Press: Day with the Dead: surviving 24 hours on the set of Fear the Walking Dead

The cast and crew of Fear the Walking Dead are tucking into their lunch buffet with all the appetite of the show’s zombies (or as the show refers the them the “infected”). The sun is beating down in Baja, Mexico, the location of the studio where the show is filmed, and though most of the day’s shoots are happening indoors, everyone still needs to travel from the large building where the buffet is laid out to various sound stages, office buildings, dressing rooms and several infinity tanks which give the illusion of open water (both in front of green screens and facing out onto the ocean).

Can zombies swim? Fear the Walking Dead sets sail for season twoRead moreFear the Walking Dead, the “companion show” to the original Walking Dead series, follows several loosely blended families trying to survive the early days of the outbreak that will eventually create the world that Carl, Rick and co inhabit. Over the first seven episodes of the show’s second season (the eighth airs on Sunday 21 August), the cast travels from Los Angeles to Baja aboard the Abigail, a yacht belonging to enigmatic businessman Victor Strand, played by Colman Domingo.

Hence the infinity tanks, which today are empty – the main exterior Abigail set has just been removed from the studio’s prize outdoor tank, which resembles an enormous series of interlocking concrete salt dishes. It’s a massive undertaking: the original task of moving the boat from the soundstage where it was constructed to the tank was scheduled for half a day, but took over two days. Still, even the empty tank is impressive, and looks more like a skate park than a film set. (It comfortably held the entire vessel used for Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World).

Day with the Dead: surviving 24 hours on the set of Fear the Walking Dead The tank is wide open, but the rare moments of filming I see during my day on set are crammed into tight spaces in what comes to feel like a maze encompassing the indoor sound stages. Each scene is set up in a space so narrow that it would be almost impossible not to get the angle the directors want, so they only run through a quick take or two before sending the relevant cast members off to another segment of the maze. The haste makes sense: each episode is filmed in eight days (some seven) on a tight turnaround.

Not that the cast members are upset. “People see what they want to see,” Colman Domingo says, stretched out on a couch in his dressing room in one of the studio’s main buildings, surrounded by a gaggle of journalists. He’s describing the ambiguity of his character, Victor Strand, who provides some respite from the constant trauma of life in a zombie apocalypse and who is by far the best part of Fear the Walking Dead.

“What I love about our show is that you’re ahead of the game,” Domingo adds, referring to the fact that the Walking Dead audience knows far more than the characters. Alycia Debnam-Carey, who plays angsty teen Alicia Clark, knows all about the passion of the show’s fans. “You’re playing a teenager who is making mistakes in a world where the audience is so much more aware than our characters,” she says, which is something she describes as “frustrating for our audience”. She continues: “They’ve got six seasons of The Walking Dead rulebook to go by.”

What, exactly, is in that rulebook? Speaking in a room covered in 3D models and SketchUp renders that look like unused concepts for Doobie Brothers album covers, production designer Bernardo Trujillo tells us that he and his team did the entire design and building of the Abigail sets in six weeks, from elaborate renderings depicting the full interior of the yacht to the various pieces that combine to create almost all of the locations and cabins. (“We learned a lot about boats,” he says, laughing.) Erickson admits the intensity of this demand: “It’s very easy to be in the writer’s room and say hey, they’re gonna get on a boat for a season. It’s another thing when you have to build your section of the boat in six weeks.

”There’s an extraordinary amount of stuff needed to keep the Fear machine going. Case in point: the props department, housed in a warehouse filled with fake weapons, backpacks and cans of food, in addition to making molds, filling them, and generating a large silo of prop weapons (including several differently-sized duplicates used to film slightly different, stitched-together versions of fight scenes), has to get clearance for the use of certain items. This legal limitation contributes to the oddity of many of the weapons used on the series – as props master Colin Thurston wryly notes, handing one of the assembled reporters a rubber machine gun for further examination, “AMC are very protective about marks and branding”.

The Walking Dead is, perhaps, the most valuable of those marks – especially considering the intensity of its fanbase. Over the course of our set visit, each actor on the show our group talks with is asked about the rabidity of fan reactions. “Out of every hundred people,” says Mercedes Mason, who plays Ofelia Salazar, there are “three or four who are mad at everything”. Domingo, who plays Strand, is slightly more delicate: “I love the idea that people are that …” He takes a moment to find the word, “spirited”.

In this light, the rush to make more Fear makes sense. The studio is the site of a hyper-efficient production assembly line, churning out the same scenes with different variations to meet a large demand for Walking Dead content. It’s kind of like a lunch buffet, just waiting to be crammed down so everyone can get back to work. But despite this high level of activity, the set is still somewhat subdued, more efficient than lively – for the production of a zombie show, Fear the Walking Dead is surprisingly bloodless.