Fear the Walking Dead’s Dave Erickson on why audiences love zombies and whether creating a spin-off one of TV’s biggest shows was the opportunity of a lifetime or a suicide mission.
Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
(June 6, 2016)
If Dave Erickson, co-creator— with Walking Dead, uh, brain trust Robert Kirkman— and showrunner of AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, ever got two-knuckles deep into Ayn Rand’s sprawling, ideologue Atlas Shrugged, he’d probably give a moment to pause over the Russian-born philosopher’s comment that “the purpose of man’s life… is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question.” Though Erickson only cozied up to the living dead recently, about three years actually— when Kirkman asked him to collaborate on The Walking Dead television spin-off— the tapestry he and the superlative FTWD creative team weave is Exhibit A through Zed in defense of man and his purpose in life.
“Look, people are complicated,” Erickson says on a “break” somehow wedged into his 24/7 responsibilities as FTWD bigwig. “The best of us— even the worst of us— are not that simple. We’re not zombies. But we love zombies because they are empty in ways that we aren’t, which allows us to stuff them full of all the things we fear or hate or are scared of.”
If that doesn’t sound like your father’s “grrrrrr, braaaaaaains” zombie fare, that’s because it’s not. Just as The Walking Dead resurrected a genre gnawed to bits by simple, base drivel by lifting the zombie trope and plopping it into a mysteriously savagely-dismantled, Survivor-like arena, peppered with existential angst, meditations on codependence and the challenges of intimacy, and of course, great Tabasco-like dollops of gore, Fear the Walking Dead, too, has more on its mind than things that go bump in the night.
The Walking Dead is a kindred spirit to Lord of the Flies in myriad ways, while Fear the Walking Dead— a parallel world/backstory, timeline-speaking— is a strange brew in its own ways, dread-infused as frequently for its human decay as for its spooky threats, part The Road, part Ordinary People. The similarities between the two Dead series are not only inevitable, but mandatory, says Erickson, but the differences are bountiful and entirely on purpose as the show’s seven million weekly viewers can attest. In the midst of season two, Erickson caught his breath long enough to share the craft of writing the spin-off of one of cable television’s most popular hit series.
Photo: ©2016 AMC
Frank Dilane and Kim Dickens in Fear the Walking Dead.
For some screenwriters, the opportunity to spin-off one of the most successful television series in recent history would be the opportunity of a lifetime. For others, it would be daunting to the point of paralysis, a suicide mission. Which writer are you?
Well, Fear the Walking Dead is an interesting project, definitely. The aspect of the opportunity that I couldn’t pass up was to work again with Robert [Kirkman]. I’d written something for him about six years ago that we never got off the ground, and then I danced around going to work on The Walking Dead for a couple of seasons, but I was so tied up with Sons of Anarchy, and I didn’t want to abandon that show. Working with Robert again was always on my mind; I just didn’t know how or when. When he called me about Fear the Walking Dead, I immediately said, “Yes.” And then I realized as soon as I hung up the phone what I had said yes to. How do you do that show well?
For decades, with only the rarest of exceptions, TV spin-offs were more Joanie Loves Chachi or Brady Brides than Frasier. Spin-offs are usually so mediocre that, even if made with genuine affection and inspiration, they can’t help but look like cash-grabs and brand exploitation.
Yeah. I mean, nobody goes to work to do a terrible show. I’ve never met that person anyway. But the odds are stacked sometimes when you take a job you really have to take, and that kind of job is never very far away for most writers.
AMC is doing things differently. While a show like Better Call Saul hasn’t captivated the world of pop culture like Breaking Bad did, it’s a masterfully written and produced show. It shares DNA with Breaking Bad, of course, but they’ve created their own beast— just as you’ve done with Fear the Walking Dead. What is AMC doing differently, from your perspective as a writer and showrunner?
To AMC’s credit, they were very, very aware of what you just described— that any kind of a spin-off would always be, or be perceived by people as, some kind of a cash-in on their MVP. That show, to their credit, AMC never wanted to do. That had to be a very difficult decision for the network, since Walking Dead has done— and continues to do— so well, both creatively and from a financial standpoint. It would be so easy to just throw a bunch of zombies into a bunch of weird situations and tell people where and when they could watch it. But AMC always supported what Robert wanted— which was a whole different show, unique in its style and tone from the first series, related obviously because of the zombie scenario, but told with its own distinct voice and style. That’s what Robert wanted. That’s what AMC wanted. And that’s why I never regretted saying yes to Robert in that first phone call about doing the show. It all just kind of worked out.
