SPOILER WARNING: The following contains some small and some potential spoilers for the first episode of Season 3 of "The Walking Dead" and beyond.
Just outside Atlanta, Georgia is a farm, and last year, millions of comic and horror fans watched it burn to the ground. Kind of.
And just a few miles up the road from that farm is a prison, where last week a record number of TV viewers saw an old man go under an extremely invasive surgical procedure. Sort of.
Of course, nothing is exactly what it seems on the set of AMC's "The Walking Dead." The TV drama based on Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard's hit Image/Skybound comic book entered its third season this Sunday to a record ratings number and began a journey towards what many comic fans consider to be the signature story arc of the book – the survivor's occupation of an abandoned prison – involving the signature villain of the series – the Governor, as played on the show by actor David Morrissey. With full knowledge of what happened on the page and a full list of questions, CBR News headed to the set of the show late in August for a look behind the scenes of what it will take to bring this pivotal storyline to life.
"I kind of feel like we have a wide open field to run in and to play in. It's very liberating," Executive Producer and show runner Glen Mazzara explained in between shots for episode 11 of this season. "We focus on making sure that every episode in every season is as good as possible, and we have a pretty well defined arc for this particular season. We did last year as well. So there were certain storylines and characters we wanted to introduce. The idea that there is no ending to the story as of yet and that Robert's intention is to keep going on showing how these people will live on in this apocalypse is exactly the same way I'm approaching the story. Of course, this is not a show about the reveals – oh, there was this kind of virus, and it's here in the lab, and here's how you destroy it, and that's the end of the story. It's more emotional. The characters are living under duress and making tough choices. I think Robert and I both have an interest in showing how those pieces come together to try and establish some type of civilization."
That civilization will center on the prison discovered by Andrew Lincoln's Rick Grimes and his band of survivors in this week's episode. The prison seen on screen by fans is perhaps the most complex and convincing set yet built for the series. Occupying the back half sound stages of Riverwood Studios outside Atlanta, the prison is a study in "movie magic." While viewers see a desolate concrete exercise yard covered in shattered computer monitors and bloody bodies, the real prison walls are as tough as carboard. The high guard towers that the survivors picked off Walkers from have empty insides (actors were placed in the crow's nests with "cherry picker" cranes). The filth-ridden cells which will now serve as the cast's bedrooms lack back walls, instead dropping off into plywood structures.
And while the set is literally down the road from the farm where last season Rick, Hershel and the rest found temporary respite from the apocalypse, the feel of the place couldn't be any further from the homey feel that started Season 2. And its darkened hallways provide ample opportunity for producers to amp up the scares of this season. "[Production designer] Grace Walker designed that prison, and there are certain rooms that we'll constantly be using the episodes such as the cell block and the common room, but what you may not have noticed when you saw the set is that a lot of that stuff is modular," Kirkman told CBR recently. "One room may be a boiler room one day and a cafeteria the next day. That stuff is moved in and out depending on what the episodes call for," he said. "There is a kind of magic to how we've built the prison where you can pretty much do anything we've done in the comic book series at that set. It's all in a somewhat confined space because we're able to transform rooms into different spaces, but prisons are very similar in the way that you get trapped in them."
Amping up the feeling of dread and horror for the prison story was a major focus for Mazzara, who fully took creative reigns on the show after last season's much publicized firing of developer Frank Darabont. People close to the show have spoken highly of the more fast-paced direction that "The Walking Dead" has adopted under the new show runner's leadership, and he in turn contributes that to the new blood provided by the comic issues. "We feel an obligation to deliver certain material to the fans of the comic book so that if feels recognizable to them," Mazzara explained. "For example, the Governor is an antagonist for Rick. He's a conflict. He will become a villain. How we tell that story and develop that character is up to us. Michonne is a bad ass. She's a warrior. She's flawed, and so there's questions about her backstory, about her relationships and how she interacts with others. That's up for us to explore. So it needs to feel like our version of what Robert's done. It needs to be true to the spirit, but I don't think the show would work if we were a straight adaptation. It wouldn't be surprising. There would be too many spoilers out there, and we wouldn't be able to go out and explore."
Mazzara said that after last year explored the power balance between Rick and Shane, the lead character's journey this year would come down much harder on the cast as a whole. "Rick does establish an autocracy – a Ricktatorship as we say – this season, and I think the question is how far is he willing to push this group to do what he thinks is important," he said. "I think this is very much a story about that group being pushed beyond its limits both because of Rick's drive and the circumstances. This all comes at a time where you have a great villain like the Governor wanting what they have. The Governor is a force of nature, and our guys are beaten down, so they're not really in a position to stand up to the the Governor. How they're going to do that is what you have to watch and find out."
And any reader even slightly familiar with the comic has their ideas about what should come from the Governor. The villain's inclusion in the comic added a new level of twisted horror to the series, and even as the location for his homebase – the town of Woodbury which has been built up on Main Street in Semoia, Georgia with signs thanking locals for not cutting their grass all summer – looks sweet and stable on the outside, the character himself is on the verge of becoming unhinged.
"David is absolutely brilliant as the Governor," Mazzara said of Morrisey's different reading on the role. "I'll be honest, I wasn't sure how things were going to work beforehand, but as soon as he came on I had a pretty well defined idea of what he was going to become. He's sincere and inspiring and feels like a natural leader, but he's someone with a secret and an underside. You have to believe that he's a good guy at first – someone that you would trust in these circumstances. It's a complicated role, and there is a very long term arc for that character. David was a fan of the show, and he read 'The Rise of the Governor' [novel that Kirkman wrote] which I have not read. So we sat down with slightly different understandings of the character, and we just started hitting it off. I described what I wanted, and he responded to that. It's interesting because he really got into that character, and now there are little looks that I think are some of the scariest things we've done. I'm glad he's not looking at me."
Another new twist for the season will be the return of Darryl's brother Merle who has allied himself with the Governor. While neither brother played a role in the comics, Mazzara said they've found a way to fold the new characters into the comics framework. "I will say this: Merle is not a henchman in any way. He's just running with the Governor because the Governor is a great leader and is establishing something. But Merle is Merle. He certainly still is his own man."
On the other side of the coin, fans will finally meet the full version of samurai sword-wielding Michonne as played by Danai Gurira. The actress spoke highly of her smooth transition into the established cast, saying, "They've been amazing, and they really embraced the newbies from the get-go. I was overwhelmingly embraced by them in so many ways from the day I was cast getting invited to have lunch with everybody, and now settling in, working together has been a matter of taking things scene-by-scene and moment-by-moment. Really, I've just been engulfing myself in this world. It has such a specific tone, but it's such a clear tone that I'm able to engage the world they've amazingly created. It's something you've wanted to be a part of."
But even as new characters, new stories and new complications work their way through the set, Mazarra promised that he had only one goal for "The Walking Dead" moving forward: keep it frightening. "I won't release a script into production until I'm convinced it's scary," the writer explained. "Sometimes you may have a script that advances the emotional arc of a character, but the particular episode doesn't work. Unless it has that other element – not necessarily an attack from a zombie but something that's going to make the audience lean in and feel nervous or uncomfortable with some sort of thrill – without that, I don't feel like it's an episode of 'The Walking Dead.' And we've done a whole lot of work to make sure our zombie gags are fresh...one of the best things about the show is that you have to find new kinds of horror.
"One of the things we don't do is we are not sadistic. The horror that we do has certain rules. There's what's called 'torture porn,' and that's something I'm not interested in doing. I don't find that scary. That's just revulsion, and as of yet we're not going to incorporate any of that into the show."
Whether that means the conflict between Rick and the Governor won't get as gory as the comics once the prison and Woodbury collide will be up for viewers to find out, though Mazarra promised that they're walking into the stories with a fearless attitude. "We won't shy away from any of the material, but we will tell that story in our fashion when we're good and ready. There will be some points where readers will go, 'Whoa...why didn't they do that?' Well, maybe we'll do it next season. Maybe the following one. We want you to feel like these characters and here to stay and the characters are here to stay."
Stay tuned over the days ahead for more with the cast and crew of "The Walking Dead."