With Emmy-winning powerhouses Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC is at the forefront of cable TV drama. What fans and geeks have hoped for, this year's Comic-Con audience can attest to, and the rest of the world is about to find out is that the network is poised to break all-new ground in October with The Walking Dead. After last Friday's presentation of the first-ever footage from the initial six-part series adaptation of Robert Kirkman's acclaimed comic books, those who saw all seemed to agree that this might be the project that changes everything - a series so audacious, so damned good that Hollywood finally realizes the medium best suited to adapting long-run comics series is television, where the serial format gives the rich storylines room to breathe and develop.
Horror fans, comics nerds and straight-up TV geeks alike have been buzzing about The Walking Dead for some time now, ever since it was announced that writer-director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), partnered as a producer with Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens), was bringing Kirkman's epic saga of a zombie apocalypse to television. The creator had gone on record more than a few times prior to that stating that he'd refuse the rights to an adaptation if it wasn't going to be done properly. Hurd explains, however, that she and Darabont were determined: "I pursued it. Frank and I tackled Robert Kirkman at the last Comic-Con, we held him down, we plied him with food and drink! And there's a comfort level with AMC, if you look at the other programming they've got. You don't go, 'Oh, they're going to insist on this becoming something that it isn't'."
Indeed, besides having Darabont at the creative forefront - this is, after all, the man whose film adaptation of Stephen King's The Mist featured an ending so horrific and dark that King said he wished he'd thought of it - AMC might be an ideal landing port. It may not be premium cable, but they have given the creative team a great deal of leeway according to the director.
"I'm not experiencing any constraints here. And we're doing some pretty edgy stuff, to the point where at times I'm thinking 'I can't believe they're going to let us put this on television!' I mean, I don't want to make it sound like some fucking snuff film where puppies are being clubbed by sledge hammers," Darabont laughs. "But still! You know, I guess the bottom line is in terms of how we want to depict something -- whether we want to do 'less is more' or if we want to do 'more is more' -- We're making those decisions based upon how we feel like shooting the thing, and not on what we can or cannot do."
The extent to which The Walking Dead will push the envelope gore-wise was not seen in the extraordinary four-and-a-half minute clip reel that was screened for the Comic-Con panel - as Hurd noted then and in the press panel later, the con organizers consider it a family event so they were asked to keep it low-key. ("They don't want anyone complaining to Comic-Con that their kid just threw up in their lap!") With gold-standard creature effects guru Greg Nicotero handling the splatter, there was little doubt that aspect would be handled very well anyway. What fans really needed to see was the tone, the look. Did Darabont & Co. stick the landing? Judging from the riotous applause that rose at the end of the reel - both times it was screened for the audience - it's an unqualified yes.
The preview - which we've been crossing our fingers will turn up on the web in glorious high quality very soon - shows off just enough of the series' beginnings (encompassing the first couple of issues of the comic) to tease without giving away too much. Images the fans were longing to see - the decimated zombie woman in the ditch, our hero Rick Grimes charging on horseback through a horde of undead in the streets of Atlanta - shot on deliciously gritty, grainy Super 16 (a rarity in television), all indicating that Kirkman's vision is good hands. If that wasn't enough, there were terrific surprises in store for the fans such as the announcement that Bear McCreary - the celebrated composer of Battlestar Galactica, recently Emmy-nominated for Human Target - will be handling the show's score.
With so much indicating a home run here, it gave the cast - who also saw the footage for the first time at Comic-Con - a sense of pride that they were truly doing justice to the source material, as did their interactions with fans. "These people have lived with this [comic] for seven years," says British actor Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick (and for those who are wondering, totally nails the American accent.) "And you just... as soon as you look out there, you realize their loyalty and their affection, and their passion for the subject matter. Obviously we want to serve that and give them what we want."
"They seem really generous so far," added Sarah Wayne Callies, who portrays Rick's wife Lori, who along with their son is separated from him when the zombie outbreak goes down. " I mean, when we did the [autograph] signing I was sort of expecting a lot of them to be like, 'Now, don't eff this up!' And I kept saying to people 'I hope you like what we do,' and they were so nice. This is so precious to them but they seem to be willing to let us do our part."
Though the fans seem pretty satisfied that the show will abide by what they love about the comic books, diehards can still expect to be surprised when it actually airs. The showrunners are holding their cards close to their chests for now, but not unlike Showtime's Dexter (which has diverged quite a bit from the novels on which it's based), The Walking Dead won't strictly adhere to the events of the books and may even incorporate different fates for the characters we know and love, plus all new characters to boot - something which Kirkman has given his complete blessing to.
"What Robert said to us was, he is all for potentially killing off people who don't meet their demise so soon in the comic, and allowing people... who are killed within a couple of issues to live longer," Hurd explains. "And it really is all about the overall arc, which is a different kind of arc than in the comic book. But throughout the entire process, Frank and Robert and myself, to a lesser extent, have been discussing what makes the best TV series adaptation of the comic book."
In the end, the creative team clearly gets that what has made the comics so popular is the deeply humanistic, darkly engrossing story of how the end of the world causes us to fall apart, or to rise to the occasion. When asked if he would be utilizing The Walking Dead to deliver his own version of whatever the metaphor the zombie genre might invoke, Darabont admits that he isn't aiming to reinvent the wheel in that regard.
"It feels to me like those metaphors have been covered by filmmakers, the giants upon whose shoulders we stand," he explains. "They've kind of laid those metaphors out through decades of these films, particularly George Romero has done so. I don't know if I'm going to bring anything new to those metaphors as a filmmaker, so my focus is really on the human part of the story. We'll certainly find metaphors as we go; that's one of the wonderful things about the creative process, if you care about what you're doing you find yourself saying things as you develop the script or as you're finalizing the pages you get.
"And then there's my favorite part of what we do which is: It doesn't matter what we think the metaphors are," he adds. "What's interesting is what you all think the metaphors are. It's what the audience brings to it, and the fans bring to it. I've heard so many wonderful interpretations on all of my things, or aspects of things I've done that never even occurred to me. And I'll get that feedback and I'll think 'Yeah, that's cool'!"
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Bonus video: No, it's not the teaser for the show! But for those who saw it we bet that like us, you can't get the soulful 60's pop of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" - L.A.-based combo The Walker Brothers' cover of a Frankie Valli track, which is contrasted so brilliantly with the gloom-and-doom of the second half of the Walking Dead preview - out of your head:
Fingers crossed this song actually turns up in the show, too. It's hair-raisingly cool in the teaser.