It would have been very easy to simply send zombies to New York or on cruise ships or into outer space. Jason Voorhees has done those rounds; why not the Walkers too?
Absolutely! I’ll be honest, I might watch Zombies on Ice, but I don’t think that’s really a sustainable television series.
Robert already had a pretty detailed treatment for the series when he drafted you. How does Fear the Walking Dead evolve from there?
The biggest challenge, pretty obviously, was: How do we make the show feel unique and distinct totally on its own? Robert had done quite a lot of work when I jumped aboard. Ultimately, what made the show really different for me and worth doing was injecting something personal into the storytelling. To Robert’s credit, and one of the things that makes him so wonderful, is that he’s very open to that kind of thing. I mean there are certain rules to a show like this— there’s no cause for the zombie outbreak, there’s no cure, there are certain ways the Walkers behave— and you can’t break those rules. It was important to Robert— and I know its important to the audience— that we honor those rules in expanding the franchise, but I asked Robert if I could really embrace and integrate the idea of the blended family, which was something I’d been dealing with in my own life for several years and that I was very close to. Robert said yes. So from there, we took all of the work he’d done and opened it up to the things I was thinking about and feeling.
There is a pretty significant difference in how FTWD looks, as compared to TWD. What went into the decision to set the show on the West Coast?
Well, that was a creative decision we really had to justify because shooting in Los Angeles can be complicated and very expensive. That was a big question the network had: why does it have to be Los Angeles? Even shooting in Vancouver, which can match Los Angeles pretty well a lot of the time, it’s a big challenge. But to Robert and I, Los Angeles was really important. A lot of our characters, they’re transplants. These are people who came to Los Angeles, like a lot of people in real life who come to Los Angeles, to either reinvent themselves or escape their past. The idea of reinvention we played out in season one— and the thematic connection that theme had to Los Angeles— felt right to us, creatively. That aspect of the characters is also very relatable to audiences. Nine times out of 10 in television, your characters are people audiences really identify with in some way— maybe they’re blue collar, maybe they’re like folks you grew up with, maybe they’re like the people you see everyday and work with. So we went with that, putting the series against a more urban backdrop than TWD. And that really evolved the visual texture of the show, photographing Los Angeles in ways that it isn’t usually shot.
It's the kind of Los Angeles that James Ellroy has not written about yet in his novels, but he'd probably be very comfortable there.
I hadn’t thought of that, but that's a nice way to say it. In the writers’ room, we talk a lot about the different books and authors that we all love. Ellroy hasn’t come up yet, though I know a lot of us revere the guy, but lately, as we’re creeping toward the border in season two and maybe into Mexico for season three, we’ve been talking a lot about Cormac McCarthy. My hope is that, as the series continues, we’ll be able explore this landscape of the border and Mexico. We have an opportunity to do something thematically that shares something with a novel like Blood Meridian. That’s something the writers and I are really excited to explore over the next few months.
So you’re merging zombies— which plenty of smart people, from George Romero forward, have suggested are metaphors of one sort or another— and the border setting, which has become even more combustible in this election year. All you’ve got to do is light the fuse, basically!
Yeah, I wish it were that simple! People ask me all the time: why do audiences respond to zombies with such enthusiasm? That’s obviously something I’ve had to think about a lot. The great thing about zombies, and their place in pop culture and in the horror genre, is that they’re virtually unstoppable forces, but they’re not weighted down with all of the psychological baggage that “villains” usually are in stories. They’re empty vessels. They’re blank spaces. They’re just primal, destructive forces. That means audiences can inject zombies with any phobia or fear or anxiety they might have. Put all of your darkest stuff, the stuff that’s eating you alive, into a zombie— which is a living creature you can then kill. That’s primal. That’s visceral. It’s therapeutic for audiences, the idea that we have some shot of escaping the things that are eating us up inside. As for the border stuff, it’ll be interesting moving forward with the show and seeing how that matches up— or doesn’t— with what’s coming down, politically, in the United States. I don’t know how much we’ll end up mirroring reality, or the other way around. My sense is that the normal clichés— the things one typically assumes about borders— would be somehow inverted on our show. That keeps it interesting to me.
