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???? of the Dead Set Visit
(Article by Lee Karr ©, added 23-Nov-2008)

What follows is Lee Karr's experiences on the set of Romero's (yet to be name) latest living-dead film. Read the article then come and discuss the film over at the dedicated forum.

???? of the Dead Set Visit

For the third time in four years, I'm lucky enough to be standing on the set of a George A. Romero living dead movie. It's the last day of principal photography on Blank of the Dead or Untitled George Romero Project and I have managed to squeeze my way in for a set visit. This trip to Toronto almost did not happen after some bad luck kept me in Pittsburgh for my original set visit the previous week. But, thanks to the hardest working publicist in Canada, Karen Tyrell, I am welcomed with open arms for this last day of shooting. It's a visit that allows me the opportunity to talk with many important people attached to the production, which is in contrast with my visit to the set of Diary of the Dead, where I was only allowed to speak with lead Michelle Morgan and wonderful costume designer Alex Kavanagh. But before I get ahead of myself, let's backtrack just a bit.

This time around my longtime girlfriend Renee is able to make the trip to the great white north and it's a nice treat to have her experience this with me. After killing some time at beautiful Cherry Beach, whose drawbridge is featured in Land of the Dead, we decide to make our way about a mile up the street to 225 Commissioners Street, home of the amazing and brand  new Filmport Studios. George Romero's newest zombie feature is in fact the christening production for the new facility.

"We've actually only had one day in studio. I don't think Filmport envisioned this movie here(laughs) when they built what eventually would be a $275 million complex. Were here just because our production manager is a very good production manager and he's gotten us into brand new offices and brand new stage space, and it's just been a joy to work in." Sitting in production designer Arv Greywal's office is quite a sight. Plastered on every wall are photographs of various sets and locations. He is a genre veteran, having worked previously with George Romero on Land of the Dead. He also worked with director David Cronenberg on three films, with director Richard Donner, and with director Zack Snyder on the remake of Dawn of the Dead. "In fact I almost didn't get an interview on Land of the Dead because of Dawn. George really didn't want anybody who had worked on that as part of Land. But, after having met me it was just fantastic - I think we forgot about the other Dawn of the Dead."

This newest Romero film is going to be something a little different for the fans. "George has thrown in an extra little kick on this one, it's involving a western theme as well. So we've kinda got a western/horror genre smash-up." But this is George Romero, so some familiar things will be around as well. "We're seeing sly old George here again. He's playing with his favorite political themes." He continues on the western theme. "You want to have some sort of a grand theme to things. We looked at movies like The Big Country to see how we could kind of, for our small budget, get a bigger look."

Fan reaction to Romero's next feature is a major concern, after the mixed reactions to Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead. "Yeah, it's going to be interesting to see. The fans are not expecting a western theme to this. I've read some of the blogs and a lot of them sort of have an inkling of what this is about, but I think they're going to be in for a surprise. I think this is such a departure from the rest of the Dead series that it's going to be a pretty polemic reaction fans have to it. So yeah, it's going to be a split again, some will love it - some will hate it. But there's always the zombies(laughs), and I think they'll get their good share of gore and zombie action in it." And what about that gore and zombie action? Can the fans look forward to some serious carnage? "I think it will be a lot more than Diary, but not a gore fest like Land was." He continues. "The gags, as we call them, are hilarious. I don't think I should get into any of them, but the ones that we have done are really funny. I think that part the fans will really enjoy."

Back on the sound stage the scene being shot is inside an armored Brinks truck. Several characters, all dressed in military gear, are apparently on the run and discussing what to do as they drive along. They are actually sitting inside a giant box dressed to look like the interior of an armored vehicle. On the other end of the sound stage is a gutted armored truck and a mock television talk show set. There are crew members busy setting up a green screen as well, which will be used for close up shots of zombies getting splattered! Looking around I spot Romero sitting in his directors chair, surrounded by executive producers Peter Grunwald and Ara Katz, script supervisor Patricia Joyes, and producer Paula Devonshire.

Having co-produced Diary of the Dead two years ago, Paula Devonshire now assumes the role of producer for this latest chapter in Romero zombie lore. She is a strikingly beautiful woman and is genuinely excited and eager to talk about her involvement on this project. "I guess about a year ago George wrote a synopsis for this film and then we kind of went from there and he wrote this new draft. Since then George has become a Canadian citizen, so George likes to shoot his movies in Canada and plans on staying here forever and ever, I hope(laughs). So he called me up one day and said "could you get a ferry boat?". So he kept calling me asking abstract questions like, "And, I might need some horses", and I'm just thinking okay I have no idea because I haven't seen the script. Then finally he sent me the first 65 pages of the script and I'm like wow this is amazing! I have no idea how were gonna do this, but it was pretty impressive. And that's where were at today."

