It's been two and a half years since AMC gave Frank Darabont the boot from The Walking Dead, the ratings juggernaut that still puts Sunday Night Football to shame. It's the largest gap on his resume since the early '00s, when he took six years to adapt Steven King's 1980 novella The Mist for the silver screen. Now he's back with Mob City, TNT's tense, fast-moving mini-series about 1940's Los Angeles. The script is colorful yet succinct – "the bad guys wear flashy shoes" – with violent visuals that call to mind spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars. Rolling Stone spoke with the legendary director of The Shawshank Redemption about his new series, why he gave up Boardwalk Empire and how Breaking Bad became television's best show.
It's been over two years since you left The Walking Dead. Why return now and with this project?
Well, you've got to follow your passion – that's what I've always tried to do. Hey, if a really cool movie came along, I'd be doing that instead. But I found this material and the pieces just fell into place. The "yes'' happened when it needed to, so back to TV, why not? You need to jump back on the horse, especially when you get knocked off.
That material was John Buntin's non-fiction collection, L. A. Noir. Who put that book in your hands?
I did. I was racing to catch an plane at LAX and poked my head into a book store. . . Well, that's not quite right – it also sold magazines and junk food. You know, the essentials. And I saw this book, this great paperback of short stories that looked like an anthology. So I grabbed it and said, "Okay, this is right up my alley" – I love good noir – and I got on the plane. But I quickly realized it wasn't fiction but a history of Los Angeles, the mob and the L. A. P. D.
So it was chance.
It was complete chance. Raymond Chandler is one of my literary Gods – I've read his entire canon many times and I still pull it off the shelf every few years because it's such a great pleasure to me.
Your setting is Los Angeles in 1947, basically the same time frame as L. A. Confidential. What is it about post-war L. A. that's so appealing to writers?
Because man, it's the modern expression, the re-expression of the Wild West. It became such a boomtown after the war. You had so many young men being funneled through the west coast on their way to the Pacific theater that when they came back, they didn't want to go back to Oklahoma or the Detroit slums. Wherever there's that progress, that kind of growth – that money – there's going to be tremendous corruption and crime nibbling at the edges. And that's such a great world, because the moral compass is something that's very much a part of film and literature. Marlowe [Chandler's chief protagonist] was the man always-seeking true north on his moral compass. So what better place to set those tales than a city that's as morally conflicted as Los Angeles.
One of the things that struck me from your pilot was Jon Bernthal's million-mile stare, that post-war daze that Joaquin Phoenix exhibited to near perfection in The Master.
These guys were coming back from a hideous war of attrition where every possible rule of society was thrown out the window. They came back to a place where everyone had to be polite, buttoned-down and straight laced, a place where you can't go out and murder thirty people before breakfast. They had to pretend that this world, which felt incredibly artificial, made sense after going through that war. I find that utterly fascinating. There's a tremendous amount of dislocation that happens those first few years back from combat. You could write a book about that alone.
Even though your story is set seventy years ago, would you say that it's applicable to veterans returning today? Is that why you wanted to bring this to television now?
Listen, probably not. If that was the motivating reason, then I'd be telling a different story. At the end of the day, what I'm trying to do here is tell a really entertaining, pulpy, mob versus cops kind of noir inflected show. It's going to make for really good drama, and if anything, it will make for a nice tip of a hat to the generation that had to fight that war. But I would be disingenuous if I said there was more to it than that.
The story of a corrupt police force battling a city's seedy underbelly has been told many times over. What sets Mob City apart?
We're going to be following John Buntin's template in terms of what actually happened – how [police chief] William Parker cleaned up the force and brought down the corrupt elements. That's fascinating and something that I haven't seen before.
Did you have a historical supervisor?
Well, this was an interesting project, because it's really the loosest adaptation I've ever done. If you go back and look at The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile, you'll see me hewing as closely as an adaptor can to his source material. On this one, I realized I faced a real challenge from the moment when I actually had to sit down and write the pilot. As great as John Buntin's book is, it's just a non-fiction historical document. So a straight ahead adaptation ran the risk of being a sort of dry, earnest, Masterpiece Theater version of the mob versus the cops. I thought, "I really want to live up to the title L. A. Noir" – that's what got me excited when I grabbed that book off the shelf at LAX. If somebody were making a show called Noir, as a viewer I'd go in expecting a certain kind of entertainment – a certain kind of cool, cops and mobsters show. So if I made the Masterpiece version I'd be letting that idea down. I said, "I'm going to ignore the book – I'm going to really let my imagination go as far as it needs to." And that's indeed what we've done.
So was L. A. Noir your original title?
Yes it was! Mob City is a fine. It's pulpy and masculine, but I always thought L. A. Noir was the appropriate title.
You were raised in Los Angeles. Would you consider this a love letter of sorts to the city?
Yeah, oh yeah I do. I have a love/hate thing with L. A. It's been my home for most of my life – we got here when I was five – and boy, the city's grown since then. It kind of makes me crazy, you know? It used to be a more intimate city, but that's been the curse of L. A. from the start: its growth has never been checked. I don't know how this city is going to function in ten or twenty years. But I've got a lot of respect for its history. I'm utterly fascinated by it, to tell the truth. If I could jump in a time machine and go visit a place in the past, it would be L. A. and it would be right in this era. The women dressed gorgeously. And the men had the biggest, most fantastic automobiles that didn't all look the same.
Which side of the law would Frank Darabont be on?
I'd be on your side. I'd be the writer off in the corner trying to make sense of it all, which is what I'm doing now. I always identified with Chandler because he had this wonderful plan to "just make sense of everything I see around me." If you have that gene, that's the line of work you're going to be in. But if it weren't that, I'd probably be – I'd like to think I'd be on the side of the angels.
What's your pitch to win over Boardwalk Empire viewers now that their show is done for the year?
I wish I could give you the honest answer to that, but the truth is I don't watch Boardwalk Empire, so I don't know where the show stands right now. You'd have to tell me. I watched the first season and I respected it tremendously. When it came time to tune into the second season it just didn't drag my interest back for some reason.
Does it frustrate you that modern viewers DVR shows so frequently?
Oh boy, that's a sneaky question. I love to DVR stuff. I love to scan through the commercials for one and, listen. . . for a moment there I thought I invented binge viewing because I'd buy a season of something I really wanted to see on DVD and watch the whole thing in a week. So I have absolutely no resentment for people who want to bank a few episodes and sit down and watch them one night. It's the better viewing experience. But I shouldn't say that, because on basic cable we depend on our commercial sponsors.
Did any of those binge sessions influence Mob City directly?
You tell me. The Shield was fantastic. I mean way, way up there in the pantheon. Battlestar Galactica, that's the bingiest damn show of all time. The Wire, my god that's brilliant. If anything influences what I'm doing here at all, I haven't given it too much conscious thought, but probably The Wire and The Shield. There's also the first four seasons of Dexter – I thought they were just brilliant. And the daddy of them all: Breaking Bad. Can I have a moment of silence now that they're gone?
I'm pouring out my water bottle on the ground as we speak.
[Laughs] Wow. What a show, what a thing that was!
Can Mob City win over the Breaking Bad fans? There's a big opening for that audience.
I would love for them to check us out, because that's my favorite show. I remember saying a few times in the writers room, "We can't be that good, but we should try to be that eventful and really surprise people." Breaking Bad is a humbling example of how good television can be. So if we pursue that as an ideal, even if we fall short, we'll be doing something really, really good. But I'd love the Breaking Bad fans to tune in. We'd be very honored if they liked us.