Frank Darabont Looks Ahead to ‘Mob City’ After Tense ‘Walking Dead’ Departure

The writer-director welcomes the challenge of building the new TNT show even as he harbors the hurt of his previous showrunning experience

Frank Darabont Mob City
Michael Lewis

It’s 10:45 a.m. on a Thursday, and Frank Darabont is groggy. With barely a month left until the premiere of his latest TV series, TNT’s “Mob City,” the workload is weighing on him.

“I don’t escape it in my sleep,” Darabont says between sips of coffee. “I go home, and whatever amount of sleep I do get, I’m dreaming about being on set and all the thorny possible things that could happen, but it’s an abstraction of those problems. … It’s just my subconscious messing with me. It’s always been that way.”

Sitting on the floor of his Spanish-style offices in Los Feliz, Darabont takes drags off an e-cig, vaguely resembling the characters in his period drama that draws on the rich heritage of L.A. noir — except that he’s wearing one of his signature Hawaiian shirts, and his nearby iPhone is decked out in a “Clockwork Orange” case.

Darabont, 54, tries in vain to allow his body to recover from what he describes as the “mania” of television production, and on this Thursday, he’s still looking ahead to a long night of pickup shots that weekend. “Mob City” is the writer-director’s first TV effort since he launched AMC’s “The Walking Dead” on its path to record-breaking ratings in 2010 — and then was summarily fired by the network.

Darabont doesn’t shade his bitterness about the AMC experience, which can only add to the pressure he’s feeling to impress everyone with “Mob City.”

“What a crazy business this is,” he says. “On a weekend, I’ll go for a lie-down and nap for four hours in the afternoon, which is awesome. But when I’m in production, I could take a whole Ambien, and that’s only good for two hours of sleep — that’s how amped up your whole being is.”

Billed as a three-week event, “Mob City” is one of TNT’s most ambitious series to date. The net plans to roll out two episodes a week starting Dec. 4, hoping that the condensed six-episode season will generate more buzz in a short period of time, when most of its competitors are in holiday-light mode.

It’s semi-binge-viewing, I guess,” Darabont says. “The audience really gets to see if they’re digging what they’re seeing. (The plan is) so smart. If the show is successful, it will be due in large measure not just to our efforts, but to TNT’s, because they’re marketing the hell out of it.”

Despite his reputation as an auteur with an all-consuming passion for his work, which includes such notable pics as 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption” and 1999’s “The Green Mile,” Darabont is down-to-earth and quick to laugh. As he chats about “Mob City,” Bailey, a white puppy that belongs to a post supervisor, bounds upstairs to the den. Darabont pulls the small dog into his lap.

He bought this brightly lit Los Feliz pad more than a decade ago to serve as his creative offices. It’s on a quiet tree-lined street just down the road from his actual home, and it has served him well as the writers room for “Mob City,” among other showbiz projects. Better still, he feels at ease here.

“We put those big dry erase boards up on stands,” Darabont says, gesturing toward the fireplace of the modern living room. “And we have big couches everywhere. I’ve got my editing rooms downstairs. Everyone loves it here. We’ve got a backyard to stroll through, and it’s not the 405 driving by your soot-covered windows.”

The house is also only a 10-minute drive from “Mob City” locations, including Miceli’s, the venerable Italian restaurant in Hollywood that serves as a key backdrop for one gritty scene. Cutting-edge vfx techniques — along with a latenight lensing sked — help the show bring out the vintage feel of locations including downtown’s Union Station, the oil fi elds of Baldwin Hills and neon-lit streets stocked with vintage cars.

Darabont’s interest in film noir has rattled within him for years. But the spark that led to the 1940s-set crime drama came from a happenstance purchase while heading out on a brief respite from the city that is his current muse.

“I found the book in LAX,” Darabont says of John Buntin’s “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City,” the inspiration for the series. “I was leaving town for a quick week of R&R in 2010. At first, I thought it was a collection of short stories, but I realized it was nonfiction on the plane, and I couldn’t put the damn book down for two days. Instead of going snorkeling in the reef, I stayed on my couch and continued to read.”

By the end of 2011, Darabont had teamed with producer and longtime friend Michael De Luca, who had optioned the rights to Buntin’s book, to shepherd “L.A. Noir” to TNT.

To prepare for the series, Darabont sifted through some fi lm classics of the genre, including 1955’s “Shack Out on 101” and 1957’s “Nightfall,” in order to let the vibe “soak through” his skin. One movie he didn’t see was this year’s “Gangster Squad,” however, which treads on similar themes. That pic bowed more than a year after Darabont wrote the “Mob City” pilot, and he didn’t want his thinking influenced by a similar project.

“Mob City” revolves largely around the notorious battles between Los Angeles police and mobsters. It reunites Darabont with former “Walking Dead” star Jon Bernthal.

