Well, if misery loves company, you’ve got some. Not only are viewers in the dark as to whom Negan killed at the end of the Walking Dead season finale, but it turns out the actors are as well. That’s according to executive producer Greg Nicotero, who directed the finale and says not even the cast knew who perished.
We caught up with Nicotero to get his behind-the-scenes intel on filming the episode, his thoughts on that controversial cliffhanger, and scoop on what’s coming up in season 7. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview, and also make sure to check out post-finale thoughts from showrunner Scott M. Gimple and Negan himself, Jeffrey Dean Morgan. And for more Walking Dead scoop, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m guessing you all had to know that this was going to anger some people to have to wait over 6 months to find out who is on the receiving end of that bat, right?
GREG NICOTERO: I remember sitting in the theater watching Empire Strikes Back and having Darth Vader say “I am your father” and I was shocked and amazed, and I don’t remember being angry. I don’t remember saying, “Oh, I give up on Star Wars because that’s lame.” It’s an exciting time to be a fan of The Walking Dead. Yeah, it’s agonizing to have to wait, but this was the end of our story, and we have an entirely new story coming up.
Next season is really Negan’s story and how our group has to deal with who he is and what his way of life is, so I think it’s the perfect ending to this season: watching everyone on their knees, stripped down to the barest vulnerability, and knowing that the cavalry’s not coming over the hill. Our group has never been in this situation before, so I think it’s the perfect opportunity. We had early conversations about, would we show who it was at the end of the season? Yeah, you always have discussions of what’s the best story. I was very passionate about ending this season on a cliffhanger and not knowing, because I feel like it propels us into next season in a great way. So people can be upset. A week from now, they won’t be upset anymore, and it’ll be fun.
We don’t know who got it, but did the cast know who was dying when you filmed it?
No. It was specifically written that way. The POV shot looking up at Negan in that last moment, I don’t think anyone on that knew what happened. As a matter of fact, if I’m not mistaken, I think we had wrapped all of the actors, because the shot we did with Negan, the sun was coming up and Jeffrey was about to get on a plane and fly back to New York and we didn’t have anybody there because we didn’t want even somebody on the crew or somebody there to go, “Oh I get it, I know what’s going to happen.” So I think they were all gone. We built a little rig for Jeffrey to hit so that there would be impact with the baseball bat.
How tricky was it to shoot this scene where people wouldn’t be able to piece together who it was?
It’s always tricky because the fans of the show are very loyal and very passionate and very observant, so in terms of what the background was, even editorially, you can see that they picked up the pace when he starts doing eeny meeny miny moe — we start picking up the pace, so you see the baseball bat in front of every single person’s face, and the duration of the cuts gets faster, faster, faster until we cut to looking up at Jeffrey and him saying, “You are it,” and swinging the bat at the camera. The show was always intended to end on that point of view and go to black where we would continue to hear the impact of the baseball bat and the screaming and the crying, and the reactions.
This episode was tremendously well-written and I feel like, from a visual standpoint, we spend a lot of time making the audience feel boxed-in like the characters were. The first confrontation with the lead Savior on the road, we had these big wide shots where you see Rick and his group on the left side and the Saviors on the right side, and then as the show progresses our angles get tighter and tighter and tighter so that we get to a point where the last interaction with our group in the RV, we’re in super tight close-ups of all our actors. We wanted the audience to feel like they were being corralled just like the characters were; we kept the camera in the RV for all of that.
You have a second version of this scene with Negan-like cursing, right?
We had to shoot two versions — we had to shoot the Blu-ray version, which had a lot of the swearing and a lot of Negan’s colorful language, and then we had to shoot the broadcast version. So when you get the DVD or the Blu-ray version, that will have the full Negan speech from the graphic novel.
I was wondering whether you were going to try and squeak part of that unrated version onto TV or not, and try and see if there was any wiggle room with AMC.
We’re still bound by our standards and practices. We had tried to get away with it when Rick was in the train car and he says, “They don’t know who they’re screwing with.” The options hurt the sequence. We didn’t want to take away from that moment. Even when I did my director’s cut I actually put the Blu-ray cut of the scene into my director’s cut because I thought it was so powerful that I wanted Kirkman and Gale and everyone to see what the sequence looked like with the momentum of Negan’s speech in there. I know Jeffrey and I both kind of preferred that version, it just felt better to be able to say swear words.
Take us through the mood of shooting that entire final sequence with Negan’s arrival.
The exciting thing about it was every single day the actors would come to set energized and invigorated about the story and what they were seeing while we were shooting. And Andy would say to me every single day on that shoot, “I can’t wait to see the direction of the story.” The energy of knowing our story is now taking a very unique turn makes everybody excited. We’ve been doing this for six years, but it was like we were still in season 1 with the level of commitment and enthusiasm. And then we shoot where we’ve got to put them all on their knees and tear them down for the emotional pit of despair that they landed in. All the actors, I remember Lauren [Cohan] and Sonequa [Martin-Green] and Ross [Marquand], they just stripped themselves down.
