Part One of Quint's day on the set of THE WALKING DEAD!
Published at: June 22, 2010, 1:39 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. “The Kirkmans are coming with us.”
After a night of ridiculous southern comfort food (I mean, fried ribs? Really?!?) at Fox Bros’ BBQ in Atlanta, Georgia I checked into my downtown hotel room and received a message from The Walking Dead’s publicist confirming my pick-up time the next morning… and with the above quoted sentence just thrown in there like it wasn’t anything.
If you’ve even glanced at this site in the last few weeks you’ve probably heard me gush over Robert Kirkman’s comic book THE WALKING DEAD. Since 2005 I’ve been a constant reader. No other publication has pulled me to the comic store like this since I was a kid.
I was already over the moon to be visiting the set of Frank Darabont’s pilot for the Walking Dead series and then to hear I’m going to be sharing a ride with Robert Kirkman? Get outta here.
And what a ride it was. They were shooting out in the boonies, some 45 minutes from Downtown Atlanta at a corner Texaco gas station at the crossing of two country highways. So, it was a nice amount of time to share some small talk with Robert and his lovely wife.
After a couple wrong turns we ended up seeing an electric sign at the side of the two-lane highway that urged caution up ahead. As we crested the hill we saw an overturned truck and I think every one of us thought it was a traffic accident. At first. Then we got closer and saw crew parking signs. Yep, all part of the set, but they kept the overturned truck and a crunched up car on the highway the whole day, with cops at the four way stop directing traffic.
Crew parking and was in the parking lot of a small Baptist church. No shit. And they were shooting on a Sunday, no less. I can’t imagine what the church goers thought about the post-apocalyptic vision right outside their doors. I mean, KNB’s trailer was right in front of the church. They must have thought the rapture was upon them when the stream of zombies came shambling out of the effects trailer.
For those worried that AMC is going to shackle Darabont and his collaborators the only thing I can say is that I was there for one of the earliest scenes of the series and I saw an eight year old zombie girl with her cheek chewed off, teeth showing through, get shot in the head.
It was the first zombie day and I was the very first set visit for the production. As I was ushered in front of the monitors, under the tent and out of the hot Georgia sun, I could see them blocking the next shot, which featured some KNB corpses in cars as Rick (Andrew Lincoln) walks down a hill, between cars, towards the gas station.
The gas station was a working Texaco closed for the day and was a great post-apocalyptic vision… at least 40 cars crammed in to the small space, even some parked on the grassy hill, all covered in dirt with doors hanging open and luggage tied to the roofs. A spray-painted sign with the simple message “No Gas” flapped in the wind above the pumps.
The first thing that grabbed my attention as the first shot went up was Rick’s big floppy brown Sheriff’s hat. If you’ve read the books you know how iconic that thing is and what it means to the father/son relationship of Rick and Carl Grimes. Rick’s whole outfit looked right out of the early days of the comic. The hat looked perfect. I know it’s a small detail to obsess over, but I’m a nerd, that’s what I do.
The second thing I noticed was that Darabont was shooting the pilot more like he shot his earlier films and not in the frenetic, hand-held style he employed on The Mist. Long, steady takes… vintage Darabont. To be completely honest I was relieved to see that. I quite like The Mist, but every time I watch it I wish he had been able to film it less like TV and more like his dramas.
Each take went on for maybe two and a half minutes as Rick slowly walked towards the gas station, a gas can and funnel in his hands. He stoops and peers into some cars as he passes, cautiously approaching the station. One camera was ahead of Rick as he walked, backing up in front of him. Another was a longer, static shot, seeing him walk from far away and grow larger in the frame as he approached.
This set-up ended when Rick got to the gas station.
David Tattersall (The Majestic, The Green Mile, Star Wars prequels) was the cinematographer of the pilot, another great indicator of a professional approach to this story. They were also shooting 35mm, not HD, yet another bonus.
Darabont was at video village one tent over and was directing via bullhorn if it was something simple (usually a camera direction – “A camera, frame right!” etc-). He’d run in if he had anything more detailed for the actor or camera department.
The dude looked like a kid in a candy store. He was having so much fun. I’m sure a lot of that had to do with this being the first zombie day… or maybe he just likes killing kids on camera. Or both.
In the break before the next set-up I got to give a hug to Denise Huth, Darabont’s lovely producing partner and all around cool lady and started talking to another one of the series’ producers: Ms. Gale Anne Hurd. I met her a while back when she came to Austin with The Incredible Hulk and then again later at Comic-Con and she ended up being my set buddy.
