"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“The Walking Dead” returns Sunday to AMC to finish its second season, with sheriff Rick Grimes’ revolver still smoking from the first half’s shocking finale. While audience numbers have stayed high, the show has run into problems other than the packs of drooling undead. Showrunner Frank Darabont left for unspecified reasons, the pace of action noticeably dropped – to what creator Robert Kirkman admits now was “a little bit slower than it should” — and the zombies, when they did appear, seemed to be moving a lot faster than you’d expect from a group called walkers.
The affable Kirkman, 33, who also created the bestselling “The Walking Dead” comic book series, paused to address these issues as well as hint about new threats and locales to be encountered by the characters, and discuss the approach of new showrunner Glen Mazzara, who he says will bring a comparatively “breakneck pace” to the show as it resumes. (For those who haven’t finished the first half, there may be one spoiler included.)
What are you calling this point in the series, anyway, Part 2 of Season 2?
We call it all kinds of different things in the writers’ room: It’s Season 2.5; it’s the second half of the second season, which sometimes seems a little cumbersome, so I don’t know. It’s the last six episodes of Season 2.
I guess cutting it in half is now a common way for cable networks to present its seasons. How do you look at starting in the middle like this?
There’s a lot of different ways to look at it. I sort of enjoy the “mini-season finale” thing because I think season finales are really kind of cool and I’m a big fan of cliffhangers. Also, it’s nice to have a little break. It’s also nice to structurally make your season have some sort of punch in the first half and more punch in the second half. So structurally, it’s kind of cool. It helps writing-wise. But I don’t know, I could take it or leave it.
Consensus on the first half of the season is that it had a much different pace than the first season. Did you just want to slow the storytelling down?
It appears that the first half of second season moves a little bit slower than maybe it should. And I think that’s a byproduct of building to our midseason finale and knowing where we were going to end up, and putting all our pieces in place, and trying to tell the story in a somewhat cinematic kind of way, which may or may not work in episodic television.
I will say that’s one of the holdovers from Frank Darabont. He really wanted to take things slow and spend a lot of time dealing with different things. He was very much a big fan of the slow burn. Because he’s no longer on the show and Glen Mazzara took over as showrunner, he’s a big fan of much more fast-paced storytelling. So I think there will be somewhat of a shift when we come back with the season where we’re going to be a little more action-packed and are going to move at kind of a breakneck pace compared to the first few episodes.
And I think, looking at whole season together, when you see the first two parts, you’ll see that the first half of season kind of works, because we were building towards an event. And once that event happens — when Sophia emerges from the barn — things just continue to escalate. So it will make sense and the whole season will be cool to watch as a whole. But there is going to be some drastically different pacing issues now that Glen Mazzara is running the show.
Do you regret that it went as slow as it did in the first half?
I don’t know that I regret anything. I think that despite the criticisms of it being slow, it was good to take the time to know the characters a little more and it was nice to see them interacting at that farm and I think that that sense of security and that tranquility, when it’s played against the chaos of coming episodes, will make chaos seem that much more intense. I think it will accentuate these episodes. So I liked it. But if I had to do it over again, I might have tried to cram some more stuff in.
From this side of the screen, it appeared that there were fewer zombies so far this season, and setting it at a farm seemed a little less expensive than clearing out part of the city. People assume it was a cost-saving measure.
No, it wasn’t a cost-saving measure at all. It was just adapting what we did in my comic book series. If you read the comics, you’ll see that eight years ago, when those stories were being told, there was a little bit of Atlanta action and then they moved into the more rural parts of Georgia and went there for safety. So it was just a decision to follow where the comics went. Filming out in the woods is not as cheap as you might think.
What has it been like for you to write for two different versions of your story, first for the comic and then for TV? Do you consider them the same story or separate?
I kind of have to view it as separate. That’s really the only way to do it. I still write the comics month in and month out, putting new issues out. If I weren’t able to separate the two into two separate projects, it would be a little confusing.
But I’m having a lot of fun on the show. The collaborative medium of television is a really cool thing. I really do enjoy working in the writers’ room and getting to experience working in a group and forming a kind of a hive mind to try and tell stories. It’s a very different way of doing things for me.
Comic books are also kind of a collaborative medium in that you work with an artist and you tell that story together through words and pictures. But the artist on “The Walking Dead,” Charlie Adlard, he lives in the U.K, so I’m never in a room with him saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this.” It’s a very solitary working environment, where I’m in a room — I was in Kentucky and now I’m in Los Angeles — and then he’s in his room on the other side of the ocean, and we’re making a product together. But working in a room with guys and coming up with ideas and really having that exchange and pushing each other is a lot of fun for me. I really enjoy it.
We’re actually in our third or fourth week of working on Season 3 right now in the writers’ room. And one of the first things we did is we basically blocked out what happened in the comic book series in a chunk of time, from issue X to issue whatever, and said, “This is the story that we want to cover in our third season. What from this do we think is essential? What do we want to keep? Is there anything we want to add?”
It’s kind of cool to look at the comic book as a framework to improve upon; being able to have seven other talented writers look at your previous work and say, “Oh, you could have expanded this, I would have glossed over that, it would be cool if this had happened instead of that.” And for me to be involved in that process, it’s kind of a cool thing.
I guess it can be a little nerve-wracking to sit in a room with seven people and pick apart something you wrote seven years ago, but I don’t know, I think it’s a fun experience and I like being in the mix. And even I’m going, “Well, this led to this and it might be good to leave that out and it might be better if we did this instead and this really worked, people really liked this, I think we should definitely do this.” Being able to do that, and have this give and take, is a lot of fun.
But at the same time you want to have surprises for fans of the comic book.
Absolutely. That’s why there are so many differences in the show. People who read “The Walking Dead” comic, I think one of the appealing things about it is when you sit down and read an issue, you have no idea what’s going to happen. So to lose that in the show, for people who have read the comic, I think, would be a horrible thing. So even when we adapt something in the show, we try to arrive upon an event in such a different way that it still holds a bit of surprise for people who are absolutely familiar with the comic. I like to change things up, and keep people guessing.
The comic is so similar in form to a storyboard. Does that explain why the series is so much more visual than most?
Yeah, well, it’s not really an action show. But there is definitely a lot more to be done with the visuals in this show than I think other shows. Because we’re adapting the comic, I think there are a lot of visuals to adapt from the comics. I think Charlie Adlard in particular is a fantastic artist who has been doing some real cool stuff. To leave that stuff on the cutting room floor would be a mistake. Also we have Greg Nicotero doing an amazing job bringing our zombie creatures to life. His team at KNB Efx are really essential to the show. So there’s definitely a wealth of visual storytelling for us to draw upon in order to make this series happen.
But there’s quite a lot visually happening, with those big wide establishing shots, or those subtle scenes, like the one Sunday where Daryl and Carol just sit there and don’t even speak a word. A lot of shows don’t do that.
Yeah, well, I think that’s good storytelling. When you’re making people talk just to make people talk, I think that’s when things start to be kind of fake.
So what is it about zombies in general that people are so interested in them these days?
First of all, they’re awesome. They look cool. They do cool things. There’s definitely a lot of reasons to love zombies. Culturally, the last time zombies were this popular was the height of the Cold War. So I think any time there’s a sense of unrest in society, it tends to drive people toward stories of the apocalypse and the end of the world. It makes it interesting to sit on your couch and think: OK, if society did collapse, would I be like Daryl Dixon? Would I be like Shane Walsh? Would I be like Rick Grimes? Which person would I be like? What decisions would I make? And analyzing that kind of stuff makes it easier to ignore the economic collapse or the crisis with oil prices, or whatever is going on in the world today. It’s much easier to sit in the safety of your living room and analyze it rather than to actually think about all the horrible things that are going on out in the world.
With the current cultural zombie takeover, is there a possibility of reaching overkill, as vampires seem to be doing?
Vampires cycle in and out every few years; they get really popular, then they go on the back burner for a while. I think that zombies reaching this level of popularity is a cool thing. In the history of entertainment, zombies have never got that kind of height of popularity where there is an overkill of people making zombie things and telling zombie stories. It’s kind of a cool thing for zombies to reach that level.
But I definitely feel the big budget World War Z movie with Brad Pitt and things like that that will carry it along, ‘The Walking Dead’ included. It will shoot back down eventually. But I think “The Walking Dead” hangs its hat on drama. And isn’t necessarily just a zombie adventure. It’s about human characters dealing with survival after the fall of civilization and I think that kind of story is always going to hold a vast appeal for audiences, whether it’s got zombies running around or unicorns or whatever.
While vampires (and unicorns, for that matter) seem to have their rules set in stone, things seem to be not quite nailed down yet for zombies.
One of the things I was trying to do with “The Walking Dead” was canonize zombie lore. Most people do try to reinvent the wheel when they do the zombie thing. Sometimes you have to dismember them completely, sometimes you have to shoot them in the head. Sometimes they eat brains, sometimes they eat flesh — people try to play around with it a little bit too much.
With “The Walking Dead,” I try to take the best part of the Romero model – George Romero by far did the best zombie movies in history — and his films are all consistent. Then I wanted to use most of those rules, because those are the best, and then add a few of my own — things that are logical; things that to me make sense. To just to try and say: Look, there should be some set rules on zombies. There are certain set things that make zombies cool, and we should try to maintain them.
That said, it seems like the zombies in “The Walking Dead” are a little speedier the second season than they were in the first. And why weren’t, say, the dead people in the highway pileup at the start of Season 2 not all turned into zombies as well?
There were definitely a few zombies trucking around in the first season as well. I don’t know if people didn’t notice them, or maybe they should just go back and watch it. One of the rules that we have in “The Walking Dead” is, depending on how fresh the corpse is, or how rotted it is, would logically make it fast or slow.
I don’t think we have any Olympic sprinters or anything like that. But a fairly recently formed zombie would be able to move somewhat like a human, but not quite. And we definitely have zombies that are much slower and mill about as they get more rotted. We’re trying to do things that are logical and make sense. And then every so often, you have an overzealous extra who is moving a little bit too quick, and we have to edit around that.
What about those bodies in the cars?
That’s the whole ting. That’s part of the fun of “The Walking Dead” is that you don’t really know all of the rules yet. What’s going on with those dead bodies? Why are they not zombies? Why are they just sitting in cars? That’s part of our specific set of rules that will be revealed over time.
So there are going to be mysteries like that: Why is that guy a zombie and the other guy isn’t? What happened with that guy, and various different things. I think by the end of Season 2, you’ll have a better understanding of what makes a zombie, and what goes into it and why those zombies in the car weren’t walking around.
So, in the short term, what can we expect?
We’re getting off the farm a little bit, and we’re introducing a lot of new characters and new threats. The very first episode that we come back on, on Sunday, we introduce new characters that represent a larger threat that is going to be coming after Rick and the rest of the group. And that’s really going to be a driving force that gets us right up to our finale. We’re going to be dealing with a lot of big problems.
There are a lot of questions as to whether or not Hershel knew that Sophia was in the barn, or how he and Rick are going to deal with that. And that’s not really what we’re going to be dealing with. We’re not going to have time to rest on our laurels and analyze the whole Sophia situation. There’s so much more happening and so many more threats coming into the forefront that we’re going to have to hit the ground running and deal with all these problems on our feet as we go.
“The Walking Dead” resumes its second season Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)