As AMC’s The Walking Dead embarks on the second half of its juggernaut season two on February 12, it’s hard to believe just six months ago, the apocalyptic genre drama had encountered a roadblock more foreboding than any zombie: the unexpected departure of beloved leader Frank Darabont, reported budget cuts (which the network denies), increasingly vocal fans, and threatened morale among the unnerved troops.
The series not only went on to break cable ratings records last fall, but earned a 16-episode order for a third season—three more than season two. It will now anchor a night, leading into the new Kevin Smith reality series Comic Book Men, a second WD airing, and The Talking Dead, a talk show highlighting WD actors and scenes.
But how the WD team rallied could be a case study for businesses finding themselves in similar straits. By sticking to the mission, encouraging input from the entire company, and responding to consumer demands, the executive producers boosted staff productivity and maintained integrity of the end product.
"Most new shows are difficult to get up and running, so you have some behind-the-scenes drama. That’s also true of any startup venture," says executive producer Glen Mazzara, who took over after the network reportedly fired Darabont over budgetary disagreements. "What’s important about this particular show: There’s a vision—that was in the comic book, that Frank Darabont laid out at the beginning of the show, that I bought into as Frank’s hand-picked number two working alongside him, and that the company bought into. When I became showrunner, I did not change that vision, and I wanted to manage in a way that supported it. We had a clear mission statement, so it was a matter of just executing that plan."
The day Mazzara took the reins, he called a meeting with the cast and crew to address fears. "I said, 'I’m not here to change the entire program, to show you how it’s done now. I’m here to do what we’re doing together,’" he says. "There are some TV shows that have an autocratic top-down management style. That’s not what we do here. Everyone has a vested interest and a very clear vision of the show. We listen to our fans, our other producers, our cast, our crew—and believe the best idea wins out. That’s what makes it fun, alive, and interesting. So it’s a very dynamic situation."
Mazzara’s attitude not only reinforced the tone set by Darabont and EP Gale Anne Hurd, but increased the rank and file’s investment in the product. "It galvanized us," says Steve Yeun, who plays Glenn. "I think that’s why everyone bolstered up their professionalism. We were like, 'This is a terrible time and it really sucks, but now it’s time for us to pick up whatever slack there might be from losing Frank, and hopefully make it our own.’ This product is something that we’re so in love with—and everyone wants to be part of a cohesive artistic process."
"It made me want to work on the show more," says Nicotero. "Talk about making every single crew member’s contribution feel valued and appreciated. That doesn’t always happen [on other sets]. Actors can read the scripts and call Glen Mazzara and say, 'I have a question about this,’ and they’ll talk it through. I don’t know any other shows that do that."
"They really do," adds Hurd. "They’re on the phone for hours discussing their concerns. And, by the way, they bring these characters to life, so they’re going to have a perspective on their characters that makes sense for the writers to listen to. That’s not always the case [with other shows], either."
Part of that process involves taking advantage of the actors’ unique approaches to their roles. Melissa McBride lets her own fascination with psychology and puzzle-solving guide how her character, Carol Peletier, deciphers her situation. The writers tapped Michael Rooker's more naturalistic approach by leaving gaps in the script for him to improvise lines on camera as Merle Dixon. And when rehearsals for an awkward tryst between their characters fell flat, Second City veteran Yeun and Lauren Cohan (Maggie Greene) improvised the scene to get hold of the emotion. "It just opened up that scene amazingly, and then we reined it back in within the confines of the lines," says Yeun.
Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl Dixon, Merle’s younger brother, likes to "plant little seeds" of physical mannerisms that inform later dialogue. "If people are paying attention and working well together, these little seeds become trees and bear fruit," says Reedus. "For example, there’s a scene where Melissa goes to kiss me, and while she’s leaning over, I flinch, which shows there’s been some abuse. Fans of the show picked it up and blogged about it. The writers noticed it, and were able to move on with the storyline of abuse, which helps Daryl grow beyond a one-dimensional character." In turn, when an early script draft called for Daryl to dull his emotional pain with drugs, Reedus convinced the writers otherwise. "I fought to not have me ever take drugs," he says. "We already have that with Merle. [As Daryl], I start to discover, in a new way, who I am and how to deal with people. It’s much more interesting to watch somebody not know how to deal with a situation."
"The key to the show’s success is the integrity of the creative process," says McBride. "They know the audience and what the consumer wants. This is not just a bunch of people creating for themselves. Everyone wants the best for each other. If something doesn’t look or feel right, someone will say something. It’s a great support system. We know that somebody’s always got our back."
This season, AMC capitalized on the show’s watercooler buzz by setting up a watercooler of its own—the interactive Talking Dead after-show, hosted by comedian Chris Hardwick and featuring WD members discussing episodes and answering viewer questions via email and Twitter. WD panels and actors have been regular fixtures at comic and horror conventions year-round. AMC’s Where’s Merle? promotional campaign and Twitter contest (which just posted a winner) at last summer’s San Diego Comic Con, and Merle’s return episode last fall were direct responses to fan campaigns. Even the WD comic readership is taken into consideration when plotting the show.
"Everyone looked at the comic as a road map that offered us a vision as to what this show can be and where this show can go, but it’s not really set in stone," says EP Robert Kirkman, who created the comics that spawned the series. "My role in the room, aside from being one of the writers, is that I’ve been through this process before. Sometimes I’m able to say, 'When we did this in the comic, this is how we did it, and this is how people reacted to it.' And that is a value on this show that we may not get on other TV shows."
The partnership between WD and its audience has a lot to do with the showrunners being just as fervent about horror as their viewers. "Genre people are all about passion and loving what you do," says Nicotero. "Weathering the storm that we had over the summer, the group of people—from the technicians to the actors to the writers to producers—were so passionate about the show, there was no way we would let any external circumstance distract us."