'Walking Dead's' Robert Kirkman on Season 4: 'Michonne Is on a Mission'

The Ratings Slayer
Raymond McCrea Jones

“As soon as I became showrunner, I felt our horror element demanded this style of accelerated storytelling,” says Glen Mazzara, 45, of the revitalized Walking Dead, which originally was passed over at NBC and HBO. “If you have a good twist, move it up instead of saving it and building to it. Throw it at the audience when they — and the characters — least expect it.” Pictured: Danai Gurira as Michonne.

Changes are coming to the fourth season of AMC's The Walking Dead. With its third showrunner in as many years, the zombie drama will take a more character-focused approach to storytelling, with an eye on "remixing" executive producer Robert Kirkman's comics that serve as the source material for the record-breaking drama.

Under new showrunner, Scott Gimple, who has been reading the comics since their start 10 years ago, Kirkman tells The Hollywood Reporter that the show will focus more on characters while still setting up the scare-you-to-death moments that have become the show's trademark.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Kirkman to discuss changes for season four under Gimple, how Rick and the Governor's story will be different this season and whether the series will put its hand on a pivotal moment from the comics.

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The Hollywood Reporter: If Frank Darabont's run was described as nuanced and Mazzara's was fast-paced, how will Gimple's tenure be described?
Robert Kirkman: It's a much more character-based story. It's going to be more focused on who these characters are and what they're going through. To a certain extent, we got away from that a little bit in season three. Coming into season four, we're definitely going to know a lot more about these people, so it will be that much more gut-wrenching and worse when we lose these characters.

THR: How is the show different under Gimple's leadership?
Kirkman: More than any other showrunner, Scott actually read the comics regularly and was a huge fan before the show existed and watched the first season and was a fan before he was brought on as a writer in season two. He absolutely loves the material. We are definitely going in some new directions, and this will continue to be a different take on the material from the comics, but there will possibly be some scenes that are a little bit closer to the comic than we've done in the past. Season four probably has the most number of scenes that are adapted directly from the comic series or very close to what we did. A good deal of that is from Scott and the way he views that material and puts forth that extra effort to work it into the show in a way that it all works.

THR: When does season four pick up? What kind of a time jump will there be?
Kirkman: There's going to be a bit of a time jump. Some time has passed between season three and season four. It's only a few months; we're not nailing down the exact number of days or anything like that. The prison that we see is a very different prison and the characters that we see are very different from the last time we saw them. We go into season four with characters you've known for four years and still find new things to explore with them and new aspects of their characters and see that they are growing and changing in extremely dramatic ways due to the strains that this world has put upon them.

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THR: What kind of condition will the group be in after Andrea and Merle's death?
Kirkman: These are big deaths they're dealing with. Rick is still very much dealing with Lori's (Sarah Wayne Callies) death, and everyone is still missing T-Dog (IronE Singleton). These were some really big, dramatic losses that took place in season three and that's something that's very much going to play into season four and how they move forward. A lot of those deaths and those actions from season three have direct results on where we pick up things up in season four. We'll see that there was a plan involved and these things do lead to other things, which in turn, makes them worthwhile. I miss these characters as much as everybody else but you'll see that they do benefit the story in some really cool ways and will lead to a lot of interesting things moving forward.

THR: Season three was about two divided camps -- Rick and the Governor's. How will season four be different with the Governor still out there?
Kirkman: We're telling completely different stories. While the Governor is still out there and still a threat, we're going to see him in a new light, and he won't appear until we least expect it. I don't think people are really going to be able to anticipate what we do with the Governor; it's going to be radically different. Once that story unfolds over the course of this season, people will see this is a very different story from season three, and that we are breaking some new ground with these characters.

THR: We waited a few episodes in season three before we even met the Governor. Are you approaching his appearance the same way this year?
Kirkman: I couldn't really say. We might not really expect to see him in the first episode, and he shows up in the first episode back. Or it would be pretty shocking if he didn't show up until the finale. It could be either/or or somewhere in between.

