Last week, AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” premiered its third season to rather mind-boggling numbers.
The “Walking Dead” premiere drew 10.9 million viewers, including 7.3 million viewers among adults 18-49, shattering basic cable records.
Before that launch, I ran my interviews with Glen Mazzara & Robert Kirkman and also with new breakout star Danai Gurira.
I’ve still got my chat with David Morrissey saved for a later date, so up next? A lengthy interview with “Walking Dead” producers Gale Anne Hurd and Greg Nicotero.
My conversation with Kirkman and Mazzara focused, for logical reasons, on Season 3 story points. This interview is more about nuts-and-bolts and logistics, the bigger picture of bringing “The Walking Dead” to TV.
Nicotero and Hurd discuss this season’s new prison set, the show’s ongoing ability to push the edge of the gore envelope without network interference, zombie extra protocol and Nicotero’s increasingly active directing profile on the show.
Click through for the full conversation. [Be warned that there are some spoilers from the premiere.]
HitFix: There are an awful lot of zombies and an awful lot of big new locations to start the new season. What’s it like to get to start over again this season?
Gale Anne Hurd: Every season we really start over. The fantastic thing this time is that, in addition to the prison — We have standing sets now… And, shockingly, air conditioned sets, which just seems wrong to me — we also have the town of Woodbury. It great to have that contrast, that contrast not only in the way that they look, but how the characters who inhabit them are also so vastly different.
HitFix: We also have more zombies this season. Sorry. “Walkers.” Walkers. I apologize.
Greg Nicotero: It’s alright. The Z-word is not taboo.
HitFix: I dunno. It seems verboten.
Greg Nicotero: We don’t call them that in the show, but even on the set it’s, “Hey, tell that zombie to go over there.” So we’re not in love with that nomenclature. It doesn’t matter.
HitFix: Whatever you call them, they’re massing, which means there are more of them. How does that change your day-to-day, Greg?
Greg Nicotero: Considerably. Last year, there was some comment about the show that, “Oh, there’s not enough zombies and there’s this and that…” And I thought that was a ridiculous comment, because when you go back — and I’ve had a lot of people that have gone back and have watched the show as a whole, as opposed to individually — and see the story that we were telling and the fact that, yes, the whole point was to lull people into that false sense of security that Hershel’s farm was a safe haven and then Dale’s gone and Shane’s gone and then herd happens and it was a very cleanly designed scenario. This season, of course, given the fact that they have to fight a little more to find out where they’re gonna live and where they’re gonna survive, there’s a lot more walkers. And our group has become a pretty well-oiled machine in regards to hand-to-hand combat. The conversations we have are like, “OK. Aside from the fact that you can’t use bullets, because you don’t wanna run out of ammunition, the more noise you make, the more walkers you attract.” So our group has to become proficient in hand-to-hand combat without getting bitten or being infected with a scratch or something.
Gale Anne Hurd: In the first episode, it’s much more up-close-and-personal.
Greg Nicotero: In the first episode, that’s what it’s all about.
HitFix: With that up-close-and-personal aspect, that means a good deal more viscera. Have the restrictions finally started coming in?
Gale Anne Hurd: Nope.
Greg Nicotero: Never.
Gale Anne Hurd: Not one. And they’ve seen 10 or 11 episodes now? And still not one note sent back to change anything.
Greg Nicotero: Which is astounding.
Gale Anne Hurd: And you’ve seen it.
HitFix: There’s some good stuff in the first couple episodes. I loved the guard whose face sloughs off with his mask. That was kinda fantastic.
Gale Anne Hurd: We’re clearly on the right network.
Greg Nicotero: Aside from that gag, Hershel and what happens at the end of the first episode? It was one of the first times in my career… We had a couple of silicon legs filled with blood and it was the last shot we did for that episode and it took Andy Lincoln seven or eight tries to hack through that leg, but I’ll tell you… It was to me… I was standing on-set watching it and it looked real. It was one of those times when I went, “Oh my God.”
Gale Anne Hurd: I couldn’t believe it. I could not watch the monitors. Greg, you were there. I was at video village going [she covers her eyes].
