Above the Line with Tom Luse: Light from the Dead
There is a light in this man, Tom Luse, who shines among the darkest of narratives. Light, grace, and more than a little magic.
He will laugh when he reads this. Because Tom Luse assigns magic to those around him. He can name the names of men and women 47 years in his past who gifted him with this or that opportunity, taught him this or that wondrous lesson. Luse assigns credit to anyone other than himself. He seems unaware that he, like Robert McCammon’s hero in Boy’s Life, was born knowing magic and never, ever, lost that bright-eyed boy’s gift.
Even to the cognoscenti, “Tom Luse” may not be the first name that staggers to mind on the thermonuclear force that is The Walking Dead. Actors, walkers, brilliant aesthetics and wrenching despair–the sheer emotional freight of
the show doesn’t push the question: “How does all this come together?” How has The Walking Dead become the number one drama on television for 18-49-year-olds not just today, but for the past five years? That’s television history, per the researchers at AMC, dear hearts.
Even following season seven, when the series’ live-plus-same day average ratings posted its lowest since 2012, the
show stood head and shoulders over every entertainment show on television on broadcast as well as cable, per Variety. So much for the question of who sits on the Iron Throne.
Luse is an executive producer for The Walking Dead. He was the company’s first freelance hire as its line producer, but there was no production department to manage when he came aboard. He was literally Sheriff Rick Grimes clip-clopping alone into the haunted streets of Atlanta when he signed with the television company side of The Walking Dead project’s original group of legendary film and television writer/producer/directors: Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd.
At that time, Darabont’s credits included The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist. Hurd’s included all three Terminator films, Aliens, and The Abyss. For such luminaries to seek out Luse to set up their operation speaks volumes about him that he won’t say about himself.
“Gale Anne and Frank were already working together at the time, and then they hired me,” said Luse. “Before we even shot the pilot, they ended up negotiating a budget and schedule for the first six episodes. We thought to ourselves, ‘this is great. We have six episodes!’ Not one of us ever dreamed the show would be the success it has been. The standard thinking was that a genre TV show would be the kiss of death.”
Luse was by no means new to the worlds of film and television production in Georgia or anywhere else by the time he met with Darabont and Hurd in late 2009. His filmography as a producer, production manager, or executive producer dates back to 1995 with titles such as Blue River, Remember the Titans, Jeepers Creepers 1&2, One Tree Hill, The Joneses, and The Collection.
But in a very real sense, Luse’s film career began years before that, here in Atlanta, on paths of learning he carved out with the help of friends. Most of those friends are still his friends. And like Luse, most of those friends would come to be known as legends—even giants—in the Atlanta film community. But at the time, it was mostly a lot of hard work and fun. You know: just like it is now.
There Are Schools. And There Are Teachers.
Though Luse isn’t Georgia-born, he’s Georgia-bred. But he’s of an age that he predated Georgia’s film school programs, much less its awareness of film as a career path. After spending a few years post-college working with disabled children, he headed to Georgia State University planning on a master’s in psychology.
“Growing up in Atlanta in the 60s and 70s, we never really thought we’d have actual real filmmaking to do,” he
pointed out. “I’d made a couple of home-movie type things, but never seriously thought about filmmaking until I went back to graduate school.”
That’s when he met Kay Beck. Beck was launching GSU’s film program with just a handful of courses and a few
GSU’s embryonic film program is where Luse met lensman Lee Blasingame (then on GSU's staff), and independent filmmaker Gary Moss (in GSU's Educational Media Department). Luse also soon met independent filmmaker Bill VanDerKloot through Image Film and Video (founded in 1977 with Moss and later to become the Atlanta Film Society.)
Luse and Blasingame partnered to become the official videographers for the Atlanta Hawks games. With fellow GSU
students Gary Anderson and Kelly Mills, Luse produced videos for the still-famous “Love Shacking” B-52s from Athens. “We each gained a lot of experience from those side ventures,” says Luse.
Indeed: Lee Blasingame became one of the most respected camera assistants in the business. His credits include
Dances with Wolves, Crash, and Captain America: Civil War. Moss earned a 1988 Oscar nomination for the documentary Gullah Tales. Bill VanDerKloot heads his own film company and counts a Peabody among his hundreds of awards.
Luse’s GSU master’s thesis, an award-winning documentary titled Who’s Killing the Cities? earned him an AFI Film Director’s internship at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. “But when I came home from Los Angeles, I had to make a living. So I got a great internship with Jayan Films. Jimmy Collins was a major influence on me. He was—is—a great filmmaker. I worked with Jayan in so many different departments. I did everything.” Commercials were big business in Atlanta in the early 1980s and Jayan Films was perhaps Atlanta’s top house for television production. With Collins behind the lens and bon vivant John Reichard strutting a stellar reel, the work rolled in.