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THR: The series took a major departure from the comics with Andrea's death. How will we see her death impact everyone?
Kirkman: That death is going to loom large over the entire cast. Everyone is still reeling from it. Michonne (Danai Gurira) in particular is going to have quite a bit going on with her because of that loss. As we meet Michonne coming back this season, she's on a mission to hunt down the Governor. It's something she's very obsessed with. It's big part of her character this season. She did lose Andrea and she lost her because of the Governor. She's not willing to let that guy go or be out there. It's something that might possibly be to her detriment, the fact that she's so dedicated to finding this person. That's something that very much informs her character this season.

THR: How will Michonne's search for the Governor conflict with what Rick? Is he going to be eager to go after this guy again?
Kirkman: Rick is always trying to do what he feels is best for his family. When he feels like it's best to be the leader and take charge and push people away and do these seemingly crazy things that he was doing in season three, that was all in an effort to protect Carl and Judith. Now he's seen a different path that needs to be protected in a different way, and that childhood needs to be preserved and they need to have stability. What he's doing now seems to be a bit more passive and less of a leadership role. But at the same time, he's also trying to be that standard that Carl and Judith can grow up with. He's trying to provide for them in a different and more meaningful way and maintain their childhoods to a certain extent. He's doing something very different, but his goals are still the same: keep these kids safe and growing up.

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THR: Carl could really go either toward the Governor or toward Rick. How will we find him handling a new group of people to care for at the prison considering we saw him kill someone he thought was a threat in cold blood last year.

Kirkman: That's something that has become huge part of Carl's character -- that event and the fact that he did that. It's something that Rick has been somewhat terrified by; the fact that his son went to that place and is growing into that person. That's informing both Rick and Carl's actions as they move into this season. There are more people around, there are people from Woodbury that are now living there and Carl is having to deal with this. His behavior is being guided by Rick and his role as father to him. There's some interesting stuff coming up with Carl that I can't reveal right now, but there's good stuff ahead.

THR: You've cast Larry Gilliard Jr. as Bob Stookey, who in the comics helps save the Governor after Michonne tortures him following her rape. How will you be approaching the violence that comes with this storyline this season? Or was Maggie's torment from season three all we'll see on that front?
Kirkman: Bob Stookey is very much the character that he was in the comic series. He also appears in the novel series and is a pretty big character there, as well. Maybe that means we're adapting some of the stories he was involved in, maybe we're doing some other things he was a part of, or maybe we're going a different way. Like all of the other characters, though, we may do different things with them. They are very much the they're same characters that are being adapted into this world and have the same personalities and back stories. Bob will be someone who is familiar to the comic and novel audience, but we're definitely not married to doing those stories and could do different things there.

THR: How long can they all stay at the prison, which is in really poor shape after the Governor's attack? Could they find a new central location?
Kirkman: It's entirely possible. Anyone who has read the comics knows they don't stay in prison forever. The circumstances that could occur that would lead them from prison remain a mystery, but they could be in the prison for the next two or three seasons or leave the prison in the very first episode of this season. It's all up in the air, and that's the way we prefer it.

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THR: Some leaked photos from the set have surfaced with Andrew Lincoln's hand in a bandage indicating that you may be setting up that storyline from the comics. Care to comment?
Kirkman: It's entirely possible that that could be some kind of spoiler for something that's coming up, or it could be that people are just misinterpreting those photos. I can't really nail anything down, but I can say that there are some very cool and memorable aspects of the comic book series being adapted into season four and it's certainly possible that that's one of them.

THR: You're celebrating 10 years of The Walking Dead at Comic-Con this month. Given that Gimple is a big comics fan, could there be some elements of the current storyline that seep into the show sooner given that Gimple sees the show as a "remix" of the comics? Negan?

Kirkman: It's definitely possible, but I wouldn't count on it. There are very cool things coming up in the comics that we might be desperate to try to work into the show sooner just because we all enjoy them and think they're cool. I feel like those events and those characters don't really have weight or aren't really seen in the proper light if you haven't done the things leading up to them. There's some stuff that we'd have to do in the show before we got to the current story line in the comics. That stuff seems like it's still a ways off.

E-mail: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com