SENOIA, Ga. — Andrew Lincoln looked as if he got the raw end of a fight. His shirt was ripped, revealing glimpses of a sinewy body, and his photogenic face was marred by oozing crimson gashes and plum-colored bruises.
Of course, bad scrapes are an occupational hazard for the 40-year-old British actor in his role as Rick Grimes, the embattled leader of a ragged survivor group in AMC’s spectacularly successful drama “The Walking Dead.” With a seething intensity leavened by calm understatement, his character has endured fierce battles with adversaries, human and not, over the course of the show’s three seasons.
But on this cloudy day of shooting in a town about 40 miles south of Atlanta, Lincoln is encircled by a horde of crew members with one ghastly aim — to make the actor appear even more wounded. There really is no such thing as too much gore in a zombie apocalypse.
“More blood,” shouted a crew member, prompting a makeup artist to apply more red to Lincoln’s face for a scene also involving 14-year-old Chandler Riggs, who plays son Carl, and Danai Gurira, who portrays the fearsome warrior Michonne. Lincoln echoed the order with a laugh: “More blood!”
There will be blood — and human body parts in varying degrees of decomposition — aplenty as the zombie drama opens a new 16-episode season Sunday. Despite no Emmy nominations in the major categories, the show officially broke out of the genre ghetto last season, becoming the highest-rated scripted drama in television in the advertiser-coveted 18- to 49-year-old group. It marked the first time in television history that a basic-cable drama had outperformed its scripted counterparts on the major networks in the all-important demographic.
The bloodletting isn’t just limited to the remarkably compelling on-screen storylines about how to remain human — indeed, if it’s possible or desirable — in a savage and chaotic new world. For the third time in its four seasons, the comic book-inspired program will have a new show runner, Scott M. Gimple.
The behind-the-scenes executive moves are somewhat unusual for such a high-profile show, particularly one doing so well. Gimple, who has been with the show since the second season and has written some of its most critically acclaimed episodes, succeeds Glen Mazzara — who took over for Frank Darabont, who developed the series for television.
While Gimple’s rise to the position has largely been without the acrimony accompanying Darabont’s sudden dismissal in 2011, the announcement of Mazzara’s departure last year caught many by surprise. At the time, Mazzara and the network issued terse but amicable statements about the parting, which seemed be over the show’s creative direction and level of violence. In later interviews, Mazzara hinted that there was pressure to kill off Judith, the infant daughter of Grimes who was born last season.
But as shooting commenced in the Deep South on the last few episodes of the new season, which will be split in half once again, the show’s creative forces are downplaying the significance of the show-runner shuffle.
“The rules of the show don’t change,” executive producer Gale Anne Hurd said. “This is very different than when someone new is brought in from the outside. The people who have run the show have always been in the writers’ room.”
Hurd added that the main reason for the turnover, however, has been financial, not creative: “Those deals are all two-year deals. It’s not like anyone is fired. They try to renegotiate their deals.”
Meanwhile, in an interview last week, Gimple, 42, said he wasn’t worried about job security. Instead, he’s focused on upcoming installments.
“The only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself,” said the boyish-looking Gimple, who has written for several TV series, including “FlashForward” and “Da Vinci’s Demons.” “I grew up on this show that past two years, and I’m just trying to further the story I’ve been helping to tell. If anything, I’m taking my favorite stuff from the show, and doing more of it.”
Moving efficiently through several hours of filming as rain threatened, the “Walking Dead” company exhibited a relaxed vibe that appeared counter to what might be expected from one of TV’s blockbuster hits. At one point, filming stopped for a “salad break,” with cast and crew chomping on small salads.
Said Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl Dixon, the cross-bow-wielding redneck with a heart of gold: “It’s like we’re in a bubble, away from everything. No Starbucks, no nothing.”
The season opener picks up several months after the last season’s finale, where Grimes, Dixon and the rest of their small band survived a showdown with the villainous Governor (David Morrissey), not to mention repeated threats from the “walkers.” The group has grown, absorbing former residents of the Governor’s former town of Woodbury. The hope is to find some stability and comfort in their sanctuary — an abandoned prison.
All things considered, the newly fortified outpost seems like an agrarian paradise in the first new episode. Grimes is tending to a field of new crops and a pen of livestock. Of course, the tranquillity doesn’t last and a new urgent threat unfolds in the early episodes.
While promising plenty of mayhem and carnage — the Governor is still lurking out there somewhere — this season will seek to more fully explore the humanity of the survivors, explained the show’s creative team.
“The theme is, ‘Can we ever come back from the reality we’ve experienced,’” said Greg Nicotero, an executive producer and special effects makeup designer who has worked on dozens of films, including “Oz the Great and Powerful,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Day of the Dead.”
Added Hurd: “Part of what we’re examining this season is, ‘Can people change and how much can they change?’ We will look at that question through a number of different characters. We’ll be delving more deeply into some of the characters we haven’t spent much time with.”
To advance these storylines, Gimple is utilizing a new structure.
“Our priority is giving every character a story from beginning to end,” he said. “We’re going to learn more about each character as this twisty plot unfolds. There’ll also be a lot of great stuff from the comic books that will be told in a different context. There will be lots of really cool opportunities that will surprise even the most seasoned ‘Walking Dead’ aficionado.”
Lincoln said he was thrilled with his story arc this season. His character has renounced his leadership position with the group and wants to protect his children.
“He’s stepped away from the brutality of the world and is putting all of his energies into farming,” said Lincoln of his character. “He’s providing food within the walls of the prison for the sake of his children. He’s realized the error of his ways and wants to be a present father.”
Wolfing down a quick lunch in his trailer — adorned with “Duck Dynasty” doormat — the British actor was bouncing with enthusiasm.
“The episode I just read will be the most controversial and talked about of the season,” he said. “And I’m not in it. That’s how good it is.”