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The Walking Dead: Greg Nicotero on that death scene, what we didn't see

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[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “Thank You” episode of The Walking Dead.]

WHA …?!?!? That was the reaction among Walking Dead fans last night when Nicholas blew his brains out and then toppled into a sea of zombies along with Glenn. We saw Glenn’s face crying out as guts and intestines were pulled from a body by ravenous walkers. But pulled from whose body? I have already provided a point and counterpoint analysis into whether Glenn is actually dead or not, but we also went for answers to one of the men in charge, executive producer Greg Nicotero.

RELATED: The Walking Dead: Before They Were Stars

What will he say about the possible death of one of the show’s few originals left? What can he reveal about the scene that did not make into the final cut? Should Nicholas be considered a coward, a hero, or something in between? Why could they only get one take for the gruesome guts scene? And what can he reveal about what happens next? Nicotero spills intel on all that and more. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview, and also make sure to check out our interview with the man who played the definitely dead Nicholas, Michael Traynor.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You know what my first question is, right? What is everybody’s first question today?GREG NICOTERO: My guess is everybody’s first question will be: Is Glenn dead?

Exactly! Sooooooo, what can you say to that?

I’m gonna say that it seems pretty clear that somebody died in that sequence. Listen, you know, our show’s tough, dude. People die in very unsuspecting ways, so you kinda gotta let your eyes tell you what you saw.

And people’s eyes are telling them different things.

People are still debating about Jon Snow! I will look at this very much like dealing with Game of Thrones. It’s such a shocking moment that people will find reasons to either defend what they saw or fight against what exactly they saw. I think it’s always very exciting.

Whether Glenn is dead is up for debate at this point, but what does not seem up for debate is that you all crafted this in a way that was intentionally unclear. I have to assume you all went into this wanting fans to wonder at the end of that scene, right?

Yes! And I think that adds to the mystery of it. It was a very specific intent when this sequence was even being designed. I got an early phone call from [showrunner] Scott Gimple saying, “Hey, I have this idea,” and he and I worked on it quite a bit to choreograph it in such a way that wasn’t necessarily deceiving, but felt more realistic. The fact that there’s a crowd of 1,000 zombies around them — you may not get a 100 percent clear glimpse of what’s happening. But it’s like looking at a car accident or something, where you see it for a sec and your brain process it one way. We really wanted to design the sequence with that in mind.

How do you read Nicholas’ move of saying “thank you” and then blowing his brains out? Is he giving up like a coward or sacrificing himself like a hero so the zombies eat him and maybe Glenn can get out of there?

Listen, I don’t look it as him being a coward at all. What I like about Nicholas and Michael Traynor’s performance was I feel like after everything that happened in the season finale last year, he wanted to be like Glenn. He wanted to be brave and wanted to contribute. But when they come to that town, they come upon the people they left behind and Nicholas goes over and stabs the one guy. I think it’s a great moment where they say his name and how old he was and Nicholas goes over and does it. Again, it’s just a constant reminder of what a coward he was. So at that moment, I don’t think it was him being a coward; I think it was just him sort of accepting their fate and doing something that probably everyone in that situation would do, which is I don’t want to be one of those things, so I’m taking the first step to guaranteeing I’m not a walking corpse. That’s how I always took it. And this is just my personal belief that it was not a cowardly way to go out. I took it as their options are limited.

There was a little bit of dialogue that I don’t even think ended up in the episode, because the action was so quick. When they’re getting to the dumpster and they’re counting off their shots, Glenn says to Nicholas, “Be aware of how many shots you have left.” So as they’re shooting the walkers, Nicholas starts counting down. Boom! “6.” Boom! “5.” Boom! “4.” And he gets to one bullet left. So I play it up not as a cowardly way to go. The fact that he happened to fall and knock Glenn over into the zombie crowd with him was not something that was intentional; I just think it was something that happens in our universe. Bad things tend to happen more than good things, unfortunately. 

Especially on this show.

I think it’s a great episode. It really gets to the core of what the show is about — the fact that a lot of people are swarmed and overrun. It’s a great episode for [Corey Hawkins, who plays Heath], and it’s a great episode for [Michael Traynor, who plays Nicholas]. It was one of my favorite episodes of the season, because it was so big. We didn’t stop for a split second on that episode. There was just constant movement. [Director] Michael Slovis and I really spent a lot of time making sure we really captured the epic scale of this zombie attack. We set up the zombies in the quarry in 601, but now they’re much more physical. We pulled the drawstring of the bow back, and this episode was firing the arrow.

