12th Sep2014

Interview: ‘Z Nation’ showrunner Karl Schaefer

by Phil Wheat

New Syfy show Z Nation begins three years after a zombie virus plagued America and started the collapse of human civilization. After finding the only known survivor of the virus, a ragtag team embark on a mission to transport him to a lab in hopes of creating a cure. with the show debuting tonight, we sat down with showrunner and Executive Producer Karl Schaefer (Eerie Indiana, Strange Luck) to talk about the show ans all things zombie…

Z-Nation-header

Obviously it’s inevitable that Z Nation is going to be compared to other shows of similar subject. Can you kind of talk about how it’s different and how it stands out from what’s on television now?

Karl Schaefer: I mean, first off there is obviously a great zombie show in The Walking Dead already on, so our mission is sort of to go where they don’t, and I think the biggest difference between us and them is our series has a sense of hope and also a sense of humor. We’re kind of trying to put the fun back into zombies. Our heroes have a mission that they’re on, so we’re traveling every week. We’re going across the country. They’re not just sort of fighting for survival and hunkering down into one place. They really have somewhere to go and something to do.

Our characters aren’t afraid of zombies necessarily. I mean, they’re wary of them and zombies are certainly dangerous to them, but they take the fight to the zombies. We try and have as much action in an episode as The Walking Dead has in half a season. There’s a lot of black humor in our show, a lot of social satire, but primarily it’s that sense of hope and mission and that the characters are really taking it to the zombies as opposed to being afraid of them and hunkering down. And if you were going to go through the apocalypse, I think you would rather go through the apocalypse with our guys, because they’ve got somewhere to go and something to do, and I think it’ll be triumphant in the end.

Can you talk about maybe some of the challenges you faced?

Well, I think we’re a reasonably low-budget show, so trying to give it a sense of scope and scale and also just that somebody has thrown down the gauntlet. The bar is set pretty high for zombie shows, but I think we face the challenge of any show, just making great characters and interesting storylines and doing it all for a price. And making a show that travels across the country was really hard to do, but we found a great location. We shot the whole thing in Spokane, Washington, which has been fantastic and just has so many different looks within the Spokane area, from mountains and lakes and beautiful rolling wheat fields and farms and desert and – so we really, I think, did a good job of making the show feel like it’s traveling across the country and we’re in a different place every week.

Given Harold Perrineau’s fate in the first episode, which obviously will be a surprise for first-time viewers, can you just talk a little bit about what it was like working with him during the pilot?

He was fantastic. First off, he’s just a great guy, but he was totally committed to it and didn’t treat it like he was coming in to do a low-budget show for the money or anything like that. I mean, he really had a big influence on the rest of the actors. We have a lot of local Washington talent and some people who’re much less experienced in the cast. We also have some other very experienced cast members, but he just brought up every scene he was in and really brought a sense of commitment and drama to what he was doing.

And also it was great with the rest of the cast. We had some of our sort of younger, local cast members who were a little intimidated on the first couple of days of shooting, I think, and he would pull them aside and say something to them that – and I don’t exactly know what it was he was saying to them, but then the next take they would just be a whole step up better at what they were doing. So, he was a blast to work with and it was a shame to see him go, and I think he had a really good time, too, and was a little wistful about leaving just after one episode. But he was great to work with, and you could certainly see why he’s worked so often and is in so many classic sort of genre movies and programs and things like that. And you look at his resume and he’s just in – he’s one of those guys that everything he’s in is good, and I think he helped make this one of those good things that he was in, so he was great.

As a fan, I was really happy to see him in it. What can you tell us about the makeup effects company bringing your zombies to life?

Synapse? Synapse is great. They sort of came to us through the Asylum, and what they brought was just the ability to do a lot for a little money, and we worked really hard on trying to get the physical effects and makeup to look good with the photographic look that we were doing with the show. We’re trying to make a real specific look for the show, so if you’re just tuning around the dial and you come across our show, it looks different from all the other Syfy shows and most of the other shows on TV.

And getting the makeup to look right after going through that process was a lot of work, and for the small team they have, they just do a great job cranking out 25 zombies a day of all different types, and they’ve been fantastic. Corinne Foster and her team have all really come through. And it’s been a tough, long shoot with a lot of work and not enough resources normally to do it, but they’ve delivered every time.

