The Allure Of Gore: 'Walking Dead' Producer On Zombies And Mean Tweets
The AMC series The Walking Dead, about a band of survivors in a zombie apocalypse, is known for killing off characters without much warning. But while the show's sudden plot twists keep viewers engaged, they can also create explosions of fan grief and rage on social media. Much of the audience's ire has landed on Scott M. Gimple, the series' executive producer and this season's showrunner.
Gimple tells Fresh Air's Sam Briger that some of the tweets can be "super mean," but he adds that he tries to see the larger picture of the fan's reactions. "This audience likes these characters and they're passionate about these characters," he says. "These are characters that I have been conceptualizing and building up, and hopefully making audiences connect with them, so it is a sign of some storytelling success."
Gimple says that the show's apocalyptic landscape — which features a "walking" zombie infection — seems to resonate deeply with audiences. "Now more than ever I think people are aware of the threat of pandemics, whether it's Ebola or whether it's the bird flu or whether it's just the flu," he says.
On why the show is so successful
I can only speak for me, but in the comics and then in the show, I just loved seeing these characters from all these different backgrounds facing the same thing. I will say, though, there is a little bit of a fantasy that we're so consumed in our lives with so many things that maybe aren't very real. We lead lives of distraction, a lot of us. No matter what job you do, you sit in front of a computer, the computer is on the Internet, which seems almost built for distraction, and there's something about the situation that these characters are in that everything superfluous has been taken away from them. It's just a very simple life of survival.
On creating the gory sound effects
I think recently [we used] somebody throwing a melon of some sort at a car. It is weird stuff like that. The walkers [the show refers to zombies as "walkers"] though, those are live performers. They aren't the walkers on the day that we film, those are looped in and those are very specifically performed by very, very dedicated and brilliant artists. ... There's a lot of different versions: There's breathier ones, there's growlier ones, there's gurglier ones.
On whether the show's violence affects him
Watching it is one thing and doing it is another. And even the most violent moments on this show — even ... where Rick bites out the neck of that gentleman — it's a very strange thing because I know how hard it is to make that look real, and I know the work of everybody that went into it, and I know the people who worked on it. And so when I'm on set and it's 2 o'clock in the morning and Andy is biting into pieces of chicken of somebody's throat and somebody is standing off to the side pumping the blood that's coming out of that person's neck, and I'm thinking about the actor being freezing with the blood running down his shirt — it isn't getting desensitized to the violence, I see everything that went into it to make it horrifying and to make it hopefully emotionally resonant, but it's more like looking at a football play or a dance.
I'd say the hardest part is in script form because that's before all of this work to make it real gets involved. There have definitely been times that I've been so deep in a script and writing these moments and sort of backing away from the screen and being a little uncomfortable or just horrified myself that it went that way.
On an instance of writing a scene that went too far graphically
All of these walkers were swarming the prison fence [and] a walker was being pressed into the fence, and we scripted it that the walker is almost being cheese-grated, sort of "play-doughed," through the fence ... and initially I thought, "Maybe we shouldn't do this," because it wasn't really connected to any emotional moment in the story. It was just to show the circumstance, to show the amount of pressure that the people were under, and ultimately I did do it. I did put it in.
I think some of those moments play oddly as relief to the audience. It isn't a joke. We're not trying to make a funny and we're not trying to do anything ironically or anything, but things have just gotten so bad that you're just seeing how impossibly dark things can get. It's a tone of the show and it's a part of the show that I think is very specific to our show, because we're not trying to make the audience laugh in any way ... but when things get that dark, there's just a bit of recognition of it, and I feel there's a strange relief in it.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. Hey, look out.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, no (screaming).
BIANCULLI: Oh, great. We lost another. Fans of the AMC series "The Walking Dead" are used to that. The incredibly popular and exciting television show about a band of survivors in a zombie apocalypse is known for killing off characters without much warning. Even popular lead characters die, which can cause explosions of fan grief and rage on social media, often directed at our guest, the program's showrunner, Scott M. Gimple, but he gets a lot of praise, too. "The Walking Dead" is based on a comic book series of the same name written by Robert Kirkman, who's also an executive producer for the television show.
Both the show and comic follow a group of hardened survivors led by former sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln. As if avoiding hordes of zombies wasn't enough trouble, they also must deal with people who are often more dangerous than the living dead. Scott M. Gimple took over as showrunner for the 4th season. Season five ended in March. He's also an executive producer. Gimple spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Let's start with a clip. Rick and his group have been welcomed into a walled community of people in Alexandra, Va., who seem incredibly naive and vulnerable. Rick's been asked to serve as constable, but he feels that Alexandria must accept how far civilization has fallen and that survival demands a brutal form of justice. Here, he's speaking with Deanna, the head of Alexandria, played by Tovah Feldshuh. Rick is concerned about a member of the community who's been abusing his wife.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")
ANDREW LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) We have a problem with Pete.
