The news today brings two more cases of human infection with H7N9 avian flu, and the confirmation of the fourth death I mentioned in yesterday's blog.
WAIT! NEWS FLASH! Now, according to Treyfish, veteran Flutrackers poster, China has reported 14 cases of human H7N9 infection. And one pigeon. Five humans are dead. The pigeon's status is uncertain.
I am only half-joking when I mention the pigeon. As I blogged yesterday, birds appear to be unaffected by this bird flu. Ordinarily, when a bird has bird flu, it gets very sick and then dies.
As ESPN celebrity and former FSU player Lee Corso would say, not so fast, my friend. This bird flu is not making birds sick. If it were, we would have seen H7N9 coming.
Now, Corso did not say that about bird flu. I said that.
At least one of the two newly-reported cases is in Zhejiang Province. This province has previously reported cases of H7N9 recently. Please refer to the map of Chinese provinces I posted in a previous H7N9 blog. The location of the second new case today is not confirmed.
There is feverish (so to speak) activity taking place among those who know the genetics of influenza. These intrepid individuals have been studying the anatomy of H7N9 and sharing that data via the Internet. The crowdsourcing of H7N9 data is most helpful and extremely important, for it allows a much greater number of qualified researchers to begin the process of dissecting this troubling new virus.
As one can imagine, samples of this new strain of H7N9 are rare. I can only imagine the frantic process of obtaining these samples and sending them via fighter jet halfway around the world to ground transports, those transports, in turn, racing these samples to facilities such as St. Jude and Drs. Webster and Webby. Well, that's how it would work in the movies. The reality is probably based around Fed Ex and UPS. "Sign here for your lethal bird flu virus, Doctor Webster."
Anyway, you have eleven positive victims, and four deaths, and only so much tissue to go around. So those lucky enough to have actually processed the samples themselves are able to post their research online.
We are a long, long way from being able to replicate things in a laboratory. We are a long, long way from growing H7N9 in quantities sufficient to conduct any real experiments, with ferrets, birds, or any other creatures. So all we have right now are the phylogenetic charts showing the antecedents of H7N9, and where we have seen their individual component parts before.
For example, GeneWurx, which posts to Flutrackers, says this about what they have seen:
Though H9N2 is regaled as the nearest relative on file for these internal gene segments of the H7N9 emerging zoonosis, note the highlighted areas including a fatal H5N1 human, pH1N1 in swine (with human homology) and sH3N2. These H7N9 sequences have developed from pedigrees not entirely disjunctive from human infection.
You will recall the (not so) little problem America had with its rural county fairs the past two summers. People were petting farm animals and then winding up with swine H3N2. I really meant to blog about those cases. Anyway, an excellent CIDRAP article from last October showed now closely related the swine H3N2 and the longtime seasonal human H3N2 were related.
The press has been running excerpts of an interview with Dr. Richard Webby, of St. Jude. For new readers: St. Jude has arguably the top influenza research facility in the world. Its director, Dr. Robert Webster, is nicknamed the "Pope of Influenza." Dr. Richard Webby works with Dr. Webster and he is also an email buddy of mine. Dr. Webby said this to the press about H7N9:
"I think that's what's concerning about this ...This thing doesn't any longer look like a poultry virus," Webby, a swine flu expert, said in an interview.
"It really looks to me like it's adapted in a mammalian host somewhere."
If the virus is spreading in mammals, finding that source is critical to try to reduce human exposure and prevent additional cases, he said.
Also weighing in is Dr. Henry Niman. Dr. Niman has composed an excellent map of the human cases so far, cases known and suspected. He also is seeing the progression that Dr. Webby has seen, but he does have a rather flamboyant writing style:
The latest cases increase concerns that the presence of D225G and Q226L represents human adaption of a lethal bird flu virus that has a greater pandemic potential than H5N1. This potention is enhanced by the presence of PB2 E627K.
Veteran readers of this Blog know that the presence of PB2 E627K signals a move away from avian proclivities and toward mammals. These are the changes that worry researchers so much. Also knowing that the birds are not dying means surveillance using conventional (and cheaper) methodology is out the window. We need a better way to detect the presence of this new flu, and we need it quickly.
There is no question that, somewhere along the line, a pig -- or a human -- was the Mixing vessel that produced this new, novel and immensely troubling virus.
Fasten your seat belt.
The H7N9 outbreak continues to grow. This morning, both Flutrackers and Avian Flu Diary are reporting multiple Chinese stories that two new and previously unreported human H7N9 cases have been found in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Both cases have died.
The machine translation from Chinese to English can be problematic where date (well, pretty much anything else) is concerned, so it takes skill to parse correct dates from the rest of the dialogue. Regrettably, that is a skill I lack. But many others do, and these talented people are all located on Flutrackers.com.
There appear to be two separate dates of infection. One apparently is the 7th of March, and the other is the 25th of March. But what is plain is that this brings a fourth province -- and third coastal province -- into the picture. By any yardstick, we have not yet defined the scope of this outbreak. Although it appears human-to-human transmission may or may not yet be possible, and as we covered at length yesterday, H7 can and does infect humans, the cat appears to be out of the bag.