Being that Corinne was a Face Off contestant in Season Six, it was nice to see it kept in the Syfy family.

Definitely, and she’s like a real trooper and a total pro.

You call, I guess, the zombies Z’s. In comparison to, say, the walkers in The Walking Dead, are there any fundamental differences between the creatures that you can talk about that we will see now in the pilot and going forward?

Well, one thing about The Walking Dead is they’re taking a very realistic, straightforward look at – and they won’t call them zombies. They’ll call them anything in the world but zombies, and our show, we wanted to put it in a universe, where people know about zombies. They’ve seen zombie movies, that they’ve seen “Night of the Living Dead.” So, we have all kinds of zombies and we wanted to be the zombie show that says, “Yes, we’ll do that kind of zombies.” We have fast zombies, slow zombies, animal zombies. We had a zombie bear. We have zombie babies, and our zombies are evolving, too. Our main character, Murphy, who’s been infected with the zombie virus and given a vaccine, is going to be evolving over the course of the season into what eventually may become a human-zombie blend.

So, we wanted to leave the world wide open for the zombie virus to evolve and the type of zombies we deal with to evolve, and I think every week you’re going to see our zombies doing something different that you haven’t seen zombies do before, because kind of our goal was to put the fun back into zombies, and we wanted to be the show that said, “Yes, we’ll do that.” We come up with a cool idea, we’ll definitely do that, and I think the audience is going to enjoy that sort of aspect of it, that we’re not kind of stuck in stone as to what our zombies are like and what they do. Hello?

With Z Nation, there is humor, but were you conscious of not kind of crossing that line so that it wouldn’t be too silly and kind of dilute the premise a little bit?

Absolutely. When I first came to this project with the Asylum, one of the things we all agreed on right up front was this would not be a campy mockbuster like Sharknado or some of the other projects that they do, that we wanted to make a real show. And my sort of view of life is that real life is – there’s black humor in the most serious of moments, and the humor’s all character-based in the show. It’s more like M.A.S.H. than it is like Sharknado that I think a sense of black humor is almost a survival skill, that if you didn’t have a sense of humor in the apocalypse, you’d probably just curl up and die and that my experience in life is just that in the midst of some of the worst, toughest times you’ll see a lot of humor on a battlefield, in a hospital emergency room, with cops. People that have to deal with danger and hardship on a daily basis sort of have to have a sense of humor. And we kind of sort of thought a lot about what goes into somebody who survived for three years of the zombie apocalypse, and a sense of humor about it all was one of the ingredients that we thought all of our characters would have.

As far as the casting besides Harold Perrineau, how did everything kind of come together when you were casting?

Well, because we’re shooting in Washington state and we’re getting money from the state to shoot here, we had to have a certain amount of our – not necessarily the cast but the whole product has to be Washington-based. So we looked really hard, first off, at Washington-based actors and found some fantastic people. Russell Hodgkinson, who plays Doc, is great. He’s hysterical and fantastic in the show, and Nat Zang, who plays the 10K character, you only see him very briefly in the pilot, but he has a much bigger role going forward in the show. He’s like an 18-year-old kid. It was his first audition that he’d ever done, his first professional audition, and he’s fantastic. He’s going to be a huge star, I think, because he just has that thing about him.

And so we looked hard in Washington. Also the Cassandra character, who they find in the cage, she’s a Washington local as well. She’s fantastic. Kellita, who plays the Warren character, who we hired out of Los Angeles, she was great. We auditioned long and hard for it and didn’t have the kind of money to throw at big stars that you normally have for a TV show, so everybody kind of came to – on the whole production we’re all working for less than we normally do, and it’s kind of become something everybody’s in it for the love of the project at a certain point, because I think we all found it – when everybody came together, it became something better than everybody expected it to be, I think. I think even Syfy is kind of going, “Wow, this is really good.” And so I am very happy with the cast that we got, and we worked really hard to get them and gave a lot of people a break.

