The Walking Dead may be the most popular drama on TV, but the position of showrunner was a revolving door in the show’s early seasons. The Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, who helped get the adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s zombie comic book series up and running, was fired by AMC halfway through production of the second season; he was replaced by Glenn Mazzara, who then gave way to Scott Gimple, the current showrunner. Darabont didn’t go down without a fight, however. In 2013, Darabont and his agents at Creative Artists Agency filed a lawsuit against AMC, alleging $280 million in damages after Darabont claimed AMC denied rightful profit participation to the man who originally brought the network’s biggest success to the screen.
A full trial is likely still years away, but new court documents obtained by EW show a fiery struggle between Darabont and AMC, dating back to his time on set. In his court deposition, AMC’s former head of programming, Joel Stillerman, said Darabont’s on-set behavior, especially toward co-workers, and his lack of experience running a TV show sparked concern about the show’s sustainability. “There was conduct that I would say is extremely unacceptable with respect to treatment of co-workers,” Stillerman said.
The court documents filed Thursday include a selection of emails sent by Darabont to his co-workers during the summer of 2011 when he and the team were apparently struggling to film season 2. Many of Darabont’s gripes related to camera operators not filming a scene the way Darabont had written it — but the emails are also laced with profanity and harsh invective.
“F— you all for giving me chest pains because of the staggering f—ing incompetence, blindness to important beats, and the beyond-arrogant disregard for what is written being exhibited on set every day,” reads one email sent by Darabont on June 14, 2011. “I deserve better than a heart attack because people are too stupid to read a script and understand the words. Does anybody disagree with me? Then join the C-cam operator and go find another job that doesn’t involve deliberately f—ing up my show scene by scene.”
In another email from June 16, 2011 Darabont slammed season 2 premiere co-director Gwyneth Horder-Payton — comparing her to an actor from Darabont’s film The Majestic whom Darabont said had suffered a stroke unbeknownst to producers.
“We were all so shocked because it was like he had no grasp of the basics of his craft?” Darabont wrote of the actor, Allen Garfield, to AMC executive Denise Huth. “And it turned out later he’d had a stroke he was unaware of? I am honest-to-God wondering if Gwyneth hasn’t experienced the same thing. That’s how fundamentally f—-ed this footage is. It’s as if she’s totally lost her grasp of what to do. It’s like we yanked some kid with no experience out of high school and put her in charge of directing a show.”
That season 2 premiere, “What Lies Ahead,” remains the only episode of The Walking Dead with two credited directors (Horder-Payton and Ernest Dickerson), and Horder-Payton never directed another episode of the show. Horder-Payton’s manager did not return EW’s request for comment.
AMC issued a statement on Thursday, which can be read in its entirety below:
We have always respected Frank Darabont and admired his work in film, which was part of the reason we hired him to adapt The Walking Dead for television. We released him because it soon became clear that his film talents did not translate to running a television show — one of the most difficult jobs in entertainment — and because he was repeatedly abusive and threatening to those working around him and under his direction. He made the set and writers’ room a threatening and toxic work environment. Through the ensuing lawsuit, Mr. Darabont and his agents at CAA are trying to rewrite their contracts through the courts, to capitalize on the success of the series in the years after Mr. Darabont was removed. Frank Darabont did not create The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman did, and Mr. Darabont and CAA have already been fairly compensated for his work on the show and will continue to benefit from their ongoing financial participation. Contracts are not screenplays, they can’t be rewritten just because one side doesn’t like the way they turn out, which is what Mr. Darabont and CAA are attempting to accomplish through this lawsuit.
Darabont’s agents, legal representatives, and production company, Darkwoods Productions, did not return EW’s requests for comment.