In contrast with his experience at AMC, Darabont enthuses that TNT — and programming prexy Michael Wright, specifi cally — has a “wonderfully light touch” when it comes to giving notes on his skein. The environment reminds him of working with Castle Rock Entertainment, he says, the banner behind “Shawshank” and “Green Mile.”

“At TNT, there’s not some, unlike other places, vast, inhouse committee of nattering chipmunks, everyone trying to get their point of view injected in the process,” he says. “It’s filmmaker-friendly.” He adds that the job of creating a TV series is hard enough without what he considers “micro-managing.” Wright, he adds, “reserves his comments for what actually matters.”

Having now worked on two series, Darabont is certain that delivering good TV is far more intense than working on the bigscreen.

“The storytelling you’re doing is very compressed,” he explains, joking that his “secret superpower” is his ability to sit in front of a computer to write scripts for “12 to 15 hours at a stretch,” getting up only for bathroom breaks.

Darabont considers the pace of TV production to be a “fantastic workout,” not a drawback.

“You have to make creative decisions that get the job done … very quickly. It makes me feel leaner and more effective,” he says.

But Darabont experienced the downside of the TV workout with “Walking Dead,” the show he adapted from Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series. After the skein’s impressive start with a six-episode run in the fall of 2010, the biz was shocked the following summer when the news broke that the creative was off the show.

Rumors swirled that Darabont was fired by AMC over budget concerns and clashes between him and network suits. Neither Darabont nor AMC have publicly addressed the reasons for his departure — which only added fuel to the rumor mill — but the wound has clearly still not healed.

After Darabont’s tense departure, Glen Mazzara took over showrunning duties, but he was ushered out two seasons later. Scott Gimple, who was a member of Darabont’s original writing staff, now spearheads the show.

When asked if he still watches “Walking Dead,” Darabont lets loose.

“Oh God no, why would I,” he says sharply. “If the woman you loved with all your heart left you for the Pilates instructor and just sent you an invitation to the wedding, would you go?”

He continues, “There’s a deep commitment and emotional investment that happens when you create something that is very near and dear to you, and when that is torn asunder by sociopaths who don’t give a shit about your feelings or the feelings of your cast and crew … that doesn’t feel good.”

After a drag off the e-cig and stroke of Bailey’s head, Darabont laughs. “No, I would not go to the wedding, is my answer. Nor would I accompany them on their wedding night to see them fuck.”

Despite his hard feelings, Darabont is happy to see Gimple in a leadership position on the program.

“I thought Scott was the most talented writer in that room, and I’m including myself in that equation,” he says. “I thought, if anyone deserved the shot to revive that show (to get) it back to some sort of adult perspective, it would be him.”

While he awaits the reaction to “Mob City,” Darabont has little on his plate other than plans for a trip up north to Carmel to relax with his wife. He’s hoping to secure a second season pickup from TNT, but other genres still rattle around in his mind the way noir once did.

“My first and best love is science fiction,” he says, “which I’m not sure has been served particularly well through the years by movies. And like every boy, I’d love to do a Western.”

For the rest of this month, however, such thoughts will take a back seat to the final production and promo push for “Mob City.” A good night’s sleep is an elusive dream, glowing far off on the horizon like the neon that colors his new show.

“A number of times during a shoot, where you’re in your 15th hour, standing in an alley at four in the morning in Hollywood, it strikes me how flabbergasted people would be by what it takes to produce TV,” Darabont says. Not that he’s complaining.

“But how privileged are we to do it?” he adds with a smile. “How few people have the privilege to be doing something like this?”

Darabont From Page to Screen:

The writer-director has been inspired by the work of genre authors, most notably, Stephen King.

“The Shawshank Redemption”

Film Adaptation: 1994
Author: Stephen King

The Morgan Freeman-Tim Robbins starrer put Darabont on the map as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after writer-directors, and earned him an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.

“The Green Mile”

Film Adaptation: 1999
Author: Stephen King

Darabont met his future “Green Mile” star Tom Hanks at the 1994 Academy Awards Luncheon, where the two were attending for “Shawshank” and “Forrest Gump.” “Green Mile” earned Darabont another adapted screenplay nom from the Academy.

“The Mist”

Film Adaptation: 2007
Author: Stephen King

Darabont penned an ending for “Mist” that differed from King’s horror novella, with a shocking final scene that still leaves film fans reeling. When studios offered him big bucks to produce the pic — so long as he changed the ending — Darabont passed, ultimately setting up shop at Dimension to bring the horror story to life.

“The Walking Dead”

TV Adaptation: 2010
Author: Robert Kirkman

Kirkman’s graphic novel was discovered by Darabont in 2005. The scribe came across the zombie property at a Burbank comicbook store, and by January 2010, AMC had ordered a pilot for what would become the mostwatched show on cable television.

“L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City”

TV Adaptation: 2013 (“Mob City”)
Author: John Buntin

When Darabont found out Michael De Luca held the rights to “L.A. Noir,” he was relieved: The producer and Darabont have a history that goes back to the ’80s, when they worked on Wes Craven’s “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise.