After 'Mad Men': AMC execs discuss their hits, and what's next

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Fans tend to get a certain degree of Walking Dead cabin fever when it comes to locations — the farm, the prison–
Collier: Have you seen the new campaign? “Don’t Look Back.”

Yeah, with the Hell on Wheels train tracks.
Collier: Wow, there’s a spoiler — wait until Anson Mount comes in and saves them! [Laughter]

Obviously they’re going out on the road for the back half of the season. To some degree relying on one location is a budgetary decision and given the show’s success I wonder: Does Walking Dead need a bigger budget to be as epic and location-jumping as some fans want it to be?
Stillerman: By every imaginable standard we put our money where our mouth is. If we ever found ourselves in a situation where we had to spend into a story that was worth it, we would have that discussion in earnest. Sure, you want to make sure you get your money’s worth out of the prison. We’re not only purveyors of quality content, we also have to be responsible for the bottom line. Thankfully we have a really cooperative relationship with the producers on that show and they’re great about it. We are applying some bottom-line thinking to that show and it has to work within the pattern that it has, but it’s a very generous pattern.

Actor and producer salaries aside, is there any budgetary difference between this season and next season?
Stillerman: Well, anytime you ditch a big set and are on the road, those are expensive episodes because you’re not getting the economies of scale as when you have standing sets. But we have a pretty long-term game plan for where we’re going. We know where this seasons ends, which is not unlike when we got to the prison — it’s a glimpse of what season 5 will be.

For any network, it’s important to have a reputation within the community of being a writer-friendly shop and being a great place to bring ideas. So with that preamble: What was your reaction personally when you saw former Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont’s comments about his time at AMC?
Collier: One and two on the board are being a premium network on basic cable and being a place where people bring their passion projects … There’s always some noise out there. But Matt Weiner brought us Mad Men and he’s going to see it to conclusion. Vince Gilligan did the same. Now Vince is back with [Better Call Saul executive producer] Peter Gould again. Look at the level of talent of people walking in the door. It’s not often the best [media] story, but more often than not we’re doing great things with some of the best talent in the business. The noise is the noise and it’s better ink, but we’re very focused on being a place where you want to bring your passion projects.

The Walking Dead spin-off. What’s the creative pitch?
Collier: It’s uh … it’s a musical. [Laughter] The best way to look at this is that when Robert Kirkman says he’s all-in for telling a story about what else is going on in the zombie apocalypse, we have a conversation [about] how do you make it different. How do you make sure it doesn’t damage the mothership? How do you make it creatively excellent? It’s early days.

It’s a prequel, though, right?
Stillerman: It’s in the ether. But Robert had to finish season 4. The creative is not baked yet. But one thing we talked about is there was a clear vision for Walking Dead, there was a clear reason to do it. We want there to be as clear of an idea for doing a sequel as there was for doing the original. So we’re working through that and almost thinking about it philosophically first.

You’re doing some spin-offs now. Eddie Van Halen famously fought with a producer who he said believed that if the band simply re-vamped a successful song, you’re already halfway to a hit — is that the draw?
Collier: Our development hasn’t changed to be unexpected and unconventional. Yet when you sit in our chair, if you have Breaking Bad and Vince and Peter say we have a way to engage around this character and create a different type of drama, you don’t let [that show] go anywhere else. If you’re Robert Kirkman and you have his brilliance around Walking Dead and he wants to explore what’s next, you do that. But our strategy is not to spin-off or be derivative. We’ve in a very fortunate position to have some iconic storytelling and better-still talent that wants to extend those franchises. We’re not bringing in Sammy Hagar and there’s no Diver Down II. Does that make sense?

Totally. Although it makes me wonder if you can definitively say Mad Men will be a stand-alone series without expansion.
Collier
: When Vince says: “How does Saul Goodman become the best/worst lawyer in the world?” And he starts talking about who made this guy who he is, why he ended up in Albuquerque, how he ended up so caring yet so devious and you’re talking to Vince Gilligan — a man you’d bet on to do anything — that’s a go. But it’s much more about those shows specifically being so unique.

