SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “The Key” episode of The Walking Dead.
Rick and Negan finally battled face-to-face on Sunday’s “The Key” episode of The Walking Dead. And not just face-to-face, but face-to-face-to-fire. Flaming zombies and a blazing Lucille added some extra heat to their basement brawl, but how exactly did they stage that dangerous scene? And what does it all mean?
We went to executive producer Greg Nicotero, who directed the episode, to get all the behind-the-scenes intel on the big confrontation. And that’s not all. We also asked about Dwight’s big decision and the mysterious new stranger with the records obsession (but no spoken word!). Click through both pages to read the entire interview and also make sure to check out our Q&A with Jayne Atkinson, who played that mysterious new stranger, Georgie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Rick and Daryl have been fighting the Saviors together all season, but they really haven’t been on the same page at all, including that big brawl they had, so tell me about the importance of this scene between them in the Hilltop graveyard where they come clean about their mistakes.
GREG NICOTERO: The interesting thing about it is they haven’t had an opportunity to even have a conversation, and given the fact that they had that brawl in episode 4, it was really important that we get a sense that we see where they are with each other. I thought it was a great moment for Daryl to come over and just say to Rick, “Listen, I’m with you. Whatever you need me to do, I’m here to do it. We want this war to be over.”
It’s important to see these two guys on the same page again. They both want the war over, they both want Negan dead. That’s all there is to it. It’s a really great sequence and we talked a lot about exactly how we wanted to portray that moment because up to that point, they weren’t on the same page, so even in the shots, you can see that I have Rick on one side of the frame and Daryl on the other side of the frame, with the grave markers breaking up the frame so that we’re visually trying to separate the two of them. Then, once they start talking, you realize that they are actually both fighting for the same thing. Listen, Carl just died. It’s the first chance for Daryl to even acknowledge that with Rick on a one-to-one basis.
Let’s get into the big Rick vs. Negan battle. We’ll talk about some of the actual physical things you had to do to pull this off in a second, but what was the importance of this face-to-face in terms of story and the characters?
We’re definitely building some momentum, and in this particular episode, they established that the Hilltop has lookouts spaced every mile or two apart, and they’re setting up a perimeter around the Hilltop. And the idea is as soon as one person sees something, they’ll sound a horn and alert everybody else to the fact that the Saviors are coming. Rick chooses to go on lookout and he sees Negan, and basically instead of alerting everyone else, he’s taking terms into his own hands.
He’s going rogue!
He’s going rogue. Part of the best thing and the worst thing about these people is they can never stick to a plan because there’s so much emotion and so much power behind everything that’s at stake, and so Rick goes rogue. Instead of signaling the horn, he’s taking matters into his own hands. He drives down, he knocks Negan’s car out of the convoy and basically tries to kill him.
Not only do they finally end up in a basement surrounded by flaming walkers, but a flaming Lucille as well. How did you pull all of that off?
Some of the Lucille fire stuff, we coated the bats with a special material. We’re able to physically light it on fire. When, for a few shots, we had to make contact with the bat, we had a bat that basically had an orange glow stick as part of it so that we can get the interactive light. We wanted to stay close and we wanted it to be disorienting.
And you hear their voices as they’re talking to each other, and Negan’s not worried. Negan doesn’t for a split second worry that the sound of his voice is going to attract Rick because Negan really does believe that his friends are coming and that he has the upper hand. It’s only when Rick tells him about the Heaps, that he realizes that Simon has gone rogue, as well, and killed everybody on the Heaps that Negan starts realizing, Uh-oh, I think I might be in a little bit of trouble here.
There was a lot of choreography here in this fight scene. I think my favorite part was Rick sliding under a flaming bat swing. How did you all map this out and execute it?
I was very involved with Jeff Schoen, our production designer, in terms of building the room in a very specific way. One of the things that was really important to me was that I wanted the room to catch on fire. I didn’t want it to just be a couple zombies with flames on them because we had done that before. So what was important to me was that once these walkers are on the ground and Rick hits the one in the stomach and it falls on top of the pile and it stands up, it’s engulfed in flames, and another zombie’s engulfed in flames.
As they’re bumping into furniture in the room, part of the room is now catching on fire, and that was something that I fought for to keep in the script. We built the room in a very specific way so that they burst through the door, and once they start swinging that bat, they’re basically sort of do-si-doing around this one center post — because we wanted zombies to be able to come out of the darkness and grab at Negan and grab at Rick so that the only illumination in the room is the illumination from the bat.
Yeah, there was a lot of contrast between the light of the fire and the pitch black darkness in the background.
It was a great opportunity for us to have zombies coming out of the darkness, seeing these zombies on fire, and still having these two characters fighting. A day or two before we shot that scene, I went in with just me and Andy [Lincoln] and Jeffrey [Dean Morgan], blocked out what I wanted, and talked them through it, and then we walked through the motions. I said we should duck here, swing the bat here, and then you duck down and then the bat comes this way.
Then, the day that we shot it, we brought our stunt coordinator in and a lot of the department heads and we walked through all the choreography. I had to shoot that entire sequence in about three-quarters of a day, so I needed everybody to know what we were doing. Plus, we had to shoot one section of the room where we had one of the walls removed in case there was any issues with fire, so we wanted to make sure that we were as safe as we could.
That particular sequence was really the most in-depth in terms of action. Even with the car stuff, we didn’t really want the car chase to be a super action car chase because we had done that already earlier in the season when Rick and Daryl are chasing the guys that leave the chemical plant. We didn’t want to do the same thing over again, so we really focused our efforts in this great cat-and-mouse sequence in the basement of that building.
NEXT PAGE: Intel on Dwight’s big decision and the enigmatic Georgie