The guy who plays Murphy was working for the Asylum. He acted in a couple of their movies, but he was the office manager at the time that I met him between their movies, and we just kind of read him as a courtesy at first. It was like, “Keith wants to read for you,” and it’s like, “OK, sure.” And he was really good. He kept beating people out at every step of the way, and it was like, “Oh, my God, Keith is going to line up with this thing,” and we wound up sending three actors to the network and they didn’t know Keith was being the office manager at the time, and they thought it was great. And he’s been fantastic in the series. I mean, he’s really stepped up and has met everybody’s expectations and really become kind of a leader of the cast, in a way, both on and off screen, and has turned out to be just a great character, and he’s hilarious in it, as well as being evil and dark and all the things we needed him to be. So I’m very happy with the cast.

One of the things that really struck me about the pilot was the humor, and especially D.J. Qualls’ character, which it really felt like Good Morning, Vietnam to me.

Good.

Was that what I was supposed to think? Are we going to see a lot of him? Is he going to…

Yes. He’s in every episode. Well, the idea was to have a character who was stuck at the North Pole, where the zombies can’t get him, because they all freeze before they get that far, who has kind of an overview of the whole apocalypse but very little that he can directly do about it and that he’s keeping what’s left of the Internet and the communications system alive using the old NSA assets spread around the world. So he’s in every episode. He’s fantastic to work with and so funny himself, and some of the episodes revolve entirely around him. He has whole shows that’re just his, so he’s great and sort of brings a – there’s a level of social satire to the whole series, and he helps kind of focus that and is kind of our narrator, sort of the Wolfman Jack of the apocalypse that we use him for.

He’s great. Now, you said that you used a lot of the landscape around Washington, so can you tell us if they’re going to make it all the way to California by the end of the season?

They don’t by the end of the first season, no.

So, do you have a specific story arc? Is it going to take us through…?

We have like a five-year story arc. That’s just how cocky we are about this show.

Go big or go home.

Exactly. The network asked me to come up with that before we started, and obviously that may adjust, but – because even once they make it to California, that’s not going to be the end of the line. Nothing goes according to plan on this show for our characters, and the Murphy character’s evolving. Their mission’s going to evolve. The nature of the apocalypse is going to change, and I think the show’s going to wind up going to places that will really surprise the audience. If you see this show even – beginning of next season’s going to be a very different, interesting show from how it started out, and we reveal a lot about the origin of the apocalypse and what’s going on and where things are going with Murphy’s evolving character and other people like him that sort of appear in the second season.

Are we going to see love interests bloom sort of the same way we’ve seen those characters develop in other…

Absolutely, both between our characters of our main hero team and also with characters they run into along the way. It’s like life. There’s going to be tragedy, humor, romance, action, adventure. Like I said before, we’re trying to put the fun back in zombies and not take it so seriously and dark, because if you look at wartime and battle, even under the worst of circumstances people still fall in love and have a sense of humor and suffer tragedies and things like that. So we’re going to put our characters through a full experience as they go forward.

I was going to ask you about the possibility of a second season, but you kind of already answered that, so can you talk about maybe a favorite scene or moment without giving too much away?

Coming up?

Yes.

I have a favorite moment in almost every show. I mean, in Episode 2 there’s flaming zombies. Let’s see. In Episode 3 we have some insane cannibals, and I think one of my favorite moments – we have an episode, where Citizen Z up at the North Pole gets a new friend with a very intriguing, dark, twisted story that I think will surprise everybody where it goes and where it ends, but somebody makes their way to the North Pole and finds him, and he has a companion for an episode.

But I think our show’s so different from every episode that I have – and I hope the audience does, too – will have favorite moments from every episode, because we’re really trying to do – you’re going to see zombies do something different that you haven’t seen them do before in every episode and see our characters react in a way that is surprising and interesting, both either funny or dark or – in every episode I think you’re going to see something really gruesome and gross, really dark and violent, really funny, and very emotional. There’s a lot of episodes where people cry on set when we’re shooting a scene, so I think if that translates into the final product and we get to – you make people cry at one of these zombie shows, I think you’re doing your job.

Is it right to assume that each episode, I’m taking it, is going to have some sort of a mystery – well, it’s not necessarily a mystery but mystery of the week type thing but yet still have obviously that overarching story?

