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The Walking Dead season 6 premiere: director Greg Nicotero previews the 'explosive' opener

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Gene Page/AMC

Greg Nicotero does it all on The Walking Dead. He creates all those gnarly zombies you see on the show. (Sometimes he even cameos as one himself.) He also serves as an executive producer on the AMC drama and over the past few seasons has become the go-to director for the series. It is Nicotero who helmed the 90-minute season 6 premiere, which is being unleashed Sunday on AMC. We spoke to the genius-of-all-trades to get his take on what to expect this coming Sunday … and beyond.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You are once again directing four episodes this season, including the premiere. What can you tell us about that first episode?

GREG NICOTERO: What I love about the way [showrunner Scott M. Gimple] writes is he’s a very bold writer. Scott really respects the audience. With 601, we do play with time a little bit, and not in a traditional sense. One of the things that’s exciting about it is we sort of open right in the middle of this heightened action sequence, and we then jump around a little bit in that time frame to allow the audience to put together in their own minds what it is that we actually just saw.

By doing that, we have to reintroduce Morgan to the group, we have to delineate the chain of command in Alexandria in terms of Rick and Deanna, and there’s a lot of really great things that happened that we built to at the end of last season that we get to really start in a sort of explosive manner.

Sounds like a kind of jigsaw puzzle you all are allowing viewers to put together.

But in a pure Walking Dead way. Our audience really embraces watching the show over and over again, and we like to craft things where there are always hidden gems in there. Like episode 9 when Tyreese was killed last season: In the background in Shirewilt Estates, it was spray-painted “Wolves Not Far” in the background. We never want to ambush the audience with things that come out of left field — that they go, “Wait a minute, where did that guy come from?”

It’s really important that we lay the groundwork and we lay the seeds for that. Same as we did with Terminus, and with the Wolves. Seeing them in episode 9 and seeing those torsos and knowing later those torsos would play a part in the finale, and just getting a little sense of that thing. That’s what our writers do best — they lay the groundwork and seeds for story elements that will build instead of taking an immediate left turn and throwing the audience off-guard. The audience can then go back and put those clues together, and reward themselves with, “Oh I figured it out! Wolves Not Far! That’s what that meant. Oh great!”

Let’s talk numbers, sir. Talk to me about huge numbers of walkers we’re going to see this season.

It’s really about giving the audience something they haven’t seen before. We’ve seen scale before in the show. In the pilot we had two days where we had 150 zombies, but it’s now prolonging that instead of just seeing one scene where there’s a whole bunch of walkers. It’s something we do every season. Every season we reevaluate the place that the walkers have in our story. Sometimes they have a very important storyline that’s front and center, like the well walker or other things. And other times they’re a peripheral secondary character while the drama’s sort of unfolding.

Right — sometimes it’s the walkers that are the main threat and other times it the humans.

In this season, the walkers and the walker threat is definitely more of a featured character than a secondary character. That’s something Scott told us when he pitched out the first couple episodes. He said, “You know, there’s a lot of talk about our show not just being a show about zombies, it’s more than that.” But he said in this season it’s going to be more relevant and more prevalent than we really have ever done in past seasons. The first couple episodes just unroll and it’s really just unrelenting in terms of what we’ve been able to put on screen.

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So how did you manage that from a makeup perspective?

I came up with this idea: “Wow, we should set up this spray tan tent, so we can assembly-line background walkers so we can get color on more faces.” When you shoot a scene with 300 walkers and you only have time to get 120 with makeup on, you’re going to ultimately have another 180 or whatever that we usually just dress them in clothing and put them in the background. But when you’re editing, you’ll see faces that look awfully pink and awfully not-undead. So I’ve really been racking my brain to come up with a way to get some more coverage on the background players so that we’re telling that story that face after face is undead, and as they pass the camera you can hold on it for a lot longer. We’ve been really successful at doing that.

We’ve seen some season 6 zombie pictures already. What else can we can look forward to in terms of any tricks you guys have up your sleeves this season?

Scott and I were having a convo and we were talking about Ray Harryhausen and he said, “I have a hard time believing that exposed bone.” It’s not Army of Darkness and it’s not Jason and the Argonauts, so we don’t have the supernatural aspect of walking skeletons. So anything we do needs to be grounded in reality. For me, with my background in pre-med, I’m all about muscle and ligaments and things, so we don’t see a complete exposed bone arm with fingers moving, because fingers would never move without muscle on it. But one thing that came out of that conversation was we’ve sculpted ribcage prosthetics with atrophied organs underneath, like deflated lungs and rotted liver and rotted heart. We did that with the chest, back, and even arms.

That’s disgusting, man.

This season we’ve sort of played up idea that skin is no longer able to maintain any adhesion to the muscle so it just starts sloughing off, revealing a little bit of bone — but again with the concept that there still has to be some muscle and ligaments, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to walk around. But even in the first episode you’ve seen some walkers that have sort of squeezed themselves through some tight places and in doing so have sheared off most of the skin on their body. Always a good day on the set of The Walking Dead.

Check out a video below of the cast talking about which of them would die first in a real zombie apocalypse. And for more Walking Dead intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.