The Walking Dead director answers season premiere burning questions
Spoiler alert: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s season 9 premiere of The Walking Dead.
Change was the big word when it came to the season 9 premiere of The Walking Dead. There were new faces, there were new locations, there were new leaders, there were new issues to be resolved, and there were even new opening credits! Maggie flexed her leadership muscles (telling Rick she was no longer content to take a back seat in decision making), and then had to flex her literal muscles and fend off an attack from a drunken and manipulated Earl, as well as one from Gregory when Earl couldn’t finish the job himself. In the end, Maggie executed Gregory for his crimes in a move that spoke volumes about her resolve moving forward.
We spoke to executive producer Greg Nicotero, who directed the episode, about the death of Gregory, Carol’s new romance, heading back into the city, the episode’s most difficult scene to film, and much more. (Also watch Nicotero’s exclusive animatics for the big museum scene above, and read our premiere Q&A with showrunner Angela Kang and interview with Xander Berkeley, who plays Gregory.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start by talking about that new credits sequence: There have always been subtle changes throughout the years, but this was a pretty radical redoing.
GREG NICOTERO: Yeah, I really kind of love it. I like that it’s got a much more graphic feel. I like the little Easter eggs throughout the first eight seasons of the show are there. And it lets the audience know right out of the gate that we’re not giving them the same Walking Dead. We’re gonna give them something different. We’re very, very much committed to keeping the show updated. I kind of like that it feels like a living comic book, which clearly the Walking Dead is based on.
What was the most difficult sequence for you to shoot in this episode? Was it Ezekiel falling into the museum walker pit?
That was certainly the most complicated, because of the fact that we had shot in the state capitol building up in Atlanta, and we clearly didn’t have a glass floor, so we had to shoot a lot of it at the capitol building downtown. And then the art department built this amazing set that had these plexiglass tiles on it that we should shoot through. So, for me, I had to marry it all together, and I think we had about a day and a half to shoot that whole sequence. We had two days in the entire state capitol, so all the museum stuff that you see was shot in two days.
For me, one of the most exciting things was I always love being in an urban environment. I feel like one of the things we haven’t been able to do a lot on Walking Dead is get into those post-apocalyptic city streets. A lot of the stuff in Washington, I channeled Logan’s Run and I channeled Planet of the Apes, like that big hall wide shot of them all leaving the capitol building. I was so excited about that shot, because that was basically my homage to being behind the Statue of Liberty on the beach from the original Planet of the Apes, when you just get a little hint of the spires of the Statue of Liberty’s headdress and you see him on the horse.
It wasn’t scripted, so I just said, “Listen, I really want to do this shot to give the audience some scale and some scope, and really allow us to pay tribute to that post-apocalyptic world that we don’t get a chance to see enough.” I really felt like it was a great way to kick off the episode, by giving the audience something they haven’t seen before.
I love when you all go back to the city as well because it also gives the show a throwback vibe to itself because it all sort of started there.
Right. And, listen, if you think about it, that whole moment when we’re in the city streets and we see a walker, and then we see another walker, that’s very much a love letter to George Romero, because I was very much inspired by the opening of Day of the Dead as well, when they’re in the city and the helicopter lands and they’re hauling out looking for survivors. When I spoke to my editor, Allen Cody, I said, “I want you to watch the beginning of Day of the Dead because there’s a very specific rhythm that I want to build, and I want the audience to feel like this world is dead.”
That’s why we see all the burned-out cars, and all the debris blowing across the street. I just wanted to really feel that. So again, I’m really trying to embrace the genre roots of The Walking Dead. And of the three episodes I’ve directed this season so far, I’m really, really desperately making sure that those genre elements are there.
We see Ezekiel and Carol are now fully in a relationship. Fans may argue whom they want to see Carol with, but it’s so great to see a character like her that has suffered so much find some happiness. Is that fun for you all to see Carol like this?
Yeah, for sure. I love the scene where Ezekiel pulls the ring out and he just looks so sheepish about it. What I loved is the look that Melissa [McBride] was giving Khary [Payton], because he held up the ring and she’s like, “No, don’t you dare.” And he just looks like this wounded little boy. And she keeps throwing these looks out the corner of her eye, she says so much without saying anything.
This season, that’s the one thing I’ve really been pushing as well, is to not have to lay everything out for the audience, but to allow those looks to tell the audience what people are thinking and what their intent is. Because we have some great actors, you don’t need to spell it out every time. It’s kind of fun for the audience to figure things out on their own. You know our audience, they will. So that little moment between the two of them I really liked a lot. There’s a bunch of great moments in the episode, but that one in particular really makes me smile.
Speaking of great actors, you have Brett Butler and John Finn coming in as Tammy and Earl, who play a big part in this episode. What was it like getting to work with them for the first time?
They killed it. When I was cutting that episode together I found myself so intrigued by their characters. I was so much in love with what they did on screen that it feels like they’ve been on the show for years. They just really fit in naturally. The scene with John and Xander [Berkeley] was really great. And everything with Brett, you just feel her anguish and her pain.
It’s always challenging when we kill off a character that people don’t know or haven’t met that long ago, because the audience doesn’t know how to react to it. So what we need to do is show the reaction to that character’s passing, and it’s played off of everybody else. So when Gregory steps up at the memorial service, and even when Jesus says, “That was really beautiful, what you said” — all those moments help ground us into what this community is. So John and Brett did a great job, and they just fit so seamlessly into the show that I was really, really delighted.