TOVAH FELDSHUH: (As Deanna Monroe) I hoped that it'd get better.
LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes)You knew? It hasn't gotten better. It won't.
FELDSHUH: (As Deanna Monroe) Pete's a surgeon. He saved lives. He might be saving Tara's life.
LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) He's beating his wife. We have to stop it.
FELDSHUH: (As Deanna Monroe) How?
LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) We separate him. We tell him that's how it'll be from now on.
FELDSHUH: (As Deanna Monroe) What happens when he doesn't want to do that?
LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) It's not his choice.
FELDSHUH: (As Deanna Monroe) So what happens?
LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) I kill him. We kill him.
FELDSHUH: (As Deanna Monroe) We don't kill people. This is civilization, Rick.
LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) Warning someone to stop or die, that is civilized nowadays. So what? So we just let him hit her? We let him kill her?
FELDSHUH: (As Deanna Monroe) No. We exile him if it comes to that.
LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) If we do that we don't know when he comes back and what he does to them. Letting him go makes this place vulnerable. You really want to wait till someone in that tower has to take care of it? And that's if we're lucky.
FELDSHUH: (As Deanna Monroe) We are not executing anyone. Don't ever suggest it again. That sort of thinking doesn't belong in here.
LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) People die now, Deanna, they do. There's times like this you can decide who and when, or it can be decided for you.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That's a scene from the second to last episode of season five of "The Walking Dead." My guest is executive producer and showrunner Scott M. Gimple. Welcome to FRESH AIR.
SCOTT M. GIMPLE: Thank you.
BRIGER: So that scene really gets to one of the main themes of this season, which is just how much civilization is left for the survivors of this zombie apocalypse. They're in a situation where there's, you know, zombies that are trying to kill them. There's also all these very predatory people out there. And so how do you protect the people you love and yourself safe, and do you need to resort to a swifter and more brutal form of civilization? Why did you want to pursue that theme this season?
GIMPLE: Well, I'll say whenever we sort of tackle this stuff it comes from two places. The first place always is the comic. I started my relationship with "The Walking Dead" as a comics reader before the show was out. We also, though, have to apply it to the current timeline in the show. The show is very different from the comic in some ways and very much the same. There's characters alive on the show who are dead in the comics and vice versa. And really, the audience has been following on the show, Rick Grimes - this small town sheriff's deputy - and have followed his evolution, or devolution, from someone who wanted to retain an old style of civilization in this apocalypse and how the apocalypse has changed him and changed his beliefs. The contrast between who Rick was and who Rick is now has never been higher.
BRIGER: So "The Walking Dead" continues to have huge ratings. What do you think it is that - about your brand of zombie that's just so popular with audiences?
GIMPLE: I can only speak for me, but in the comics and then in the show, I just loved seeing these characters from all these different backgrounds facing the same thing. I will say, though, there is a little bit of a fantasy that we're so consumed in our lives with so many things that maybe aren't very real. We lead lives of distraction. You know, a lot of us, no matter what job you do, you sit in front of a computer. The computer is on the Internet, which seems almost built for distraction. And there's something about the situation that these characters are in that everything superfluous has been taken away from them. It's just a very simple life of survival.
BRIGER: Right. Well, you can look at, like, monster movies from various periods, and you can really see how they reflect cultural anxieties. Like, the "Godzilla" movies from Japan, they mirrored a fascination horror with nuclear fallout. You have, like, movies from the United States like "Them!" from 1954 that, you know, was about these giant terrorizing ants that were created because of bomb tests. What do you think your show reflects about our culture?
GIMPLE: You know, now more than ever I think people are aware of the threat of pandemics. Whether it's Ebola or whether it's the bird flu or whether it's just the flu, that might play into it as well because the threat here is people - sick people. People who have died from this sickness, but it spreads. It's an infection on the planet - a walker infection.
BRIGER: Let's talk about the sound of the show.
GIMPLE: Oh, yeah.
BRIGER: There's a lot of terrific gory sound effects that you use.
GIMPLE: (Laughter) Yeah.
BRIGER: You know, you have these crunchy, crisp kind of sounds when someone's piercing the skull of a zombie and then there's these really gross, wet sounds when humans are being eaten. Are you ripping fruit apart or what? Is it lettuce being shredded? Like, what is all that? Do you know?
GIMPLE: I mean, it's usually - it's usually from a library now. But - well, no - and we create them as well - pardon me. I think one - I'm just trying to think of one crazy instance, and I think recently somebody throwing a melon of some sort at a car. It is weird stuff like that. And then the walkers, though, those are live performers. They aren't the walkers on the day that we film. Those are looped in, and those are very specifically sort of performed by a very - very, very dedicated and brilliant artists
BRIGER: Very scratchy-voiced people, too, I imagine; a lot of horse voices it sounds like.
