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Walking Dead Week: Creator Robert Kirkman on Season 5 and Getting Death Threats from Daryl Fans

Executioner with a Heart of Gold

Oct 12, 2014 Robert Kirkman Bookmark and Share

This week has been Walking Dead Week on Under the Radar’s website. Season five of the wildly popular and critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic zombie drama starts tonight (Sunday, October 12), at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central) on AMC. In anticipation of the show’s return, for this special theme week of coverage we have interviewed around 10 members of the show’s current cast and have been posting one to two Walking Dead interviews every day this week.

Given Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman’s contrarian reputation—he has boasted on numerous occasions that the intensity of Daryl Dixon fans has made him more eager to kill off the character—I half expected him to be a combative person to interview. In fact, he’s exactly the opposite. Five minutes late for our conversation, he apologizes profusely, then gives me 10 more minutes of his time than he’d previously agreed to, even though he has a full day at the New York Comic-Con ahead of him. Talk to him for just a few minutes and it becomes clear that what might appear to be a desire to torture Walking Dead fans is really Kirkman’s dry wit. Who would have guessed that the man who has plumbed the depths of human despair in his work would also harbor a dark sense of humor?

As the creator of the comic from which the show derives its source material, Kirkman can do whatever he wants. And, more than anyone, the success of the show hangs on his ability to make the hard decisions necessary to breathe new life into the rich human drama he started over 10 years ago. Every major shift in the storyline, every existential theme in the writing, and, yes, every character death ultimately falls on his shoulders, but he doesn’t appear to be particularly troubled by carrying the weight of those decisions. Humble and self-effacing, openly admitting that the series’ success baffles him, he also has dreams of the show lasting for decades, of Andrew Lincoln playing Rick Grimes when he’s 70. Here, Kirkman recalls his original vision for the show, examines how season five is a turning point in the storyline, and explains why killing off characters is actually the worst part of his job.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So how are you enjoying doing all of these interviews but not being able to say anything? I imagine you’re a master of evasion at this point.

Robert Kirkman: It’s somewhat frustrating. I feel bad because the whole point of the interview is to give information, and your whole job is to get information. But good luck to you, sir!

Fair enough. Would you say season five has a different spirit or character than the previous ones?

I would say so. I’ve always viewed the show as being somewhat hopeful, but I think that’s just because I know the long-term endgame, and I know it’s a journey of survival that ends in a few people surviving. So, I haven’t always recognized how bleak it is sometimes. But you watch season one, season two, season three—it’s pretty damn bleak. And I would say season five is the major turning point in the story, where you start to see that there is a goal here. There is an endgame in play, and the potential for a happy ending is there. I think that’s kind of cool. That’s going to inject some new life into the series.

At this point do you know how you’d like this whole story to end?

I do. But it’s a funny thing. I know how I want the story to end in the comic, and I can never tell anyone what that ending is, because it’s entirely possible that the show will end before the comic. And, for me, I don’t want my comic book ending to be spoiled in the TV show. If the show does end up ending before the comic does, I’ll have to work with [showrunner] Scott Gimple and the writers in the writers’ room to come up with a different ending without telling them the ending that I have in mind [for the comic]. So it’s going to be a weird process, but it’s entirely possible the show will continue to be successful, and we’ll get to do the comic book ending. That could be neat.

When you first started this whole process for the TV show, did you always intend to do storylines that were quite a bit different from the comic?

Yeah. From minute one it was clear that there would be certain things that would have to be changed for the television show and certain things that wouldn’t necessarily work. But because I was also going to be involved in the show, there were certain things that I knew I wanted to change. I wouldn’t go back in time and do anything in the comic book differently. But working on the TV show and it being a different process, as an older person and potentially wiser—and possibly not—I had certain different ways of seeing the comic book. For me, I thought it would be much more fun to be changing things up and writing new stories for the show, as opposed to adapting the material directly and writing the same thing again.

