Fear The Walking Dead Showrunner Dave Erickson: Interview

Fear The Walking Dead co-creator Dave Erickson chats about writing the AMC spin-off, L.A., the apocalypse and more...

As you read this, Sunday night’s debut episode of Fear The Walking Dead has been proclaimed the most-watched cable series premiere in television history, drawing some 10.1 million viewers. After months of rumors and speculation about the show’s content, it’s a relief to finally have the curtain pulled back, and for those of us who have remained constant fans of The Walking Dead universe, it’s a chance to get another flesh-eating fix and find out exactly what took place before Sir Rick Grimes awoke from his coma and set about his quest to grow an awe-inspiring beard.

Fear The Walking Dead is off to a fine start, with barely a minute into the pilot before the first zombie appearance. Like its parent show, it manages to retain that sense of feeling like a sharp intake of breath; while we all know what’s coming, the show’s characters are about to witness the downfall of civilization for the first time. My only concern at this point, having been fortunate enough to see the first two episodes, is an impatience to see what’s next, to find out who’s going to rise to the challenge and who will end up served on a platter to the ever-hungry undead.

At the forefront of Fear The Walking Dead’s co-creation and production is Dave Erickson, who teamed up with Robert Kirkman to bring chaos to Los Angeles and play merry hell with the lives of its inhabitants. Erickson, who’s probably best known for his work on Sons Of Anarchy among other TV shows, was gracious enough to chat with us and share his enthusiasm for all things Walking Dead

It must be such a relief to finally have the show out there after the build-up and audience speculation about where it was going to start.

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Yeah, you know it is. It’s a very strange time, because typically you do a season of a show, you deliver the show and then you get a bit of a hiatus to look back and see what the reaction is and then gear up for the second season — if you’re lucky enough to have one — but we’re in the very strange position where we air soon, but we start the writers room for season two on Monday, so we’re ploughing right ahead. So I think we’ll be getting — you know what’s interesting is the feedback. I’m particularly curious to see what the overall reaction is going to be, because it is a different show, but we share the same DNA as the original, but it’s got a different rhythm to it, so I’m curious to see how people respond and say if they like it, if it’s too different, too similar –- it’ll be interesting.

It’s strange as well, because back when the original Walking Dead show started, apart from the people that read the comics, no one knew who Rick Grimes or Daryl Dixon were, so I think part of the joy of Fear is seeing how the new characters develop, because they’re completely unknown entities.

It’s interesting, because someone asked me at one point what’s more difficult, you have (The Walking Dead showrunner) Scott Gimple and his predecessors having to remain fairly loyal to the comic, to the source material, but we have this world where there are certain expectations and certain rules that go with the mythology that we need to adhere to, but then we can go and do pretty much whatever we want. So when you get asked what’s more difficult, I think what Gimple has to do is harder because they have to figure out a way to be loyal and true to the comic, but at the same time make these interesting moves sideways to take elements and shift them, just enough so that it’s not too jarring for the audience and for the fans, but also feels consistent with the comic and also consistent with the show’s (own content) and I think that’s trickier.

When the original show started, as with many sci-fi and horror shows and movies, it skips over the origins of the apocalypse, so when Rick wakes up you’re already at the end of days. Was it more of a challenge for you because you’ve actually got to show the breakdown of society?

Yeah, and I mean also for us it was — this goes back to my first sit-down with Robert, who I’ve known for a long time, but there were elements from the original comic that he, looking back, wished he could explore, so we get to move in that space. So in season one and then season two, we experience all the things that Rick Grimes missed.

Specifically Robert was very interested thematically in violence and so what Robert did was true to and consistent with the genre in that, as you said, you go from zero to apocalypse relatively quickly and in most zombie films we know the apocalypse is on, we know these people are dead, we know at speed that you have to use a head shot or something, but our characters don’t know that.

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That’s something Robert said, that physically it’s difficult to try and fracture someone’s skull and more importantly, there’s an emotional and psychological trauma that comes with that and I think with our characters, we’re typically dealing with our friends, our colleagues, our family members -– the people that we come into contact with more often, someone you might have coffee with -– you know? So your first instinct in reality wouldn’t be to pick up a handy tool and start bludgeoning them, it would be to help initially and try to figure out what was wrong and rationalize it and then you’d run and then when our characters are put in that place where they’re in danger, family members are in danger and they see there’s no other option, they’re going to have to do it.

It’s about how that weighs on them subsequently and that’s interesting. I like the fact that Robert led with that and started to explore that area and that’s how (the show) came about. It wasn’t a money grab. You don’t make a show based on a financial incentive and you don’t get to make a show unless you pull a financial profit obviously, but I think creatively these were things that he wanted to dive back into and I think that’s admirable.

 I think one of the strengths of the characters in The Walking Dead universe is that we get to spend time with them and grow attached to them and their development isn’t rushed. I’ve only spent an hour with your characters so far, but that seems to shine through already and what’s most exciting is getting to see their evolution throughout the show, as there’s absolutely no limits or restrictions with them as I mentioned before.

