Fans of The Walking Dead were stunned last year when, just days after appearing at Comic-Con, the network severed ties with executive producer Darabont (who was replaced at the top by veteran producer Glen Mazzara). Both Darabont and AMC declined to discuss the reasons for his departure at the time, but it was widely believed to center on budget issues.
But the experience didn't sour Darabont — best known as the filmmaker behind The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile — on television. After devouring a copy of John Buntin's non-fiction book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City, Darabont sprung into action.
Even he's amazed at how quickly L.A. Noir came into being. It helped that his old pal Mike De Luca had already optioned TV and movie rights to the book. And in pitching the show to TNT, he quickly found out that the channel's programming boss, Michael Wright, shared his passion for noir.
TNT last week gave a pilot order to L.A. Noir, which will begin shooting in April. The show kicks off in 1947 and centers on L.A. cop Joe Teague, who's caught in the moral gray zone between the city's notorious gangsters and its corrupt police force. Real-life figures from the era, such as mercurial LAPD chief William Parker and famed mob boss Mickey Cohen, are woven into the story's fictional characters.
In his first interview about the new project, Darabont talked to TV Guide Magazine about how L.A. Noir came about. And for the first time, Darabont addresses his exit from The Walking Dead, including why he thinks he was forced to leave, and how it wasn't easy for him.
TV Guide Magazine: Talk about tackling noir, and how did you first come across this specific book?
Frank Darabont: I've loved noir my whole life, and I've always wanted to go into that area of storytelling. I'm a huge Raymond Chandler buff, which is actually why I grabbed this book off the shelf at LAX in the bookstore as I was about to get on a flight. It seemed right up my alley. I read it on the flight, and then the following day after I couldn't put the darn thing down. When I got back from that trip I called my agent to find out if the rights were available and word came back to me that the rights were with [former New Line president] Mike De Luca, whom I've known since 1986. So I called Mike and said, "What are you thinking of doing with this?" He said "I don't know, you want to do something with me?" And boom, it was that easy.
TV Guide Magazine: That sounds almost too easy. It's rare that a project can come together so fast and with that much ease.
Darabont: I know, isn't that lovely? The strange confluence of good fortune extended beyond that because Mike had a meeting to go in and talk to Michael Wright at TNT, and no sooner had this come out of his mouth that Michael said, "I want this." It's a book he had read because he's also obsessed with this era and this genre. He knew the book intimately and was quoting from it in this meeting. It should always be this easy. It's not always, but this has been great.
TV Guide Magazine: Tell me about your adaptation of L.A. Noir. What's the focus, and who are the main characters?
Darabont: That's going to be the fun of doing this, to invent that tapestry of characters. The very first character I came up with, an invention of mine, is a character named Joe Teague, who was on the police force. And he's caught in that moral gray zone between the William Parkers of the world and the Mickey Cohens of this world. And what a great, fun gray zone to be in. Caught, as he puts it, between the white hats and the black hats.
TV Guide Magazine: There are plenty of people who might argue that Parker was a bigger villain than Cohen.
Darabont: Yes, both very interesting and very complex characters. Mickey Cohen actually maybe not so much. He was a one-track minded fellow, but Parker, yeah, a very interesting guy.
TV Guide Magazine: How will you strike a balance between the real-life and fictional characters?
Darabont: I think that's yet to be determined. I've focused on writing the pilot script and I've got some sort of long-range arcs in my head, what would comprise the first season. Certainly Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel and William Parker will be vital components of that. But where exactly the mix lands, that's work yet to be done. Joe Teague is the lead of the pilot, he will be a good way to step into this world. And what's a good noir without a great noir dame? I definitely have in mind a very, very nice, complicated girlfriend for Joe. It's not quite a meet-cute scenario but they're definitely going to have some heat to it I think.
TV Guide Magazine: Will you be incorporating real-life events and real-life crime into the mix as well?
Darabont: Oh yeah, there are a lot of ideas to be kicked around. God knows, in this era there's so much going on. The book couldn't deal with them all, of course, and it would be somewhat off the subject of the book's intentions. But for a dramatic TV series there's all kinds of stuff, so many avenues you can go through. One thing we're talking about and I'm tremendously interested in is what African-American culture was doing at that time in L.A. There was no reason for the book to delve into that. What was the Hispanic culture doing at that time in L.A? How does that tie into the mob world, on either side of that fence? 1947 was in fact the year of the Black Dahlia. I'm really looking forward to picking John Buntin's brain, now that I have a good excuse to do it. There had to be stuff in his research that he left out, wonderful stuff he left on the table simply because he was writing a book and he had to be editorially selective.
The pilot takes place in 1947, this is that massive post-war boom where the soldiers came back and they settled here because they weren't going to go back to the farm or Detroit. A little bit of Joe Teague is based on a gentleman that died back in 1992 but he was the father of a best friend of mine. He fought in the Pacific and was originally dirt poor from the slums of Detroit and he went off to war and when he came back, he settled in Los Angeles like so many others did. That's kind of an interesting world because the whole city is being reinvented. The Valley is being uprooted and turned into housing. There was so much that was happening at the time.
TV Guide Magazine: Any other key roles you can talk about?
Darabont: There's a wonderful character named Hecky Nash. I won't tell you too much about him, but he's definitely a key piece of the pilot. He's got a little scheme going that might backfire on him that ties him in with the mob. That's going to be just a terrific role for somebody. We've got a few people in mind, one guy in particular. Cross your fingers, because he's a great actor and I'd love to get him into this for the pilot.
TV Guide Magazine: Where did the idea come from to adapt non-fiction and merge it with fiction?
Darabont: It troubled me for a moment because I tend to be pretty faithful when I adapt. If you look at the Stephen King stuff that I've done [The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile], they tend to be pretty faithful even though you re-engineer story where you have to in order to make it work for the screen. I thought, as good as the book is, it is a historical document. And it is tremendously absorbing, but it is still non-fiction. I thought that this could run the risk of being a very earnest and well-meaning docudrama. I wrestled with that for a little bit, and my sense was that if I gave myself permission to invent, and I've seen this done very beautifully in other television projects, to invent fictional characters that guide us through the non-fictional landscape, then I felt I would be in a really good strong position. I really want to deliver a show that lives up to that title. L.A. Noir is a certain kind of show in my mind's eye. The book is always my guide, of course, but there's going to be a tremendous fun we have with mixing fact and fiction.
TV Guide Magazine: Most recently, Boardwalk Empire managed to combine fact and fiction successfully.
Darabont: Exactly, Boardwalk has done that very well. And one of my favorite miniseries of all time is Rome, which invented this wonderful ensemble of fictional characters woven into the actual events and did such a beautiful job of it. That's somewhat the approach that we're taking. We don't want to be limited by facts, because we never want to abuse the facts but we don't want to run the risk of this being a dry thing. I want it to be a bright, vibrant piece of fun drama.
TV Guide Magazine: People also are already familiar with a lot of the real-life noir stories, hallmarks like the Black Dahlia.
Darabont: It will be really fun to work around the real characters as well, the Mickey Cohens and the Bugsy Siegels and the William Parkers, and bring all that stuff into it. It will be tremendously fun to weave the tapestry. It keeps it fresh and exciting for me.
TV Guide Magazine: Plus, you'll get to shoot in downtown Los Angeles, some of which remains untouched from that era.
Darabont: Oh brother, can I tell you how excited I am to shoot in my hometown? Everybody on the project so far, and I've got a lot of my most trusted and valued colleagues and key people jumping on board this thing, are also excited. And then nice bonus, everybody can't quite get over the fact that, hey, we get to shoot in L.A. We get to sleep in our own beds at night. That's going to be so great. It's gotten rarer and rarer through the years. Now, it's kind of like winning the lottery, oh boy, we get to shoot in town!
