Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers for the Z Nation Season 1 Episode 03, “Philly Feast”, which aired Friday, Sept 26th on the SyFy Channel. No Liberty Bells were harmed in the making of this episode.
Philly Feast was filmed in downtown Spokane the week of June 6th. After the Governor stopped by Spokane to visit the set, pose for photos with zombies, and talk to the cast and production crew, the media started publishing stories and photos online. With such an accessible shoot site and publicity of the filming being what it was, plenty of tourists and locals flocked downtown to catch glimpses of filming from a distance or as close as they could get.
As for the episode itself, things start to turn a bit dark in episode 3 as we learn more about Cassandra’s past and her ties with “The Family”.
Call time for me is 2:30pm, but I get a call at 10am to ask if I can show up as early as possible – the production company has sections of 1st Ave blocked off to traffic, but their time is limited, so they’re shuffling shooting schedules to try and film as many downtown Philly scenes as they can before they have to open the road again. I go straight to wardrobe after checking in with the zombie wrangler at base camp, and 10 minutes later I’m in makeup.
Directors and producers had reviewed footage from the first episode and wanted the zombie makeup to be more prominent and noticeable. So this time I get several layers of green, brown, and yellow, applied with a large porous sponge, sealed, then another layer of green with blue accents, and more sealant. Then the blood. Lots and LOTS of blood this time! More sealant.
There’s a scene where our heroes find the Liberty Bell, sitting on a flatbed truck, and decide to liberate it from the zombie hordes, only to crash the truck and send the bell hurtling and clanging down the street where it smashes and destroys zombies in their tracks. Zs are completely obliterated except for their legs below the knee as they walk down the road in one of the funniest, dark-humour scenes of the series so far, and others are smashed to a pulp as they munch on the slowly cooling corpse. I reckon the zombies seen in closeup in this scene must’ve been absolutely stunned and excited to watch this episode as none of us had any idea at the time of filming that such a gruesome end was in store for them! We tramp up and down the street for five or six takes, and some time after we have moved on to another location, the empty street is filmed with prop zombie legs, standing alone in the road, post CGI-bell destruction. EPIC ZOMBIE DEATH ABOVE ANY OTHER ON THE SERIES SO FAR!
The Liberty Bell on set is a big, green garbage bin that we shuffle around, bang against, pound on, and generally ignore in multiple scene takes. At one point, we’re told that 10K takes a shot at the bell, and the sound of it attracts us where we mindlessly attack the bell, allowing our heroes to escape. When the zombies finally grow bored of trying to eat a large metal object and shuffle off, a woman climbs out from under it and runs away. I didn’t see that scene in the episode, and given how the bell was finally used, it made sense to cut it completely – bummer for the extra playing the girl though. You do see 10K take a final, parting shot at the Liberty Bell as they leave Philly at the end of episode, and the zombies shuffle towards it for a brief second before the scene cuts.
Eventually, we complete shooting and meet up with the Second Unit at a previously scouted back alley for more filler footage. Second Unit’s purpose is pretty much all the cut scenes you see of zombies running, shuffling, and stumbling around throughout the series. If it doesn’t involve any of the main actors, it’s probably filmed by Second Unit, and I spend most of my time on the series with them.
The alley is your typical little-used, narrow road that runs along the back of the shops that face the railroad tracks and 2nd Ave. Six of us shuffle up and down the alley, then reset, change clothes, sometimes adding a hat or cap or wig to change hair colour. Makeup crew touches up blood and squirts thinner versions of blood into lower lips to colour teeth – still tastes like overly sweet rootbeer. Swish and drool. Reshoot the scene to create footage of “completely different” zombies to be used to digitally create zombie herds. First Unit radios us on two occasions to tell us to halt filming and move out of a scene they’re shooting four blocks away in the same alley.
At one point, one of the film crew attempts to move a shopping cart out of the scene only to find that the pile of blankets and clothes at the base are actually a guy that’s been sleeping there throughout the afternoon shoot. He’s a bit freaked out to be woken, and moreso to have half a dozen zombies staring at him! But once they explain what’s going on, he wraps himself up in his blankets again and goes back to sleep. The shopping cart stays where it is, and the film crew works around it.
We’re told to meet up with the First Unit back at the primary shoot, so we walk the couple of blocks down to where they’re shooting – six zombies winding our way down back alleys, past the homeless kitchen, under the train tracks, and waiting to cross streets draw a lot stares and a small crowd of curious followers. We meet up with another group of zombies that have been shooting with the First Unit, and we all follow the camera and lighting crews out to the new site.
