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Q & A With ‘Z Nation’ EP and Showrunner Karl Schaefer; WTF Moments!

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Tonight at 10 pm Eastern/9 pm Central Syfy premieres Z Nation, a new zombie series from The Asylum, the makers of Sharknado and Sharknado 2. The premise is this, Three years after the zombie virus has gutted the country, 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.

We have a Q & A with Z Nation’s executive producer and showrunner Karl Schaefer as he answers our questions about the show, where the series is heading and what the plans are for the future of the show. Read on for the interview session I attended and be sure to check out some of the show’s WTF moments down below!

 

NBC UNIVERSAL

September 8, 2014
2:00 p.m. ET

Moderator:  On our line we are very excited to have Karl Schaefer, the Showrunner for Z Nation and Executive Producer, answer your questions. And as you know the show premieres this Friday, September 12th, at 10:00 pm.

Question:  So, obviously it’s inevitable that this 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.

Question: Can you talk about maybe 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 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.

Question: Can you just talk a little bit about what it was like working with Harold Perrineau during the pilot?

Karl Schaefer: 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.

Question: What can you tell us about the makeup effects company bringing your zombies to life?

Karl Schaefer: 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.

Question:  So one of the questions that came to mind as I was watching is, 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?

Karl Schaefer: 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.

Question: With this show, 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?

Karl Schaefer: 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.

Question: 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. Are we going to see a lot of him?

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.

Question: 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.

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

Karl Schaefer: We have like 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, 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.

Question: Can you talk about maybe a favorite scene or moment without giving too much away?

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 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.

Question: 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?

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.

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.

Question: How far into the season have you shot already?

Karl Schaefer: We’re actually shooting Episode 12 now.

Thank you so much, everyone, for joining. Thank you, Karl, for your time, and, once again, Z Nation premieres this Friday, September 12th, at 10:00 on Syfy.

Check out these WTF moments from the show,

Written by Michael Juvinall

I am a Horror journalist, producer, ravenous Horror fiend, aficionado of the classic Universal Monsters, Hammer Horror, Werewolves, and all things Horror.