The Creative Process Behind “Fear the Walking Dead” And The Art Of The Spin-Off

Director Adam Davidson talks about making a companion to an iconic series with its own identity, and not having a graphic novel to base it on.

The Creative Process Behind “Fear the Walking Dead” And The Art Of The Spin-Off
[Photo: Justin Lubin, courtesy of AMC]

Spin-offs are a dangerous endeavor. There’s a delicate balancing act between honoring the original enterprise while still creating a stand-alone story. One false note and the once-loyal audience can turn.


It is with this responsibility and vigilance that the creators of The Walking Dead, along with new blood in the form of showrunner David Erickson and director Adam Davidson, ventured into Fear the Walking Dead. Fear looks into the inception of the zombie apocalypse, while WD protagonist Rick Grimes is in a coma, through the eyes of a dysfunctional, fractured working-class family in East Los Angeles. The six-episode drama premieres August 23 on AMC, with a 15-episode second season slated for next year.

Fear keeps the same rules and existential themes of WD—zombie behavior, the thin veneer of civilization, how we rise or fall with adversity, whether humans or zombies are more dangerous—but with new characters in a different context. The backdrop is urban L.A. (including scenes in Spanish) versus WD‘s rural Georgia, and it asks how everyday people—not a group lead by an officer trained in weapons, law and order, and leadership—react to the demise of civilization.

“We stay true to the mythology and universe of the original, but our show is its own show for its own reasons,” says co-executive producer Adam Davidson, who directed the pilot and two episodes, and helped set the vision for the series. “This series is closer to everyday life—this is you and I suddenly being faced with the apocalypse.”

Adam Davidson discusses a scene with Cliff Curtis, as TravisPhoto by Justin Lubin/AMC

Before Fear, AMC viewers have seen Davidson’s direction on several episodes of Hell on Wheels, but might not realize his background also includes both a student and Best Short Subject Academy Award for his first directed short film, The Lunch Date, and getting detained in Cuba for filming political dancers.

“We always go back to the question of, what makes us human?” says Davidson. “Our show starts at the moment the apocalypse begins. There isn’t this clear distinction that someone’s a zombie, because half their face isn’t falling off. They’re still maintained; there’s just something in their eyes. But your instinct isn’t, ‘I’m going to bash you in the head,’ it’s ‘Can I help you?’”

Lexi Johnson as GloriaPhoto by Justin Lubin/AMC

“On Walking Dead, I was always pushing to make things bigger, with more elaborate make-up,” says Greg Nicotero, one of the show’s executive producers and the special effects guru who created the look of the zombies for both shows. “This is a different feel. You have to be in a room with an infected person and wouldn’t know it. I pulled back on the make-up the first couple of episodes. It’s fresh zombies. And people don’t know how to process it.”


The road to Fear has been a two-year journey, prompted in part by Nicotero’s WD webisodes on what life would be like in other parts of the world. “There’s an entire world of stories of how people survived,” he says.

“We agreed early on that if we couldn’t make this show exist if there was no Walking Dead, then we wouldn’t do it,” adds executive producer Gale Anne Hurd. “That’s why it’s taken awhile.”

Apart from LA offering a distinct contrast to the rural South, its reputation coalesced with an overarching theme of the WD/Fear universe. “L.A. is a city of reinvention,” says Davidson. “People come there to pursue something else. With the rise of the apocalypse, some people’s past might come to the forefront that they’ve been trying to bury. The element of what makes us human resonates with me, because you have to ask, ‘Who’s more dangerous: the zombies or the humans? You know what the ‘walkers’ [WD-speak for zombies] will do—try to eat you. You don’t know what humans will do. Do you trust or not trust them. In the face of adversity, do you rise to your better nature or fall to your worse?”

The origin of the zombie virus remains unknown. “The questions are asked but no one gets to find out,” says Adam Davidson. Is LA ground zero? “I asked same question. I didn’t get an answer. Although another character refers to reports in five states. It seems to kind of happen really quickly, globally.”Photo by Justina Mintz/AMC

Without a preexisting comic book as a guide, as its predecessor had, the Fear team had a greater expanse of uncharted territory to mine, which was both creatively freeing and daunting. But it also gave the show a chance to explore ideas initially unfeasible or no longer possible in the other series.

“The first 20 minutes of Walking Dead has six words and builds to the pace it is now, which is part of the reason why it’s a great time to do this story,” says executive producer David Alpert. “There was a great visceral thrill in season one that we can no longer do in the Walking Dead, but it is a great tone, pace, rhythm that we can now do here.”

Frank Dillane, as Nick, is first to suspect something’s amissPhoto by Justina Mintz/AMC

Strategic steps to a fresh take

Bring in outsiders. An initial strategy in forging a new direction was bringing in a writer and director who had never done the WD series. Serendipitously, Davidson’s schedule prevented him from directing WD, which ultimately weighed in his favor for Fear. “My introduction to the Walking Dead was the pilot script for Fear the Walking Dead,” he says. Davidson and co-creator/showrunner David Erickson had worked together on the 2013 AMC drama Low Winter Sun.


“We understand each other, both care about character, story, and emotional honesty, and challenge each other to get closer to that truth,” says Davidson. “My job is to bring to life what he’s trying to communicate on the page. It’s like the way jazz develops, playing off each other.”

David Erickson (left, in plaid shirt) confers with Adam Davidson (in black shirt) on set.Photo by Justina Mintz/AMC

Make it personal. Each brought elements of their own lives into the drama—Erickson’s struggles blending a family through marriage—and Davidson, a sense of place through childhood memories of lesser known parts of his native L.A.

