Fear the Walking Dead showrunner Dave Erickson breaks down the premiere
[SPOILER ALERT: Read only after watching Sunday’s premiere episode of Fear the Walking Dead.]
FINALLY! After months of build-up, we got our first taste of Fear the Walking Dead with a supersized series debut. The show started and ended with zombie attacks, using them to bookend a story about a family having trouble coming together even without flesh-eating infected milling about. Showrunner Dave Erickson chatted with us to break down the premiere —including a potentially key piece of information in the Walking Dead universe — and also give us a tease as to what to expect in next week’s episode. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview, and also check out our premiere reacts with stars Kim Dickens, who plays Madison, and Frank Dillane, who plays Nick.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’ve been hearing all about how it’s going to be a bit of a slow burn to show the onset of the zombie apocalypse, and then you start us off in our very first scene with junkie zombie girl munching on some dude’s face. Tell me about the decision to jump right in with that and have Nick be the guy who first discovers what is going on?
DAVE ERICKSON: That was actually a Robert Kirkman pitch originally, and what we wanted to play with in the pilot and then in the first season was this sense of apprehension and dread and paranoia. So, to have Nick be the one — given his addiction, given his backstory — and be our first character who witnesses an infected, it worked for us because it became a question for the pilot of, did he really see what he believes he saw?
I mean, he doesn’t even believe it. He doesn’t know if it was the drugs that he took. He doesn’t know if he’s losing his mind, and when he tries to convey that to Travis, Travis doesn’t believe him. He sets out to try to discover if he’s right and see what happened, but we were able to play out this idea where the audience knows that what Nick saw is true, but no one else does, and I think that was part of the challenge and the fun of the pilot.
I usually find junkie stories in TV and movies to be pretty tiresome, but I thought Frank Dillane just killed it — no pun intended — as Nick. We spoke about this a while back, but he brought such a lost, childlike quality to the character, like in that scene in the diner with Calvin.
Frank Dillane is an amazing actor and I think he’s a very serious actor, but it was true with him, and it was true with Cliff and with Kim and with Alycia — they all really embody these characters, and the great thing about Nick is there is a vulnerability. There are some scenes in the pilot where he shifts between three or four different emotions in the span of 10 seconds and they all feel real. And that’s something that we thought of when we were casting, and it’s something we want to hold on to, which is the sense that these are people that we can identify with, and they’re people who are incredibly fragile and flawed and yet still, they’ll aspire to the heroic and often fail.
I liked how you showed the other side of that with how Madison reacts to her son’s situation when Kim says “He’d rather sleep in that place than his own bed. I don’t know if I want him to come home. What does that make me?” That’s something a mother in that situation no doubt thinks but may not often say out loud.
Her first husband died when Nick was 13, and that’s pretty much when he went off the rails so she’s been dealing with this for a long time, and I think Madison has a certain familiarity when she’s walking through that shooting gallery searching for Nick, and we’ll come to realize that there’s more to her backstory as well. I think there’s a certain part of her co-dependent relationship with her son that comes from her own sense of guilt and concern that his addiction is more deeply connected to her own family than we might realize at first.
Madison has that one line where she’s talking to that student Tobias where she says, “If there’s a problem we’re going to know about it. The authorities would tell us.” I find that line really haunting because I’m that guy who blindly puts my faith in others in power to tell me when something is amiss, and that seems to be a big arc for you in the start of this series in terms of people who are seeing things are off, and others who choose to explain it away because they’re maybe too trusting or not asking enough questions.
It is absolutely, and I think there’s a callback to come in a subsequent episode where the question of the authorities comes up again and it’s actually a scene with Tobias and Madison. But part of the way this would go down — there’s a certain rapidity to the end of the world when you’ve got people turning and you’ve got a sense of confusion. And because people are confused and because they’re trusting, and their hope is that things are going to be made right by the authorities, they don’t act, and by the time they realize, it’s too late.
Our family will make an effort to get away. Travis is a fixer. He’s somebody that believes there is always a solution and believes that there’s always a corner that will be turned and things will be okay, and he’s entering a world where there are no solutions, and I think that’s going to be challenging for him. Whereas once things get going for Madison, she’s got a little bit more flexibility, and he’s going to be able to find ways to adapt because she’s got something of her own dark past.
What about they way people sort of explain away the video when they first see it? Travis says, “He’s on something,” and Alicia says it’s fake. Is this where we’re at with social media and hoaxes and stuff where we now question what we see?
I think that’s absolutely true, yeah. Really highlighting two different perspectives because I think for Travis to see somebody take that that much abuse and that many shots ending with a head shot, it’s got to be drugs, it’s got to be…or it’s bath salts. I mean, something is driving that person…you know, it’s angel dust or something. And for Alicia, you’re talking about a 17-year-old who’s so deeply steeped in social media that she’s accustomed to seeing things that look incredibly real, but when you stare at it a little bit and you look at it a little bit longer, you find out that they’re not.
And that’s part of the stutter step in the delay of it. I think it takes time for people to adjust to this new reality and also, most people would not go to zombie. Their first answer to seeing someone attack somebody else or to have to defend themselves, they would not immediately go to it because that person’s the undead, you know, and I think that’s something we wanted to explore over the course of the first season. How would you rationalize it? What would your emotional defense be before you had to actually lay out some kind of physical defense?
Okay, let me nerd out with you here for a minute. At the very end, we see Calvin shot in the chest and then come back as a zombie. He was not bitten. He just died and came back. This is potentially an important piece of information because it took Rick Grimes and company on The Walking Dead a while to figure out that everyone was infected and that you don’t have to be bitten to turn, but that when you die you automatically go zombie. Obviously, Madison, Travis, and Nick are trying to make sense of a lot of stuff now, but does this piece of information with Calvin mean they might potentially figure that out a bit quicker?
The question will be raised. So, yes, I think they will start to…that’s the other fun thing about this show. There’s a certain compare and contrast and as they try to piece it together, they’ll look back at Calvin and say, “You know….” They’ll discover bites at a certain point and then they’ll realize Calvin wasn’t bitten, and the eventual reveal does not come right away, but they will begin to piece things together pretty early on.
You have a 90-minute premiere here. Were you able to fit in everything you wanted since you had a little extra time on this one or was there some stuff as you were crafting this premiere that ended up on the cutting room floor because you couldn’t get everything in?
No. Most pilots tend to run a little bit longer than your standard episode, but AMC was great with the pilot and they’ve actually been great in subsequent episodes where, if they can, they will be flexible with the running time because they want the show to be as good as it can be, and if they don’t see anything that’s obvious to cut, they won’t ask for it. So, no, I don’t think there’s a scene we lost.
Okay, we got the supersized premiere. It’s time for you tease up wheat we’re going to see next week in episode 2. What can you tell us?
By the end of the pilot, Nick has gotten the confirmation and ironically, the validation that he needs because he knows that he’s not crazy. He knows that something is very, very wrong, and now his mother, Madison, and Travis are aware of it as well. So, they will move forward into the second episode trying to wrap their brains around what they’ve seen and protect those who are near and dear to them, and also, try to make them understand that the world is changing.
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