'Walking Dead' Showrunner Spreads Televisual Virus

The Walking Dead zombies may want brains, but all showrunner Glen Mazzara wants is eyes—lots of them.

That should not be too difficult, if past is prologue when AMC’s hit drama returns for its third season Oct. 14. The show shattered records when it premiered on Halloween 2010 to 5 million viewers. Its popularity spread faster than the zombie virus itself, with its second season—the first with Mazzara’s name attached as showrunner— bringing in 9 million viewers in its finale.

While fans are an integral part of the show, Mazzara says that when he signed on as showrunner in July 2011, he was much more focused on pleasing the crew.

“I was very concerned with the story,” Mazzara says. “I focused [on the creative elements] with the other writers, producers, actors and directors to make sure that what we were going to put out was as strong and as good as possible, and hopefully the fans would respond.”

His deep concern was not unfounded. Mazzara’s appointment as showrunner came with much publicity, as then-EP Frank Darabont was removed from the show only a month after production on the second season began.

When the time came for AMC to appoint a new showrunner, network president Charlie Collier says Mazzara was “an obvious choice to lead.

“We’ve been so impressed…by his writing and his general management,” Collier says. “The beauty of Glen is that he really lives the show from start to finish.”

Now that The Walking Dead has become much more than just the series, with its live after-show The Talking Dead that airs on the network following each episode (and on which Mazzara himself has appeared) and Robert Kirkman’s series- source comic books gaining popularity, he has found himself in the spotlight.

“Our fans are rabid, and they are so hungry for new information,” says Mazzara, who often takes to Twitter to interact with viewers, though he gripes that sometimes the medium makes him feel like “customer service.”

That’s not particularly a far cry from where he started. Originally from Queens, N.Y., Mazzara managed emergency rooms and ICUs as a hospital administrator while teaching himself to write teleplays after graduating from NYU with an M.A. in English. Mazzara did not have any connections in the industry, struggling for the most part until he moved to Los Angeles in 1998.

In his first pitch meeting, Mazzara met Carlton Cuse (Lost), Shawn Ryan (currently at the helm of ABC’s new drama Last Resort) and John Wirth (Nash Bridges). Mazzara wrote a freelance script for Nash and joined the show as a writer and story editor.

Mazzara followed Ryan, with whom he developed a friendship, to cop drama The Shield. He joined as a writer, moving up to executive producer.

Although Mazzara had spent much of his television career with similar fare, moving over to The Walking Dead was like entering “fresh writing territory,” he says.

Mazzara notes that each show he’s worked on has offered him an invaluable lesson. Such is the case with Starz’ Crash, which Mazzara created as an adaptation of the eponymous 2004 film for the premium cabler as its first original drama.

“In one way, that show was a success because I did learn how to be a showrunner,” he says. “In other ways, the show was not a success because creatively, the material got away from me at some point.”

That won’t be an issue for Mazzara on The Walking Dead. Kirkman first published the comic book series, which now counts more than 100 issues, in 2003; Mazzara, who reads the new issue every month, “gets to steal the best from Robert…and figure out how to do it our way.”

Though culling the best of Kirkman’s comic book series is an arduous task (combining the show and the comics results in more story lines than all the zombies in Atlanta), Mazzara is no stranger to the care and attention that growing things require—he is also an amateur bonsai cultivator.

“I find that it’s a lot like writing, because it involves care, but not too much care,” he says. “It’s about letting something reveal its inner shape.”

Thankfully, Mazzara is more adept as a writer and producer, as he “tends to kill a lot of [them].” But with The Walking Dead’s third season premiere shambling over the horizon, chances are very good he’ll keep successfully killing a lot more than just trees.

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