The Walking Dead premiere director Greg Nicotero on the 'murder catwalk'
The director also explains bringing one of the comic book's biggest moments to the screen
[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “No Way Out” midseason premiere of The Walking Dead.]
Multiple explosions. A lake on fire. Humans having their flesh ripped off by ravenous zombies. It all went down on Sunday’s midseason premiere of The Walking Dead. And it all went down under the direction of go-to director/exec-producer/horror makeup guru Greg Nicotero. We spoke to the jack of all trades to all the behind-the-scenes scoop on some of the biggest moments and stunts that comprised all the carnage. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview. Also make sure to read our midseason premiere Q&As with Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, showrunner Scott M. Gimple, and actress Alexandra Breckenridge. And for more Walking Dead scoop all season long, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the hardest thing about shooting this at night? What logistical challenges did that cause?
GREG NICOTERO: The real challenge was we shot in August. It was basically the shortest amount of night that we could shoot with. So shootable light would be 8:30 at night, and then the sun would come up at 6. So, in days where you needed every minute of your shooting day to film, we ended up not even having a full 12 hours in those days.
So when we initially started doing it, we ended up cutting two scenes out to allow us to get into the night portion of it and be able to stay on schedule, because I think originally we had proposed an additional shooting day just to get it done. Then I said, no, no, no, no, we’ll cut the shooting day. I will guarantee you that we’ll make our days and that we will get it done, and that was before we started filming.
I was like, okay, this is either going to be a huge triumph or I just shot myself in the foot. So I was tremendously proud of the fact that we made it through that episode, and in retrospect, when you get scripts that have a lot of dialogue and there’s a lot of talking, those episodes tend to run a little bit long, but this episode had a ton of action in it, and action plays out quicker on screen than it does on the page.
So when we cut the episode together, we were like, hey, we could go back and shoot one of those scenes that we had omitted due to our time restraints. So the scene with Carol and Morgan in the townhouse, we shot that and put it back into the episode. So it actually was a win-win because we made the episode that we wanted, and we were able to actually squeak in a very important story plot, because the Carol and Morgan story is something that’s very prominent through the second half of the season.
This is a huge sequence from the comics you filmed with Sam freaking out, Jessie not letting go of Carl, Rick cutting her arm off, and then Carl getting shot in the eye. How is approaching these touchstone moments form the comic different from a regular scene?
The challenge with stuff like that is there’s a higher level of scrutiny because people already have a preconceived notion of how that scene is going to play out and what’s going to happen in that scene. So using the graphic novel as a springboard, there were specific shots that I wanted to mirror exactly, like when Carl turns and reveals the eye for the first time, but adding Ron into the equation sort of added another level to the story.
The real trick is making it believable that they could be standing in the middle of a horde of walkers and having a conversation, be it very low-key, and not be recognized or noticed. That was something that I struggled with a little bit, because it’s one thing to be walking amongst zombies covered in guts, but it’s another thing to make it believable that they could have an exchange and not be noticed.
So the way that we cut it was when they stop and Sam starts whimpering a little bit, we wanted to play up that the walkers are starting to turn and they’re starting to notice, and it’s like, Okay, the clock is ticking here. We got to get going. I wanted it to be a shock and a surprise when the walkers grab him. And then of course the second that he’s bitten, Jessie’s gone. So there’s no struggle. There’s no anything. She’s just gone.
So to have the walkers transition from biting Sam and then have Jessie get swarmed. It was a delicate balance — I think more emotionally than actually physically choreographing it. So that was probably the biggest challenge, was the emotion in that moment and how everybody reacts at that exact split second because she won’t let go of Carl’s hand, and Rick makes that choice. One of the things that we ended up doing editorially was adding those flashes of Jessie in there just as a fantastic sort of 1970s nod to a catching-you-off-guard sort of filmmaking scenario.
Yeah, because you guys don’t do that much, if at all. I can’t off the top of my head remember you guys doing flashbacks like that really.
We’ve never done those subliminal flash frames, and that was something that Scott came up with in terms of just heightening the emotion that Rick is going through at the moment that he makes that decision Because there are a billion things happening in that split second, and it’s a challenge to track everything — Jessie losing her will to live, Ron reacting to Sam being bitten, Sam being swarmed, Carl watching Sam being swarmed, and then not being able to pull himself free of Jessie’s grip.
And then you have Rick watching the whole thing, and then you have Michonne, who’s sort of trying to keep the group safe by keeping walkers away from them now that they’ve stopped in the middle of the road. So all those different things have to be conveyed in the space of 18 seconds. So it was definitely a juggling act to make sure that we had every single one of those beats.