Greg Nicotero: And still, no one shies away and it’s one of those times where you could go, “OK. One. Two. And it’s over.” But no! It’s “Walking Dead.” He’s hacking and hacking and hacking and then BOOM the last one and you hear the axe hit the ground and “Ching!” off the ground.
Gale Anne Hurd: And, honestly, I do think that our new actors who are revealed at the end, the prisoners, I really think they wondered what they’ve gotten into. This is the first scene they’re in and it’s like “Holy moly, what is this?”
Greg Nicotero: And, again, no one’s ever said to us. “Ummm… You guys… Try to tone it down a little bit.” Never. So that gives us free rein, so of course we’re gonna try to push it, between what we do and what visual effects does. We’re always trying to up the ante a little bit and I think, again, the hand-to-hand combat and bringing Michonne into it with her katana sword?
Gale Anne Hurd: What’s great is that, as I’m sure you’ve seen, they’ve become battle hardened over the time.
Greg Nicotero: As have we.
Gale Anne Hurd: The entire group of survivors now, they’re all very capable.
HitFix: Going back very quickly to the issue of censoring, is that the same in all of the international territories that the show plays in? Are there different standards in different countries?
Gale Anne Hurd: I’ve not heard that we’ve been censored, but I don’t want them to tell me anyway if they are. It would just break my heart.
HitFix: Fans have been waiting patiently for the Prison. When it came to realizing that vision, what was it that you were looking for in sets and exteriors and whatnot?
Gale Anne Hurd: It needed to have a lot of different areas, because it was going to be one of our principle locations for the season. So it had to have a significant field. It had to have a sally port. It had to have guard towers. And it looks kinda like a lot of the prisons that we scouted. We actually scouted shooting actual prisons and then the photos came back and there were the kind like the ones from “Shawshank Redemption” and that just really didn’t quite work. That seemed awfully sorta almost Gothic. This one, part of it looks like pre-fab structures and that’s the way modern prisons are, especially modern prisons in the South. We’ve also got people working in the fields, you’ve got people outside, you’ve got courtyards and yards and then you have really, really, really dark, dank, dirty cellblocks and hallways.
Greg Nicotero: There’s a lot of personality. Greg Melton initially kicked off the design phase for that and then Grace Walker, our production designer, who’s brilliant. What I love about the prison is it has so much personality. Every more when we walk on set, let’s say call time’s at 7 a.m. and everybody walks down and there’s a little bit of fog in the air and there’s fog in the field and there’s a little pond down there and there are train tracks. It just has personality. It really, genuinely feels like we’re in an actual real location and not a built set. The idea that it does have these different personalities and these different looks, one of the things that we always wanted to address was the idea that, as opposed to Hershel’s farm, that had this false sense of security to it, we established at the prison that there potentially could be a wall down in the back part of the prison that’s a conduit for walkers to always come in, so you’re never always safe. There’s one area of the prison, these hallways where all the cells are, and that’s our haunted maze area. You go in there and it’s dark and it’s drippy and it’s creepy and so you actually really get a chance to step into what it would be like.
I had a 10 minute conversation with Andy Lincoln about what it would smell like the first time they walked into the prison and I said, “OK. So imagine you have a refrigerator filled with meat and you turn it off for a year. That’s what it would smell like.” So we’ll go Smell-o-Vision.
HitFix: I was watching those scenes, with all of the gray and steely and concrete-y interiors and the bleak lighting, how does that change the makeup and prosthetic requirements?
Greg Nicotero: Lighting-wise, it doesn’t really affect us a lot. In the first two seasons, one of the things we were most aware of is broad daylight. In Season 1, we did a lot of makeup tests because we didn’t have the ability to shoot night exteriors and fog and see walkers coming out of the darkness and that dark stuff is genuinely creepy. That’s what horror movies are made of, you come out at night and whatever. Every season we’ve really made an effort to refine the process in regards to what works and what doesn’t work. We’re always making new contact lenses and new dentures and refining the prosthetics so that they look more and more emaciated and gaunt. I really feel that my team and I, every time we have a new person in our trailer, it’s like a new canvas and somebody walks in and you go, “Oh this is gonna be great! We’re gonna do this, this, this and this.” We’ve been doing it for three years now and it’s been fun.