Originally the idea for this project was to be a direct sequel to Diary of the Dead. However, as often happens with movie making, things change. "Yes, that was originally what it was conceived to be, was a sequel and it was gonna sort of pick up and follow some of the surviving characters, and then George decided to follow just one character who had been glimpsed in a scene and take that character and see where they went. So I'm not going to say which character that was, but there is a character common between the two films. But it's not a sequel in any way, so you don't need to have seen Diary of the Dead to understand ...of the Dead or whatever we end up calling it. But it's nice because if you have seen Diary of the Dead you'll say oh my god, it's that guy! Or girl. Or zombie(laughs)."

Speaking of zombies, what about the zombie effects for this picture? Can fans look forward to seeing the involvement of Greg Nicotero again? "On this film he was involved in a lot of initial consulting and conference calls that we had and meetings with George, and Francois Dagenais who is the prosthetics designer on this one. He(Francois) and Greg have had some chats, but Greg has not been up to Toronto for this film. He designed a particular gag, which I can't name, that he sent up which is a very cool, very original zombie gag. It's never been seen before. He did some other design work of one of the main characters that he passed onto Francois' guys to execute, but the rest of the work was done by Francois and his shop."

Having the involvement of "old friends" or "family" is important for George Romero. It's something he did in Pittsburgh and he continues that now in Toronto. Familiar faces and names from Bruiser, Land of the Dead, and Diary of the Dead are now involved on this newest project. From cinematographer Adam Swica, to actor Alan Van Sprang, to the before mentioned Greg Nicotero, Romero feels at ease working that way. "George is very loyal to the people that he really likes to work with and so it was very important to him to have Adam Swica back, to have Alex Kavanagh who was the costume designer on his last two films, Jim Murray who was our props guy on Land of the Dead, DJ Carson was our production manager on Diary of the Dead. So he really likes to have the comfort of the people that he trusts and loves around him, and they love to come back and work with George every time."

Over in front of the green screen is a chair - with a zombie sitting in it. The zombie, played by Brenda Sullivan, is being prepped to have her lip and chin yanked off with fish line, to simulate a gun shot to the face. In the meantime cast and crew are walking around munching on burgers to tide them over until they break for lunch. It's during this time that I am able to chat with executive producer Ara Katz. Ara should be familiar to those who saw Diary of the Dead. She served as one of the producers on that film and also made a cameo as a zombie pushing a shopping cart. "This film is shot more traditionally. It's a much bigger movie, there's a lot more zombies, bigger scenes. It's just shot more like a traditional narrative, more like George's other films. Diary was much more experimental, a smaller budget, mostly young cast."

Diary of the Dead was different for many reasons from some of the other Romero zombie films. As Ara said it had a young cast. It was shot like a documentary. It also was restrained on the gore. Does she agree with production designer Arv Greywal that fans will see an up tick in the gore this time around? "I think it's much closer to Land, much closer to George's early work. I think there's a lot more gore in this. There's horse carcasses and people feeding on one. There's a lot more gore!" Unlike Diary, which had spaced out zombie sequences, Ara say's don't expect that this time. "Every few shots there is a zombie and some kind of cool kill, and we have much bigger zombie scenes in this film. The gore meter is turned up in this one(laughs)."

Towards the end of our conversation Ara makes a point that fans might appreciate regarding how this film will compare with George's last two outings. "My opinion is that this one is kind of the happy intersection of both of those - because Land was bigger, it had big production value, but it still was not able to utilize George's independent roots the way Diary did. This one isn't made by a studio. He's still doing it completely independent with full creative control exactly the way he wants to do it, but on a bigger scale and with much more of a formal narrative structure with the kind of big production value that Land had. Kind of the best of both worlds."

Oh yeah I almost forgot, any famous cameos or voice overs this time as well? "I think you need to ask me that question when were done with post production. Post production is a wonderful place where very cool things can happen(laughs)."

Meanwhile our green screen zombie is ready to go and some of the cast and crew gather around to watch. Athena Karkanis who plays "Tomboy" and Eric Woolfe who plays "Kenny" flank me, as the effect is about to shoot. The camera is covered with plastic and effects supervisor Francois Dagenais has everything ready to go. Before you even know it the chin is ripped off, splatter is on the floor, and everyone is giving a round of applause. Later in the evening, there will be two other zombie extras who will get similar treatment in front of the green screen. I'm told these head shot images will open the film, starting it off with a bang! Sorry, I couldn't resist the Forry Ackerman pun.