TV Guide Magazine: It's indeed a rarity, especially for a cable drama. Even in the movie Battle: L.A., Louisiana doubled as Los Angeles.
Darabont: That would be really hard with this one. We're not going to pass off Shreveport or Atlanta off as Los Angeles of this era. What is on the badge of the LAPD, it's downtown, it's City Hall, it's the stuff that Curtis Hanson captured so beautifully with L.A. Confidential.
TV Guide Magazine: L.A. Confidential captured that era perfectly. Any other pieces of work that inspire you in doing L.A. Noir?
Darabont: What a great movie. I've complemented [Hanson] on that movie every time I've seen him. I'm just a rabid fan of it, they really got it right. There was also another one I particularly loved that not too many people know called True Confessions. Robert Duvall, who was brilliant in this film, Robert DeNiro, Charles Durning. It's a marvelous film. It is a fantastic cast, it was a wonderful film, it crafted at a high level. I believe it was Ulu Grosbard who directed it.
I'm renting a house here at the beach for a few months, and rumor has it that Robert Towne wrote Chinatown in this house. I only found out the day I finished writing the script, on New Year's Eve. Whether it's true or not, I'm choosing to believe it is.
TV Guide Magazine: When do you start casting and shooting?
Darabont: I'm raring to go. I'm primed. I'm planning to shoot in April. And I think that's cool with Michael [Wright]. He's so sweet, he wants to give us as much time to prep as possible. But especially in our own hometown, this is not going to be a massive prep. I'm actually wanting a little less than he was thinking. I'm ready to go in April, baby, let's do it.
TV Guide Magazine: What made you decide to return to TV so soon?
Darabont: I love the medium. I love that I finished the script on New Year's Eve and we're already greenlit and planning to shoot in April. I love the pace, I love the momentum of it. I love you can get in there and not second guess everything to death. For the guy that directed The Green Mile, by comparison that was a generous schedule. In recent times I've really gotten to like the brisker pace. I really have.
TV Guide Magazine: And there's the ability to tell a bigger story over a longer period of time.
Darabont: Yeah, that's a terrific form. I really enjoy that. I love the oblique nature of how stories can be told. Rather than jamming everything you want to say into a two and a half hour movie, you go, "OK, this year we're making an eight-hour movie." We don't have to get to the point right away. We can hint at it. We can come through the backdoor, keep the audience intrigued by something. It's completely different because you can come at it from a completely different, sneakier angle or perspective and that's really fun.
TV Guide Magazine: It sounds like you've developed a great relationship with Turner so far.
Darabont: They are by all accounts a fantastic place to work. They treat their creative partners with respect and dignity and humanity and integrity, and after the last two years I'm really looking forward to experiencing those things.
TV Guide Magazine: What can you say about your departure from The Walking Dead?
Darabont: It was, for the sake of my cast and my crew, a tremendously regretful thing to face, to have to leave. But I was really given no choice. I don't understand the thinking behind, "Oh, this is the most successful show in the history of basic cable. Let's gut the budgets now." I never did understand that and I think they got tired of hearing me complain about it. It's a little more complicated than that, but that's as far as I want to go with it because otherwise it's just provoking more controversy and that's not really of interest to me. I just want to keep my head down and do my job and be allowed to do my job, that's key, and continue to, hopefully, enjoy it and do good work.
TV Guide Magazine: From all accounts, your departure was particularly hard on the cast and crew.
Darabont: These people are like family to me. It has not been easy for anybody. Let me put it that way: It was like a death in the family. Only I was the dead guy. I felt like William Holden, face down in the swimming pool, narrating this thing.
TV Guide Magazine: There was never really an official explanation about your exit.
Darabont: It was a lot of obfuscation and on my end just maintaining what I thought was the most dignified silence that I could. Who needs a cat fight in the press, oy vey. There's plenty of stuff in this world that I'm excited about doing, and how lovely that we're getting the opportunity to do this with TNT. How great is that.