'Fear the Walking Dead' Boss Reveals Details of AMC's Big Spinoff

The Walking Dead Companion Unit Still - H 2015
Courtesy of AMC

The Walking Dead Companion Unit Still - H 2015

AMC has a lot riding on Fear the Walking Dead.

The drama, described as a "companion" series to TV's No. 1 drama among the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic, will give the cable network — fresh off the conclusion of Mad Men — a zombie drama in every quarter of the year. It's also a creative risk of sorts as Robert Kirkman looks to tell a new story (this one set in Los Angeles) that fills in the blanks of the early days of the outbreak — but not the cause —that changed the world.

Fear the Walking Dead starts at the dawn of a flu-like outbreak as one family — played by Cliff CurtisKim DickensFrank Dillane and Alycia Debnam Carey — try to survive and stay together amid a wave of terror unlike any other as well as their own internal drama.

Here, showrunner Dave Erickson (Sons of Anarchy) — who met Kirkman years ago while working on The Walking Dead creator's little-known TV script Five Years — talks with The Hollywood Reporter about why Fear isn't really a prequel, rumors of Jenner's return and if any of the flagship's stars — past or present — will crossover, and more.

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AMC has said that Fear the Walking Dead isn't wholly a prequel. So what is it?

We are loosely covering the period of time that [The Walking Dead's] Rick (Andrew Lincoln) was in his coma in season one. We're able to watch and experience the things that he missed. It's more of a parallel story than a prequel; imagine the opening where Rick gets shot and goes in his coma — that day was probably very close to our day one. We're playing out the idea of what was going on in the country and the world until he woke up, stepped outside and it's welcome to the apocalypse. That's why a "companion piece" has been the phrase used at the network. It's not a prequel in the sense of Better Call Saul, where we're jumping back six, seven years. It does tie very specifically into the pilot of the original. "Prequel" is not the right word; it's kind of its own strange, hybrid thing. I wish I had a better word.

Kirkman has said the origin of the outbreak is something he's never going to reveal in the comics or the flagship series. Is that true here, too?

I had a couple of early pitches that touched on what you're referring to and Robert shut me down. For him, it's never been about what caused it; it's always been about the impact it has on people. Robert's always said — and this is what we try to anchor Fear in is: Your parents got divorced or there are zombies. You didn't get invited to the prom, or there are zombies. Because we're starting a bit earlier and have more of a slow burn into the apocalypse of season one, it gives us the opportunity to really ground our family's problems. We have this highly dysfunctional, blended family and all the issues that they face and they would have faced if the apocalypse hadn't struck, those are the problems we're exploring. The main narrative drive is the conflicts within this family dynamic and how those things are exacerbated by the arrival of the apocalypse.

We're also trying to show what first is perceived as civic unrest and riots and suddenly we bleed into something that's wholly unnatural. It's about a family: Travis (Curtis) just moved in with his girlfriend Madison (Dickens) after they got married. She has two children, one of whom has some issues. Travis has a very pissed-off teenager and an ex-wife. You're talking about two people who, as the story opens, all they want is to bring their family together under one roof and make everyone whole. The irony for us is that the only thing that helps accomplish that is that the world ends. What's intriguing to me is to take these problems, which I think would make for a compelling drama, and put them in this much larger canvas and see how they play out. All of the issues that we establish, these are the things that in my head will come to fruition in seasons three, four, five and six. It forges an interesting introduction into this world. It's much more about the "shark" you don't see in season one. We obviously play some of the tropes — and there are definitely walkers — but it's people trying to wrap their brain around what the hell is going on and not fully understanding the zombie apocalypse by act one. It's going through that process of the colleague or the friend you had coffee with the day before is now trying to kill you. And your first thought's going to be, "They're sick, they're on something." It takes a bit of time for everyone to wrap their brains around what this truly means.

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There's a reference in an early Fear pilot script to Dr. Candace Jenner — aka Test Subject 19 from the flagship. Is there a possibility that Claire Bronson could return? Could Edwin Jenner (played by Noah Emmerich) — the man who told Rick that everyone is already infected — appear? Kirkman has said that the season one CDC episode is among his biggest regrets.

I won't say that we would never go there, but as it was scripted originally, that was really a means to writing some connective tissue for the fans. Robert very poignantly said that he likes to avoid the CDC perspective, the FEMA perspective, at least moving forward. It's something I agree with; we'll never tell the story from the perspective of the bureaucrats, politicians and generals who are all trying to contain it. It will always be from the ground level looking up. There's something far more overwhelming and beautiful about your next-door neighbor and people you know trying to understand the apocalypse. It's really quite daunting.

Will there be an opportunity to see the characters from the flagship series, maybe those that have been killed off? For diehard fans, losing Andrea [from the series] was a major change.

That, I'd never thought of. Variations of this question have come up before, and there's no current plan. I think logistically, it would be very difficult. There's no plan for a crossover. I never considered seeing that in some way, shape or form; that show has been going on for five years since the original outbreak and we're just in the infancy [of the outbreak]. There are no plans to do so but I do think that's a world that could be explored at some point. There no plans for them to conflate, but I will say this: We are living under the same mythological umbrella. We are telling, ultimately, two parts of the larger story in this world that Robert has created. From a storytelling standpoint, I like the idea of conflating stories; I like the idea of things coming together. If that were ever to happen, it would not be for seasons to come, and there's no current plan to do so. But I do think there's something compelling and interesting about it, too.

