The Walking Dead director reveals finale Easter eggs and homages
SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s season 9 finale of The Walking Dead.
There’s no business like snow business, and that’s the business The Walking Dead was in for its season 9 finale as it showed two different groups of survivors — one at Alexandria, and another making its way from the Kingdom to the Hilltop — trying to brave blizzard conditions to get to safety. The epic storm was an epic undertaking for the crew to recreate a winter wonderland while filming in decidedly non-snowy Georgia.
So how did they do it? We spoke with the man in charge of executing the plan — director and executive producer Greg Nicotero — to get answers. Not only does Nicotero explain how they pulled it off (including partnering with a company actually called “Snow Business”), but the director also reveals the pop-culture inspirations for many scenes as well as a few Easter eggs and homages you may have missed along the way. Bundle up and read on! (Also check out showrunner Angela Kang answering our season finale burning questions.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’ve been begging you guys for years to give us winter on the show, but you all just blew past what I ever expected. I was just looking for some light flurries or something. Instead, we got a massive blizzard. Just start off by telling me how you wanted to approach this as a director knowing how difficult is going to be to pull off?
GREG NICOTERO: As you said, we’ve never done anything like this. I’ve been dying for frozen zombies too. Some of the greatest moments in the comic books involve frozen zombies. And it’s something we’ve been talking about and wanting to do for a long time. So we started prepping, and following up on episode 15 is a big deal. That episode in itself felt like a finale, because of just the emotion and everything that happened. So the idea of really setting the stage for the future of the show and giving the audience something they had never seen before is what led us into this frozen tundra.
And this wasn’t just a first for the show. The was a first for you as a director, right?
When [showrunner Angela Kang] had initially called and said, “Hey, we’re going to do snow.” I’m like, “Ah, this is going to be great! I’ve never shot in fake snow before. I’ve never done anything like this.” And it wasn’t just snow, there’s a blizzard. And the snow has to be thick enough that if you see figures shrouded in snow, you’re not supposed to be able to tell whether they’re walkers or Whisperers. Because that’s the whole plot of that part of the episode, which is: They don’t know if they’re being followed. They assume they’re being followed.
So I treated the snow as if it was a guest star on the show, like it was one of the leads. We ended up hiring a company called Snow Business, and they came in and we mapped out probably in about two-and-a-half weeks everything we wanted to do in terms of which scenes were going to take place on stage, which scenes were going to be outside, and how we were going to do the snow. The trick is, you’ve got to know exactly where your camera is going to be, you got to know exactly where you can pan left or right, because if you pan too far left, you run out of snow.
And then I went to Jeff Schoen, the production designer, and we pitched the idea of building the frozen riverbed on stage. So, we actually built that at Pinewood Studios in Georgia, where they shot Guardians of the Galaxy and all the Marvel movies. And we built that entire stage indoors, so that we could control the smoke, we could control the wind, we could control the snow, and the temperature. And it was probably the biggest undertaking that The Walking Dead has ever done in terms of a production design scenario.
There were so many different hurdles you guys had to clear to make this happen. What was the hardest thing to pull off?
There was a lot of story to tell, because we had a lot of stuff going on with a lot of different people, and charting their journey from the Kingdom all the way to Hilltop. There were lot of pieces, and we wanted to make it fresh, and we wanted it to feel original. When the zombies come out of the snow, around the riverbank, that was sort of my homage to the classic horror zombie moment, where zombies are coming out of the grave in the cemetery — like Thriller, and Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, all these crazy cool movies and shows where the zombies come out of their grave. That’s such a great classic, provocative horror moment.
So, when we got to this sequence, we had the idea of: What if there’re zombies buried in the snow? So when Daryl gets up to the edge of the river, and there are all these lumps that you presume are rocks covered with snow. And then we ended up doing it so that the rocks start to move and then all of a sudden they realize that it’s a minefield of zombies. The challenge of our show is these guys are so efficient and so good at killing walkers that they’ll have to be surprised. Otherwise, they look stupid.
And I’d even talked to Matt Negrete, the writer, and I said, “There’s a scene in Kelly’s Heroes, an old war movie, where Clint Eastwood, and Telly Savalas, and these guys walk into a landmine, and then the landmine goes off and they’re all trapped, and they can’t move, because they don’t know where to walk.” So, that was the vibe I was going for, and that, of course, they have to kill the zombies as they’re coming out of the ground. They also have 60 people with them. They’ve got to get those people across the river safely and protect themselves, all at the same time. So, there was a lot going on in that particular sequence, which we shot literally over a day and half.
How did you create those frozen walkers like the one Daryl smashes with his crossbow at the Hilltop?
