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'Fear the Walking Dead' showrunner on characters that 'don’t know how to defend themselves'

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Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

The lead characters of The Walking Dead are stone cold killers. They have plenty of experience taking down zombies and many of them (like former police officer Rick Grimes and outdoor tracker Daryl Dixon) started off with strong survival skills. That will not be the case with the new companion series Fear the Walking Dead. Not only will we be seeing the first stages of the outbreak when everyone is clueless and confused, but instead of police officers and hunters, we have two high school faculty members, a junkie, and a teenage student at the center of the action. We spoke to showrunner Dave Erickson about how the characters and feel of the new show will differ from the original.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does the physical environment of L.A. play a part in making this show feel different than what we see in Georgia and Virginia on the original?

DAVE ERICKSON: Being in this backdrop, being in Los Angeles, having the sense of density of population and the sense of tragedy and everything that’s about to befall everyone — that gives it an energy that I think is different. It’s one thing for Rick Grimes to ride into Atlanta after the city’s already fallen; it’s another thing to be walking, living in Los Angeles on the eve of that. And I think it lends the show something that’s kind of dynamic and critical.

You guys have a somewhat unique situation in terms of filming in that you did the pilot in LA, moved production to Vancouver for the next five episodes, then came back to LA to shoot exteriors for those episodes. How important was it for you to get those actual LA exteriors as opposed to having Vancouver double for everything?

It was hugely important and AMC was supportive on that front. It’s the side of LA that we establish in the pilot, and it’s the place where our heroes live, and it was a dynamic sense and a vibrancy to what is for us mostly east Los Angeles, and it’s layered, and it’s diverse. We were able to find places in Vancouver that worked beautifully, but when it came down to sort of the ground zero of our family, it was important that we went back to where we started essentially and came back to Los Angeles. It has a very specific feel. I think we captured a very specific look thanks to Adam Davidson and our DP Michael McDonough, and the entire crew. It really feels of this place and it really feels real and that was the goal. So it’s hugely important and I think everybody understood that from the very beginning. I think when all is said and done it is and should feel like a Los Angeles show.

You’re going to be in a situation where the viewers are going to know more than the characters at first. I assume this is something you guys have had to navigate, figuring out what’s the line where we can show them learning about these things but not make them seem stupid.

Yeah, it’s by degree. There are certain characters who seem to come to it and understand it sooner. The reality is this: We’re so early in the apocalypse that when people are infected and walkers turn they seem, for all intents and purposes, human. They haven’t broken down and atrophied, they don’t look monstrous. So we’re dealing with people who are confronted with their friends, their family, their colleagues — people they have a cup of coffee with the day before — and they have to process, “Is this person on something? Is this person sick?” Their go-to is not “This is a zombie and I have to put this person down.” It’s to try and wrap their brains around what the hell is going on. And it takes a little bit of time. This is another thing [Walking Dead creator and Fear EP Robert Kirkman] brought up in our earlier conversations — it’s very difficult to kill, especially when you’re not a month, six months, a year into the apocalypse and every time you see a walker they look like something from a horror film. You’re confronted with the humanity, you’re confronted with people who seem human, aside from the fact that they’re trying to attack you, and your first go-to is to try and help, to avoid that conflict.

So what does that mean in terms of how quickly they will adapt?

Don’t get me wrong, we get it soon enough for the audience. The audience will never get to a place where they feel that our characters are a bit slow on the uptake. We have enough of an education early enough in the show for our characters that I don’t think we’ll have that problem of the audience screaming at the screen, saying, “What the hell is wrong with you people?” The other side of that is when our characters are forced to confront and forced to do violence, it takes a toll. Physically it’s difficult to kill, psychologically the impact it has is quite profound. And you have people that are trying to process the apocalypse, to understand what’s going on, without the Zombie Apocalypse 101 that tells them it’s okay to do this because these people are actually dead. It’s the process of them coming to understand that these people are actually dead, and at what point does that finally settle in, and at what point do they realize that the world as they know it is gone? It’s a bit of a slow-burn, but it’s not so slow that we don’t build the tension and build the drama and build the process of education these people are going through. They’ll get it soon enough, so the audience won’t be screaming at the screen.

Outside of the obvious things like location and timing, what do you see as the biggest different between Fear and the original Walking Dead comic and show?

The difference is you have a world in the original Walking Dead where two of your main characters are cops, so in some respects you’ve got two guys who have a skillset, they’ve got something to fall back on. They know how to handle a gun, they know how to deal with conflict, they know how to lead. With our show, we’re dealing with a schoolteacher and the guidance counselor, so we actually downshifted in that respect. We have a group of people who are completely ill-prepared for the onset of the apocalypse.

Yeah, a teacher, a guidance counselor, a junkie, and a high school student don’t exactly seem like the most formidable group.

And that was by design. We will have one character — Liza, Travis’ ex-wife — who has some skills that she can bring to bear, but for the most part it’s really about finding a group that they don’t necessarily have the leadership skills that you would expect. They don’t have the ability to survive, and I think again, it goes to this entire process of how they are educated in this world. The reality is many of them don’t know how to defend themselves, they don’t know how. Their inclination is not going to be to beat down if it’s a walker coming at them. It’s not going to be to kill them. And when they get to a place where that has to happen — as it does towards the end of the pilot — what is the weight, and shock, and trauma that that causes. That was something Robert and I talked about very early on, which is it’s going to be incredibly difficult for our characters to survive in this world. Not that it’s easy for Rick or Shane in season one of the original show, but they know how to fire guns and they have qualities and skills that they’ve learned because they were cops and our folks don’t have that.

I think we’ll meet people who do have some skills, people from whom we can learn a little bit and hopefully they’ll bring our characters along with them. It will become this challenge of do we have to become that in order to survive and is there a way to maintain who we are and who we were in this new world, and that will create some interesting conflicts within our core family as well because there are some who deep down because of their back story or because of things that’s happened to them in the past, they might find that survivalist edge more easily. It’ll be interesting to watch Travis and see how Madison is able to grow and change in this new world and vice versa, and there may be elements that they don’t like. It really becomes about how the apocalypse starts to warp and change those characters and then how they react to each other based on who they were in the pre-apocalypse. I think it’s going to be interesting to see characters who collectively have no conditioning for this and they have no preparation for this, and to see the way they start to see each other over the course of the first season and beyond will be interesting.

For more ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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