Day One: Chasing Lincoln, making friends
The first thing I learned was BE VERY EARLY. I had a 7AM call time the first day, and I made sure I was there five minutes early. I had gotten up around 5AM, showered and shaved, and found a diner about a half-block from my hotel. Luck shone upon me – the food was excellent and the service was quick.
The staging area was an abandoned downtown restaurant and watering hole. From the strategically positioned location, two fancy bars, and a mezzanine – I figured this place must have been “The” establishment for the rich and powerful. The location also is a metaphor of sorts. Death, after all, is the central theme, and this restaurant was now… dead.
I walked inside and walked up a set of marble steps to the foyer. I was motioned to a table and checked in. I was given some paperwork which, I was told, was essential to get paid.
Get paid? I thought. I never thought about that! I would gladly pay them to be there!
I first met Patrick, who had called me with the good news about my casting. He instructed me to go up the main staircase to the mezzanine area, which was the holding pen for all the extras. I had read both the email and the casting company’s Facebook site regarding first-time extras. So I had packed a small canvas bag with what I thought I needed: A book, a change of clothes, a snack, and of course I brought my Vol. 1 trade paperback of The Walking Dead. I wanted to compare the book with what I was going to experience.
I took the staircase and saw about sixty or seventy people, all sitting around huge tables, reading, sleeping, listening to music, or just otherwise keeping occupied. I realized then that I did not know a single soul – plus, I had to keep my eyes open for my patron, a member of the crew who I had never met. After about twenty minutes, I saw my contact, who called over a PA, or Production Assistant. He was young, tall, muscular, and African-American, with long dreads. His name was Dorado, and he was from New Orleans.
Dorado whisked me downstairs and into an area near one of the two bars. It was the makeup area, and Dorado said have a seat and wait to be called. I found out some of the people in front of me had 6:00 AM call times. Looking at the line of people, it dawned upon me that call times are fiction, if you are an extra. The earlier you get there, the more likely you are to actually get opportunities. The early bird truly gets the worm
I sat down near a cluster of guys who were talking. One of them was a Brit with long red hair. I knew that the comic’s artist, Charlie Adlard, was British, but could this be my good fortune to be sitting near the artist for the Walking Dead? He was talking to a guy in an aqua baseball cap. Suddenly, the guy in the ball cap pulled out a hardcover copy of the graphic novel. The red-headed guy promptly pulled out a Sharpie and started drawing and inscribing the book’s inside cover.
Yes, it was Adlard, all right. I was ecstatic. Nerdgasm.
Slowly, as the line snaked around and extras played musical chairs, I finally spoke up. The group I was sitting with was about as distinguished as you can get. Charlie Adlard. Gary Whitta, who had just scored fame with The Book of Eli, for which he wrote the story and screenplay. And a fella named Tim, who will figure much more prominently later.
Gary told me of all the cool Easter Eggs in The Book of Eli, mostly centering around the poster and prop for A Boy and His Dog. The poster can be seen when Mila Kunis brings Denzel his dinner. The prop: The sniper rifle used in the street scene. In exchange, I told Gary and the group how intricately Marvel had laced clues in the Fury-Stark scene toward the end of Iron Man 2. I told them how I had actually commandeered an IMAX theatre and had used it as my personal remote and freeze-framed the screen throughout the scene. Look yourself for the illuminated spots representing Wakunda, the middle of the South Atlantic, New Mexico, Norway, Southern California, two spots in New York, and the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic. Then notice that the North Atlantic dot starts blinking. Note the live-action shots of the Hulk rampaging on a Virginia college campus, which are the actual scenes from the Ed Norton Hulk movie, as well as the gamma-ray detector panel -- all in reverse.
But I digress. Everyone was duly impressed, and Whitta shook his head at the intricacy of the clues. I became an ex-officio member of the group.
It took me about a half-hour in makeup. The plan was never to actually be in makeup, but to be a “background zombie” in the rear of the crowd scenes. I was perfectly fine with that! I was just happy to be there! However, my contact in the crew enabled me to get into the makeup line. This was the “hero zombie” makeup line! Hero zombies are the zombies you see in the foreground. Blood. Bites. Torn flesh. You know, the cool zombies.
