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Q&A: Creator/Executive Producer Dave Erickson Talks “FEAR THE WALKING DEAD”

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With AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD one of the most successful TV series on the planet, it’s no surprise that a companion show would come along. Developed by WALKING DEAD comics creator Robert Kirkman with SONS OF ANARCHY’s Dave Erickson, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD premiered last night, and Erickson spoke to Fango about its creation and future.

Airing on AMC Sunday nights at 9 p.m./8 Central, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD is a quasi-prequel, starting with a six-episode first season and picked up for a 10-episode second round currently scheduled to begin production in November. The series begins a few weeks before WALKING DEAD’s Rick Grimes woke up from his coma in the original show, but is set in Los Angeles, where we meet the blended family headed by high-school teacher Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis). He’s living with guidance counselor Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), her accomplished but rebellious daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and drug-addicted son Nick (Frank Dillane), while trying to maintain contact with his own son Chris (Lorenzo James Henry), who is living with Travis’ ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez). Caught up in the complications of their own lives, none of these people are remotely prepared for the dead to rise.

Erickson, who is also a writer and executive producer on FEAR, spoke to Fango during the recent Television Critics Association press tour about bringing a new group of walkers to their feet. He starts by explaining how FEAR is both like and unlike the original WALKING DEAD. “We’re living under the same mythological umbrella, so we have to follow the same rules,” Erickson (pictured below right with fellow FEAR exec producer/makeup FX designer Gregory Nicotero) says. “When zombies turn, they turn in certain way; when we kill them, they have to die a certain way. Starting a little bit earlier allowed us to focus on themes that hadn’t necessarily been entirely explored in the original. I love that fact that we have this slow-burn run up to the apocalypse, that we get to live with Travis and Maddie and the family. All of the issues at hand—whether it’s Nick’s addiction or problems that Travis has with Chris—the fundamentals of everyday things we’re dealing with, are conflicts that the onset of the apocalypse will exacerbate.

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Kirkman had already started on the project when Erickson came aboard. “Robert had done a lot of groundwork,” he says, “and when I started collaborating with him, it was about layering in personal things involving this blended family and how to pull that together. But there was never a time when we said, ‘Oh, we’d better do x because the audience is going to expect it.’ In fact, we have an episode where there are no zombies at all. I think that’s OK, because as Robert says, ‘It’s not ultimately about the walkers, it’s about what dealing with them does to the people involved.’ ”

As for why Los Angeles was chosen as FEAR’s setting, Erickson relates, “LA is a place of reinvention, where there’s a definite identity shift, and there’s something intriguing, as we isolate each of our characters, about looking at their backstories. Most of them are transplants. Kim is from Alabama; I’m not saying Madison is from Alabama, but she’s somebody who came to California to escape who she was, things that were done to her and things she might have done. Rubén Blades’ character Daniel came from El Salvador in the ’80s, escaping something we will better define as the show progresses. There’s an opportunity for us to explore those identity shifts in an extended way, whereas there’s a beautiful immediacy to the original show and the comic.”

Something we won’t see in FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, as in its parent show, are references to past undead films, TV and literature, as this would run the risk of making the storytelling too meta and possibly unintentionally humorous. “There’s a reason they never say ‘zombie’ on the show,” Erickson laughs. “If we [as people who’ve seen NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD et al.] lived in that world, you would definitely say someone was ‘zombielike’ if they were behaving that way. But our characters have this idea that it’s a virus or something else wrong.”

Starting the story when none of the characters know they’re dealing with reanimated corpses allowed the writers to tackle many new issues, Erickson points out. “One of the things Robert wanted to explore specifically was violence,” he says. “To commit an act of violence: What does that do to you, what does it mean? It’s physically difficult to kill sometimes, and in our show especially, if you have to do it to your colleague or your friend or your family—someone you had coffee with the day before and is suddenly attacking you—your first instinct is not to bludgeon them, but to try to help them, because clearly something’s wrong. Your second instinct would be to run, and then, third and final, if you’re defending yourself and your family, our characters are forced into a place where they have to commit violent acts. But when they do, it takes a toll. There’s emotional damage, there’s psychological trauma.

