Season 8 of “The Walking Dead” is fast approaching, and you can expect more changes as fans have not been as happy with last season’s splintering of the group. We were lucky to visit the show’s set and talk directly to everyone involved.
For seven seasons, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” has explored a world where the dead roam the earth while the living seek safety — from other humans as much as from the zombies trying to tear into their flesh.
There are characters whose faith is tested but find their grit and fierceness. There are those who are kiss-ups and latch themselves onto leaders, their will to survive stronger than their pride. Then there are those who seize a newfound power to terrorize and bully. Through it all, it’s often difficult to discern the difference between who’s good and who’s evil, something that evolves and can change from moment to moment.
And now, as the show approaches its 100th episode — the kickoff to Season 8 that launches on Oct. 22 — the characters are on the verge of war, a battle pitting character Rick Grimes and his band of loyalists against Negan and the Saviors, mixed in with a few other communities whose allegiances sometimes shift without warning.
For a full day this spring, AMC invited a small group of journalists to the set to talk with the actors and crew involved in the show. Everyone took pains to avoid revealing what was in store in the next season.
The main filming location is on a sprawling lot tucked behind this small south Georgia town where most of this new world has sprouted: Raleigh Studios, a constantly evolving set on 140 acres where all sorts of imaginary communities have been created from scratch.
The Heap — an actual mound of trash filled with all sorts of debris and cars no newer than 2010 (the year the world is said to have died) — was created in just three weeks to serve as the domain for Jadis (played by Pollyanna McIntosh), who speaks in an odd clipped form of English and switches allegiances as fast as character Michonne can lop off a head with her Katana.
The Hilltop, ruled over by drunkard and chauvinist Gregory (played by Xander Berkeley), took nearly four months to create, its 18th-century architecture brick exterior concealing an interior that is basically a shell, devoid of any walls. Alexandria, the gated community supposedly in northern Virginia, is an actual subdivision that four real families call home and have to stay clear of the film crews that flock there six months out of the year.
The first season was shot largely in Atlanta. By the second season, Raleigh Studios in Senoia — about an hour south of Atlanta — had been created in this town of about 4,000.
Not only does it allow the show to create and keep the communities that make up “The Walking Dead,” but it can be constantly reinvented. The spot where Gabriel’s church once stood? It was torn down and became the dirt circle where Season 6 ended with Rick and his crew kneeling before Negan, the spot where beloved characters Glenn and Abraham were slain at the end of Negan’s barbed-wire covered bat.
And now? It remains vacant. “This is pretty much-hallowed ground,” said Tom Luse, the show’s executive producer, as he gave a group of journalists a tour of the studio grounds. It was a tough scene to shoot, he said, and it was even tougher to lose not only two beloved characters but two actors among a crew that considers itself tight-knit.
“I don’t know if we’ll shoot here again,” Luse said, adding later: “This is a shrine.”
Virtually everything is shot on the site. One exception: The Kingdom, which is shot at Tyler Perry’s studios at nearby Fort McPherson.
One of the biggest advantages and challenges? The grass and shrubs. “Greens help hide a million sins,” Luse said. But they also have to ensure it doesn’t get trimmed or mowed too often. “We have to constantly recreate that dead look.”
The show is based on comics created by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore. The comics are still going strong with more than 165 issues so far. In some cases, the TV show mirrors how it plays out in the comics; in other instances it veers off on its own course. Even a few characters not seen in the comics find their way on the screen, including Daryl Dixon (played by actor Norman Reedus), a crossbow-wielding character who has proved to be one of the show’s most popular.
Gale Anne Hurd, an executive producer, attributes much of the cast’s comradery to Andrew Lincoln, who plays lead character Grimes, a sheriff who emerged from a coma to find the zombie apocalypse has turned the world upside down.
“We work and live in a bubble. And it’s great that’s the case because no one has changed,” Hurd said. “That’s what is special about this show. Not one person from the (original) cast all of a sudden thinks they’re some sort of superstar and has a big trailer or an entourage. They’re still in two banger trailers.”
When did it start to dawn on them when the show would become a huge success and endure? For Hurd, it was fairly early: Season 2. The characters had escaped to a sprawling farm outside of Atlanta. There was comfort, apparent safety and places nearby to raid for weapons, food and other assorted basics.
