The night before this interview took place, The Walking Dead executive producer Glen Mazzara had to put the kibosh on plans for a two-hour finale for season 3, which begins Oct. 14 on AMC. It wasn’t a decision made in a vacuum, but a lengthy examination that involved production departments, producers, and writers.
"From a production standpoint, we could get it done," he says. "Then I met with the writers. We wrestled it back and forth before deciding it was not the best move creatively. We had arced the season out to 16 episodes, and adding a 17th could possibly water something down. Last night I wrote to the cast, saying, `I know you’ve heard rumors. This is what the process was. This is how the decision was made, and now you have all the information.’ This way, people won’t say, `Why wasn’t I told?’ "
Including staff in decisions and keeping them in the loop is a managerial strategy Mazzara—who appears with WD producers and cast at this weekend’s New York Comic Con— leveraged from his pre-television industry days in hospital administration. But rising to supervisory ranks in TV has necessitated tailoring those tactics to Hollywood’s idiosyncratic brand of creative and entrepreneurial temperament. Those refinements can, in turn, prove useful to other types of businesses where creativity is a strong component and jobs are more precarious.
"We have a lot of very talented artistic people. Those types can be skittish, a bit neurotic, and fearful," says Mazzara. "If they’re not hearing that things are ok, they think, `Is something wrong? Am I going to lose my job? Am I going to be eaten by a zombie?’ It takes some effort to tell people that things are working well, but I find that it makes people more relaxed."
That level of transparency is particularly crucial when dealing with equally self-directed personnel. The WD management includes principals who are themselves successful entrepreneurs: EP Gale Anne Hurd has her own production company; EP Robert Kirkman, a publishing imprint; and co-EP Greg Nicotero, a special effects house. The key, says Mazzara, is respecting one-another’s management styles, providing a forum that allows people to point out or admit mistakes, and explaining decisions.
"Their businesses are successful; I don’t need to comment or get involved in them—and the other producers are very respectful of how I run this show," says Mazzara. "When there is a decision to be made, I bring them into the process: `This is what I think we should do. What do you think we should do?’ If I can get a consensus, everyone feels better. When some of these entrepreneurs suggest ideas that I have to reject, I’ll say to them, `You might be right, but I’m making this decision for this reason.' Even if they think I’m making a mistake, they realize I’ve explained myself and valued their input enough to treat them as partners in the decision, but only one decision can be made. There’s more than enough work and credit to go around on TV show, so I want everyone to feel fully invested and relaxed."
This inclusive management theme continues through the budgetary discussions as a way to get the biggest creative punch from each production dollar.
"It helps for me to sit down at the beginning of the year with the writers and talk through what the season’s going to be," says Mazzara. "Then we bring in our line producers and the other producers, and we pitch that out—`In this episode, we need a helicopter, a truck, a fire…’—and they can start to shift money around. Certain episodes will be over budget and certain episodes will be under enough so that you can make up your overages by the end, over the long run.
"I’ve been on shows where you cannot go over on any particular episode. That’s impossible. I think you have to show there’s an ebb and flow of money," he adds. "Look at our personal budgets—vacation months could be more expensive than other months. You have to expect contingencies and surprises. It’s really about pre-planning and your budget needs to be flexible."
Mazzara achieves that flexibility during those pre-planning meetings by maneuvering costs between two separate production budgets. The operating budget, the bulk of production costs, covers the fees to prep, shoot, and post-produce each episode. They include above-the-line (actors, producers, directors) and below-the-line (manpower and direct expenses, like film stock) expenditures. The amortized budget involves show-related costs not attributable to a specific episode, such as building a set used over multiple episodes. "You want to feel like that pot of money is being incredibly well spent," he says.
With that strategy in mind, the WD team this year constructed a large prison set in at Atlanta studio that serves as the central location for season 3. "Last year, I started having meetings with AMC and presented a plan of how I thought the prison should look and feel creatively, and what we thought it would cost," says Mazzara. "They released a certain amount of money, and then we have great people in place to hopefully enable those costs to come in under budget."
Given that artistic process is difficult to automate, Mazzara has adapted a more laissez faire approach to how staff produce a creative product.
"One of the things I’ve learned by working on the Walking Dead and other TV shows is to be more tolerant of other people’s process," says Mazzara. "I should not micromanage people’s emotional responses or how they do their work. So if an actor or writer has a lot of questions on the material, it’s wrong for me, as a showrunner, to say, `Just say the lines’ or `Just do this.’ What I need to do is understand their process, and then help them through it to what I feel we want to do. It might be easier to just write the scene I want. But that writer has to go to the set in Atlanta, defend the material, prep that scene, and make sure it gets shot the way we want it. It may take more time, but I have to explain things and get them to a point where they understand the vision of the show. I want people to feel and live the show, and buy into a vision, not just execute a task. If you just execute a task, the work will feel flat and uninspired."
Staff loyalty also blossoms when a rocky start doesn’t mean automatic termination. Last year, Mazzara faced a vexing situation where an individual, hired by someone else, did not deliver what the producers needed. Instead of replacing him, Mazzara made the more time-intensive decision to learn about his job and more effectively communicate how to do it better. Ultimately, that person turned around and now does terrific work.
"I’m very proud of myself that I did not write him off," says Mazzara. "A lot of my experience on other shows has been that when somebody has a weakness, they’re no longer invested in, or get a reputation of not being able to handle something. It’s better to grow your employees, steer them into a place that they can learn and succeed, and want to work hard and be loyal, than to have a revolving door of employees. That’s demoralizing. When you have a problem, instead of shying away from it, invest the time, energy, and possibly money to make sure you’re exhausting all possibilities before you have to let an employee go." And if communication has been open, and firing becomes necessary, it won’t come as a big surprise.
"If you’re going to run a small business, you need to know what everyone is doing, be the first one in and the last one out, and work weekends," he adds. "You have to be the embodiment of the energy of your company. If you’re putting in that much work, and love your job that much, you expect everyone else to work that hard."
Imparting that sense of investment extended beyond the production and into communities that it touched. The result was a positive brand extension with potential viewers (i.e. customers) and a symbiotic camaraderie between company and location. This season, each episode required a couple of days shooting in the very small (population: 3307) Georgia town of Senoia, which doubles as Woodbury, the province of a sinister character.
"Instead of coming in like a big Hollywood company saying, `This is how it’s going to be done,’ we listen to their issues," says Mazzara. "One was that businesses [whose fronts were going to be in shots] wanted to be open while we were shooting. We dressed up some of their back entrances, so that their customers didn’t feel like they were sneaking in through the alley. And we utilized those local businesses. There’s a coffee shop on the street, just outside the set. Well, trust me, cast and crew like their coffee, so we are going in there once an hour and dropping a lot of money. When we had a premiere screening for the cast and crew, we rented out the local bar; we had our cast dinner at the big restaurant on the main street; we utilized the local hotels, rental cars, and ice cream shop. We’re pumping money into that local economy, and the cast and crew enjoyed shooting in a small town."
The community also extends to fans who wait through the night for autographs. "I’ll say, `Let’s throw a zombie into the crowd!' `cause everyone wants to take their picture with a zombie," laughs Mazzara. "But it’s really about having people on the ground listening. Our location manager suggested setting up a couple of tables on Main Street and doing an autograph signing for the local people. We’re trying to figure out how to organize that. Our cast is really generous about giving back to fans. We know we’ve done something right when we pack up to leave, and they say, `When are you coming back?’"