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NYCC: “The Walking Dead” Panel

by  in Comic News Comment
NYCC: “The Walking Dead” Panel

Warning: minor spoilers for the first two episodes of “The Walking Dead” lurk ahead.

Rick Grimes is trapped inside of a tank, with a horde of flesh-eating zombies waiting just outside with only one thing on their collective mind: brains.

His only lifeline is a radio near the driver’s seat, from which a voice is heard encouraging Rick to grab ahold of any weapons and supplies that he can, then make a break for it. Reluctantly, the southern lawman obliges, grabbing a hand grenade before popping open the tank’s cockpit and blasting his way out towards freedom. He’s running with a limp, carrying the heavy load of supplies with some difficulty, shooting every last blood-lusting walker that stands in his way.

A noise and a blur of a body comes from Rick’s right, causing him to swivel and aim his beretta at the head of a man who is, thankfully, “not dead.” This is Glenn, the voice from the radio, and like Luke did for Leia, he’s here to rescue Rick.

The pulse-pounding rescue attempt was the first thing seen at the “Walking Dead” panel at New York Comic Con this past weekend, moderated by IGN editor-in-chief Eric Moro. Right out of the gate, attendees were treated to a six and a half minute sequence from the second episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” showcasing the introduction of Glenn, Andrea and several new characters as Rick learns that his gun-toting actions have drawn the attention of a horde of walkers, making it virtually impossible for himself and his newly discovered allies to flee the scene with their lives intact.

When director, writer and producer Frank Darabont, producer Gale Anne Hurd and producer, writer and comic book creator Robert Kirkman took to the stage, Kirkman asked the obvious question: “Are there any doubts left, anyone?” The thunderous applause gave him his answer.

Asked what initially drew her to “The Walking Dead,” Hurd said that it was all about the opportunity to work with Darabont and Kirkman, not to mention the wealth of material already seen in Kirkman’s comic books. “We’ve got the material, and I think we’re talking about going for ‘The Simpsons’ record,” she said.

“The nature of what Robert has done lends itself brilliantly to a long term serialized treatment,” added Darabont. “I had it in my mind that it would be great to do a series set in a zombie apocalypse, because I’ve been a zombie fan since I saw ‘Night of the Living Dead’ when I was a kid.” Darabont said that when he first discovered Kirkman’s material, it was exactly what he was hoping for. He wanted to pursue the project as a television series as opposed to a film because he believes zombie movies have already been done quite well. “This feels really fresh to me because it’s a different way into the material, following this ensemble of marvelous characters over a period of time, as long as [AMC] lets us do it. That makes me very excited.”

As for why AMC is the right network for a project such as “The Walking Dead,” Hurd said that the network executives were already quite familiar with the comic books well ahead of the series’ development. “The very first phone call to the executives at AMC, we said, ‘I know you have ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ but are you interested at all in a graphic novel, maybe ‘The Walking Dead,'” she recalled. “And they said, ‘You mean Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead?’ I looked at the phone and thought maybe it was a prank call, but no, they were fans!”

For his own part, Kirkman is quite pleased with the effort thus far. “I almost teared up when Glenn showed up for the first time on that screen,” he said. “It’s working out better than I could have ever imagined, just to see everything Frank and Gail have put into this, and [the cast and crew] and the amount of support that AMC put behind this show. Never in a million years would I have expected it to have gone to this level.”

Darabont said that while “The Walking Dead” will remain faithful to the source material, there will be deviations from the original path. “We’re going in every spastic direction we can. We’re going to take as many detours as we feel like taking,” he said. “My idea has been, if we step off the path, we can always step back on it.” These deviations, he said, need to weave faithfully, fairly and organically into the comic book story that Kirkman has already written.

Kirkman is in agreement with Darabont, saying that the sequence they just showed happens quite differently in the comic books. “It kind of happens, but not in that way, and that’s important to me,” he said, saying that he wants fans of the comic books to be just as thrilled and uneasy with the television series as they were when first reading the comics.

It’s also exciting for him to have the opportunity to go back and revisit the early days of the series. Kirkman wrote the fourth episode, and said of the experience: “It was really fun to go back, because a lot of these characters are dead in the series. It was fun to get to go back and spend more time with them. It was fun to spend time in a new medium.” He said that writing for television pushed him as a creator, and he hopes to do it again.

On the subject of practical versus computer enhanced effects, Hurd and Darabont were in agreement that they should use practical effects whenever possible. “They’re very real,” Hurd said of the zombies, with makeup effects owing credit to legendary effects artist Greg Nicotero. “We have lunch with them, and thankfully, we’re not the lunch.”

Darabont cited “Night of the Living Dead” and “Day of the Dead” as models for the zombies seen in “The Walking Dead,” and added that he hopes zombies aren’t the new vampires; today’s zombies, in Darabont’s estimation, are “too sparkly and too sexy.”

Although a second season has yet to be announced, Darabont is already looking towards the show’s future. “I can’t wait to get to Michonne, striding out of the wasteland with a samurai sword on her back, armed with a couple of zombies chained to her,” he said, adding that he’s also excited to get to go back to prison, referencing his work on “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile.” Kirkman is equally excited about the opportunity to rediscover old characters, including Axel, Hershel and even the Governor.

Speaking towards the violence seen in the series, Kirkman said: “What we saw right now is nothing. There’s way cooler stuff in the show that blows me away. I think people will be shocked with the level of what we’re able to get away with.”

