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 onto leaders, their will to survive stronger than their pride. Then there are those who seize a newfound power to terrorize and bully. 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, which launches on Sunday — the characters are on the verge of war, a battle pitting Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his band of loyalists against Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) 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 show’s actors and crew. Everyone took pains to avoid revealing what is in store this season.
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Greg Nicotero, special effects guru who not only created the zombies who lurch and prowl the world but also is co-executive producer and occasional director, called this season’s premiere its most propulsive.
Season 7 featured segmented episodes that narrowly focused on one character or community. It was a tough season to get through, the actors said; they missed the chance to interact with a variety of colleagues and felt isolated.
The feel for Season 8 is different, they say. 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.
The show’s main filming location is a sprawling lot 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 (Pollyanna McIntosh), who speaks in an odd clipped form of English and switches allegiances as fast as Michonne (Danai Gurira) can lop off a head with her Katana.
The Hilltop, ruled over by drunkard and chauvinist Gregory (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; six months out of the year they have to stay clear of the film crews that flock there.
The first season was shot largely in Atlanta. By the second season, Raleigh Studios had been built in Senoia, a town of about 4,000 an hour south of Atlanta.
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 Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) 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. It was a tough scene to shoot, he said, and it was even tougher to lose not only two beloved characters but two actors from a cast that considers itself tight-knit.
“I don’t know if we’ll shoot here again,” Luse said.
Almost 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 re-create that dead look.”
The show is based on Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s comics, which 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.
A few characters in the show are not in the comics, including the crossbow-wielding Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), who has proved to be one of the show’s most popular.
Gale Anne Hurd, an executive producer, attributes much of the cast’s camaraderie to Lincoln, whose character Grimes, a sheriff, 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 that the show would become a huge success? 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 basics.
“The second season was one in which 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.”
Where to watch
Season 8 of “The Walking Dead” premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22, on AMC.