Even though The CW cheerleader series Hellcats is not normally a show that we cover at Collider, this week’s episode seemed appropriate enough, as it involves zombie cheerleaders, disemboweling and decapitation. In “Woke Up Dead,” Dan Patch (Matt Barr) decides to shoot a zombie horror film for his Lancer film school application, and he enlists the Hellcats cheerleaders as actors in the project. Feature film director Andy Fickman was brought in to direct Episode 18, which features a zombie-fied Marti Perkins (Aly Michalka) for a fun-filled diversion, while still bringing the drama when she visits the store where her deceased father’s guitar picks came from and meets Deirdre (guest star AJ Michalka), who helps Marti uncover another piece of information about the father she never knew.
During a recent interview, co-stars Aly Michalka and Matt Barr, along with show creator/executive producer/writer Kevin Murphy, talked about how the idea for zombie cheerleaders came up, how involved the make-up process was, the possibility of post-apocalyptic cheerleaders or an alien invasion for next season, where things are headed for the remaining episodes of Season 1, and why the series attracts such talented directors. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Question: How did the idea for the zombie film come up?
KEVIN MURPHY: I am a big lover of exploitation films, and so is Andy Fickman, who directed the episode. We have a long history. We did Reefer Madness, the movie musical, together, we did the original Reefer Madness Los Angeles production together, and we did it off-Broadway, and Andy was really excited to come direct an episode of Hellcats. I wanted to do something really special that keyed into his skill set. He’s a big fan. In his life outside of Hellcats, he’s producing three Val Lewton remakes with RKO films, so he just really loves zombies.
So, it was the idea of, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to figure out a way to combine a genre film with cheerleaders?” At the same time, we were also looking to find a way to pull Dan a little more centrally into the show because he’s always been a satellite character, as the boyfriend of Savannah or the friend of Marti. I really wanted to be able to give him more points of access with Alice, Lewis, Vanessa (Sharon Leal) and everyone else. And, everything seemed to coalesce, as we talked about it in the writer’s room. We decided to do a horror movie, and then we thought that the reason people make zombie films is because they can be done on a budget. If you were Dan, then you only have limited space and you can barricade people inside a place.
With Shaun of the Dead, half the movie takes place inside that pub, which is one of the tropes that would fit really well because we have to have our production numbers. And then, we got into, “How do we do zombie dancing and not have it be Thriller?” There’s a whole zombie dance routine that is pretty original. It’s cool! So, that’s where the idea came from. Now, it was so successful and we all are so excited about it, we’re talking about having Dan do a season-long arc for next year, where he’s working on a larger movie, so it will give us more excuse for some of these high-concept production numbers.
ALY MICHALKA: It opens up the spectrum of more types of dance to be incorporated.
MURPHY: The thing that’s very true of a lot of these real-life cheerleaders that we all work with is that they love to move and they love to dance, and they don’t limit themselves to cheerleading. I’m really looking to get the Hellcats to do some of that. We want to do more of the high-concept, really visually kinetic production numbers, as we move forward through the rest of this season into next season. We want to go back to the genre well. We absolutely could have aliens. We could be looking at post-apocalyptic cheerleaders. What would an alien invasion cheerleading routine look like? If your body has been possessed by a body snatcher, how does that make you dance? What would a Western cheerleading routine look like?
Aly, what was the make-up process like, in becoming a zombie, and what did you think when you saw yourself in the make-up?
MICHALKA: It was interesting because, out of the Hellcats, Marti is the only one who turns into a zombie, plus gets disemboweled and decapitated on camera. Everybody was in these cool headbands with guns, and Marti gets bitten. The process for the make-up was a lot. I was in the zombie look for three days, and it took a couple of hours. Hair and make-up was just blood and gore with buckets of blood. It’s so not our show that we were like, “Ew, yuck! There’s no pom-poms! Where are the sparkles?” But, it was really fun.
It was cool to be able to play around. They made us our own gashes and wounds. Everything was custom made. It took a long time to get off, too. I remember having black still in my ears and teeth. They would have black blood that we would swish around our mouths, so that it made our mouths dark and black. So, it was a long process, but it was fun because it was something that was so opposite of our show that we were able to really appreciate it, and appreciate the art form and how difficult it is to have to actually do this. We had tons of background and tons of dancers, who all had to go through it. Everybody had different wounds and different gashes. It was very specific to each person, and it was very time consuming on the hair and make-up department.
