EXCLUSIVE: Scott M. Gimple is the man leading the search for new life in the world of The Walking Dead. Gimple is the Chief Content Officer of AMC’s ever-expanding TWD universe and oversees three television franchises: The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, and the as-yet-untitled spinoff (co-created by Gimple and TWD writer/producer Matt Negrete) that is filming now in Virginia and ramping toward its primetime premiere in 2020.
These are hectic and somewhat tumultuous days for Gimple and the TWD entertainment empire — the only thing moving slowly, in fact, are those pesky undead walkers on their unending search for a free lunch. The zombie apocalypse saga is poised to make a leap to the big screen with the first TWD feature film but the brand sure looked flat-footed this week when the flagship show’s Season 10 premiere fell double-digits among viewers to an all-time series low. The brand also lost its source material when the namesake Skybound/Image comic book series written by Robert Kirkman abruptly ended its 16-year run this past summer.
Still, TWD universe remains one of the most lucrative television endeavors in history and has spawned bestselling video games, a popular series of novels, and a mountain of merch. Earlier this year, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan confidently assured stockholders that TWD remains “in the early stages of life” and “has many opportunities for growth.”
That growth will be guided by Gimple, who came aboard TWD in 2011 as a co-producer and writer and took over as showrunner from Season 4 through Season 8 — the glory years when TWD was TV’s highest rated drama and a global sensation. Deadline caught up with Gimple recently to talk about the future of The Walking Dead brand as the flagship series closes in on its 150th episode at the end of this month.
DEADLINE: At New York Comic Con you unveiled the trailer for the third TWD series. It was an exciting moment for you, especially as co-creator of the show.
SCOTT M. GIMPLE: There’s a lot to be excited about. It’s a really, really cool cast. Very funny, very different, very young. Even just in the trailer there’s a lot there for fans to take in and a lot to talk about. It implies how very, very different the world is than we have seen before. There’s been a lot going on, things that have happened that are outside the knowledge of the characters on the other shows. Big things that have their own history and a layered and deep mythology to it.
DEADLINE: In a sentence or two, how will this show’s textures set it apart from The Walking Dead and from Fear the Walking Dead?
GIMPLE: It’s people coming of age but on a quest of sorts. The quest aspect makes it very different beyond the fact that these kids are unlike characters we’ve seen before. They’ve grown up in all of this but they’ve also grown up in relative safety. So they’re aware of the world and of walkers but they’ve grown up behind walls so they’re not out there mixing it up with the walkers and the dangers. They’ve had a very sheltered experience. They’ve also enjoyed something close to a First World kind of life. So it’s a big deal for them to experience these things. They aren’t ignorant of the world but they haven’t had to face it or deal with it as deeply as they will in the stories that we’re going to be telling.
DEADLINE: So essentially, they’re a lot like the audience that’s been watching The Walking Dead all these years. They know the horror but only from a safe vantage point. They comprehend the threat but they’ve been beyond its reach.
GIMPLE: I guess so, yeah. That’s exactly right, actually. They know how horrible the world is out there and they’ve all had trauma, to some extent, because of that knowledge and the things that have happened to the world. But they’re not hardened survivors. They are like characters who have been watching the show for years. Now they’re stepping into that world.
DEADLINE: As you ramped up the third series I’m sure there was a long list of things you wanted to achieve. But tell me one thing you wanted to be sure you avoided.
GIMPLE: The thing we wanted to avoid was sameness and the thing we wanted to embrace was distinctiveness. As we move into these new Walking Dead entertainments we want them to have their own vibe, their own voice, their own feel and really delineate from the other shows and to do it more and more. I started with The Walking Dead as a reader and as a viewer and I still love watching it even though I work on it a great deal. And to still being able to hold on to that fan vibe it makes me hunger for seeing different aspects of the story told in different ways. I want people to be able to click on these different shows and immediately know which one it is from the moment they click it on.
DEADLINE: There are a good number of multi-generational mega-brands in entertainment, things like Star Wars and Star Trek, that are at turning points right now with saga finales, character revivals, actor transitions, or new spinoff launches. When you think about those types of enduring brands, is there one that you view as a North Star influence? Or one that offers lessons, either good or bad, that help you chart out the long-range strategies for The Walking Dead?
