After several near-misses, Fear The Walking Dead showrunner Dave Erickson tells Michael Pickard why this was the right time to join the world of the ‘walkers.’
For Dave Erickson, it seemed the opportunity might never arise. Having almost joined the writing team of The Walking Dead on several occasions, the timing was never quite right.
But when AMC announced a companion series to its hit zombie drama, Erickson finally landed his chance – as showrunner, no less – and is now steering a show that shattered cable records when it launched in August.
“I wrote a pilot based on a treatment by (The Walking Dead creator) Robert Kirkman five years ago. I didn’t know Robert or his work, but I started reading his comics,” Erickson tells DQ. “Shortly after, The Walking Dead launched on AMC and I danced around working for him on that show a couple of times but never actually did.
“I was always working. It coincided with my time working for Kurt Sutter on Sons of Anarchy. There was always an overlap; there was never a window of time that I could have done a season of The Walking Dead without it conflicting with Sons.
“But (Kirkman) and I stayed in touch, and when he came up with the idea to do the new series, he called to see if I was available – and I was.”
That new series, Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD), launched on AMC to record ratings for a series launch in terms of both total viewers (10.13 million) and adults aged 18-49 (6.3 million).
The story follows the struggles of one family living in LA at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse.
With its six-episode first season drawing to a close in October, the show has already been renewed for a 15-episode season to air in 2016. Season six of The Walking Dead also begins in October.
Signing up for FTWD, Erickson says he was aware of the popularity of the original series – which is regularly described as the biggest show on TV and draws ratings that dwarf those of many network shows. But it wasn’t until he appeared at San Diego Comic-Con this summer that the magnitude of its fandom became clear.
“I’m a bit of a luddite, I don’t track the ratings, but I knew how big The Walking Dead was,” he explains. “However, I didn’t get caught up in it until Comic-Con. It was my first one, and it was an interesting awakening getting up close and personal with the fanbase.
“What was interesting to me (about FTWD) was the way Robert looked back at the comics and the original show and saw elements he hadn’t fully explored. He saw opportunities for more narrative. Because the original series begins with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) waking up from a coma, there’s a big chunk of story readers and the audience never got to see. There’s the opportunity to see the fall of a major city and the building blocks of the apocalypse, but he was also interested in exploring specific thematics.
“He was very interested in the theme of violence. The Walking Dead goes from zero to apocalypse very quickly. Robert’s point in our show is that killing is hard – and because the walkers (The Walking Dead universe’s term for zombies) are ‘fresher,’ they seem human.
“So it’s a physical challenge to stop a walker but it also takes an emotional toll. There’s psychological trauma that goes with that, and Robert felt that was something he hadn’t had the opportunity to do in the original.”
Erickson was also able to bring his own ideas to the show, most notably the struggles of the central family. “The idea of a blended family and resentful children of divorce was something I wanted to explore,” he says. “The great irony for me is that, fundamentally, it’s a family drama. It’s a story of two parents trying to rein in this dysfunctional family and bring them under one roof and the only way that happens is because of the onset of the zombie apocalypse.”
As well as Sons of Anarchy, the FX crime drama that ended after seven seasons last December, the showrunner’s credits include another AMC series, Low Winter Sun, and Netflix original series Marco Polo.
He cites Sons creator Kurt Sutter as one of his showrunning role models, alongside Low Winter Sun’s Chris Mundy.
Speaking about creating the first season of FTWD, he says: “We had more lead time because Robert and I had written a pilot. We’d also done a fairly comprehensive season arc so we had a very specific line for the first six episodes.
“When the writers room was assembled, we were working off this document, but the great thing about bringing the room together and getting fresh eyes on your material is you realise sometimes there are other options and the choices you made may not be the best ones. It’s pretty much the same set-up as we had for Sons of Anarchy. Marco Polo was the same too. The room comes together and it’s about talking through characters and trying to figure out how they respond to whatever obstacle or conflict you throw at them.”
Going into season two, does Erickson have a map for the rest of the series? “I have arcs in mind, I have scenes in mind,” he says. “I have moments for specific characters and places I want to land. It’s just a question as things evolve whether they will be included in season four or season seven, for example. I need some kind of end point for an episode and a season. It doesn’t mean that won’t change as you get deeper into the story, but I like to have mile markers.”
Despite FTWD and The Walking Dead being set in the same zombie-ravaged universe, Erickson says the two are fundamentally different shows and that there are no plans to synchronise their timelines any time soon.
“It’s not a priority right now. It’s about letting our show and our characters evolve and seeing how that defines the chronology,” he explains. “We have the same DNA; the show lives under the same mythological umbrella as The Walking Dead and the comic. The walkers are infected, they have similar rules, they die the same way and they come back the same way. But it’s become its own thing.
“It does have a different base – it’s slower at the beginning because I’m taking time to develop the family. We have time to examine the family dynamic – whereas in the original show, they went ‘full zombie’ very quickly and the family drama element was always at par or catching up with the apocalypse itself.
“We’re able to examine smaller stories on this larger apocalyptic stage. It’s very much a smaller story set against this larger backdrop, as opposed to the larger backdrop being established first and trying to play on that. It’s definitely apocalyptic – we depict the fall of civilisation – but I think we found a way to do that through a very specific filter and a very specific lens.”
On the back of its record-breaking debut, FTWD has proved an able companion for The Walking Dead. With web series Fear The Walking Dead: Flight 462 set to launch alongside its season one finale, fans are certain to get their fill of zombies before season two returns next year.