To me, this is really Maggie’s episode, and it sets up some interesting things moving forward. She calls Rick out for not turning over the reins of leadership, she makes demands of the Saviors if they are going to keep providing help, she executes Gregory. What’s going on with her in terms of her leadership at the Hilltop and where is this headed?
Maggie knows that she’s the leader. And the scene with her and Rick on the balcony, that was the first scene that we shot in the episode. We rehearsed it the day before, and I sat with Andy [Lincoln] and Lauren [Cohan], and we sat on that balcony for an hour and a half and talked through that scene. She just exudes confidence, and Maggie is a powerful entity, but I feel like this is one of the first times when she’s actually confident and comfortable enough to say to Rick, “You said you were all gonna follow me, and that never happened.”
So when she calls him out on that, it’s a very big moment for her, because she really, genuinely does believe that she has a vision for the future that other people should follow. And if they don’t follow, then that’s a big deal, and that’s not lined up with her philosophy and her desire to keep Hilltop alive.
Let’s talk about having to say goodbye to Gregory, played by Xander Berkeley. One of the more unique villains you all have had. How sad was it to have to bid farewell to both the character and the actor?
Listen, I love Xander. We’ve been friends for a long time. We have a ton of mutual friends. Obviously he was in Terminator 2, amongst 8 billion other movies that he’s been in, so we have a lot of mutual friends, so we were always talking about makeup and creature stuff. He has a real affinity for that. So it’s always sad. And Xander’s a great actor, and I love the nuances that he would put into Gregory, because he was this despicable person. It was kind of like Dr. Smith in Lost in Space — you can’t understand why people keep trusting him, but it’s almost like, “Well, you know what? We keep him close, we can keep our eye on him. There’s no way he could do something that bad.” And then he does.
In that particular instance he’s definitely playing Maggie, and he’s playing everybody. So he makes that big speech at the funeral, you clearly know later that he’s setting Maggie up and he’s attempting to take over Hilltop. He just bungles it in a very bad way, and I don’t think anybody really expected that the price would be his life. But again, I think that really does a lot to show what they’re capable of doing. What she’s capable of doing.
I think my favorite shot of the episode was after he’s hanged, and you see Maggie talking and his body is out of focus in the background swaying back and forth into frame.
So much of The Walking Dead really is a Western. I remember in season 1 and season 2 when Andy was walking around with the cowboy hat and the six-shooter. He was channeling Clint Eastwood, it was always about the new frontier and these settlements that are rising around this new frontier. I think more than ever The Walking Dead has embraced that aspect of it, the aspect that this genuinely is a Western.
So to do a hanging and to have Maggie standing there and everybody’s out there at night in this commonplace execution that we know did happen in our past in the Wild West, it just further shows that our group needs to really learn how to survive and really needs to learn that they can’t survive alone. I think that’s one of the most interesting things about this season is we pick up in season 9 and you kind of imagine, “Okay, the war’s over.” And Rick says, “Everybody should go home and take care of your own.”
Where we pick up in this episode, clearly the Sanctuary has not been able to thrive. Hilltop’s been doing great, we really barely are in Alexandria, but the truth of the matter is: What do you do when you have all these different communities? It’s sort of like postwar Europe, after World War II, and you have all these different communities and how do you deal with the winners and how do you deal with the losers? Just from a human-nature standpoint, knowing what the Saviors had done, how do you move forward with that? So it’s a fascinating aspect of human nature to explore.
Speaking of things I love exploring, you are the monster makeup guru. A lot of great walkers in this one. Talk to me about that one with the bugs and spiders coming out of its mouth that attacks Siddiq.
They did that on purpose, because everybody knows that I’m terrified of spiders. Even when the outline came out, three of the crew were like, “Have you read it yet? Have you read it yet? Did you get to the one…” And it was like five minutes after the outline had come out. And, of course, when I saw the spider gag in the script, I kind of laughed and said to [showrunner Angela Kang], “You’ve got to know that that’s my big pet peeve.” She’s like, “We know, that’s why we put it in there.”
I was looking at some previous spider gags we had done on The Mist, because we did a scene in The Mist where we tracked spiders where this guy’s body falls. In that instance I think I basically said, “When you guys are doing this digitally, don’t show me pictures of spiders to approve what the spider is supposed to look like, because it’ll freak me out too much.”
You heard it here. The person who is probably responsible for more nightmares for more people from the monsters that he has created on screen cannot handle spiders.
No! Also, even when we were shooting the scene and I was explaining to Avi [Nash], “Okay, so all these spiders are gonna come out his eyes and then there’s gonna be a big mama spider.” ’Cause for me I was like, “It just can’t be a bunch of little baby spiders. We need to really up the ante.” So I designed it so that the mouth opens and then this one big spider comes out of the mouth, and Avi just got the creeps just me explaining it to him. So when we shot it there were no practical spiders on set, although I did jokingly say, “Listen, if we need some spiders to crawl across the floor I would be fine with getting some spiders.” And nobody believed me, but I’m like, “I want it to be real and I want it to look good.” But even when we were shooting that, Avi was just completely freaked out by it.
What can you tease in terms of what’s coming up next week and in the future?
There’s a little bit of a mystery coming up. There could be a sort of a whodunnit in our future. Now that Michonne and Rick and the group have agreed to rebuild the bridge, they’re gonna be forced to go to some of these other communities, and there might be some bad blood that determines how these future communities can work together to keep the supply lines open so that they can actually survive.