After seven seasons starring on Fear the Walking Dead, and a career stretching back nearly twenty years, Alycia Debnam-Carey is finally doing something she’s never done before: directing. The fan-favorite actor stepped behind the camera for tonight’s episode of Fear, “Ofelia”, and though her character Alicia doesn’t appear on screen, that also doesn’t mean the episode wasn’t a massive challenge to tackle.
“Not that any episode of this show is easy, there’s always a lot going on,” Debnam-Carey told Decider. “But this one in particular, for a first time director, it was a big episode.”
That’s because — and spoilers beyond this point — the bulk of the episode is spent inside a massive, land-locked boatyard, with bridges connecting the different vehicles, and zombies milling underneath. Add in that the show’s current antagonists use a cage to lower interrogation victims towards the pit of hungry undead, and you have an episode that demands creative ways of capturing the visuals.
Happily, Debnam-Carey was successful, and despite the challenge, feels that directing is something she’s eager to take on again. To find out more about how the gig came to be, as well as the toughest scene to shoot in the episode, read on.
Decider: What led to the directing gig, and why direct on this show, now?
Alycia Debnam-Carey: I’ve always been interested in directing since I was quite young. I did a short film when I was in high school for film class or something, and I remember as soon as I did that I was just like, I love this. I love this level of creative control and creative decision making. I also love the collaboration you can then be completely a part of that you can’t in the same way as an actor. From that moment on I was really intrigued by it. It’s also something that, even as a little kid, I was always reimagining music videos. I always had a life view that was somewhat systematic. I was always shaping a perspective that felt a little bit more viewed in a sort of storytelling way. I think that’s leaned into a lot of my creativity. So it was always something I was interested in and then once I’d seen Lennie [James] do it and Colman [Domingo] do it, I really wanted to inspire myself to try it for the first time. Once I became fixated on that idea, I just was like, I didn’t realize how much I actually really wanted to give it a go.
So what were the circumstances that actually led to setting it up with the show, to direct this episode now?
It’s a really unique and rare opportunity to be able to be a first time director on such an established, massive scale and a successful show. A lot of the time, to work up to being a director, you have to go through all the right channels and work your way up through the rungs of learning, and going to film school, and in this case, there is a rare exception when you are an actor that’s been on the show since the beginning, like I have. You get a level of trust and support because you have such a well-rounded knowledge and understanding of the show, and the universe that you’re working with. You’re constantly involved in so many different processes all the time, whether it’s working with the camera, seeing how the lights go, working with hair and makeup and costume and the actors… You’re telling the story, and you know it like the back of your hand. There is a level of encouragement, and then also opportunity to direct after you’ve been doing it for a really long time. So if you’re given that opportunity and you want to do it, then it’s sort of a no brainer to take that chance because you get set up in a way that most people don’t. I’m really lucky that I was then able to have this opportunity because it is a show that I know so well, so there was a level of support and encouragement that is unparalleled, that wouldn’t necessarily be the same if I was just walking onto someone else’s show not knowing anything about it.
You also chose an episode you don’t appear in. I assume this was a conscious choice to not also have to deal with acting, at the same time as directing?
I didn’t choose, but the episode I got given was… When I first found out one of our producers, he came up and was like, “Wow they didn’t give you an easy episode,” and I was like, “What do you mean?” and I finally was hearing bits and pieces about it and rumors, like what this whole new set is going to be, kind of a boat graveyard, there’s this massive cage set piece, and once I read it I was like, “Wow, they did not go easy.” Not that any episode of this show is easy, there’s always a lot going on. But this one in particular, for a first time director, it was a big episode. In that way it kind of felt good that, “Oh great, you’re not just trying to throw me a bone and give me something easy.” It was like, “No, we’re giving you a direction, this is the episode.”
The decision to not be in the episode, yes that was something that I requested and that we talked about, that we wanted to do only because I, as a first time director, I just don’t think I would’ve been able to do that. To do that you have to be really experienced, or also just so brilliant, and I quite frankly am amazed that people can do that because it’s such a separate way of looking at things. I kept saying to people, it’s like taking a red pill instead of a blue pill and seeing the world in a completely different viewpoint, and you see time really differently, you see how everything comes together really differently. As an actor, you sort of have that one specific thing you’re focused on, and suddenly you’re thrust into this realm of, oh my god there’s everything all at once, and it’s kind of crazy and manic. It was smarter, we all agreed that I would just have proper time to prep and then focus on directing, and only directing.
You mentioned some of the set ups here, and it was wild to me just the whole idea of trying to tackle shooting on bridges attached to boats. How did you actually work out those camera movements?
We did 10 days of shooting, and on eight of those days we had three cameras working all day, one of which was always on a crank. The reason for that being we were elevated 8-12 feet in the air at all times and had people crossing gangplanks and elevated on boats and on shipping containers, and this cage that was being brought up and down. And so we needed that access of movement, we wanted to have that scope to be able to show the danger and the scale of how big this environment was, how threatening that cage was, the height, the levels. If you’re getting given a set that is so unique and so cool and has elements like height, you want to be able to play with that. So the only way we could was, well we’ve got to get one of the cranes. It was really fun, and I got to play with some of those while I was working. It’s not everyday you get to have a camera on a crane for eight days. It definitely posed some challenges, it was not always the easiest.
One of the standout scenes happens with all those elements you’re talking about, which is Arno’s death scene. It’s so horrifying, particularly the aftermath of him sitting there, panting, in the cage, his legs flayed. What was it like directing that sequence in particular, and Spenser Granese on this arc?
That was the scene I was most anxious about when we were filming because I knew how massive in scale it was, how many elements were at play. We had worked with our effects team to build this cage to allow it to go up and down. It was a really, really long scene, we had to have so many practical effects go into play, that he was standing actually in the cage, he had blue suited legs underneath the cage and then we had fake prosthetic legs hanging outside that I worked with to try and make sure they looked as gruesome and true to what would’ve happened. There were just so many elements, and on top of that, having a really emotional scene, it was definitely for me, the hardest scene just logistically, technically, time-wise to shoot. But also then, the most rewarding when I finally got into the cut and was like, yes, this felt really exciting.
And Spenser who plays Arno, he just gave such a beautiful performance and I remember at the end, we did a couple of takes, we had three cameras going to try and capture all these different levels, and he felt really good about it, and then I was like, “Alright, now give me one more.” And I remember he looked at me and was like, “Really?” and I was like, “I promise you Spenser, I’ve got you.” And when he did it I was like, “There it is.” It was just being able to play with all those elements. It was just so fun, but also definitely, yes, the most intimidating scene because there were so many elements at play. It took a really long time. All those tape sequences, the ones on top of the shipping container and Arno’s death, that all took three days. There was a lot of filming taking place around and in that cage. So definitely, technically, one of the hardest portions of the directing. Once that was over, I was like: thank god.
Given this experience, do you have the directing bug now? Is this something you want to tackle again after this episode? Or do you feel like you’ve scratched that itch?
Oh no, absolutely. I definitely want to jump back and do it again. It’s something that I want to open that career door for myself a lot more. It’s a perfect place to start. But also, I was thinking, oh god, okay, I should keep doing this, keep learning, keep challenging myself and every time I think about it I get that wave of nauseated anxiety, but also excitement at the same time. It’s definitely something I want to keep doing.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC, and streams a week early on AMC+.