We had two nights to shoot that scene and the first night we had five cameras, because I had 14 principal actors and I had 120 extras and I wanted to make sure I captured the emotion of every single one of those performers, so we kept the cameras kind of far away and used long lenses because I wanted that moment to feel intimate — I didn’t want the actors to feel like those cameras were in their faces as they watched Negan sort of on stage in front of them parading back and forth.
So the first night, by the time we wrapped, everybody was crying, everybody was hysterical, everybody was just emotionally drained. And then the next night I turned the cameras around and we covered the majority of Jeffrey’s speech, and again the actors were still on camera so they still had to repeat what they had done the night before in terms of that emotional, draining moment.
What was it like with Jeffrey joining the cast and getting ready for this big scene? What sort of direction did you have to give him?
He landed the day before, so he really just did not have a tremendous amount of time to jump into the role. I gotta tell you that Jeffrey was our first choice from, really, out of the gate. I remember sitting and watching Sunday night television a couple months earlier, and I was watching The Good Wife. He was on and he just had this amazing charismatic charm that was magnetic. I remember calling Gimple and being like, “Man, I wish we could get that guy because he’s great.” I just assumed because I was seeing him on another show that he would not be available to us, but we were able to get him and it was great.
He showed up 100 percent prepared and ready to go. The reason that I did the coverage of our actors on night 1 and his coverage on night 1, was that I wanted him to get the momentum. It was a 12 page speech. Nobody else talked. The cadence and timing of everything, I really just wanted him to feel 100 percent confident. When we turned the camera around on him he had done it enough times that he had worked out whatever bugs he wanted to and we put the emphasis on the pieces that we wanted. Most of the direction that I gave him was in regards to aspects of season 7 and which relationships Negan is going to have in season 7 and with which characters. I wanted to make sure that were certain themes that he hit strongly. He was great, really amazing.
NEXT: The identity of those mystery men and what’s coming up in season 7[pagebreak]
We haven’t talked about the other storyline at all, which is involving Morgan and Carol. It ends with Morgan meeting these guys in armor with the horses. They look very similar to some people from the comic book from a community known as The Kingdom. You want to say anything about what you shot here and what you may be setting up?
I don’t think they look similar to the people from The Kingdom, I think they look exactly like the people from The Kingdom. Again, our world is growing and it’s very, very exciting. What I love about that little bit of the storyline isn’t so much introducing those people, as what Morgan has to do. Carol’s spent several seasons being the reluctant killer that she has had to be, but she’s done it because she needs to protect the people that she cares about.
When Morgan is faced with that moment where he either has to pull the trigger or Carol dies … I love that split-second look on Lennie’s face after the gun is empty and he pulled the trigger. The gears are slipping in his brain for a split second, like, “I just did what I vowed I would never bring myself to do.” He did exactly what Carol has been doing, which is [that] he killed to save someone he cared about.
Scott Gimple was on Talking Dead the other night and he said something along the lines of, “Look, this cliffhanger only works if we deliver in the next season premiere. We have to deliver, I’m confident we will deliver.” Knowing what you know about where you guys are going, what can you say about your confidence level about what we’re going to see in the season premiere for season 7?
Oh yeah, I 100 percent agree. I haven’t read anything on 701 yet, but I know roughly the story. Without a doubt it’s going to be an amazing season premiere. I don’t think he’s wrong. Of course, I felt like he was saying that to me. Like, “Hi Greg, this is going to be your 16th episode that you’re directing so don’t screw it up. A lot of people are going to be watching.” I always feel like the pressure that I have to realize these scenes, like introducing Negan and killing Jesse, Sam, and Ron. It’s a lot of responsibility. Nobody loves Walking Dead more than Scott Gimple. You can quote me on that a thousand times over, because we’re making the show that we want to watch.
It’s unfortunate that some people are very vocal and very negative about the choices that we make, but the bottom line is that this is a show I would watch. I watched Game of Thrones last year and I’m excited for that show to come back online. Was I shocked at the end of last season? Yeah, but I don’t read anything on the Internet like, “Oh, I think this happened and that happened.” I just want the filmmakers to take me on that journey, and that’s what we do: we take our audience on a journey. The graphic novel is going into a dark, dark place, and Kirkman said it himself: in the graphic novels, every one of them ends with a cliffhanger, and it is dark. That’s what this story deserves. I know everyone’s anxious to get back to work and everyone’s very excited about where the show is going, all the way from Andrew Lincoln and down. It’s like we’re starting over again and it’s great.
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I love that you talk about all the people you’ve killed. You’re kind of the Walking Dead executioner. Whenever you are directing an episode, that’s bad news for someone in the cast.
Well, I am the grim reaper. Any time I call somebody during hiatus, I think they’re always like, “Why are you calling me?” Scott and the executive producers have entrusted me. But I mean, I have 30 years of working with the greatest filmmakers on the planet as my film school. It’s tremendously rewarding for me to be able to direct these episodes and be able to elicit emotion. My mom and dad called this morning and they were like, “We had nightmares last night. You gotta tell us who it is.” My mom pulled the whole, “Gregory, this is your mother, you need to tell me who dies.” I’m like, ”Mom I’m not allowed to tell you that.” So my mom and dad aren’t talking to me right now.