Do you think you’ve used the TV show as an opportunity to bring out certain aspects of characters you wanted to develop differently than how they appeared in the comic?

Yeah. There are definitely strengths and weaknesses to both mediums. There are things that you can do that work really well in comics that won’t translate and vice versa with a television show. One of the things the television show has is that you can play up moments a lot more. You can do things that are not spoken, that are more emotional and more gesture-driven. To a certain extent, [the TV show] offers opportunities to expand upon characters or a get a little bit of a different insight into them. That’s a lot of fun and something we definitely try to inject into the show.

When you started this process, did you have any expectations for how successful the translation from the comics to the show would be?

I’ve always felt that as long as the characters are the characters, and as long as Rick Grimes is the same person, more or less, that he is in the comic book, then we’re doing the comic book justice. That was always important to me, and I knew there were certain storylines and certain events that were absolutely essential to translating The Walking Dead into television form. So I always knew there were certain benchmarks I wanted to hit and certain events that I wanted to adapt directly that I was very excited about seeing come to life on film. It’s always a process, and there’s a lot of different people that work in television. It’s not just three or four guys who are doing it, which is how the comic is done. I always knew there would be different voices in the mix and different cooks in the kitchen who would be adding to the process, as well, and I was very excited about that.

In retrospect, was there any particular moment when you started to realize the show was breaking through and connecting with a larger audience?

I was in New York for the promotion of season two, and I was in a car driving from one to place to another while the show was on. And I could see people watching it in bars. Bar after bar, as I was driving down the street, I could look in and see TVs that were playing it, and that was pretty strange. I was like, “Okay. That’s not something I was expecting to see.” And, also, you would have stores that were selling Halloween costumes, and there were little posters in stores that were selling stuff, and that would be next to a bar that was showing it. That was when I was like, “Okay. This is getting pretty weird.”

Since a lot of shows seem to run out of momentum around season five or season six, do you think The Walking Dead is at least partly inoculated against that because you already have so much of the future material already written?

I don’t know. I think it helps that we have the roadmap, that I have twists and turns and different storylines set up in the comic book that will radically change the storyline and will inject life into it. We know we can build to those moments, and he have them in our back pocket. But we’re not immune to anything. We could certainly run out of steam. [Laughs] You never know what people’s tastes are going to be year after year, but I certainly hope the show will retain its popularity or at least hold on to a large portion of the audience that it has accumulated.

Since there’s so much death on this show, what’s it like being the guy who is the real executioner? When you kill someone off the show, not only do you end the life of a character, but an actor loses his job.

That’s probably the absolute worst part of this entire thing. Doing it in the comic, Charlie Adlard, the artist, and I, we’re basically just deciding not to put lines on paper in the same arrangement. “The lines on paper that make up Shane—we’re not going to do those anymore.” But with the show, it’s like, “Hey, Jon Bernthal, go be a movie star now.” And that has certainly worked out for him, but I don’t get to see Jon as much and it sucks. I don’t get to hang out with the guy, and he’s a pretty cool dude. It does get a little old after a while.

Going into season five, I think the actors sign up for this show now knowing that there’s a life expectancy and it doesn’t look so good. So I think every actor, every time they get a script is like, “Is this my script? Is this the one where I go? Is my death dinner going to be soon?” So I think everyone is kind of resigned that this is the kind of thing that we’re doing, but it’s still hard. These people form a family in Georgia, and it’s hard when one your friends have to go away.

Have there been any characters that hurt particularly bad to kill off?

I’m certainly not going to play favorites! [Laughs] But all of them are difficult, even the characters that come in for a couple of episodes. There are more than a few actors that we’ve hired knowing that they’re going to be introduced in this episode, and then two or three episodes later, they’re going to die here in a certain way. And even those are very difficult, because you’ve just got to warm up to the actor by the time they’re gone, and you get to see what they can do, and it’s over. They’re all pretty tough.

When you think about the future of the show, are there things that you want to do that you’re not sure you can get away with in a TV format?

Not really. AMC has been very willing to push the boundaries of what it is they can actually do on their network for the sake of this show, and I think that’s great. They’re absolutely skirting the edge on a lot of things—a lot things you’ll see in season five. At the end of the day, these shows live on in so many different forms after the original broadcast, so I think if there’s anything the story dictated that we needed to do or wanted to do but that we couldn’t legally do on AMC, we could do them for Netflix and DVD and Blu-ray and that kind of stuff. I, personally, am very open to there being different versions down the line that have more graphic subject matter or whatever, but, luckily, we haven’t had to do much of that yet. The finale of season four is really the only time we’ve had to do that. [Note: In the season four finale, after the group members are herded into a train car, Rick delivers the line “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” In the comic book the line was “They’re fucking with the wrong people,” and that line has been restored in the DVD and Bu-ray versions.]

Are there things you’ve been surprised that you have been able to get away with on TV?

Almost everything. It has been completely and utterly bizarre that we can show a man biting a chunk out of another man’s neck, but we can’t show part of a nipple. That’s really weird. But it is what it is, and sometimes I watch the show and go “Really? That’s going on TV? That’s cool.” But the best thing about this show is that it’s never gratuitous, even when it seems like it. That scene of Rick biting that guy’s neck out is absolutely hard to watch, and it’s a very graphic thing to be showing on television. But it’s the culmination of Rick’s journey for that season, and the entire season was about his willingness to succumb to this world and to allow his humanity to be diminished by the things he has to do to survive. It’s so story-based and character-driven that even if you’re an audience member who doesn’t like seeing those kinds of things, it’s such a part of the story that you’re so invested in that you recognize the need for it.

So over the past few nights I’ve been watching The Walking Dead marathon on AMC, and when I do I often have nightmares about zombies. I was wondering, as someone who is so immersed in this world, does that ever happen to you?

Nope. [Laughs] I don’t see this show as being particularly scary at all. Every now and then, when I’d do the visual effects meetings, there would be scenes where you’d have to be like, “Okay, I want to see that again. Okay, now again,” because you’re looking to make sure all of the little pieces line up and everything works. And sometimes you’d end up seeing those really gory scenes like 12 times in a row, and it gets to the point where you’re like, “Whoa. I don’t want to see that again.” But zombies have never really scared me that much. I’ve never had a zombie nightmare. I did have a person smack my car when I was stuck in traffic in L.A.—like a guy walked behind me and hit my car. And I looked and saw a shadowy figure banging on the glass. There was a split second where I was like, “What? C’mon! Is this really happening?” I was a little unnerved, because I am fully immersed in this Walking Dead world, almost 24/7. So there was a split second where I was like, “I’m in a zombie apocalypse!” And then I popped out of it and was like, “No. That’s just an asshole.”

Well, it’s interesting, because last season the show had the prison flu, and now there’s an Ebola breakout. And you had a beheading, and now terrorists are beheading people. The show has been kind of predictive in some ways.

Oh, God. I don’t like where you’re going with that. [Laughs] Season six is just going to be people eating sandwiches.

Well, that would make for an interesting season, I guess.

It wouldn’t. But it would make for a good life.

I was also wondering about the family atmosphere that the cast shares. Would you say that has been there from the start?

Yeah, it really has. Very few of our actors are actually from the South, so if you’ve never really lived in the South, it’s a very harsh environment in the summer. From just spending a few years in L.A., when I go back to Georgia—even though I’m from Kentucky, which has a similar climate—you step out of that airport and you’re like, “Really? Outside gets like this on this planet? This is messed up.” So from day one, you have this cast of people who are in this environment that they’re not very familiar with, and they’re very much out in the country. We spent a lot of time in season one in very remote, rural parts of Georgia. It’s almost like going to summer camp. And Andrew Lincoln has really emerged and taken it upon himself to be a great leader for the cast, and he has taken the lead on a lot of things in Georgia to bring people together. I think that sense of family has been there since the beginning.

Did you have any idea that Andrew Lincoln would be that kind of leader on set?

Not really. We just wanted him to be a good actor, and he seemed like he’d be that. He’s a classically-trained British actor. We had some people in the cast, like Steven Yeun and Emma Bell, in the first season who were very young. Steven has talked about it publically that he was like, “I’m going to learn from this guy. I’m going to do everything that he does. I’m going to up my game from being around him.” And I think, season to season, if you watch Glenn as a character, and you see the work that Steven is doing with him, you can really tell that everybody is upping their game year to year. I think Steven has grown into a tremendous actor, and I think I could say that about everyone that’s in the cast. And I’ll give Andrew Lincoln all the credit for that, just for shits and giggles.

Speaking of growing into a role, what has it been like watching Chandler Riggs grow into Carl?

That’s been strange. We were on a panel and he said, “I’ve been doing this for a third of my life, and the first third of my life I can’t remember. So it has really been half of my life that I can remember that I’ve been doing this show.” And that’s a really remarkable thing to think about. He was around 10 when we started, and he’s now around 15. It’s pretty crazy.

And he’s such a mature actor, and he can really pull off this really difficult subject matter.

Yeah, he’s absolutely fantastic. Even in the first season, we were all very taken aback with the things that he could handle. There’s some pretty intense material. I mean, he killed his mother in season three, for God’s sake. And he has handled it all really well. That’s not an easy thing for an actor, because you have to take that on and live with that to get a good performance.

Speaking of panels, what’s it like going to all of these Comic-Cons and having so many people telling you their thoughts on the show?

It’s all very flattering. I think it could very easily go to someone’s head, so I try to ignore it for the most part. But it’s great to come out to these conventions. I like to say that I like to meet the people who pay my bills, because that’s really what it is. It’s these people who are supporting this thing and buying these products that help me have enough money to spoil my children and ensure that they grow up to be horrible people. I wouldn’t be able to do that without them, so it’s great to be able to get out here and shake hands and do panels and tease them in an aggravating way by not giving them any information—in a face to face manner instead of interviews. It’s a little fun.

Do you have a lot of people coming up to you and begging you to protect certain characters?

I get a lot of threats on Twitter. “You kill this character, I’ll kill you.” There was one guy who was like, “I’ll burn my entire apartment building down if you kill Daryl.” Those are ones where I’m like, “Should I contact the FBI? I don’t know…” It gets a little hairy sometimes. Every now and then, someone nice will say, “You know, this character means a lot to me. Could you please not kill him?” And I kill those characters—I kill those characters every time! But I’m not going to say the death threats work, because that will only get me more death threats. I don’t listen to anyone.

Okay. Well, I think we’re out of time here, Robert.

That’s my fault. Sorry about that. It has been a delight.

Well, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I hope it wasn’t too painful.

Not at all. A good time was had by all, I hope.

Absolutely. And I didn’t even get any spoilers out of you.

Daryl dies.

Sounds good. That can be the headline then.

No, no, no. It shouldn’t be. But whatever. They’ll all die eventually.




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Rita Whitaker
October 15th 2014

great interview! I’m 48 years old and TWD is the first comic book I’ve ever read and it’s because I love the TV show so much! I was presently surprised at how much I enjoyed the comic book! I’ll be a Kirkman fan for as long as RICK, Carl and Daryl live ;)

Rita Whitaker
October 15th 2014


October 16th 2014

Here I am just like kill him! It’s what the shows about, no one is safe. You show them!

Walking Dead Spoilers!!
October 17th 2014

GaHHHH, Daryl dies? Just kidding, although I wouldn’t hate to see it. Very interested in the comment about the television ending having a different ending than the comic book. I’m interested to see how that’s adapted and whether one will eventually play off the idea. Better idea, they should end both at EXACTLY the same time and keep the endings the same. God, I’m brilliant. Anywho, thanks for the great interview!