Let’s talk a bit about the decision to have this whole season so far — and it seems we have more to come — be one day played out in different locations with different people, because that’s a pretty unique approach.

Yes. And it continues. If you really think about it, even watching episode 2, Carol puts the casserole in the oven, sets the timer, and then Alexandria is attacked. In the last moment, the timer goes off. Whatever time it took to cook that casserole was the time for the siege in Alexandria to occur. The timeline is pretty relentless in that regard.

NEXT: Nicotero on staging (and starring in) the guts-eating scene, and intel on what happens next[pagebreak]

At the center of this one day is a massive herd of zombies, so here you guys go again in this episode with another huge group of walkers. How challenging has this season been for you with having day after day of so many walkers?

It’s been exhausting. It’s not just about the zombie makeup, but it’s about doing all the gags. Sturgess is killed and Barnes is killed, and Annie is killed. Every one of those people that died, they were torn apart. One guy’s throat ripped out, another guy’s torso is ripped open and zombies are feasting on him. Even when David gets crushed against the fence, you see his wrist get bitten, his neck get bitten. It’s not just about doing 180 zombie makeups a day. For the tearing the guts open, I actually was in makeup and I was the walker that tore the stomach open. Because again, there was a very specific way we wanted those shots to be choreographed and played out, so I was the conductor.

I had three stunt people next to me and two other zombies. I had this little rig on my fingers to puncture the blood bag and start tearing the guts. I said to the other zombies, “As soon as you see blood, you stick your hands in there and you pull this way, and as soon as you see blood you stick your hand and open up the stomach this way and then you reach in and grab the gut.” It was this very delicately choreographed disembowelment, all based on where the cameras were, where the walkers were, what we wanted to reveal to the audience, and what we didn’t want to reveal to the audience. It’s probably one of the most complicated shots we’ve done on the show, and it was all done practically.

I keep asking when you are going to come back and play a zombie again since you used to do it more frequently. Why did you pick this specific moment?

That was a very important effect, and I wanted to make sure it was done exactly the way I had imagined it. The irony of it is that we took freezer bags, those vacuum-sealed bags, and we sealed it up with three gallons of blood and tons of guts and then we attached it to a shell. So I had to have a rig on my finger that actually punctured the bag. They’re kind of tough. Listen, I was really excited about being there and having 150 people surging over my shoulder to rip this body apart. It was pretty intense for sure.

How many chances did you have for that scene?

One take. We had one take. We did it in one take and when it was over I made the mistake of saying, “You know what? I’m going to go home with my zombie makeup on!” Because I was covered in blood and didn’t like getting cleaned up. So my assistant Julia drove me home, and I was sitting in the passenger set covered in zombie makeup and fake blood. Got all the way home. It took me about an hour in the shower to get all the blood and all the makeup off. And, of course, every stoplight we hit I would look at the car next to me.

The biggest thing I’ve noticed so far is that the pace of this season has been absolutely relentless.

Listen, it’s the best season yet. It’s funny for me because I’ve watched this episode a bunch of times as we’re doing visual effects and notes. I’ve seen it a lot, I sort of forgot — when I watched it last night with a couple people — that nobody else had seen it yet. They were reacting to things that I had already reacted to numerous times, but every commercial break people were like, “Oh my God, I have to catch my breath!” I got a lot of f— yous today. I think a lot of people are grieving, and Yvette Nicole Brown was talking on Talking Dead about how she couldn’t talk about it with anybody, she couldn’t process it with anybody. I think that’s a unique sensation because that’s how we feel every single day.

We know what’s happening in the show, and we can never talk about it. And then the moment that the rest of the world catches up to where we are, it’s kind of fun because now we feel the weight of “Okay, now the world knows the story we’re telling.” Confidentiality is so critical on this show. It’s not like we’re trying to be sneaky; we’re trying to preserve the story because we want the fans to have the greatest viewing experience possible. That’s why when everybody’s like “Is Glenn dead?” — Scott already said we will see Glenn again throughout the course of the season, but we want the audience to go on this journey. We want them to discover our storyline as we go.

What can you say about next week’s 90-minute episode, which appears to be a Morgan-based installment?

Well, it’s written by Scott Gimple so you know it’s going to be very well-written. I think a lot of people have been wanting to get a little bit of a sense of how Morgan went from the guy in season 3 to the guy we introduced at the end of season 5. There’s going to be a lot of blanks filled in, in a very Scott Gimple Walking Dead sort of way.

Make sure to read our Q&A with Nicholas himself, Michael Traynor, as well as arguments for why Glenn may be alive or dead. And for more ‘Walking Dead’ intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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