The world of The Walking Dead is about to get a little bit bigger: On Sunday October 4, AMC will unleash upon an excited contingent of fans the new spin-off for the uber-popular show, The Walking Dead: World Beyond. Set ten years after the apocalypse which has reduced large swaths of the human population into mindless zombies – or “Walkers” as they are referred to in the Walking Dead mythos – this storyline follows four teenagers who trek through their perilous world after they receive a message that encourages them to set out in search of their father. Think Stand By Me Meets Night of the Living Dead and you might get some clue as for what this third iteration is about, Dear Reader. For, while combining the scares and jumps we all expect from this venerable franchise, it also serves as nothing less than a coming of age story, too, in the most difficult of times.
This intrepid reporter had the good fortune to sit down with respected cinematographer Ross Riege who is providing Walking Dead: World Beyond with its lush and striking visuals and pick his brain (zombie puns are too easy – especially the bad ones) about his thoughts on all things Walker related. We had a good time and hope it shows in the following interview.
Vents: Welcome to Vents, Ross! Congrats on the upcoming October 4 premiere of World Beyond. Seeing as how this is a spinoff of the main Walking Dead show, was there a sort of concerted effort on your part, on the part of the producers and creators of The Walking Dead: World Beyond to strike a different visual tone than what we see on other iterations of this concept?
Ross Riege: Yes. In fact, right at the beginning when I first started talking to the director, my instinct was to go back and look at how the other shows looked and how they were shot and how they treated the zombies in particular – or “Walkers” as they’re called in the Walking Dead universe: There’s multiple different names and they actually ascribe different versions to different shows, almost like how there’s different dialects in different regions of the world. Assuming that everybody has encountered this apocalypse, in certain parts of the country they’re going to call them whatever they decide to call them, and in other parts they’ll call them something else. I’ve done plenty of work where there’s already a sort of an established aesthetic or directive in terms of how it looks, but one of the really cool things about World Beyond is that they wanted it to look completely different from the other shows. It’s the best way to start a new show, even though it’s tied into this world and they wanted to start with a clean slate and find something new and different, so it had its own visual personality. Right off the bat they wanted more of an experiential feeling; I won’t go as far as saying “documentary”, but they wanted it to feel much more like we the audience are right there and having the experience right alongside the characters and seeing it through their eyes as young teenagers, kids that are basically, when they were barely old enough to even remember when the apocalypse hit, so they’ve basically grown up under this totally alternate reality. So our challenge was to achieve what this looked like through their eyes and to ask ourselves how we translate it visually. It was great because there is so much established with this world with the viewership that knows so much about the mythology of the show that you have certain expectations that you need to honor. To be able to add a new element to it is a great incentive for us as creatives and very rewarding.
Vents: Speaking of the longtime fans of The Walking Dead, would you consider The Walking Dead: World Beyond to be new-viewer friendly? In other words, could those one or two lone souls living under a rock and not familiar with The Walking Dead still be able to jump into this new show and enjoy it as its own separate thing?
RR: It definitely doesn’t hurt to know what the show already is or some of the history, but World Beyond can stand alone, too. It aims at a new audience just because there is this YA element to it; it’s about younger people and it’s through their eyes, so even though the overarch – the world – is still the same thing that viewers have been watching for over ten seasons with the flagship show, I would say that it’s geared towards and more accessible towards teenage audiences. So in essence, you can think of someone who’s my age or about to turn forty and I was younger but I was definitely older than a teenager when the first show came out, but now I’ve got kids. They’re not old enough to watch this by any means, but you can see that there might be audiences of adults who are watching the flagship and now can watch with their teenage kids the extension of that world…So for me it is a world expansion, not just in terms of the narrative and the creative but also from an audience standpoint. It just expands the world of the demographics that would be interested in it. I think it makes sense in terms of what type of show that we would want to make by doing a third series. And then of course they’re all feeding into the Walking Dead movies that they are developing. It’s all part of its own world, but at the same time if someone wasn’t interested in the originals they could watch this and it may actually inspire them to take a look at the other two shows in the universe.
Vents: The story of The Walking Dead, by virtue of being such a part of the pop culture fabric of our reality for over a decade, has as you just pointed out become almost generational with family actually partaking in watching them together, or a father or mother passing on their interest in the show to their sons and daughters. Does this so-called generational aspect of the shows appeal to you?
RR: Yeah, I think for sure. There’s an interesting thing now with media consumption being something that you can, fifteen years from now, we can go back and still be super interested in watching the original and then I would have a sixteen year old daughter and an eighteen year old son and we can come back and re-experience these things, even though they would have come and gone in terms of their releases we’ll be able to sit down and watch shows that are interconnected together where there’s a perspective that’s more adult-based and there’s also a perspective that’s more teenager-based. The fact that we can both relate to those things, that’s a mirror for what life is, right?
