“We always l i ke to kick the show off with a bang”
The Walking Dead is back, and as Joseph McCabe reports, it’s still not for the faint- hearted...
We’re in a peaceful Georgia forest in mid- May. A gentle breeze drifts through the trees and sun- spotted leaves rustle. But amidst the serenity, death is present. Or more specifically, the undead. Around here they’re called walkers, and four of them have surrounded a large boulder in the midst of a clearing. Atop it sits a young African-American man, wearing the white collar and black shirt and slacks of a priest. The walkers claw at his feet, madly searching for flesh.
The priest kicks at their hands and screams in terror. “Help! Help! Anybody! Help!”
From out of the forest tears what at first looks like a platoon of infantrymen. But as the brush clears, their faces grow familiar – Rick Grimes, his son Carl, Daryl Dixon, Maggie Greene, Glenn Rhee, Michonne, Carol Peletier. In a heartbeat, they envelop the walkers. Rick grabs one, slams its head against the boulder, and throws it to the ground. Carol drives her knife through the skull of another. Michonne hits hers twice in the back of its head with the butt of a rifle, then a third time after it drops. The threat eliminated, Glenn shouts, “Are we good?” After scanning for more walkers, Rick replies, “Yeah.” He looks up at the terrified man and offers him his hand.
“Cut!” cries director David Boyd. Actor Seth Gilliam climbs off the rock and the stars of
The Walking Dead take a breath. “Let’s hear it for the walker zombies!” says Boyd. The cast breaks into smiles and applause.
It’s day three of shooting the second episode of the show’s fifth season in the noon sun here at Raleigh Studios in Senoia, where The Walking Dead is produced. And it’s clear that even after four years of constant death, the TV adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s bestselling comic book is still finding new life. Joining the veteran cast on set today are Josh McDermitt ( aka Eugene Porter, the scientist who holds a potential cure for the zombie plague), Michael Cudlitz ( Abraham Ford, an Army sergeant tasked with getting Eugene to Washington DC), Christian Serratos ( Rosita Espinosa, Ford’s right- hand woman), and Alanna Masterson ( Tara, former friend of the villainous Governor and now ally to Glenn and his buddies).
All four actors, introduced in season three, have been promoted to regulars this year, super- sizing an already large ensemble. But as
The Walking Dead demonstrated in its gamechanging fourth year, it’s always welcoming to newcomers. However short their life expectancies might be.
death is coming
“I fully expect to die,” laughs Cudlitz, when he chats with SFX during the break in shooting.
Despite the prominent role his character plays in Kirkman’s comic, the red- mustachioed giant insists that, “Everyone’s here on borrowed time. There are characters that are still around in the comic book that were off this show two years ago, and there are characters that were not in the comic book that are still around. I’m excited to be here for whatever duration this is. Whatever comes is a gift.”
Season four capped with Rick and his
longtime companions meeting Abraham and his allies in a boxcar in which both groups were imprisoned in Terminus, a long- sought refuge revealed as a deadly trap. Season five may begin with the two teams joining forces to escape their captors ( no one’s saying), but any union could prove short- lived.
“The whole focus of my group right now is the mission,” says Cudlitz. “Everything is mission- oriented. Everything stems from and to the mission. Eugene is the package that we have to get to DC. That takes precedence over everything. There’s full commitment to the mission at this point... Right now he’s Rick and we’re going to DC. So we’ll see what unfolds.”
When asked if he anticipates conflict with Rick’s group, Cudlitz deadpans, “Don’t get in my way.”
As the actor returns to set, SFX heeds his words and scurries away to chat with producer Gale Anne Hurd, whose genre savvy has guided The Walking Dead since it began production in 2010. Hurd tells us she and her fellow producers lost sleep worrying over the intense nature of season four’s finale, which saw Rick and his friends threatened by a gang of thugs, one of whom was intent on molesting Carl. The standoff ended with Rick ripping his assailant’s throat out. With his teeth.
“We don’t do it for shock value,” says Hurd, “It’s all about putting our characters into situations in which they find out what they’re really capable of. That’s the challenge this season – what are we really capable of ?”
A lot of season five, she explains, “has to do with the threat that you pose to yourself and the people around you after you’ve taken a step, and after you’ve done something that crosses the line. Can you regain your humanity? Are you safe to be around? That’s one of the things that we are examining. Once again, there’s no shortage of zombies. They are always there. But they are in essence the predicable threat. You know that you can’t stop them. You know what they’re after. That will always be there. But now it’s a question of ‘ Who am I really once I have done something?’ When you consider that Rick was the guy that rode into Atlanta on horseback [ in the show’s premiere] – ‘ Who are you? What kind of father are you?’ On the other hand, you sit there and you go, ‘ At that moment, what else could he have done to save his son?’”
Before leaving us, Hurd offers her assessment of the coming year. “I think you’re going to find we have a little bit of everything this season. I think it’s safe to say no one is safe. They’re still seeking a safe haven, they’ve still got hope. But at times it gets very, very dark.”
After Hurd says goodbye, we’re joined by executive producer and make- up effects
“once again, there’s no shortage of zombies”
supervisor Greg Nicotero. He confirms, as we noticed earlier on set, that the show’s walkers have grown increasingly emaciated.
“I think we’ve figured we’re a year and a half into the apocalypse in our story,” says Nicotero. “So some of these zombies that are walking around have been around for a while. The noses are coming off and there’s a lot more skin sliding off. Every year we expand our visual palette a little bit more. With one of the make- ups, I said, ‘ Take some of the teeth out. It’d be cool to have some broken- out teeth.’ It signifies that they’ve been around for a long time, maybe they bit somebody and their teeth broke. Adding those little flairs makes it feel like you’re not seeing the same character and make- up over and over again.”
Nicotero tells us that this season current showrunner Scott Gimple has increased The Walking Dead’s fidelity to Kirkman’s source material. Though adapting the comics’ near limitless scope isn’t always easy. Nicotero’s just finished directing and editing the season premiere, which he says is “without a doubt the hardest” of the eight episodes he’s helmed.
“We always like to kick the show off with a bang, and we used every second of every shooting day. The episode has everything. It has everything. The editor calls me every night going, ‘ Oh my god, I can’t believe... I can’t wait for people to see it!’ It was like boot camp. It was ten days of just super intensive [ work]. Every day at the end of the day I’d just sit
“there’s a lot more skin sliding off zombies”
there rubbing my head going, ‘ Oh my god, I’m gonna die.’ I even said to Scott, ‘ You’re trying to kill me. I’m convinced of it.’ Because I love the show so much I feel like the scenes have to be great. I have an obligation to Scott as the writer, because Scott writes those episodes. So I have to make sure I get what he wants.”
As overworked as he might be, Nicotero scoffs at the idea of taking a break from the zombie- making part of his job.
“Are you kidding?” he laughs. “You’d think it would be easier, but we’re on set today and there are zombies and I’m running around. I share the same passion that all the actors and crew share. We challenge ourselves every year. That’s what makes it great.”
The Walking Dead returns to Fox on Monday 13 October.
You still wouldn’t want one of their snaps in your wedding album.
Rick: still there. Just.
Probably a good thing it’s a dark picture.
A hope for the future?
Ever tried sensitive skin shaving foam?