So there haven’t been any conversations about expanding the Mad Men world?
Collier: You know, nothing worth sharing with you. There’s nothing to say. We constantly look at everything on our slate and go how do we maximize it. And I notice Mad Men. Any expansion has to be creator driven.

Halt and Catch Fire. I love that title. And I was just talking to my editor and she hates that title.
Collier: Isn’t that great?

Was there much debate about that one?
Collier: There’s a cartoon with two cavemen. One guy is working on creating fire. The other says, “The focus groups say you should call it ‘water.’” Names are very difficult.
Stillerman: There’s a special place in hell for people who have to figure out titles. We love Halt and Catch Fire. We had a robust discussion about it. And we stuck with it because it really isĀ germane to the concept. Nobody will know what it means, but that’s part of the fun of it. Because when people find out there’s a reason for it — do you know what it is?

Yes, though I had to look it up. I thought it had a cryptic rock-album sound to it. Then I found it refers to a failing start-up tech company and I liked it more.
Collier: That’s what we hoped you would do. Mad Men — I remember the discussion with Matt about what it meant. He said, “People will get it.” Breaking Bad – Vince put that in the vernacular. I remember the first time I heard SportsCenter anchors talking about somebody going into the penalty box as “breaking bad”– all right, that worked! I hope we can define the “halt and catch fire” moment. If years from now it means that moment of decision where you push against all odds, or have that moment of innovation when everybody says you’ll fail, that would be terrific.

And then there’s Turn, can you lend some insight on that one?
Stillerman: The show explores a phenomenon around the Revolutionary War that I’d never seen in any history book. You learn in history class, “There’s a king, he taxes people, they threw some tea in the harbor, and everybody picked up a gun.” What’s fascinating in Turn, and this is what I think will make it a great piece of television for people who might not even love spy stories, is that it’s as much a story about what it took for these kids to defy their families, and in some cases their spouses, even their best friends. You had to risk everything to go fight in that war. That’s another part of the story that we’ll explore deeply.

Two other higher-profile projects in development are the 18th Century London surgeon drama Knifeman and the post-technology apocalyptic fantasy Galyntine
Stillerman: Knifeman is a hugely original take on what could be considered the familiar medical genre, but it’s hardly like anything I’ve seen before in that space. We have Greg Nicotero and Galyntine. We’re betting on him to create a world that is really as ambitious as anything I think we’ve done in the recent past. Conceptually, they’re both way out of left field and also very large-scale pilots. We’ve all seen the brutal dark version of the post-apocalypse; we have a show on our air that explores that. The great thing about Galyntine is that it actually goes one step further and imagines not only the end of civilization, but also the beginning of the next civilization. We thought that was a really original choice on looking at the future.

In terms of shows that haven’t worked, is there any sort of universal takeaway that you’ve learned in terms of what works for AMC?
Collier: I fundamentally believe if you’re in our business you have to expect to have things that don’t connect. You used the word “learn,” and our job is to absolutely learn from each of them. Something Joel said earlier, we’ve been at our best when we’re truly original. There are things we liked in each of the misses and you can see where we pushed and didn’t connect. I went skiing with my kids over the holiday and I said If you’re skiing and not falling, you might not be pushing yourself hard enough — because they’re learning to do it. Certainly if you look at the history of television, it’s a history of swings and misses. And when you connect it’s magical.
Stillerman: We learn stuff from every show including the ones that worked. One of my favorite teaching moments was season one of Breaking Bad, which just by coincident was truncated by the writers strike. Jesse Pinkman was slated to go. It just reminds you that though you have to push for clarity of vision, you have to keep your eyes open for the magic to stay nimble.

And that splitting seasons is always good.
Stillerman: Let’s just say it’s been good for us.

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