Walking Dead director Greg Nicotero on the alternate version of the premiere you DIDN'T see
[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s season 6 premiere of The Walking Dead, “First Time Again.”]
The Walking Dead continued to go big in its season 6 premiere. From the big scale of having 300 zombie extras and thousands more digitally added in, to the big problems facing Alexandria, to the big risk of airing half of the episode in black and white. But as executive producer and director Greg Nicotero tells us, that last part was not the original plan. Team TWD had another bold vision in mind on how to differentiate their scenes from past and present, but eventually scrapped it and came up with the black and white idea in post-production.
What was the original format and will we ever see it? Nicotero talks about that in our premiere deep dive, while also revealing the mishap that led to a blood-streaming geyser, why Andrew Lincoln punched a hole in the wall before a take, and another moment that did not make the final cut. (Read through all three pages for the entire interview. Also make sure to check out our premiere Q&A’s with Andrew Lincoln, Robert Kirkman, and Ethan Embry, as well as our exclusive storyboards from Nicotero.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The size and scope of this episode is really unlike anything you all have done before. What was the hardest thing for you to execute as the director on this one?
GREG NICOTERO: I think the action set pieces were constantly going bigger and bigger. One of the things I like about the episode is it’s a culmination of a lot of past episodes in regards to we’re setting the ship out to sea, so we can sort of establish where our characters are, much like the season 4 premiere, which was the escape from Terminus and was a big action sequence. So this has a little bit of both, and the script is fantastic. Scott Gimple and Matt Negrete wrote a great script. We love playing with the timeline shift a little bit.
But for me, I think the hardest part was just visualizing all these big, giant crowd sequences with the walkers. I had directed a pilot last year, and the best thing about my job is you’re constantly learning. You’re evolving as an artist and I feel like the result of the pilot that I had directed last year and other Walking Dead episodes really made me want to push the envelope on this and make the shots bigger. Alexandria’s a little island, and the whole point of this episode was to show this island in the middle of the sea of this new world, and that the world has the potential threat of walkers and humans and whatever, but we really wanted to make sure that we didn’t feel claustrophobic inside Alexandria and felt like, “Oh we’re in the same location all the time.” So we made the world bigger. So that last shot, the drone shot where the camera goes up and up and up and just keeps going, and we see thousands of walkers on the street — we’re trying to expand our world. And it was challenging. It was really hard and it was a bit gut-wrenching, but I’m really proud of it.
You said drone shot. You used a drone for that shot?
We did, we used a drone in a couple of the episodes. We had one day where we just shot a bunch of drone stuff and it was like flybys of Daryl’s motorcycle and really cool really fun stuff that we had never done on the show before. So it’s always trying to just keep it fresh and keep it feeling different.
You’ve got a double challenge for this massive rock quarry scene. As a zombie make-up guru, you had to prep hundreds of walkers, and then as a director you have to film a scene that for some shots is going to turn those hundreds into thousands. How did you approach those shots?
It’s like a Rubik’s Cube because you shoot the element of Rick and Morgan on the edge of the quarry, and then you are looking into a real quarry, but the quarry’s empty, and you’re like, “Okay, that side’s not really there, and the back’s going to be much further back.” I always storyboard those sequences — not so much for me – because I visualize everything the minute I read the script, but to help the other actors and the other artists and the camera department get a sense of what we’re going to do.
So when you look at the storyboards and then you look at the final shots, they’re almost identical from the moment that we set out planning that shot, and it’s because we want people to understand: There are 30,000 or so, whatever the number is, of walkers in there. But on set, they’re standing on the edge of an empty quarry and there’s nothing there. And then the reverse was shot on a completely different location. So we shot one set of angles in one place and the other set of angles we used this sheer cliff wall to shoot up against, and that was challenging because Mike Satrazemis, our director of photography, and I had a Technocrane on the edge of the quarry with the arm pushed out over the edge and the camera turned back towards us. So we were getting these great sweeping shots up the quarry, and when the walkers go out and fall over, all those locations were practical, we just added the CG zombies going over the cliff.
We have to talk about the zombie with flesh ripping off as he squeezes between trucks. That was super disgusting, man, and I know you take that as a compliment.
