Filming the series every week is like doing a movie, says its producer. Photo: SuppliedThough both The Walking Dead (and its cable stablemates, such as Game of Thrones) have enjoyed astonishing success, 2015 will be remembered as a red-letter year for genre television.
To some extent neither show gets the respect it deserves, though changes to the voting structure of the television industry’s Emmy academy meant that Game of Thrones won best drama this year. And in ratings terms, The Walking Dead has built what looks like an unassailable margin on its competitors.
“We still have a larger audience than them and we’re very proud of that,” says the show’s executive producer Greg Nicotero, wryly.
“[They are] set in a similar world, almost an apocalyptic world … [but audiences] can identify with our characters easier. All these characters that I think people can really identify with. And there’s something for everybody, the cast is so large now. [The audience can ask] if this were to happen, who would I be?”
Since its premiere in 2010, The Walking Dead has evolved significantly. Stylistically, says Nicotero, the series has aspired to lift the bar every year.
“Every day you’re on set, every time you collaborate with an actor, every time you collaborate with a writer, you become a better filmmaker,” he says.
“I wanted to really aim high visually and I wanted the episode to feel bigger than it had ever felt before, so in the design of some of the sequences, I designed them as if we were shooting a $100 million movie,” he says.
It doesn’t just end with the first episode … it’s not like the first episode is huge and then we take a breather. You’ll never catch your breath. This entire season is going to be spent gasping for the next moment. It’s exhausting and it’s exhilarating and it’s rewarding.”
Sustaining the series is a big challenge, though Nicotero is quick to point out that while Game of Thrones has caught up to its source material, The Walking Dead still has a large library of comic book material to tap. Maintaining a momentum is, he says, not difficult, the bar has been set high.
“Thank God we have a show runner [Scott M. Gimple, who replaced Glen Mazzara] who respects the genre, understands the genre and respects the source material,” Nicotero says.
“It’s challenging, because we keep doing more and more and more, and it’s the mistake that I made up as a makeup effects guy years ago, which is, they go, we want more, but we have less time and less money,” he says. “Then you pull it off, and they go … now you can do this, here’s less time.”
The Walking Dead’s challenge, he adds, is that the scripts have become more ambitious over time.
“Bigger and bigger, and it’s challenging, but Scott has such an astute eye for the direction of the show,” Nicotero says. “He’s been at the helm for three seasons and the show has skyrocketed in terms of the material that we’ve been able to provide for viewers.”
The sixth season of The Walking Dead will comprise 16 one-hour episodes, broken into two eight-episode blocks. The first block launched in October; the second in February, 2016.
The season premiere delivers an episode which picks up where the series off, but shifts its time frame a little. “We didn’t want this premiere to feel similar to other premieres; we wanted to do something bigger and something a little different,” Nicotero explains.
“Scott Gimple and Matt Negrete wrote an episode that had a very interesting timeline, where we jump back and forth between our present day and flashbacks. Technically this episode happens about four days after the season finale, but we kind of shift in time a bit.”
And despite the success of the series and its lengthening shelf life – around 70 episodes and growing, and a spin-off prequel in Fear The Walking Dead – the comic book itself still has a clearly defined fandom and, Nicotero says, a very distinct identity.
“The source material pays a great tribute to George Romero and Night of the Living Dead, I mean that’s where the genesis of the show is,” he says.
“When we shot the pilot, I remember having dinner with Frank Darabont years before we ever shot the pilot, and he was fascinated with the world and he’s like, listen, I would love to do a zombie movie.”
By the time the show’s sixth season wraps, Nicotero adds, it will have reached 83 hours.
“People go, are you going to do a Walking Dead movie? We do a movie every f—ing week. There’s no reason to try to truncate the story that we’re telling into two hours. We’ve had 83 hours to tell this fascinating story. It’s a world rich with options.”
The Walking Dead
FX, Monday, 1.30pm and 8.30pm