Set Report Part 1: Bringing Kirkman’s ‘The Walking Dead’ to Life

Hands down the most anticipated horror project of 2010 is AMC TV’s The Walking Dead, a new series that’s set to premiere this coming October. Bloody Disgusting was lucky enough to spend a day on the set in Atlanta, Georgia to witness the great Frank Darabont (The Mist) filming the pilot episode. Adapted from Robert Kirkman’s astounding Image comic franchise, the project is set among a group of zombie survivors of an apocalypse who are led by a police officer, Rick Grimes, in search of a safe place to live. Each week over the next month we’ll be unrolling a new piece that’ll take you dear readers behind-the-scenes of what could be the horror event of the year. If “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” weren’t enough, are you willing to become one of “The Walking Dead”?

PREVIEW | PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 (new piece each week)

Zombies have enjoyed quite a resurgence over the past decade, from the emergence of speedy zombies in DAWN OF THE DEAD and 28 DAYS LATER (to the chagrin of some zombie purists) and on to the reemergence of zombie godfather George A. Romero with three new DEAD films to cap off the aughts. But for true flesh cravers, a few movies a year simply isn’t enough. If all goes well, longtime zombie lover Frank Darabont hopes to deliver your next dosage of undead on a weekly basis.

Based on the long-running comic by Robert Kirkman, THE WALKING DEAD will debut during AMC’s Fearfest this October. The critically acclaimed network hopes to see DEAD’s hero Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) landing Emmy nods alongside Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) this time next year. They also plan to set some new standards for the level of acceptable gore on television before all is said and done.

Along with Lincoln as Grimes, DEAD’s cast includes Jon Bernthal as Shane, Sarah Wayne Callies as Lori, Laurie Holden as Andrea and Emma Bell as Amy. Darabont will serve as executive producer as well as writer and director of the pilot; Kirkman will exec producer along with Gale Anne Hurd; and makeup master Greg Nicotero will make the zombies look, well, horrific. And if the first images we’ve seen so far are any indication, his work will be beyond anything else we’ve previously seen on television.

BLOODY-DISGUSTING spent a day sweltering on the Atlanta sets during production of the pilot episode. Over the course of our visit, we spoke to Darabont, Lincoln, Bernthal, Kirkman, Hurd and Nicotero. We got some background on the series’ development, bringing the production to Atlanta and what zombie school is all about. We even got to see a few zombies in the flesh and flip through some eerie, blood-soaked stills from production.

Part 1: Bringing Kirkman’s Walking Dead to Life

Like many projects these days, it all started with a trip to the comic shop. “He picked it up in a comic shop because somebody had told him it was a good zombie book and he loves all things zombie,” Kirkman says of Darabont’s initial discovery of the WALKING DEAD books. “He really enjoyed it and started asking around town and Hollywood to see what was going on with it and he found his way to my manager. That was a long time ago.

Darabont first struck a deal up with NBC, but it wasn’t meant to be. “They were very excited about the idea of doing a zombie show until I handed them a zombie script where zombies were actually doing zombie shit,” laughs Darabont. “And so, after that I shopped it around and got a lot of doors slammed in my face is the truth of it. It languished for a bit, as things do in Hollywood.

Enter Gale Anne Hurd. “I’d heard about it,” Hurd tells press. “When I first read the book, I thought, ‘This would be a great film’ and boy was I wrong. It’s a much better TV series. Fast forward, I knew that Frank had initially developed it for NBC, which to me seemed like an odd pairing for this. Then I heard it wasn’t going forward at NBC, so I talked to Frank.

Gale was tremendously instrumental in jump-starting it at a point where it felt like it was languishing,” says Darabont. “I’d gotten turned down enough times, which is no reflection on the material, but no matter what you’re trying to sell in Hollywood, you’re Willy Loman and it’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN. You’re out there trying to sell shit that nobody wants. Even if it’s good shit.

DEAD is the first work of Kirkman’s to be adapted and, considering the pedigree attached, he’s pretty pleased with the way things have gone. “I was telling Gale the other day, ‘This is the first thing I’ve had adapted and I have no sense of what this is actually like because Frank is the director, Gale Anne Hurd is the producer,” says Kirkman. “The stuff that AMC is going to put on air is crazy. They keep showing me things and I’m like, you’re not doing that. They rip a horse open and there’s just spaghetti coming out. They actually have things that you see.

Though the adaptation is by no means a frame-for-frame WATCHMEN-style translation, Kirkman says DEAD is very faithful to his original work and, in some cases, might even improve on his ideas. “Reading that pilot was just a revelation,” says Kirkman. “It’s extremely faithful. There are things that are so much like the comic, I can’t really remember the nuance of what’s different and what’s not from the comic. He’s definitely being more faithful than I expected and everything that he’s changing is brilliant. I couldn’t be happier. I think the fans of the book are going to just love it.

Darabont wrote the pilot episode and will also direct. Five other directors will then take the reigns for the initial six-episode run. “We have six different directors,” confirms Hurd. “We haven’t announced who they are yet. Frank can’t direct them all because obviously we have a very tight post production schedule. But he will be here on set and as executive producer, which is the case with most show runners, for every episode. The biggest problem was to say, ‘Frank, we cannot clone you and you can’t where all these hats.’

I have to put my pilot through the editing and post process,” adds Darabont. “Plus I’ve got to get back to L.A. and kind of ride heard on the writers generating the subsequent episodes. I’ve written the first two. I’ve got four scripts yet to come in and time is getting short. My intention is not to be an absentee landlord. I love this thing and I really want to keep my hand very much in the process. I don’t want to be one of those guys who gets a show set up, directs the pilot and then buggers off and is never heard from again.

Darabont wrote the first two episodes. And Kirkman himself will pen Episode 4. “He’s terrific,” says Hurd of Kirkman’s script work. “For a first-timer, all those years writing comic books was great training. We also have Chic Eglee who most recently came from DEXTER and before that THE SHIELD and DARK ANGEL. And also Jack LoGiudice who came to us from SONS OF ANARCHY and Adam Fierro, who actually wrote the episode of THE SHIELD that Frank directed. And Glen Mazzara, who’s also from THE SHIELD.

If the series succeeds, Season Two will be AMC’s normal 13-episode order. Darabont says it’s likely he’ll return to write and direct some of those episodes as well. Despite confidence that the series will be well received, Darabont says he’s not getting ahead of himself. The most important thing now is to deliver the best six episodes possible. From what we’ve seen so far, WALKING DEAD should be a real treat for horror fans.