GIMPLE: All are consumers of this stuff. I know I give a lot of money to everything you just mentioned. It even goes further back than that to the comic books themselves, whether it’s DC and Marvel and their shared universes. I grew up on that stuff. You might talking about Secret Wars or Crisis on Infinite Earths or different events, House of M, all sorts of stuff. Those are all very crossover heavy which isn’t what we’re looking to do but we are looking to investigate different parts of universe and have them be distinct unto themselves. We’re not looking to lean on crossovers so much. It’s there as an option and it’s fun but we would want to make it special. We don’t want it to be the basis of our storytelling approach. The things that we’ve implied [about the wider universe] have always been things we wanted to follow and tell more of. The things that we’ve implied come in like rumors, little things that characters say about the outside world. There were things, for instance, that characters said in Season 2 of The Walking Dead that ignited my own imagination and some of those things are coming to fruition now seven years later in some of the things that we’re doing. It’s one of the pleasurable things about a shared-universe approach. It’s satisfying to look at different things from different angles and play them with different voices. It’s something that storytellers have been intrigued by for a long time. I believe Dickens might have a shared universe.
DEADLINE: I wonder what’s considered the first shared universe in storytelling? Maybe Greek mythology?
GIMPLE: I was talking to [The Walking Dead writer and producer] Matt Negrete and [the new spinoff’s Executive Producer] Brian Bockwrath about this and we were trying to figure out what the first shared universe was and that’s what I brought up, Greek mythology, I was right there with you on that. But he countered with the fact that Greek mythology was kind of religious. Those weren’t just stories there was a religion involved.
DEADLINE: You don’t think Star Wars has reached the level of religion yet?
GIMPLE: [Laughs] You may have a point.
DEADLINE: As far as the entertainment mega-brands out there, though, is there one that you look to as a role model or comparable creative endeavor? Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, The Lord of The Rings, The Terminator, or, uh, I don’t know, The Muppets?
GIMPLE: [Laughs] I will say what’s interesting about this is that The Walking Dead is truly a shared world and a shared situation but it’s going to be a lot of different aspects of that shared circumstance. It’s not dependent on these characters knowing each other, interacting with each other, or having anything necessarily to do with one another. It makes it a priority for us to create new mythologies and new situations in this world — big stuff that’s going on — but the really interesting thing about this universe is that because of this apocalypse that’s happened is that a lot of these stories aren’t even going to touch. These people won’t even know that these other people and these other situations even exist. I hope that allows us for a real differentiation in the stories we tell.
DEADLINE: It’s like telling the story of World War II, it’s a very different story in Washington than in Berlin, and different in France than it is in Iwo Jima than in North Africa.
GIMPLE: There’s going to be deep, historical mythologies going on –things that have been going on for years and years and years that have all sorts of aspects to it and yet nobody on the other two shows really knows much about it. There’s an aspect of the new show, for instance, that is this epic, intense, huge thing going on — and it’s been going on for years — but due to the nature of the apocalypse, the communications, and the landscape, the people on the other shows are unaware of it. Or they may be aware of one little aspect of it — they may have one little peek into it — but it does’t really effect their lives or their view of the world. And if that’s the case, what other big situations are going on in the world? [The basis of those] situations could be about specific populations or environments, they could be International, they could be a function of how advanced people are or how impoverished they might be or how isolated.
DEADLINE: The canvas seems endless in a way. There must be a long list of story situations competing for your attention.
GIMPLE: One of my favorite projects, one that’s sort of hovering around, is really about a person, a single person in the apocalypse. We don’t really see anyone else there because of the situation they’re in. Then you have a story that’s like Cast Away or Omega Man, I suppose. The other thing we’re doing to achieve this differentiation and distinctness of storytelling I’m talking about is also starting to play around with the formats. How long a series is, for instance. We are pursuing specials as well, which are very short form. Some of that linking up [to established characters and situations] but some keeping to themselves by having their own distinct aspects. When we’re working I call those the agnostic stories. Those might feel more Twilight Zone-y, more anthological, whereas the more connected stuff might feel more like Star Wars in the shared, episodic mythology. Hopefully, we can achieve some of the cool things that all these universes do. It’s very exciting. It’s very kid in the candy store. You know, I’m such a fan of The Walking Dead comic book series — may it rest in power — that I kind of think of The Walking Dead as the biggest piece of fan fiction that there is. It keeps me honest.
