Greg Nicotero explains how the season finale came full circle and why next season will be very different
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SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched the season 7 finale of The Walking Dead, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life.”

The Walking Dead’s seventh season ended with both hope and heartbreak. Sasha sacrificed herself — weaponizing herself as a zombie — in yet another unsuccessful attempt to take down Negan while the Scavengers turned on Alexandria, Michonne was beaten to a pulp, and Carl almost fell victim to Lucille. But the troops also arrived in the form of the Kingdom and the Hilltop, and by the end of the extended season-ender, Rick and Co. had driven the Saviors out and were ready to regroup for all out war.

It was a finale that acted as a bookend to both the season premiere (with Abraham flashbacks) and the very first Walking Dead episode ever (with Maggie using Glenn’s decision to save Rick out of the tank as the thing that put everything into motion in terms of the community they ended up building). The man who directed the finale, exec producer Greg Nicotero, stopped by EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105) this morning and gave us the behind-the-scenes scoop on the finale. Here are a few highlights from our chat.

On the episode coming full circle with the Abraham flashback and Maggie’s speech about Glenn, with the last shot on the pocket watch:
“There’s even shots of Sasha and Maggie on the log when the sun’s coming up, which was after the hurricane when they were all trapped in the barn and they met [Aaron]. So it was hitting some of those highlights from the show. For me, having Michael [Cudlitz] back was great because I know the first episode, the deaths — especially his — were so out of left field. There was some talk of, well, how do we pay tribute to these characters?

“And when I read the script for the first time, I was so excited about the fact that it explained Sasha’s entire journey through the whole season. Because she never leaves Maggie’s side. And so then to realize that the reason she doesn’t leave Maggie’s side is because of what she says to Abraham in the episode. She says ‘Maggie can take care of Maggie.’ It was one of those episodes that has everything that works when The Walking Dead works.”

On Rick telling off Negan while on his knees:
“The best part, of course, is that Negan actually looks scared for a second when Rick leans in and whispers into his ear, “You’re dead already.” The look on Jeffrey’s face — to me that’s what launches season 8. Because in the first episode, Negan was like, ‘Nope, haven’t broken him yet. He’s still got that defiant look.’ And the fact that now he can’t do anything to break Rick, I love that moment. Andy and I talked so much about that before we shot that particular sequence and seeing the façade drop away and seeing Negan with that look on his face for a split second that says, ‘Uh-oh, I may have met my match with this guy.’ And then it turns it back on.”

On how they filmed the Shiva stuff on set before the tiger was added digitally later:
“When we did the stunt with the tiger we had a guy with a blue leotard on a mini-tramp jumping through the shot and tackling the guy. So we had more fun just watching this guy in a blue leotard jumping around tackling people because it was just so funny. I think I ended up shooting 80 percent of Shiva’s stuff [this season]. And we were whip-panning from Jeffrey raising the bat and just whip-panning over because we really wanted it to be like a steam train. Just blasting through.”

On saying goodbye to Sonequa Martin-Green:
“I directed one of her first scenes when she got on to the show. It seems to be kind of a recurring theme — I bring ‘em in and sadly I got to take them out. I have a really unique connection with her. I have a photo of me standing on the back of the truck and she’s in her walker makeup and I’m telling her what the next shot is and we’re holding hands. She just personifies grace and beauty and power. We have such a beautiful relationship and I’m so excited for everything that she’s doing and what’s happening with her because now she’s on Star Trek. It was rough, but she was amazing. Really amazing. Probably one of the most unique women I’ve ever met.”

On how he filmed the Sasha coffin scenes:
“I had the art department buy a massage chair, so she was very comfortable. We could bend it and position it, so she wasn’t lying flat. We had it at a 45-degree angle and the only light source was from the [iPod] so we just built a black set for her. That was the last scene we shot, was that piece. She was excited about being a zombie. I was a little surprised because a lot of times some of the actors don’t want to be a walker.”

On not showing Maggie putting zombie Sasha down on screen:
“It wasn’t important to the story. We didn’t even see her face. I never wanted to see her face again because I think that scene plays on Maggie’s face so beautifully and Lauren [Cohan], the emotion that she expressed just by looking at her, there was no reason to show that.”

On how this finale was different from last year’s cliffhanger:
“Every finale is different. We never want to repeat ourselves in terms of how they end emotionally and story-wise. I know that the writers had already roughly figured out where the first part of season 8 was going, so it was about hitting that target. I know people were frustrated with the finale last year. I still… I don’t get it. I liked it. But this one feels much more like the Terminus finale where even though they got captured, Rick’s not backing down. So this one, knowing that he’s ready to go to war and has a pretty good sized army and Ezekiel’s there and Maggie’s there and all these different communities have banded together, that really was what the whole season was about.

“This whole season was about introducing these new worlds and how they will inter-relate. And that was what we were excited about for season 7, was expanding our world and making it feel bigger and larger and more epic, just in terms of characters. And it was challenging because you have to establish that stuff. You have to spend time getting to know the people at Hilltop, getting to know the people at Oceanside, getting to know the people at the Kingdom so that you’re invested in them. So with our show, sure, we could have just gotten into ‘All Out War’ in episode 2 and blasted through everything, but then we wouldn’t really care as much. You have to know who these people are.”

On what we can expect in season 8:
“Knowing the pace of the finale, I think things have accelerated and I think our show benefits a lot of times from a lot of our core characters’ chemistry. So I think we’re going to see a very different kind of Walking Dead next year. In a very good way.”

We’ll have tons more finale coverage — including interviews with key cast and producers — coming up, so follow @DaltonRoss on Twitter for all the latest Walking Dead updates.

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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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