Next up on our cavalcade of interviews is Romero's film producer for the last 20 years, executive producer Peter Grunwald. Peter is not the biggest fan in the world of dong interviews, but he takes me by surprise by being very open about the project and very gracious with his time as well. "After the Toronto film festival appearance of Diary we were approached basically by everybody who had bought Diary around the world and we were asked if we wanted to do a sequel. We sort of, having no idea whatsoever what kind of movie it would be, cavalierly said yes. So we started to put the deal together and then we started to put the script together, and as we started working on the script we realized that we really didn't want it to be a sequel. George has never done a sequel before with any of his zombie films, they've always been completely separate adventures, no matter how spread apart they were by year of release. So we very quickly moved away from the sequel idea and started thinking in terms of a whole new adventure, which is more true to the legacy of his zombie pictures. There's one character that recurs from Diary. He's a minor character in Diary, he's the national guardsman who holds up the kids in the Winnebago, and he's the leading man in this film. Same character, same actor, same guy, but that's really the only link between the two pictures."

The national guardsman that Peter speaks of is actor Alan Van Sprang, and the reason for his character being chosen as the continuing link between the two films is really a simple one. "One of the reasons frankly, and this is going to sound a little crass, is that we really like Alan Van Sprang. George felt that it was an interesting sort of thread, not a rope, just a skinny little thread to tie the two stories together. That a minor player from one film would become a major player in another film, I really like that. It's very eloquent and great storytelling."

Of course, the biggest responsibility when it comes to producing is working with the budget. "We have a somewhat higher budget than we did with Diary, but if Diary was trying to squeeze four tomatoes into a two tomato can, this is trying to squeeze about forty. It's been rugged, it's really ambitious. The scope of this film is way beyond anything that we contemplated in Diary. It's not subjective camera, it's normal big screen high end photography and storytelling. We've got lots of stunts, we've got lots of CG, we've got lots of prosthetics, and a big cast."

The type of limited release for Romero's last film really frustrated a lot of the fans. Most didn't live in a city where it played and if they really wanted to see it they had to drive a good distance to do so. Can fans look forward to that this time? "In terms of theatrical release, I certainly expect to have a fairly wide theatrical release with this one. Diary was a particular type of film, it was a little bit more experimental, it was internal and dark. I love it and George loves it too. We got the type of release that we wanted for the film, neither wider nor smaller than what we sort of had in mind and expected. It was extremely profitable, so that's one of the things that's allowed us to do this picture this way." And what about a distributor? "Let's not talk about that. The approach to how we sell the film, I don't think anyone really cares about that. That's sort of inside the business stuff. We have a plan, let's just say that."

Before returning to the set, Peter takes the opportunity to discuss his longtime partnership with George Romero and his own appreciation for the man and his work. "You know, it's obviously changed from the early days when we didn't know each other very well. After a certain point where each of us got familiar with the other, it hasn't changed at all. It's basically the same sort of short hand, we tend to be interested in the same things. I'm always interested in what he's interested in - his mind is fascinating and always goes off in unpredictable directions. I still can't anticipate what he's going to think or do in a given situation. Everybody thinks I can because we know each other so well, but I have no clue because he's always unpredictable. This is almost too easy to say, but his intellect is very young. I think that's why his pictures still appeal to such a wide audience. He's never completely grown up, except as a film maker. His film making has matured with every single film and he's become just an extraordinary craftsman and I think one of the best story tellers in American cinema...um, North American cinema. Now Canadian cinema, now that he's a Canadian. Our relationship doesn't change that much. We just keep doing stuff that seems cool to do and we'll keep doing that for as long as we can."

Back on the set they are still shooting the interior scenes of the armored truck. This particular scene involves young Devon Bostick, who you might remember from Land of the Dead as the sickly teenage son of the character "Mulligan", appearing to swallow a key. Meanwhile, our green screen unit is busy with their zombie footage. During this time I'm able to chat with "fellow reporter" Chris Alexander, who I believe is with a camera crew from MTV.

A familiar face comes over to greet me, costume designer Alex Kavanagh, and she is nice enough to take Renee and I down to the costume department to show us around and talk a bit about her work. "This film is actually a lot more stylized. We're approaching this as if it's a western, so a lot of the characters have got a much more iconic look going on. Our zombies are at least three weeks dead, so they have been broken down quite a bit more than they were on Diary of the Dead, not as much as Land of the Dead." And what about those zombie costumes? "Well it's kind of funny, because most of the clothes on the zombies are from Land of the Dead(laughs). We chose the ones that were in better condition. They're not as far gone as Land of the Dead, but it's very similar." One of the zombie costumes that Alex points out to me from Land of the Dead is the liquor store security guard, from the opening of that film.

The western theme had been mentioned before by production designer Arv Greywal. Alex explains a little more about this aspect of the film. "We've got our main protagonists who are awol national guardsmen, so they are in uniform, and the characters that they run into on Plum Island are a little bit stuck in time. They live on a small island off the coast and their community really hasn't kept up with the times, so the look on the island is a little bit sort of timeless, if you will. Therefore we're able to get some of those iconic western style vibes."