In fact at one point she totally schooled me as I was relaying a story about Arnold Schwarzenegger. We were talking about zombie make-up and how some extras might want to stay in their make-up so they can scare the shit out of people on their way home. I brought up the well-known story of Schwarzenegger staying in his first stage Terminator make-up from the first movie so he could go to diners and freak people out. Hurd turned around and said, “That’s categorically untrue.” She would know. In my defense, I did hear it from an effects guy on one of The Terminator commentaries or documentaries and Katherine Schwarzenegger wrote this article and says he came home in make-up and terrorized her as a kid.
But other than that things went swimmingly. Hurd gave off a very motherly presence, always making sure I was keeping myself hydrated and out of the hot sun.
The next shot was essentially the same action, but from much further away. Long lenses tracked Rick as he wandered down the hill, weaving in-between abandoned cars. The A camera always had him in frame, but the B camera would sometimes lose him, big blurry cars in the foreground obscuring him, only to pick him up again as he passed behind them.
From this they moved on to the very first zombie shot in the series. I knew this was coming up because I saw KNB’s Greg Nicotero running around wearing rubber gloves spattered with blood. He either decided to become a doctor and was performing emergency surgery or the undead were among us.
Let me run down the full action of the scene because from here on out they jump around in time with their coverage.
Rick leaves his cruiser on the road. He’s hasn’t seen a zombie yet, just corpses. I believe he is completely unaware of the zombie uprising at all at this point. He walks down to the packed gas station, sees corpses in cars, sees the “No Gas” sign and then he suddenly hears something: a shuffling sound.
He bends down, placing the gas can and his floppy Sheriff’s hat on the ground and looks underneath one of the cars. He sees a pair of small feet shuffling by in dirty bunny slippers. They get to a bloody teddy bear and stop. A tiny hand reaches down and picks it up.
Rick shoots up, calling out “Little girl! Little girl? It’s okay, I’m a police officer.” He rounds the car and sees her back as she slowly walks away, her blond hair dirty and clothes filthy. She stops, slowly turns revealing her zombie eyes (an infected red on the whites) and a gaping hole in her cheek, teeth showing through. The bloody teddy bear is clutched in one hand.
Rick is confused and revolted at the same time. She takes a slow step towards him and he backs up. She acts like those people you see in movies who are lost in a desert and see an oasis. The little girl starts slow and as she gets closer she shuffles faster and faster. Rick doesn’t have much time to react. He pulls his revolver, steadies it and takes a brief moment, hesitating… Undead or not, this is still a little girl.
He fires, taking her out. Unfortunately he also draws the attention of the biters in the area. They exit cars all around him and he ends up hauling ass back to his car, holding on to his hat like Indiana Jones running from the Hovitos at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He jumps into his car, the trunk still open and he peels away as a crowd of zombies crests the hill from the gas station.
So, the first zombie shot in the entire series was of two corpses in separate cars. “A” camera focused on an African-American lady with sunken eyes and Charlie Adlard zombie dentures. “B” camera was on a white dude in a suit. They look completely dead, slumped in their seats.
It wasn’t until around this time that Darabont noticed me sitting behind the monitors one tent over. He smiled and said, “Welcome back to the circus!” then proceeded to fire weapons like a Hawaiian shirt-wearing cowboy.
The action from earlier is repeated as Rick walks by their windows, peering in and seeing them. But now the camera is on the zombies, seeing Rick in the background. After Rick passes Frank gave it a moment and then he pulled the trigger on a .38 pistol. He fired blanks of course. It was to represent Rick shooting the little girl zombie.
In the first take the zombies jerked awake, looked around and slowly opened their respective car doors, exiting their automobiles and out of the shot.
Darabont tweaked this a bit and in the next take instead of “jerking awake” the zombie merely open their eyes and they exit the cars a little bit quicker. They got a few takes of this action and moved on.
An older gentleman was escorted onto the set by Andrew Lincoln and I could see him being introduced to people. Turns out this man was Ian Anderson, lead singer and flautist for Jethro Tull, also Andrew Lincoln’s father-in-law.
As luck would have it, Mr. Anderson was seated next to me and we got to bullshit for a while about the humidity of the summer and how that fucks up the specific microphones in his flutes. He said he’s had to tell his manager to lower the amount of shows he does a year to 120 (!!!) because he wants to take it a bit easier. He also reminisced about touring with Led Zeppelin in ’69.
It was quite a gas to see the crew come up to him, totally in awe. A lot of them would bring up specific shows (“I saw you at the Cow Palace in ’84!” etc) and Anderson engaged them all.
When Robert Kirkman was introduced to Ian Anderson, Ian said after his son-in-law got the job playing Rick he looked at the comic and wanted to know where all the zombies came from. Kirkman gets this question all the time, I’m sure, but he doesn’t get it all the time from a rock legend. He said they don’t ever explain how the zombies came to be in the book. “That’s the boring part to me.” He’d rather focus on the characters trying to live in that world.
