Late last year, when Time Out was chatting by phone to The Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara, little did we realise that Mazzara was himself, like so many of his cast members, dearly departed yet still moving around. Only days afterwards, AMC announced that due to creative differences the co-executive producer was stepping down after two years at the helm of the post-apocalyptic zombie drama, which has garnered record-breaking ratings in the US under his stewardship.
Oblivious to these behind-the-scenes dramas, we were speaking to Mazzara about his forthcoming visit to Australia to address the inaugural Television Writers’ Studio (TWS) event. The conference is designed to tap the experience of leading international TV professionals and lift the standards of Australian TV, with sessions also open to the public. Mazzara will give a presentation on the “showrunner” model of production (where the producer is also a writer), common to quality US productions.
“The showrunner is in charge of the programme creatively,” explains Mazzara, “writing a lot of the material and making sure the actors and the crew are supportive of the overall vision, but also responsible for the budget, the schedule and the day-to-day running of the show.”
While the Hollywood movie industry has descended into repetition and conservatism, American TV is in a golden age where the writer is king, thanks to the showrunner model. “The model developed back in the ’80s on shows like Hill Street Blues, which was so influential on TV drama. All of a sudden it started to feel real. When you have a show that is taking chances you really do want to have a singular voice to make sure everybody is pulling in the same direction. Otherwise you have a show that is written by a committee, and viewers can tell.”
Mazzara started his career as a hospital administrator in New York City, while pursuing a masters in English. He wrote spec scripts for Buffy and ER as calling cards and got his first break writing for Nash Bridges. He went on to write and produce The Shield among other shows before joining The Walking Dead in its first season, taking over as showrunner from Frank Darabont for season two.
Mazzara has a few rules about the collaborative process of writing for TV. “It’s very easy to say ‘I don’t like that or ‘this doesn’t work’. Offer a solution! I’m careful to set a tone of respect for writers and producers. It’s all about offering yourself up to the greater story, it’s not about ego.”
When it comes to The Walking Dead, Mazzara says he has adhered to three main principles as showrunner. “My number one rule is it has to be scary. Two, I’m very interested in keeping the show real and showing the effects of trauma on these characters. And finally the show can never be cruel or mean-spirited to the characters. If the show becomes too bleak and these people are fighting for a life that is not worth living, then I think it’s time to pack it in.”
Whether or not the fourth season adheres to these principles remains to be seen. Meanwhile the creator of The Walking Dead comic book, Robert Kirkman, has come under heavy criticism for clashing with successive showrunners. The Huffington Post even went so far as to suggest that the AMC network doesn’t care much for the showrunner model after all, given similar turmoil on its shows Mad Men, Hell on Wheels and Breaking Bad. As they say in TV-land: stay tuned.