Just before my turn in the chair, though, another PA (production assistant) put me in the “mask” line. Time was a-wastin’, and they needed to move people into the quicker line to try and make the day’s shooting schedule. That meant I was issued a mask and had a lot of makeup applied to my eyes and other makeup sprayed on my head, neck, arms and hands. The sprayed-on makeup had to be applied outside the building. The person sprayed different color liquids on my arms and hands. By the time he was done, it appeared all the blood had pooled into my hands and fingers.
The way it worked out was awesome! The mask I quickly figured out how to form a vacuum between the mask and my face, pressing out the air and creating a fit that made the mask look like it had been molded from my own face! I honestly did not mind the lack of prosthetic makeup. I was just happy to be there. It actually worked out better for me, when we took breaks in the 100-degree heat, and when we ate lunch.
When I came back inside, Whitta, Adlard, and the guy in the hat were gone.
Shortly afterward, we gathered up our gear and moved to another building just down the block from the outdoor set. It appeared to have been a dance studio, as full-length mirrors adorned most of the walls. I should note that pretty much the entire area looked run-down, which was a real shame. The location scouts really outdid themselves, as they have all series long.
I notice an extra, a Hero Zombie. He is dressed in mechanic’s coveralls. He is reading Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide. Finding his motivation.
There is a lot of waiting on a movie/television production. What interested me is the way many of these veteran extras had adapted to the “hurry up and wait” realities of the industry. Many had crafted special backpacks and assorted gear. I soon developed a speaking relationship with two of the extras: Ondie Daniel and Pamela Ashe-Smith. Shortly afterward, I met another extra. Jack Byrd, whose age was closest to my own, had retired from the Georgia Department of Child Protective Services. While on the set, he pointed to the building at the corner of the street where we first chased Andrew Lincoln. “I worked there for twenty years,” Jack said.
Jack and I got pretty close while working that weekend. He was a masked zombie on Saturday, like me, and we sat together frequently when not chasing Lincoln. During lunch, I told him the entire chronology of the comics, and I noted the presence on set of Greg Nicotero, the famed makeup effects maestro. “Greg Nicotero is the best in the world at what he does,” I explained.
A few of the younger extras were familiar with the comics. We all had fun discussing the books, the show, and when we would see Michonne. Speaking of Michonne: One of the extras was a dead ringer for Michonne. I met her on Day Two. I tried to show Charlie Adlard, but he was elsewhere on the set.
Frequently, though, one of the extras would ask me who I was. “I did not see you in Zombie School,” they would say. “So how did you get here?”
Zombie School is the usually-mandatory training academy for zombies. If you own the Walking Dead Season One Blu-Ray or DVD box set, you can run the feature. Or you can see it online. I did not attend Zombie School, but I had practiced extensively, and I had mastered several different shambles.
I would respond like this: “I CLEPed out of Zombie School!” Or: “I have been attending Zombie School my entire life!”
The first day’s filming largely consisted of us chasing Andrew Lincoln (“Rick Grimes”), his riding double and stunt horse, from various camera angles and directions. Frank Darabont, the pilot episode’s director and first-season “showrunner,” sat in the “video village,” a bank of computers and monitors, grouped under a couple of tents like the ones seen when tailgating at a football game.
We always knew when we had a great “take,” because we would all hear Darabont yell, “CUT!” and then laugh maniacally. We heard a lot of maniacal laughter those two days.
I caught up with Whitta and Adlard on the set. Both were made up splendidly, with superb prosthetic makeup. Whitta was adorned in pajamas, bathrobe and slippers, while Adlard looked as if he had just been someone’s lunch. Charlie and I had been talking just before we were separated, and I thought I would finish the conversation.
“As I was saying,” I said to Adlard, walking up to him.
His eyes grew wide. “BLOODY HELL!” he exclaimed. I guess I looked great!
By the way, in the photo above, Charlie is attacking Robert Kirkman, undoubtedly regarding getting scripts late. In the background and to the right are Tim Daniel (with the aqua ball cap), Steve Warren, the back of Michelle Flanagan-Helmeczy's head, and Gary Whitta (extreme right, in pajamas and robe).
That night, I went back to the hotel, showered off the makeup, and hit the diner – again. I needed a good night’s sleep, because I had a 6:30 AM call time, and there was no way I was going to be late!
TOMORROW: Day Two, or I could eat a horse.