But the winds of change were blowing by the end of the 1980s and television production (and advertising in general) was slowing down. By 1988, Luse was applying his experience to feature films in Georgia—specifically, a film that was nominated for five Academy Awards and took home three: Glory.
Luse was typically understated about his assistant unit production manager work on that groundbreaking film. “All of my experience merged to the point that I started production managing a film shooting in McDonough, Savannah, and Jekyll Island. It wasn’t long afterwards that I joined the Director’s Guild,” he said.
The slowdown in the South’s production community continued. There were many reasons for this but among the most pertinent was the cold north wind coming in from Canada. A wind by the name of “incentives.” Simply put,
Canada was offering tax incentives to attract film and television production and Georgia was not. So Luse and craftspeople like him followed film work wherever it led them. To Utah. To Los Angeles. Even overseas. For the next several years, while clever Georgia production professionals were working with the government to put the right incentive packages in place, Luse and men and women like him were on the road. With Georgia always on their minds.
Bestoink Dooley and Real Popcorn
Tom Luse’s first job in legitimate film was—wait for it—popping the famous real popcorn available at George Ellis Film Forum in Ansley Mall. “I went there every week with my then-girlfriend in the 1970s,” he says. “I worked in the
Buckhead theatre as well, on and off for years. In a sense, that’s where my love for classic film and the finer points of
In the Atlanta market, actor and classic film impresario George Ellis was known to a whole generation as Bestoink Dooley, host of the Friday night fright-fest Big Movie Shocker. According to the Oxford American, Dooley was among the first of horror film hosts across America that would include names like Vampira, Morgus the Magnificent, Count Gore De Vol, and more.
Wearing a crushed Derby hat, bedraggled magician’s coat, and a drooping daisy, Bestoink Dooley was a sensation. Adults may have been alarmed by his antics and horror films like The Mummy (1932), but children were thrilled. Fan clubs mushroomed. Crowds flocked to him at drive-in showings of The Wolf Man (1941). Bestoink Dooley hosted poetry readings, opened shopping centers, made horror films of his own.
After his death in 1983, reporters such as then-Atlanta Journal-Constitution film critic Eleanor Ringel wrote of Ellis’ contributions to introducing serious film to Atlanta. As Ringel put it, “George let there be light in Atlanta.”
There‘s No Place Like Home
Luse never saw George Ellis in his Bestoink Dooley persona. But he did have the bejeezus scared out of him at Saturday matinees showing 50s and 60s classics like Them! (atomic-sized ants) and William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus (with “Punishment Poll!”).
“I was terrified! I was soooooo scared. I’m still sensitive—I’m not squeamish. But Horror is hard for me.” Given Luse’s
filmography that has scared the pants off millions, he not only mastered those childhood fears but also learned how to use them on film.
His return to Georgia in 2009 was as executive producer on the Demi Moore/Michael Duchovny life-as-product-placement nightmare film The Joneses. The Vampire Diaries television series also hit Georgia then, both drawn in part by strong film incentives and the talent of available crew.
So when Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd called sensitive Tom Luse—who has never forgotten either a kindness or the squeeze of fear that rises in a dark theatre and disappears like mist when the Sheriff rides in—Luse was ready.
What IS IT About This Show?
The Walking Dead has antecedents in rich classic elements. Like the canon of classic and later horror films, from The Mummy to Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, it reflects what society fears most at any given time.
As Luse put it, “Somehow this show—well, it isn’t just about zombies. It’s captured the zeitgeist: The spirit of the times. I think a lot of people are concerned. About what’s right and wrong. About what happens when all of this goes
bad. If you are afraid about what’s right and wrong; about where you’d stand if you had to make hard choices. How would you survive in a crazy world? This theme—of testing or measuring ourselves against whatever forces there are—is what our writers have explored so well. That, with the quality of our actors and production brings it home.”
Archeologist Pat Garrow agrees with that assessment. Garrow falls well outside the series normal demographic and his 51-year career in archeology (prehistoric, urban, historic cemetery, Native American, and Caribbean) gives him a unique perspective. “It appears there has been fascination with the dead since recognizable humans evolved. Most often the dead are feared, although they might also be revered at the same time,” says Garrow. “The zombies of the
Caribbean appear to be people who have been heavily drugged and are kept that way, so they are really not parallels to the zombies of The Walking Dead.”
Garrow has been watching the series since its premiere. He was intrigued by the believable premise of a disaster of that scale originating in Atlanta—because of an escaped engineered virus at the CDC that may have been created
for biological warfare—and he’s been watching ever since.