Well you’re absolutely right and that’s why we describe it as a family drama first and then there are zombies. I think that we benefit from some of the slow burn, especially in the pilot. I think what that allows us to do is exactly what you said, it allows us to develop these relationships first and then bleed the zombie elements in, and by the time we’ve done that I hope that the conflicts and the interpersonal drama, whether it’s a mother/son issue or Travis encouraging that relationship, when you really get deep onto the show and even to a series finale –- God knows when that will be -– the goal is that it will all tie in and when we look back at the pilot, it’ll be a series based on who these people were when we were first introduced to them. I think that’s a real benefit and a real opportunity for us as it’s a different approach.

I think that the narrative approach in the comic and the narrative in the show is fantastic and there’s so much value in Rick waking up and being overwhelmed and being buried in the apocalypse and having no clue, so that instructs events where the hero drives that show.

Why was L.A. chosen as the key location?

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A number of reasons: we wanted to see the fall of a major city and the question was, why not Chicago? Why not New York? Why not Miami? And for us there’s the West Coast, California, Los Angeles specifically, it’s a place of identity shift and for our characters, many of them are transplants, they are not from Los Angeles and they’ve come to California in an effort to distance themselves from their pasts, crimes committed, crimes committed against them, and there was an interesting intersection, a thematic intersection between our characters and this particular place, this particular city. So we felt it would work in terms of our back plot as well as being a wonderful place to shoot in, we also felt creatively it really blended nicely with character arcs.

What’s interesting about your pilot for Fear The Walking Dead is that there’s so much dysfunction between the principal characters that some of them, in a perverse way, might almost welcome the apocalypse as it could be beneficial for them –- that was my take on it anyway — especially someone like Nick, who’s caught in a destructive pattern and might be pushed to find a new strength of character.

You’re absolutely right. That’s one of the intriguing things to me about Nick -– we’ve done a lot of panels in the past few weeks and one of the questions I’ve heard asked of the actors is “Would you survive in the apocalypse?” and most of them say, “Absolutely not.” I’m very interested, especially going into some other seasons to see how people who have their shit together, like Alicia, will fare when things go bad. And you’re right, Nick’s been living on the fringe for a long time, he’s been homeless, he’s stolen, so in some respects he’s had his training, so you’re right it creates an opportunity and whether it’s Nick or somebody else I am interested — and it seems to a degree I think on the original show — that I am still very fascinated by people who have already embraced the apocalypse as an opportunity. I think that’s compelling.

When you were creating and writing, did you think about the visual iconography of how the characters would evolve? From The Walking Dead, people like Rick, Daryl and Michonne (to name a few) have a distinct look and weapons to match and I wondered if that was factored into your creative process for Fear?

Yeah, I think what’s interesting about the original show is you’re really on the run and on the go from the very beginning. When we meet Michonne for the first time, she has her blades and her dreadlocks are very distinctive and she has a look. Daryl has the leather biker jacket with the wings, I’m not sure when that first arrived, but for us we’re dealing with blue collar people living their lives and doing their thing and as we get deeper into the show and the apocalypse they will, yes, there’s a few things where a weapon will become a distinctive something that we’ll connect with a certain character.

Once we get to the place and we haven’t yet, where our characters are fleeing and they’re on the road, there will be certain elements whether it’s wardrobe, whether it’s a weapon that’ll start to define them as well, but that’s something we’re working towards.

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How was your first experience of bonding with an actor or character and then having to kill them off, as I know from interviewing The Walking Dead‘s cast that it’s an especially hard part of the job?

We really haven’t had to do it yet, so I don’t look forward to that, but unfortunately nobody is safe in the apocalypse! [laughs]

Did you have specific actors in mind when writing certain characters?

Really, no. I mean, there are some writers who fix on a specific actor and they write with him or her in mind, I really tend not to, it’s very rare. Visually if I’ve worked with somebody and I’m working on another project I will think of them, or if I want to work with someone that I’ve worked with before and I want to bring them back and do something else with them — there are certain actors on Sons of Anarchy with whom I’d love to work, it’s just a matter of figuring out what’s the right part.

Who was your favorite character from the original show and, although I know you probably can’t say for the sake of diplomacy, do you have a character that you’re particularly drawn to in Fear?

Ooh, that’s interesting, because there are so many. I mean Michonne’s an obvious choice, so I’m not going to go with that. The thing is there’s an earnest quality to Nick, I mean Rick! When we first meet him and I identify with that [laughs] — I think there’s a character on my show that also shares that ethic and you also have — despite the fact he’s a cop and despite the fact that he’s knows how to use weapons — there’s a very genuine quality to him which I admire. I like Daryl as well, he’s a guy that just seems like a constant. The western motifs in that show are strong and so prevalent. I think I identify with him.

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In my show… I love them all, that’s the problem! They’re all so different and getting to know the actors themselves it’s difficult for me to pick somebody who’s my favorite. I think Nick presents a very interesting opportunity from a story perspective and I mean, Madison, she’s very — she’s got a dark edge which I also like on the show, we haven’t explored at its fullest yet, which I’m interested in doing. But Alicia and Travis and Liza and Chris are all — I love the family, let’s put it that way.

Dave Erickson, thank you very much!

Fear The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights at 9pm on AMC.

Don’t forget to listen to the second episode of our weekly Walking Dead podcast, Den of Geek Presents No Room in Hell: