Z Nation’s Karl Schaefer Talks Taking on The Walking Dead, Love Interests, Why Zombies? and LOTS More
Did you tune in Friday night for the debut of “Z Nation” on Syfy? Just before the premiere executive producer/showrunner Karl Schaefer took part in a roundtable discussion about the show, and we have the highlights here along with a sneak peek of Episode 1.02, “Fracking Zombies.”
Schaefer tackled the elephant in the room – how “Z Nation” stacks up against AMC’s “The Walking Dead” – right off the bat, openly discussing the similarities and differences between the two.
He also touched upon what his long-term plan is for “Z Nation,” if we’ll see characters hooking up, using the “Z” word, what he thinks accounts for our undying fascination with the undead, and much more, including the first we’ve heard about Kelly McGillis appearing as a guest star.
Q: Diving right in, can you talk about how “Z Nation” is different and how it stands out from what’s on television now?
Karl Schaefer: 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.
Q: Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced?
Karl Schaefer: 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 – 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.
Q: 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 going forward?
Karl Schaefer: Well, one thing about “The Walking Dead” is they’re taking a very realistic, straightforward look at… 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, 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.
Q: With “Z Nation” there is humor, but were you conscious of not crossing that line so that it wouldn’t be too silly and dilute the premise a bit?
Karl Schaefer: Absolutely. When I first came to this project with The Asylum, one of the things we all agreed on right upfront 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.
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. 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 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.
Q: Speaking of humor, D.J. Qualls’ character really felt like Good Morning, Vietnam to me. Was that what we were supposed to think? And are we going to see a lot of him?
Karl Schaefer: Good… Yes… He’s in every episode. 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 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.
Q: Can you tell us if they’re going to make it all the way to California by the end of the season?
Karl Schaefer: They don’t by the end of the first season, no…
Q: So do you have a specific story arc?
Karl Schaefer: We have like a five-year story arc. That’s just how cocky we are about this show. [laughs]
Q: Go big or go home?
Karl Schaefer: Exactly! The network asked me to come up with that before we started, and obviously that may adjust 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… [the] 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.
Q: Does the evolution include love interests blooming?
Karl Schaefer: Absolutely, both between [the] 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.
Q: With it being a road show, then, can we assume that each episode is going to have some sort of a mystery or “subplot of the week” type thing, yet still obviously keep the overarching story?
Karl Schaefer: Yes. Their overall mission [is] to get to California… each week they come upon some new pocket of humanity or some challenge. The second episode is all about getting gasoline… 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: 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.
Q: Even before “The Walking Dead” we’ve had a fascination with zombies, and they’ve kind of made a comeback as a result. Why do you think they are again so popular in our culture?
Karl Schaefer: 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!
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.
Q: Are there any upcoming guest stars or standout characters you’d want to tease for us at this time?
Karl Schaefer: I’m trying to think of who… 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; we have an all-female compound. Actually Kelly McGillis [plays] 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 of the show.
Q: Without giving too much away, can you talk about some of your favorite scenes so far?
Karl Schaefer: 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. I have – and I hope the audience … 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. 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… you make people cry at one of these zombie shows, I think you’re doing your job.
The 13-episode “Z Nation” stars Tom Everett Scott, DJ Qualls, Michael Welch, Kellita Smith, Anastasia Baranova, Russell Hodgkinson, and Keith Allan. The series airs Friday nights at 10PM on Syfy.
“Z Nation” Episode 1.02 – “Fracking Zombies” (airs 9/19/14)
In New Jersey the survivors run out of fuel and embark on a dangerous mission to replenish their supply. Meanwhile Cassandra’s past comes back to haunt her.