Yes. I mean, their overall mission to get to California involves each week they come upon some new pocket of humanity or some challenge. The second episode is all about getting gasoline, and pretty much the whole episode is about getting gasoline, while at the same time Citizen Z has a problem of his own up at the North Pole that he has to deal with with zombie sled dogs. So, there’s all kinds of different adventures along the way, and each week they sort of have a sub-mission, something that they have to get done in order to get to the next point on the compass for them.

With the arc this season, is it a very firm arc, or as you’re shooting are you going to be a little flexible and kind of – when you see the actors and their roles and that kind of thing kind of morph it a little bit as the season goes on?

Definitely the show evolved. In order to do it properly at the budget level we are, we wrote all the episodes before we started shooting. We have a draft of every episode, but then when I came to Spokane and got up here and we had our cast, I did a lot of rewriting to fit the locations that we found and the cast. And it sort of becomes a living organism at a certain point that kind of finds its own direction, and the characters make relationships and you start writing for who they really are, and so it evolved a lot as we went along and will continue to evolve. And I am a very collaborative, open filmmaker, so the actors are also very involved in where their characters go, and they come to me with story ideas and little relationship things that they want to do between each other.

And the directors all have the mandate of, “If you’re out there doing a scene and find there’s something interesting about the location or something comes up between the actors when you’re rehearsing, do it. Let it happen.” And I think the results keep it fresh and interesting, and it becomes the sum of all the people involved. I try and do that with everybody even on the crew, right down to the effects people and the camera people and everybody. I want them to feel like their contributions are embraced and needed, and after the first couple episodes everybody kind of got into the tone of the show and they understood the sense of humor that I have and how we were trying to keep it funny and different but real.

And once they all kind of got that and it clicked in, then the costumers, the effects people, the camera people all started to come to it with their own ideas and input on how to really capture that tone and keep the show edgy, different, and funny, which is what we’re going for. So, it evolved a lot as we went and will continue to evolve a lot.

Even before The Walking Dead, we just have a fascination with zombies, and they’ve kind of made a comeback as a result. Why are they again so popular in our culture?

I’ve given that a lot of thought, because they’re way more popular than they should be for the genre. I mean, Night of the Living Dead was a great movie, and zombies have always sort of been within the entertainment arena but as a very small niche, not as the most highly rated scripted show.

And as good as The Walking Dead is, that success isn’t all about their execution, because even here in Spokane, when we had an open call for zombie extras we thought we’d have 50 or 60 people come to audition to be extras. We had 800 people show up to be zombies. And these people don’t want to be zombies. They need to be zombies. They’re crazy for this stuff.

And I think that our collective unconscious sort of knows something bad is coming, but we haven’t really figured out what it is yet and that zombies sort of stand in for that thing, that the zombie apocalypse is kind of like what if the absolute worst thing happened, and how would I respond to that? And I think that somehow is part of the attraction to it, in a strange way. I think it really plugs into our unconscious in some deep way we don’t really understand yet.

You mentioned the main principals will be running into new pockets of humanity while they trek to California. I’m figuring some characters they meet will last longer than others. Are there any upcoming guest stars you’d want to tease for us at this time?

I’m trying to think of who we – gosh, I’ve got all these shows in my head at this point. Well, we have not star cast. We don’t really have a lot of people coming up in terms of recognizable named guest cast, but we have some great characters coming up in future episodes. There’s a Russian cosmonaut that meets up with Citizen Z. We have the leader of a cannibal cult. We have sort of a zombie resurrection cult leader coming up, who’s – we have an all-female compound with – actually with Kelly McGillis playing the leader of an all-female compound that’s very dangerous and interesting, and she’s great in it.

So, there are some really interesting characters coming up, and each week they sort of find a different pocket of humanity that they run into that’s trying to rebuild society somehow, and that’s kind of what the show is – there’s a social-satire aspect to the show, so seeing our characters run into these different pockets of humanity and how they’ve tried to rebuild society and how or why it doesn’t work out for them is kind of the fun or the show.

How far into the season have you shot already?

We’re actually shooting Episode 12 now. And I think the show gets better as we go along, so I think we actually sort of hit our stride at a certain point and have some really great episodes coming up.
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Z Nation premieres tonight, Friday September 12th, at 10:00pm on Syfy.

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