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The Storytellers: How Dave Erickson And Robert Kirkman Went Off-Script With “Fear The Walking Dead”

The show’s co-creators embraced the freedom of not being tied to the comic.

The Storytellers: How Dave Erickson And Robert Kirkman Went Off-Script With “Fear The Walking Dead”
Alycia Debnam-Carey as Alicia and Frank Dillane as Nick in Fear the Walking Dead [Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3, courtesy of AMC]

Drawing on the comic book series of the same name, The Walking Dead has told five seasons worth of scary, compelling stories. However Robert Kirkman, the mastermind behind the comic and the television series, was convinced that there was even more story to be told about the zombie apocalypse, and he wanted to create another outlet on television to do so. Seeking a creative partner who shared his vision, Kirkman invited Dave Erickson on board the project as co-creator and showrunner of Fear the Walking Dead. Erickson was up for the challenge and impressed that Kirkman wanted to press the concept further.

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“I think that it would be easy just to rest on your laurels. The Walking Dead is a huge success. The comic is a huge success. The thing about Robert that I admire is how he looked back at the comic and looked back at the original incarnation of The Walking Dead and saw things, saw elements that he had not had a chance to explore,” says Erickson, who has produced the television series Sons of Anarchy, Low Winter Sun, and Marco Polo. “I like the fact that he wanted to go back and look at some different angles.”

Photo: Justina Mintz, courtesy of AMC

The two men had worked together before. Erickson wrote a pilot for a treatment Kirkman had written, and both enjoyed the collaboration immensely. (The project, which preceded The Walking Dead, didn’t go anywhere.)

Fear the Walking Dead premiered on AMC August 23. Here, Erickson talks to Co.Create about writing the pilot for with Kirkman, the freedom they had in being inspired by but not tied to the comic’s narrative, and the challenges their characters face in being confronted by—and having to kill—zombies that seem so much more human than the ones we see on The Walking Dead.

Co.Create: When I watched the pilot, I found myself talking out loud to the characters, trying to warn them, or tell them what to do.

Erickson: Yeah, and that is a big part of the pilot and really the first season—it’s playing that game where the audience knows more than the characters do and walking the line where, hopefully, you’re leaning in, and you’re anxious, and you’re fearful for them but never going to a place where you just want to smack them for being stupid.

It certainly would have been easy to take a few popular characters from The Walking Dead and build a new show around them, but you have created new characters and a new situation set in Los Angeles. Why was it important for you and Robert to start from scratch in creating this new show?

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We’ve seen the apocalypse through the lens of Rick Grimes and company in Georgia, and we’ve never been able to look at it through the eyes of other people in a big city like Los Angeles.

How do you define the show? Is it a companion piece to The Walking Dead?

It is very much a companion piece, a parallel narrative, and we have the same mythological rules that are established in the comic but a blank slate, which is exciting, because we can go anywhere. It’s interesting because the burden—not the burden—the challenge that I think Scott Gimple [the executive producer of The Walking Dead] and company have is they have to find ways to take story elements from the comics and change them just enough so that they feel organic to the story [they are telling on television]. They do this brilliant job of taking the comic, which is so loved, and finding ways to remix it. That’s incredibly, incredibly challenging.

We actually have a great deal of freedom on this show because we’re not tied to the comic. We can go and do whatever we want, which is quite liberating.

Related: From “Battle Pope” To “The Walking Dead”: Here’s Robert Kirkman’s Strategy For Creative Success

You and Robert wrote the pilot together. How did you even begin that process? Did you exchange ideas via email? Did you get together and talk over coffee?

We found some office space, and we got together. Robert had written pages before we even sat down. He had written a treatment. He had written a story. I mean, he had the Madison and Travis characters. [Played by Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis, the couple are trying to blend their families.] He’d already invented them.

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So we just sat down and talked, and we had a couple of whiteboards, and we threw up ideas, and we structured and restructured things.

We sort of would hand things off. I would write something and give it to him, and he would take a pass at it, or he’d write something and give it to me, and I’d take a pass at it.

Photo: Justin Lubin, courtesy of AMC

What were the benefits of you and Robert writing the pilot together?

Ultimately, you always write alone. It wasn’t like we were Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. We weren’t sitting together and typing together, but on any project, it’s nice to be in a position where you find somebody that you are sort of creative simpatico with, and if something is not working, they will tell you it’s not working.

It’s always an add-on situation with Robert where he says something, and I say something, and then we come up with something that’s, hopefully, better than either of the original ideas.

That’s the great value of a writers’ room as well. Your assumptions are challenged, and ultimately, if it’s done properly, the idea that eventually wins is something that no one had considered until you put a bunch of people in a room and had them debating and arguing over different story points. That, to me, is the benefit of working with others.