And for me, the actual gag where Sam is bitten needed to be a shock. I didn’t want to use CG blood. I didn’t want to put a prosthetic on [actor Major Dodson’s] forehead. So we came up with a rig where we made dentures that had blood tubing attached to them. So once the walker bit his forehead, to simulate the teeth sinking into his forehead, we had semi-soft teeth.
And then we pumped blood from a tube that ran around the side of the zombie’s face and was hidden under the prosthetics, very much like the rig they use in The Exorcist, and we sprayed the blood out of that, and the blood ran down his face. So I wanted it to be real. I wanted it to be raw. I wanted it to be emotional, and when he screams “Mommy!” and you see the blood run down his face and he just disappears, it’s like, every ounce of whoever Jessie was dies the minute that he dies. There’s no coming back from that.
Speaking of not coming back from things, did you all talk about whether you really wanted to do that to Carl’s eye in terms of the logistics of dealing with that going forward?
I think it was always going to happen [Chandler Riggs] actually told at one point, “You know, I’ve been telling them that I want to cut my hair. Why am I not allowed to cut my hair? Everybody else is getting haircuts in Alexandria.” But [showrunner Scott M. Gimple] had thought about this early in the season, and said, “Well, we’re going to want Carl’s hair to be long so that it minimizes the bandage in later episodes so that we will get an opportunity to look at the bandage as part of who Carl is as opposed to always staring at this bandage and this eye.” In the comic book, the wound really defines who Carl becomes in subsequent issues and subsequent episodes. So it was important, just like with Hershel or Merle. Those things happen, and they shape who that character is going to be down the line.
RELATED NEWS: Behind the scenes of EW’s Walking Dead covers
Let’s skip ahead for a minute because I want to ask you about another directorial flourish, which are those quick cuts of everyone swinging. And it gets faster and faster and faster, almost showing how they are all becoming one. Where did that come from?
You know, this is the end of our story up to this point. If you remember back in episode w, Rick basically says, “Listen, if any of them are holding you back, just leave them,” and Michonne and Glenn are like, “What are you talking about? We don’t leave people.” So the fact that Denise saves Carl’s life, and when he goes out on his killing rampage, everybody sees it and they join him — it really is the beginning of Rick understanding the importance of a unified society.
So at the end when we built to that crescendo, it was always intended to just show the voracity of each of these people as they’re unwilling to give up and unwilling to let Alexandria be taken away from them. And it’s something that will be important as the story moves forward, that these people know how to survive as a society. It’s not about just living for tomorrow, it’s about living for the next month and next year, and it’s a huge turning point for Rick when he goes out there and realizes that they’re all there fighting side by side.
So visually building to that was important that we see every single person intercutting our group, and the Alexandrians and building to that crescendo of quicker cut, quicker cut, quicker cut, quicker cut — and it was really fun when we shot that. We actually shot that the last day of principal photography. I had three cameras set up, and I had red, yellow, and blue tape marks on the ground, and we had about 20 walkers, and I instructed each of the actors, “You go on yellow, you go on red, you go on blue.” And they would just walk through this crowd of zombies swinging their machetes, or their bats, or whatever weapon they had.
And it was like a catwalk. It was a like a murder catwalk of having them go down. One line would have them end up in one camera position. Another line would be a different camera position. So when we shot it, we shot them six people at a time. So every actor that saw what the actor before them did, they were like, “Well, s—, I got to do better than that!” So it became a very spirited, friendly competition to see who was going to be the most badass in their zombie catwalk.
Okay, tell me about lighting that lake on fire.
The whole lake on fire idea came up from a location scout on the first episode. Scott and I were in the van, and we had scouted the location of the car dealership where Glenn, and Nicholas, and Heath end up in the first episode where they shoot the glass and the walkers come out. When we scouted that location, right next to it was a burned-out forest, and I was looking at it.
And I remember saying to Scott, “This is a stunning looking location.” All the trees were dead. All the brush was dead. Everything was black, and he was like, “You know, we might be able to work this in somehow.” So when we got to episode 6 when Daryl is discovered in the burned-out forest, the whole point of that episode was to establish the fact that when they lit the forest on fire, all the walkers were drawn to the flames. It’s counter to every other monster movie convention you could ever think of where monsters usually are repelled by fire.
So we laid the groundwork in the show that zombies don’t walk away from it, but they walk towards it. I think even last season, they lit a notebook on fire and threw it into a dumpster, and the walkers were attracted to the dumpster when they went to save Beth at the hospital. So Scott pulled me aside in confidence and said, “Okay, we’re going to light the lake in Alexandria on fire, and it’s going to attract all of the walkers.” So I had a little preview of it, and in my head, I was like, well, the only way to do it really is to do it as practically as possible.
So I went to the physical effects department and asked, “How big of an explosion can we get in the real lake? How much fire can we put in the real lake?” So when you see those explosions, and you see the fireball, and you see the lake on fire — 90 percent of that was propane tanks and fire bars submerged in the lake. It was critical for me that if that fire didn’t look real or we didn’t feel the heat from the fire, the audience was never going to believe that for any moment that it was real.
We shot one night where we detonated explosions on the lake, and we did it probably 14 times, because, aside from just doing it when Daryl fires the RPG, every bit of coverage that we did of the walkers turning and walking towards the lake, I wanted the explosion to go off again because it was stunning. I mean, it was like watching The Ten Commandments, you know?
It was ridiculous, and then to get the actual footage of the zombies making contact with the water and walking in, we shot those inserts at the lake at the studio. So they ended up putting fuel in the lake, and we had six stunt people dressed in fire-retardant suits with silicone masks with gel on them, and we lit the edge of the lake on fire. When I would say action, they would light the lake, and it was probably like a swimming pool sized area. As soon as they would start stepping forward, they would step into the flaming grass, and they would ignite.
So all the walkers walking into the lake, it’s all practical. It was real stunt people being on fire walking into a lake that was physically on fire. From a safety aspect, Darrell Pritchett and Monty Simons did an amazing job of creating something that when we read the script we were like, how the hell are we going to do this? I was not worried about it because I knew that the key was getting the practical effect to work in the real lake and then having stunt people walk into the lake on fire, and it looked amazing.
It looks it. It looks real. And it doesn’t work otherwise.
There was so much going on in that episode starting with the opening with Daryl. For that explosion, we did a jump cut. We had all the actors sitting on the motorcycles, and we locked the camera off, and we took all the actors away, and we brought red foam bodies wrapped with primer cord and filled with blood and we turned the camera on again, and we started rolling. We detonated three explosions and blew the bodies to pieces. So you actually physically see pieces of bodies. And again, that was something that was really important to me. I wanted that explosion to feel real. I wanted you to see pieces of bodies blowing apart in the frame and all that. Then on top of the action and the flashing and the Jessie scene, you have Rick kneeling by Carl’s bed at the end.
Yeah, I’ve been down on set a lot when Andy’s got a lot of physical scenes, and I see his whole thing to get himself pumped up and this and that, but talk about working with him on that scene with that big speech — it’s a quiet moment, but a powerful moment. What was that like?
I think anyone that has children understands the emotion behind a scene like that because you can’t help but get emotional when you think about your family. I’ve learned a lot about collaborating with someone like Andy, and we have an amazing shorthand, and a lot of times, we’ll talk about a scene for a couple minutes. And then it’s like the coach giving the quarterback a play from the sideline, and then the quarterback goes in and executes, and it’s a really great analogy with how we work because he’s a superstar. He knows who Rick is, and he knows when Rick needs to be vulnerable. One of the things you do with him is you just let him go. You literally stand back and watch where he goes emotionally.
So I’ll stand there and watch these amazing moments behind the monitor, and he always finds a way to give me a couple different flavors. We generally don’t cut when I’m shooting a scene like that. We’ll just go right back to the beginning and keep rolling because the more opportunity they have to stay in that emotional moment and to really not feel the camera crew and people around them just allows them to go to a different place completely.
So what can you tease about what’s coming up next? This is the end of one chapter in a sense, and now we’re going to start a new chapter in a way.
Well, I think we’ve effectively seeded the crops, you know? We introduced the Saviors. The whole point of the first nine episodes was to show how big this world is, and they’re overcome with dealing with this one threat, which is the threat of the walkers, but interspersed with that threat, we have introduced a new group of people.
And the fact that Negan is mentioned in the end of episode eight and they quickly dispatch The Saviors, we’ve planted the seeds that now that Alexandria is capable of working together as a group, we’re setting the stage for this new confrontation with our newly found confident group with a formidable foe.
The lead biker says it and teases it perfectly in the opening. He’s like, “Usually we just start off our conversations by popping one of you so that we establish that we’re not screwing around here,” but they didn’t do that this time. So the mistake that they made was not following protocol, and the Saviors’ protocol is show up, shoot one of them, and then you start talking, and he messed up. So I think our group is in for something they have never dealt with before.