The shambling corpses are considerably fresher, as befits a prequel series, but Dave Erickson, the co-creator and showrunner of AMC's "Fear the Walking Dead," is hoping that the premise and structure of "The Walking Dead" companion series feels equally new, different and un-moldering.
It's no easy feat building a spinoff from a pop cultural smash like "The Walking Dead," with scores of TV episodes and comic book tales already exploring the world created by Robert Kirkman, but Erickson says great care and methodical craft has gone into creating a spinoff series that will walk on its own zombie-shuffling legs, thanks to inspired elements like its Los Angeles locale and the extended family drama at its center.
"We purposely built the show a little bit more slowly than the original," Erickson revealed at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. "We do have, we call them 'infected.' We don't call them walkers. We're coming up with as much cool West Coast verbiage as we can. But we will see walkers. There will be a build. We will get to a place over the course of the season where we will see elements of the original show sort of thread in throughout our story -- but it is by design. We tried to slow burn the story, make it as much about the anxiety and tension and paranoia that goes with this outbreak as much as it is about the actual confrontations with zombies."
CBR News joined Erickson for a roundtable discussion to delve even deeper into the approach to the new sister series to AMC's smash hit zombie tale.
In his teaching, Cliff Curtis' character Travis talks about preparing people to survive in the wild in the first episode. Is that foreshadowing for what's going to come for the character and his family?
Dave Erickson: It's very much a story of one of Travis' main obsessions: to bring his family together in some way, and bring his kids -- his biological son, Chris -- to the home, maintain this family. And he's a fixer. He's somebody who no matter what happens, we will turn a corner. "This is going to be made well. I can help make this better."
And he is suddenly put into a world and situation where two things happen. One, ironically: the apocalypse is what brings the entire family together, and you're talking about an English teacher. He's a guidance counselor. It's no one like the original show: you had police officers, you had people who had leadership qualities and who knew how to fire guns. It's a little bit, he'll be swimming in that far more.
When you were engineering the show, what were the parts of the DNA of the "mothership" you wanted to maintain -- zombies, of course -- and how did you want to make the show distinctly its own?
Yes, zombies, obviously. I think we're living under the same mythological umbrella, so we have to follow the same rules. And when the zombies turn, they turn a certain way. When we kill them, they have to die a certain way. I think what was important to us was starting a little bit earlier. It allowed us to focus on some thematics that hadn't necessarily been entirely explored in the original.
I mean, I love the fact that we have this sort of slow burn right up to the apocalypse, that we get to live with Travis and Maddie and the family and actually, delve [into them] -- but all the issues at hand, whether it's Nick's addiction or the issues that Travis has with Chris. I mean, sort of the fundamental, everyday things that we're dealing with. Those are the problems that the family has. Those are the conflicts, and the onset of the apocalypse will only exacerbate those.
And in Alicia and Frank and Lorenzo, we have three characters who are 16 and 17 and 19, so it's very much that we can explore a coming of age story through the apocalypse, which is interesting... What happens to kids of this age in a world where no one's going to come of age any more? How does that manifest? I mean, that's interesting to me.
And fundamentally, one of the reasons we chose L.A. was because it is a place of reinvention, a place where there's a definite identity shift. And there's something intriguing as we isolate each of their stories, where they came from. Most of them are transplants. Kim [Dickens] is from Alabama -- I'm not saying that Madison is not from Alabama, but she is somebody who came to California to escape who she was. Things that were done to her, things she might have done. [Ruben] Blades' character is very much the same way. He came from El Salvador in the '80s, escaping something that we'll better define as the show progresses. But I think there's an opportunity for us to explore those identity shifts in an extended way, where I think there's this beautiful immediacy to the original show and to the comic.
Middle-class teenagers in Los Angeles tends to be fairly pop culturally savvy. Does something like George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" exist in this universe?
That is a larger Kirkman question, I believe, because there's a reason they never say "zombie" on the show -- I defer to Robert -- the short answer is no. Because if we lived in that world -- and that's a strange thing about the "Walking Dead" universe, generally -- most people, you would definitely say someone is a zombie if they're behaving [like that], if somebody's coming at you in that way.
For our characters -- and we hopefully lay this bed of idea of, "It's a virus; there's something wrong" -- it's interesting, because one of the things that Robert wanted to explore, specifically, was violence. And to commit an act of violence, what does that do to you? It's physically difficult to kill someone. And if you have to do it, especially in our show, you're dealing with your colleague, your friend, your family. It's someone you had coffee with the day before, and suddenly, they're attacking you, your first instinct is not to bludgeon them. Your first instinct is to try and help them because clearly something's wrong. Your second instinct would be to run. And third and final, if you're defending yourself, defending your family, our characters would be forced into a place where they have to commit violent acts. But when they do, it takes a toll. I mean there's a trauma. There's emotional damage.
"Fear the Walking Dead" Premieres August 23 at 9 PM on AMC.