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Downtown, region ‘Z’ place for Syfy series

Thu., June 5, 2014

The grille of the Ford F-350 sitting on First Avenue tells a bloody story.

“You can see the care taken with the viscera,” writer and producer Dan Merchant said. “Tendons, I think, are hanging there. I’m not sure what all we’ve got.”

It’s a sunny day in downtown Spokane, but for the moment, this is Philadelphia after the zombie apocalypse, and the human beings are struggling to survive. The cast and crew of the Syfy Network series “Z Nation” are shooting downtown for the next several days, and will be filming the 13-episode first season all over the region this summer.

Wednesday’s scenes involve bloody trucks and car crashes and zombies plunging through windshields and the Liberty Bell – being represented for digital editing by a bright green garbage can strapped to a truck’s flatbed. Esther Johnson, the show’s first assistant director – the one riding herd on every detail – strides around in a state of constant organizational chatter, like a parent determined to get 50 kids out of the house on time.

“Come on come on come on come on,” she says quickly, looking at a video monitor set up under a tent on the sidewalk. “We still have no picture. What are we doing to solve this? You’re killing me. … OK, we got it.”

Though several films have been made here, “Z Nation” is the first TV series to be shot in Spokane, at least beyond the pilot stage, said Marc Dahlstrom, production supervisor. A crew of 50 to 60 people – more than half are from Spokane – will be working all over the area. The show’s story involves a cross-country race to save humanity, and Spokane will be standing in for the whole nation.

Dahlstrom said the prospect of doing a TV show involves both a quicker pace and longer schedule than movies.

“When a feature film comes in, we prep for four to five weeks and shoot for four to five weeks,” he said. “This one we prep for four to five weeks and shoot for 16 weeks.”

Filming began May 15 and will wrap Sept. 15, with the show to begin airing in the fall, producer Steve Graham said. The show’s stars include Tom Everett Scott (“That Thing You Do”), Kellita Smith (“The Bernie Mac Show”) and Harold Perrineau (“Lost,” “The Matrix”). It also includes a large cast of zombie extras, including plenty of locals.

Merchant, a Portland writer whose son attended Gonzaga University and who was among those who helped bring the production to Spokane, said the series could extend several more seasons. He says it’s distinct from other recent zombie series.

“ ‘The Walking Dead,’ we joke, is existential navel-gazing,” he said. “Ours is a horror story.”

A horror story needs a lot of zombies, and most of them – at least those who aren’t considered “featured zombies” – are Spokane folks, said Corinne Foster, whose company, Synapse FX, is handling special effects and makeup for the series. Foster has worked on other Syfy zombie projects, as well as the made-for-TV (and made-for-Twitter) movie “Sharknado.”

Foster says she’s enjoying her time in Spokane so far, 12-hour days, six-day weeks and all.

“Everyone’s really nice and friendly,” she said, “and so willing to let us put blood all over them.”

Wednesday, First Avenue – under the old Otis and Coach House signs – was doing a very credible impression of a post-apocalyptic city. Trash and bricks were scattered around, and a crumpled newspaper page drifted by like a tumbleweed. By mid-afternoon, the actors were on the scene and the two trucks – one with the humans and the grotesque zombie viscera on the grille; the other with the trash-can-slash-Liberty-Bell – had come to a stop following a chase and crash.

“Is that the real Liberty Bell?” one of the bandoliered actors asks in character, gaping at the can.

Smith approaches the white truck and is surprised by a zombie driver, sprocket sticking bloodily from in his forehead. Once he’s dispatched, Smith and Scott focus on trying to get fuel from the truck’s tank. A block away, sitting beside the Fox Theater, a headless zombie dummy lies on the hood of a car, crashed partway through the windshield. A smear of dog poop on the sidewalk prompts one crew member to ask: “Is that set dressing or is that real?”

Turns out, it’s real.

They shoot the scene, and Johnson, the first AD, consults with the folks watching the monitor under the tent. She calls out questions and sends crew members scurrying and speaks into the tiny microphone she has clipped to the shoulder of her T-shirt. A tan, blond woman, she moves constantly, dressed in a ball cap and sunglasses, black tights and neon-bright running shoes, and she manages to give off an air of both urgency and calm. It’s a fairly large storm, this production, with a lot of moving parts, and she’s at the center, making it go.

“Quiet quiet quiet quiet!” she calls out, preparing for another take. “Lock it down for me please. … Action!”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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