Before taking us back to the sound stage Alex gives a little love to the mother ship. "I check in on home page of the dead all the time now, it's a great site. I like the spirited conversation that people have on the site. Not just about George's movies, but just the concept of what would you do(if a zombie outbreak happened). It's good."

When we return to the sound stage the green screen unit is filming their last zombie kill. I take the opportunity to get my picture taken with a ? Of the Dead film slate, since photography on the set was very limited. Nearby lead actor Alan Van Sprang is being interviewed by the MTV crew. I'm getting ready to take a shot of Renee with the film slate when I'm told that Alan can talk with me now. So I pass the camera off to someone else and I motor over for my turn to talk with the tongue in cheek lead himself. "Nicotine Crocket, he's kind of a colonel, captain, leader of the national guard for the States. He's out there trying to save humanity from the zombies that seem to be inhabiting and making life a little difficult for humanoids." This third time working with George proved to be the charm for the Calgary native, with his casting as the lead character. "I was the lead in all of the films, by the way. The shows just weren't about my part(laughs). It's great, I remember George mentioning about a year and a half ago that he was trying to work something for me, but I didn't know if it was going to happen or not. I was out in Ireland for awhile and I got a call out there from my agent saying that he was interested, but I didn't think it was going to be possible, that he had this script that he had written with me in mind. Fortunately the producers out there and Peter Grunwald were able to work it out. It's amazing being on this show - hanging out with George, Peter, and Paula, killing zombies, being an anti-victim/hero screwed up human being. It's a lot of fun."

And like the rest of us, Alan is a fan of the zombie master. "Oh yeah, absolutely. When I was a kid definitely all the Deads. Creepshow was my absolute favorite when I was a kid, absolutely loved that movie. I was a huge fan and when I heard he was in town doing Land of the Dead I really wanted to get on that. I read for a part called "Foxy" and didn't get that, but he ended writing this part of "Brubaker" and that's how it started. He and I just hit it off immediately and we have a great relationship out of work, which really helps. It's been amazing."

Our final chat of the evening is with prosthetics artist Sean Sansom. Sean is a veteran of many Toronto based productions, such as Land of the Dead, the remake  of Dawn of the Dead, Resident Evil 2, and 300. Right off the bat we talk about the look of the living dead for this new film, and of course the gore. "Well, they're kind of the same as the other Dead films. We changed the style just a little bit. Were not going for the grey-blue face as earlier on in the series and were not going for the full, big cheek bones, big brows like Frankenstein kind of characters. They're less stylized, so were just actually working with the actors face and whatever characteristics they have we try to emphasize that, so each character has their own look. As far as the gore it's pretty much standard. We have people getting ripped apart, we have a lot of head shots, generally a fair amount of blood."

One juicy tidbit that executive producer Ara Katz had briefly mentioned, and that documentary producer Michael Felsher had graphically described to me involved a horse. This amuses me a great deal because of a joke I made in my set report for Diary of the Dead back in 2006. I had mentioned in that report feeling a bit like Hugh Grant from the film Notting Hill claiming to be a reporter from "Horse & Hound" magazine and wondering if there were any zombie attacks on horses in the film. I wonder if George read...nah! No chance. Anyway, I ask Sean if that will be a stand out scene. "That will be one of two. It is I believe near the end so it will definitely stand out, but there is one scene before that, that's equally as disgusting(laughs)."

While talking with Sean a certain member of the production makes his way nearby for a smoke break, director George Romero. Minding what publicist Karen Tyrell had told me, I decide not to bother George with any questions. The first thing I was admonished about when granted the set visit was that George was off limits during the production. After the film was wrapped I would be put on a list for an interview, which was good enough for me. However, I do take the opportunity to introduce Renee and myself to George and he is gracious and kind as always. I've met George many times in the past, including on the sets of both Land and Diary, but it's always a thrill to be in the presence of a legend. He even notices my custom embroidered denim shirt featuring the bald zombie and Monroeville Mall logos, as had executive producer Ara Katz. George takes photographs with both of us and then scoots back inside the sound stage. We follow behind to say our goodbyes to publicist Karen Tyrell, who made sure that our visit to the set was not only productive, but comfortable as well. I can't thank her enough. On our way out we run into Alan Van Sprang again, he too on a smoke break. Alan is nice enough to take a couple of photographs with us and wishes us well.

We take one last look at the beautiful lit up skyline of Toronto, then jump in the car and start our journey back home to where this all started in the first place...Pittsburgh.

Yours truly with film slate

Yours truly with actor Alan Van Sprang

Yours truly with George Romero

Costume designer Alex Kavanagh

Production designer Arv Greywal

Outside Filmport Studios

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