There’s a common perception that AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead is about to undergo an extensive creative overhaul — and while that’s true, the notion overshadows the fact that much of what’s come before is very much still in place, as Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg step into the showrunner seat vacated by co-creator Dave Erickson at the end of season three.
“This show constantly reinvents itself,” Chambliss tells The Hollywood Reporter, addressing what it is about the original run of Fear that he and Goldberg wanted to keep intact heading into season four, which premieres Sunday after The Walking Dead finale. “We’ve seen the location move from Los Angeles in season one, to getting on a boat in season two and then being in Mexico, and then living on a survivalist ranch on the border in season three. We see ourselves continuing that tradition and carrying the show forward to the next step.”
“What’s most important to us is that we’re taking the characters we’ve come to know and love over the last three seasons and find ways to honor all of the places they’ve been, but also push them and take the characters into new directions with new relationships developing,” he adds.
In other words, while there are a bunch of shiny new toys falling into the sandbox this season, the core cast of Fear the Walking Dead remains very much intact: Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and her two children Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and Nick (Frank Dillane) are all along for the ride, as are extended members of the Clark family Victor Strand (Colman Domingo) and Luciana (Danay García). They are joined by the flagship’s Lennie James (Morgan) and a new roster of co-stars including Garret Dillahunt, Jenna Elfman, Maggie Grace and Kevin Zegers, among others. But as has happened all across Fear the Walking Dead thus far, the setting is about to change — both in space and in time.
“We have multiple timelines over the course of the season,” says Goldberg. “We’re playing with the structure, depending on which story we’re telling in the episode. What we find so exciting about telling stories across time is it allows for mystery and for finding characters in an emotional place and exploring how they came to be that way, and finding them in a very different emotional place in the flashback storyline — not only from a plot perspective of piecing it together, but also showing how people became who they are by charting them in the present and comparing it to where they’ve been in the past.”
Without delving into the specifics of which time periods focus on which groups of characters, it’s safe to say there’s one person who is largely defined by the present, as well as his future: Morgan Jones, first introduced in the very first episode of The Walking Dead, famously heading to Fear the Walking Dead as a new main character. The decision to bring James’ Morgan over from the flagship to Fear was born out of the original conversations Chambliss and Goldberg had with Scott M. Gimple, who has served as showrunner on The Walking Dead since the fourth season; he ends his tenure in that regard with this Sunday’s season finale, moving onto a larger role overseeing the greater franchise for AMC.
“When Andrew and I sat down with Scott Gimple at the beginning of the season, our conversations started with where we wanted to take our characters emotionally, which led us to exploring themes of people who are in isolation versus community,” says Goldberg. “We talked about a journey toward hope. That’s where we started and that’s very much the story we wanted to tell emotionally, and as we started to flesh that out and explore how we were going to tell that story, we started to talk about the character of Morgan Jones. Andrew and I have been big fans of that character and Lennie’s performance. He’s been on an amazing and very difficult emotional journey on The Walking Dead, but it’s one that as we continued to talk about it perfectly matched up with the story we were telling on Fear this season. It became undeniable to us: we wanted Morgan to enter our story and cross paths with our characters from Fear.”
“What we realized by bringing Morgan over is it allowed us to take the characters from Fear to places they haven’t been before, and at the same time take Morgan to places we haven’t seen before,” adds Chambliss. “It really seemed like the perfect opportunity for a crossover. Morgan was the perfect character to bring over to the show.”
In many ways, given Gimple’s close involvement in the new direction for Fear the Walking Dead, Morgan was the only character who could feasibly cross over from the original series. Among the many episodes he wrote for The Walking Dead, some of Gimple’s most notable works involved Morgan, including the landmark season three episode “Clear,” in which James returned to the show for the first time since the pilot. Gimple also wrote “Here’s Not Here,” the season six episode built around Morgan’s journey from isolation to community (there’s that theme again) by way of an Aikido master named Eastman (John Carroll Lynch). Now, Morgan is set for another journey from isolation to community, though the new Fear the Walking Dead showrunners insist it will result in a version of the character we have never seen before.
“Lennie James knows the character of Morgan inside and out,” says Goldberg. “He’s lived with this character since the pilot of The Walking Dead. It was very important both for him and for us to chart new terrain for Morgan. We didn’t want to repeat anything from his journey before. We wanted to take him to new emotional places.”
Through that transformed Morgan, Gimple suggests that viewers will have a familiar access point into a world they perhaps have not encountered before — assuming that fans who only watch The Walking Dead but have never seen an episode of Fear the Walking Dead are interested in joining Morgan on his upcoming road tip.
“People don’t need to have seen the first three seasons of Fear the Walking Dead to be able to dive into season four of Fear the Walking Dead,” says Gimple. “It’s great television, and I totally encourage them to watch it, but they don’t have to watch it to understand what’s going on, just as Morgan did not watch the first three seasons of Fear the Walking Dead, and he’s keeping up.”
Even as they’re becoming closer than ever in terms of timelines and with a shared character to boot, Gimple believes The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead are about to become increasingly distinct from one another — by virtue of doubling down on themselves.
“I definitely think that just changing timelines of a show — timelines being the big difference of shows — isn’t that big a difference,” says Gimple, about what’s required to make each show unique. “It really has to be about the types of stories that you’re telling and the kinds of journeys the characters are on. And the characters on Fear are on a very different journey than the characters on Walking Dead. And at the end of this season of Fear, they’re going to arrive at a very different place than where character-wise the characters of The Walking Dead are. And the two shows will be that much more distinct in the stories that are being told. And we hope to make them both great, but both very different.”
Here’s one way in which Fear the Walking Dead is carving out its own identity: genre. If it’s not evident in the very first scene of the new season, it’s certainly clear in the new title sequence: Fear the Walking Dead season four is a Western with zombies, very much by design.
“It all started with the themes we set out at the beginning: isolation and community,” says Chambliss. “Those themes run through a lot of classic Western stories, when you think about the lone gunslinger standing on the open flames of the west. As we talked a little bit more about the show and started looking at new locations, and Austin, Texas became a real possibility, it all started coming together. We wanted to find a visual way to bring those themes to the forefront of the show. We ended up having a bunch of conversations with Michael Satrazemis, our producing director, who had been the director of photography on The Walking Dead for a very long time, and we came up with a visual look for the show that very much deliberately harkens back to John Ford and Sergio Leone’s Westerns. We used Once Upon a Time in the West as a template to give to directors as they came in to direct an episode. From a cinematic perspective, it’s all about having wide shots, not moving the characters, but moving the characters within the frame. When we get to the editing room, it’s really about slowing down the cutting pattern, and harkening back to that style of filmmaking. It does infuse the show with a different feel than what we’ve seen before. It’s something that we’re very excited for people to see.”
People will lay their eyes on the new Fear the Walking Dead when it debuts April 15, immediately after the season eight finale of The Walking Dead.