When is a zombie apocalypse like an ER? Blood is only the start….
Before Glen Mazzara—the outgoing executive producer/showrunner of AMC’s The Walking Dead—dove into the volatile world of television, he spent 13 years running emergency room logistics for now-closed St. Vincent’s Hospital and New York University Medical Center-Tisch Hospital (now NYU Langone Medical Center).
The zombie saga resumes the second half of Season 3 on February 10, after a first half of record-breaking ratings and a subsequent internal drama. In December, Mazzara surprised and dismayed fans with the announcement of his post-Season 3 departure over creative differences on the show’s direction, raising eyebrows about AMC’s relationships with showrunners. (Initial showrunner Frank Darabont was fired midway through Season 2.) Supervising producer Scott Gimple will take the reins on Season 4, while Mazzara is mum on future plans.
Following up on last fall’s managerial tips gleaned from television, Mazzara shares how managing ER budgets, schedules, supplies, and personnel translated to Hollywood.
"When you’re managing an emergency department, you’re trying to keep everybody calm, so when an emergency comes in the door, everyone can do their best work," says Mazzara. "A lot of what I do as a showrunner is anxiety control. People get nervous when they don’t know what’s going on, so a big part of my job is making sure everyone has all of the information all of the time.
During Season 3’s production last year, Mazzara addressed this through weekly staff meetings with producers, to update them on all aspects of production and troubleshoot problems. Other alerts ranged from an email announcing a new scene was shooting to fill the running time so people didn’t think there was a problem with the episode, to engaging department heads, producers, and writers in a decision to develop a two-hour finale (which is not happening).
"It’s important not just keeping people updated, but then to say, `We’ve identified a problem, we don’t presently have a solution, but we’re pursuing along these lines,’ " he adds. "So on this show, I’m happy to say, that we never—maybe once—had a situation where someone said, `Why didn’t you tell me that?’ Sharing information with employees makes them feel invested. You don’t want people to feel, "I’m not worthy of having this information," that the decisions are being made up top and they’re just here to execute tasks."
"In the ER, you have a lot of operating costs and monthly patients that you can’t control, so it’s important to have a very sound structure in place—schedules, clear delineations of responsibility, and clear line of communication so people can handle surprises," says Mazzara.
Managers who demanded Mazzara hit budgetary and patient targets no matter what only stifled his creativity and made him anxious. "When I had supervisors who understood the ebb and flow and realities of what I was physically dealing with, I was actually able to come up with some creative solutions that captured costs more effectively," he says. "So it’s not just about hitting the number. The key things I learned as a hospital administrator are to be organized, communicate, and be flexible.
"Likewise, a show is a creative endeavor—it can’t be scheduled, so I try to organize production so creativity can thrive at unexpected times," he adds. "I don’t know when a story is going to be done. Not everything comes in completely finished. Some come out polished pretty quickly; others take multiple drafts. So if everything is organized, you can create room, so when something chaotic happens, it’s okay. You can’t schedule creativity, but you can create a pocket so people are free to take chances and risks, because everything else is working like clockwork."
"In the hospital, there were certain surgeons who used the stress of what they did as an excuse for very unprofessional behavior," says Mazzara. "They would yell, throw things, scold people—it was very childish. That kind of behavior can be experienced and accepted in Hollywood, and I won’t tolerate that. Everyone is trying to do their best work, and everyone’s a professional and should be treated respectfully and professionally. I don’t believe the stress of your job or the fact that you may be the one person able to do your job gives you license to treat people disrespectfully."
Lofty goals often bring out conflicting opinions, which can be used to make a better product, if they’re handled correctly. "What we do is so difficult, and I want to set the bar so high, that the best material must fight its way onto the screen," he says. "You’re going to have conflicts. That’s okay as long as everyone is focused on the work, going for the same goal, and not trying to win at someone else’s expense."
"When I think of old bosses with a very top-down management style, who said, `Just do it the way I want it’…I would think, Well, I’m the person actually doing the work, who’s experiencing the issues making it difficult to execute the task, so why won’t you listen to me? says Mazzara. As a showrunner, "I try to listen and have a sense of how the show is made from the ground up, but still—with the other writers and producers—set the vision of the show."
Mazzara learned this lesson from one of his more enlightened hospital bosses. At one point during his time at NYU Medical Center, Mazzara was a low-level manager in a department tasked with relocating 150 doctor’s offices and medical departments over six months to accommodate the building of 10 new operating rooms. After Mazzara presented the office-shuffling plan, the vice president of plant maintenance asked what he needed to execute the plan. "About a million dollars," said Mazzara. The conference room fell silent.
"This was a nonprofit organization that didn’t have a million dollars," says Mazzara. "Everyone thought I was ridiculous, until the VP said,`You don’t understand. In every organization, there are guys in the basement who know how the entire building runs. There are guys in the file rooms, in the backrooms on the trailers, who aren’t necessarily visible, but are the worker bees doing the work.’ I have been one of those people, and I realize how valuable everybody’s voice is. So when I went to the set in Atlanta, I just walked around and asked everybody, `How do you think it’s going? What should I know?’ So not only am I hearing about different issues, but I’m hearing it from the ground up. It’s the soldiers out in the field who know what’s going on. The generals in Washington may not have the most immediate information. So it’s important to always be listening to all parts of the organization."
"We have 16 episodes this season. I see them as 16 patients," laughs Mazzara. "Episode 1 came in the door. It was great. `We’ll take your blood pressure, give you some aspirin, you’ll be out in an hour.’ One episode needed a transplant. So I took it out of rotation, sent it upstairs for tests. We decided what sort of transplant, wrote and shot some new scenes, put them in, and the patient was healthy. Everyone was surprised, because they thought that patient was DOA. Another episode was a car wreck. We went into editing—the operating room—and pulled it apart. We saw what organs still worked and what we needed to stitch together, and that episode lived.
"So the blood and guts are not just on the screen; they’re in the writers’ and editing rooms."
[Photos by Gene Page and Tina Rowden for AMC]