Darabont chimed in, citing “Breaking Bad” as an example of the type of grisly violence AMC allows on its network. “We’re going to make them look like a bunch of pussies,” he declared.

Following that crowd-roaring declaration, the panelists debuted another clip from “The Walking Dead,” this time set in the survivors’ camp as Dale fixes up his RV and Shane plays with Carl, with Lori looking on longingly. Suddenly, the group’s radio sparks to life as they receive word that a contingent from the camp sent into Atlanta to procure supplies – the same group that Rick has just stumbled upon – is trapped inside of a building surrounded by zombies. Amy wants to spring into action because her sister Andrea is with the group, but Shane makes a judgment call: they’re already dead, and no rescue is required. Amy stares coldly at him: “That’s my sister you’re talking about, you son of a bitch.”

When the clip ended, the cast was introduced to the crowd: Andrew Lincoln as police officer Rick Grimes, Sarah Wayne Callies as his wife Lori, Jon Bernthal as his best friend Shane, Laurie Holden as lawyer-turned-sharpshooter Andrea, Steven Yeun as the resourceful Glenn and Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, a new character who is one half of a duo of ex-con brothers.

As the actors went down the line to introduce themselves to the audience, Bernthal received a chorus of boos due to the fact that his character, Shane, falls in love with Rick’s wife and nearly succeeds in killing his best friend. Bernthal welcomed the reception, saying that he hopes that he can convince the audience of the fact that his character is a “douche,” and by the time the next episode airs, he hopes to change the viewer’s mind.

“It was an absolute honor to be a part of this. It’s a really, really special project,” he assessed, adding that everybody is “working really hard to do this right for the fans.” That comment received as many cheers as his initial presence received jeers.

Most of the actors on stage said that they’ve read Kirkman’s series up to a point but decided to stop in order to not get ahead of themselves. Not so for Yeun, however, who has been a fan of “The Walking Dead” since 2006. He said that when he first became involved in the project, he was very happy from a fan’s standpoint because the show “is being done absolutely right.”

Reedus, the only actor playing a character not featured in the comic books, said that he feels each character could have their very own comic book. When Kirkman suggested that maybe he’ll bring Daryl into the comic series, Reedus said: “That would be dope. Just draw me cool!” The actor hasn’t read “The Walking Dead” either, since he would “just look to see if I die.”

Much of the show’s dramatic weight is saddled on Rick and Lori’s shoulders, and both Lincoln and Callies said that the zombie apocalypse could wind up being the savior of their marriage, strangely enough. The season covers only four or five days from when Rick wakes up from his coma, said Lincoln, and playing out the initial reunion between Rick and Lori was “extraordinary.”

“I think what I see in this man is a level of heroism,” Callies assessed of Lori’s view on her husband. “I’ve known him all my life and I’ve never seen the beauty and strength and compassion and bravery, and in the same breath, there are things about him that are dead and gone and chill me to the bone. We have to get to know each other again, but we don’t have time to get to know each other again – we have to keep this boy alive.”

Rick and Lori aren’t the only romantic couple on the show, of course. Holden described her character’s relationship with Dale, played by Jeffrey DeMunn, as unfolding “very subtly.” She continued: “Andrea goes through a lot and loses a lot. Dale shows her a kindness and love that she’s never known. He becomes family and becomes her heart. It’s the real deal. It’s real love.”

When the panel was turned over to the audience for questions, the first dealt with what was described as “the Walt problem,” a reference to “Lost” where actor Malcolm David Kelley dramatically outgrew his 11 year old character. How do the producers plan to deal with Chandler Riggs’ aging as Carl? “We don’t feed him,” joked Callies, with Darabont chiming in: “We’re giving him hormone injections and the moment he hits adolescence, we’re feeding him to the zombies.” His serious answer was that they’re all just crossing their fingers that adolescence doesn’t effect the actor too drastically, and that they’ll “cross that bridge when they get to it.”

Kirkman was congratulated by a fan on his recent victory at the Eisner Awards for “The Walking Dead.” “It was a thrilling experience for me,” said the writer. “I’d be happy to do it again!”

Darabont was asked what his formula is for crafting a compelling screenplay. The director didn’t have much of an answer, saying that he’s still learning every day. “I think formula is probably not the right word, because once you fall into formulas, you stop trying things in an original way,” he said. “My formula, honestly – I sit down and write for twelve hours a day. I keep banging my head against the desk until I feel I’ve worked the material to the point where I’m not embarrassed for someone to read it.”

Asked if there’s a possibility that in two years Kirkman might make the press rounds promoting a live-action “Invincible” adaptation, he replied: “There’s a chance.”

One fan noticed the wealth of background characters seen in the camp scene of “The Walking Dead,” causing him to ask if they’re all just disposable red shirts. Darabont said that the difference between his red shirts and typical red shirts is that these characters might become major characters instead of dying off.

Kirkman was asked if Skybound, his new imprint at Image Comics, is currently accepting submissions. “Not from you,” he joked, saying that the imprint is starting out very small and expanding as things go well. He wished the aspiring creator luck in his career.

An audience member wanted to know how she could become a zombie extra on “The Walking Dead,” and Hurd said that casting takes place in Atlanta with locals typically securing roles – but they’re always open to talented zombie lovers.

The panel concluded with the revelation that “The Walking Dead,” which debuts in the United States on AMC on Oct. 31 at 10/9 p.m. central, would also premiere in 120 different countries all within one week of the American airing.

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