‘Z Nation’ aims to be TV’s next big zombie thing
Syfy’s ultralow budget zombie show is being shot in Spokane, thanks to Washington state tax credits.
Special to The Seattle Times
Season premiere 10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 12, on Syfy.
Tonight in Prime Time
More zombies are coming to TV, this time by way of Spokane.
Syfy’s “Z Nation” has been in production in Spokane since May and is expected to wrap filming on its 13-episode first season this week. (The season premiere airs at 10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 12.)
Executive producer Karl Schaefer (“Eerie, Indiana”) is prepared for comparisons to AMC’s hit zombie show “The Walking Dead,” and perhaps to the satirical made-for-TV disaster film “Sharknado,” since “Z Nation” comes from “Sharknado” production company The Asylum.
On the latter comparison, “Z Nation” will mostly skate, except for one zombie gag near the end of the pilot episode.
“One of the first things I said was I wanted to make a real show, not a mockbuster, which is what [the creators at Asylum] normally do,” Schaefer said in a phone interview from Spokane. “This is not that kind of wacky, Saturday night Syfy movie craziness. We’re still having a lot of fun with the idea and there’s humor in it, but it’s not cheesy at all.”
As for “Walking Dead” comparisons, those might be harder to avoid, although Schaefer has some clear ideas of how his zombie apocalypse is different.
“Having a possible vaccine and having some humor in it,” he said. “We’re trying to put the fun back in zombies. Our characters aren’t afraid of zombies and they’re not just waiting to die. Their goal isn’t just to survive. They have a mission.”
That mission begins in the pilot episode when military leader Mark Hammond (Harold Perrineau, “Lost”) receives orders to take a convict (Keith Allan), who’s been injected with a zombie vaccine, on a cross-country trip to a government lab. En route, he joins up with another band of survivalists led by Charles Garnett (Tom Everett Scott, “Southland”).
And while “Z Nation” filmed in and around Spokane, this road show’s setting begins in New York and only gets as far as Colorado on the trek to California in its first season. Spokane never gets the chance to play itself.
“We’ll definitely have a homecoming episode when we make it here, which will happen next season,” Schaefer said.
For season one, Spokane capably doubled for a multitude of locations across the United States.
“Within the 30-mile zone we have to shoot in, there are alpine areas with lakes, rivers and mountains. We have rolling hills that look like Kansas. We have downtown with a demolished factory we shoot in,” Schaefer said. “The variety of looks we’re able to get within the 30-mile zone is fantastic.”
“Z Nation” is an ultralow-budget series costing less than $700,000 per episode, compared to $2.5 million for a typical network or cable one-hour drama. “Z Nation” is the first series to take advantage of the state’s film tax credit program through Washington Filmworks.
“That’s a lot of the reason we’re here,” Schaefer said. “It’s been interesting and challenging to do a show of this scale, trying to make a big show out of it, when we only have the money to do ‘My Dinner with Andre.’ ”
Since a TV-production schedule was new to local crews, Schaefer said it took a little while to get everyone on the same page.
“It took a couple of episodes to hit our stride and get the right teams in place to make sure we had the right people,” he said. “I think we did great in the end. I’m actually surprised we managed to stay reasonably on budget and the train didn’t run off the track at some point.”
If it gets a second-season renewal, “Z Nation” will return to Spokane to film season two, maybe even earlier than the May production start this year so the show can air over the summer.
“They really want us on when ‘Walking Dead’ isn’t on,” Schaefer said. (“The Walking Dead” usually airs its season in two batches of episodes in the fall and midwinter.) “We didn’t start soon enough this year, but I think ideally we’ll be filling the zombie appetite when the mothership isn’t hovering.”
Schaefer said he’s been particularly impressed with how the citizens of Spokane have embraced “Z Nation,” including the 800 who showed up to audition to play zombie extras.
“One night, it was 10 at night in the middle of nowhere, and I’m [leaving the set] and there’s an extra in zombie makeup hitchhiking on this lonely, dark road,” Schaefer said. “I pulled over to pick him up, but he said, ‘No, I’m waiting for someone to stop.’ He just wanted to scare the heck out of somebody. They’re such troupers and totally into it.”
Freelance writer Rob Owen: RobOwenTV@gmail.com or on Facebook and Twitter as RobOwenTV.