What state is L.A. in when the season begins and how does that compare to its condition at the end of the first six episodes of season one?

The goal was to loosely track the period of those four or five weeks that Rick Grimes was in his coma. When he wakes up and goes outside, it's done; the world has come to an end. We're not going to time out exactly to that point. We have a story device that will still keep our characters — our core family — somewhat ignorant of what's going on beyond. Right now, our L.A. skews more East Side. It's blue collar, it's closer to downtown. We're not hitting the landmarks as much. I think there are more opportunities to do so later this season. The goal was to show a very textured, layered, vibrant version of this city. Every time you show a part of a city, it's that [moment] for of the audience of knowing there's millions of people here, all of whom are about to face something horrific and many of whom are soon going to die. I wouldn't say that we end the season at the exact same point where Rick wakes up, but it'll loosely be in that time frame. Things will have gone very bad by the end of season one.

One of the great things about the flagship is that it explores humanity and who we are at the end of the day. What would you say the central theme in Fear is?

For us, it's actually one of the reasons why Los Angeles was so important to us. It's very much about identity and reinvention. The thing about California, or L.A. specifically, is that it is a place where many people — aside from the native Angelenos — go to in order to rebuild, reinvent or bury what's in their past. Many of our characters, as we will come to discover, have gone through some very unsavory things — histories that they try to bury. With the onset of the apocalypse, they're going to have choices to make as to whether they can tap into the darker sides of themselves things that they tried to distance themselves from in order to survive. They also end up going back to the quotidian of it. In a blended family, you're also dealing with people who have been in marriages and have lost loved ones; have been in marriages and gone through divorce; and they're going through their own identity shifts when we first meet them within the family drama world of things. Then, as everything becomes more serious, you're forced to shift, adjust and become the thing that you hated. There are some lovely intersections between some of the thematics on the original show, where at a certain point doing the right thing becomes the absolute wrong thing. We're going to start with some relationships, specifically the Travis and Madison relationship — which is beautiful and everything seems to be harmonious and they're truly in love — and we're going to put them through the ringer over the course of season one.

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The Walking Dead is unafraid to kill off key characters when it serves the story. What's the approach to that like with Fear? Will you be burning through as many characters in terms of the core cast like the flagship does?

I don't want to get too specific in terms of body count because I believe ultimately I would never set up and drop someone just for the purpose of setting up and dropping them. Anybody can be eaten at any time; it can happen to anyone. No one is safe, but I also have some specific arcs in my head that will probably protect certain people. I worked on Sons of Anarchy, and sometimes you have to kill your darlings. When you're going to kill a major character, you need to have laid the track for it. There are certain deaths that I have in my head that wouldn't be coming until much later in the show, but until we get up and running and we see how everything is developing, it's hard to say.

As for the duration of the Fear, what's your long-term goal? Do you see this as a show that's running for five, six, seven seasons?

About five or six. The more we dig into it, the more we'll find. The original show is at least another few seasons based on the material that Robert has written for the comic already, and that serves as a guiding light. I like endings, and — I haven't discussed this with Robert but I think it's more of a question for us to discuss when we sit down and really start breaking season two — on Sons, Kurt Sutter had a certain number in his head. He knew there was a certain number of seasons that felt right to him. I don't have a specific set number of seasons in my head right now. I do think that the burden at a certain point, when you cross that 10-year mark … it can be pretty challenging. I've got some of mile markers, which don't take me that long as of yet, but I can't really say because it's an AMC question.

If season one loosely takes the story to Rick Grimes waking up and seeing that the world has gone to hell, how is Fear different than the flagship series? Does it become the same as the original — just in a different city, a la NCIS vs. NCIS: Los Angeles?

No, that's one of the great challenges for the show. Ideally, what I want to do is find a handle for each season that gives it its own theme and its own structure; it's a novel every season.

Like with a big bad of the season — a la The Governor (David Morrissey)?

No. The goal for us — it's not difference for difference's sake because it works beautifully on The Walking Dead and Sons was very similar: we introduced a new villain each season and that became the main rail. What's interesting to me is to try to internalize it as much as possible and create more of a Shane (Jon Bernthal)-Rick dynamic. That's where I find the most interesting problem and I find things more compelling. The pattern that we don't want to do is arriving at the new safe haven and then depending on the safe haven. It works beautifully in the comic book — and there's always going to be the survival element — but we have some ideas that are going to give us, in terms of location and structure, an opportunity to do a movie a season. The idea is to make it as specific and to internalize the drama as much as possible. The thing is to avoid is having it feel like a copycat. The last thing it should feel like is The Walking Dead: L.A. or The Walking Dead: Vancouver, or The Walking Dead: Wherever the story might take us. We have ideas for villains but the idea is to fracture from within and build out from that rather than having an external antagonist per season who comes in and shakes things up.

Do you want to stay with a six-episode season or follow more of the original and grow to 13 and then 16?

I would imagine the network has a very specific plan. I think 13 is a great number; 15, 16, it's really a question of having the time to sit down and make sure we're not burning story to burn story; that we're able to build something that's layered and textured and compelling. I think it's a safe bet that if things go well, they'll probably want more rather than less, but I'm not sure what that number's going to be.

Fear the Walking Dead debuts in the summer. A specific date has yet to be announced. Will you tune in? Sound off in the comments below.  

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit