'The Walking Dead': Glen Mazzara on Frank Darabont and His Fears as the Drama's New Showrunner (Q&A)

"I have to find my own voice on the show. This is important to me and I don’t want the show to feel like 'Frank light'; that’s not fair," he tells THR.
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Glen Mazzara

When The Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont was suddenly dismissed from AMC’s zombie drama, executive producer Glen Mazzara was rattled. The writer, who penned an Season 1 episode as a freelancer and was brought in during the zombie drama’s off-season as Darabont’s No. 2, says he panicked after first being upped to showrunner.

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In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Mazzara discusses flying to Atlanta to meet the cast the wake of Darabont’s dismissal from the series and his philosophy for taking over the critical and commercial hit series, and dismisses rumors that the second half of the series’ split season would be “his episodes.”

THR: What was your first reaction to news of Frank’s dismissal?
When I was first told, I felt horrible for Frank. I’ve been through it to some extent and I know that it’s painful. Immediately you ask, ‘What happened? What went wrong?’ Frank was very much in control of the show. I felt bad for my friend. I did not accept the showrunner position until things were reconciled with Frank. Things that were in the press were not exactly accurate. I wanted Frank to be safe, to be settled out, what ever it is. Then my reps spoke with AMC and then I was made showrunner. I panicked. This is a beloved show with a strong fan base. I’ve run some very tricky shows in the past with big personalities and what if it turns out that I’m the guy who f---s up The Walking Dead? I’m dead in Hollywood. I was really fearful of that.

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I took my time and realized that we have great producers on the show, great writers and great material. The dumbest thing I could do would be to deviate from that roadmap. I met with everyone and I said that was my plan: to just execute to the best of my ability what’s already in play. Therefore, I wasn’t threatening to anyone; I wasn’t the new sheriff in town. I was really a guy who was going to step up in a crisis.

THR: You mentioned the inaccuracies that were reported immediately after Frank’s dismissal. Can you touch on what those were and what had to happen before ultimately accepting the showrunner position?
What ever went down between Frank and AMC, I wanted that to be settled before I accepted the position. I did not want to be disloyal in any way to Frank; I didn’t want to be seen as being disloyal. I realized that there was some chatter that this was somehow my coup. I turned down a number of showrunning gigs to be Frank’s No. 2, and I was very happy with that. I was writing for an Academy Award-nominated director and screenwriter and we were having fun. I owed it to Frank to be respectful that I was not going to pull and Al Haig and run on stage and say, ‘I’m in charge.’ I tried to be very respectful of that.

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THR: You’re put in place and fly to Atlanta to meet with the cast. What were those conversations like?
It was a very emotional day. I had not been to Atlanta; this was the first time that I stepped foot on set, as the new showrunner. The cast was so angry and so hurt. They were terrified: ‘Who’s this guy? This guy is going to kill my career.’ That’s what they were worried about. ‘He’s going to kill the show when we finally have The One, the great show we’ve all been looking for after our careers have been going from audition to audition.’ There was a lot of pressure. And when the cast said that they’d support me, it was incredibly meaningful.

I was very candid that I was not making any changes; I was not deviating from the roadmap; I was not firing any producers; there was no agenda. I was just there to steady the course, to provide some stability at a moment of crisis. I reassured people that I was not letting anyone go. The show was going to stay the course. That’s what I felt was going to be a lifeline not only for me and for the show but for everyone involved in the show: ‘We know what to do, daddy’s not here, but he’s been very clear as to what to do. Let’s continue to do that.’

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THR: You, Robert and Frank had all previously mapped out Season 2 before Frank’s dismissal. Did you deviate from that?
Yes. There was a scene in an episode that was coming up to prep about a week or two after everything went down. I had always wanted to push the emotional scene further. I wrestled with, ‘Do I push the scene further or do I not? I felt comfortable enough with myself as a writer that I was going to push the scene in a way that Frank didn’t want to do.

There was another instance in the episode that was prepping when everything went down – the fifth episode – in which there was something in the script that I never really liked. I now had the opportunity to cut it and I really relied on the writers and producers. Everyone was split right down the middle. I made the decision that I respect Frank enough that I’m going to go with Frank’s decision here. I take these moments of deviation very seriously and I’m only deviating where I really feel that I’m then in my wheelhouse. If it’s a tie, I’ve been giving the tie to Frank.

Maybe I’m torturing myself over this but it’s important to me because when you first take over a show, especially a hit show that’s on a very public stage, those first few weeks were tough and I didn’t have my sea legs yet, so I was deferring to people around me and really getting input.

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THR: Did you feel a need to put your imprint on the show and change something right away?
No, I didn’t. I felt that what we had was working and that it was about providing stability. Where I had felt differently and/or felt that I could add something that didn’t really come up for a few episodes down the road.

THR: Was splitting the season in two parts something that you were aware of?
The season was always designed as two halves before a single word was written. I’ve read stuff on the Internet where people are saying, ‘The first half of the season is going to be Frank and the second half is going to be Glen. This doesn’t bode well.’ That’s all horseshit. I’ve been involved in every single episode; Frank has been involved in every episode to some degree creatively. [The split season theory] is not accurate. It’s always been designed as two halves for programming purposes because football is a monster and nobody wants to go up against my Giants. [Laughs.]

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THR: Will Frank remain an executive producer on every episode?

THR: In terms of the budget, did you feel any constraints this season?
Having run a few shows before, I do find the budget that we’re working with to be consistent with cable budgets. The truth is, it’s a hit show and if we get into a jam and we need something, AMC will pony up. They’re not going to kill the baby.

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THR: Are you still in contact with Frank and do you feel any pressure to deliver for him?
Yes. Frank and I have traded emails and he’s wished me luck. We have a producer on the show who still works closely with Frank. There’s a number of people who are very tight with Frank, so there’s a lot of communication going back and forth.

I don’t want to say that I want to win one for the Gipper because I think that’s a goofy statement, but I do feel honored that someone of Frank’s talent picked me to be his No. 2. Now, yes, I’m at personal risk if the show doesn’t do well but I also feel like I still believe in his vision of the show. I will not just try to do what I believe is my version of Frank’s show; I have to find my own voice on the show. This is important to me and I don’t want the show to feel like ‘Frank light’; that’s not fair. I’m confident that I can deliver scripts that will work for the show. I need to embrace it, take direction and find myself on the show. People have been very generous about allowing me to do that.

THR: As showrunner, you mentioned that you’ve now read the comics.
I didn’t want to read the comics. We had issues early on with some of the material being stronger than others – during Season 2. The way I focused this episode [the premiere] was it’s a story about Rick. And Rick is on a rooftop. He’s a guy who lives in this zombie world and he is facing issues of leadership. It’s a question and I believe the entire season will be a question of, ‘Is Rick a good leader? Is Rick a worthy leader? Is Rick the right guy to lead this band to safety?’ As an artist, those are the questions I now face. In a way, I believe – because I’m a narcissist and have to make everything about me – that the show, since it’s dealing with leadership issues, is a metaphor for my own artistic journey this year.  

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit