Recently television writer and producer Glen Mazzara was a part of a watershed moment in pop culture history. The mid-season return of the enormously popular AMC series The Walking Dead became the highest rated basic cable telecast in history, netting more than 123 million viewers. It made an already high profile and beloved show something truly historic, placing it among the greats. It was so successful that it’s hard to believe he will be leaving the show at the end of this season.
Taking over from Frank Darabont after the end of the first season, the television veteran Mazzara – who had previously worked as a writer on Nash Bridges and as a show runner on Crash and Hawthorne – has overseen every aspect of the series in the past two seasons. He was nominated for a WGA award for his efforts on the show in 2011 is coming to Toronto this April to talk to aspiring and established writers alike at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference.
Before he comes to town, we caught up with Queens, NY native (which is definitely where his accent and cadence hails from, both warmly and proudly) and current L.A. resident Mazzara about his work on the most popular show currently on cable, his early days as a writer, the creative decisions made for the show, and fan reactions both positive and negative. (And warning: There are spoilers for those who have yet to watch any of this current season.)
Dork Shelf: When I was given some background information on you that I didn’t realize was that you started off as a logistics manager at the NYU Medical Centre…
Glen Mazzara: Yeah! That’s true!
DS: How does that compare to being in a writers’ room or being a show runner and what did you take from those early experiences and apply to your work now?
GM: Well, you know, working in a hospital taught me how to juggle, how to deal with a lot of different agendas, a lot of different types of people. It taught me quite a bit about crisis management, if you will. It also just gave me a good foundation of basic managerial skills that I’m able to use while running a show. Things like time management, delegation, collaboration, and budgets and schedules and things like that. So once you’ve worked in something like a hospital, the training that you get from a pressurized situation like that is totally invaluable.
DS: You originally started off as an English major in university, so what made you really want to get back into writing?
GM: I always wanted to be a writer, and I think the pursuit of my English degrees was really an attempt to just read great writers and to learn as much as I could about stories, characters, themes, the greater questions of humanity, and all of that, through the art of writing. I always had an eye on what I could steal from these great artists. (laughs)
DS: When you came around to working on The Walking Dead, what brought you into wanting to work on the show and how exactly did your promotion to show runner come about after (original show runner) Frank Darabont left?
GM: Originally, and I’ve discussed this in the past, I wrote a freelance episode for the first season and then I hit it off really well with Frank Darabont, so he asked me to come on as his number two writer for season two, which I did, and then as you know he left the show for certain circumstances and under certain circumstances, and I was given the option of becoming the show runner.
I was nervous about it, you know? But I decided that because I had worked so closely with Frank and that I believed so deeply in his vision of the show that it was best that someone from the inside would sort of steer the show through that crisis instead of bringing in someone from the outside who would have demonstratively changed the show.
DS: What’s it like making that transition between someone who just has to be a writer and someone like yourself who also has to work as a producer and overseer of everything that goes on in a show? Are the two minds ever in conflict with each other?
GM: Good question. One thing I want to say off the top is that I had already been a show runner on other shows: Crash and Hawthorne. On those I had learned to spin a lot of plates at once. I had already learned that, so when it came time to step up and be the show runner for The Walking Dead, I just had to be a show runner for this particular show.
What I’ve come to realize is that you really need to write what you love. You need to always air on the side on the artistic side. If you ever have a conflict, it’s best to choose what’s artistically sound and what’s the best possible story. You can always get a few extra bucks to shoot something on something like this. You can always go a little bit late or whatever, but the story is really what always comes first.
DS: You’re working on a show that has all of these iconic characters and people all have different favourites and personalities that they gravitate towards. Has the show’s level of success in that regard surprised you at all?
GM: Certainly the staggering numbers are something that no one would have expected from this little zombie show. No one thought it would be the number one show on TV in the “prized demographic,” so that’s something that we never take for granted and we realized that we’re so very fortunate to have all these fans from around the world that show up. I think we’re all proud of the work that we’ve done on the show, but this type of success is something that’s really unprecedented, so that’s a shock, of course.
DS: And the surprise of the show’s success, or at least I think, really, is because it’s more than just a genre show. It’s something really character based and not always designed around making everything get from point A to point B immediately. It’s more about moving the characters along rather than the plot along. Is it more challenging to stay true to the characters or to keep the big picture of the show overall?
GM: It’s certainly a different challenge. It’s a bit more difficult because it’s uncharted waters. There’s no show that’s ever come out like The Walking Dead, so every week we have to invent and reinvent what it is. Some weeks might have more horror. Some weeks may have more adventure. Some weeks might have more conversation. I look at it like we’re designing a story over sixteen episodes, and then each episode gives a little part of that story.
Of course, you want every episode to be as satisfying as possible, but there are going to be moments and themes that aren’t going to be as easily digestible in one episode and it won’t ever come together for a few episodes. Things pay off long term, and that’s what’s great about doing quality cable TV. Fortunately the audience is patient and they expect things to come together in a satisfying way by the end of the season, but we don’t have that pressure every week that we need to wrap everything up in a nice, neat bow.
DS: Now with that in mind, since you don’t write every episode and that you have to keep all of these different plates spinning, as you put it before, how does the average episode of The Walking Dead come together. Does someone come to you with a script or is it hashed out in a room sort of by committee?
GM: The writers’ room works together and we develop the arcs, and then people go and write outlines, and then I’ll give notes on the outlines, the people will write scripts, then I’ll give notes on the scripts, and then at some point – and this is what all show runners do – is we polish those scripts. Whether or not my name is on it, there’s a good deal of my writing in every script. I end up working on every single script, and of course, I’m the one who ends up doing all of the editing on them. I see the role of the show runner as being the prism that has to sort of refract all of the light into a single point. The show runner provides the voice of the show.
DS: When you guys plot out the shows, how much consideration do you give to the tone of Robert Kirkman’s original graphic novels?
GM: We certainly feel an obligation to these characters and storylines from the novels, but Robert Kirkman has really set a tone where he wants people to deviate from the comic in a way that’s surprising to the comic’s previous audience. He’s not necessarily interested in us doing a straight adaptation of the comic book. He wants people to be surprised rather than to expect and see certain plot twists from far off. That might not be as satisfying, so we use the comics as a sort of grab bag for what we need to tell our stories, but we’ve always been free to take liberties.
DS: You’re working on a show and writing something where any major character could die at any moment or at the very least have something incredibly terrible befall them, and once again, these are all iconic characters. How much consideration do you put into such a decision and how do you manage to keep moments like that fresh and not overused?
GM: You need to make sure that each character’s death not only makes sense to the narrative, but that it also makes sense to the other characters. We really aim for it not to be the endpoint of a story. Most importantly a death has to be the starting point for new stories.
For example, this season Lori’s (Sarah Wayne Callie) death affects Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl (Chandler Riggs) in very profound ways, which then generates new stories. So a character’s death is all about asking “What are the opportunities to be had?”
DS: Has there ever been a creative decision that you guys made that you were ever surprised that fans of the show were ever up in arms about, and can you understand where they were coming from on it?
GM: (long pause) Yeah. I think there was a criticism about season two that it was slower than we thought it was when we were making it, but I did not feel that this criticism doesn’t really hold up upon repeated viewings or if it’s being watched by someone who “binge watches.” I didn’t really give that criticism too much credence at the time.
Now this season it’s been great. We’ve take a lot of chances, and we swing for the fences and we’re doing stuff that I know the audience will not get on first viewing. But I expect that by the end of this season the ride will be satisfying. I think any criticism of the show comes not from the show not doing well, but it comes from people feeling that the show is not meeting some expectation. And yet, this is a show that refutes expectation every week. We’re NOT going to do what you expect every week, and that’s why you’re watching us in the first place! At the end of the season when people realize the whole story has been very carefully plotted out over sixteen episodes – and we’ve been very careful this season – they’ll look back and see how things made sense and how they developed. I believe it will overall be a satisfying experience, but week to week that show is designed to get your blood boiling, and not everyone enjoys that feeling.
DS: You touched on something interesting just there that’s become something of a phenomenon more recently than when you started, which is the concept of “binge watching.” Do you think that makes your job harder or do you see such viewing habits as a detriment to making a show like this?
GM: No! No! I think it’s great! That’s how I view TV. I binge watch, and I think it probably has seeped into how I write things, but I think it holds up. Again, I am a binger, so it’s something I’m definitely comfortable with.
DS: At the end of this season you’re leaving the show and moving onto something new. Any ideas for future plans just yet?
GM: Yes. It’s a little premature to talk about that kind of stuff right now, but I’ll have some announcements in the near future, and let’s just say that I’m very interested in developing and creating my own material and working on my own shows. I think we’ll have some interesting announcements in the near future.