Vents: And it’s a miracle in this day and age when we can all be on the same page about how cool something is; I love it.
RR: Right. And generally I think if people are looking to do that from the beginning, the first thought is not about a show that’s a Comic-Con-styled zombie apocalyptic show as a framework. You’re probably thinking of something more along the lines of This Is Us or something that’s really about life and the drama and struggle and the happiness and the joy and all of those things, but I think there’s something fun about being able to find that show and have it framed in a world that’s got this fantastic element about it that in a lot of ways may be more entertaining to a younger audience and at the same time to see characters that are still having to deal with real things such as growing up in the world and struggling with that.
Vents: It’s been noted that World Beyond will consist of two ten episode seasons before finally concluding. Does that sort of finite finish line add a creative energy to the proceedings, knowing that you’re shooting something with a definite beginning, middle and ending?
RR: For sure, although I have to say that nobody knew – nobody on the crew side – that it was going to be a two season arc until after we wrapped the first season. So as that pertains to what season two will be, I think it amps up the energy even more so because, at least from my perspective, you’re going into a single season arc. We’ve established this backstory which we go into in-depth in the first season, but now with season two it’s all about how it all culminates in one season. I’m sure that this will make for a very interesting season two as well…
Vents: Is there much direct bleed-over between Walking Dead: World Beyond and the other shows in the Walking Dead universe?
RR: There’s a built-in interest there going right in on season one where we’re introducing so many new things that there was not an emphasis on tying in a bunch of other characters from the other shows in terms of leaning on those to keep the audience in. It was really starting with the only thing that you have as a common ground is that the story of the apocalypse happening has the same timeline as the other shows. It’s all part of the same world, but these are people in a different part of the country that’s never been addressed in either one of the other two shows and we have generally younger characters which have definitely not been addressed to this extent. So you have this pressure to introduce all of these new locations and all of these new characters, but also have a story that lines up with the world that the audience wants to see of The Walking Dead. I think it has a built-in kind of motivation being a spin-off to really hit the pavement running.
Vents: You look at some shows that have a twenty two episode season and you see a lot of fat that, in hindsight, might serve better to be trimmed away, that might not be so economical story-wise. Does the ten episodes per season on Walking Dead: World Beyond along with the absolute finish line for the show, eliminate a lot of the superfluous stuff that is sometimes part and parcel with a more traditional scripted show?
RR: Absolutely. I definitely don’t think that there’s any feeling of procedural operation. From episode to episode in the first season, there are definitely episodes that lean into and focus on one character or another as the season proceeds. But there’s not a lot of fat that could be trimmed because of all the things we’re talking about. There’s so much to learn as you go along and probably as you would expect there are layers to these people that get revealed throughout the series itself; it’s not all out on the table at the very beginning.
Vents: What has it been like shooting the series in Virginia? Virginia is certainly not Georgia, it’s not California. How has that been for you as a D.P.? Has it been pretty inspiring?
RR: Totally. I personally love working on location, so part of what is built into that is our show in general lends itself to being shot on location. The stage work for this show has been minimal, basically relegated to a warehouse that we built into a stage. Location is always interesting and fun and challenging in new ways when you’re trying to convert something into what you’re used to using. Sometimes you get happy accidents because of that. On a personal level, I grew up in Wisconsin so being somewhere that has seasons that are on par with that was really refreshing, personally. It was super-hot when we started shooting which wasn’t necessarily enjoyable, but as fall set in it was amazing to spend time in a place for a long period of time where I was actually able to feel fall and we could shoot the fall season outside. By the time we were wrapping the first season, we were all bundled up and freezing. There’s something really fun and spirited about when you work in a non-production hub like Virginia. There is a handful of talented local crew to begin with, which is great. Just like there is in Wisconsin; you have people that are great at their jobs and in some ways they’re almost more talented because at times they need to wear more hats than you might in a place like L.A. So we’ll find that a lot of people have a more broad understanding of all of the different rules. In that sense, there’s a real collaborative spirit built in already, which is great. Conversely, even though you may not have some of the big heavy-hitting equipment right next door to you that you can pull into projects or the experience in dealing with all of that stuff, there is the energy to figure it out. It’s not a limiting factor at all. We were fortunate enough to bring people in from nearby productions; so there were people that came in from Atlanta, Baltimore, D.C. and New York. Then it becomes this mix of all these different types of worlds which is also really fun.
Vents: Unfortunately, it’s difficult to do an interview these days without bringing up the global pandemic. How has this affected The Walking Dead: World Beyond going forward?
