When it comes to The Walking Dead, Greg Nicotero does it all: He’s an executive producer, he’s the mastermind behind all the zombie makeup, he sometimes appears as a zombie himself, and he has emerged as a go-to director for the AMC hit. It was Nicotero who directed Sunday’s off-the-hook season premiere, so we spoke to him to find out how they filmed all the throat-slitting and fire-zombie-walking insanity. Plus, Nicotero shares one change he would have made on that big Carol and Rick reunion. (Also make sure to check out Greg Nicotero’s storyboards for the big Terminus raid scene, as well as our season premiere interviews with creator Robert Kirkman, showrunner Scott M. Gimple, Chad Coleman (Tyreese), and Andrew J. West (Gareth).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, flaming zombies. Unbelievable. How much of that was on the scene and how much was added in digitally later?
GREG NICOTERO: That was sort of our Big Spot scene for this episode. We had six cameras on the explosion. We had all the body parts on fire around where the explosion was. And then, of course, the actual walkers themselves. We had stunt performers with flames on them. So I would say 70 percent of the shots in the episode are practical, and then we did a little of augmentation on one or two walkers. I think the bit that I’m most proud of is we took a puppet head and we actually covered it with flammable material and we had a stunt person with a silicone mask on of a normal human face and we had the zombie bite its face off. And it was an actual puppet head on fire biting a stunt person protected by the mask. It was just one of those things that I wanted to shoot and we kind of shot it at the end of the last day of shooting and that gag gets a lot of reaction. That’s the fun of having freedom on the show to improvise gags.
When you were shooting stuff like that throat slitting scene, was part of you like, “Yeah, we’re never getting this on the air?”
When Scott Gimple pitched the episode we had a long conversation and I said, “Listen we have a great opportunity to put a little red herring in here because Glenn’s character is killed with a baseball bat in the graphic novel.” So we set that up specifically to tease to the audience that Glenn might go. And so that is a perfect example of Scott and I taking something and just continually ramping it up. And the way that we accomplished the blood gags were that we put a tube around the actors’ necks and we shot the entire scene with the tube there, and then the actor came across with the knife an we sprayed the blood out, and the visual effects went in and erased the tube. So the tube was there the entire time. So we shot the whole scene and it was easier than putting a prosthetic on and trying to hide the tube. Again, a really good marriage of practical and digital and it’s so shocking. I had that low angle with Robin Lord Taylor — who is in Gotham — that was him, because he played the character Sam in episode 4 of last year. People will hopefully notice that that’s him. That’s where Rick gets his watch back. So we just put the tube on and shot the scene and I had this low angle where the blood sprayed the lens and they were like, “You’re never going to get away with that. They’ll never let you do it.”
My defense was that Breaking Bad pushed the envelope because of when Gus slits the throat in the “Box Cutter” episode and there’s blood spraying out. So we really used that as our basis and said, “We have to really show how violent and how deadly these Terminus people are, because if we don’t ever see it, then that threat will never become palpable — so it was really important to us that we sold the violence of it. By adding the baseball bat to stun them and then the knife coming through to slitting their throats — Steven and Andy and Norman and Lawrence, they had no idea really what it was going to be like. They knew there was a tube there and we were going to pump some blood, but when they were leaned over and they heard the actors scream and the blood hitting the trough and seeing the blood, it freaked them out. It was really powerful and they started moving a little faster. All of a sudden their hearts were pounding. And that was my intent. I wanted those emotions to be real. It’s a fantastic sequence. What I love about this episode is you get to feel every emotion that a Walking Dead episode will give you all at one time. It opens with suspense and terror and moves into thrills and the big adrenaline action scene and then by the end with the reunions…
Yeah, I wanted ask you about that next. You have these two huge emotional reunions: Carol with Daryl and Rick. And then Rick and Judith, with a side of Tyreese and Sasha as well. You know those are big important moments. Tell me how you went about capturing that emotion.
I have to give a lot of credit to the actors, because in scenes like that with Melissa and Norman, you can’t take your eyes off of them. Melissa is such a great actress. And Norman, when his emotion comes out, like in the Merle scene I shot a few years ago, you can’t not be affected by it. I did an earlier version of that scene in an earlier cut, when Rick sees her and walks over and says, “Did you do that?” And she’s looking at him with this trepidation because she doesn’t know how he’s going to react, because the last time they saw each other he tossed her out. So in the director’s cut of that episode I took his line out, so he just walks up to her and there’s this great tense moment of, what’s going to happen? And the look on her face — she’s scared. And then he grabs her and hugs her and she laughs. And it was really powerful. And Scott and I — we always have, like, eight things we’ll disagree on and four he’ll win and four I’ll win. So that was one of the ones where he said, “No, I want the line there.” But I want to see it in their faces. And the way I direct and the way I shoot the actors, I really want you to be right in there with them.
What about the Then & Now structure to show how this Terminus crew came to be who and what they are. Did that provide any challenges or opportunities for you?
It was really important for Scott that we got a sense of who they were because our people have been pushed to the brink. With what happened at the end of season 4, they have reached that same level of what they need to do to survive, so seeing the fact that Gareth and the people at Terminus were once good people and had good intentions but bad people got to them and it turned them and changed them — that’s very important for what our series is about. And always that recurring theme of: Can you come back from what you have done? That was why that was so critical. And I remember when we were shooting it, some people were like, “Oh, it’s a little confusing and do we really need to see that?” Yeah, we need to see that because we need to see that these people were at one time good and became these horrific people that did these unspeakable things because of what the world subjected them to.
Okay, mister sneaky secret scene. Tell me about the decision to add that post-credits scene showing us the return of Morgan.
We had actually tried to get him back for season 4 but he was unavailable, so the fact that we get to see Morgan with just enough of a tease to go, “Oh, wait a minute. He’s tracking them.” You see the little circle carved into the tree. And of course the vines growing up on the sign, so clearly time has passed. He’s not hot on their trial, but it gives us that opportunity to go “Wait, a second, what’s going on?” It’s a great tease. I wish we had a little more time to let that scene play out a little bit more, but we had a great opportunity in this episode to introduce some great characters. I mean, Martin, played by Chris Coy — that storyline between Martin and Tyreese in the cabin. And then little baby Judith. We shot all of her reactions in one take and the most interesting part of that is what made the baby the most upset was when we put her in that little cooler because it was little cold.
Hold on, it wasn’t when this crazy looking Andrew Lincoln was running at her at top speed?
She did cry at that too. But that baby just did not want to lay in that cooler. But the look on her face when Tyreese is thrown outside — it’s priceless. Chad Coleman is so powerful, One of my favorite shots in the whole episode is that medium close up on him where he says “You think you’re gonna kill me?” It’s sooooo great. There are so many fantastic moments. There is so much charisma coming out of each of these characters.
Also make sure to check out Greg Nicotero’s storyboards for the big Terminus raid scene as well as our ‘Walking Dead’ premiere interviews with creator Robert Kirkman, showrunner Scott M. Gimple, actor Chad Coleman, and actor Andrew J. West. And for more ‘Walking Dead’ scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.