Fear the Walking Dead director Adam Davidson had an inkling that the first episode of the prequel series might infuriate a certain segment of Walking Dead fans. After all, zombie kills are plentiful on AMC’s mothership series, which makes sense since the world had already been overrun by the undead when the show began. But since Fear the Walking Dead takes place as the zombie outbreak is just getting underway, Davidson and the show’s creators, Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson, made the conscious choice to treat the walkers as a looming menace that only appear around the edges of the frame. “I know that’s frustrating for some audience members,” Davidson says. “What intrigues me is trying to slow the pace down and show the moments when the world is just learning of this. No one knows they’re not people anymore — they’re still human beings. If you killed one and a cure was found tomorrow, the police would come and arrest you.”
Fear the Walking Dead smashed ratings records when the pilot premiered last week. And Davidson carried that slow, deliberate pace into the show’s second episode (he directed three of the first season’s six installments: the pilot and the second and third hours), while also giving the zombie-hungry hordes what they want — an up close and personal kill. That scene comes early in the episode, when Madison (Kim Dickens) makes a supply run to the school where she works — which has been closed while L.A. deals with the rapidly evolving mystery-virus outbreak — and runs into her friend and colleague, Art (Scott Lawrence). Unfortunately, he’s been transformed from his kind, patient self into a monster hungry for human meat. Davidson broke down the details about crafting that tense sequence, as well as the episode’s big riot scene.
Because Madison’s tangle with Art was going to be the show’s first significant human-on-zombie sequence — not to mention Dickens’s first action showcase — the creative team wanted to ensure that the moment would resonate. That’s why they nominated the likable Lawrence for zombiehood instead of an anonymous extra. “It was a real shame to see Scott go,” Davidson says. “But that was the point. The fact that it’s someone she knows and cares about gives it an emotional weight.”
The director says that Dickens threw herself into the scene, doing all of the action herself. “It’s a huge moment for Kim. We really wanted to play up the suspense, showing how she would end up close to him, close enough to really look in his eyes and see that it’s not him anymore.” And once Madison figures out that this creature isn’t Art, she still has to find some way to kill it… not an easy task when the “shot to the head” method isn’t yet common knowledge amongst the uninfected. “It’s not easy to kill these creatures, because they’re newly turned. Also, Madison left the crowbar behind in the office, so when she sees the fire extinguisher, it’s just pure instinct that she uses it to attack Art.“
While filming that scene, Dickens obviously used a rubber prop to subdue her zombie co-star, but when she first got to set, she practiced her moves with a real fire extinguisher. "She wanted to understand how it would feel in her hands, the weight of it and how she would swing it,” Davidson explains. “So in the scene, not only is Kim acting in the moment, but she’s also swinging that prop as she would a real extinguisher. She’s so good on so many levels.”
In the pilot, the bulk of the school scenes were filmed inside an actual L.A. high school, Woodrow Wilson High, where L.A. native Davidson remembers playing football during his years on a crosstown high school league. But for the rest of the season, production shifted to Vancouver, where Killarney Secondary School stood in for Wilson. Though viewers likely won’t notice the difference onscreen, Davidson says that, behind-the-scenes, the Fear the Walking Dead crew marveled at the differences between U.S. and Canadian high schools. “We brought the Canadians out to L.A. to show them the high school we used for the pilot,” he remembers. “They couldn’t get over the bars on the windows and the locked cages around the vending machines. In Canada, you can eat off the floor of a school cafeteria. You don’t even want to go into the cafeteria at an L.A. high school!"
Panic in the Streets
At the time that the writers were breaking Episode 2, the conflict between police and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri was playing out on TV screens and in newspapers. That imagery eventually found its way onto the page as they outlined the violence that erupts when the L.A. public grows concerned about the LAPD’s brutal enforcement tactics in battling the zombie threat. Remember: Because zombies are new to this universe, as far as the city’s citizens are concerned, this is another example of police overreach, which is why they hold a rally in a downtown area that quickly turns violent. "L.A. is this city with a history of civil unrest and police brutality, especially with Rodney King and the Watts Riots,” Davidson explains. “So I think that was very much on the writers’ minds.”
Davidson (center) with FTWD star Cliff Curtis (left) on set
While Davidson was able to arrange the shooting schedule so that most of the exterior locations were filmed in L.A., this was a case where they had to double Vancouver as best they could. To add to the challenge, the riot had to be filmed on the production’s very first day in Canada in March of this year. At first, Davidson wasn’t sure they’d be able to find a neighborhood that could convincingly pass for the City of Angels. Above all, he wanted to avoid having to recreate an outdoor riot on an enclosed soundstage, using greenscreen to provide some sense of the outside world. “While we were scouting, I kept looking around going, ‘None of this looks like L.A. How am I supposed to do this?’”
Eventually, the scouting team settled on a handful of downtown Vancouver locations that bore a passing resemblance to downtown L.A. — the sequence was filmed in and around Eveleigh Street, as well as West Pender Street — and extras were recruited to play the cops and the rioters. (A few uninvited guests showed up as well; paparazzi snapped photos from afar, capturing Dickens and other actors visiting the set on their day off.) Overall, the 10-hour shoot went without many hiccups. Well, except one. “A few of the police officers showed up and they had facial hair,” Davidson says, laughing. “I was like, ‘You gotta go back! No L.A. cop has facial hair.”
Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.