“Robert, to his credit, looked back over this thing he’s created and started asking himself, ‘Well, what stories didn’t I tell? What didn’t I explore before?’ That was fascinating to me, because it feels real. It’s a brilliant construct and a way to comment via the way it’s written. I believe he really wanted to sit back and try to…’humanize’ is not the right word, but try to play the reality of what it would really be like.”

In FEAR’s premiere episode, Travis teaches a class on Jack London’s THE CALL OF THE WILD, about a half-wolf/half-dog that is domesticated but yearns to return to nature. This ties in metaphorically with what Travis is about to face, Erickson notes. “It’s the question of, will nature always win, and what do we have to do to survive? There’s also the question of who the wolf-dog is. There’s a specific character I have in mind who I believe will come to embody that.”

That character isn’t Travis, Erickson adds. “One of Travis’ main obsessions is to bring his family together in some way—to bring his biological son Chris into the home. He’s a fixer; he’s somebody who, no matter what happens, is like, ‘We will turn a corner, this is going to be made well, I can help make this better.’ And he’s suddenly thrust into a world and a situation where two things happen. One is that, ironically, the apocalypse brings the entire family together, and he’ll be as unprepared as everybody else, because you’re talking about an English teacher, a guidance counselor—unlike the original show, where you have police officers and people with leadership qualities, who know how to fire guns.”

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The walkers of FEAR look and move a bit differently than most of those in THE WALKING DEAD, though Erickson explains, “The behavior is the same; I think the difference is that they’re, for lack of a better word, fresher. As Robert has said, as a walker really begins to atrophy, there’s also muscle decay, and we know that they are somewhat sluggish at times. You’ll notice a little more energy in some of our walkers, just by virtue of [the fact that they’re recently deceased]. You also saw it with Shane [Jon Bernthal] on the original show, to a degree; when he turned, there was a bit more speed and energy. And ours look more human, which is another reason why it’s difficult to kill them, because you’re still trying to talk to them as though they’re your friends [laughs].

“But the eyes are very similar, and Greg Nicotero has done great work finding that balance as to what these walkers look like. There is sometimes a little more ferocity in their initial attacks; it depends on the walker. An older one might be slower, a younger one might be bit faster. It has a lot to do with who you were before you turned.”

In terms of how long FEAR will be walking until its timeline catches up to the original series, Erickson says, “Rick was in a coma for four to five weeks, and when he woke up, the world was gone. If you count the days in season one, we’re probably around the three-week mark, so going into season two, we still have a bit of a way to go where we can explore. There will be a way to recognize that things have changed and it’s the end of the world as we know it by the end of our season, but we are still a few weeks, I believe, from where Rick wakes up. I’m open to the fans interpreting certain things and being able to wonder if there’s some overlap. There’s no plan. From a geography standpoint, I did say recently I loved the idea of our group making some kind of migration and heading east later in the show. I don’t know when exactly that would happen and what that would look like, but if they do, it’ll be quite a journey.”

Erickson brings up another difference between the new series and its undead parent: “We always wanted the FEAR pilot to be about the building threat and anxiety and paranoia and not knowing. When Adam Davidson [now a co-exec producer on FEAR] came on to direct the pilot, we were talking about touchstones and what films we thought informed the show. I’d been rewatching APOCALYPSE NOW; that was one of the qualities that inspired a real juxtaposition on the original show that I find fascinating: When a situation is apocalyptic, at what point do you adapt to the belief system of this new world? It can be morally bankrupt, but it functions, and that’s something I wanted to explore in the long term.

“Then Adam said I should watch INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, the Philip Kaufman version from 1978, and that movie is all about, you know something’s off, you know people aren’t quite right and it’s something under the skin, and the goal was to manage that expectation as well as we possibly could. We absolutely have episodes with walkers, but the goal was to create a different kind of tension and then try to extend it. We’ve structured it in such a way that our characters are somewhat insulated from what’s really going on outside throughout much of the season.”

Erickson allows that, just as the principals don’t start out fully ready to confront the undead, he wasn’t entirely prepared for the intensity of WALKING DEAD fandom. “I didn’t really start thinking about that until I stepped out into Hall H at [San Diego] Comic-Con,” he laughs. “It was a bit of a shocking experience for me. I don’t like to speak in front of groups larger than two, let alone 7,000.” Even so, he concludes, “This is fun, because I love talking about the show.”

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Abbie Bernstein
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