There are many changes in Sunday’s Season 9 premiere of “The Walking Dead,” but here’s one of the biggest for star Norman Reedus: “I didn’t really say much, the last couple of seasons. I’m talking my ass off now.” He laughed. “[Former star] Andy [Lincoln] will call and he goes, ‘How’s it going?’ I’m like, ‘You’re such an asshole. I can’t believe you left me. I have all these lines now. I have to memorize stuff all the time.'”
Along with Lincoln’s exit, this season also brings new showrunner Angela Kang. And Reedus said that’s made all the difference to the long-running zombie apocalypse drama.
“We have a different flavor in all directions,” said Reedus, who has played the rough-riding Daryl since the series began. “The sets are different. The camera work is different. The writing is different. The actors are different, and the old ones are doing new things. I liked the last couple of seasons… but the quality got way better. It’s become smarter. It’s become more emotional. It’s more heartfelt.”
And both Reedus and co-star Danai Gurira (who plays the wise and machete-wielding Michonne) said that having a woman run “The Walking Dead” is to the show’s benefit.
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“We did the last couple seasons run by men, and it was two guys sort of chest-bumping and going, ‘I’m gonna kill you.’ ‘I’m gonna kill you.’ ‘I’m gonna kill you,'” said Reedus. “But no one killed each other. You know what I mean? I don’t think women really chest-bump. I think if they say they’re gonna kill you, you should probably fucking hide.”
Added Gurria, “I love female leadership. I think there’s something really, really specific about it that doesn’t get to be seen enough. So, I love that Angela is my boss and I love the choices she has been making.”
Previous showrunner Scott Gimple, who was promoted to the chief content officer of the “Walking Dead” universe at the end of Season 8, does remain involved with the entire franchise. “I also loved Gimple,” said Gurria. “He’s a good man.”
That said, she continued, “you feel the specificity and the diversity that comes with a different perspective. You feel that. It makes things feel like once again, you’re in that place where my job feels alive, ’cause I’ve been helmed by different people, by a man and now by a woman, and I can feel her power and her way of doing things — that’s a different type of power from the other person before me. I’m not saying one way is higher, I’m saying it’s just different, and that’s enjoyable.”
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Kang isn’t new to the show: She joined the second season in 2011 as a writer and story editor (her TV credits prior to that included the critically beloved but short-lived FX drama “Terriers”) and has been credited as a co-executive producer since 2014. But there’s also been an additional infusion of fresh talent behind the scenes, and according to Reedus “almost all” of the writers and directors new to the series are female.
This includes returning director Rosemary Rodriguez, new director Daisy Mayer, and writers Geraldine Inoa and Vivian Tse. In the second half that debuts in 2019, new directors will include Meera Menon, Liesl Tommy, Millicent Shelton, and Laura Belsey, as well as returning writer Channing Powell and new freelance writer LaToya Morgan. (Tommy also directed the Tony-nominated Broadway drama “Eclipsed,” which starred and was written by Gurira.)
“In searching for writers and directors, I was first and foremost looking for exceptional talent and a strong point of view, and I found that in spades with our new collaborators this season,” Kang said. “We are a show with a global audience and we are proud to be building upon our record of diversity and inclusion both in front of and behind the camera. Much like the characters in the show, having people from different backgrounds working together and bringing in fresh perspectives and skill-sets only makes us stronger as a team.”
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The result, said Reedus, was “a different vibe on set. It’s stronger. It’s clever. It seems scarier. It’s our show, but it’s completely a fresh take on it. It’s really great, yeah.”
Added Gurira, “As a woman, I’m just very proud of her. And I’m very thankful that she’s exactly who she is. She’s a very excellent writer, a fantastically calm, beautiful person, and she has helmed a beautiful season, and made really fantastic choices.”
According to Kang, many choices were driven by reasons inherent to the show’s comic-book source material. Following the end of the war between Rick’s (Lincoln) survivors and the ruthless followers of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the series had reached a critical point in the narrative. At the beginning of the season, therefore, a time jump moves things forward to 18 months after that war.
“We talked a lot about what happens after the end of a war,” Kang said. “World War I, World War II were things that we definitely looked at. We looked at the American Revolution. We try not to be overt about these things, because we’re not trying to write a direct political allegory or anything, but it’s just more like for us doing research. We wanted to look at what does happen? How do you rebuild?”
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From there, Kang said, “We knew that we were gonna do this time jump that was in the comic, but we knew that we needed to find the way to do it that felt fresh to the show. So, in a lot of ways it just made sense that we would freshen the feel of the show, that we would try to do some things differently.”
This meant taking a whole new approach to producing the show. “There had been a very particular visual style of shooting the show, over the past few years, and we’re like, ‘Okay. To signal a new chapter, we’ve got to break that and try new things,'” Kang said. “We’ve added different things to the visual vocabulary for people who care about that kind of thing — they’ll see the way that it’s shot is different.”
Kang noted that longtime executive producer Greg Nicotero directing the season’s first episode, “A New Beginning,” as well as other key installments. The team has also worked with the show’s cinematographers to explore new looks for the season. “We’re one of the few shows that still shoots on film,” she said, “and that’s a rare and special thing. So what are things that we can do to just really take advantage of that and push the envelope on the things we’ve done?”
Pacing was another concern for Kang. “If people think we’re gonna zig, can we zag in a way that doesn’t feel gratuitous? If we think that you’re gonna start a day later, can we change that? What are the tools at our disposal to make it feel a little bit different — while still very much being ‘The Walking Dead’ and being about those characters’ stories and the horror and the excitement and all of that?”
Reedus remembered thinking that “when we first started the show, it’d be so easy to turn this show corny, because there are zombies and samurai swords and all these things that in the comic book totally work. But we’re like, ‘How do we play this as real as possible?’ [Original showrunner] Frank [Darabont] sort of set that tone right from the beginning. I remember seeing the first episode, as opposed to reading the first episode, and it was so real. I was like, ‘Thank God that’s where we’re at here,’ in the right kind of ways.”
Now, Reedus said, “after being on this show for nine years, I’ve got my thing. I growl and stuff. And Danai has her stare forward and her nostrils flare. Everyone’s got their thing this far in.” But the new elements have everyone, including the crew, “more excited than I’ve seen them in years… We have a bunch of cool shit going on.”
As Gurira said, “I’m really enjoying what I’m getting to do in Season 9. I’m really finding it really exhilarating in ways I don’t expect. As an artist, that’s what you hope for.”
“The Walking Dead” Season 9 premieres Sunday, October 7 at 9 p.m. on AMC.