On a sweltering Saturday morning in early June, downtown Atlanta is looking much the worse for wear. Trash and ruined vehicles partially block the streets. Atop an abandoned military tank, some crows peck at a corpse.
And then, of course, there are the zombies.
You're on the set of "The Walking Dead" (premiering Sunday, Oct. 31, on AMC), and from writer, director and executive producer Frank Darabont's cheery, unflappable demeanor, you'd never know he is about to tackle one of the truly great "Holy crap!" moments in the six-part miniseries, as Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) rides on horseback into what seems to be a virtually uninhabited Atlanta, only to stumble into a crowd of 200 ravenous zombies.
After special effects makeup designer and consulting producer Greg Nicotero and his team complete touch-ups on the undead extras, Darabont calls "Action," then "Cut," as this edge-of-your-seat moment is captured on film. Lincoln races up to Darabont to watch a playback on the monitors, both men grinning happily.
"If your job is to put on cowboy boots and Stetson and a bag of guns on your back and jump on a horse named Blade and ride into an apocalyptic vision of Atlanta, then you don't have an average day job, do you?" says Lincoln several weeks later, back home in London after filming is completed.
"That was one of the greatest single experiences of my life, to be chased by 200 Greg Nicotero-clad zombies down an Atlanta main street. I had four months of this job, which was like nothing I ever had been involved in before. I had done gangster shows and some other extraordinary setups, but nothing close to the high stakes and the weirdness and wildness of this show. There's a rawness to it, and the excitement was infectious, despite the intensity of the weather and the filming schedule. People were totally galvanized by what we were making."
And none of them was more caught up in the project than Darabont himself, a three-time Oscar nominee who has been a big fan of zombie movies ever since he saw George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" back when he was a kid.
"This really is kind of right up my alley," Darabont says, during a lunch break on that hot Saturday in June. "I love the horror-science fiction-'fantastic' genre, although some people may not think of me that way. But I always have, and I'm playing in a sandbox here that I really enjoy. I wanted to make something that was scary, but I also love character-driven stuff.
"This thing is just very long on storytelling, and I love the idea of living with these characters for a long time. I mean, that's what makes for a good TV series. If it were just zombies, there would be no point, as fun as zombies are. You can only hang your hat on a zombie so many times. This is a story about some people experiencing something extraordinary, and Robert really blazed that trail."
"Robert" in this case is Robert Kirkman, whose still-running comic-book series "The Walking Dead" is the source material for the miniseries. Like the TV adaptation, Kirkman's tale chronicles the adventures of Sheriff Grimes, who awakens in a hospital from a shooting-induced coma to discover the world has been ravaged by some sort of apocalyptic event that has left most of humanity reduced to shambling zombies. His wife and young son missing, Rick travels from his home in Kentucky to Atlanta, where he has been told most human survivors in the area have been directed to flee.
"It's really just an exploration of character and human interaction and how people behave in extreme situations," says Kirkman, who has dropped by the Atlanta set to watch today's huge scene being shot. "The zombies are just kind of set dressing, kind of a backdrop to make the story more interesting. It's an end-of-the-world situation, and how families and individuals react when everything they have known all their life falls apart around them, how they pick up the pieces and continue on with life. It's really just a character drama. It's a little soap-opera-ish at times between the characters, but every now and then they have to stop to fight zombies."
So, yeah, it's a little about the zombies, which means a huge commitment from Nicotero, the special effects makeup genius who faced a massive challenge filming these outdoor scenes during one of Atlanta's most brutal heat waves on record.
"The thing is, zombies don't sweat," he says, sighing. "I mean, they're dead, right? So we were constantly trying to keep our zombie extras in any little cool pockets we could find until they were ready to shoot, and even then we'd be doing touch-ups between every take."
It also bears noting that while "The Walking Dead" is a compelling drama on one level, it's also a horror yarn, and some of Nicotero's special effects are not for the squeamish, especially in episode two, when a corpse is reduced to chum by an ax-wielding Rick, all in the name of survival.
Darabont freely admits that when someone first suggested he consider Lincoln, a Brit, for the central role in this epic project, his first response was: "Who?" He remembered the actor as the best man carrying a secret torch for bride Keira Knightley in the romantic comedy "Love, Actually" but couldn't really see him as Rick Grimes.
"Which just goes to show that it's a mistake to judge an actor's work, or his range, entirely by the other roles he has played," Darabont says, laughing. "You have to judge him by what he brings to the role you are seeking to cast. When I talked to Andrew, I could see a lot going on behind his eyes. It's enigmatic. He's one of these actors who draw you in because you want to know what he is thinking. And when we put him in that costume and that hat, I thought, 'Oh, my God, he's Gary Bloody Cooper!' "Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun