Fear the Walking Dead Q&A — Michael E. Satrazemis on Building the World of PADRE
Michael E. Satrazemis is an executive producer and director on Fear the Walking Dead. In this interview with amc.com, he talks about directing Kim Dickens for the first time since Season 4, his early days on The Walking Dead, and the joy of working with his wife and son on the show.
Q: Before we talk specifically about the Season 8 premiere, I'd like to ask about your history in The Walking Dead Universe, especially because you started on The Walking Dead in Season 1 before there was even a universe to speak of! How did you come to join the show?
A: To tell you the truth, I came to join the show in Season 1 because of the body of work that AMC had done previously with Breaking Bad and Mad Men. I felt that AMC was always willing to take risks on shows that might not be an easy pitch, but they were really choosing to take big swings on highly creative material. As a filmmaker, your dream is to be a part of that. … For me, my whole journey is really, really big and long. I've been given all of my creative dreams through AMC, through these shows, and through Scott Gimple and Gale Anne Hurd.
Now that I'm getting nostalgic because the shows are ending, I really think back to that first season when everyone was telling us to not be so excited and to lower our expectations. But that was the epicenter of all of it. It was long before anyone said we were cool and long before there were big ratings. There were a lot of like-minded eyes. Looking around at [Jon] Bernthal, Andy [Lincoln], Norman [Reedus] and Sarah [Wayne Callies], and just everybody with these wild eyes realizing that we were in a special environment with a lot of like-minded creators. We could elevate everything. That’s just all that I want to try to recreate for the remainder of my career. That’s the epicenter of what it's all been about. When you find that many filmmakers at the table, you can cook quite the meal.
Q: Why did you make the move to FEAR in its fourth season?
A: To be honest, I had moved into full-time directing in my head and was no longer going to be the director of photography of The Walking Dead. There wasn't a full-time spot for a director, and I was going to make the hard choice to leave the Universe. Scott Gimple asked me if I wanted to recreate this show and come over with Lennie James, who's my brother, my family. I wanted to learn a lot about myself. I'd never recreated a show, didn't know if I could, so I wanted to challenge myself creatively. To do it, to come over with Lennie James, it was something that I thought was very, very important for my journey.
Q: I have to ask you about your first directorial effort on The Walking Dead, which was one of the most memorable episodes ever, "The Grove" in Season 4. Do people still mention this episode to you?
A: They do. I've had a few really memorable episodes, but that's the one that seems to resonate with everybody the most. Scott Gimple wrote the episode. Something that beautiful was a gift on another level. And we got so lucky with those two little girls – Brighton [Sharbino] and Kyla [Kenedy] are so special. Melissa [McBride] is so dear to me personally as a friend just on every level, and Chad Coleman, to be able to go down the rabbit hole together was amazing. You know, we call these episodes "bottle" episodes. The bottles have always resonated with me, and even on FEAR and in other places where they want you to do the very big [episodes], I’ve always chosen some of these smaller-scope episodes because they’re complete little films. They have a beginning; they have an end. This one was so dark and really researched an area of the apocalypse we hadn't touched very much — how a child would be affected, having been raised in the apocalypse. It will always be immensely special to me, and it just shows what you can do with really, really strong actors in a small scope story. It's like a beautiful little movie and it's very dear to me.
Q: Turning to Fear the Walking Dead, can you talk about the world-building opportunity you got in the Season 8 Premiere ? PADRE was mentioned quite a bit in Season 7, but it's only now that we get to see it. How did you go about creating the world of PADRE?
A: Even moving the show to Savannah [in Georgia] gives you an amazing opportunity to start telling stories in a different way. It gives you an amazing palette. It gives the survivors a totally different and unique background for how they’re going to survive and the challenges that come with it. Starting the first episode in a completely different perspective with somebody that we haven't met — even though we have met Mo but she was a baby at that point in time — that also was amazing. Getting to have that experience with Zoey [Merchant, who plays Mo], who's wise and really has so much experience. She's a quiet storm and very internal. There's a strength to her thoughts. Being able to hear about what PADRE was doing, and seeing Morgan and Madison knowing that they were trying to save Mo at the end of Season 7… cutting to Mo and seeing PADRE through her perspective was really a unique way to get very deep inside the world.
The world building we got to do was very extensive because you're planted in a totally different perspective. You're not seeing it from the outside; you're seeing it from the inside out and that gave us a unique way to build it all out. We spent a lot of time in prep with my production designer at locations and we built our own swamp. That was man-made and took a month-and-a-half to build. We had to find a set near spring water, so we found groundwater that was coming up as artesian spring water so that the actors could be in it. We used excavators and we had to make channels and sight lines and places for boats to come in and the depth to be able to sink the boat eventually. We then filled it with a black pool bottom so none of the actual animals in the water would get contaminated. We were obviously in Savannah so we had to deal with alligators and snakes in the water and a lot of other things and we had to make sure that we put it in a place that we wouldn't be inviting them into. In Episode 1, we got to build all the big set pieces for the season and that's always fun. World building is an amazing thing to be a part of.
Q: Two new major characters are introduced in Episode 1: Mo and Shrike. What were you looking for when choosing actors for these key roles?
A: When you get into choosing the actors, it is a bit of a committee. [Showrunners] Ian [Goldberg] and Andrew [Chambliss] and myself, we watch the auditions and go through things. I mean, you need to know a lot about the future. Ian and Andrew had written the first eight episodes, so we were far enough ahead that we were able to craft what we wanted to get out of those things.
When you're casting a child actor in the apocalypse, it is really important to find somebody wise that can relate to humanity. You don't get to be the average child in most movies and television shows; you have to deal with some very, very dramatic material. And then it's also very, very important to bring in somebody that has the strength to take your lead actors for a ride. And [if] you find a child that can do it, it's really unique. With Zoey, I felt that it was her from the first day, the first second. We do bring in children in the callbacks always. I do it so that I can change things and see if they're malleable. I want to see if I can actually direct them and if they can take direction because a lot of times children find one thing through an acting coach or a parent and then they're not that malleable. Zoey was amazing.
Then with Shrike, Maya [Eshet] was our choice right away. With Shrike and Maya, you want to find somebody that can play the strength and the youth because we have this child soldiering storyline and this non-parent storyline we're exploring. Everybody has to play up that strength and still see the vulnerability and the child inside. You can see the strength and the vulnerability behind Maya's eyes, which is really a beautiful combination. Maya was, again, somebody we all resonated with immediately, so we got very, very lucky. We have an amazing casting department and are always given really good options, but these were two very special actors.
Q: You got to direct Kim Dickens again! The last time you directed her before the Season 8 Premiere was Season 4, Episode 8, "No One's Gone" when we thought Madison died at the stadium. What was it like directing her again after all this time?
A: Well, working with Kim on 408, it was a totally different circumstance than [the Season 8 Premiere]. I am so fond of her. She’s such a pro. I love crafting things with her. There is truly nobody more pro than Kim and getting to have her come back to the show and work with her is a dream. She's everything you could ever want in a cast member. Setting her up against Lennie James, you only get amazing things. That is a wind-them-both-up moment and just let 'em go. They bring the truth. In our business, we're making a lie become the truth, and, hopefully, so much the truth that everybody that sees it feels the emotions. With both of them it’s very easy to find the truth.
Q: Could you talk about your shot selection? For instance, there's an interesting perspective towards the beginning of the episode when Madison and Mo are talking through the cell door. You shot Mo from Madison's point of view through the window of the door.