GIMPLE: Yeah, and, you know, there's a lot of different versions. There's breathier ones. There's growlier ones. There's sort of gurglier ones.
BRIGER: Well, let's hear a sample of some of that great sound. We're going to play a clip that's from the final episode of season four, which you co-wrote. And this is a scene where Rick's been surrounded by a bunch of terrible people who are threatening to kill his son, and he gets a chance to kill one of them and stab them. And as you'll hear in this clip, he just keeps stabbing and stabbing, and you'll hear the sound of the stabbing, so let's listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Please (screaming).
(SOUNDBITE OF STABBING)
BRIGER: Well, I have to notice that the scenes that have disturbed me the most in the past few seasons you've been the writer on. I mean, there's - or the co-writer.
GIMPLE: It might be Robert's fault, too.
BRIGER: Well, yeah - so you have - well, let's see. Let's see if they are. So you have, like, Rick's biting someone's throat out. There's a scene...
GIMPLE: And that's a moment from the comic.
GIMPLE: So that's just me appreciating.
BRIGER: There's a scene where the cannibals are efficiently slaughtering people to prep to eat. There's a truck...
GIMPLE: Yeah, that was...
BRIGER: That's you, I think.
GIMPLE: That would be me.
BRIGER: There's a truck full of still animated zombie torsos that spills out onto Rick's car.
GIMPLE: OK, that's - guilty as well.
BRIGER: (Laughter) And then - one more. And then the final episode you have Rick pinned down by a zombie, and the only way to get rid of the zombie is he, like, pushes his hand through the brainpan of the zombie and crushes the brain. So what does this say about you, Scott?
GIMPLE: Just to make myself even more guilty, you know, as the showrunner of the show - whatever kill is on whatever episode, regardless of the writer's name on it, it was up to me to say yes or no. I don't know what it says about me, but yeah, I think - I think if charges were brought, I would probably have the most jail time, so...
BIANCULLI: Fair enough; Scott M. Gimple - showrunner and an executive producer for "The Walking Dead" - speaking to FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger and his conversation with Scott M. Gimple, showrunner and an executive producer of AMC's "The Walking Dead."
BRIGER: You work on this incredibly violent show. And I'm wondering if, like, you're done at the office, and you have to go home, like, do you have to sort of reset your mind and sort of get back into the civilization that we live in?
GIMPLE: You know, I think watching it is one thing, and doing it is another. And even the most violent moments on this show, even the moment you were talking about where Rick bites out that neck of that gentleman, it's a very strange thing because I know how hard it is to make that look real. And I know the work of everybody who went into it, and I know the people who worked on it.
And so when I'm on set and it's 2 o'clock in the morning and Andy is biting into pieces of chicken on somebody's throat and somebody is standing off to the side, pumping the blood that's coming out of that person's neck and I'm thinking about the actor being freezing with the blood running down his shirt, it isn't getting desensitized to the violence. I see everything that went into it to make it horrifying and to make it, hopefully, emotionally resonant. But it's more like looking, you know, at a football play or a dance.
I'd say the hardest part is in script form because that's before all of this work to make it real gets involved. And there have definitely been times that I've been so deep in a script, in writing these moments and sort of backing away from the screen and being a little uncomfortable or just horrified myself that it went that way (laughter). Then I'm watching it, and I'm like, oh. You know, I'm writing, and I'm like, oh, yeah, here's the thing that makes it worse for this reason and that reason. And then you sit there and read what you just wrote.
BRIGER: But do you have any examples of something that you wrote and then saw in playback and were just like, that's just too far. We can't show that. Do you have an example of something like that?
GIMPLE: There was - and this actually wasn't very emotionally horrifying. It was just gross - which was this walker - because all of these walkers were swarming the prison fence, a walker was being pressed into the fence. And you know, we scripted it that the walker is being, you know, almost cheese gratered or...
BRIGER: Oh, God.
GIMPLE: Yeah - sort of Play-Dohed through the fence. And they made, you know, a pretty remarkable head for this. And initially, I thought, you know, maybe we shouldn't do this because it really wasn't connected to any emotional moment in the story. It was just to show the circumstance of the amount of pressure that the people were under. And ultimately, I did do it. I did put it in.
And there's a strange thing about it. I think some of those moments play, oddly, as relief to the audience. It isn't a joke. You know, we're not trying to make a funny, and we're not trying to, like, do anything ironically or anything. But things have just gotten so bad that you're just seeing how impossibly dark things can get.