We always talk a lot about, what happens to the blood? And if these things are frozen solid, I really love the idea that when he hits it, there’s no blood. Everything is crystallized. So we did a test at the shop and made purple, pink, light blue, and white crystals of silicone and resin and we loaded the head. So that when he hit it, all that stuff would fly into the air, like if you took a handful of snow and threw it into the air. So, it kind of all falls at different rates and then it glistens. I really wanted that moment. It’s also a great little F.U. for the end of the episode, where they made it through the entire frozen tundra, and they’ve made it back to Hilltop and Daryl walks up and there’s one that’s frozen solid right in front of him and he smashes it.
And then there’s the zombie that’s frozen into the water, that Lydia encounters. We shot that in the exact same location where the camp was in episode 5 that gets over run by the zombies when they’re chasing Rick — that camp for where they’re rebuilding the bridge. We shot it in the same spot, and we needed a little bit of a slope, so that we could build a platform that went off about 12 feet and we created a little frozen edge. And it looked like an infinity pool, so when you were shooting at the walker’s face, when it was frozen, we had a little platform, we covered it with black plastic. And then poured paraffin wax on it, to make it look like frozen ice.
When you filmed on it, we had the edge of the platform disappear, and then we put snow on the ground behind it. So it looked like an infinity pool. So, looking at that, and just thinking that if you literally just turned the camera to the left you would see the entire crew standing there in the green Georgia woods. But I was super proud of how all that stuff looked. I think the performances in the episode are fantastic, I love Daryl and Carol, I love Negan and Judith, Michonne. There’s so much good stuff in the episode, and then to be able to play it within the backdrop of this crazy frozen snow storm, that gives us a whole new set of challenges that we’ve never seen them have to overcome before. It was a challenge for sure.
What about filming the scene where Daryl gets into a snowball fight with RJ, and then Carol Michonne, and others join in? That must have been pretty surreal and fun to film that in Georgia.
When we were shooting, there was originally two other scenes that we wanted to shoot, that gave us a bigger scale of Alexandria blanketed with snow. And we were going to see where Carol lives, and we were going to see where Daryl lives, and the dog was going to be running around, and Lydia was going to be playing in the snow with RJ and Judith. But the reality is, we couldn’t cover that much of Alexandria with all the fake snow because it would have taken way too long. So we created this little wedge, and I felt like we missed that moment. That moment of them playing in the snow.
So, the last take I had kind of said to the guys, “Listen, just have a little bit of fun. And run over here and start making snow angels, and playing in the snow.” I filmed it and I thought, I don’t know if it’s going to work, I don’t know if it’s going to feel like it takes us out of the episode or not. But we shot it. And when I was cutting it together, I was like, I don’t know if Angela is going to love it or not, because it’s not what we had scripted, but we couldn’t shoot what was in the script for that scene.
I just gave her something and she was like, “No, it’s great, I love it.” And she put it all in. I just wanted the episode to end their journey to end on a high note, a sweet note. When I look at it, I see Norman throwing snowballs. It’s kind of funny, because I know we were just sort of ad-libbing it, and I just let the cameras’ roll. But we caught a really nice moment.
I guess the irony of all of this is that you guys have had some brutally cold finale shoots down there over the years in Georgia because when you get into November, it can get very cold. Now you’re finally shooting the snow, but I heard it was actually pretty warm when you guys were shooting this?
Yeah, it was. The last day of shooting it was probably the coldest day. But, yeah, it was a little crazy — the times when you really want it to be cold, it’s warm and vice versa. And the trick is you set fake snow up someplace and the snow is a combination of soap suds, in front of big weather fans, and then sometimes it was like paper. And it was all this different stuff, but the minute it rains, your snow is dead. So, we were constantly terrified that we would dress a set, and then it was going to start to rain. And it did on one or two occasions, and we had to go back and re-dress some of the snow.
Are you sad to say goodbye to the Kingdom?
Hell no! [Laughs] I love shooting up there. I introduced the Kingdom when it first popped up a couple of seasons ago. And it’s always fun to have new locations to shoot, but you can’t stay in one location for too long. When the show works is when it’s nomadic. And I think that’s one of the great things about this episode is that it definitely feels like classic Walking Dead, because it’s the people found in the world, having to fend for themselves, as opposed to having this safe haven that they can go to.
So in terms of that, I think Khary was probably a little more upset about saying goodbye to the Kingdom. He kept saying, “C’mon! There’s all these buildings here. Why can’t they just fix the buildings? They rebuilt all of Alexandria, why can’t they rebuild the Kingdom?”
I always try and look for your Easter eggs, and we have a scene at the end of Alpha and Beta and as you pan over we see all these zombie skin masks hanging up and I have to say, they bore quite a resemblance to a certain Necronomicon from Evil Dead.
That was a little more of a subtle nod. I had a couple of Evil Dead Easter eggs this season. We had the Necronomican in episode 5. The cabin that Rick goes into was designed after the cabin from Evil Dead. There was also one traveling shot here, where we see a half zombie laying on the ground, and then we tilt up and see everybody walking? That was a tribute to Return of the Living Dead and the half corpse on the table.
Also check out Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang answering our season finale burning questions. And for more TWD scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.