HitFix: And it seems like with Michonne’s, let’s just say “sidekicks,” you have recurring hero zombie characters like the show maybe hasn’t had before. Did they produce any unique challenges?
Greg Nicotero: Those particular characters are challenging because they’re shirtless and the iconic nature of the fact that they have their arms cut off and their jaws removed, so the idea was we wanted to mix it up. My job always is, and Gale knows this better than anyone, is to keep the audience guessing. If they figure out how you did it, then they’re analyzing it instead of being pulled into the story. So with the facial prosthetics, that’s all practical, with the missing jaw and everything, we were able to build the face out to remove the jaw and then the CGI guys removed the arms. So when people look at it, they’re like, “Wait, that guy doesn’t have any arms, but that face looks real… How did they…?” And if you keep them guessing, then they’re leaning in and when they lean in, that’s what we like.
HitFix: Gale, do you weigh in on things like that? Or do you give him complete leeway?
Gale Anne Hurd: 100 percent! Are you kidding? The only thing I ever weigh in on is I think there was one shot in the season premiere that I thought we were missing… And thank you for picking it up. You know the scene. The scene at the end. When something bad happens. We needed to see… just before that bad thing happened, in close-up. So we got that. But for the most part, it really is more about the performance of individual zombies, especially when we have big days, is noticing the person who either isn’t taking it seriously or seems like they wandered in from a different movie.
Greg Nicotero: Yeah, we get a lot of that. And it’s always funny sitting at the monitors, because [producer] Denise Huth and Gale will be watching the monitors and I’ll be standing over by one of the three cameras. We always shoot three cameras at the same time, so the challenge is that unlike movies where a lot of times you’ll have one camera and that’s the principle angle, we’ll have other camera guys who’ll be sniping in the field and they’ll be catching close-ups of other zombies. I remember we learned this in Season 1 when we had all the zombies running down the street after Rick when he gets to the tank and we had background masks and I remember seeing close-ups of the masks in dailies and going, “Guys… Why did they shoot that?” and it’s because you have three cameras and they’re all trying to find cool stuff sometimes. But I can always see… As soon as we yell “Cut,” Gale will just stand up from the monitor and look around and she’ll see me and she’ll be like [gestures] and I know exactly and I can see the one person we all looked at and went, “We’ve gotta go fix that guy.”
HitFix: Is this a gift you’ve had from the very beginning? Or have you become more sensitive?
Gale Anne Hurd: I’ve done a lot of movies with prosthetics and a lot of movies with… The show to us, and we hope to our viewers, is dead real. This is a world. Walkers really exist. That’s why we don’t have clown walkers and cheerleader walkers and stuff like that. That’s not the reality of our show. That’s not what people would have been doing. They would have heard about this outbreak. That would have already affected their lives. So we also don’t want the person who’s showboating as an extra or the person who doesn’t have their heart into it.
HitFix: Following on that… It’s been a phenomenon where viewers have attempted to isolate individual walkers and interpret new behaviors and say things like, “That’s evidence that they’re thinking” or “That’s evidence that they’re feeling” or “They’re hungrier” or “They’re faster.”
Greg Nicotero: Nope. The rules are very vague and we stick by them. In the pilot, there were the two walkers that were in the bus that were sorta inactive and even in the church in the second season premiere…
HitFix: Yeah, the church was the instance people were reading a lot of behavior onto those zombies…
Gale Anne Hurd: Yeah! We had discussions at the time, remember?
Greg Nicotero: We did!
Gale Anne Hurd: One of them looked like he was smiling and he drove us crazy on set!
Greg Nicotero: It drove me crazy.
Gale Anne Hurd: I was like, “Don’t smile!” And at that point, it was too late to recast.
HitFix: And there it is. He’s in there still.
Gale Anne Hurd: It’s the way the guy looked. Some people have physiognomy that just makes them look like that. He wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t gleeful.