It's a tone of the show, and it's a part of the show that I think is very specific to our show 'cause we're not trying to make the audience laugh in any way. And we're trying to keep everything real. But when things get that dark, there's just a bit of recognition of it, and there's a strange - I feel there's a strange sort of relief in it.
BRIGER: Well, it's almost like absurdity, not humor.
GIMPLE: Yeah. I mean, the threat is real, and they are - they're dealing with it, but things have gotten that bad that it's - yeah, I would say - perhaps absurd.
BRIGER: So no one on the show ever calls the zombies zombies. There's - they use terms like walker, roamer, biter, shuffler.
BRIGER: Why is that? Is that from the comic book?
GIMPLE: That is very much from the comic. It was something, as a reader, I dug. Once you start saying zombie, then - you know, they've seen all the Romero films. And as a reader of the comics, I was like, yeah, if they knew about zombies, they would never stop talking about all of the pop-culture zombies that they have seen.
BRIGER: So the show has a really devoted following, but they can get very vocal when one of their favorite characters dies. And in our world of social media, they can say some pretty nasty things about you. And I read...
BRIGER: ...One tweet, and I'll quote it here. It says, so help me God, if Daryl dies, I will attack Scott Gimple. I mean, how do you handle that stuff? I'm sure you've seen it before.
GIMPLE: Yeah. You know, if there's a really threatening one, you sort of have to get certain, like, security people involved that we employ, but luckily, that doesn't happen so often. I don't know. It's a strange thing. I - 'cause yeah, some of those tweets are super mean, and - but I will say, I appreciate it 'cause it keeps me off twitter and keeps me working.
But there's another side to it, which is, this audience likes these characters, and they're passionate about these characters. And we wrote these characters, and these are characters that I have been conceptualizing and building up and hopefully connecting with - making audiences connect with them. So it is a sign of some storytelling success. It's just people swearing at you a lot too, so it's a very strange thing.
BRIGER: "Walking Dead" just finished its fifth season. And I also noticed that "Downton Abbey" just finished its fifth season. I was wondering if there's a possibility for a crossover show there?
GIMPLE: Oh, man. Now you're talking. I doubt it. They're both very popular. I think - you see, that's where you make a movie like - you know, they're doing Batman, Superman - "Walking Dead" versus "Downton Abbey." That's a great movie.
GIMPLE: I would watch that.
BRIGER: Just to tempt you a little further, I put together this sound...
GIMPLE: Oh, I love it.
BRIGER: ...This montage, so we're going to play this for you. This is Maggie Smith, who plays the Countess Dowager at the Downton Abbey Christmas party, and she notices a zombie...
GIMPLE: Oh, that word.
BRIGER: ...Among the members of the party. So we're going to play this for you here.
BRIGER: Hold on a second.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOWS, "DOWNTON ABBEY" AND "THE WALKING DEAD")
MAGGIE SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) Is everything going well here?
(SOUNDBITE OF ZOMBIE GROWLING)
SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) Because I don't like dissension.
(SOUNDBITE OF GORING)
SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) (Laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BRIGER: So what do you think, Scott? Do you think we've got a winner there?
GIMPLE: I think we have to change the score a little bit.
BRIGER: (Laughter). You're going to critique my edit?
GIMPLE: Well, I mean, you know, it was sort of light at the end. And she - did she do the stabbing?
BRIGER: She was stabbing, yes.
GIMPLE: 'Cause she was laughing too, so she was enjoying it.
BRIGER: Maybe she's gone...
GIMPLE: So I think she's...
BRIGER: ...To the dark side or something.
GIMPLE: Yeah. She's, like, a Governor kind of character.
BRIGER: Yeah. Well, I didn't say she was a good character.
GIMPLE: Well done, Sir. Well done.
BRIGER: Well, Scott. M. Gimple, thank you so much for being on the show.
GIMPLE: I appreciate it. Thank you very much. This was great.
BIANCULLI: Scott M. Gimple is the showrunner and an executive producer for the AMC series "The Walking Dead." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITING FOR THE WORLD TO END")
RAUL MALO: (Singing) You're overstating, pontificating the meaning of your life, my friend. I'll tell you one thing but not for nothing. We're all waiting for the world to end. And you may enter the gates of heaven while some are dying to be born again. It's intuition, not superstition. We're all waiting for the world to end. Do you believe in things unseen, or are you one of those that just pretends? Are you aware - let me be clear - we're all waiting for the world to end. Oh, let's wait for it.
BIANCULLI: On tomorrow's show...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
JON HAMM: (As Don Draper) What do you see for the future?
ELISABETH MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) I'd like to be the first woman creative director at this agency.
BIANCULLI: AMC's "Mad Men" is in its final season, with two episodes left. We welcome back Matt Weiner to reflect on where the series began, where it's gone and what might be up next for him. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.