s not. And the writers really work hard on this. The directors buy into that. And so there’s a singular vision here. And then the next circle is it goes out to the producers. And the producers are really our first checks and balances. And then it goes to the network. But really the network is not intrusive at all. AMC has been incredibly supportive of this show, just saying, “Guys, just make the best show possible.” We haven’t had a single thing where AMC said, “Do this,” and we had to change something we didn’t believe in. That’s not been the case at all.
That’s good to hear.
So, it’s fun! It’s like a big puzzle. It’s kind of like. … I’ll be honest: Imagine if you had a box of matches and you’re trying to build everything together and construct some skyscraper out of matches, and then sometimes you’re like, “Aw, I got this one match left over. It’s T-Dog.” [Laughs] You’re like, “Ah, almost! Okay, knock it down. Let’s try again next episode.” You know? So we get better and better. But, it’s fun! It’s fun!
Hey, T-Dog had some good lines this last episode!
Oh, yeah! You know, we’re catching up.
Next season is going to be the first season that’s completely yours. Are you especially excited about that and are there any particular goals you have in mind?
Yeah, we do have a lot of goals. I can’t talk about specifics, obviously, because I don’t want to step on the finale in any way. But I will say that in the back half of this season, the show is living right where I hope it continues to live. I feel like the type of ethical debate, the immediate stuff, the ethical situations that people find themselves in in each of these back episodes — I think that’s interesting. I love it when the audience can watch an episode and sa,y “I would leave that guy on the fence,” or, “I would take him,” or, “I would execute him.” One of the things I’m really proud of is Angela Kang wrote a terrific scene in [S2E11] “Judge, Jury, Executioner.” That jury scene. Everybody has a different point of view.
Yeah, she did a beautiful job. And Greg Nicotero directed it, and all the actors came in — and that’s a very difficult scene to shoot and Greg did a great job. And so everybody has a different attitude, and you can imagine yourself in someone’s living room. Would you speak up or would you not speak up? What do you do? There’s an immediacy when people watch the show. That’s something I want to continue. However, I don’t want it to be heady. I don’t want it to be intellectual. I don’t want to not feel that it’s tied to action. So I do feel that the density of the stories in [S2E12] “Better Angels” and, coming up, the finale “Beside the Dying Fire,” I do feel that that is us at our best stride. That kind of storytelling – “Holy shit, I’m on a thrill ride” – that you saw last episode, that’s something that I can honestly say we have in store for Season 3. That’s where the show is.
That’s so good to hear!
We’re not going to be standing around like we were in the first half having theoretical conversations. You know, game is on.
When does production begin for Season 3?
Are you going to be out there in Georgia?
I’ll be out there at first to kind of welcome the actors back. And, you know, Ernest Dickerson is one of our go-to directors. He did the finale. He did part of the premiere and he did my episode of Season 1, “Wildfire,” and he also did [S2E10] “18 Miles Out.” He’s terrific. And so he’ll also be doing the premiere. And so you go and you kind of welcome everybody back. And we have writers go to set. I go back and forth. We have some big episodes coming up, and so I go in and try not to get in everybody’s way. [Laughs] You know, I go back and forth. I have a lot here because I’m focusing on making sure the writers’ room is still moving, and then once the material comes in, this show more than any other I’ve done has a great deal of post-production. I’m fully involved in the music, working with our composer Bear McCreary, who’s terrific. The editors are just phenomenal on this show I think. We have a lot of, obviously, special effects with the zombies and all that stuff. So, it’s a full-time gig, you know?
[Laughs] So I just have a couple more questions for you.
What’s the worst mistake to make around a zombie?
The worst mistake to make around a zombie is probably … watching a cow.
[Laughs] Just being mesmerized by it.
What would you personally do in the zombie apocalypse?
That’s a good question … umm …
Too late, you’re dead!
No no no, let me think about that! I would probably get some type of crossbow, spear, or some type of sword. I wouldn’t go for ammo. I think you’d run out of that, and I’m not a good shot. I would get a small band of people, and I would try to get to higher ground. I believe that zombies would not climb up. I think they would be channeled down into valleys.
Like a big bowl of zombies.
Is there anything else you want to say to the fans before we wrap it up?
I just really want to thank everybody. I feel like I’ve hit the lottery! You get lucky enough to work on a great show and you put that out in a way that the fans are so excited and so enthusiastic, and the fact that there’s so many people like yourselves talking about it and writing about it and all that, that it’s just incredibly exciting. And I just really want to thank the fans for caring. It just means the world to us here at The Walking Dead.