After breakfast (yes, the diner), I drove to the set and prided myself on being a few minutes early. That is when I realized that you really need to be there about an hour before your call time if you expect to make the cut.
Day Two was incredible. I knew of the significance of The Tank, from its prominence in the first two issues of the comic book. Little did I know what variation Darabont and Kirkman had cooked up for the show.
But what really worried me was the absence of Jack. Dangit, I thought to myself. Jack must have succumbed to the heat! The previous day was “hot as balls,” as Gary Whitta candidly observed. I was genuinely worried about Jack, especially since he had to wear a suit during the filming.
Preoccupied with Jack’s condition, I sat, moved, sat, moved, and eventually sat in one of the makeup chairs. After I was made up, sprayed, and reissued my mask, the group I was in was escorted to the holding area, and then on to the set -- and The Tank.
When I got onto the set, there was Jack! But not masked Jack. It was full-on, prosthetic made-up and contact-lensed Jack! He looks awesome! He proceeds to tell me that he had a 4:45 AM call time, and he is sitting around when Nicotero came into the holding area, scans the room, and says, “You, you, you, and (looking at Jack) – YOU – come with me.” They go outside and into the KNB Effects Group makeup trailer. Jack is motioned to sit in the last chair. It is Nicotero’s makeup station. Yes, Nicotero makes him up personally!
Jack says to Greg, “You know, there’s this older guy from Tallahassee, knows everything about the Walking Dead, and says you are the best in the world at what you do.”
I am so happy for Jack. He is going to have so much fun. If, and this is a big if, if he can see where the Sam Hill he is going. Those full-eye contacts are not made for seeing, just sayin’.
It is time to film the Horse Takedown Scene. We see the stunt horse wrangler (Tommy Turvey of Brooksville, Florida) and several other people we did not see yesterday. Turvey is dressed as Grimes, as he was the previous day during the crowd scenes. Joining Turvey for a pow-wow are a woman and two men, all in full Hero Zombie prosthetic makeup.
The rules for us are simple: Stay quiet and stay away from the horse! The plan is for the horse to fall down and roll over as the stuntmen and the woman wrangler gently coax the horse over. I notice two people with clipboards, intently looking the scene over. They are wearing golf shirts with the emblem of the American Humane Society on the front.
Then all is explained. The woman works with Turvey and very well may be his sister Karen Turvey-Marshall. The two men are professional stuntmen. One is from north Florida, and one lives on the Georgia-Alabama border.
We are to stay in the background as the professionals work with the horse. Then Darabont yells, “Action!” As planned, the horse rears. Turvey “falls” off the horse as the stunt men and the woman wrangler surround and then place their hands upon the horse. It is quiet as church while this happens. Then, the horse falls and rolls over, on command. Turvey makes a sound with his lips and the horse raises its head as if it is writhing in pain. We begin surrounding the horse from a safe distance. The stunt men and horse woman begin acting as if they are eating the horse. And the horse stays put and pretends to be writhing!
(In the picture above, I am at the extreme upper-right-hand corner, next to Michelle Flanagan-Helmeczy, who was kind enough to tag me in the photo.)
Darabont yells, “CUT!” and laughs maniacally! The horse takedown scene took one take. One take. Amazing. The horse is the best actor on the set.
It’s time to Chase Rick. All of us are around the tank. (I am in the extreme upper left corner). We do take after take, shambling around the bloody tank. Then we chase Andrew Lincoln under the tank. He is sweaty and he is dirty and his arms and hands are covered with asphalt pebbles, because they cannot use the fake pavement mat for these shots. He is working his fanny off and he is not uttering anything even remotely negative. He immediately earns major respect from the other actors, who are also sweaty and dirty and whatnot.
The light is overhead now, and they bring in some sort of diffusing screen that diffuses light, but is also translucent and silvery and it is hot Hot HOT under there. I retreat to the safety of the sunlight. I am bald and they have spray-painted my head with black paint, so there is zero chance my head is going to get burnt. I stand in the street between takes, arms extended, grateful for every breeze that makes its way down the avenue. And I am as happy as a zombie in body parts. I cannot believe I am doing this.
The crew keeps us hydrated and keeps us fed at lunch and I am marveling at the professionalism and the precision of the crew. I am an award-winning IT leader, and I appreciate excellent project management more than most. And I have to keep my head on a swivel, else I get run over by crew persons schlepping expensive equipment to and fro.