The biggest impediment to getting our arms around the scope of the crisis (yes, I consider this to be a crisis, because we have a novel strain of influenza that no one, outside a random poultry worker or hunter is immune to, and it is killing people): It is not killing poultry. Sentinel chickens (the proverbial canary in a coal mine), used to help detect the presence of avian influenza, may be asymptomatic carriers of the disease. At least that is one oprevailing theory, which would also explain why and how this virus escaped surveillance and, thus, early detection.
You always knew when H5N1 bird flu was close by: You could follow the trail of dead and soon-to-be-dead chickens. H7N9 is not killing chickens. Nor, contrary to what our deepest nightmares and feelings might tell us, is it killing pigs.
My blog of yesterday mentioned a Dr. Yin of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Apparently Dr. Yin is the Foundation's leader in China. And it was quite satisfying, knowing Bill and Melinda are spending funds in China, including, but not limited to, surveillance. Dr. Yin's statement is worth paraphrasing. He said, basically, if you don't test for H7N9, you won't find it. But if you do test for it, you'll find it. The inference is that there have been numerous unexplained and undiagnosed severe respiratory ailments there this season. Retroactive testing of samples, based on Dr. Yin's inference, will yield a significant increase in the number of H7N9 human cases.
I am hopeful that the CDC here will start looking at the number of "A (subtyping not performed)" samples still lingering around.
The world woke up Easter Sunday to some pretty unsettling news. No, it was not about that twit in North Korea. The news came out of China, and it hit hard enough for me to start blogging again.
China is the source of a novel H7N9 influenza virus. And the virus is infecting, and killing, humans.
In the past three years, I have written a small handful of infectious disease blogs. I just felt that I had nothing to contribute; people such as my buddies Mike Coston, Crof and Maryn McKenna were filling that space quite nicely, and I could not offer anything of value.
Then, a few months ago, I began to formulate a concept in my mind. Things were just too dang quiet, I thought. H1N1 was still infecting and killing overseas, but H3N2 was the principal culprit in North America. Odd, I thought: Flu always plays King of the Mountain. Why should a seasonal strain be more prevalent -- and also more deadly -- than the recent pandemic strain?
I looked at this novel coronavirus situation in the Middle East. What the heck was going on with that? As I began the research into this novel coronavirus, I thought what everyone else was thinking: Is this the Next Big Pandemic?
And, as always, Mother Nature shows us who is boss. She shows us that you simply cannot predict when something is going to pop up and take all us arrogant humans by the scruff of the neck and shake us and berate us for ever, ever thinking we know what is coming.
Here, in a capsule of a capsule, is what we know, as of 1PM EDT on the second of April, 2013.
Sometime in mid-February, a family of three Chinese men in Shanghai -- an 87-year-old father, and two sons, aged 55 and 69 -- contracted something very, very virulent. Two of the men died. The lone survivor was hospitalized with pneumonia (alarm bell #1). The dead father was discovered to have had H7N9 influenza. H7N9 was not found in the two sons. The younger son also died. H7N9 was not found in him. The inescapable fact is that all three men suffered from terrible pneumonia, and two died. As we all know, pneumonia is the most prevalent byproduct of influenza. No one is going on the record as stating, flatly, that the other two cases were not H7N9. They are saying they did not detect any. There is a difference.
In early March, about two hundred miles away, a 35-year-old woman contracted something very, very virulent. She, too, was diagnosed with H7N9 influenza (alarm bell #2).
It took the Chinese authorites until March 31st -- March 31st -- to disclose that, indeed, there was the presence of a novel influenza, never before seen in humans. I suppose we should celebrate the fact the Chinese disclosed anything at all. And the Chinese are, apparently, doing their due diligence. Some 88 contacts of the three men have been monitored, and to date, none have shown symptoms of respiratory distress. That would seem to downplay the possibility of human-to-human transmission.
This would be all fine, well and good, except for one small fact: We are getting reports of more cases. Just as I was fact-checking this blog, news arrived of four more cases, again disclosed by the Chinese government. All the new cases come from a third province. Quoting from the proMED dispatch:
The number of confirmed human cases of avian A(H7N9) influenza virus infection has now risen to 7; the number of fatalities remains at 2.
The condition of the 4 new cases is critical, and all remain in hospital. None of the 4 new cases are related to the previous 3 cases or to each other. Only one of the new cases has had daily contact with birds, a 45-year-old woman who is described as a poultry butcher. The pattern remains the same, presumptive direct infection from poultry and no evidence of person-to-person transmission. The overall situation is becoming more serious, suggesting that many people may be directly susceptible to a strain of avian A(H7N9) influenza virus that may be widespread in the avian population (wild or farmed) in China.
The consequences of infection by this virus appear to be severe. - Mod.CP
The number of human cases of infection via H7 influenzas is considerable. Mike Coston has constructed a nifty history of those infections in his recent blog post, so I will not attempt to replicate his fine post. Suffice it to say that H7 is known to scientists and researchers, but (up to now) its ability to cause serious illness in humans, save for one hapless vet in the Netherlands a few years ago, is small.
Crawford Killian, the noted author and flu blogger, has an excellent post today. The spource is an AP story on the outbreak. It quotes a researcher from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"When you don't look, you don't find them, but when you look, you'll find," said Dr. Ray Yip, a public health expert who heads the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in China.
"A lot of people get severe respiratory conditions, pneumonias, so you usually don't test them. Now all of a sudden you get this new reported strain of flu and so people are going to submit more samples to test, [so] you're more likely to see more cases," Yip said.
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.
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.