Zombie drama heads out to the sea

It is no safer on, or under, the water in Season 2 of Fear The Walking Dead, producers say

(From far left) Ruben Blades, Mercedes Masohn and Alycia Debnam-Carey in Season 2 of Fear The Walking Dead.
(From far left) Ruben Blades, Mercedes Masohn and Alycia Debnam-Carey in Season 2 of Fear The Walking Dead.PHOTO: AMC

Sequels and spin-offs are generally not very good, admits The Walking Dead's creator Robert Kirkman. But he promises that his companion series, Fear The Walking Dead, is an exception to the rule.

The hit zombie-apocalypse television drama The Walking Dead - which is executive-produced by Kirkman and adapted from his acclaimed graphic novels of the same name - is still going strong after six years.

Although ratings in the United States dipped during the latest season, the success of its spin-off show, Fear The Walking Dead, proves that zombie fatigue has not set in yet, the latter making history with the 10 million viewers who watched its premiere last year - a record for the first season of any American cable show.

Lest you think Kirkman is simply cashing in on the success of the original series, he tells The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles that Fear The Walking Dead offers something different - a story revolving around a "blended" family living on the West Coast, where the threat from the undead is only just dawning on the world in events set well before those of The Walking Dead in Georgia.

Still, Kirkman concedes that spin-offs are popular because viewers tend to like what they already know.

"Sequels and companion shows and things like that work and are popular because the general population kind of chooses the path of least resistance when it comes to picking their entertainment. If it's something they're familiar with or know, they'll gravitate towards that," says the 37-year-old, whose The Walking Dead comic books won the prestigious Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series in 2007 and 2010.

"But companion shows don't work often because people aren't offering anything new. And I think what Fear The Walking Dead does best is that you have this familiar world and so people who enjoy the world of The Walking Dead are getting something that's somewhat familiar.

"But our location is so different, our cast is so different and the stories that we're telling, especially with our second season, are so different. We're providing something entirely new in the construct of a cool companion show."

Kirkman and fellow executive producers Dave Erickson and David Alpert dropped a few teasers ahead of the second season, which airs in Singapore on AMC (Singtel TV Channel 322) on Mondays.

The upcoming episodes will see the zombie menace following the main characters - high-school guidance counsellor Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), her teacher husband Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) and their three children from previous marriages - as they seek refuge at sea.

This precipitates a sort of Jaws-meets-zombies narrative that has seldom been explored in this genre - and for good reason, given how difficult it is to film on water, which the producers quickly learnt first-hand.

Alpert says: "There is a reason everyone tells you that shooting in the water is really difficult and I think we proved that to be true."

But it was worth it, he says. "I also think there is a reason why movies such as Titanic and Jaws are so huge and successful, because being on the water provides you with such a huge emotional impact - it's such a primal thing.

"In Season 2, there are some amazing shots that take you underwater and, once you go there, it's an entirely different feeling or sensation from anything we've seen on the show.

"The question is always: Is the difficulty of pulling this thing off worth the emotional impact? And I think in our case, in this season, it's 100 per cent yes."

Erickson says setting the action on a boat also allowed the show to continue the slow-simmering dread it carefully built up last year.

"One of the things I loved about Season 1 was this sort of slow dread and sense of anxiety we wanted to capture. And I think we were able to continue that by putting this group, this dysfunctional family, on a vessel in the water, and there's no place to go and they don't yet know what everyone's agendas are. So from a story perspective, it was fantastic. It just made things a lot richer. And once we got our sea legs - no pun intended - the boat work became easier."

He says the production shot in Baja, Mexico, at a studio constructed for the 1997 Oscar- winning epic Titanic.

"We built the majority of the boat in about six weeks and got it into the tank, and I think we learnt a lot about water work and the visual effects that go with it. That was the biggest challenge and the biggest adjustment."

Erickson also promises that "there will be new characters this season" and hints that this will not necessarily be good news for Clark and her family, who will soon realise they are "not the only people who had the bright idea to leave land and, because of that, it's really no safer on water".

Fans can expect a tie-in with another The Walking Dead spin-off, Flight 462, a 16-part Web series about a group of people who experience the zombie outbreak while on board a plane, which was shown on AMC in Singapore earlier this month.

"A character from that series is going to appear in Fear The Walking Dead this season," he says.

What will not change about Fear The Walking Dead are the family drama that forms the core of the story and the pace of the action, which will remain very much a slow burn like in Season 1.

Erickson says: "One of the things that is true to the comic and the original show is that this is very much a family drama first and foremost. In Season 1, we got to know everybody and their dysfunctions and the conflicts that were inherent in this blended family. And we're still playing out those storylines."

As for the pace of events so far, this is another way in which the show is distinct from The Walking Dead, whose core characters have adapted to the apocalypse and become proficient zombie-killing machines.

In Fear The Walking Dead, "there's still a world of discovery for our characters, there are still things that they don't know about the apocalypse", Erickson says.

This is why things will continue to unfold in an unhurried fashion, Kirkman explains. "When you're setting up a new world and characters and trying to get people invested, you can't just dive straight into a, you know, run-and-gun kind of storyline," he says.

"Now that we have set up those characters and put that time in, things will ramp up a bit, as you'll see in the second season premiere.

"But we're always going to be taking time to delve into character and focus on who these people are and what they're doing and what their struggles are, because that is what the heart of The Walking Dead has always been."

Keeping the audience guessing about the pace means that when major developments happen, they are all the more dramatic, he adds.

"So, like in The Walking Dead, sometimes it will go fast, sometimes it will go slow. But hopefully, you'll always be sitting there going, 'I hope these people don't die.'

"And then sometimes they will," he adds with a grin.

•Fear The Walking Dead 2 airs in Singapore on AMC (Singtel TV Channel 322) on Mondays at 10pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2016, with the headline 'Zombies on the high seas'. Print Edition | Subscribe