The Walking Dead director takes us inside the zombie carnival from hell
SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Say Yes.”
Everyone loves a carnival — unless the rides make you sick. Or unless there are military zombies either stuck in windshields or toting machine guns that may inadvertently pop off from time to time. Rick and Michonne came across the latter on Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Say Yes,” so we spoke to executive producer Greg Nicotero (who also directed the episode) to get the inside scoop on what ended up being a much lighter and funnier episode of The Walking Dead than we are used to.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were all over the place this episode: Rick and Michonne on the road, the junkyard set, Alexandria, the Hilltop. Have you ever done this many locations in one episode before?
GREG NICOTERO: We have, but we’re making sure that as the rest of this season progresses that we’re checking in with some of our other characters on a more regular basis because we’re building momentum. We spent a lot of the first half of the season laying the groundwork for where we’re headed, and with the Rick and Michonne story, this is the first time that we’ve seen them both on the same page the entire season.
We kind of joke that this is the honeymoon episode. You’ve never seen them smiling. You’ve never seen this kind of chemistry between them before. And that was, for me, frankly, one of the biggest challenges: the tone of this episode, because it’s light, and there are some genuinely funny exchanges between the two of them. I love seeing Michonne smile. I love seeing Rick smile, even though, obviously, there’s a lot more going on underneath the subtext of it all.
I’m really proud of the episode. I think it’s very intriguing, it’s a very different kind of Walking Dead episode, even in terms of the zombie kills. When they’re in the broken-down carnival, we chose to shoot those depths much more impressionistically — the shadow-play and angles where the walkers’ heads aren’t in frame, but Michonne’s swinging the sword, it was really more about them than the actual kills.
Yeah, a lot of humor in this episode, and just lightness in general — like where Rick is saying “C’mon, you can handle killing eight zombies” or joking about how they overshot it with the car. When you guys were talking about this episode, were you wondering how far you could push it with the lighter tone and humor?
We pushed it. We really pushed it even a little bit further. I always want to make sure that my actors feel, number one, protected, but number two, that they feel like they have the opportunity to really explore different aspects of their characters. And with Danai [Gurira], she came over to my house and we had dinner one night, and we talked through the whole script, because Michonne has a very specific demeanor about her, and I was excited about the fact that we got to see a playful side of her. I think Michonne feels much more like Danai in this episode. I feel I see a lot more of her in the character because of the lightness. When she gives him that look, when he goes “Come on, you can handle eight,” she looks at him like, “Who me?” Like, of course she can handle eight. But it’s funny.
I really wanted there to be chemistry between them. This is honestly the first time that we’ve ever seen them alone, that we’ve ever seen them at ease with each other. In the beginning of the episode, Michonne says, “We should go back.” And Rick’s like, “No, come on, we got a little bit more time.” He’s enjoying it. He doesn’t want to go back right away because he knows once they go back, the game’s on, and she’s sort of brought around to his kind of thinking of like, fine, all right. And then they hit the mother lode. They find that school with all the supplies, and it’s only after they’ve dispatched all those walkers that the weight of everything comes crashing down onto Michonne — the reality that she could lose him, he could lose her, they could lose people. It’s the beginning of that age-old story that survival of the race is much more important than survival of an individual person.
I’m so used to you directing these giant action spectaculars, like the midseason premiere last year, or episodes that introduce new communities, like the Kingdom episode this season. What I found interesting about this one is that even though it did have some really cool action and zombie stuff, I would argue that the most impactful moments in the episode are the quieter ones, like that scene in the car between Rick and Michonne where he tells her what they’re fighting for and how it’s bigger than any one of them — those are really the biggest scenes of the episode.
When we shot that episode, I felt that was the best scene we had shot all season. There was so much power behind it, so much emotion behind the words, just raw and beautiful. And the performances in that scene — I sat at the monitor and was like “Oh, my God!” What they’re saying and how they’re saying it and the connection, all of that lands because we’ve seen them raiding the buildings and pillaging and scavenging and going at it in the van and you know, the Sixteen Candles birthday dinner scene that I specifically choreographed like Sixteen Candles.
I just wanted the audience to really feel that part of their relationship so that when she realizes that she could lose him, it’s just devastating to her. I’ve had some great opportunities to direct some great emotional moments, like Rick holding Carl’s hand in the bed afterward. That’s what makes episodes great is that you pepper them with these peaks and valleys of emotion and thrills and excitement and laughs and sadness, and even when he gets back and he’s with Jadis negotiating for the cat…
I love that.
I laugh every single time.
“20, and I keep the cat.” It’s so funny. I just feel like my relationship with the actors and the writers and everything is very delicately honed right now and it’s humming and it’s humming well. And that’s what makes the second half of the season, to me, feel very satisfying is understanding that, yeah, that moment when Michonne looks over and for a split second thinks that Rick is being torn apart — I watched the episode again yesterday and I was like shoot, people are going to freak out for a minute because it played just long enough for you to go, okay, I don’t know how he’s going to get out of this.
Tell me about the whole idea of the zombie carnival. I caught a little Creepshow nod in there as well. Where did that come from?
One of the things that it signifies is, we don’t very often get a chance to explore aspects of the world prior to the turn, and Michonne says it when they’re standing on the roof looking out at this carnival and it’s like, “We could have this again.” I mean, she’s really believing that the world could go back to this, that there was a place where it wasn’t all death, it wasn’t all gloom, but there was a world. So it’s a very significant reminder that, oh, there was a high school and they had this carnival set up in the back, and there were toys and stuffed animals and rides.
I know it was really, really important to our story that we set this up, so we rented all that equipment and we built some of it and we aged it all and that was a pretty significant choreography in terms of just having the zombies come from all avenues, but it was important story-wise to remind the audience of what the world used to be like, because we hadn’t thought about that or seen that very often in the show. It’s mostly now about dealing in the present day, dealing with Negan, and dealing with the Hilltop, and dealing with the Kingdom, and dealing with Sanctuary, so this was gentle reminder of what the world was like and what are we fighting for? We’re fighting to get the world back to some semblance of that kind of humanity again.
Give us a tease in terms of what we have coming up next because I know Sasha and Rosita are going to try and play nice to take out Negan. Pretty clear Tara is now telling Rick about Oceanside. What does it all mean going forward?
Rick’s in full recruit mode. He’s still dealing with Jadis and her people in terms of the guns, but it looks pretty much like they’ve got that sealed up. The bigger Rick’s army gets, the more confident he is in terms if trying to take on Negan. And, with Sasha and Rosita, we’ve seen their stories progress. As soon as Rosita took that shot on Negan, everything changed for her. Once Olivia died and Eugene was taken because of Rosita’s actions, she has nothing left to live for. She’s ready to go and she doesn’t care how she does it. She has a singular mission, and then with Sasha losing Abraham and how she’s feeling, we have two strong, powerful women that are not going to be deterred from their journey.
For more Walking Dead intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.