After directing one Season 6 episode of The Walking Dead—and editing 12 episodes of the series—Avi Youabian was as hungry as a walker on a rampage to return to the director’s chair. Teaming with writer Nick Bernardone on AMC short-form seriesThe Walking Dead: Red Machete, Youabian found his opportunity. Consulting with executive producer Scott M. Gimple, the pair were tasked with creating a project that could add to the fabric of The Walking Dead universe, while functioning effectively as a standalone piece.
With this briefing from the EP, Youabian and Bernardone laid down their own set of parameters, imposing further challenges upon themselves. With Red Machete, the pair crafted a narrative centering entirely on an inanimate protagonist: The blade of the series’ title, which would move from owner to owner, episode by episode, throughout The Walking Dead‘s post-apocalyptic landscape.
Pursuing the combination of heart, gore and grit that makes The Walking Dead what it is, the Red Machete pair took creative risks to deliver a memorable addition to the series’ lore. Their secret weapon? An extended animated sequence in Chapter 4, which would bring the AMC series and its source material together on screen like never before.
How did The Walking Dead: Red Machete come to be?
Avi Youabian: This was something that was two years in the making. It was a narrative that [executive producer] Scott Gimple wanted to be told. He essentially said, “Give me an episode that is not a Walking Dead episode, but something that lives in the same universe.” We pitched multiple versions to Scott and ultimately Nick cracked a killer story that was a purely visual narrative. It was a story that was challenging in that we didn’t have any dialogue at our disposal.
Nick Bernardone: This was an opportunity to do something that the show can’t necessarily do, which is tell stories in little tiny chunks of one minute that, if cobbled together, represent a 15-minute short film.
The Walking Dead has been the basis for a variety of short-form projects. What is it about this show’s universe that makes it suitable for short-form storytelling?
Bernardone: I think people want to see more flavor that they don’t quite get to see on the show. For example, the show takes place in Atlanta and D.C., and there’s obviously certain types of folks that we’ll come across around there, but this [virus] to our understanding, is happening all across the country, if not the world. I think viewers all across the world want to see different demographics and different types of people that maybe we wouldn’t come across on the show—and more bite-size stories.
Because some people don’t make it that long, and some people don’t get to have fully fleshed-out stories sometimes. Their stories are just blips in time that keep on moving. Using this prop from the show as a conduit to seamlessly pass through all different types of people on the journey was an opportunity that something like the 44-minute narrative of the show couldn’t quite tackle, given the format.
Do you view Red Machete as a Sword in the Stone-type tale? It is interesting that this machete becomes the primary character of the series.
Bernardone: Yeah. As we continued to find the sweet spot of the story, we did find that there was a little bit of a heart [in] this inanimate object, especially in this world where a weapon could be your lifeline and your saving grace. We did find that there was this one person that kind of had a connection to it, so it felt like an interesting story to tell—and that’s where we found the character of Mandy. It was basically like they grew up together in this apocalypse, and by the end, they find each other along the way, and they had both matured in different ways.
Does the image of this machete have a basis in the Walking Dead comics?
Youabian: The machete itself is not connected to the graphic novel, but it is connected to the mothership show. The red-handled machete was a character in Season 4, and that is where the genesis of the story really started, introducing the Terminus characters and the red machete that Ricky used to kill Gareth.
This was essentially the backstory—“All right, let’s talk about that specific weapon and how this specific character landed in this time and place, in this universe of The Walking Dead. Let’s go back and try to look at a backstory on this little weapon. How can we challenge ourselves to tell an interesting and compelling story about that specific weapon?”
What inspired the decision to delve into animation with one of your episodes?
Bernardone: There’s the practical reason and then there’s the exciting reason. The exciting reason is that this is the first time ever that we get to see that flavor of the comic aesthetic combined with the show aesthetic. For the first time, we got to see an interesting tip of the hat to how this all started—as a graphic novel.
