Rick Grimes had a change of heart at the end of The Walking Dead’s season 8 finale. He may have used his words to trick Negan and slit the big bad’s throat, but his crisis of conscience then led him to save his nemesis so Negan could watch the new world they build without him from his jail cell. (Hope it has a window!)

But Rick’s decision may have other lasting consequences heading into season 9, as Maggie and Daryl were not exactly happy that Negan was still among the living. We caught up with finale director (and executive producer) Greg Nicotero to get the inside scoop on filming the episode, what it all means, and his take on some big off-screen changes as well. (Also make sure to read our finale Q&As with star Andrew Lincoln and showrunner Scott M. Gimple.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So many big things happening here with a big battle but a lot of smaller, intimate moments either within that or after that as well. What is your favorite moment of the finale you shot and why?
GREG NICOTERO: I’ll tell you: I had two moments that I really enjoyed. I loved the scene with Eugene and Father Gabriel in the woods when Gabriel jumps out of the car. I thought that Seth [Gilliam] and Josh [McDermitt] were great, and Jeffrey [Dean Morgan] was really great in that scene. I really loved it. I also loved the scene between Rick and Morgan at the gate at the beginning after Morgan knocks Henry down, because that really felt like The Walking Dead, that conversation that Andy [Lincoln] and Lenny [James] had. I really just remember cutting that scene and just thinking how much it felt like old-school Walking Dead, which is really what we’re sort of transforming the show into as we move forward.

And then Dwight and Daryl in the woods at the end. There was so much, and I think the biggest challenge for me was, we had almost a 60-page script that we had to cram into a short amount of time, so there was some stuff that ended up hitting the cutting room floor. It was just a lot of stuff going on in the episode.

So we have this big sort of confrontation under the tree between Rick and Negan. Kind of a dick move what Rick does to Negan here. He says, “Hey, let’s not fight. My son has this vision for us working and living together,” and then he goes and slices Negan’s throat. Not very sportsmanlike, was it?
Well, I would have to agree. We’ve seen Rick struggling with what he feels he needs to do versus what Carl had wanted him to do. And we saw a little bit of that in episode 14 when Rick and Morgan are in that speakeasy and they end up slaughtering all of the Saviors. It’s not until Negan evokes Carl that it really stops Rick in his tracks and makes him realize that this isn’t a way to live and move forward. It’s just not.

So I think, in that moment, that’s when Rick makes that decision to save Negan. And we talked a lot about that. I was always very aware of the moment with Maggie and whether Maggie had a gun and whether Maggie should take a shot at Negan or what. So there was a lot of interweaving along those stories that particular moment. But that’s really what prompted Rick to spare him.

Credit: Gene Page/AMC

What was it like with Andrew Lincoln and Jeffrey Dean Morgan shooting that scene? We know Andy’s very intense on set. And these guys had a brawl a few weeks back that you also directed. What was it like shooting this scene?
This was much more physical. These guys, we started shooting this scene, and I think the first three hours of the day, the guys were really physical and kind of rolling around. And then I was shooting the up angle on Andy and getting his moments where he says, “Save him,” and at that point, I needed to give the actors a break to catch their breath, and then we turned around and shot some other stuff.

So that was an intense day for sure because it was so physical and these guys were kicking each other and wrestling and rolling around on the ground. For the initial neck slice, we did it as a visual effect so that we could hold in that shot. Then Jeffrey brings his hand out, and we had a tube attached to his throat that was pumping blood so that you could see the blood running through Negan’s fingers. So we shot all of that plus the speech to everybody, and when they all leave, all in one day.

And I think a lot of people forget that the amount of time that we have shooting these episodes is between eight and nine days. And the big battle scene at the end wasn’t necessarily a massive fight scene, because we felt like we had already done that. So we didn’t feel like it was really about getting into another big battle scene, so we compressed. The guns explode. We see a little bit of fighting and a little bit of struggling between Michonne and Morgan and Maggie, but we never shot a massive battle scene, because that wasn’t really what the end of the war was about.

Is that massive herd we saw and Rick referenced near the end of the episode an intentional hint of the comic book villains the Whisperers and what may be coming in season 9?
I think the intent with that was to show that if they continue fighting amongst themselves, there will be nothing left to survive. So it wasn’t necessarily a reference to the Whisperers. It was more a reference to that there’s still an enemy out there, and it’s a common enemy, which is the army of the undead.

Tell me about shooting the flashback scenes with Rick back in the deputy sheriff’s uniform with a young Carl.
That was so much fun. That was our last day. We shot that on the same location as Hershel’s farm. As a matter of fact, right next to where we filmed that was where we shot a bunch of stuff with Dale and Daryl in season 2. And we wanted that hill with the cows, so we hired a little boy to play young Carl. And I wanted Andy clean-shaven, so we scheduled it on the last day so Andy could shave and show up and put on the uniform.

And it really was funny. I remember calling Norman [Reedus] to set. I’m like, “Dude, you got to come see this.” It was wild. The little boy was really sweet. It was a moment that was important, because that’s sort of what brings the whole season back together.

Let’s go to the other side of what we see happening at the end. That’s a really nice moment to end on, but a little before that, we see this scene of Maggie and Daryl basically being pissed off that Rick let Negan live, and they’re talking about doing something about it.
I mean, Maggie’s not happy. When we filmed that scene with her screaming, “No,” on the side of the hill, I got chills. And when I was filming it, I just let the cameras go, because I thought that Lauren [Cohan]’s performance, it was so powerful, and when she collapsed in Danai [Gurira]’s arms, just how powerful that was. And the fact that that is laying the siege for a little bit of unrest for us, and that’s what we want to do going into next season.

Credit: Gene Page/AMC

It turns out Eugene sabotaged the bullets and really is responsible for the victory here, so he’s back in their good graces again. Is Eugene more fun as a good guy or bad guy for you?
I like Eugene as a good guy. I like the transition. I love the moment between Josh and Christian [Serratos] where she basically forgives him but then punches him in the face. I thought it was really funny. I like him this way. It’s all been about survival for him and his own self-preservation. So the fact that he was able to get past who he was I thought was very, very important.

The vibe on set can vary wildly for season finales depending on a lot of factors. What was the vibe for this one?
Well, going into the episode, the big thing was really setting the stage for the next chapter in the show and the discussions about whether Negan should live or die, the discussions about how we end the season in a great note. There was a lot of story to tell, and for me the biggest challenge was really sort of wrapping everything up in terms of Dwight, in terms of Alden, in terms of Morgan, in terms of Jadis. It was just a lot of loose ends that we needed to wrap up. So it was a big, big episode. And we didn’t have a tremendous amount of time to prep, so I would have liked a little more time with the actual final cut, because there were some things that were left on the cutting room floor that I think would have benefitted the episode, but I’m sure on the DVD we’ll have the expanded version.

You all have another showrunner change here with Scott Gimple moving into more of an oversight role as longtime writer Angela Kang takes over. How has that transition been so far?
She’s awesome. Angela’s written some of my favorite episodes. She wrote the first episode I ever directed, which is the episode where Dale dies. And the interesting thing, you think about that episode in season 2, there was a lot of moving parts, but the momentum never stops. You’re so invested in these characters. And I really think that’s where we’re going back for season 9, and we’re going to really get back into our original characters and really drove that sense of family and compassion between them. I’m excited about it. She’s a great writer. She’s smart. She has a vision for the show. And she’s been with us since season 2, so I’m looking forward to some great things.

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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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