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How shooting in Mexico is making Fear the Walking Dead a better TV show

Setting up shop in the country has helped the series set itself apart.

Fear the Walking Dead
Fear the Walking Dead has shifted its shooting location to Mexico this season, making use of several sites around Baja, including the storied Rosarito Beach Hotel.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Before the director can shout, "Action," to set in motion a complicated scene that’s about to unspool on camera, somebody else’s voice cuts in: "There’s a horse on C camera!"

And there it is, in the background of the shot, lazily swishing its tail, grazing on the tall grass.

We’re supposed to be in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, in a world riven by death and destruction, and the horse could not care less.

Can the horse be moved? asks the director. No, as it turns out. It’s on private property, and Fear the Walking Dead, at present, is filming in a giant vacant lot next to the private property, in Santa Anita, a tiny little town in the foothills of Baja, Mexico.

Various efforts are made to shoo the horse from outside the fence, and it eventually wanders away, in search of better grass elsewhere.

But the experience exemplifies Fear the Walking Deads learning curve in a country that has never before served as host to an American television show, at least to this degree.

Even though Mexico is, relatively speaking, right next door to the television industry’s home base of Los Angeles, producers looking to make an expansive series but still save a few bucks have always been more likely to head up to Vancouver, a city where the American dollar generally goes further, but also a city with lots of experienced behind-the-scenes personnel. (Indeed, that’s where the bulk of Fear the Walking Dead’s first season was shot.)

But that’s starting to change, whether the horse likes it or not.

Fear the Walking Dead is breaking new ground in Mexico

Fear the Walking Dead
The huge open spaces of Baja’s countryside give Fear the Walking Dead a distinct visual aesthetic.

Fear the Walking Dead is not the very first American show to have set up shop in Mexico. So far as I (and the handful of researchers I contacted with the question) can tell, that was the short-lived Tremors TV series that aired for one season in 2003. But it is the first with such an extensive presence in the country. Fear the Walking Dead is not a run-and-gun operation; it’s a major television show, and as such, it leaves a major footprint everywhere it goes.

You’re much more likely to stumble upon a TV film crew in essentially every other major location the industry uses for production. Cities ranging from Atlanta to Vancouver to New York are inundated to the extent that some have struggled with crew and studio shortages. But here, just south of Tijuana, a TV series setting up camp is at least somewhat still novel.

A few films have been shot here over the years. The studio that Fear the Walking Dead has commandeered — Baja Film Studios, in the beach town of Rosarito — was actually built in the mid-’90s by director James Cameron, who needed a way to shoot Titanic that didn’t involve actually going out to sea. He built several water tanks that could plausibly simulate the ocean, including one on the beach, in the Pacific itself, to achieve a horizon that was all waves, no land.

After Titanic, a handful of other big-budget productions (including multiple Oscar nominee Master and Commander) used Baja Studios, and because there will always be movies set "at sea" (or nearby it), the studio remains in business. At the very least, its backlot offers the added benefit of looking plausibly California-ish while offering the cost-saving benefits of not having to shoot in California.

One of Baja Studios’ more recent customers, for example, was the Christian movie Little Boy, which used the studio’s location to simulate a coastal small town — and whose sets are being repurposed by Fear the Walking Dead for a plot introduced in the midseason premiere, which aired August 21.

There was a period of time, in the 2000s, when productions slowly stopped booking Baja Studios for a simple reason: Many people in the US film industry — the most logical one to utilize it — were worried about drug-related crime and security concerns. Meanwhile, the vibrant Mexican film and TV industry was mostly based in other locations (primarily Mexico City).

But times change. Fears have lessened, as drug crimes have waned — and, probably not coincidentally, more and more shows and films have looked further and further afield to find shooting locations to use in this age of Peak TV. Which is how Fear the Walking Dead came to Rosarito.

"As Americans, I think we have a lot of propaganda surrounding Mexico, especially now," says Fear the Walking Dead’s Colman Domingo, who plays the mysterious Strand. "I feel like every single bit of propaganda or stereotype to me has been smashed to bits. Not that I held up a lot of those things, but all my fears about security or about cartels or about drugs and things like that. Being here and living here, you see and feel none of that."