Greg Nicotero: He was trying to be creepy looking. The truth of the matter is that we get into that a lot. In retrospect, that church thing, I probably should have voiced a little bit more that it didn’t quite sit right.
Gale Anne Hurd: But we did have that discussion.
Greg Nicotero: We have all those discussions about all that stuff. Just in a recent episode that we just did, the same issue came up again. There was a sequence where there were some walkers that we got the impression they would have potentially be like the ones in the church and I had a very long discussion with the writer and he dug in and I dug in and we would have literally sat there all night talking about it and, ultimately, we went back to the, “Guys, we can’t really futz with those rules too much” and the best part about it is that the writer came up with a gag that’s infinitely better and makes the show better, so it makes me happy. I’ve lived with zombie stuff since I grew up in Pittsburgh when I was a little kid, so digging in… But listen, there’s no egos on this show. Everybody digs in because they want the show to be great and that’s it. Any discussion or any disagreement or anything, it all comes from a place of, “We want this show to be as great for the fans as we want it to be for us.”
HitFix: And Greg, I know you directed again this season. What was it like directing your second episode?
Gale Anne Hurd: And he’s about to direct his third!
Greg Nicotero: My third for this year!
HitFix: Yikes. I remembered at Comic-Con you said you were directing again, but I hadn’t realized that was a time after that as well.
Greg Nicotero: Yeah. I did two already. It was a blast. I did Episode 5 and then 11 and now I’m going to do 14. Episode 5, it was interesting because Woodbury’s been established and so we’re sorta on the road with those characters and we’ve got our characters in the prison and I got a chance to do scenes with The Governor and Michonne and everyone at the prison and a bunch of cool walkers and a couple of sorta iconic moments from the graphic novel that begin to surface, they start surfacing in that episode. So when I got the script, I’m like, “Oh my God! I get to do that?” So it was pretty great. I think they’re screening it for the crew next week. That’s one of the other great things is that when we’re shooting, at wrap, they say, “OK. We’re gonna screen Episode 1 and Episode 2 and Episode 3,” so people who work for 12 or 13 hours a day for the last six months, they’ll all stay and the entire crew will sit and watch the episodes together.
Gale Anne Hurd: With the cast!
Greg Nicotero: With the cast! Everybody.
Gale Anne Hurd: Except Andy, who refuses to watch.
Greg Nicotero: Andy Lincoln has never seen a frame of the show. No, he has. He’s seen scenes that don’t involve him.
Gale Anne Hurd: And then there’ll be an episode he’ll be able to see, because he’s not in it.
Greg Nicotero: The whole episode.
HitFix: Gale, are there rules to which episodes Greg is able to direct? I mean, with all of his other responsibilities on the show, how is it decided which ones you can or can’t spare him for in those capacities?
Gale Anne Hurd: You know what? At this point, I don’t think that we have that same consideration. There’s some where literally I think it’s so absolutely important where we’ve got something incredibly iconic, but we’ve got such a fantastic team at this point. And, by the way, it’s not like he won’t be on set.
Greg Nicotero: Yeah, I’m there. Because of Gale and because of Frank, it was Season 2 when they said, “You should direct an episode this season,” and I have sorta become the show’s in-house producer-director. When new scenes need to be written or if an episode needs an extra scene or there’s a rewrite or a reshoot, I shoot everything. I’m down there.
Gale Anne Hurd: He’s literally directing at least two days a week, regardless of whether he’s directing the episode or not.
Greg Nicotero: It’s a blast.
HitFix: Sounds like a lot of work, too.
Greg Nicotero: It is a lot of work.
Gale Anne Hurd: But isn’t that why we’re in the business.
Greg Nicotero: It’s why we do it. And I’ve said a thousand time, I’ve been in this business for 26 years and I don’t know how to not work. People say, “Oh my God! You have so many hats on the show.” And I’m like, “Well, look who my chief collaborator is. How do I not bring it every day?” That what you do. That what we do and that’s why we love it.
Episode 2 of “The Walking Dead” airs on Sunday, October 21.