The Walking Dead director on filming that heartbreaking goodbye
SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s midseason premiere of The Walking Dead, “Honor.”
The Walking Dead midseason premiere, “Honor,” was an emotional gut-punch. But there were some major technical hurdles to clear as well for executive producer/director Greg Nicotero. Not only did Nicotero need to handle one of the most emotional episodes ever, but he had to match scenes from at least three different timelines/possible futures, figure out a way to bounce back and forth between two huge death scenes (Carl and Gavin), and also rig it so that one character could reach inside another’s body and pull out his guts. You know pretty standard stuff.
We spoke with Nicotero to get his behind-the-scenes take on filming Chandler Riggs’ final episode and all the tears and challenges that came along with it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So many emotional moments in this episode. You told me you cried the first time you watched it. Which moment for you was the most gut-wrenching?
GREG NICOTERO: It really hit me when Daryl steps up and says to Carl, “You did all this. This is all you.” And that realization that Carl was really the one person that wasn’t part of the war. Everybody else was online to wipe out the Saviors. It was all about killing. It was all about death. And when Daryl recognizes that, and looks around the tunnel and sees all those people there, and basically points out that everything that Carl has been doing is all about saving people, and all about life, that’s when it kinda hit me. And I think that goodbye moment between Daryl and Carl is the beginning of that emotional roller-coaster that takes us through the rest of the episode.
And, listen, I can’t be more proud of the actors. I can’t say enough amazing things about Chandler and what he brought to the episode. It’s just amazing to me what we were about to do. I’ve been jokingly telling people before they see it to have a movie marathon of the 10 saddest movies you’ve ever seen, and then watch The Walking Dead.
Tell me your reaction when showrunner Scott M. Gimple first told you about this idea of taking the time jump from the comic books and instead turning it into Carl’s deathbed vision for the future?
It really was a fascinating bit of storytelling that Scott and the writers came up with because even when we were shooting the first episode, and I was shooting the future Rick stuff, he hadn’t shared with us yet where those visions were going. So the scenes that I had shot, we didn’t really know how many of those visions we were gonna see, or how often it was gonna happen.
Wow, I remember being on set when you shot the very first scene of Old Man Rick getting out of the bed. I didn’t realize that even you didn’t know then how it all fit together.
Knowing what the war was composed of, and what everybody’s positions were, when I later realized what was gonna happen in the bit with Carl, I realized that yeah, the fact that he’s not a victim of the war, but he’s a victim of just circumstance — I really think that that’s a critical thing to remember and understand the fact that even in the tunnel, Rick is like, “But no, it was them. It had to have been them.”
Rick can’t even comprehend anything outside of the fact that these two groups of people have committed to annihilating each other. So, I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to really see how the real world as we currently know it invades everything that they’re doing. And the truth of the matter is that we spend so much time on the show talking about morality and talking about what people have become and what they’re willing to do to survive. Now we’re at a place where no one’s gonna be left. If they keep it up, no one will be left. There’s nothing worth fighting for anymore.
So, to have this young boy share his wisdom with his father and his dying wish is to really find it in your heart to live in harmony. And knowing that Rick has done it before. Remember, Rick brought the Woodbury survivors back in after the Governor destroyed Woodbury. That was probably the best that they ever had it was at the beginning of season 4 when they were living at the farm. There was a lot of harmony, and there was a lot of goodwill, and everybody was really looking to survive in the right way, and in a good place. Carl needs to remind Rick of those moments. Because Rick lost sight of that. So, this gave him that opportunity to do that.
Carl ultimately pulls the trigger on that gun instead of having Rick or Michonne do it. What do you think the significance of that is?
I think it’s tremendously impactful because he’s sparing them from it. It means he’s sparing them from the exact same thing that he had to do with Lori — which completely changed him by him having to be the one that pulled the trigger. He’s trying to send them off into the future with a much more clear indication of what they need to do to survive. And leaving them with that lasting vision of having to pull the trigger is in direct contrast with what Carl’s mission statement is to them from this moment onward.
The Carl death scene cuts back and forth with another scene of Morgan about to kill Gavin when that kid Henry comes out of nowhere and does it first. Tell me about executing the back and forth there and what those scenes put together mean.