As I’m waiting to cross Madison St, one of the grips walks up next to me, a claw hammer hanging from his toolbelt, and gives me a quick one-over, checking out my zombie makeup and blood effects. “You look amazing!” he tells me. I glance to my left; give him an exaggerated coy look and tell him, “Well, I did this just for you ya’ know. I don’t go through all this trouble for just anyone!” He pretends to physically brush off my compliment and turns away. “Oh stop!” he says. We cross the street, chuckling and chatting, and then he goes off with the lighting and camera crew, and I follow the other zombies.
It’s not until later when he shoots me in the head that I realize he’s one of the actors, not a grip. I realize, driving home, that I’ve seen him in That Thing You Do, and a week and a half later, SyFy releases the name of the major actors for Z Nation, confirming my “flirty” conversation with Tom Everett Scott. Pretty cool. Also slightly sad that his character, Garnett, doesn’t have more humour in Z Nation since he’s got such a good natural ability towards it.
Pigeon Alley hides down a flight of stairs behind a green, iron door on Railroad Alley just off Madison. It’s wedged between two 4 story buildings, and is filled with pigeon crap, rat droppings, and smells of sewage. The camera and lighting crews all wear ninja masks. The actors and extras don’t. The assistant director, Esther Johnson, verbally walks thru the scene with the actors and stunt team while we listen from the edges. Alex calls us all down into Pigeon Alley and starts walking us thru his version of the shoot, placing zombies at various places and areas throughout the alley from the bottom of the stairs to the end and up the fire escape.
The scene calls for Cassandra to run down the alley, trying to escape our heroes, only to find it a literal dead end – two zombies are chewing on the remains of a corpse at the alley’s end. As she turns to backtrack, zombies slowly emerge from the shadows and converge on her. Just as all seems lost, our heroes appear at the top of the stairs and start sniping the zombies, and then grab Cassandra, demanding answers about “the family”.
It’s the first time some of us have seen any of those who will become the main cast, and one of the girl zombies recognizes Michael Welch from Twilight and fills in the rest of us in a quiet, animated whisper as to who he is and other movies in which he’s appeared.
Luis Prieto (another Director) and Esther and the rest of the film and lighting crews come down into the alley to physically walk the various camera and actor paths with Alex, moving zombies about, staging various actions, and making suggestions with the lighting crew. It gets pretty crowded. The Fx team brings in two partially eaten bodies and starts throwing blood around – one team gets to eat the guy at the end of the alley, and another team gets to eat a guy lying on top of an air conditioner unit. Pads and mats are brought in to keep us extras from getting hurt when we crash to the ground as our heroes open fire from the top of the stairs.
Once we’ve walked through it all slowly, with actors and camera crews, we run it once at full speed without film. Then comes take after take after take – cameras follow Cassandra down the alley; cameras follow her back out the alley; cameras lead her down the alley; cameras filming from the whole scene from the top of the stairs and from the back of the alley; close ups on Cassandra, on zombies, on the various actors as they stand at the top of the stairs and as they charge down the stairs to grab Cassandra and push her up against the wall for her interrogation. LOTS of filming and reviewing the filmed scene on camera and suggestions for lighting and angles, and more filming. It’s a LONG process, but pretty fun to watch the directors and assistant directors talk through various scenes and options and then get input from the camera and lighting and stunt crews. One big collaboration. And through it all, we fall to the ground from head shots, again and again, and Cassandra gets grabbed, chased, tripped, thrown against walls, and pushes her way through zombies again and again and again.
We finally run out of “enough” natural light shining down the alley, and First Unit wraps the shoot. Zombie girl introduces herself to Michael Welch who has a quick conversation with her before the zombie wrangler can pull her aside and tell her “don’t talk to the talent”. She’s pretty happy, and Michael comes around later, looking for her so she can snap a photo with him which is a pretty cool thing to do. Pisay Pao, who plays Cassandra, comes by the zombie camp to thank everyone for all their hard work throughout the day and to pose for photos with zombies. Again – pretty cool thing for a lead to do, especially since she’s been on site for the day longer than any of us.
The chase scene in Philly Feast gets edited down to Cassandra running down the stairs into Pigeon Alley and immediately getting caught by our heroes – the entire zombie attack and sniping gets left on the editing floor. As you watch the scene where she explains Tobias and The Family to Warren, I’m on the ground just behind and to the left of the camera. Lying in a pool of blood on the floor of Pigeon Alley.