The old adage that, “You don’t want to see how the sausage gets made,” usually refers to a particularly ugly business behind-the-scenes of an otherwise pleasant product. That phrase certainly applies to Hollywood productions for TV shows and movies, but for AMC’s The Walking Dead, it also carries a particularly ironic significance. If you want to see how the actual blood and guts are made for the show, talk to special effects guru Greg Nicotero; but if you want to hear about the truly ugly side of the production, series creator and fired showrunner Frank Darabont has some stories to share.
In a newly available deposition from Darabont’s lawsuit against AMC, obtained by THR, the show’s creator goes back to the rocky days of the production at the start of season two. Since this particular lawsuit delves into contractual obligations regarding profits from the hugely successful adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s best-selling graphic novel series, you might expect Darabont (and his lawyers) to keep it professional. That’s not exactly how things played out.
The crux of the argument on Darabont’s side is that AMC knowingly breached their contract and deprived him of tens of millions of dollars thanks in part to profits from a licensing deal the network arranged for itself. The case has recently focused on the extent of Darabont’s involvement with the show’s second season and the resulting amount of profit sharing. That’s boring. What’s more interesting is Darabont’s absolute roasting of certain AMC executives, essentially calling them out as stuffed suits who had little to do with the show’s success and even hampered its popularity thanks to budget cuts:
“I remember Joel Stillerman [president of original programming and development for AMC], in a meeting in my office, when we were all discussing the issues of the upcoming season, we said to him, ‘Surely that the success of the show, which, by the way, you guys are bragging about because we keep getting e-mails saying, ‘Hey, we’re breaking viewership records in 120 countries around the world by hundreds of percent, in some countries by over 1,000%,’ at the same time we’re hearing how successful the show is for you, you’re telling us that this, this budget issue is not going to budge at all. And he said, ‘The success of the show has no bearing on this discussion,’ in a rather icy manner.”
That budget, according to Darabont, was cut “from 3.4 [million dollars] to 3 [million dollars].” While budget issues between creative types and bean-counters are nothing new, Darabont went on to explain just how much money-grabbing was going on while he was managing “crisis-level problems arising on the first episode of the second season.”
“That was bad enough, but then they dropped the bomb on us that, oh by the way, they’re keeping the tax credit,” he testified. “They’re going to pocket the tax credit. So, between the two you’ve got a full 25% cut across the board.”
Again, penny-pinching behind the scenes of massively popular (and lucrative) productions like The Walking Dead shouldn’t come as a surprise. Neither should the revelation that Hollywood producers are usually less than willing to get into the trenches alongside the actors and crew who were “busting their butts, leaving it all on the field” in order to make the show possible day in, day out. What’s more surprising – and in my opinion, refreshing – is how Darabont calls those folks out on their behavior:
“When they did rarely show up on the [Georgia-based] set, [they] would… drive in from the airport in their air conditioned car, race into the air conditioned tent we had there so the actors could have a break and not pass out from the heat, poke their heads out on occasion, and half an hour later jump back in their car and fly back to their air conditioned office in New York. I had a tremendous lack of respect for them.”
In Darabont’s words, the executives should have “put on some combat boots” alongside the cast and crew working in 110-degree heat and “pick[ing” ticks off their groin and their ankles at night.” (Still want to be an actor?) And if you think it’s just sour grapes on Darabont’s part, it’s worth noting that his succeeding (and soon departing) showrunner Glen Mazzara also testified, saying:
“I believe that Frank was executing his responsibilities and duties as showrunner and there was a personal rift between [Walking Dead co-creator Robert] Kirkman and Darabont and between Darabont and the AMC executives, and that when the material for the finale came in and Frank said I need some time to figure out a plan of how to pursue this and what we’re going to re-shoot and what it will take to do this, AMC was unwilling to give him that time to solve the issue and they let him go without notifying him that he was, that the issues were that series. That if he did not appropriately solve these issues, he was about to be fired.”
In the spirit of fairness, here’s a look at the response from AMC executives regarding Darabont’s testimony:
“Frank Darabont has made it clear that he has strong opinions about AMC and the events that led to his departure from The Walking Dead. The reality is that he has been paid millions of dollars under the terms of his contract, which we honored, and we will continue to vigorously defend against this lawsuit.”
Be sure to head over to THR for much more from the deposition and for a link to the full document itself. This is an ugly battle that’s sure to get even uglier before it’s all said and done, but you can rest assured that the fictional blood and guts of AMC’s The Walking Dead will return for the second half of its sixth season on February 14th.