I do, indeed. That was the first walker that you really see clearly in the episode, and it was all rigged. There was an air bladder underneath to push the ribs out so that the ribs would pop out. We had a piece of monofilament pulling the guts out. The silicone prosthetic — I mean, it was all rigged to do that. I think digitally we may have closed up the chin a little bit so that it looked like it popped, but that was 99% practical prosthetic.
You’ve been doing this for so long, Greg. How exciting is it for you when you can come up with something a little bit new or different that we haven’t seen before like that?
Any effect that I design and any gag that I come up with, I’m going to make sure that it doesn’t feel like something we’ve seen before. I would never want to repeat something, “Oh they did this in a different movie and we’ve seen that before.” We’ll always take it to a different place. I think especially with Scott and the writers, they will make an effort to come up with something interesting. There’s a gag in one of the episodes this season where the script said, “And there’s a van turned on its side and there’s a walker underneath.” We were talking in the concept meeting, and I said, “What if the walker was wrapped up in the wheel well, like it had gotten run over?” So we cut a hole in this little van and then we had 20 feet of intestines wrapped around the axle, and we hired a contortionist to put her body inside there. It was just one of those things where you’re standing on set and you’re like, “God, I love this job. This is so much fun.” So we always have the kind of kernel of an idea there, and it’s really my job to kind of take everything and elevate it to a place that hasn’t been seen before.
Were there any tribute zombies in this episode. Sometimes you do that, sometimes you don’t. Anyone here?
You know, I realized at the end of the day that I hadn’t put one in. And here’s the bummer, and I’m kicking myself. We did a tribute walker in another episode that the scene ended up getting cut out, and I thought “Ah, you know, it’s kind of a bummer,” but it was a walker from a black and white movie, and it would have been perfect in this episode. but I didn’t think about it at the time. But that’s all I’m going to say because that walker might show up someplace else. But in my other episodes, there’s definitely a couple little tribute guys in there.
Obviously, the other big thing we have going on here in this episode is you’re going back and forth between time periods. There’s the present and what’s happened in the events leading up to it, and we see the past events in black and white. I know you guys didn’t originally shoot it that way, but then at some point decided it’s going to make it a clearer read going back and forth. Tell me about the decision to go to that black and white, and how it sort of changed the perspective for you guys on that episode.
We always knew there was gonna be a visual cue. When we shot it, I think Scott and I had talked about the idea that it was probably gonna be desaturated flashbacks, and then oversaturated present. Every sequence that takes place in present-day is very action-packed. The camera’s always moving, very fast-paced, people are running, people are screaming, people are firing guns. So in the first version of the episode, we had oversaturated the present day and desaturated the past. The trick was when we did it, we looked at it, and it looked like The Wizard of Oz. Our world is not oversaturated, our show is not oversaturated. So when you saw the really vibrant greens of the forest, it made the world look too alive. First thing we noticed when we looked at it was, “Wow, the zombies, they don’t look dead anymore,” because now that pale color has been accentuated.
Was it almost a little too cartoon-y or something?
It just was vibrant and alive, and the whole point is our show has that little blue cast to it to make it feel like the world is desaturated. So as soon as we looked at it we knew there was gonna be a visual cue. This was actually Scott’s idea. It was kind of like back on like Hunt for Red October when Sean Connery is speaking Russian and then the camera just zooms in and he starts speaking English, and the camera zooms back out again. It was a nice transition, so in the opening shot when Rick pulls the gun and shoots Pete, and the color drains out, it was kind of like that idea. It works perfectly.
I’m interested and hopeful that when we do the DVD there will be an all-color version because I think our audience is savvy enough to put those pieces together, and put those clues together, and that was always what I was hoping for. The visual effects in color are breathtaking. The zombie stuff in color is really breathtaking. When you take the color away, the quarry looks very monochromatic, but when the color is there, you really see the differentiation between the walkers and the truck and the quarry walls. So I’ve been pushing Scott to put a color version of the episode on the DVD because it has a different flavor.
Well, we saw a black and white version of the pilot, so it would be cool to see this alternate version as well.