Between takes, I sidle up next to Purple Suit Zombie, who I later learn is makeup guy Joe Giles. Joe and I speak for several minutes, and he is marveling at the capabilities of one of the actors – a young and very pretty young woman who, in real life, only has part of one of her arms. She has crawled under the tank over and over again to chase Andrew Lincoln, and she has been an absolute trooper. Joe is especially impressed with her resolve. She makes the final cut of the pilot splendidly, snarling at Lincoln as she tries to eat him under the tank.
I also get to know the guy in the aqua cap better. He is a really, really good guy and we enjoy talking together.
Really? The bloody bag of guns cannot hit its mark! Say your lines, hit your marks, right? We have to redo a couple of shots because the bloody gun bag misses its mark.
Now it is much later in the day – about 7:00 PM or so, Sunday evening – and we are still filming. I know enough to realize we have to hurry or we’ll lose our light. The BIG SCENE is about to be filmed, you know what I am talking about.
The foam-rubber-and-wireframe horse is brought in. The American Humane Society people are still on set! I think, “Really? Really?” They soon leave. A PA positions me at the ass-end of the foam-rubber horse with cables coming out of its rear end. But the cables are not hooked up, because the horse’s head-bobbing and acting has rendered the pneumatic or electrical or whatever-it-is animatronics unnecessary.
This horse will wind up saving my life.
Suddenly, Darabont appears and starts telling us what to do. I am thinking, “My God, I am being directed by Frank Darabont!” However, I am in a mask, and a close-up is required. Greg Nicotero comes up beside Darabont and starts pulling people out of the shot who are without makeup, or persons wearing masks.
I look up and say, “Greg, do you need me out of the shot?”
He looks at me and, without hesitation, points to me as he says, “No, because I know how important this is to you. But keep your head up, because if I see the elastic, I will give you s—t.”
I decide then and there I will fall on a grenade for Greg Nicotero. I will take any bullet of any caliber, anywhere on my person. He remembered the conversation Jack had with him. He knew I was the guy. I am grateful beyond words.
Next up is the Money Shot, what we all have waited for! We are going to eat a horse! The horse has a flap. Nicotero appears with a bucket of stage blood and fake horse innards. He coats the innards with stage blood and stuffs the whole enchilada into the horse’s stomach flap.
Nicotero slathers my arms and hands with stage blood. A makeup person paints blood on my mask.
I am in Heaven. Zombie Heaven.
Now is the Zombie Mosh Pit. That is the shot where the camera will pull up and reveal the entire scene. The first take, I am on one knee, and the sheer wave of humanity catches me off-guard. I cannot move my right leg, and I am fearful that my back will break. I push back with everything I have and am the most grateful person on the set when Darabont yells cut.
We get that damn horse real good. A few more close-ups and takes, and that shot is done. For the record, I kept my head up. And I made the final cut, as you can see in the photo above.
I reposition my body so I am on both knees. We do about eight takes, and each time, I am using that foam horse to absorb all the weight of roughly ten people on my back. I love that horse.
Now we are wrapped, and we all pose for a photo with Darabont and Robert Kirkman. I am in the back, and all that can be seen of me is a bloody arm. However, several of my zombie friends did make the photo, including Gary Whitta and Tim Daniel to the immediate left of Kirkman, and actors Melissa Cowan, Sonya Thompson, Michelle Flanagan-Helmeczy and Jack Byrd (far right) to the right of Darabont. And my upraised left arm, between Kirkman and Darabont.
The actors are scattering toward the holding area, but I see Kirkman is alone in the middle of the street. I walk up and tell him how much I appreciate his work on the comics and how he writes with the eyes of a person much older then he actually is. He is genuinely grateful.
A handful of us are about ten feet from Darabont. Frank turns and says to us, “It was an honor to work with you.”
I looked right at him and said, “No, Mr. Darabont. The honor was all ours!” Darabont stands at attention and bows his head slightly, in appreciation. No wonder this guy is one of the best directors of our time. We would do anything for this guy!
We all have our gear and we are walking back to the dead restaurant staging area. We stop at a city square/park where there is a horse-drawn carriage. One of the female actors (I think it was Sonya Thompson) says, “Horrrrsssse.” The horse looks at us and moves uncertainly. I envision a runaway horse and carriage, chased by zombie extras. Blessedly, it does not occur. We’re all too tired.
It is time to change back into street clothing. The men are all changing in rooms on the mezzanine, and I run into the guy in the aqua ball cap. I say, “You know, we have been talking all weekend, and I do not know your name. Scott McPherson.” The guy smiles and says, “Tim Daniel. “
“Tim, we need to stay in touch. You are a great guy.”
“Yes, that would be great!”