RR: Originally, the plan was to shoot the same time this year as we did last year…They made the decision in the late summer to just push production until next year. So the current plan is as I understand it early 2021 for filming to start on season two. No one wants to force anything right now and rightly so. But, on the other hand, I’m just a few weeks into shooting a show here in L.A. We were one of the first shows back up and shooting at Paramount. We’ve been working with the protocols and instituting new things and learning along the way. It’s definitely been an interesting process and it’s very much in development as we go along. I have to say, we’re all so happy to be back at work that we all value what we need to do to stay working. It’s a testament to the production community in terms of how we’re adaptive. I expect that by the time we come back next year for World Beyond there will have been a handful of shows that have established things that work and things that don’t work so well. There are certain things implemented because of this health crisis that will stick around and there are other things that may be a little more temporary.
Vents: 2020 has absolutely been like a lost season of Serling’s Twilight Zone.
RR: It’s a little ironic that we just finished shooting a show about the apocalypse and then we’re at the tail-end of post and we’re literally in a semi-apocalypse.
Vents: You’re the master of the segue-way: With the current world situation being what it is, does it make working on a show such as World Beyond more surreal for you?
RR: I think even the reality of having to adjust our lives on such a big level I find as a parallel to what Walking Dead: World Beyond would be like. We spent our time designing a way of telling a story visually that represented our character’s perspective on it and being in their heads. What we’re really thinking about is how it feels to live in this world where there are all of these limitations and human contact is really essentially scarce. And in addition to that, what’s it like to be a teenager where it’s already difficult enough because you’re going through all of these different changes and not just learning about yourself, but the world as well. Well, we’ve all now been sitting at home with only our closest people around us and I think there’s been a lot of introspection for all of us, too. So whether we’re young or old we’re all asking ourselves now what are the real priorities and what is not as important? So in a weird way, it’s been a coming of age for all of us…
Vents: The zombie genre –or to use Walking Dead vernacular, the Walkers – stretches back not only to ’68 and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but goes back even further in cinema history in such films as Bela Lugosi in White Zombie. What is it about this genre that is so endlessly appealing? Is it because you can take the trope of zombies and frame so many human stories around it?
RR: That’s a good question. I think the first thing that comes to my mind is something that The Walking Dead world has addressed frequently and well. It forces us to hold up a mirror a little bit to our views about humanity. If somebody close to you passes away, that’s one of the most difficult, saddening and most stressful situations we can go through. It poses this question: What if we lived in a world in which somebody could leave their life but still exist in a different form that is semi-unrecognizable and they don’t recognize you either. When you’re looking that familiar person in the eye, what is your reaction and how do you deal with that? It’s one of those things you’ve seen in the past and it’s going to be a continuing thing I think in any of these stories pertaining to zombies. What do you do if this being is now a threat to you? Can you actually kill somebody that is this reincarnated zombie, or do you still hold this place in your heart because of what they symbolize? Can you completely disconnect yourself from that? The Walking Dead universe has a lot of very specific and, for lack of a better term, rules which a lot of us had to learn… “Would a zombie be able to do that?” “How fast would a Walker move?” The interesting thing is that there are very specific answers to all of those questions; it’s just a matter of understanding what they are so we know that when we get into production we’re not just making an assumption of something that is already very well understood…
Vents: As a master cinematographer, who out there in the world of DP’s influences and/or inspires your own work?
RR: I appreciate you calling me a “master cinematographer” (laughs). Most DP’s would probably agree that you are constantly learning and that you never feel like you’re at the peak, which is kind of a good thing. Roger Deakins and Lubezki are right up there at the top. It’s hard to say that one is better than the other. There are things about the way that Deakins approaches things that are so simple and just elegant. It’s like you watch it and you can freeze a frame and are like, ‘That’s really basic.’ But there’s just something about his body of work that he executes so well. He does stuff like Blade Runner where your mind is just blown by the level of his work. With Lubezki, for me, the way he lenses things and the way he moves the camera is beautiful.
My photographic background comes from being really into still photography in high school when I was younger and I kind of found my way into cinematography in college. A lot of my stuff had more of a documentary feel where it’s less about your control of the subject and more about finding stuff that already exists and trying to lens it through your eyes and make it beautiful. I’ve done a handful of documentary projects where it’s the polar opposite of doing this show: for the documentaries you have no control and you don’t know what’s going to happen, so you have to go into every situation thinking of a number of different scenarios and how you’re going to react to them…
Vents: Final very irreverent question: Favorite film in the zombie genre – Shaun of the Dead or 28 Days Later?
RR: I’d have to say 28 Days Later.They’re both great. My first thought was to almost say Shaun of the Dead because in terms of a comedy I don’t know that it can be done better. But there is something about 28 Days Later and how it evokes anxiety in terms of it affecting me. There are so many good pieces that have been made based on the culture of zombies.