Z Nation starts 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. Although the antibodies he carries are the world’s last, best hope for a vaccine, he hides a dark secret that threatens them all. With humankind’s survival at stake, the ragtag band embarks on a journey of survival across three thousand miles of rusted-out post-apocalyptic America.
ZRS caught up with co-creator, co-executive producer and co-writer Craig Engler to chew into Z Nation. In this exclusive interview, Craig talks about the show’s origins, the types of zombies that will be encountered in the show, and the inevitable comparison it will have with The Walking Dead.
ZRS: Tell me a bit about how Z Nation came about.
Craig: The idea is one I’d been kicking around for a long time: having a group of competent survivors crossing the length of the U.S. after it had been overrun by zombies in order to get a cure. I’ve always been attracted to road stories like The Lord of the Rings or Saving Private Ryan because they allow for such interesting storytelling. There is literally always something new around the next corner to encounter, especially in the zombie apocalypse. The format really lets you delve into the different ways society and various survivor groups would react to the situation.
On a personal front, I had become a network exec at Syfy by accident and was looking to get back to my writing roots, and The Asylum was looking to get into the episodic TV business in addition to their movies. We’d worked together in the past on Zombie Apocalypse, so it made sense to work on the show together.
How long has it been in the works, where did it start, and how/why were the various creative people brought on board (Karl Schaefer, John Hyams- and the other directors, as well as the cast choices).
Things really started to come together around the fall of last year when The Asylum hired Karl as the showrunner. Karl is the CEO/Auteur/Ninja of the series and he really took the initial idea, made it his own and turned it into a full-fledged show. He hired all the writers (including me!), directors, etc. We were crazy lucky to get John Hyams, who’s an amazing director and a wonderful human being. And the cast really came together as well. All in all we could not ask for anything more.
I see you are writing a couple of the episodes. How did screenwriting the film Zombie Apocalypse help you with producing and writing Z Nation?
The writing process for a TV episode is much different than the writing process for a movie. For the movie it was just me and my co-writer Brooks Peck pitching a stand-alone story to the producers and network execs. Basically Brooks and I came up with the concept and the outline for the two hour movie, and after we incorporated some notes from the network and production company, we went off on our own and wrote it.
For Z Nation there was a writers’ room with seven TV writers plus an assistant. We collectively created the 13-episode arc for the first season and “broke” (a TV term for outlining) each individual episode together, then wrote detailed outlines for all of them. So by the time we went off to write our own episodes, we were working from an incredibly detailed roadmap that had been workshopped for months with many people involved. And then you came back with the first draft of your episode and got more notes from all the other writers, as well as the producers and the network, so it’s a super collaborative and helpful process.
So in many ways the two aren’t terribly similar, other than if you figure out how to write a two-hour movie on your own, writing a one hour TV script with the help of many other people is much easier!
There are similarities between the movie Zombie Apocalypse and the TV show Z-Nation — can you speak to that.
I think Zombie Apocalypse was my first attempt at telling the roadshow concept I mentioned, but with the time limit we had in terms of it only being a two-hour movie, as well as the budget limitation of not being able to do anything really crazy, we just scratched the surface of the idea. What I found is you really need something like an episodic series to have enough time and space to tell the story of people traveling the breadth of a zombie-infested U.S.
What are the differences between producing a feature film and producing a TV show/series.
The differences are night and day. On the movie we shot for 18 days and that was that. On a TV show you’re in the writers’ room for months, you shoot for around four months and you’re in post production even longer. And if you get picked up for another season you come back and do it again. Both are fun and challenging, but for my money TV is better because you get a lot more time to do really cool stuff.
When will you fully wrap Season 1?
We’ll be done shooting the final episode in the next few weeks, but we’ll still be in post production for a long while. Then hopefully we’ll get to come back and do it again!
What have been some of the challenges in producing Z Nation?
I’m not a line producer so can’t really speak to that. We have two great producers on the series, Steve Graham and Jodi Binstock, and they are doing an amazing job. And we work with the North By Northwest production company in Spokane, so that’s been amazing. And of course Karl is the uber head of it all.
That said, the challenge with any TV show is always time and money. You always want more time and more money to make everything a little better, or get that one last cool thing in. But TV is very much like a train, and once the train starts it won’t stop for anything, so at the end of the day you have to keep moving. Every show on TV is like that.
Will you be adhering to the standard George Romero zombie tropes?
Yes and no. The virus rules are Romero-esque and we get into that in a later episode. But in terms of zombies we have both fast and slow varieties. The idea is, the more recently a zombie was turned, the fresher it is and the more active it is. Over time they wear down and become more like the shambling kind of zombie. Interestingly if you watch the opening of Night of the Living Dead, the first zombie you see actually jogs alongside a car, so fast zombies aren’t that out of line with what Romero did, at least in spirit.
How will you be differentiating yourself from that other zombie TV show?
I think the core premises of both shows are significantly different. In The Walking Dead the characters are just trying to survive and not on their way to anywhere in particular, and it’s unclear (at least to me) if the recent story line about a possible cure is a red herring or not. In our show there is a definite goal and they actually have a guy who’s been bitten and not turned, so we know there is a potential cure to be had.
Beyond that, our show has humor in it, both the gallows humor you’d expect from hardened survivors in the Z-pocalypse and also some over-the-top moments. So while both shows have overt similarities like zombies, they’re quite different once you get into them. As a zombie fan I’ll be watching both!
Where would you like Z Nation to go creatively?
We have a definite roadmap for future seasons but I can’t say anything about it because of spoilers. As the first season progresses you’ll definitely get an idea of where things are headed, and I think I can safely say you’ll see some stuff that hasn’t come up in the zombie genre before. I hope you like it!
Check out Z Nation at Syfy.com/znation. Z Nation premiered on Sept 12 at 10/9c on Syfy.