Shooting in Baja solved a handful of problems for the series

Fear the Walking Dead
Cliff Curtis enjoyed shooting on the water in Baja.

Shooting in Mexico also made sense to Fear the Walking Dead showrunner Dave Erickson, for reasons beyond practicality.

"I've always wanted to do a border story," he tells me with a laugh. "I never thought zombies might become the vessel for that."

From the first, Erickson had wanted to start Fear the Walking Dead — which, unlike its parent series, begins with the earliest days of the zombie apocalypse — in Los Angeles, a city he ascribes with a quality that can’t quite be captured anywhere else. (He says it’s in the "light and particulate matter" in the air.) So the show’s pilot was shot in and around LA, before budgetary concerns shipped the whole first season off to Vancouver.

But the end of season one set up several logistical challenges that Vancouver was unable to overcome, especially during the winter, when Fear filmed much of its second season. The first was that the characters ended the season on a boat; with the shorter winter days, there simply wouldn’t be enough daylight in Vancouver to capture all of those moments on said boat.

The second was that if Vancouver already lacked that Los Angeles quality Erickson so enjoyed, it really lacked the same quality of coastline as the sandier, more Mediterranean-esque Southern California coast. It also lacked the sort of massive water tanks Baja Studios boasts.

And the third was simple: The characters were already headed south toward Mexico. Why not just move production there as well?

That decision has given season two of Fear the Walking Dead a markedly different feeling from both its parent show and other shows on TV.

The series has always struggled with the question of how to be different enough from The Walking Dead. After all, they both feature zombies, and the number of stories one can tell with zombies is necessarily limited. Thus, the major difference would always have to be setting, and Baja has provided a much sharper contrast to the Atlanta environs of The Walking Dead than Vancouver did.

"The benefit we have is just by geographically being further away and in a different locale," Erickson says, pointing to Fear the Walking Dead’s use of water and desert in particular. There are cultural reasons, too. "I'm also intrigued by the idea of the show becoming progressively more bilingual," he says.

Plus, Mexico has become a part of the story of the series — for better or worse. At times, the arc of season two leans a little too heavily on the kind of vague mysticism that American storytellers too often ascribe to any predominantly nonwhite nation. Without totally spoiling what’s to come, the second half of the season involves something of a Mexican zombie death cult.

But most of the rest of the time, just shooting in Mexico has helped resolve Fear the Walking Dead’s past aimlessness and given the show a new purpose. Not everything the writers have tried has worked — a brief visit to Baja’s vineyards offered up most of the show’s worst storytelling tendencies — but simply putting the characters in this new setting has revealed new facets of their personalities.

And on a show where the most frequent complaint has been, "But I don’t care about anyone!" that has been a good thing indeed.

The new locations have inspired the cast, too

Fear the Walking Dead
As the season goes on, the show’s writers have found ways to increase the series’ bilingual quotient and introduced new Mexican characters, including one played by Paul Calderon.

For their part, Fear the Walking Dead’s cast seems to have been similarly inspired by the show’s new digs — even if they had to spend lots of time swimming in the Baja Studios water tanks during the first half of the season, often when the weather was cold. (Though it’s Mexico, filming was happening in December and January.)

Cliff Curtis, who plays Travis, the patriarch of the ad hoc family at the show’s center, actually loved filming those water sequences — except for the temperature issues.

"[Cold] changes the nature of it — being in the water and shooting long sequences in the night. It’s the cold, actually. The water’s not the problem. ... The first episode [shot in December], we were trying to get out to sea, and we had these big walls of water coming toward us, and it was cold. And, yeah, that was a little perilous," he says with a laugh.

When I visited the set in March, we spent the first day in the Rosarito Beach Hotel (which was actually built in the 1920s by Hollywood stars who wanted a place to drink alcohol and avoid Prohibition in peace), for scenes that aired in the August 28 episode.

The production had more or less taken over much of the hotel, from a lobby it had dressed to look as if the place had been hastily barricaded and abandoned to a meeting room dressed like a party that had suddenly been interrupted by the living dead.