The black and white also does harken back to the graphic novel, and I think that’s why those black and white flashbacks work. It’s funny, because a lot of the actors that just saw the episode hadn’t seen it yet because we literally just finished it. So some of them it took them a minute – because this is something we’ve never done before – so it was a very bold move.
Poor Carter gets his face bitten off. Talk about how you wanted to approach that death scene.
It’s funny because I’d worked with Ethan once before on Masters of Horror. He was in one of the episodes. He’s a really good actor. He came, he landed with the right attitude, the right level of excitement. And of course the day we had to kill him, Andy pulled me aside and goes, “You know this guy’s a real talent, we should probably keep him around.” I was like, “You know we’re shooting his death scene, like, right now!” But he came up to KNB in Los Angeles, we did a face cast of him. He hadn’t even read the script yet.
So the idea was we had a cheek prosthetic and then a blood tube that went up. There was one that my guys hooked up to a fire extinguisher, and there was one take where there was a little too much pressure on the fire extinguisher, and it was literally a fire hose of blood shooting right out of his cheek, and the walker was doused. It was like Carrie and Brian De Palma. He was covered head to toe in blood. And the trigger may have stuck or something, but it was almost 20 seconds of just fire hose coming out of his cheek.
That’s what you need on the DVD!
That outtake, we watched it for a month afterwards and every time we watched it we just laughed.
That’s amazing. I spoke to Ethan and he said that you made him scream a few different ways, one where he’s trying to keep it together somewhat and another where he’s just lost it.
And that was a really important moment. That sequence, we shot in two locations. So we shot part of it in one place. The idea was, schedule-wise, we would shoot the lead-up and the aftermath in one location, and then we would save the actual physical tearing of the flesh as a second unit insert, because we had so little time to shoot this episode that we saved that piece. And when we actually did the piece where the cheek rips off, he hit the ground and he just had this weird kind of crazy look in his eye, and the blood just started filling up where his eye was, and it was just so powerful that we kept rolling.
And Andy was like, “Let’s keep going, let’s keep going.” And it was just that look of terror and fear in his eyes, because when Rick kills him, it’s not malicious. Rick’s doing it for two reasons. Number one is because he’s attracting walkers, and number two is that clearly he needs to put him out of his misery. But it’s a really intense moment, because Morgan and Michonne walk up and see it, and they’re just looking at him. And in the scene before that he says, “Well, not all of them are going to make it.” That’s fine with me as long as my people make it.
One of my favorite elements of the premiere is the relationship between Glenn and Nicholas. These guys literally almost killed each other last season and now Glenn has taken it upon himself to both supervise and train this guy that at one point left him to die, and at another point tried to shoot him dead. Where is this thing heading with these two?
It’s a great story the two of them have, because yeah, Glenn doesn’t tell everybody what he did, so it’s basically between the two of them. He told Maggie, and then there’s that scene where talks to Tara, but it’s interesting because it’s all about Glenn’s transformation into a Hershel-like personality. Glenn has forgiveness in his heart, and he wants the people in Alexandria to be able to hold their own, clearly more so than Rick does. But I think with Glenn, he’s giving the guy a chance, but he’s like, “Listen, if you screw up, I’m not going to be there to help you. You have to take care of yourself. But I’m giving you this opportunity to become a better person, and to become the kind of person that we need in this community.”
It’s not just about surviving day to day. The theme for this season really is about living. It’s about tomorrow. It’s about next week. It’s about next month. And the desperation that Rick feels to find a place where people can live, not just survive, and that’s clearly what sent him off the deep end at the end of last season, and then now he’s like, “Listen, if we survive, great. If they die, meh. It’s not such a big deal. Don’t worry about it.”
You have some scenes here, like the one where Rick has the gun on Carter and gives the speech about “You really think you’re going to take this community from us?” that are straight from the comic book. When you are shooting something ripped from the pages, do you use the comic as a storyboard of sorts and try to match those panels?