This whole conversation spun into more zombie talk as Anderson described telling his 2 ½ year old granddaughter about monsters and how zombies were the first she could pick out when he was imitating them. He took his cues from the George Romero NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and then imitated one of those zombies for us, as he did with his granddaughter. Surreal moment to say the least.
Oh, and he carried his flute around with him in a nifty black case with a strap that hung over his shoulder. Cool, right?
I removed myself from conversing with Anderson so I could go check out the zombies up close.
These were fresh corpses. Wet. I met two in particular, a tall guy named Cody that had two different full-eye contacts… one made that eye look terribly damaged, the other a bright infection, and a shorter guy named Chris. Chris had incredibly realistic scratch marks on his neck.
In order to keep the make-up from melting in the sweltering heat, the zombies pretty much had the run of the air-conditioned Texaco interior. I hesitated to leave the blissful coolness of the gas station store, but upon exiting I was face to face with little Addy Miller, who was all dressed up as the little girl zombie.
The detail on her cheek piece was crazy. It really did look like a hole in her cheek, the teeth showing through. As a result of her make-up she couldn’t really move her mouth that much. Her eyes were darting around with all the new attention, obviously nervous.
Frank came up and knelt down, shaking her hand and talking to her. Andrew Lincoln came up to speak with her as well, both men trying to put her at ease… you know, before they blow her head off.
The ADs asked for people to pull back, give them some room for a more private rehearsal, so I went back to the tent to catch up on some note taking to make sure the detail of the zombie encounters didn’t dry up between me seeing them and me writing this piece.
And then the skies opened up.
It started as a drizzle, then became a real heavy summer storm. The crew scrambled to cover equipment with plastic tarps. This delayed production for all of 10 minutes and then the rain stopped just as suddenly as it began.
Frank grabbed a shot under the car at Rick as kneels down and peers under. Shuffling feet, blurry and out of focus, pass in front of the lens and he reacts.
It was a simple shot, but what I love about watching these things come together is seeing the level of detail put into these small shots. The production design team came in and littered up the ground with crumpled newspaper (a must for a post apocalyptic story), hubcaps and cardboard, which added just the right level of detail to sell the world.
Frank got this a few times, building on the shot… at first it was just Rick kneeling down, but in the next few takes the camera panned with Rick’s boots as he walked by… they leave frame then after a beat back into frame before he kneels down, as if he was walking by, heard a sound, slowly backed up and knelt down to peer under the car.
The whole time they were shooting people would drive past… some locals even walking up to buy groceries at the store only to stop dead in their tracks when they saw the end-of-the-world vision before them… their familiar and small country gas station now packed with busted up and broken down cars. And a movie crew. And the undead.
One of the most entertaining moments of the visit occurred when a biker couple slowly rolled by on their hogs. The biker lady took one look at what was going on and yelled out “Daaaaammmmmmnnnnnn!”
The next shot had Rick calling after the little girl, hurrying around the car from a medium shot to a close-up as he gets his first real look at her. He takes a few steps back, pulls his revolver and holds it up into a very Dirty Harry shot and mimes him firing (he can’t because it’s too close to the camera).
This series of takes was one of the more crucial moments for me as a fan of the books because this moment had to be sold by Lincoln. This is where I would see if his Rick would be acceptable.
He looked the part, his boyish look from LOVE ACTUALLY had been shed a bit, age and experience showing much more on his face. As discussed already, the costume department did their job in making the Rick from the book look right.
But the performance is key.
At the end of the day I was invited into Lincoln’s trailer to have an informal discussion about the project. No tape recorder just him and me chatting about The Walking Dead.
I told him I was a massive fan of Kirkman’s books and was very happy with what I was seeing. He then asked me, as a fan, what I liked so much about Rick as a character.
I thought for a second and I said, “I like that Rick isn’t a super hero. I like that as the story goes on he’s put repeatedly through the ringer. He’s a broken man. No matter what he does, how strong of a leader he is, people die and that wears him down. He’s going to reach the point of no return at some point. He’s already cracking up in the current run of books.”
Lincoln smiled and told me he and Darabont had just had a conversation about Rick not 45 minutes before I entered that trailer where he said the exact same thing. Rick doesn’t have an unlimited amount of himself to give. Everything he does, everything he witnesses, everybody he loses ends up taking a piece from him until he, eventually, won’t have anything left to give.
“Even today, Rick shooting the little girl took a sliver from him.”
I saw that on his face in this close-up. I saw emotions ripple over his face one after another… from confusion to repulsion to disbelief to fear to panic… in one fluid string that felt entirely real.
This shot, by the way, was captured in the rain. The Georgia sky had opened up again, but the hope is that the rain wasn’t caught on camera. I hope not, it’s a great, early textured piece of work that will eventually define the heart of Rick Grimes as a character.
Lunch was called and I found myself sitting across from Mr. Darabont as we chowed down.