'The one thing that you can never do in this world is underestimate your opponent,' says the director about the assault on the Saviors
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “Not Tomorrow Yet” episode of The Walking Dead.]

It was easy. Too easy, it turns out. The Alexandrians stormed the Saviors’ compound and appeared to take out every last one of the folks who had been plaguing the Hilltop. They were ready to finish off the job with one final baddie attempting to escape (on Daryl’s bike, no less) when a voice came over the walkie-talkie explaining the other side had captured Carol and Maggie. Uh-oh.

It was an ominous ending to an episode packed with one couple forming (Carol and Tobin), another breaking up (Abraham and Rosita), and a celebrity cameo of sorts that you probably missed. We spoke to exec-producer and episode director Greg Nicotero to get the scoop on everything that went down, and whether Rick and Co, may have bit of more than they can chew. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview. Also make sure to read our episode Q&A with Melissa McBride, and for more Walking Dead scoop, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So let’s start at the very beginning with a totally different opening for you guys with this jaunty folk music and a cookie baking montage.

GREG NICOTERO: We’re really trying to contrast Carol struggling with the opportunity to have a real life, and she’s having a hard time. Then, of course, right in the middle of this montage of Carol delivering cookies, Rick pulls up and he’s like, “By the way, put down your cookies because we’re going to have to kill people.” It just grinds everything to a halt. Like we so often do on The Walking Dead, we go for pretty dramatic, stark contrast, and the contrast of this playful music and Carol smiling walking down the streets and delivering cookies and her little moment with Tobin.

You’re like, it’s so strange; It’s such a normal world. Then the RV pulls up and Rick’s like, “No, as much as we want this to be our world — if we’re going to fight for it, this is what we’re going to have to do. We’re going to have to go out and kill people.” Then it becomes Die Hard. It goes from light and airy to be the nighttime raid on the compound.

It’s almost like Carol was having a little vacation there. It’s like the zombie apocalypse version of a vacation from your day job and now you’ve got to get back to work.

Yeah, but what’s nice about it is she’s not in disguise anymore. Carol really wants to be this person. She kills the walker and then she gets splattered with blood and we see her in the closet. She chooses that sweater for a very specific reason. She’s not going to old Carol mode. She’s trying to escape it and she can’t. It weighs on her. That’s why she wakes up in the middle of the night and sits down and writes the list. She’s tallying the number of people that she’s killed. There’s a lot of depth in what’s going on with Carol. It’s punctuated by when she has the argument with Maggie and she says, “You’re supposed to be someone else.” She’s so angry at Maggie because Maggie represents what life should be and what the promise of a future is. She feels that Maggie is being reckless by even leaving the safety of Alexandria.

Melissa McBride and I spoke about that. It’s all coming full circle to Sophia there, isn’t it?

Of course. It’s what began her journey into transition. It’s a great episode. I had a blast shooting it. This one has a lot of cool action stuff going on, but there are some fantastic moments, like when Glenn killed his first human and then takes the knife away from Heath so he doesn’t have to. That’s so important. Whereas, Rick goes in and Rick does it, and he hesitates for a second because he’s still a human being.

But when we shot that scene with Glenn it was really important to me as a director to do everything I could to lay down the groundwork for Steven Yeun to just have this emotional moment. So we made really beautiful fake prosthetic heads. We had a dummy on the cot, and we put a ring on his finger and laid his hand across the dummy’s chest. So when Steven came up, he saw the hand with a ring on it and this head.

And that’s not even in the shot.

It’s not in the shot. It was done purely as a device to get Steven to the next level. Not that he needed that help from me, because he’s an amazing actor, but I really wanted him to pause for a second before he put the knife in the eye, and just look at it and be like “Is that a person? It’s a dummy, I know it’s a dummy, but I’m physically shoving the knife into the eyeball of this thing.” I have a photo of the head afterwards with the knife sticking out of the eye, and it’s horrific. So those moments for both Steven and Andy, I spent a lot of money making these beautiful heads for them to stab, even though I knew they would never be seen, because I felt that it was something that would add a whole other layer to the emotion of those two scenes.

While you’re talking about making these heads, I have to ask you about making the Gregory zombie heads that we see lined up, and then we see Rick just busting one in the face to give it sort of a broken nose look. Tell me about creating those.

It’s kind of funny because a lot of people ask me how many cameos I do in the show as a walker. The Gregory head is actually a cast of my head. When Xander Berkeley was cast as Gregory, we didn’t have enough time to get him to Los Angeles to do a head cast and make a dummy head of him, so I sent photos of him and I said, “Here’s a picture of the actor. Let’s see what we have in stock that looks as close to Xander as it can be. “It ended up being a mold of my head. So that head that he picks up is actually a fake head of me!

One of the other heads, I don’t know if I’m going to get in trouble if I say this, was Johnny Depp. I think we had sculpted an emaciated version of a dummy head for something and we used Johnny Depp’s head as a basis just for a clay sculpt. I can’t remember who the third one is, but I’m in good company. Norman kept saying he wanted the heads when we were done shooting. I said we’ve got to wait until the picture is logged. I think one of the funniest moments we’ve shot in the season is when the Savior sticks his hand inside the head and puppeteers it to start talking. I laughed so hard when we shot that scene.

Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Now I’m going to keep picturing Andrew Lincoln punching you in the face during that scene. Maybe he was getting out some aggression there, Greg.

Maybe. I didn’t feel it. Fortunately, there was no psychic connection with me and the head so I didn’t feel the punch in the nose. There was another piece to the montage that we were going to shoot, which was Rosita taking all three of the heads. We were going to see this weird montage of her cutting the hair and shaving it. But it ended up being a better reveal after Rick talks to the whole group and laid out the plan. He walks around and he’s like, “What do we got?” They’re looking at the heads and he’s like, it’s such an absurd plan that it actually works.

I want to backtrack a little bit, as we were taking about Carol earlier. But what about this love connection between Carol and Tobin? Where did this come from?

I think it’s sweet. I think it’s an effort for Carol to sort of normalize everything in her life. She’s suffering from post-traumatic stress. I think by delivering the cookies and by the romance with Tobin she’s doing what she can do to try to normalize her existence. It’s a really sweet scene. I like the way that she leans in and kisses him. Tobin kind of puts it out there. And then you have the breakup scene between Abraham and Rosita, which was just agonizing to watch because it was so raw and so real. There’s so much going on that it just shows you the struggles of existing in a new society. When Abraham says to Rosita, “I thought you were the only woman left in the world and you’re not,” how do you recover from a comment like that? I have no idea.

Yeah, it’s brutal. And it’s interesting how you have this one couple forming and then another one breaking up in the episode, but you staged those scenes back to back. That’s a pretty interesting choice and rhythm to do that because normally the tendency would probably be to separate those out a little bit.

The show always has a very specific rhythm. By showing everybody prepping to leave for the compound — because then you also have the great scene between Denise and Tara — these scenes pack so much emotion that the episode is very front-heavy with these emotional scenes where we’re setting up the state. What they’re about to do is so horrendous and it’s so horrific. They’re about to go into this compound and murder people in their sleep. So the fact that we’re getting glimpses of them as human beings — knowing that these human beings are about to go and do this really horrific thing — makes this raid that much more intense. That’s why the episode is structured that way.

You see them planning everything, and you see them talking about what they’re going to do, and then here’s a very real and human moment about two people falling in love. Here’s a real moment about two people breaking up. Then there’s this scene with saying goodbye between Tara and Denise. Then you have Maggie and Glenn talking about how they need to be together when they’re doing these things. So you’re setting all these amazing moments up where people are committed to moving forward with their lives, whether they’re together or not. By committing to do this, their intent is that if they want this way of life to continue, they’re going to be killing people.

To go in and kill people in their sleep for a conflict they’re having with another group — even if they did have that incident in the road with Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha — is a new step for this group.

It also shows a very sophisticated confidence in Rick. Rick really believes that they’re capable of anything. Look at what they have overcome: They’ve survived Woodbury, they’ve survived the prison, they’ve survived Terminus, they’ve survived the Walkers overtaking Alexandria. Their confidence is high. They’re getting themselves into a pretty good place where they genuinely believe that they can’t be beat. And the scene in the church when Morgan stands up and says, “Listen, do we need to do this? Why can’t we just talk to them?” Rick’s like, “We’re putting it to a vote.” I love the fact that Rick is not laying down the law. Rick puts it out there for the group.

It’s the end of the Ricktatorship.

It really is the first time that we get a sense that Alexandria is a democracy. If everybody in that church stood up and said, “I’m not comfortable doing this,” they wouldn’t have done it. Aaron stands up and says, “What happened with the Wolves, I’m not going to let that happen again.” Nobody argues with it. Morgan stands up because we know Morgan’s philosophy. His philosophy is, all life is precious and maybe we can avoid this. Nobody else agrees with that philosophy.

Let’s talk about the big assault on this Saviors’ compound. Tell me how you wanted to stage this.

Well, the trick with this whole action sequence is that it’s the race to the armory. They break up into separate groups. They have to get to the armory because they remember that that’s what the Wolves did. When the Wolves attacked Alexandria, their goal was to find the armory, get to the armory, get the weapons, and we win. So when everybody splits up, they’re going to door to door and they’re opening the doors, and if somebody is in there they kill them. If somebody isn’t in there and it’s not the armory, they move on. So the pacing is very, very specific to the point where we have three groups of people at three different doors all kicking in the door at the same moment, and one of them is the armory, and the other one is a supply closet, and the other one is something else.

It’s Glenn and Heath that are trapped in the armory when they’re chased down the hallway. I really was very adamant about using blanks for everything because I wanted the gunfire to be real. I wanted the actors to react to the sounds of the gunfire and muzzle flash. I wanted it to be as real and as authentic as we could get it, and, of course, keeping everything very safe. I think Cudlitz said that it was one of the very few instances where you see Abraham in an actual battle shooting a machine gun. We had done it in episode 609 for the shot when he’s on top of the fence, but I wanted everybody to be perceived as a very tight military unit.

They knew what they were doing, and if they came upon anybody they killed them. It was a little mini Die Hard action scene. It’s very complicated, because when you’re firing weapons with blanks, you have to make sure that your choreography is spot on. If somebody runs in front of you and you fire blank ammunition into their back, that’s bad. Somebody could get hurt. So we had to do a lot of rehearsals. We had to make sure that every single actor was comfortable firing these guns, because the hallways were thin. That compound that we shot was a real location that we found. I remember it was about 45 minutes away from our studio. There was a little discussion about “It’s a really long drive.” I said, “This gives us some serious production value. This place is beautiful. We need to find a way to make this work.” And we did.

The episode then ends with this voice on the radio that announces they have Carol and Maggie. What can you say about that and where this is going?

Well, the only thing I can say about speaking to what I mentioned earlier about being confident, you’ve got to be careful. The fact that they cleared the facility and then see the guy on Daryl’s motorcycle, they might be getting a little ahead of themselves in terms of how confident they are. The one thing that you can never do in this world is underestimate your opponent. Clearly, Maggie and Carol were distracted enough to be overcome, and they let their guard down.

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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