Still, even after the actors had reset for a new take, we would sometimes experience long breaks in filming. Production might have to wait for a new guest to check in, or for an assistant to shoo away local media outlets who could post spoiler-y photos that would inadvertently reveal which character had met a sad fate in an earlier episode.

That sort of disruption, I thought, must bother people who are supposed to be pretending they’re hanging out after the end of the world, when anyone who approaches might be a threat. Obviously, Fear the Walking Dead’s stars are all professionals, but Rosarito itself is such a sleepy little beach town that it’s easy enough, when wandering around it, to imagine you’re the only one there.

And that feeling extends to many of the show’s locations. The cast has run up and down massive sand dunes, and hung out in eerily realistic abandoned villages on the Baja Studios’ backlot. As at the hotel, there are reminders of human presence — but only just. It’s easy to lose yourself in the illusion.

There are other complications, too. The Baja Peninsula is not as covered in production facilities as locations that host more shoots, so location filming can end up way, way far afield. (Those vineyard-set episodes in the first half of season two were filmed several hours south of Rosarito, for instance.)

But that isolation adds verisimilitude to everything the show is trying to do, and it finally seems to be moving out of the shadow of The Walking Dead, at least somewhat.

"It threw us, the actors, into an entirely new environment. It helps feed that feeling of displacement and being refugees and having no home anymore," says Kim Dickens, who plays family matriarch Madison.

The show’s midseason premiere traded heavily in the crushing loneliness of the immediate post-apocalypse. Almost entirely a solo hour for Nick, a recovering addict who’s found himself witnessing the apparent end of the world, the episode simultaneously flashed back to when he learned of his father’s death. For once, the show’s efforts to marry personal and global apocalypses felt as if they’d paid off.

And though it has its hiccups — Fear the Walking Dead is still finding itself — the locations themselves (in this case, a sun-drenched and empty highway filled with zombie herds) offer something weirdly electric.

"I’ve spent 25 years in the theater, and it feels like a theater company, in a way. In the theater, you go away and you create these little families, these little microcosms that only last for a little while, because everyone is from out of town mostly. We have to bond and come together and find time for each other on our days off to discover this incredible country," says Domingo.

Mexico is making Fear the Walking Dead better — a little bit at a time

Fear the Walking Dead
Even after the world’s end, the Rosarito Beach Hotel is a place to be.

But let’s go back to Nick for a second, as he exemplifies how the Mexico shift has helped the show. When Fear the Walking Dead began, he was easily the character viewers groused about most. And it was easy to see why: He had a selfish tendency to make everything revolve around him — not without reason — even though the world was collapsing.

In some ways, that’s an apt metaphor for the show itself. I mostly enjoy Fear the Walking Dead, but seemingly everybody else in my life deems it nonessential, without a clear sense of either itself or what viewers will find important. I can’t blame them. The show wants to be a family drama, about a splintered group of people finding themselves after the apocalypse, but the reality is that the zombies tend to outweigh everything else.

However, the longer Fear the Walking Dead spends in Mexico, the more the country itself seems to seep into the show’s bones. And I don’t mean that in the sense of, say, easy mystical bullshit, but more in the sense that Fear the Walking Dead increasingly seems to realize that it’s the only show filming in Mexico, which gives it added incentive to set itself apart by embracing as much of the country as it can squeeze into its frames — no matter how clumsily.

All of which brings us back to that muddy little town in the middle of nowhere. The horse safely off camera, the production ready to resume, the director calls, "Action," and the scene begins.

An assistant director watches as a character begins an eerie ritual — which was revealed in the August 28 episode — and then cues a large group of locals, acting as extras, who begin chanting in Spanish just off camera.

Witnessing it live, the moment feels a little off-kilter, like a random experiment the show hopes will prove worthwhile. But once I see it all together in the final cut of the episode, it’s unusual, eerie, and mysterious. It only enhances the feeling that Fear the Walking Dead is figuring out how to be something other than "that Walking Dead spinoff," like it has an identity all its own, even if it’s not always secure in that identity.

And you won’t see any horses anywhere.

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