Standing in the middle of a remote Mexican valley in Tijuana, only accessible by an ‘upgraded’ dirt track that threatened to dislodge both the production vans’ wheels and maybe a few spines, I suddenly felt utterly vindicated from any time during an interview when I’d asked about location enhancing an actors’ performance. With rolling hills, quite literally as far as the eye could see, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the majestic beauty of the dusty, yet strangely fertile landscape, and that was before even setting eyes on the incredible work that production designer Bernardo Trujillo and his crew had integrated into a new setting for Fear The Walking Dead simply called ‘The Ranch’.
So far in Fear, our protagonists have progressed through several locations and characters at speed, keeping the pace up for viewers, but leaving little room for attachment. It seemed certain that The Abigail (Strand’s rather impressive yacht) would be a regular setting for some time, but that was pinched before season two had ended and by the time it had, we’d also waved goodbye to Catrina Island, Colonia and the Rosarito Beach Hotel (for all but Victor) to name a few.
It’s a sentiment echoed by showrunner Dave Erickson, who we spoke to later that day, who told us:
“I think once we got to back half of last season (two) we burnt through a lot of characters, and characters frankly in retrospect, I would have liked to have spent time with, like Celia, whom we met at Abigail’s compound. There were certain people I think who we could have spent, two, three, four episodes with – some of them it could have been for a season had we chosen to and that was the idea – one of the ideas going into season three was to at least anchor ourselves in such a way that we could explore what the Ottos were like – we could actually spend time to get to know them as well.”
And so The Ranch looks to be a core location throughout season three and is certainly the site which several of the group will encounter before too long, inhabited by preppers (also known as survivalists) – a unique bunch who prepare for any kind of emergency, especially of the nuclear/apocalyptic kind, which might cause judgement and sideways glances in the real world, but when there’s a zombie outbreak, proves remarkably handy. Leading the settlement are the above mentioned Otto family, headed by patriarch Jeremiah (Dayton Callie, yet another Sons Of Anarchy/Deadwood alumnus) and his two sons Troy and Jake, who look set to be series regulars.
On the day we visited The Ranch, it was eerily quiet as there was no filming taking place, so we got to explore the various custom-made buildings, tents and other on-set flourishes, with the large Otto residence being especially impressive, as Bernardo Trujillo explained in the morning:
“There was this little house on top of a hill that didn’t look anywhere close to where we wanted to, it looked very Mexican as opposed to Southern American, but we ended up making the decision of using it as an anchor and building around it and actually and connecting the interior part of what we built with a real house, so it was a cool process. We built this huge house, swallowed this small house and then we built an interior and as you walk in, you’ll actually end up inside the tiny house!”
Sure enough, there stood a huge family residence with a big, wooden front porch, but one step inside revealed as mass of fake walls (including the chimney stack) and this surreal combination of real and fabricated architecture, so naturally I set about looking in every corner for clues to future events, which, like so many parts of the day, will have to remain locked in my brain for a later date. You have to wonder if the owner of the original house will just ask if he can keep the rather fine additions to his property though.
A strange side effect of being in such an environment was that it became impossible to know if what you were seeing was an intentional part of the set dressing, or in some cases accidental littering/detritus – either way it was all part of the fun, like assuming a small hatchet was real (all worn and covered in rust) and discovering it was made of rubber, then wondering who left it lying around and if it was going to be used on someone at a later date. One very real threat, we were warned of duly by our driver, was snakes. “There’s no wrangler today, so best to stick to the paths and avoid the long grass,” he said, paying dividends to anyone who has long clung to The Lost World warning, but the adrenaline of real danger only added to the authenticity of our surroundings. Probably just as well there were no Infected shuffling around that day, or my poor brain may have completely blurred the lines of reality.
Our group then headed to the film studio, which turned out to be none other than Baja Film Studios, the very one built for James Cameron’s production of low budget, indie movie Titanic (you might have heard of it if, like me, you’re a big fan of Billy Zane). As you would expect from the director of some of the biggest movies of all time, the studio impressed in every way and as I walked around and discovered more and more of its hidden delights, I couldn’t help but think it was like a very specific, geek-oriented version of Disneyland.
In the main cafeteria there were posters and props from a variety of productions that had taken place over the last couple of decades, which largely and unsurprisingly consisted of water-based movies, spanning the likes of Tomorrow Never Dies and Master And Commander, to Robert Redford’s All Is Lost. Just outside there was the parking lot, but even that turned out to be littered with joy – the bus from Colonia was an immediate spot (hardly a subtle vehicle) and replete with encrusted, bloody hand prints from the infected, the glass windows and bus sides riddled with bullet holes. Elsewhere there seemed to be a normal looking car, but on closer inspection I spotted a smashed headlight, not enough in itself to warrant much suspicion, until I noticed there was a jaw bone embedded in it…
Our guide for the Baja studios, an infectiously enthusiastic and lovely man by the name of Rolando, took us to one of the water tank stages, which was host to a couple of new sets for Fear The Walking Dead’s third season (and ones I can’t disclose yet) and took us through the incredible engineering that meant that they were able to completely drain and fill the stage, depending on need (and where apparently Rose had infamously refused to share her door with Jack), with a green screen that spanned all three vast sides of the lot, opening up a variety of shooting angles to enable the illusion of being at sea using infinity edging.
It so transpired that Rolando was an extra for multiple parts in Titanic, so had been with the studio since its inception, initially starting as a tour guide (which explained his buoyant way of telling stories) and now working as technical crew. What’s incredible is that just one film, driven by one man’s insane talent, passion and sacrifice – which I think just about summarises James Cameron – has resulted in an incredible studio, that’s not just benefitted all the productions it’s housed since, but created so many jobs in Mexico and will continue to bring in more, with Fear The Walking Dead now proudly ensconced within its walls.
Over the course of the day we got to witness some filming, interviewed showrunner Dave Erickson and multiple cast members and crew, with full articles to follow once the season is underway (after screenings of the first three episodes, too much discussed contained spoilers for now), but the final spectacle was a high note to end the day on.
As we jumped into the production van to be driven to the external water tank, our guide suddenly announced that we were already in it and driving through it, which gives you a sense of exactly how vast it was. When we got out he explained that this was where the main Titanic replica ship had been based, stretching out across the horizon in the tank that was raised high enough to perfectly blend with the ocean’s horizon, like the world’s biggest infinity pool. Opposite the ocean, at the back of the studio, a wall of green screen paint adorned the buildings, sun bleached, but still present and at the tank’s heart a huge, vertigo-inducing drop, used to house any boats and ships with its extra depth (we were also told that Cameron would personally correct and chastise any crew member he caught referring to his ‘ship’ as a ‘boat’!).
As we made our way back to the van, the last Fear The Walking Dead prop we saw was The Abigail, every bit the impressive luxury yacht, but suspended on a mount and incomplete, as apparently a full scale shooting rig was too large and internal shots, like the engine room, were all filmed and built on sound stages – a fitting final sight on our set visit, for what could be the most exciting and action packed season of Fear The Walking Dead yet. If the first few episodes are anything to go by, here’s hoping.
Fear the Walking Dead premieres with back-to-back episodes in the UK on Monday 5th June at 2am, simulcast with the US premiere, repeated at 9pm on AMC, exclusive to BT.