“The second season was one in which with people arguably could say OK, it slowed down, they’re at the farm, it was focused significantly on character development and the fandom grew,” Hurd said. “And in my mind knowing that there was action to come and there were bigger worlds, more worlds, more characters that if we were building viewers in Season 2 that it was the kind of trajectory that made for a show that could endure.”
Greg Nicotero, special effects guru who has not only made his mark on the show by creating the zombies who lurch and prowl the world but also is co-executive producer and occasional-director, called this season’s premier it’s most propulsive — a word repeatedly used by the cast and crew as they began taping Season 8.
Season 7 was known for segmented episodes that narrowly focused on one character or community. It was described as a tough season to get through, the actors missing the chance to interact with a variety of colleagues and feeling isolated. Cast and crew say the feel for Season 8 is different. The pace will be accelerated, and even the way it’s filmed will feel different, though no one would even come close to betraying those nuggets fans crave to divine which characters might die and how the war will play out.
But they do note that there will be moments that pay homage to all the previous seasons — and to their loyal fans.
“There’s gonna be some moments that people who have watched the show from the beginning will see and be like, ‘Oh, OK, I see what they’re doing here’ by paying tributes to specific moments over the last seven years,” Nicotero said.
Movie TV Tech Geeks was lucky enough to be invited to sit among small group of media representatives who were invited to the set of “The Walking Dead” in Senoia, Georgia, to talk with about a dozen cast and crew members about the upcoming season, the filming of the show’s 100th episode and life on and off the set. Here are some highlights from those interviews:
— Actor XANDER BERKELEY on his character, Gregory, who rules over The Hilltop: “He’s on this animal level asking himself the question that I think if many people were faced with for real: Am I going to be heroic and save someone else’s life before my own?”
— Executive Producer SCOTT GIMPLE on whether he can envision “The Walking Dead” getting to Episode 200: “We’re planning on it. We’re projecting it out. I don’t think the story ends. Carl might need a cane. … We want to keep doing it at least as long as Robert (Kirkman, the comic’s writer) is doing it. There are times when we rip right through the comic story and there are times when it gets way expanded out. … It’s fun and sometimes necessary because there’s not the same characters and not the same situations to fortify the sort of stuff the expands aspects of it. That can take more time than even following the comic story. It’s always the comic story and then some. And he’s going full steam, unless next month he isn’t and he surprises us all. We’re prepared for the long haul.”
— Actor LENNIE JAMES on his character, Morgan Jones, who was first seen in the pilot episode and then didn’t return to the show until the third season: “Morgan’s decision to not kill was never about cowardice, it was never about the fear. The only fear he had is the fear of who he is, and what he’s like and what he does when he’s killing. And he’s trying to hold that beast at bay. Well, that beast is right in front of his face at the moment.”
— Actor TOM PAYNE, who plays Paul Rovia (aka Jesus from The Hilltop): When Payne first joined the cast, he had to wear hair extensions and a fake beard. That allowed him to go out in public incognito. But he’s since grown his real hair and beard out and now gets recognized regularly. It will be easy enough for him to shave it once he’s off the show. In the meantime, “it’s a fun ride and who knows how long it’ll last.”
— Actor STEVEN OGG, who plays Simon, one of Negan’s lieutenants: “This whole world is about survival and how people survive. So I think that’s the most important thing, who you make alliances with and who you decide to work with.”
— Actor ROSS MARQUAND, who plays Aaron, a gay man who ventured out to the dangerous world to find and recruit new residents to Alexandria, on how the show has seamlessly weaved in characters from a variety of backgrounds, from interracial couples to gay couples to May-September romances: “I love it. I think it’s very important. I think that Robert Kirkman has done a really good job of including characters from all walks of life as it should be because that’s how life really is. It’s a fair representation of how people are in the world.”
— Actress POLLYANNA MCINTOSH, who plays Jadis, the leader of a group of scavengers on what it’s like to work on a set and the massive mound of trash her character lords over: “When I walked onto that set, I couldn’t believe the scope of it. And I couldn’t believe that I was working, that me, Pollyanna, was working in a junkyard essentially because honestly, swear to God, when I was a kid and I’d pass those things in the car with my parents, I’d just be wanting to get out there and play. … So on that level, it’s my fantasy.”
— Actress KATELYN NACON, who plays Enid, one of the younger cast members on the show, says the next season is jammed with action but she hopes future episodes show at least some happiness and goodness: “It can’t always been 100 percent bad! I get it’s the apocalypse but come on, just a little bit of happiness?”