There’s a certain image that comes to mind when you hear “‘The Walking Dead’ set in France.” It’s one filled with undead zombies tearing through Parisian streets and the Eiffel Tower framed by panic. Perhaps shockingly, that ambitious visual language is exactly what the second episode of “The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon” delivers.
“Any filmmaker will tell you one of the hardest things you can ever do is take over the center of a city to create chaos and mayhem,” Daniel Percival, the director of four episodes of “Daryl Dixon” including Sunday’s “Alouette,” told TheWrap. According to Percival, it took “months and months” of negotiating with Paris and city authorities to produce the opening of Episode 2.
“Alouette” opens on a flashback. The series wordlessly follows Isabelle (Clémence Poésy), documenting her life as a thieving party girl. The episode starts with Isabelle perched on the edge of a club’s balcony, “300 feet above the city, looking at it.”
“That image tells you a lot about the character: that she’s isolated, that she’s not part of the group, that she’s the individual,” Percival said. “This woman who you met in the first episode as a nun, you discover is a thief, is desperate and has attempted suicide.”
This story is told largely visually. In fact, the first lines of the episode don’t come until roughly seven minutes in. That’s when Isabelle’s ex-boyfriend tell her to “Get in the car.”
It’s through this wordless backstory that Percival depicts Paris’ fall at the hands of the zombie apocalypse. Though Percival noted that it was “enormously difficult” to film in these real locations, “which is the only way to do it properly,” he found people were more than willing to help when they heard this was for “The Walking Dead.”
“The show is so globally famous that it’s almost welcome,” Percival said. “Everyone knows ‘The Walking Dead.’ And then you say Daryl Dixon, and people fall over themselves to be helpful.”
One of the most challenging of these scenes was a shot of a passing Paris Metro train packed with attacking zombies and screaming passengers. “Without the cooperation of the Paris authorities, it just wouldn’t have been possible,” Percival said. He went on to tease that “every episode” has “these extraordinary ambitious sequences.”
Though Percival has been directing since he was 27 years old, he’s been the most challenged in his career by “Daryl Dixon” in terms of what they scripts require and what he and his team are able to achieve, according to the director. “It takes every ounce of my experience and skill to to realize it,” he said.
The demands of “Daryl Dixon” are so intense that Percival jokes with series creator David Zabel and writer/executive producer Jason Richman that “I’m peeking through my fingers” when he opens a new script. “I see these things that make me break out in a cold sweat and go, ‘How on earth are we going to do this?’” But through the panic, Percival sees these wild scenes as a challenge.
Ambitious fight scenes and zombie hordes are nothing new in the world of “The Walking Dead,” but the intimacy Percival brings to this spinoff is. Unlike previous installments of the AMC franchise, “Daryl Dixon” — from its writing and scope down to its camerawork — largely stays trained on its central character.
“We use a lot more moving camera, and we use different types of lenses. We’re bringing much more cinematic approach to the whole show,” Percival said. “But more importantly, what I wanted to bring to it was was a personal immediacy to the show. You enter environments with Daryl, you experience it over his shoulder. It’s very first-person point-of-view.”
Percival likened the current journey of Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) to “The Odyssey.” Much like in the Greek legend of Odysseus, Daryl will be confronted with monsters, sirens and obstacles as he struggles to return home. “It’s going to take them a very long time, and unexpected things are going to keep happening to him in this strange new world,” Percival said.
This onscreen intimacy has required Reedus to give a slightly different performance than “Walking Dead” fans have seen in the past. Between the language barrier of both Daryl and Reedus and the more “European” style of filmmaking Percival brings to the series, Reedus’ performance is more improvisational and open. Percival pointed to a moment in Episode 2 when a pair of children run up to Daryl. Though what followed wasn’t in the script, Reedus naturally put his arm around them as they all sat down together.
“It was such a touching moment. And I said, ‘Don’t stop doing that,’” Percival said, emphasizing that Reedus simply “knows.” “Daryl Dixon has always been this kind of protector. But we’re putting him even more in that role where he has to choose to divert his desires to help and protect others all the time. It’s subtle, and it’s nuanced. It’s been a great journey to go on with Norman.”
The fish-out-of-water ethos is embedded in every part of “Daryl Dixon,” down to its choice of sitcom. In “Alouette,” the children and guardians of the school at the center of the episode sit down with Daryl, Isabelle and Laurent (Louis Puech Scigliuzzi) to watch an old episode of late ’70s/early ’80s sitcom “Mork and Mindy” — streamed by a bicycle-powered engine. Though it took “a long time to get the permits to shoot it,” the inclusion of the Robin Williams sitcom was “so perfect,” Percival said.
“It’s a story of a fish out of water and an alien in a strange land. It’s so appropriate,” Percival explained. To make sure the TV screening scene hit the right note, the child actors workshopped together for weeks, ensuring their chemistry and interactions felt authentic.
“You’re landing Daryl in a community that already exists. For that to work on film, that community has to be real. It has to be moving all around them all the time,” Percival said.
“There’s so much more about this episode that is purely cinema in the sense that it’s not just the scripted word. It’s also the observed behavior.”
New episodes of “The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon” premiere on AMC and AMC+ on Sundays.