The new Syfy series Z Nation is set three years after the zombie virus has gutted the country and a team of everyday heroes must transport the only known survivor of the plague from New York to California, where the last functioning viral lab waits for his blood, in the hopes of using it to make a vaccine. With the human race’s survival at stake, a ragtag group of individuals embarks on a journey of survival across three thousand miles of post-apocalyptic America. The show stars Harold Perrineau, Tom Everett Scott, DJ Qualls, Michael Welch, Kellita Smith, Anastasia Baranova, Russell Hodgkinson and Keith Allan.
During this recent interview to promote the show’s premiere, showrunner/executive producer Karl Schaeffer talked about how this show is different from other shows like it, some of the biggest challenges they’ve faced, cranking out all of the make-up effects, what makes these zombies different, the importance of humor, that they have a five-year story arc, love interests, upcoming guest characters, and why zombies are so popular in our culture. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: How is this show different from other shows of its type?
KARL SCHAEFER: There is obviously a great zombie show already on, in The Walking Dead, so our mission is to go where they don’t. I think the biggest difference between us and them is that our series has a sense of hope and also a sense of humor. We’re 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 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. 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 and a lot of social satire, but primarily there’s a sense of hope and mission, and the characters are really taking it to the zombies, as opposed to being afraid of them and hunkering down. 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. I think it’ll be triumphant, in the end.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced with this show?
SCHAEFER: Well, we’re a reasonably low-budget show, so we have to try to give it a sense of scope and scale. Somebody has thrown down the gauntlet. The bar is set pretty high for zombie shows. But we face the challenge of any show, which is 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. There are so many different looks within the Spokane area, from mountains and lakes to beautiful rolling wheat fields and farms and desert. I think we really 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.
What can you say about the make-up effects company that is bringing your zombies to life?
SCHAEFER: Synapse is great. They came to us through The Asylum, and what they brought was the ability to do a lot for a little money. We worked really hard on trying to get the physical effects and make-up 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 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 make-up to look right, after going through that process, was a lot of work. For the small team they have, they just do a great job cranking out 25 zombies a day, of all different types. They’ve been fantastic. It’s been a tough, long shoot with a lot of work and not enough resources to do it, but they’ve delivered, every time.
What are the fundamental differences with your zombie creatures?
SCHAEFER: The Walking Dead is taking a very realistic, straight-forward look at things. And they won’t call them zombies. They’ll call them anything in the world, but zombies. With 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. We have all kinds of zombies. We wanted to be the zombie show that says, “Yes, we’ll do that kind of zombie.” We have fast zombies, slow zombies and 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. Every week, you’re going to see our zombies doing something different, that you haven’t seen zombies do before. Our goal was to put the fun back into zombies. If we come up with a cool idea, we’ll definitely do that. I think the audience is going to enjoy that aspect of it. We’re not stuck in stone, as to what our zombies are like and what they do.
This show has humor, but were you conscious of not crossing that line too much, so that it wouldn’t be too silly and dilute the premise?
SCHAEFER: Absolutely. When I first came to this project with The Asylum, one of the things we all agreed on, right up front, was that this would not be a campy mockbuster like Sharknado, or some of the other projects that they do. We wanted to make a real show. There’s black humor in the most serious of moments, and the humor in the show is all character-based. It’s more like M.A.S.H. than it is like Sharknado. Black humor is almost a survival skill. If you don’t have a sense of humor in the apocalypse, you’ll 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, or with cops. People that have to deal with danger and hardship on a daily basis have to have a sense of humor. 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.
Are we going to see a lot of Citizen Z (DJ Qualls)?
SCHAEFER: 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. And he has an overview of the whole apocalypse, but there’s very little that he can directly do about it. He’s keeping what’s left of the internet and the communications system alive using the old NSA assets spread around the world. He’s fantastic to work with and so funny himself, and some of the episodes revolve entirely around him. He has whole shows that are just his. There’s a level of social satire to the whole series, and he helps focus that and is our narrator. He’s the Wolfman Jack of the apocalypse.
Do you have a specific story arc for the series?
SCHAEFER: We have a five-year story arc. That’s just how cocky we are about this show. The network asked me to come up with that before we started. Obviously, that may adjust. Even if 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. Murphy is evolving. Their mission is going to evolve. The nature of the apocalypse is going to change, and I think the show is going to wind up going to places that will really surprise the audience. The beginning of next season is going to be a very different, interesting show from how it started out. We will reveal a lot about the origin of the apocalypse and what’s going on and where things are going with Murphy’s evolution. Other people like him will appear in the second season.
Will we start to see love interests?
SCHAEFER: Absolutely, between our main hero team, and also with characters they run into along the way. It’s like life. There is going to be tragedy, humor, romance, action and adventure. We’re trying to put the fun back in zombies, and not take it so seriously and dark. 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. So, we’re going to put our characters through a full experience, as they go forward.
Do you have any upcoming guest stars or characters that you can tease?
SCHAEFER: 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 a zombie resurrection cult leader coming up. We have an all-female compound with Kelly McGillis playing the leader. She’s very dangerous and interesting, and she’s great in it. So, there are some really interesting characters coming up. Each week, they find a different pocket of humanity that they run into, who are trying to rebuild society somehow. That’s 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 why it doesn’t work out for them is the fun of the show.
Why do you think zombies are so popular in our culture?
SCHAEFER: I’ve given that a lot of thought because they’re way more popular than they should be. Night of the Living Dead was a great movie. Zombies have always 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. 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. 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. Our collective unconscious knows something bad is coming, but we haven’t really figured out what it is yet, and zombies stand in for that thing. The zombie apocalypse is like, “What if the absolute worst thing happened, how would I respond to that?” I think that is somehow part of the attraction to it, in a strange way. I think it really plugs into our unconscious in some deep way that we don’t really understand yet.
Z Nation airs on Friday nights on Syfy.