Fear the Walking Dead Casts Its Shadow Over Austin
The AMC spin-off smash brings the dead to Texas
Like any good postapocalyptic drama, The Walking Dead zombie franchise has always had a little chaos in its DNA. But the fourth season of Fear the Walking Dead – which started airing in April, and returns from its midseason hiatus on Aug. 12 – was one of the biggest shake-ups yet. After two seasons shooting in Baja, Mexico, the series was moving back to the U.S.: not to California, where it began, but to the Austin area. Moreover, there was a major revamp of the cast (including the arrival of Lennie James as main series favorite Morgan Jones), while behind the camera Andrew Chambliss and Ian B. Goldberg took over as showrunners from series co-creator Dave Erickson. For Chambliss, this major detour for the bloody path of the walkers is uniquely suited to such major revamps. He said, "It is a world were people die, settlements fall, and what we came in to do was just an extension of that."
Those changes permeate the storytelling, so that this was never going to just be the same show in a new location. The new inspiration was the classic Western, "which impacted the way that we use the camera, the way we write the stories," Goldberg said. "It really started with us talking about the emotional story that we wanted to tell this season. ... We got really excited about themes like isolation versus community, and taking them on a journey toward hope. That informed everything, and the move to Texas was part of that journey." That's also why it was Morgan who crossed over: While there was wild online speculation that it would be another character (with heaviest betting on either Carol or Abraham), Goldberg said, "We realized that those conversations and those emotional textures lined up with the story that Morgan was on in season 8 of The Walking Dead, and it just became undeniable that this was the best way to tell that story."
As the pair aimed to add some Western flair, so began the hunt for a new home, and Texas "quickly became the front-runner," said Chambliss. The Texas Film Commission helped them location scout around the state, including Dallas. However, Chambliss said, "When we saw Austin, we really fell in love with it. ... It just offers such an interesting visual palette, and there are so many different landscapes that you can find just outside the city, and then the city itself provides an interesting look."
Austin's hosted its fair share of TV production (Friday Night Lights, From Dusk Till Dawn) and it's not the first time a prestige show has relocated here: In 2015, HBO moved The Leftovers to Austin (filling in for the fictional town of Jarden, Texas) for its second season. However, it's quickly becoming a favored destination for Fear the Walking Dead's broadcast home at AMC, which also shot the first two seasons of period Western The Son in the area. When the pair pitched the move, Goldberg said, "AMC was incredibly supportive because they had such a great experience with The Son – not only because Austin gives such great variety in terms of shooting locations [but] also because the crew base in Austin is fantastic." That included the special effects artists and technicians, many of whom have previously worked with Greg Nicotero – head of KNB EFX Group, the guiding force behind the show's gruesome effects, and a regular at Robert Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios in East Austin since the Nineties. Goldberg said, "AMC knew that it was a good place to work, and it worked for our story purposes."
The show has shot all around Travis and Williamson counties, but no single location has been more recognizable than the Dell Diamond – former home in the show to the Round Rock Armadillos, then to serve as a refuge for the doomed Madison (Friday Night Lights' Kim Dickens) and her struggling band of survivors. J.J. Gottsch, COO of Ryan Sanders Sports Services & Entertainment, recalled that when AMC reached out to the park's management in July 2017, they explained that "they wanted something that was similar to a fortress, something that was big enough to house a small community, but also be able to be defended." By September, the production team had begun design work, and construction started a month later – a major task, Gotsch said with some rightful pride, because the stadium was too nice and clean to pass as a redoubt against the undead: "They had to really work to age it and get it dilapidated."
Goldberg gave all credit for the transformation to production designer Bernardo Trujillo, "who only had six weeks to take that beautiful, pristine stadium and turn it into something that looked [like] a postapocalyptic settlement. I think we almost gave him a heart attack when he first went in there and realized how much work he had to do."
Yet by November last year, the familar Diamond had become one of the biggest, most elaborate locations in the show's history, complete with a vegetable patch where the pitcher's mound normally sits. Gotsch explained, "It was a really unique situation as we essentially rented the entire stadium to them – something we've never done in the stadium's 20-year history – including all of our parking lots. The only place our employees had access to were the administrative offices. They used our suites, our clubhouses, our maintenance barn, our dugouts, and obviously the field."
The location selection was another time when Nicotero's Austin connections really paid off. Chambliss said, "When we were pitching the first half of the season to the executive producers, we showed a series of photos of the baseball stadium, and Greg was like, 'Wait, I think I've shot there before.'"
What was suprising was that all this happened without anyone really noticing. The vast number of local creatives and technicians working on-set were all very circumspect about what they were working on: And with the Round Rock Express' home season over, there were no games to disrupt, and few fans near the stadium. Of course, that couldn't last. Gotsch said, "About two or three days into filming a local drone operator took some photos and sent them to local media, after that it wasn't much of a secret anymore."
Now the zombie cat is out of the bag, and the Diamond can freely embrace its part in the show's legacy: For opening night of the 2018 season, the Express even transformed into the Round Rock Armadillos, and wore scuffed-up jerseys with a zombified armadillo, wielding a barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat, as the mascot.
And while the survivors of the midseason finale may have fled the Diamond, they have not left the Austin area – and neither has the show. Chambliss and Goldberg confirmed that Fear the Walking Dead will return to Austin for the recently announced season 5, and there could be some new locations, familiar to locals, in the upcoming episodes. "We haven't spent a lot of time in the city in the season so far," said Chambliss, "but there may be some more of that setting coming up."
The second half of season 4 of Fear the Walking Dead debuts on AMC, Sunday, Aug. 12, 8pm.