In literary terms, of course, borders are thematic gifts that keep giving.
Definitely. Any border is a place of violence. Every border, in literature at least, is a place where predators and prey collide. It’s an incredibly visceral, incredibly dangerous setting. It’s a great backdrop for any show, but specifically for a show like ours that’s dealing with these questions of morality and survival and violence.
I’m not sure we’re ready for “The Big Bang Theory on the Border,” but it works perfectly for Fear the Walking Dead. You mentioned the violence on the show. On the first Walking Dead series, the violence is grisly and grim, but it’s reflexive, basic survival, do-or-die. On Fear the Walking Dead, because of the nature of the Walkers themselves, the violence is rather different, more complicated. There’s nothing sexy about the killing on FTWD.
No, there's not, and I’m not sure that violence should be sexy at all. But as a writer, I love that question, that dilemma, that opportunity. This season of FTWD is very much about “who are we going to be in this world.” There are some who adapt to this world more readily than others. Chris, as a character, seems to be embracing the idea of killing the dead. To him, it looks like some kind of catharsis, but that has everything to do with who he is, specifically, the kind of character he was when we introduced him in the pilot. He was already a very angry, anxiety-ridden, very alienated kid. He was a child of divorce. He was really pissed off. He didn’t really have any friends. You put that kid into this world, where his mother has died at his father’s hand, and you can intellectualize the problem any way you want, but that kid needs an outlet. The dead become that outlet for Chris, to a certain degree. The character of Nick is probably going to embrace the apocalypse in a much different way and develop a much different appreciation for the world he’s now living in. In most of the zombie worlds we’ve seen in film and television, everybody knows— the characters and the audience— that zombies are deadly. They’re going to kill you— unless you can shoot them in the head first. On Fear the Walking Dead, to the consternation of some of our audience in season one, we really took our time with that. Even now, we’re taking our time with some of that stuff. Killing is not a decision to be taken lightly. Even if you’re killing in self-defense, it’s a choice that sticks to you. On our show, the killing is never something the characters are quite reveling in, but the necessity of killing is definitely changing them. Our characters are going to get better at it, but I don’t know how good that will be for their souls.
Is the show’s violence an ongoing conversation between you and Robert Kirkman?
We talked a lot about it early on. It was important to us both that we explore violence on this show in different ways than The Walking Dead does. On our show, the zombies are mostly really freshly turned. Their human qualities are not completely vanished yet. Physically, it’s very difficult to kill anything, but killing the zombies on our show, it’s even more emotionally difficult because of the nature of these beasts. If you're putting down somebody who was your neighbor or was your colleague or your friend, that’s not something you bounce back from. It's something you have to wear and it impacts you, wears you down. That was definitely something we wanted to incorporate in the show.
The separation between television and literature used to be an enormous chasm, but a lot of shows in the last decade or so have become very much like literature in many regards. What are some of the novels that have influenced you through the years?
My dad gave me a lot of books when I was a kid, which is the reason why I wanted to write in the first place. But there are three books my dad gave me that I think are a little bit more critical than the rest of them. Catcher in the Rye was one of them, a very common gift from fathers to sons, and then he gave me Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The third book he gave me was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. That book is still a really big deal to me. On FTWD, the character of Nick carries that book with him at the shooting gallery, and it makes another appearance on the show relatively soon. I mean, I’m not sure who it is that spends all of this time labeling things high culture or low culture and all of that, but I don’t know why any kind of art wouldn’t always try to be the best art it can be. Why can’t a screenplay be as meaningful as a novel? Have you read Robert Towne’s screenplays? To me, that’s literature. People should be made to read Robert Towne, in the same ways they read a novel or a short story. That’s not to say my work is at that level yet, but that’s definitely what the medium should be pushing toward. The literary stuff on FTWD, it’s mostly just there for me, probably— to continue reminding me that we should always be reaching for that in our storytelling.
Back to FTWD, audiences and the network alike must have certain expectations about what the show should be, creatively, commercially, in the ratings. How immune to that can you be? How important is it to keep those things out of your mind?
