At last year's San Diego Comic-Con, The Walking Dead hadn't yet debuted on AMC. Of huge interest to comics fans and zombie aficionados, filmmaker (and now showrunner) Frank Darabont's epic based on Robert Kirkman's acclaimed Image graphic novel series was a popular draw, if not quite the must-see hot-ticket that many other TV shows command, even over major movie panels.
In 2011, all of that is right out the window. The Walking Dead premiered last Halloween to record ratings and its powerful survival story has captivated an enormous cross-section of fans, genre or otherwise. On this year's brand-new schedule tracker on the official SDCC website, the Friday panel in Ballroom 20 was added to more con-goers' personal schedules than any other panel, even more than HBO's Game of Thrones and any number of film panels in big, bad Hall H. Capacity issues were unavoidable. By the time the show's panel (in which a brand new full trailer for the upcoming season) began, over 4,000 fans were seated in the room with a reported 9,000 still in line.
Watch the NEW Season 2 Walking Dead trailer!:
Speaking to the cast and creators of the show, it is evident that their immense respect for the source material as well as fondness for the creative team and the desire to truly break ground on basic cable has informed the level of storytelling that fans have embraced so completely.
"Somewhere along the line you think, is it going to live up to expectations?" says Andrew Lincoln, who plays protagonist Rick Grimes. "And then, even then, you can have a great time during a shoot and people just go [non-plussed] 'Yeah. Great.' But on every aspect of this job, in every department, it's just been amazing. Just to come to Comic-Con and see [thousands] of people who care about it as much as we do... [Jeffrey] DeMunn said it when were our in the hall just now, he said 'It's such a priviledge to be here, to witness it'."
Adds Sarah Wayne Callies (Rick's wife, Lori): "And I don't think that's an accident when it comes to Frank. He didn't just cast people, he vetted them. There's such a thing as good actors who are no good to work with...[and] a lot of his department heads have been working with him from The Shawshank Redemption to The Green Mile. I think it's very important to him to create a culture on set that encourages everyone to do their best work, as opposed to a place where egos are nurtured to the point where everyone's competing with one another. And it makes such an enormous difference."
One of the unique traits of the show which has ensnared viewers is the unpredictability of the storytelling. In order to keep everyone, even those who read the comics, guessing, the writers have diverged in huge ways from the comics - something that Kirkman, himself a writer on the show, actively encourages.
"I hate to admit to it, but... Frank wants to diverge at times and stuff, but I'm really the guy who goes 'No, let's do this [differently], and let's do this, people won't be expecting that!' Kirkman says. "I've already done this story. It's basically me being a writer, not wanting to write the same thing again, so I'm constantly pushing to add new things."
A prime example of this at work: Rick's best friend and fellow law officer Shane dies quite early on in the comics, under very shocking circumstances. However, on the tube, actor Jon Bernthal is still with us heading into season two, and delighted to continue his character's arc.
"Last year, not knowing how long I was going to be around, it sort of plagued me every day and I didn't know every time I opened a script. But now, it's sort of evolved into something different, says Bernthal. "I'm so grateful that they've breathed so much more life into Shane and let him go through everything he's gone through. But whatever happens with that happens, and I totally trust these guys. I'm just grateful for whatever time he may or may not have left."
Darabont, an avowed zombie fan who optioned the rights to Kirkman's series years ago with a mind to adapt it for television, admits that he finds it tricky to compress the big narrative story ideas of the material into four act episodes, and demonstrates a real feature director's foresight for approaching a full season's progression.
"We had the first eight episodes written before we started shooting," he explains. "We're writing and honing those first eight, but it's been a tremendous advantage to have eight scripts by the time you shoot... which isn't, as I discovered, common in television. [But] this 'oh, let's go one at a time' thing really doesn't make sense to me. The more scripts you have, the more perspective you have on the arc, and I don't know why more people don't work that way."
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Already announced via casting news, the show's second season will incorporate a key comics' plotline as the survivors reach the homestead of farmer Herschel and his family, who have their own unique and at times unsettling response to the zombie outbreak. We know better than to ask Darabont for actual spoilers, but can he at least tell us if they've broken the entire season's plot and know how it's going to end?
"We have," Darabont says with a knowing smile. A pause. And then: "Mwahahahaha." We are so in for it, Dead-heads.
The Walking Dead returns to AMC on October 16th at 9 p.m.
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