That was something very important in the episode. And we spent a lot of time talking about that sequence because they’re in such direct contrast to each other. You have Morgan, who is basically gone to this entirely new level. It’s not just about fighting a war. Morgan is just gone to this place of brutality. And then you have Carl, who’s really finding the strength to say something uplifting and to give his dad some hope.
So we really wanted to play up that we were inter-cutting these two directly contrasting ideas. I didn’t have time to storyboard the episode, but these particular shots, knowing which shot we were going out of on Carl, and which shot we were coming into on Morgan, were very important. Because we wanted even something as simple as having them be mirroring the sides of the characters in the frames. So Morgan would be on one side of the frame, and Carl would be on the other side of the frame — to just even give us something like a visual contrast was really, really important.
This was probably the closest that I’ve ever done to shooting a John Carpenter Halloween sequence — by having Morgan stalking Gavin through the movie theater, and there was the smoke, and he comes out and he sees the blood on the ground. And he trashes the stick he’s dragging through the dirt. All of this stuff. He’s hunting Gavin, and while he’s hunting him, Carl is telling Rick that there’s a world where people that you currently perceive as good and bad can live together. And that’s why we end on that shot of Judith and Negan.
There are certain indelible shots on this show and that one at the end of the church scene with the shot of the broken stained glass with Rick and Michonne over Carl was pretty amazing. When you see a shot like that on set in your video village monitor, do you know pretty much immediately you have something special?
I wanted that church to be beautiful. I wanted the light to be streaming through the open holes in the ceiling. And it needed to be evocative. And the fact that we went from the nighttime with the red orange flame in the windows, and then the sun starts to come up, and we start introducing these shafts of light.
I loved shooting that sequence. We really treated that entire night like it was a closed set. I really wanted to preserve, for the actors, that peace and that tranquility that I needed so much for that moment. I knew as soon as I read the script what I wanted it to look like. I felt like it needed to end beautifully, and it needed to just have so much warmth to it and be in the contrast of the shots before, where they’re walking through Hell.
All the houses are on fire, everything about it. You see Michonne and Rick carrying Carl, and Carl’s like, “I can’t go anymore. Just leave me here.” They’re walking through Hell. So, to make it through Hell and find this place of serenity and beauty, it was tremendously important to me. And I’m really proud with how it turned out. You know, Chandler just killed it. Lennie killed it. Danai and Andy. Jason, who plays Gavin, Khary, everybody. I mean, it really is a triumph in terms of performances in The Walking Dead. I think everything about this episode. It’s focused, and succinct and clean. And it shows.
Tell me how you did that scene of Morgan reaching into a guy’s bullet wound and pulling out his intestines.
I remember there was Lennie looking at me when we first started that sequence, like, “Okay, so how are we really going to do this?” Scott and I talked a lot about it. We built a rig that the actor could lay in, so that his chest and his torso was hidden behind it, because I really wanted to make sure that I could get profile shots with Lennie and the actor in the same frame when his hand disappears inside the stomach cavity.
So, we had a rig that we built that was attached to a wood base that was bolted on a 45 degree angle. And then the actor just basically kneeled in behind it. And then the shirt just went overtop. So the actor could slide his arms into the shirt and then my effects team hooked up fire extinguishers with blood so that Lenny had a hole that he could slide his hand into, and then pull the entrails out.
And then we see the close-ups of the hand going in, and then that medium shot of the guts pulling out. And then we cut wide, because wanted it to play from Gavin’s perspective. Because their level of brutality is so sudden for Gavin that he’s terrified beyond words and is forced to escape, because he realizes that Morgan is unstoppable at this moment.
It’s incredibly gross and incredible all the way around. So what can you say about that final shot of Rick in the field by the tree clutching a wound in his side? Obviously this appears to tease something from the comic as well.
We will get more answers on it later for sure. You know, it’s something that we’ve teased a couple times through the course of the season up until now. And I think its safe to say that there’s a lot more to come in terms of where Rick is going, and what his mindset is after Carl’s death. And we’re going to get a chance to really explore how he perceives the world and what’s coming down the pipe for us.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC. For more TWD scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.