It’s time to head down to the smoldering heat of Atlanta, GA with Bloody Disgusting’s Jeff Otto as he reports in with his second of four The Walking Dead set pieces. Airing this October on AMC, the pilot episode was directed by Frank Darabont with six episodes locked for the first season. The Robert Kirkman adaptation follows a group of zombie apocalypse survivors just trying to survive, and find a new place to start over.
These days, it’s a pretty rare occurrence to shoot exactly where a script is set. Vancouver doubles for New York. Montreal is London. Louisiana becomes for L.A. So on and so forth. But Georgia has been making headway of late in the motion picture industry, offering a sizable tax break good enough to lure fellow horror productions ZOMBIELAND, THE CRAZIES and QUARANTINE 2. When Darabont, Hurd and AMC started putting together WALKING DEAD, Atlanta was the logical choice.
“Atlanta was just the close city, that’s really all it was,” says Kirkman of the setting for the series. “The opening issue takes place in Cynthiana, KY which is where I went to high school and lived a good portion of my life. At the beginning, they talk about how some of the people in neighboring states would have gone to larger cities so they could fortify them and protect the population. So Atlanta’s only six hours away from where I lived and I figured it would be like New York, Atlanta, Miami, maybe Chicago, they would protect those and kind of funnel people in there.”
“Whenever you’re producing, the best possible scenario is to film it where it’s set,” says Hurd. “And then I also had experience shooting in Atlanta on a Lifetime TV movie, so I already knew the crews here were fabulous.”
On the negative side, the heat index on set during our June visit pushed the temperature to over 100 degrees with humidity. “We just suck it up,” says Hurd.
“You don’t get used to the heat,” Darabont admits as he wipes sweat from his brow. “I’ve never had clothes stick to me like this in my life.”
“It’s becoming a running joke is that people arrive on set ready for the day and then they are battered and beaten up by the weather,” says Lincoln. “It’s kind of the right of passage on this job, but it’s great. It makes it real. There’s a lot of hard-earned sweat on camera. It’s not comfortable and it’s not pleasant, but it’s as you would imagine it would be trying to survive in this world.”
Fortunately, the zombies don’t mind too much and Atlanta’s got plenty of walking dead at the ready, including one of the nation’s largest zombie walks. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world where you could find better zombie extras,” says Gale. “They are amazing.”
“The people that are playing the walkers are incredibly committed,” adds Lincoln. “They get in very early and they have long hours. All the sequences that I’ve had to do with the walkers have been amazing. They’re so charged for it.”
The production held an open casting call to locate the best and the brightest local undead. And once the right men, women and whatnot were assembled, they headed to zombie school to prep for production.
“We actually spent three days and auditioned everybody,” says Nicotero of the zombie casting. “It was interesting because I initially thought my experience with zombie movies is you just let them do whatever they want to do. George [Romero] always said, ‘You show 50 people one movement then you have 50 people doing all the same thing.’ So we sort of just lined them up and said, ‘Let’s see what your zombie walk would look like,’ and then they would do it and we would say, ‘Try this or try that.’ You know, sort of fine tuning everybody.”
“You learn what your motivation is,” adds Hurd. “We’re hungry, we want to eat. And the fact that not everything is working quite properly. We talked about the inspiration being not the super fast zombies, but the cemetery zombies in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. They can get up to kind of a jog.”
Both Darabont and Nicotero, who has worked with Romero several times, are zombie purists. In their mind Romero’s zombies are the bible by which all others should be judged. “It’s not that I’m against [fast zombies],” says Nicotero, “it’s just not what I grew up with. It’s interesting too because a couple takes we did where a couple of the zombies kind of broke into a run and after one take Frank’s like, ‘Did they run too fast? They shouldn’t be running. Slow them down.’ This is trying to be creepy and moody and, you know, you’re building up all this kind of scary tension.”
Kirkman promises the show will have some easter eggs for fans of the series paying attention, but you won’t be seeing him amongst the undead any time soon. “I have decided that I do not want to [be a zombie], simply because I don’t like myself,” says Kirman. “It’s a problem I have. I can’t wait to sit down and watch the finished pilot. If I were to walk by on that screen sometime, it would just ruin the whole show for me.”
From what we saw both live on set and in images from the production, the zombies look simply stellar. We’ve seen great work from Nicotero before, but he’s truly outdone himself here, especially considering the time constraints of shooting a television show compared to a feature. When the dead hit your TV on AMC this October, prepare to be disgusted (in a good way).
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