9:49am PT by Eriq Gardner
'Walking Dead' Creator Frank Darabont's Deposition Unsealed: "We Had Crisis-Level Problems"
In a newly unsealed deposition given in his big profits lawsuit against AMC, ousted The Walking Dead creator Frank Darabont holds nothing back, blasting executives at the cable network for hiding in air-conditioned offices, explaining how he had to manage a crisis at the beginning of the second season of the hit zombie show and discussing the "concocted" reasons for his firing.
Darabont and his agents at CAA are pursuing claims that AMC breached his contract and deprived him of tens of millions of dollars in profits from the hit series by making a sweetheart deal licensing the show to itself. Most recently, the case has turned its attention to whether AMC rightfully reduced his profit share as he left the show in the middle of the second season. Darabont claims he rendered showrunner services on all second-season episodes.
In his deposition, obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, Darabont talks about the early days of the show, saying that despite the massive ratings success of Walking Dead, AMC created budget problems for the series. (Read the court documents here.)
Darabont says, "I remember Joel Stillerman [president of original programming and development for AMC], in a meeting in my office, when we were all discussing the issues of the upcoming season, we said to him, 'Surely that the success of the show, which, by the way, you guys are bragging about because we keep getting e-mails saying, 'Hey, we're breaking viewership records in 120 countries around the world by hundreds of percent, in some countries by over 1,000%,' at the same time we're hearing how successful the show is for you, you're telling us that this, this budget issue is not going to budge at all. And he said, 'The success of the show has no bearing on this discussion,' in a rather icy manner."
According to Darabont, AMC cut the budget "from 3.4 to 3," referring to the millions it takes to produce episodes of Walking Dead.
"That was bad enough, but then they dropped the bomb on us that, oh by the way, they're keeping the tax credit," he testified. "They're going to pocket the tax credit. So, between the two you've got a full 25% cut across the board."
Darabont said this hurt the cast and crew, who he described as "busting their butts, leaving it all on the field, to earn."
In the deposition, he is particularly harsh on AMC executives.
"When they did rarely show up on the [Georgia-based] set, [they] would ... drive in from the airport in their air conditioned car, race into the air conditioned tent we had there so the actors could have a break and not pass out from the heat, poke their heads out on occasion, and half an hour later jump back in their car and fly back to their air conditioned office in New York. I had a tremendous lack of respect for them."
Darabont thinks the AMC executives should have "put on some combat boots" to see the cast and crew working in 110-degree heat and "pick[ing" ticks off their groin and their ankles at night."
The problems escalated, according to Darabont, who said he was managing "crisis-level problems arising on the first episode of the second season."
The footage turned in by the director for that episode wasn't up to snuff, he says, so he told the executives that he would have to step away from the writers' room, where they were attempting to develop the latter episodes of the second season of Walking Dead in order to shoot additional footage and put focus in the editing room.
Darabont says this led to a conversation with Susie Fitzgerald, vp scripted programming. He asked her whether she agreed with this approach. He recalls her saying, "Absolutely I agree with your assessment. You have to do the crisis management. I understand that that's going to delay those scripts coming in by three weeks."
Later, Fitzgerald apparently denied having the conversation.
Darabont said her denial floored him.
"So, she out and out just lied to my face in front of everybody," he testified. "I can prove that because after the meeting I went back to the editing room to tell my editor to finish up a few things there that day anyway that needed finishing and to tell my editor what had happened."
As for why Darabont says he was fired, executives "concocted" a reason, he testified.
"They accused me of not having directors tone meetings," he said, referring to the way in which a showrunner is supposed to sit down with each director of each episode to go over the script — scene by scene — and convey the tone of the show. "And I said, 'That's absolutely not true, I have had a directors tone meeting with every single director this season.' "
Though his attorneys now argue he played a role on all the second season episodes, Darabont did acknowledge during his examination that he wasn't providing full-time showrunner services after July 27, 2011.
An AMC spokesperson gave THR this statement about Darabont's testimony: "Frank Darabont has made it clear that he has strong opinions about AMC and the events that led to his departure from The Walking Dead. The reality is that he has been paid millions of dollars under the terms of his contract, which we honored, and we will continue to vigorously defend against this lawsuit." Darabont's deposition isn't the only testimony to go public.
Glen Mazzara, who once worked on The Shield before becoming Darabont's top lieutenant on Walking Dead, taking over the showrunning duties in the middle of the second season before leaving after the third, also testifies.
Asked whether AMC treated Darabont unfairly, Mazzara answered yes.
Mazzara added, "I believe that Frank was executing his responsibilities and duties as showrunner and there was a personal rift between [Walking Dead co-creator Robert] Kirkman and Darabont and between Darabont and the AMC executives, and that when the material for the finale came in and Frank said I need some time to figure out a plan of how to pursue this and what we're going to re-shoot and what it will take to do this, AMC was unwilling to give him that time to solve the issue and they let him go without notifying him that he was, that the issues were that series. That if he did not appropriately solve these issues, he was about to be fired."
Darabont was performing his responsibilities, said Mazzaro — delivering scripts, being in touch with the cast, dealing with department heads, even securing use of the famous "Hershel Greene farm" when a religious family who owned it didn't want to let AMC film there because of an objection to the content of the zombie drama.
"I believe Frank flew to meet with them and met with them and described the show and I think listened to them and reassured them of the type of show he wanted to do," Mazzara recalled. "And I believe that it was after that that they agreed to let us use that farm."
And even though Darabont was forced out midway through the second season, Mazzara said his imprint was evident throughout all the episodes. It's important because as the one who first developed Walking Dead and brought it to AMC, Darabont was entitled to get as much as 10 percent of profits from the series, but because he was terminated in the middle of the second season, AMC only counted him as three-quarters vested, meaning he only got 7.5 percent.
"A bunch of people running around on a farm running from zombies," said Mazzara. "And, you know, they're looking for a missing girl, girl comes out of the barn, everyone's upset about that, and then, and then they encounter a different group of people and have to figure out what to do and then there's a zombie attack at the end of the season. That was, I felt, Mr. Darabont's imprint as well as a cinematic approach to filming that material."
On cross-examination, Mazzara was asked if he had not taken over as showrunner and Darabont had continued on Walking Dead, would that have "killed the show."
Mazarra responded, "Given the status of Episode 201, I would like to say that I did think Episode 201 was a show killer. I did say that."
Updated with AMC's response.