“One of the things that distinguishes the show is the roundedness of family conflicts, dysfunctional families, and how the apocalypse exacerbates those stories as they try to survive,” says Erickson. “We were allowed more time over the course of the season to invest in families and character development before we go full-on apocalypse. Every subsequent conflict is specific to a family drama that’s hinted at in the pilot.”

Cliff Curtis as Travis and Kim Dickens as MadisonPhoto by Justin Lubin/AMC

For the visual motif, Davidson, now 50, borrowed the tone from the Los Angeles of his childhood, growing up in a pre-gentrified Westside. “I never saw the L.A. I knew represented on screen–it was always glamorous, glitzy, Beverly Hills, people with perfect features,” he says. “When I walk out the door, I see cracks in the asphalt. When I was growing up, Santa Monica was not a place you went to; what is now the 3rd Street Promenade is where derelicts lived. High schools looked like prisons. My take on the show is, this is a flawed world to begin with. People are struggling to get by, sinks are broken, nothing works, we all have these aspirations and we’re stuck here. And now you’re going to add zombies to all of this?”

Davidson took advantage of less-familiar elements of L.A.—like using its hills instead of the flat suburban sprawl that often identify the city. “I wanted to keep L.A. as a character,” he says. “I’d played football in high school and remembered a high school in El Sereno called Woodrow Wilson High that had a field overlooking downtown. It turned out to be the right look. El Sereno is a beautiful neighborhood that’s racially and ethnically mixed, with working class families, that’s still safe—good people who make L.A. run. It has these hills, so that at anytime you have a sense there must be thousands of people having similar conversations [as the families in the show].”

Taking care to show racial and ethnic diversityPhoto by Justin Lubin/AMC

Acknowledge the audience. Because Fear is a prequel, the WD audience knows more about the future development of the zombie virus and societal deterioration than the characters. The Fear team plays to that.


“We know that you know,” says Alpert. “We’re aware as we’re writing and telling the story, but the characters don’t yet know.”

“The pilot and first few episodes are about the shark you don’t see,” says Erickson. “It’s the sense of dread. We open with a walker, though in a different context, then let it slow burn for the rest of the episodes. There’s something about the audience knowing as much as it does and they’re leaning in waiting for our characters to get up to speed on this world and how to protect themselves. There are moments where we build toward traditional horror tropes and build toward pulling the rug out over the course of the pilot.”

Gale Anne Hurd talks with David Erickson on locationPhoto by Justin Lubin/AMC

Erickson borrowed an idea he calls “surreal juxtaposition” from films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter—the tangle of normalcy against increasing madness and deterioration. “In Apocalypse Now, it was taking the beach so you can go surfing,” says Erickson.


“One of the characters, Nick, knows something is wrong earlier than everyone else, and is waiting for them to catch up while watching them carry on normal day-to-day routines,” he adds. “As the season plays out, I’ll be taking it in a more novelistic fashion to distinguish longer arcs and character dynamics—references that won’t be that obvious, creating a sense of paranoia, apprehension, and anxiety.”

Alycia Debnam Carey as Alicia and Maestro Harrell as Matt Sale in their last gasp of normalcyPhoto by Justin Lubin/AMC

How design, color and light inform emotion

Story through set design. Much the way actors might invent backstory to inform their choices, production designer Maria Caso created histories for set pieces that were never part of the script—a worn armrest, a mismatched chair—but suggest an emotional texture.

“She has an attention to detail that makes things more truthful,” says Davidson, who worked with Caso on HBO’s Deadwood and DirecTV’s Kingdom. “It actually looks like things have been touched and worn and lived in for years. We’ll be going through the set and she’ll say, ‘There should be a hole in the wall. When the character was a teenager, one night he got really mad at his mom and just hit it.’ There’s no reference in the script, but it’s just a thing your eye catches and you just know it to be true. The actors know, too. You can see when they walk onto a set and it’s all there for them. They don’t have to pretend. They can just be in the space.”

Capturing the hillier areas of Los Angeles.Image courtesy of AMC

The texture of color and light. “The palette in the original is different than ours,” says Davidson. “They have a lot of grays, browns, and greens. We’re taking place in urban L.A., which is very vivid. I wanted to use red as a story element.”

In hiring a director of photography, Davidson took a page from the outsider status he and Erickson brought to the production. “I didn’t bring in a DP who was schooled in the genre of zombies,” he says. “I wanted to bring in a foreigner. Since I was from L.A., I wanted an outside eye, who could evoke a world, but also give characters the freedom to act. I didn’t want my actors to worry about landing on a mark. I wanted to get to the truth of the scene.”

Scottish cinematographer Michael McDonough brings a fresh take on impending dreadPhoto by Justin Lubin/AMC

He found that eye in Scottish cinematographer Michael McDonough, best known for the 2010 film Winter’s Bone. “What I loved about that movie, was that it looked like natural lighting. Things felt real, and yet there as an eerie quality, but not in the conventional Hollywood movie way, like shafts of light and smoke. It was texture-driven and a little off balance.


“We had many discussions about what the feel of the light should be,” he adds. “When you live in L.A. for awhile, you actually retreat from the sun. You go to the shadowy place and pull the curtains. The light is always fighting its way in and creates shadows. To me, it’s part of the story, because the dark shadows are beginning to invade this world.”

For more behind-the-scenes footage, check out this video:



About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science and autonomous vehicles. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Air & Space, Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel/West Bank, and Southeast Asia