John Fore has built bridges, hospitals, prisons and farms - and that's just in the last four years as construction coordinator for the AMC TV series The Walking Dead.
Unlike the show’s band of survivors, however, when Fore gets to work a hammer is just a hammer, not a bludgeon to bury deep inside a “walker” (zombie) skull.
Fore’s construction background includes stage crew and scenery construction at Atlanta, Georgia’s Alliance Theatre, and building projects ranging from trade show exhibits to major corporate events including the Coca-Cola Centennial celebration.
He’d made the acquaintance of fellow Georgian Tom Luse, executive producer of The Walking Dead, before the series was announced.
“I’d always liked horror movies and I’d read the Walking Dead comic and thought it was a good story,” said Fore.
“When I saw the production was coming to town, I presented my resume and they told me ‘you’re the guy.’”
Fore describes his role as operating a construction company within a television production.
He budgets, hires carpenters, welders, painters and plasterers, sources construction materials, makes sure safety standards are enforced and employs a bookkeeper.
“We work for two bosses,” he said.
“The art department, who wants a certain look, and the producer, who wants us to create that look for a nickel. Our job is to keep them both happy.”
The construction materials his crew most often employed: wood, steel, Styrofoam, plastics and a whole lot of 1/4” plywood.
“As a department head, I’d receive a copy of the script early on,” he said.
“I’d read through it and sometimes get lost in the story. Then a little flag would go up and I would realize I should make a note about things I would need to work on.”
Fore knew which characters would live and who would be consumed by the dead long before episodes aired.
Occasionally, he’d be approached for a glimpse into the future of the series — and say nothing.
“We’d all signed a non-disclosure agreement and I stuck to it,” he said.
Pre-production typically covered location scouting, set construction, script read-throughs and a bus tour of sets and filming locations.
Fore also worked closely with special effects co-ordinator Darrell Pritchett, who would often burn down or blow up Fore’s handiwork.
By the time shooting starts, construction crews have usually cleared the set, which is successively visited by power crews, lighting crews, set dressers and finally camera crews and actors.
“If I’m still there when the cameras are rolling, it’s because something has gone horribly wrong,” he said.
The first six-episode season was one of the toughest from a construction perspective.
“The script wasn’t quite finished and sometimes we had as little as two or three days to get ready for shooting,” he recalled.
“The hospital that Rick woke up in sucked up a lot of time. We were putting in doors where there were no doors and removing doors that were already there.”
Much of the second episode was shot on the roof of the Norfolk Southern Railway building in Atlanta.
Good-old-boy Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) is introduced firing a rifle down at walker-filled streets, apparently standing on the parapet.
“We actually built and painted a look-alike parapet wall further in from the real roof edge and our scenic artists matched the finish exactly,” Fore said.
“When Michael stood on our parapet, it was only a couple of feet down to the roof of the railway building. We were filming in July, and while we were welding the steel bridge the actors used on the top of the building, temperatures rose to over 100 degrees.”
Fore also devised a way to allow walkers to lumber through a swamp — a real one — by sinking welded panels of expanded metal steel sheet to the bottom of the bog, ensuring extras weren’t swallowed up by decaying vegetation.
The construction department was given 12 days to erect the barn set featured in the fiery, zombie-packed second-season climax.
The crew pre-fabricated the roof system, and used rough-hewn timbers to replicate the look of a weathered structure.
“Season three was the biggest construction effort,” said Fore.
“We hired a crew of 70 people to transform the buildings of the Raleigh Studios in Atlanta into the prison set in just 11 weeks. We put facades on buildings, built the four guard towers, a bridge and several interior sets including the cell block.”
Interior jail cells and steel doors were custom built and welded at the studio shop known as the “construction mill.”
“Working at the studio, everyone in the production ran into each other a lot more often,” said Fore.
“I can honestly tell you that the cast and crew are among the nicest bunch of people you’re likely to meet. That’s one of the reasons I came back for four seasons.”
Fore ultimately joined a feature film production this year — another non-disclosure agreement prevents him from offering the title.
“The Walking Dead was an enjoyable experience, but after four years of zombie television the work became repetitive,” he said.
“I wanted to take on some different challenges.”
Fore said he recently enjoyed a golfing vacation in Los Angeles.
He was joined on the links by special effects man Pritchett and Scott Wilson, the actor who played family patriarch Hershel Greene, whose character was recently beheaded by the nefarious character called The Governor.
“I told Scott the actual reason I left the series was because his character was killed off that way,” said Fore.
“He doesn’t need to hear any differently.” >