Since 1998, Cliff Curtis has made four films and television shows in Vancouver – gigs that left the New Zealand-based actor talking up the city as if it were an old friend, specifically describing streetscapes, parks and how they connect in a mix he adores.
Given all that, he found it funny when told the new TV series Fear The Walking Dead – a prequel to the hugely popular AMC series The Walking Dead, in which he is the male lead – would fully shoot only its first episode in Los Angeles, where it is set. The plan was to then shoot the remaining five first-season episodes in Vancouver, largely substituting for L.A. (The Walking Dead is shot in Atlanta where the show is set.)
"The big difference between Vancouver and L.A. is Vancouver is this compact, convenient, pocket-sized city," the 47-year-old journeyman actor said in a telephone interview from, ironically, L.A., where a few last scenes were being shot. "You can walk from Burrard to Denman and you've gone from the centre of the city to this beautiful green neighbourhood, whereas L.A. is a sprawl. It just doesn't end. It goes further and further out. You can spend four hours a day in L.A. in your car, and that's normal."
But now that production on Fear's first season is done and the show debuts Aug. 23, Curtis says the producers and crew easily pulled off the Vancouver substitution, ferreting out and effectively shooting areas that would pass for L.A. "They know how to do that by movie magic – shoot interiors and very specific exteriors that production found. They just figured it out."
It all brings a kind of odd Canadian content to this first test of whether The Walking Dead's momentum – five years after its debut – can extend into a second series. In yet another irony, despite vigorous California incentives to curb runaway TV and film production, this piece of one of TV's most popular series came north despite being set in California.
In The Walking Dead, society has collapsed due to the rise of zombies, dubbed walkers. Fear winds the narrative back a bit to when the undead first began to appear and shows the fall of civilization – Los Angeles in particular.
Series co-creator David Erickson, whose previous gigs include executive producing the biker drama Sons of Anarchy, says B.C. tax breaks for the film and TV sector as well as the quality of local crews clinched the decision to shift some production to the province. Many interiors are being shot in the Vancouver area while some exteriors are shot in L.A.
"In terms of other places we could have gone, it's far more convenient and the production base is fantastic here," said Erickson, who co-wrote the first and sixth episodes of the season.
At one point, crews shot on Main Street in Vancouver's Chinatown – a streetscape that will be seen as part of East L.A. "You can find places that match downtown L.A. That's where we kind of centre," Erickson said, while at a former Burnaby factory that acted as the Canadian production headquarters. In some respects, the factory resembled the kind of compound where walker-fighting survivors of the zombie apocalypse might hunker down.
One former industrial space was filled with a full-sized version of the bungalow owned by Fear character Madison (played by Kim Dickens, featured in such series as Deadwood and House of Cards), a guidance counsellor who is dating Curtis, a high-school teacher in the show. Beyond the rise of the walkers, much of Fear's drama comes from the efforts of the two lovers to mesh their individual children into one family.
During an interview with Erickson and his cast, series star Ruben Blades said Vancouver's role won't matter to franchise fans.
"Remember this goes to 90 countries. They have no clue of the difference between L.A. and Vancouver," said the 67-year-old Panamanian-born actor, featured as the operator of a barber shop in which the family of Mr. Curtis's character seeks shelter as walker-related trouble breaks out.
The salsa singer, songwriter and former Panamanian minister of tourism loved Vancouver – the latest stop in an artistic career that dates back to the early 1980s. "It's a walking city. That's important, because I don't drive," he said. "People are very nice, in general. There's great food here, everywhere you go."
And he loved the quality of the street musicians. "If those guys are playing on the street, I wonder at the ones you have playing inside. They must be really terrific," he said.
Make-up effects supervisor Andy Schoenberg said the cooler Vancouver-region weather was a relief from broiling Georgia.
"There are fewer makeup issues for us in terms of people sweating off makeup or that sort of thing," he said.
Crawford Hawkins, executive director of the B.C. wing of the Directors Guild of Canada and second-unit director for The X-Files when it was originally produced in Vancouver, wasn't surprised by Vancouver playing L.A. "It's the various looks we have, plus the talent, plus the 80-cent dollar," he said. Also, he noted that it would be easier to move crews and cast around Vancouver than L.A., helping producers save money.
Hawkins said he expected stock, panoramic exterior shots of L.A. mixed with close-up exteriors of Vancouver locations will help sustain the illusion. "It would be pretty straightforward," he said.
The Globe and Mail screened Fear's first two episodes. The first features wide, lingering exterior shots, L.A. street scenes and a particularly horrific sequence in and around an L.A. viaduct you would not find in the Lower Mainland. Episode two is a touch more coy on locations, though there's a big sequence shot in an area of downtown Vancouver – subbing as urban L.A. – that city residents will recognize.
You watch the gory, chaotic scale of it and wonder when they got around to filming it without more media and public attention.
"The goal will be, for me, that every season will be its own novel, so be specific to the conflicts that exist in the pilot in season one," Erickson said. "And then I'll let the apocalyptic side evolve off of that."