Given all of that, we were also presented with some practical challenges, which was that there is this time that the blade spent in the world of the show, with Rick Grimes and Daryl and all of our friends, and we couldn’t just graze over that and say, “Five weeks later, it’s somewhere different.” This was a choice, for the fans, to spend a little time with the moments that we saw from the show through a look that didn’t require us to either play clips or recreate stuff we didn’t see with excerpts from the show. We felt like we wanted this to be its own thing, and this was kind of the balance between those two.
Avi, could you explain your broader visual approach to Red Machete? It’s quite an immersive series.
Youabian: I can’t take all the credit—I had a killer cinematographer by the name of Alice Brooks. She brought a specific visual style to this. I’ll go back again to what Scott had said a long time ago, which is, “I want this to be its own thing.” I would say it was easy in that I didn’t have to rely on a specific scene where I had characters sitting down and talking. It was challenging in that we were constantly moving, over the span of nine days. I think we shot close to a dozen locations, if not more, and we had a lot of company moves. So the trick was to make it all feel of a piece.
Finding all of these locations, bringing back old characters and bringing in new characters, the visual style was constantly evolving. Every episode was different. We have one episode that’s animation; we have one episode that’s stylistically cutting. There’s another one that’s just a static shot where we’re seeing six or seven people having a fight in this camp. We tried to make every little chapter have its own unique visual style.
How did working on a purely visual project change your creative process? Did you storyboard more than you might for a traditional narrative project?
Youabian: I’ll answer that by referring to one of my favorite sections in the whole piece. We have a montage where a young girl is just training with the machete, and we’re the parallel narrative of the family running out of resources, and it ultimately ends with them having to go out and scavenge for food. The visual style, or the editorial style, was to make it very musical and have the sound design score the actual narrative—and through editing, it would build to a crescendo and finally release. It’s Episodes 2 and 3, like the first three minutes of the short. That was fun in that it was a stylistic approach to telling that story, versus just a series of linear shots that would tell that story. We were able to flex that muscle on this visual narrative. “Okay, how can we do this, and how can we do it differently?”
Bernardone: It forced us to do things a little unconventionally. Oftentimes, you write a script and then the director blocks it out and makes some choices, and then on the day, you see it all work. This really forced us, for better or for worse, to really be linked, arm in arm, from the beginning of the process. In the writing, we found ourselves having to get a lot of description and a lot of visual influence on the page, and then on the other side, it was trying to figure out a way to still have a story that makes sense. Because once you get there, given all the variables on the day—the actors and the weather and everything—you have to make some on-the-go moves that affect the story. So it was just a constant evolving process from a development standpoint.
The Walking Dead is shot in Atlanta. Were you out on location in Georgia as well?
Youabian: No, we actually figured out a way to make it work in LA. We had the entire production shot at several different ranches around the LA area and Santa Clara area. With a lot of visual effects and scene extensions, we were able to mask LA buildings and backgrounds. It’s just a lot of smoke and mirrors—but it doesn’t take place in Atlanta. The narrative is “Anywhere, America.”
Having gone through your experience with Red Machete, what do you find satisfying about the short-form process? Do you have specific hopes for future short-form projects within the Walking Dead universe?
Bernardone: Having done some short-form stuff in the past with 30 Rockand a couple other things, it’s always enjoyable to be able to expand on what the show’s already been able to do, and I know we’ve talked about that quite a bit.
In the future, you can probably expect to see a little bit more connectivity to the show universe, if not the expanded show’s universe. I think folks want to see a bit more of folks that either have already passed on the show, or folks that we haven’t spent enough time with. As I believe Scott Gimple has teased in the past, we’re going to see more of these kinds of things and unique ways to tell stories that aren’t so strictly narrative-based. I love what those Telltale video games do, for example, where you’re essentially crafting your own narrative based on choices. I think we’re going to continue to see new ways of telling stories within the same universe.
Youabian: The one thing I would add is I would love to see more cross-over narrative from mothership shows—not just Walking Dead, but seeing more backstories for characters on these digital series. I know there are people who would love to see more of those stories being told, and sometimes you just don’t have the real estate to do it on the air—time to expand on characters that are maybe not the A story, but more like B- or C-story characters. I know the fans of the universe would get a kick out of that.
The Red Machete narrative is completely over. We can’t say a lot more than that, but there is more to come. There is a plan.