A: The point of view through the window when we see Mo through Madison, that shot became available when I realized I could get a reflection of Madison in the window and still keep her alive in that. All of that is settled in prep. I don't like finding things on the day. You have to have a plan and prep. I think everything in this universe is so difficult. This show is so big, and it's continually grown and raised its own bar that there's an expectation from the fans who now own the show at this point in time! It's not our show anymore. I think around Season 3 we handed it over and because of that you shoot for the fans, and you shoot for the expectation. I have to prep it very hard to make sure that all of those things are already settled because it’s the apocalypse and shooting is very much a divide and conquer kind of mode! There's no time for talking once we're shooting. There has to be a plan, and everyone has to know it already. That's how we can keep the scale and the scope of the show so big.
I want to keep it as big, cinematic, and emotional as possible. You have to have your shot selections so you have the time to play with performances. Then you have to know your pacing and your cutting, when you're going to jump out and show the audience scope, and when you're going to go internal for performance. If you don't have all of that plotted out, you're not going to have elegance and you're going to lose the scope.
Q: Can you talk about your approach to the houseboat and the challenge of dealing with all the walkers, the water, and your actors in the water?
A: We had to build our own houseboat and that thing didn't really float. We had to have the perfect depth. The perfect depth for people to be able to stand in chest-high water, but we still had to be able to pull the boat underwater at the depth where you believe it’s sinking — and walkers don't swim so we can't have people swimming in the water. It's got to be super safe because all the hydraulics have to be buried in towards the center so nobody can get caught under it. It's very, very technical when you start getting into that. Zoey had to get off the boat to safety, so I had to have it graded up so we could have a shallower section where she wouldn't be swimming and treading water. It is so technical that we started having to have 10 or 12 departments at the same meetings and go back out to the location and then fill it up with water and check depths in all those spots. It has to be very, very, very tight to execute all the elements of the script. Obviously, the boat has to not fall apart when it gets wet. It has to be resettable. It's really everybody working together, a collaborative experience. We have such an amazing crew that I love personally and they're all friends, but they are so good at their jobs that we can really break it down to that extent and in television, and on this show, you have to do it at lightning speed. So, it's really about execution and getting everybody at the table and on point. It's the difference between a great sequence and something that doesn't work. There's very little margin for error.
Q: I see that there's an actress named Be Satrazemis who's in some episodes in the second half of the season. Is that someone related to you? Or is that a giant coincidence?
A: No, it's my wife! In order to be an executive producer/director, knowing the amount of time it takes, I have a six-year-old son, Smith, and I bring him and my wife Be with me when we shoot so that I can be a husband and a father. And because we had a story element that came up, Ian and Andrew asked me if I would like Be to do it. And I said, "Well, let's audition her and we'll see." They were like, "We don't need to do that!" It's very special.
My son Smith is in 801 [the Season 8 Premiere]. He's the kid who's stabbing through the walker when we introduce PADRE. He has been sneaking around the corner when I'm editing and watching for years, and to be able to bring him in and have the father/son experience and allow him to be a part of what I've been part of since his birth was really, really special. It did backfire a little bit. At one point, he was trying to do all the dangerous things that the stunt guys were doing, and I said, "You have to do this again." He said what every actor thinks, "Daddy, you keep saying 'good' and then I do it again and again and again and again and I'm going to be here 14 more hours." And then all the other children that were there said, "We're going to be here 14 more hours?!" And I was like, "Smith, my dad dream is backfiring on me right now." But it was amazing to be able to put him in. And then to have Be come in and to have everyone love her performance and just who she is, it's special when you get that crossover. I think your family is so excluded from this giant thing that absorbs all of your time and life that it's so special when they can be a part of it in any way. And this season because of that, there's so many moments that were truly, truly special and were a first for me.
Q: What was it like directing your wife?
A: It was great! She's so easy going and she did everything exactly. But she's really a great actress even though she hasn't chosen that as her full-time career. It was unique. She didn't give me half as much sh-t as my son did!
Fear the Walking Dead's airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Each episode in this final season will also be available for AMC+ subscribers to stream early on Thursdays.