It’s not about the zombies for Garrow. Just as Luse explained, Garrow is drawn to the human dynamics of survival. “I watch it for the character study. The way people react to stress that is unexpected and unparalleled. Characters have had to adapt, adjust, and justify their actions. They have each had to change in order to survive. If we lost all of our friends at once, it would normally have a paralyzing effect on us.”
When inevitable comparisons to real-world situations he’s investigated are brought up (such as the Cherokee Trail of Tears), Garrow responds, “There was more hope there. Hope for survival, hope that someone would intervene. Characters on this show know that won’t happen. No external force can bail them out. Their adversaries are living sets of teeth without humanity and they know they can become one of them.”
Garrow sees the show’s violence as essential to its narrative. “They are depicting a post-apocalyptic world where
people sacrifice anything to survive. This sets the stage for the character changes. I think they do it pretty well. That team really has it together.”
The Business of the Dead
Given the number of new production studios and the explosion of film and television projects around Atlanta these days, it isn’t surprising to hear that Georgia has more work now than it has crew. Sometimes the sheer amount of work in specialist driven craft positions—such as camera assistant jobs—exceeds the number of talented crew available. The Walking Dead’s 150-person crew is mostly from Atlanta, says Luse. “Our crew may change over time, but it is still primarily southeast.” Each of those people has to do their jobs precisely well so that every shot taken is successful.
The Walking Dead defines success in part as creating a fictional world so rich in detail that it comes to life for everyone involved—especially the audience. Much of that work takes place long before the cameras roll. It takes sensitivity and attention to detail to build empathy with an audience. To move beyond merely building a prison set to conveying its claustrophobia, hopelessness, and the stink of fear. Sweating details such as rusted toilets, aged walls, concertina wire, and the debris of holocaust hits hard for actors, camera crews, and eventually, the audience.
“We build sets to be as realistic as possible,” says Luse. “It’s good for the look of the show and it’s good for the performers to make the world we live in look and feel as gritty as it would be as if everything had really just stopped. When every element has a heightened sense of reality, it helps not just the actors in the scene, but our camera crew capture the best possible images.”
More than one reviewer has noticed. The painterly composition of individual scenes in The Walking Dead is the result
of craftsmanship on many levels. “We choose the film grade that works best for the particular scene. We shoot mostly in 16mm for its cinematic look but if the scene works better in 35mm, we’ll use that. It all works toward the same end: The look and the feel.”
Every detail matters. The quality of the actors and the quality of production. The skill of the camera crew and skill of
the zombie trainers. Without good craft service and medics and honey wagons in southern heat—walkers would be the least of your worries.
But the magic starts in the writer’s room, and must be protected by a showrunner and supported at the network level. “The writer-as-showrunner came about in the last 15 years or so,” says Luse. “Writers are trained to do that in a sense, because they create the story arc for the actors and are best equipped to protect it. The story arc is critical for the overall success of any show. Managing that on a show like ours—over five years and 100 episodes—is essential. On The Walking Dead, that responsibility falls to executive producer/showrunner Scott Gimple. He works hard every day to keep our show fresh, vital, and ever changing.”
The Dead Community
How has the beautiful little town of Senoia, Georgia reacted to being in The Walking Dead’s reflected glow? With delight. But then, it did the same when Sam Waterson and Regina Taylor were in town shooting I’ll Fly Away and when the cast of Fried Green Tomatoes visited for that filming. Today’s fans, however, are more likely to visit filming locations, so Senoia has made them welcome with tour buses and a few gift shops among its historic museums and stately homes.
“We have a great relationship with the town of Senoia. It has grown so much since we’ve been there. It was pretty sleepy when we started. We try to keep things quiet, keep a low profile. A lot of our show is very sensitive. The group that knows the storyline is very small and we want to keep it that way.”
Luse is a happy man, a family man, and he pokes fun at himself by saying he has trouble paying attention to any one thing for very long. But the truth is, Luse is a walking archive of detail. That’s his job. That’s part of his nature. That’s why he can name so many people in Atlanta who contributed to making it the film and television community it is today. Kay Beck. Lee Blasingame. Fran Burst. Jimmy Collins. Jesse Crawford. Jerry Crowder. Linda Dubler. Shay Griffin. George Ellis. Gayla Jamison. Bill Thompson. Gary Moss. Bill VanDerKloot. More names than a reporter’s pitiful recorder could catch. Some still with us. Some not. All luminous.
Of himself he says only this: “And I, not knowing what I was doing, bounced around all the worlds of feature film and
television production, just trying to find my way.”
Tom Luse found his way. And the light he holds up now illuminates a path others will follow for years to come.