Sure. Ever since episode 409 — when they leave the prison and it was the Rick and Carl episode where they were in the house alone and we thought that Rick was dead — I like going back to the source material to harken back to certain images and certain frames. So this one, I think it was more about the delivery. And I even remember when we did a take, Andy had said, “Do I have to list off everybody’s names?” Because he’s like, “You think you’re going to take this place form Daryl? From Glenn? From Michonne? From me?” And Andy said, “I want to try one where I don’t list everybody’s names off.” Because sometimes in the scripts, it feels like you’re just doing a role call of reminding the audience who’s around.
I said, “Well, listen, the intent is that you’re building to a point, and you’re building the point by getting the other people that are in your group and reminding him of the strength and the power that your group has. So don’t screw with him, because he’s got Daryl and Glenn and Michonne at his side. It’s not just throwing out Rick. If he throws out Rick, he’d have to throw them all out, and that would never happen.” So going back to the comic book, that was the intent of the line in the comic book, was basically for Rick to say, “I have these fighters and these survivors with me and there’s no way you’re going to be able to remove us from here, because we’re stronger than you are.”
Yeah, it’s a great scene.
Wait, there’s a great blooper I have to tell you about. When we shot the scene with Rick and Ethan, Andy was getting into character and he punched the wall, just sort of getting his blood up before he pulls a gun. And he put his hand through the wall. And the blooper is so funny, because you can hear me in the background. He goes from being Rick Grimes to being Andy Lincoln for a split second and goes, “Uh-oh. Is that in the shot?” And you can hear me in the background going, “Yes, the hole in the wall is clearly in the shot.” It was right next to his head. But it’s funny in those last 10 seconds before you say “Action” and they transform into those characters. So there’s a very funny moment where he punches the hole in the wall and then just goes from Rick Grimes to Andy Lincoln going, “Oops.”
Speaking of humor, you have this moment where we meet Heath, and Eugene says to him, “I fully respect the hair game.” How do you all employ comedy on this show, because there’s not a lot of it, but you do have moments here and there where you can have a little fun like with this or Daryl’s “You look ridiculous” line from last season.
The “you look ridiculous” was an ad lib that Norman threw in at the end when Melissa walked past him. It was so ludicrous when we were shooting it, but you have to balance it. The show can’t be so bleak that it’s completely devoid of humor. It can’t be. I saw Josh on the street five minutes ago, and he’s not Eugene, but transforms into Eugene on set, and his whole affect changes. You can’t not laugh, because he’s such a great character, and the scene that I shot in the finale where the look that he gives Cudlitz when Christian pushes the tray over in the infirmary and goes, “Oops,” and then just looks over and there’s Josh looking at Michael — I had to literally pinch myself from laughing the entire time.
So it’s important that we have those comedy moments, and Josh is so good at them. But there’s another funny moment too when Morgan says to Michonne, “Did you steal my candy bar?” And when we shot that scene I actually let the comedy play even bigger, because at the end of the scene, Michonne walks away and leaves Rick standing there. And Morgan’s like, “Hmmm, I know she took it, but she says she didn’t.” And he looks over at Rick, and Rick just sort of gives him a look and a double take and walks away like, “I’m not getting in the middle of this.” And I laughed out loud, because we don’t let those moments of comedy play.
Sadly, I don’t think that last little look made it into the episode, but it was something where we were shooting it, I put it in the cut, because I was like, “I think it was great,” but just time-wise we had to trim it. But again, we should do the comedy version. We should do an episode where they’re being chased by walkers, they go into a comedy club and then Glenn goes, “You know, I dabbled at stand-up comedy before the apocalypse,” and then they each do a set.
Open mic night. Alright, Greg, we’re one episode down, we got 15 to go. What can people expect coming up?
I can tell you that the level of intensity and the epic scale of the show will not end with just the first episode. We continue to have big, giant, almost unproducable episodes week after week after week, because they were so huge. It’s not going to be like, “Oh, yeah, well they came out of the gate swinging and now they’re going to take a breather.” You’re not going to catch your breath in this season at all. It’s just completely relentless week after week.
Make sure to also check out our finale Q&As with Andrew Lincoln, Robert Kirkman, and Ethan Embry, as well as our exclusive storyboards from Nicotero. Also click on our video below to watch the cast members reveal who that they think would die first in a real zombie apocalypse. And for more ‘Walking Dead’ scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.
AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.