My deep appreciation for Greg Nicotero was confirmed as the zombie actors, about 150 of us, all lined up to turn in our wardrobe. It’s about 8PM now, and I have a six-hour drive ahead of me. But I am not tired in the least. I am wondering what will happen when I stop for dinner on I-75 with my neck and arms looking like all the blood has pooled up in them. Then I notice Nicotero at the head of the line, shaking everyone's hand and thanking them personally for their work.
He stops at me and we talk, about what I have no clue because I am essentially speechless. But I am wearing a Bubba Ho-Tep T-shirt, and then I remember he was the effects guy for Coscarelli’s picture. I am sure he appreciated that.
When we were all in the wardrobe line, we hear a commotion coming from the street. We turn and see a small rental car, one of those ridiculously small subcompact cars. A large man in a Hawaiian shirt is driving and literally leaning out of the car, yelling “Hey! Great job, guys, great job! Thank you so much!”
It is Frank Darabont. OK, I can take two grenades. Just no head shots, eh?
Speaking of head shots: I have to drive six hours straight back to Tallahassee. Now I am so jacked that fatigue will not be a problem. But eating will be! I am still in makeup! I resolve to only hit the drive-through and gas up quickly. Even then, the looks I got…..
Working on the Walking Dead was one of the four greatest experiences of my life. The other three include (IN ORDER) my marriage, the night I was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, and my one-hour flight in a P-51 Mustang (with twenty minutes of stick time).
The entire production crew was incredible, and they did a great job of feeding us, keeping us hydrated, and keeping us focused. Anyone who wants to work in project management should visit a movie or television set. The level of professionalism and dedication to excellence is an incredibly rewarding experience. I credit both Darabont and producer Gale Ann Hurd for that.
But by far, the greatest part of the experience was meeting great people and making friends with them. I have enduring friendships with some very talented Atlanta-based actors and actresses (do we still use that term?).
Sonya Thompson is a local actor and is a “hero zombie” in several episodes. Her personage is frequently used in promos for the series worldwide. Her daughter is also a zombie actor!
The face of The Walking Dead is Melissa Cowan, who is best known as “Bicycle Girl.” She, like Sonya and Larry, is red-hot on the comic convention circuit. She gets her own action figure soon!
Larry Mainland has appeared in several episodes, and, like Sonya and Melissa, appears frequently at horror and comic book conventions. That iconic photo of a zombified Larry getting out of a car in season one is one of the most tragic images from the show.
Steve Warren got a Hero Zombie’s death in episode 201, at the hands of Rick and his machete in the church scene. Steve recently moved to Sarasota, Florida, whereupon he sent me a message: "Moving to Florida to cancel out your vote!" I roared with laughter. Steve is a great guy.
So is Jack Byrd, who has had several appearances in different episodes. He’s climbed the tank; chased Glenn as he went for the bag ‘o’ guns; and got it in the eye from Shane in the aforementioned church scene.
Jack also had the distinction of being the "permanent guest": on AMC's phenomenal Talking Dead talk show! He was the mural that appeared frequently during cuts between Chris Hardwick and the guests. His picture was replaced by Madison Linz's zombie Sophia after the break. Heady company!
Ondie Daniel and Pamela Ashe-Smith were the first to befriend me on the set, are great actors and are great people as well. Ondie also does makeup and directs side projects.
Pamela also volunteers for the Urban Mediamakers Association and Film Festival. She is one great lady.
PLUG: Many of these people are connected with “Netherworld,” Atlanta’s haunted house. A secret: Zombieland, The Crazies and The Walking Dead all mined Netherworld for actors, makeup and effects people, and other experts. No wonder, then, that Netherworld is America’s Spookiest Haunt.
Michelle Flanagan-Helmeczy (pictured here with Charlie Adlard) has appeared in numerous episodes in Seasons One and Two. She is also pretty much guaranteed to work in Season Three, since she lives five minutes from the set! Lucky girl! She also spotted me in a photo that I somehow missed. She is great.
Last and absolutely not least, I have become fast friends with another extremely talented fellow named Tim Daniel, who has many duties with Image Comics and Skybound Entertainment. But that is not his day job! He is Webmaster for the University of Montana. He is involved in design work on several projects, perhaps the best-known being the smash Image Comic series named Morning Glories, and he is the author of the Walking Dead Survivors Guide.
Tim’s greatest days clearly lie ahead as a creator and writer of comics. Tim, along with Moroccan artist Mehdi Cheggour, have created the graphic novella Enormous. Enormous deals with a post-apocalyptic Phoenix, Arizona, and giant mutated creatures called The Enormous.
But even in an environment such as that in Enormous, the most dangerous creature is Man. And in this case, that villain is James Coyle. And Tim has cast me as a comic book villain!
Life is good, folks.