NYCC: Producing "The Walking Dead"

The zombie apocalypse is close at hand.

On Halloween night, AMC will finally debut the series premiere of "The Walking Dead," the new hourlong drama based on the Image Comics series from Robert Kirkman. Written and directed by Frank Darabont, "The Walking Dead" tells the story of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), an injured lawman who wakes up from a coma and finds himself trapped in a new nightmare -- the world he knew is gone, replaced by a savage wasteland where the dead are walking and every surviving human is a full course meal in the making. Left alone in this broken landscape, Rick is a man with only one goal in mind: tracking down his wife and his son, and ensuring their survival at all costs.

At New York Comic Con, CBR News participated in a round table discussion of "The Walking Dead" with producer Gale Anne Hurd. Hurd spoke about her reasons for getting involved with the series, why AMC is the right network for the show, the level of gore they're able to get away with and the current state of televised storytelling.

CBR News: Gale, why this show?

Gale Anne Hurd: What's not to love? I'm a huge fan of zombies, I'm a comic book geek from way back, and I love making genre. What was wonderful here was the opportunity to do that, but have hours and hours of program as opposed to trying to tell the whole story in two hours. When you think about it, we're really lucky. Robert Kirkman has already said to us that he has at least 250 issues in mind, so it's not as if we have to make it up. What we have the opportunity to do, with his blessing, is detour off that path and explore things that aren't necessarily in the comic book, so if you are a fan of the comic book you don't feel as if you know exactly what's going to happen, when it's going to happen and to whom it's going to happen. That's a wonderful opportunity of being in partnership with someone like Robert and with Frank Darabont, who is as much of a geek as I am.

So, Rick might get to keep his hand?

You know, we'll see. We'll see. It's nice to have [two hands] and it's certainly less of a visual effects budget! [Laughs] But you never know. I wouldn't rule anything out.

Now that you've seen completed episodes of the series, how is it measuring up to what you were seeing on set and in the dailies?

It kicks ass. It really does. It kicks ass because we have a great team together. Not only do we have Robert Kirkman and Frank Darabont, but we have a tremendous cast. Every time I look at that big banner and I see the characters in the comic book against the cast that we put together, not only is there great synchronicity, but they're all terrific talents. We're also able to create new characters that aren't from the books, like Norman Reedus. How great is that? His brother is played by Michael Rooker. How fabulous is that?

We also have talent in post-production like Bear McCreary, who is our composer, as well as our consulting producer Greg Nicotero, who is probably the best makeup effects artist [in the business]. He and his terrific team from KNB were doing our effects, and Greg was on set every day. This isn't something where he just came in, showed up, did a little stipple here and there then left -- he was here every day.

Can you talk about balancing practical effects versus digital effects?

Frank and I both feel very, very deeply that if you can get something in camera on the day [of shooting] with the cast and they're not acting to a green screen, that is the best possible scenario. What we can't do is destroy Atlanta. You know? We asked! [Laughs] They did let us close down a lot of downtown Atlanta for the tank sequence at the end [of the episode] but if you look at our one-sheet, they didn't let us destroy Atlanta and fill the freeway with cars. So there's a time and a place for visual effects, and it's meant to enhance what we already have, and not to replace it.

How about balancing the appeal for genre fans and the appeal for a wider market -- how do you keep them both happy?

I think the great thing is, Robert Kirkman's comic book has a terrific fan base all around the world. They've let us know that they're watching us and we better not screw it up. That's really important to us - that fans realize we're taking this very seriously. We honor and respect the material, but we also want to make sure that it is opened up beyond that. The way to open it up is already there in spades: through characters and through drama. The characters are very relatable and we're able to expand that universe and bring in characters that didn't initially exist in Robert Kirkman's comics.

Is the size of the cast going to be an issue?

You know, I don't think so. I think you'll find that it's really not difficult at all keeping everybody straight. If you can follow "Lost," I really don't think you're going to have any trouble following "The Walking Dead." Our cast isn't as big as "Lost" and we don't jump back and forth in time. But there are a lot of secrets, which is another thing that I think is very interesting with AMC. If you look at the programming that they've got, there are secrets. In "Breaking Bad," the chemistry teacher and father is also a drug dealer on the side, and Don Draper is a mysterious character on "Mad Men." And, of course, "Rubicon." I think it's a perfect network [for the show] as well.

How far does the gore go?

This is really interesting. It is a basic tenet of the series; it's about zombies, and zombies want to kill and eat people. If you don't show zombies killing and eating people and if you don't show people killing zombies, well, you might as well just not make the show. From the very beginning, when AMC approached us, they told us, "We don't want you to hold back. We would like you to look at some of the classic genre films that we air during Fearfest," which is a block of programming that they show leading up to Halloween with classic horror and genre films. We were blown away by what their network finds acceptable. We also felt comforted because we're big fans of "Breaking Bad," and there's some pretty graphic violence there -- and that's nothing compared to "The Walking Dead." We've never gotten one note from [the network]. There's never been something where, as filmmakers, we said, "We really want to be no holds barred" and they said no.

When you see some of the gore and violence on the show, is there anything that shocks you? Is there anything that's catching you off guard, finding your heart in your throat in terms of suspense?

I have to say that what I find most remarkable is what people may not expect, which is how emotional it is, how connected you are to the characters and what they're experiencing, especially when they're experiencing loss. I get teary eyed, and you wouldn't think a show which is centered on human survival in a zombie apocalypse [would get you] a little bit misty eyed. I think that's a tribute to Robert's underlying material, Frank's terrific writing and directing, and the amazing cast.

How early in the process of putting this show together was it clear that AMC would be the home for this?

When I initially talked with Frank and we went to Robert Kirkman and we talked with him, I had already run the idea past AMC. Remarkably, they were familiar with the comic series. Honestly! It's not like I had to introduce them. Because of Fearfest, the executives at AMC already have a great experience in the genre. You wouldn't think that if you were just looking at AMC for their original series, but if you look at their overall programming, [Fearfest] is one of their most successful and highly rated blocks of programming. It wasn't like we had to twist their arms; they understand that this was not only great timing, but one of the greatest sources of hopefully years and years of zombie storytelling.

Are you excited by how television has started embracing more epic storytelling, instead of having to solve this now in a half hour?

Yes. I think this is a second golden age of scripted television, and it's cable. Cable is allowing the best filmmakers a playground that we no longer have in feature films, which are getting more sort of generic and less character driven. That's why you find Martin Scorsese doing "Boardwalk Empire." When you really look at the people who are now working in television, it's not as if it's like, "Okay, we're going to do TV because the feature career isn't working out very well." It's actually an opportunity to do even better work than you're able to do in feature films.

The 90 minute series premiere of "The Walking Dead" airs at 10/9 p.m. central on AMC this Halloween.

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