Matt, now that you’re playing a film student, do you have a new-found desire to direct?
MATT BARR: Yeah, I think I’ve found my passion in life. I’m going to direct a couple of short film on hiatus. That’s what I really want to do. And, I was able to shadow Andy Fickman, the director on the zombie episode. He’s an overly enthusiastic guy, but it was so intoxicating to me. I was engaged, all the time. I definitely was bitten by it. And, it’s ruining shows and movies that I watch because I just watch them from a technical eye now.
MURPHY: We’ve actually been very lucky on this show, with directors. We’ve had Debbie Allen, who’s coming back. Nobody can do musicals like her. And, Andy Fickman comes from the feature world. We have John Dahl, who’s another feature director that has also done premium cable recently. And, Allan Arkush is our house director and executive producer. It’s a very interesting, eclectic band of directors that come through our gates. Omar Madha, who I met when I was doing Caprica, is a Brit who has done very little American television. He’s known for doing MI-5 in England, which could not be more unlike Hellcats, but when he brings his gritty, immersive sensibility to the episodes that he’s directed, it really puts a cool shape and color on the show.
What can you hint at for the remainder of the season?
MURPHY: We’ll have a 50-piece live orchestra for our Bob Fosse/Jack Cole tribute, and for the score for our fictional zombie movie that Dan Patch, Matt Barr’s character, made. Coming up, in the last five episodes, we’ve got a great guest appearance and a dance routine from Ciara. We’ve got music from Bob Dylan, David Bowie and M. Ward.
MURPHY: There’s going to be some romance for Marti (Aly Michalka) with Julian (Gale Harold).
MICHALKA: He’s not her professor, at the time, just to make it PC. Also, there are some secrets between Wanda (Gail O’Grady) and Marti, and with her dad and that past. There will be some things revealed that she never knew about her father, as well as AJ being introduced into Marti’s world.
MURPHY: In addition to zombies, our return episode is also the inaugural episode where we welcome the lovely and fabulous AJ Michalka to our cast. And, Lewis (Robbie Jones) and Alice (Heather Hemmens) will get together. We also bring Dan Patch a little more to the center of the show because he’s enrolling at Lancer. He’s now a film student, and that’s going to be an area that we’re going to go to for stories, for the balance of the season and next season.
Aly, after all the lies that Wanda has told Marti, why would Marti believe her this time, about her father?
MICHALKA: That’s a good question. I wouldn’t believe her. I think that Marti is so desperate for an answer. Because of her connection with Deirdre, which opens up a can of worms regarding her father – because Deirdre has a connection to her father and some information on him that she didn’t have before – knowing what she knows about her father from Deirdre, and then adding that to the information that she is able to get out of her mom, that is not just given to her freely but begged and pleaded for, she realizes that, “Okay, my mom has been telling me this giant lie. There have been some missing pieces, in between here and there.”
I think that Marti is desperate to find answers, and she’s desperate enough to go to her mom for answers, and to believe her. At the end of the day, what her mom tells her, she wouldn’t really be lying about. It’s the terrible truth that she has been leaving out this giant side of her past, for Marti to know about. The fact that Marti’s dad was a bad guy, in that he was an addict and did abandon her, she didn’t want Marti to know. Therefore, I think it really resonates with Marti that, “My dad wasn’t the guy that I thought he might have been.” She is faced with those realizations.
If Marti is going to have a relationship with her teacher, will that end the love triangle between Marti, Savannah (Ashley Tisdale) and Dan?
MICHALKA: For a couple of episodes, you definitely get away from that, but there’s always going to be that tension between Marti and Dan, and the fact that they did have history together and there is an attraction to each other. Even though it’s not right for them to share those feelings together and to have those intimate conversations, it’s always going to go back to that. Continuously, in season after season, you’re going to see Marti and Dan always come back together.
MURPHY: It is inevitable that we will return to that, but we’ll return to that slowly. It is already in the series right now, but you just may not realize it when you’re watching.
