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The Walking Dead: Greg Nicotero on protecting cliffhanger secret

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Gene Page/AMC

Long recognized as a horror makeup genius going back to such 1980s classics as Day of the Dead and Evil Dead 2, Greg Nicotero has also evolved into the go-to director for television’s highest-rated show, The Walking Dead. He’s handled all the season premieres and finales over the past few years, including the episode voted by fans as the series’ best ever (the season 5 premiere, “No Sanctuary”).

That means Nicotero was at the center of that controversial cliffhanger that ended the season with viewers left wondering which of the survivors had just died at the hands of Negan and his barbed wire-covered baseball bat. We spoke to the director/exec-producer, who talks about the challenges of keeping TV’s biggest secret under wraps and admits to being surprised at the fan unrest while explaining why they still would not go back and change anything about their approach.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Obviously you guys ended season 6 on this huge cliffhanger and some folks were really upset about that. Were you surprised by some of that anger?

GREG NICOTERO: I would say our fans are passionate, and for me personally, yeah, I was a little surprised that some of our viewers were angered by that. Because other shows that I watch and I enjoy have done similar things. They have ended with cliffhangers, or Did this person die or that person die? Or, What happened here? Or leading up to something. So yeah, I’m really proud of the episode, and I really loved it, and I was a little surprised that people had that reaction to it.

But I’d say in retrospect, I don’t think we would have changed anything. I would have still supported doing it the way that we did it, because of the fact that the story doesn’t end there. If we would have shown the deaths, then they wouldn’t have felt our characters in season 7 the way they need to. And the thing that I think a lot of people will get out of it is how that moment changes the entire makeup of our universe within a split second. And it’s that moment that launches our entire season 7 into that direction.

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So if we would have done it at the end of season 6, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. And I guarantee you people will tell me I’m wrong, and people will tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m speaking from my perception and my opinion. So I feel like starting season 7 it’s like, we’ll give the audience a better emotional place with which to process what happens and really be able to understand how it changes every single person moving forward.

Andrew Lincoln gave me his take on it, and his feeling was that if the event hadn’t already existed in the comic book and people had nothing to compare it to or hadn’t built up their own expectations of it, that there would have been no issue. Do you agree with that?

Yeah, for sure. And I think there were a lot of people that were talking about, “Wow, just wait to see what happens,” and “It’s going to be amazing.” A lot of buildup about Negan sort of swirled a lot of people into this sort of expectation that that moment would be resolved. And I think that was really where more of the anger came than from the fact that it actually ended in a cliffhanger, but that certain people felt that they were promised something different. And I really think that’s what it leads to. I think Andy’s absolutely right, there is an expectation of, oh, the anticipation of this moment.

And I remember reading that moment in a comic book at Comic-Con a few years ago and just thinking about, oh, it’s such a brutal, horrible, sensuous moment, all of these people in a completely subservient crying situation, and nothing like that had happened in the show before. So there was nothing they could do, their hands were tied, reading that moment. And I feel like we captured that moment in the episode.

We start out that episode saying, “Hey, you know, if they show up, should we talk about a deal? Should we try to make some sort of deal with them?” And Rick’s like, “If they want to make a deal, have them come talk to me.” So he went from the beginning of that episode being in his mind 100 percent in control to having every single ounce of extra delay. So the point of the episode wasn’t about seeing who Negan kills, the point of the episode was seeing everything stripped away from Rick from moment to moment to moment to set up season 7, which is about the fact that Rick really had no concept of what the world outside of his sphere was like.

And the exciting part of the season coming up is, it’s not just the Sanctuary that we’re going to experience, but we have the Hilltop, we have the Kingdom, so what we’ve done is, we’ve opened up our universe to bring in many more planets, for lack of a better description. So there was a reason behind it. It certainly was not just about who Negan kills. It was about showing Rick as completely devoid of any power or control, and he’s forced to do it in front of all of his people. So when Negan does bring Lucille down, it’s meant to show how helpless all of them are, and how that random act of violence will change their lives.

And you have six months in between the episodes. It was hard enough keeping things a secret back in the early ’80s with “Who shot JR?” Now with social media, and people camping out, taking photos — what are some of the lengths you guys have gone to protect this secret in terms of which of the 11 got the bat to the face?

Well, we’ve gone to pretty significant lengths. That scene was shot on the backlot, because we didn’t want it to be shot out in public where people can climb trees, or for telephoto lenses, to capture something. It’s unfortunate, because those people, their job is to ruin the show, and our job is to preserve the experience of the show. So we do have to spend a lot of energy and a lot of effort preserving the experience of watching the show. It’s just the way the world is right now, and it’s an unfortunate thing.

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There are a lot of TV shows that I love watching. I choose not to go online and read anything about them because I still enjoy the experience of learning about it for the first time. I don’t need spoilers. I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan, as you know, and every episode took me on this amazing great journey that I relished. I loved not knowing where I was being led but willingly going there. And people that want to put spoilers out there, they’re purposely trying to ruin that experience for people.

So I really still think that the majority of viewers feel the same way I do. They don’t want to know ahead, they don’t want to know what’s going to happen. You’ll have some news outlets that will find a kernel or a sort of nugget of information and run with it, and put it out there to be the first ones to report it, but it’s just about the experience of watching any movie. You don’t want to know how it ends. It’s about the journey, it’s not only about the ending.

For more Walking Dead scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.