Look, The Walking Dead is a juggernaut, and rightly so. It's a great show, and I'm a huge admirer and fan of Scott Gimple, who is running that show, but there was never a moment— from the very beginning of my work on Fear the Walking Dead— where I anticipated or expected that we would do the same numbers that that show does. That’s a level of success that very few of us will ever reach. My hat is always off to the excellent work they’re doing. For FTWD, we knew that because we were electing to slow burn our first season to some degree— though we bit off a lot of story in those first six episodes— we were going to have different numbers than The Walking Dead does. There are some people who would rather we had spent more time showing the disintegration of the world and these characters more than we did, that we didn’t and not jump ahead, narratively, to where we did. But I'm perfectly happy with the numbers that we had in season one. Those numbers were great, and I'm very thankful that we held on to the audience that we did and in season two I feel like we're settling in to a place where the audience who likes our show kind of loves our show. Some of them are the same people who love The Walking Dead, and some of them are people who maybe have never even seen The Walking Dead. I don’t follow the numbers that closely, but AMC definitely keeps me updated.
Is there pressure on your, creatively, to reach for the viewership numbers The Walking Dead enjoys?
We're just a different show. Our numbers will never be the same as they are on The Walking Dead, and that's okay. The reality is: if you look at the numbers we're doing today, and if you look at the audience we're attracting, we're doing very well relative to the landscape of television today. This season, our storytelling came out of the gate really running and gunning, but that’s not so much about trying to figure out the ratings as it was always the way Robert and I had talked about doing the show. It is nice, though, when I see the Live +3 and Live +7, and see how the show connects with audiences over the course of a week or so. I see that we’ve done fairly well. But most of the time, I’m just too focused on the script that’s in front of me or the episode that’s shooting or the cut that’s due to the network, and I’m not a huge social media guy, so most of that stuff is kind of lost on me. When I do make the mistake of checking a review or reading something about our show online, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll end up regretting it and then my fiancé gets upset with me.
The show launched with seven episodes in season one. This season, you’re doing 15. From a showrunner standpoint, is that double the pleasure or double the trouble?
It's double the pleasure almost every hour of the day. The way AMC programs their shows, the seasons are often times split, so even though we’re doing 15 episodes in season two, we’re doing seven, then going on hiatus, then coming back with eight. It’s actually like Chapters 2 and 3 of our story— or that’s the way I look at it anyway. Next season, we’re set for 16, so I’ll be looking at it in terms of “What is the longer arc here? Where would we like to be by the end of the season?” And then it’s kind of a reverse-engineering thing. You work it all out backwards, figuring out what needs to happen and what needs to be in what place to make the most rewarding season finale possible. I won’t lie; it’s daunting. We did 13 episodes each season on Sons, which is— to me— a pretty healthy number. Thirteen is great. Ten is really great. Once you push past 13, you’re getting into network territory. How people do 22 episodes in a season, I do not know. I’m in awe of those people. At a certain point, you just get to a place where it’s hard to even see straight, but you have to keep going.
Running a show like FTWD, what is a typical day in the life like for you?
Right now, we’re wrapping episode 12 and prepping 13, which starts shooting next Tuesday. Today, I was up early to watch the cuts so I can send notes for the editor to work on, then I was going over the outline for 15, which I’m getting ready to write, and taking a look over 14, which was written by the wonderful Kate Barnow, and then it’s doing a lot of talking about season three and locations and cast and what the shape of that whole season is going to be. Even if my body is in one place all day long, my mind can’t afford to be.
How much writing can a showrunner actually do?
I was asked that question the other day: how much can I actually write? Honestly, writing is something of a luxury now. There’s not the time to just sit around and be really contemplative and thoughtful. Thinking your way through things kind of has to be replaced with your instincts, your gut. It’s about being a person of action and, when you are able to carve out a few hours to actually sit down and write, those hours have to be spent actually writing. The time comes so rarely that there’s not a minute to sit around and be precious. If you’re in front of the computer, you’d better be writing. So there’s balance there. The only way to keep sane in those circumstances is to hire really well all the way around you. Find the best writers you possibly can, the best producers you possibly can, and then you let them go off and be brilliant at their jobs.