Now that the prisoner has been released and that issue has been resolved, will the cheating scandal be the next big arc?
MURPHY: Yes, that will take us through the back five episodes, and that will be resolved before we get to the finale. The finale is really going to focus on the various families, and bringing it all back to cheerleading. Then, we’ll go to Nationals and find out what happens. There are a couple of really surprising twists that happen in the finale that, knock wood, people won’t see coming.
Aly, what has your progression been as a cheerleader, since you started the show?
MICHALKA: Stunt doubles are definitely used, just because of the danger aspect and the fact that these young women have been doing this since they were six or seven and they would have a lot more experience than we do, as actors and dancers. For me, I was much more afraid of it, at the beginning. I had the outlook of, “These people are really insane! They must be mentally insane. This is not even normal. How does somebody think this is fun? This is scary!” But then, the more that you see them and you see that they’re still doing really dangerous stunts in between set-ups, and they just love this and want to try new things, all day long, you realize that it’s a passion and a lifestyle and a form of art.
It’s definitely made me appreciate the world of cheerleading. I definitely feel like I can do more, as a cheerleader, without people holding me, and me just shaking and freaking out. For all of us, it’s come a lot more naturally for us to be able to be thrown into it. With the pilot, we had a lot of prep time, when it came to routines. Now, we have one or two days. The fact that we did this amazing Bob Fosse number for Episode 19 was so exciting to me, just because I don’t come from a jazz background, at all. Bob Fosse revolutionized dance. For me to be able to be a part of that, and to take on that style of dance and really do it justice, took a lot of patience, even though we didn’t have a lot of time to prep it. It basically was just like, “Okay, you’ve gotta go in there and do it and be focused,” and you rely on the other dancers to really be there, as a support system.
MURPHY: One of the first things I said was, “If you take this job, you’re going to be learning to do this stuff for real,” and the cast actually have all learned to do this for real. We still double them because it’s not safe to have them doing it and we can’t afford an accident. Competitive cheerleading is extremely dangerous and extremely physically rigorous and challenging. But, when we do double them, we’re actually getting the actors up into their position. And then, when we’re holding the position in the wide shots, that’s when we use the doubles. The reason the routines look so good is because the cast has done the hard work required, to actually learn to do it on their own. They are the real deal, and I’m extremely proud of them.
BARR: We shoot all week, and the rest of us have the weekends off while they go in and train. They work their butts off.
What is it about Hellcats that attracts such stellar directors?
MURPHY: Well, for example, John Dahl is just a wonderful director. He has done Battlestar Galactica, and I’m a fan of his feature work, and I was very excited when I met him on Caprica. Before I met Allan Arkush, I had a meeting with John Dahl about possibly directing the pilot of Hellcats and he said, “So, can you pinpoint exactly what it is, in my previous body of work, that makes you think I’m your go-to guy for this CW cheerleader series?,” and I said, “It’s the way that you immerse the audience in character, the way you create a world and the way you pull people in.” And I said, “I don’t think that I would ever get you for the pilot because you are a very unconventional choice, but I’d love for you to at least come and give us a try.”
So, he came and he didn’t quite know what to expect for the first few days, but by the end of it, he’d had the best time of his life because he was doing production numbers and working with this young, spirited and energetic cast. There’s a really amazing vibe on set. Once we get a director to try us one time, they come back. I’m very proud of the fact that, of our many wonderful directors from the first 13 episodes, pretty much everyone that we asked back, came back.
MICHALKA: I think a lot of the directors were shocked that it was as fun as it was, and that it was not this little peppy cheerleading show that was shallow and had no meaning.
MURPHY: And, Allan Arkush is such a long-time director. He goes back to Moonlighting, in directing for television. He knows how to treat a director respectfully, when you come onto a set, and we’re very careful about that. On some TV shows, you don’t get your script until way into prep. Our directors show up and they have their script on Day 1 of prep, and it’s pretty much the script that’s going to be shot. Sometimes, if they request it, we’ll even give them an interim version of the script a few days earlier. I think that directors really respond well when they feel that something is being well run. This show is a tight, efficient ship and it’s a pleasurable place for a director to come play.