Ash’s chainsaw has fallen silent, the slobbering Deadites have departed for wherever zombie hybrids hang out, and last call has come and gone at Elk Grove’s inviting bar – Auckland, New Zealand, may never be the same again.
For three years, the region was home to the cast and 300-strong crew of STARZ’ award-winning horror comedy Ash vs Evil Dead, starring Bruce Campbell, Lucy Lawless, Dana DeLorenzo, and Ray Santiago. The show repeatedly scored 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The cult US premium cable show was the most recent small screen project for Rob Tapert, the US producer whose vast contribution to Auckland and New Zealand’s screen industry across 25 years has now topped NZ$900 million in production spend, and more than 400 hours on screen.
Thirty episodes of Ash vs Evil Dead were filmed during the three seasons (2015, 2016, and 2017) – each season consisting of about 10 weeks’ pre-production, 15 weeks’ shooting, and 16 weeks’ post-production.
While written in the US, all the production and post-production was done in New Zealand, with all-local heads of departments.
For the show’s New Zealand producer Moira Grant – originally from the US, but now an adopted Kiwi – the finality of the show’s asset sale for cast, crew and the public, provoked sadness, confirmation that the season three-ending episode delivered to STARZ just before Christmas 2017 was the final one ever.
“The show was an amazing, positive experience. The crew was fantastic. So many of us have been with Rob for more than 20 years, from Hercules and Xena, on to Spartacus for STARZ, and then Ash vs Evil Dead. STARZ has been a great studio to work for,” says Grant.
“Several crew said this was their favourite job to work on, because of being contemporary American and the cult nature of Evil Dead. There was a real ownership and responsibility that was handed over to us in terms of making sure the series lived up to the history.”
There are many examples of career evolution over the show’s three seasons. A lighting department best boy in season one became gaffer in season three; a props buyer became an art director; a camera intern became a B camera second AC; a production office intern became the production secretary.
For Grant, part of the appeal of Ash vs Evil Dead was the challenge, with high production standards required by STARZ for its premium cable channel. A busy art department had the major task of transforming the Auckland sets and locations into an authentic depiction of contemporary small town Michigan.
Challenges included building a demolition derby stadium, a cabin in a deep woods set in a studio, an overscale Airstream trailer interior, and the many versions of the Oldsmobile Delta hero vehicles – and left-hand driving.
“Good crew members have the ability to be innovative, and in Auckland and New Zealand there is an attitude of ‘how can we adapt this, or achieve this by a different way?’ rather than taking the most obvious track which can often be the most expensive one.
“Our art department was great. One example being Ash’s family hardware store. The detail and realism was amazing. It felt like a typical American store, and if you pulled out a drawer of fishing flies in the fishing tackle area, there were actually flies inside. Almost everything was practical.”
The show was filmed at three key sites: a studio at Starz Evil Dead NZ Ltd’s base in Penrose where in series one – with the help of a façade – the carpark became a Walmart-style store exterior; a huge 3400 sq m Avondale warehouse, which was the main street set of the fictitious town of Elk Grove (one of the largest interior sets built so far in New Zealand); and a warehouse in Mt Wellington (large two-level sets for the characters’ houses). Kelly Park Film Studios north of Auckland augmented the show’s studio space requirements during seasons one and two.
Some of the on-location filming took place among the rolling farmland and streets of Tuakau, the foreboding disused Kingseat psychiatric hospital, pine plantations near Bethells Beach, and Woodhill Forest (the cabin in series two).
The set became a treasure trove of Americana, many props were made in-house and the sourcing by the set decoration team Grant believes created the best “prop shop” in the country. Online ‘for sale’ site Trade Me, and other sources in the “deepest depths of New Zealand” provided the amazing retro furniture and dressing for the show.
The costume department had its work cut out dealing with the large number of costume repeats needed for the characters and doubles because of the huge volume of special effects blood and wounds.
The show is known for its ‘no idea is too crazy’ award-winning prosthetics and creature effects from local companies Main Reactor and PROFX including Ash re-animating a male cadaver and going into battle with a colon monster, deadite Rachel’s face sliced like cheese by a harp, three-headed demon Marcus, and every type of dismemberment possible – with decapitations being de rigueur.
The US-based stars typically spent about six months in Auckland during each filming season, often with a bit of sight-seeing around the country before or after their filming. Grant says they loved their time in the region.
“All of the cast loved Auckland and were in no hurry to leave. They worked a five days week, with the weekends off, but the shooting days are full on; with TV you are shooting two episodes at the same time, so they had early make up calls and were then learning lines at night.”
The actors stayed in the central city where they could walk to their favourite cafes and restaurants, but loved occasional trips out to the west coast beaches, and over to Waiheke, Grant says.
“They liked Auckland because they were incognito. As New Zealanders, we tend to step back not forward, and are more respectful of people’s privacy.”
Even as Kiwi fans began to recognise the actors, they were still largely left alone.
A reliable stable of Auckland’s screen industry companies were key contributors to the production.
Equipment rental suppliers including Xytech, Rich Rigging, North Harbour Rentals and Panavision worked with Grant’s team: “They are great at understanding the industry and being able to provide what is needed at very short notice, with our changing schedules.”
The show featured a high volume and complexity of visual effects work, which was all done by New Zealand vendors. Companies such as PRPVFX, Digipost, Cause+FX, and Pixie Post had their teams involved. Grant says in season three there were more than 2000 visual effects shots, and working with the visual effects department, these companies came up with many great creative solutions.
Flux Animation Studio built a digital moth that came to life with intricate detailed realism, and worked on ‘Kandar the Destroyer’ which started as a clay model designed by the prosthetics department, was then digitally rebuilt by a team of the production’s visual effects artists and ended up as a gigantic fire breathing visual effects creature in the finale episodes.
Cause+FX built a digital version of the Oldsmobile Delta which is one of the heroes of the show, says Grant: “It was so incredibly valuable for tricky shots, because as much as we tried modifying the actual car structurally and mechanically, we could not achieve all the desired actions.”
Tapert forged a firm relationship with Auckland company Digipost during the Xena and Hercules days, and the company was a mainstay of post-production and also visual effects for Ash vs Evil Dead.
“They did a large volume of our visual effects work, at a high-quality level. New Zealand’s visual effects companies are world class,” says Grant.
Wellington company Park Road Post’s visual effects arm was also involved, and Grant says some of its team were true fans of the show who were enthused to work on it.
In what is a highly competitive industry, with Auckland’s pipeline of international and domestic productions ensuring the region’s studios remain busy, there is strong demand for the Ash vs Evil Dead HOD and crew members, and Auckland’s other skilled screen industry professionals.
They owe Tapert a large debt of gratitude, she says: “Rob is an unsung hero in New Zealand’s film and TV industry. His commitment to New Zealand and Auckland is one of those things that is well known within the industry, but not really wider. The longevity and the number of productions Rob has brought here has been a massive contribution to the local industry. So many crew were trained on Rob’s shows, with the volume, variety and duration of work meaning people were able to develop and expand expertise in their respective crafts.”
Some crew moved to work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy from 1993-2001. Other Tapert shows kept building and allowing crew, and suppliers to get a foothold in their careers and businesses – his projects’ 2-4-year timeframes providing a degree of financial stability in what is a cyclical industry.
“Rob’s TV productions are incredibly valuable to the industry because of their potential to keep rolling over, and provide ongoing employment.”