Greg Nicotero takes us inside the 100th episode and some of the biggest scenes

SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched the “Mercy” season 8 premiere of The Walking Dead.

There was a whole lot of different Ricks in the season 8 premiere of The Walking Dead. There was the Rick waging war on Negan. There was old man Rick with the cane and weird flat-top haircut. And there was bloodshot-eyes Rick quoting Allah about his mercy prevailing over his faith.

But that wasn’t all we saw. There was also a massive battle scene, a double dedication, and some episode 100 Easter egg tributes paying homage to the show’s past. We spoke to executive producer Greg Nicotero, who directed the episode, about all that and more. (Read through both pages for the entire interview, and also make sure to check out our other premiere Q&As with star Andrew Lincoln and showrunner Scott M. Gimple.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re doing these either flash-forwards or dream sequences or whatever they are with an older, hobbled Rick. We’ll find out later what these actually are and what they mean, but clearly, they do mirror a big thing that takes place in the comic book. What was it like getting to bring that to life on screen, even if it does turn out being something else? Because I was on set that day and I know I was super excited to see it.
GREG NICOTERO: It’s always exciting when you have those opportunities to realize panels from the comic book that are evocative. When they walk out of the front of the house and we see Alexandria as a thriving, vibrant community, it gives us hope. It gives us a great opportunity to glimpse into the future and see that even though they’re in this dark, war-like time, that there’s a great possibility that things will work out for everybody and it’s good times. Our show, we have to revel in the great upbeat moments because God knows we’ve had our share of heavy ones.

I’m not saying we’re not going to have a couple of those moments this season, but the reality is our group is together. They’re committed to preserving their way of life. So aside from all the action stuff and the walker stuff and the great characters that get to interact, this was fun because it was something different — getting a chance to do a fun makeup on Andy and tell a little bit of a different story. Seeing Judith grown up, and Carl and Michonne, it was a lot of fun and it’s always fun to transform people with makeup because Andy is one of those types of people that once he saw what we were doing, he became that guy. I’ve seen it with a lot of other actors that I’ve worked with, Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers and Mickey Rourke and the guys that really embrace the process of makeup allowing them to be transformed. So there were a lot of great fun things about it.

Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

And you guys love to play with time on this show. We’ve seen a bunch of different instances and you are going back and forth into what looks like three different time frames. We see the present where the battle’s going to begin, we see sort of future here, and then you also have these shots with Rick with close-ups on these red blood-shot eyes that we see throughout the episode and it ends with him quoting Allah with a call back to earlier in the episode. So, will Rick’s mercy prevail over his wrath?
Well, you’re just going to have to wait and see. But you hear that line in the episode, because Siddiq says it to Carl in the gas station when he’s talking about his mom and he was talking about the traveler and all this stuff, and it’s Siddiq that says that he’s basically quoting something that his mom said. So when you broke it down that way there might even be four timelines because if you think about Rick at Glenn and Abraham’s graves, and then you think about Rick on the back of the truck when he’s doing his speech so yeah, we always do that because it always gives the audience an opportunity to put some of these timelines together for themselves.

That’s part of the fun. You don’t want to spoon-feed them everything. You want them to start guessing and start analyzing the show and figuring out where it’s going to go and what this means and what that means. It is something that we do well, and really the intent is to engage our viewers and allow them to immerse themselves into this world and make these deductions and analyze aspects of the show for themselves.

It feels like you’re setting the table here. Is that the ultimate question that is going to hover over this season: mercy or wrath?
I think it’s safe to say considering the episode’s called “Mercy” that that is something that people will be dealing with, and as the season progresses and other episodes lay out in front of us, we will see different characters attempt to take some matters into their own hands about the fate of all these different people. I think that’s definitely one of the strongest themes in the show is okay, well, we have this opportunity to destroy and decimate this threat now, but at what cost? And I think it’s safe to say that yes, those two themes will rear their heads over and over again in the next 16 episodes.

You have these nods to the past in the episode like the scene where Carl is looking for gas that clearly is a callback to the first scene ever with Rick and the zombie girl, or the orange backpack making an appearance. Tell me about how you decided to add those little touches in.
[Showrunner Scott M. Gimple] and I start our job every day being fans and really wanting to show our appreciation to the people that watch the show and give them a little Easter egg — something not just for the people that have been dedicated to the show to catch, but also as a tribute to what we’ve done by recreating the gas station sequence and basically extracting Rick out of that and putting Carl into it. We wanted to open the season very much like the way the show premiered way back eight years ago.