DEADLINE: Speaking of The Walking Dead comic book series, the source material for this “fan fiction” entertainment empire, it ended this summer after 16 years of monthly publication but not before killing off Rick Grimes, the most recognizable character in the mythology both on the page or on the screen. How does that echo through the brand’s other iterations? And, out of curiosity, how did you hear the news about Grimes?
GIMPLE: I knew a lot aspects of the finale and I knew that Robert had been working toward a finale and he had mentioned some ballpark aspects but he held back a lot because he knew I wouldn’t want spoilers. He had told me some things early on but I always thought the comic book series would keep on going [without Grimes], which ignited my imagination in that direction. How is this going to work? How is that going to play out? So for maybe two years I was thinking about it along those lines, as the start of a new story. Which, for us [and the screen adaptations] it probably will be. The biggest thing is we will tell that finale story one day. And to me, that finale story — and Robert agrees — plays a lot like a pilot. Honoring the aspects of [the broader] finale story without the death of Rick Grimes will be a challenge to our storytelling.
DEADLINE: The television version of The Walking Dead started as fairy loyal adaptation of the Image Comics series but diverged over time. The imperatives of an primetime ensemble drama and a monthly black-and-white comic book are quite different, after all, so nothing is set in stone…
GIMPLE: This is a very different entertainment than The Walking Dead comic. The Daryl Dixon character [played by Norman Reedus] doesn’t exist in the comic, and Carol [Peletier, portrayed by Melissa McBride in nine TWD seasons] doesn’t live super-long in the comic book and was, because of that, a very different character. There’s been this butterfly effect since the beginning that’s created these differences. But that said, in my mind, my job from the start — from writer to producer to showrunner — was to always make the comic book real, whether literally or in spirit. Or to create big changes but only when that change got the show closer to a direct expression of the comic. A lot of times we changed things only to get closer to the feeling that people had when they read the comic book. If Robert has a surprise on the page we might change things on the screen only so we can get to that surprise in way that protected it so people can’t predict it. That remains the job even when the stories are new and even when stories aren’t directly related to the comic: to capture the spirit of the comic. Because the comic isn’t simply “There’s a zombie apocalypse…” There’s tone, there’s a feeling, and there’s story values. Comics and television aren’t the same medium but I always want to feel the spirit of the book in everything we do. Whether characters are gone or the story don’t match up, we carry on that feeling.
DEADLINE: When you look at your big board of projects — with the three shows, the movie, the specials you mentioned, and all the other potential screen iterations you’ve identified — how important is it to find another breakout character on par with Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes? Is it imperative to find a single face that can be on the billboards and on the merch? Or is the brand the star at this point?
GIMPLE: I think The Walking Dead became an ensemble story very quickly, which is one of the things that the medium determined. I think we will have entertainments that are very single-character driven and we will have others that have an ensemble dynamic. I don’t think it’s particularly vital one way or the other, it’s just searching for that differentiation. I mentioned that one project where it would be one person, for instance, so that couldn’t be further from an ensemble.
DEADLINE: Apart from the creative aspects, though, having a breakout character opens up brand opportunities in a different way even within the context of an ensemble. The Wire and The Sopranos were each ensembles but The Wire didn’t have a Tony Soprano to put on bus-bench ads and magazine covers.
GIMPLE: I don’t think it’s ever come up as far as “We need a single focal point.” We talk about strong character and characters that affect one another. I don’t think anybody would be against a show that’s driven by a single-character but I think there’s something to having a lot of different characters that appeal to a lot of different audience members. I truly believe the variety of characters has been a real strength of the show. When I talk to people who enjoy the show they’re often drawn to different characters. “That character is my jam.” It’s having great characters all around. That doesn’t change. That’s what The Walking Dead has been all about.