PREMIUM: Gale Anne Hurd, executive producer on The Walking Dead, sat down with World Screen to talk about bringing Robert Kirkman’s popular comic books to the screen, and making the tough decisions about which characters survive the threat from zombies (and other humans).
WS: What can viewers expect from the new season?
HURD:They can expect quite a thrill ride—a lot more drama and conflict, not only among our characters, but from the threats that we’re introducing this season from the outside. We have two fantastic new characters. The Governor is a character from the comic book. He’s a hero to himself and a villain to many people. And there’s going to be building conflict between him and Rick Grimes. He’s played by the fantastic British actor David Morrissey. And then another one of my favorite characters we’re introducing, also from the comic book, is Michonne. I like to call her the most iconic kick-ass sword-wielding female character ever. And she’s being brought to life by Danai Gurira, who’s an African-American woman who actually grew up in Zimbabwe. So we really do have an international flavor to the show.
WS: A number of major characters were killed in the last season. How important is it, for the integrity of the series, to be able to take out a character that is liked by the fans?
HURD: It’s very difficult for all of us, but if we are to be true to Robert Kirkman’s comic book, unfortunately the body count for characters we love is pretty high. We do change it up, so there are characters who are still alive in the comic book that we’ve sadly put to rest, and there are characters who are still alive in our show that have died in the comic book. There is the threat from walkers—the zombies—and also from the humans that they might encounter. And it just wouldn’t be believable if every one of our fantastic cast survived.
WS: Were you surprised by how much the show has resonated with audiences?
HURD: We were completely surprised. The general ratings success or even critical success of most genre shows has been fairly limited. There are a few exceptions to that, like True Blood, but for the most part, your expectation is that you hit maybe 2 million viewers. That’s essentially what AMC normally gets. No one expected 5 million, or even the season finale last season of 9 million. That far exceeded not only all of our expectations, but our hopes and dreams.
WS: And it’s also been huge internationally.
HURD: FOX International Channels is the best possible partner. I’ve been in the entertainment business for a long time. What they bring—their understanding of the show, their commitment. Before they’d even seen an episode, just based on reading scripts, they acquired the show, and committed to launching in 130 countries within the same week of the U.S. premiere. That shows not only their faith, but their foresight.
WS: How closely do the story lines mirror what’s happening in the comic books? How much can you change from the original material?
HURD: Well, the interesting thing is that Robert Kirkman’s underlying comic book, The Walking Dead, is also a huge success. The fans care very deeply about it. The 100th issue is now the best-selling comic book in 15 years, outselling Marvel and DC. Over 350,000 comic books were sold. It would be very difficult [to decide] what to change if it were not for the fact that Robert Kirkman is not only an executive producer of the show, but he’s in the writers’ room, part of that discussion about what to keep, what to change and what to invent. And with his blessing, I think that the fans accept those changes.
WS: Tell me about the creative atmosphere you’ve found at AMC.
HURD: AMC is very bold. They roll the dice on their programming, on things that other networks haven’t done before. The same is true for FOX International. People were wondering, given the dark and graphic nature of the comic book, would it transition into a television series successfully? And the truth is that if it hadn’t been for the support of AMC and FOX International, if we had done a watered-down version, I don’t think it would have been the success that it is. We’ve never once gotten a note to tone it down.
WS: Do you have the entire season mapped out well in advance?
HURD: Starting when the writers’ room opens, which is in February, an overall arc for each of the characters is discussed and there are various plot points that are pitched and approved by the network. But we really focus first on the initial eight episodes. (We have 16 episodes this season, last time we had 13, the first season it was six.) Once those [first eight have] begun to come out in script form, there can be a refocus so that the back eight can become more of a reflection of the first eight and we can really ramp up the stakes.
WS: You’ve done a lot of work for network television; I imagine a 16-episode order is much more manageable than having to do 24!
HURD: Yes, 16 is manageable. On the other hand, it is quite demanding. Most network shows are primarily shot in studio—they’ll have maybe a couple of days outside. We shoot a very demanding show in eight days, with most of it on location, in the heat, the humidity, the ticks, the mosquitoes; that takes a physical toll on the cast and the crew. I think that our 16 episodes, in terms of the storytelling, because of the complexity of the stories, and the fact that it’s serialized, as well as the physical demands, is the equivalent to 24.