On Set With The Walking Dead At Denver Comic Con

IMG_5687Hannah Means-Shannon writes for Bleeding Cool.

The Walking Dead’s Assistant Director Vincent Gonzales and perennial “walker” shambler Michael Koske provided fans with some surprisingly gritty details of working on set for the show at Denver Comic Con on Saturday evening. They were candid about their relentless schedules, the quirkiness of working on a show so cloaked in secrecy, and also about their own determination to make the series the best it can be.

They opened by saying that they couldn’t reveal anything about the upcoming season, of course, but Gonzales added that information about the show has become increasingly guarded, “So secretive we went paperless”, he said. Afraid that trash might be inspected at the homes of crew members, the show decided that they would do “everything electronically with a watermark so that they could trace it”, Gonzales revealed.

Gonzales then presented fans with images of working on the set and his narrative brought out several aspects of the job that the average viewer probably never even thinks about.

IMG_5686One of their biggest tasks to keep the show accurate in detail is to “match up” the dummies of slain walkers in terms of position and clothing to create continuity from previous scenes where walkers were mown down, for instance in reused locations like the prison.

Wardrobe has to gather the clothes worn by the walkers previously, and clothe the dummies. The show’s return to the “highway” of the first season also posed problems, positioning cars exactly as they had been left, only gently aged in appearance. Gonzales was asked what an average “day in the life” would be working on the show, and his response painted a very human picture of struggling to produce such an epic show within relatively short time frames in unforgiving outdoor locations.

Gonzales described working with crewmembers as time among “family”, but a family that works together from “dawn to 9 o’clock at night”. “Nerves get tested”, he confessed, and “conditions are very harsh” in what he described as a “tough show physically” with each season filmed in a 6 month period.

Gonzales got involved working on the show in the second season, he said, with almost no notice after coming off a gig with Sons of Anarchy, and very little awareness of what the show entailed. He’s a native of Colorado, and moved his family back to his homestate from LA 10 years ago, a personal detail that got a round of applause from Denver con-goers.

His introduction to the show began at “Sofia’s barn massacre” and he found his initial impressions overwhelming. “It was like walking into a train wreck”, he said, with “gallons of fake blood” being poured all around him, making a constant “glug, glug, glug” sound.

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Koske, who’s one of the show’s most visible walkers, and appears on almost all their merchandizing, started working on the show early-on, during a first season highway scene. He described an amusing prank on his first day that got his crew into a little trouble, posing behind an overturned RV, only to suddenly leap out in coordinated “Thriller” poses. The powers that be were not impressed, shouting over walkie-talkies “What are they doing? Are they doing Thriller? Reset!”.

Koske explained that since the show is often so heavy and so serious in subject matter, humor is frequently a coping mechanism, one that also helps cast members deal with “long, long days”. For Koske, in particular, his longest day once lasted 22 hours, after which he had to commute two hours home. Gonzales’ average day is no dawdle either, with at least two 16-hour days a week, and “no less than 14 or 15 hours” all week long, after which he ends up sleeping through most of Saturday to recover.

“I try not to take any work home”, Gonzales said, including the mind-set, but while on the job, it’s all preparation. While shooting one episode, he explained, he’s also prepping for the next week’s show.

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A fan from Georgia asked during the Q&A what it’s like for the crew shooting outdoor locations all year round. Gonzales confirmed that Walking Dead is almost entirely an “outside show” including forests and fields and declared, “The weather has wrecked my life”. He claims to have become an “amateur weatherman for the Georgia area”, predicting when fronts are moving in and when there might be a sudden pause in rainfall.

Koske was asked exactly how many “zombie deaths” he’s experienced as various walkers on the show, and he was quick to tally up his count. “42 different walkers in 13 episodes”, he said, but “three are still alive and out there wandering around somewhere”. His most memorable death, however, is clearly etched in his mind, as a “Prison Blues walker”. While filming that scene, he was accidentally hit in the head with a fake machete so hard that it knocked him out, but the shot was perfect. Afterward, the FX guys showed him the footage and he was so shocked to see his own severed head spinning through the air that he screamed.

At this point, and after admitting that he’s been a major poster boy for the show in publicity images and on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide, Koske was pressured into performing a walker walk for the audience. He explained that you have to appear somewhat “clumsy” and “loose-jointed”.

As he began to walk across the stage, a hush actually fell across the room. At first, his walk didn’t seem particularly remarkable, but at some point after a few steps, it became incredibly eerie due to its jerky rhythm. It was too believable, and quite an impressive spectacle that was followed by prolonged, amazed applause.

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One of the most specific questions from the floor concerned what exactly walker actors are “eating” when they are shown chowing down on the show. The answer was as bizarre as it was memorable. “It’s barbeque!”, Koske exclaimed. But the barbeque is not only laced with a “mystery sauce” to give it the correct appearance, but it’s stuffed into the most intenstine-like packages devised by the show- condoms. After chewing on stuffed condoms full of barbeque the walkers rarely want to take their lunch break, he added.

Other highlights from Gonzales and Koske included the fact that the “barn burning” took 15 takes, but on the final one, the barn collapsed as the “money shot”, and that the crew and cast don’t get their “story threads” until 8 days or far less ahead of time. For that reason, they have no idea what’s coming up on the show, not even whether their own characters are about the be killed off. “Actors know they are in trouble when they are told to go off to special effects for a head-cast to be made”, Gonzales joked, but was referring specifically to the death of T-Bone on the show.

Both Gonzales and Koske showed a great deal of enthusiasm in discussing their roles, and a desire to bring fans into their experience of just how much intricate detail is involved in crafting The Walking Dead phenomenon. It was clear they were excited, as fans, to be talking to other fans about their passion for their work.

Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics journalist and scholar working on books about Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman for Sequart.org. She is @HannahMenzies on Twitter and @hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.

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