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Photo: Justin Lubin, courtesy of AMC

I assume you pulled together a writers’ room to write the rest of the episodes.

Yeah, we had a writing staff. It was David Wiener, Jack LoGiudice, Meaghan Oppenheimer and Marco Ramirez. We ran the show the way I would run any show. The difference was we actually put the room together after we wrote the pilot, and this is something that AMC is doing and other networks have done, where you write the pilot, you put the room together, and you start breaking the season in anticipation of the order. By the time we finished writing the pilot and delivered the pilot, we had five episodes left to shoot, and we had four of them written.

It must have felt good to have those episodes ready to go.

Yeah. It’s great because at that point, the network, they know what the show is, and they know where it’s going, and if they’re supportive of it, you get to go shoot it, and it streamlines the process. I think it’s better.

Wrap Clap board for Fear the Walking DeadPhoto: Justin Lubin, courtesy of AMC

The first season of Fear of the Walking Dead is six episodes. Is there are benefit to having fewer episodes to begin with?

That’s what they did for The Walking Dead. The challenge for us was finding a way to cover the territory we needed to cover in six hours, and I think we figured it out. You’ll see it shortly. We also have a structural handle, which I think allowed us to keep the story intimate and keep it focused on the family and also sustain the tension, the dread as they as they go through their apocalyptic education.

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Six is a good number. Look, you can end the world in a zombie show in two hours if you’re watching a movie, so I think six hours was a good amount. By the time we get to the end of the season, we’re still not caught up with Rick’s awakening in the pilot of the original show, so there is landscape left to explore for us.

Going back to when you and Robert were writing the pilot and creating these core characters that we first meet, did actors for those roles pop into your head as you were writing, or do you think about casting later?

I very rarely write with an actor in mind. They were found during the casting process. The quality that Kim [Dickens, who plays Madison] has, the quality that Cliff [Curtis, who plays Curtis] has—you go through the process, and you read a lot of people, and eventually someone leaps out, and you see the character when they read the lines.

It’s one thing to find the right actor for the role. It’s another thing to find two actors who actually have chemistry and make you believe that there’s a relationship there. That was the case with Cliff and Kim. The first time Alicia and Nick [the brother and sister played by Alycia Debnam-Carey and Frank Dillane] read together, they had a connection as well, and I believed that they were brother and sister and that they had a history.

Photo: Justina Mintz, courtesy of AMC

Did you and Robert feel any pressure when you were creating the show to please the fans of The Walking Dead, to meet their expectations, or did you just go into the process without factoring what fans of the original series might think or expect?

I’m very respectful of the fans because I am a fan of the comic, and I’m a fan of the original show. We share the same DNA as The Walking Dead. But if I went into the writers’ room every day trying to anticipate what may or may not work for the fans, that would be a little bit stifling.

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We share a lot with The Walking Dead, but tonally we are our own show, and, hopefully, people will respond to it. There’s enough for the fans of the original to dig.

We created a show based on the characters that we created, and the complications and challenges going on in their lives, irrespective of the onset of the apocalypse. I mean, the problems and conflicts they have are going to be the problems and conflicts that they’re dealing with throughout the season and beyond. It’s just exacerbated by the zombies. Robert says, ‘Your parents got divorced. Oh, there are zombies. You didn’t get asked to the prom. Oh, there are zombies.’ I think the reason the original show does so well and why the comic is so successful is because they are grounded in that respect.

Speaking of zombies, what factors did you consider when creating the zombies for your show?

They’re definitely different than the zombies on The Walking Dead. We’re just into the apocalypse. We’re in the first few days. So our walkers are infected, but they’re more human. Clearly, they’re not right, but we’re not at a place yet where there’s decay and atrophy. We’re not at a place yet where our zombies look like monsters.

Consequently, it makes it much more challenging for our characters when they’re confronted by them because their first instinct is not to pick up something heavy and bludgeon them—their first instinct is to try to help them, and then they realize they have to run.

Actually, one of the things that was important to Robert was the idea of violence. On the original show, and in most movies in the genre, you go from zero to apocalypse in the first reel, and the characters very quickly realize, “I need to kill in order to survive.”

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What was interesting with this show was to go through a process where you’re confronted by someone whom a day ago you might have had coffee with, a family member or a friend, and it’s physically difficult to kill them. We’re trying—even when our characters go to that place, and they do—to show the aftermath, how they rationalize killing and how they reconcile it.

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About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety, VanityFair.com, Redbook, Time Out New York and TVSquad.com

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