So all those things were put in there as a little thank you. We don’t want it to become so obvious at times that it takes people out of the episode, because it’s a very fine line. You don’t want people to spin off and spend a tremendous amount of time digging into so much of those Easter eggs.

Even the shot down on Rick in the future Alexandria sequence and the flowers next to the bed — we put all those in there to mirror the first episode. The electrocuted walker that has been fused to the electrical wire — we used Joe Giles who was one of the first walkers in the original show, the one that gets out of the bus and follows Rick down the street. I thought it would be cool to go back to our roots and use some of the same walkers that were in early episodes again as just a little tribute.

NEXT PAGE: Nicotero on the show’s Goodfellas moment, and what’s coming up next

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I wanted to ask you about one shot in particular where the assembled troops are all in this field and the camera moves through the crowd and catches little bits of these individual conversations before finally landing on Rick and his group. Tell me about the idea and execution for that.
GREG NICOTERO: That was our little Scorsese Goodfellas moment where we had a lot of information that we wanted to impart, so it’s almost as if you’re in and amongst the soldiers as well and you’re walking through the field and you’re just catching snippets of what everybody’s saying, and you see Shiva in the background. It really was just a great opportunity to allow the audience to feel like they’re a part of the group, when you’re walking through and you hear somebody say something and then you walk past Aaron and Eric and then you walk past Enid and Jerry. I wanted it to feel authentic to what somebody would be experiencing as they’re moving in and amongst these people.

Let’s talk about the big battle scene at the Sanctuary, another day I was lucky enough to be on set for. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a cast as happy as they were that day, getting to do a huge epic battle scene, but what was that experience like for you, because you had a lot to keep track of and manage as a director?
Listen, this episode was really intense. It was very dense. Like you said earlier, every premiere really it is about setting the stage, so you’re teeing everything up for future episodes. But in this particular episode, it was very complex — even the idea that they welded armor onto the sides of the cars so that you have this almost weird ballet of all these cars driving up and every time you see the cars you’re like, what’s going on? Why do they have steel welded to the sides of these cars?

It’s only at that last moment where you see those cars coming together and you go, oh, they’ve created barricades to protect themselves from anybody that would be firing on them. So even the choreography of the cars was difficult and challenging, but this season we’ve made some efforts to change some of the way we shoot the episodes in terms of keeping the frames static and using focus and using the different planes. Like, we’ll see Maggie in the foreground and then we’ll wrap focus to Jesus in the background or Rick.

I really wanted to get the sense that as we’re going through these episodes that there are a lot of layers. You know, all these people are together. The camera’s not moving a lot, but what we’re doing is we’re telling the story of these people’s groups together, but by using focus to separate them, it gives us a really good visual style. So whereas before we would use a big dolly move to introduce elements to a specific shot and allow the audience to learn things as the camera’s revealing them, now we’ve been using a lot more static frames and allowing the audience to examine the frame and discover for themselves — instead of having the camera show them — what we want them to see and what we want them to find. It’s all about discovery and having these elegant beautiful frames to allow the audience to discover aspects of our story visually.

Credit: Greg Nicotero/AMC

We’ve talked a lot about it’s so cool how everyone’s coming together to fight against Negan and getting people from these different communities that we haven’t seen together. But what’s also kind of cool is seeing the Saviors assembled as well. You look up there on that balcony and you see Dwight, Simon, Gavin, and Negan all together. We haven’t seen these guys together before.
Yeah, because they’re all spread out at their different outposts. One of the things about this episode is it’s a very quiet episode. There’s not a lot of talking until they get to the Sanctuary. And then we get to the Sanctuary and you have Negan, and I’d laugh out loud every time Jeffrey walks out and he goes, “Hey, I see you brought your mud flaps.”

What’s up with Rick taking the Polaroid picture as he leaves the Sanctuary?
You’ll get a chance to learn about that down the road a little bit, but you know Negan’s guys would take Polaroids of the devastation that they left when in season 6 Glenn and Heath see the Polaroids of all the people that Negan had killed. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Rick is intending on gathering his own set of Polaroids of some damage that they inflicted upon Negan.

Okay, we saw Rick fire the first big shot here. What can you say about what’s coming up next on The Walking Dead?
It’s thrilling and it’s exciting. When I watched the final cut of this episode, I was so thrilled because all I could say is, I want to know what happens next! We’ve really set it up for an opportunity to propel us forward in a way that we’ve never done before.

Make sure to check out our premiere Q&As with star Andrew Lincoln and showrunner Scott M. Gimple, and watch our Top 10 Gut-Wrenching Walking Dead Moments special on the PeopleTV network. And for more The Walking Dead scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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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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