‘The Walking Dead: World Beyond’ Director Michael Cudlitz on Thermal Scanners, Magic Tricks & More
[WARNING: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for The Walking Dead: World Beyond Season 1 episode 7, “Truth or Dare.”]
When The Walking Dead bid farewell to Sergeant Abraham Ford, the actor who played him, Michael Cudlitz, didn’t exactly leave the franchise. But unlike some other actors in the series, he didn’t show up on-screen in a TWD spinoff. Instead, Cudlitz worked behind the camera as a director, directing “Stradivarius” (TWD Season 9, Episode 7), “Silence The Whisperers” (Season 10 Episode 4) and “Open Your Eyes” (Season 10, Episode 7).
And he didn’t stop there. Cudlitz has expanded his Walking Dead repertoire with two episodes of The Walking Dead: World Beyond: “Shadow Puppets” (Episode 6) and the latest, “Truth or Dare” (Episode 7).
We chat with Cudlitz about what it was like to work on the new spinoff, how he created those stunning thermal-imaging sequences, and whether he’ll make his way over to Fear The Walking Dead to complete, as he puts it, the “hat trick.”
Congrats on directing two episodes in a row for World Beyond! How did that happen?
Michael Cudlitz I had finished up on the original — the mothership — and headed right [to World Beyond]. They wound up shooting some stuff out of order … so there was a space where I was able to go home for a little while.
So it wasn’t like you were continually on set for a month.
No. But it felt that way, in a good way! There was an episode break in-between for me. They shot it out of sequence. But it was great for me, from a story standpoint, to be able to finish the story that I started. I felt very fortunate and very trusted by the creative team. When you look at it, it’s two episodes, and that’s 20% of their season. I was very pleased and very humbled.
I loved the artistic flair for your two episodes’ openings — the shadow puppets and the thermal scanner flashbacks. How did you set those up?
I give credit to the writers for putting it on the page. [For the thermal scanners] I reached out to my buddy Jimmy Muro, who shoots for SEAL Team and was a DP on Southland. I checked with him and Chris Chulack, their producing director and EP, and then passed that information on to my DP, and he did some more research. We purchased these cameras to do some tests during prep and they worked fantastic. It’s almost the equivalent of doing it on an iPhone — it’s very basic and not necessarily complicated. And it was fun! It was something I had never done before, and they had never done before, and it’s one of those instances in the industry where everyone’s talking to each other and figuring out how to solve problems.
Watching “Truth or Dare,” I was curious about went into those magic tricks Tony and Elton were doing. Did the actors learn some tricks?
Oh my gosh, this is my favorite thing. I told Scott [Adsit] and Nicolas [Cantu], “Look. We’ve got a slight-of-hand person coming in, would you be able to do the hand-flair stuff, the setups and how you would hold your hands to do these tricks?” These are things people take months, if not years to perfect. I told them to focus on character work and the scenes, and not to let this be a distraction. They worked with the slight-of-hand guy, and everything that they did was on-camera, real time. There was nothing that was doctored, or tweaked, or anything. Scott killed it. Nicolas was amazing in the trick with the card. They nailed it.
I was surprised when Huck told Hope she should keep lying to Elton about his mom. Do you think Hope’s right not to come clean?
I think it’s good advice, honestly, because they’re kids. You don’t know how this is going go. It’s like, “Let’s go forward with ‘I’m never gonna tell you’ and in the back of your mind, if there is ever the right time, it will present itself and everybody will know it’s right. But don’t go looking for the right time. That doesn’t help anyone.”
Especially not when you’re drunk. That’s definitely not the right time.
That ending was one of the most shocking we’ve seen so far from World Beyond. How did you get that from script to screen?
From a horror standpoint I loved it. It was one of those times where we shot it early on and the show was still new. The crew was still figuring out the horror genre and what AMC wants, what the creators want, and what [Executive Producer] Greg Nicotero expects. At one point somebody had come in and said, “I need a bunch of blood here,” and they came in with a very big ketchup squirter bottle. I remember channeling my inner Greg Nicotero and saying, “Well, take the cap off of that, and start pouring it on. We’re going to need more than that.” They started pouring it on and I asked, “Do you have the gallon jugs?” They said, “Yeah, we filled this up with those.” I said, “Grab two of those,” and we just opened them up and started pouring them on the floor. I was like, “This is what we want.”
[Iris] doesn’t find somebody dead, she finds somebody with their brain smashed in in a horrible, grotesque scene, and we need to establish that. It has to be massively horrific to jar these kids — it’s not all about “Oh, we’re going to go skipping across the country and there are these things that are kinda dangerous, we have to be careful!” No, this is the f***ing real world, and it sucks.
Did you do anything differently when directing World Beyond than you did for TWD?
Well, World Beyond is shot differently. It has more of a documentary feel to it, and it’s a tremendous amount of handheld camera work. The world is a little bit smaller, and we really are riding with these characters inside an insular world. As the series goes on, they realize the world is bigger than they thought, so that imagery and the condensing of the world was something I worked on. That’s something very different from what I do when I shoot the original. It’s much more important to really see the scope of the landscape in the original, and in World Beyond it’s much more immediate, it’s “What are we looking at, specifically?” and not so much “Where are we, in the big picture?”
Now you’ve just got to direct for Fear and then you’ve done all three.
I’ve done the hat trick! [Laughs]
Exactly! So, is that in the works?
We’ve talked in passing, myself and [executive producer] Scott Gimple, and I’ve met the showrunners. They’re aware of me, and we’ve talked, again, in passing. Schedule-wise, it hasn’t worked out yet. I’ve been working when Fear has been shooting, so it’s more of a logistics-timing thing. Scott has mentioned multiple times, “We need to get you over there.” I’m hopeful!
Walking Dead: World Beyond, Sundays, 10/9c, AMC