By Dalton Ross
October 06, 2019 at 10:14 PM EDT
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SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s season premiere of The Walking Dead.

Fire. Sand. Space. There were a lot of unusual elements and settings director Greg Nicotero had to deal with while filming the season 10 premiere of The Walking Dead. But there was also a lot of good ol’ fashioned human drama.

Whether it was best friends Daryl and Carol having an intense (and funny) heart to heart, or Daryl perhaps making a romantic connection with Connie, or Carol engaging in an epic stare-down with Alpha to close the episode, there was plenty of character intrigue to go along with all the visual stimulation. We spoke to Nicotero to get all the scoop on how he put it all on the screen. (Also make sure to read our season premiere Q&As with showrunner Angela Kang and star Norman Reedus.)

Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, The Walking Dead goes to space! Very jarring way to begin the season with the Russian satellite up there. How cool was that to start the season off with a completely different look, if only for a few seconds?

GREG NICOTERO: It was super fun. I remember reading the script and that was our goal. We wanted the audience to be like, “Wait a minute, what’s happening? Why are we out in space?” So I always compared it to John Carpenter’s The Thing, where there’s just like two shots of space and there’s something that’s falling towards the planet, and then BOOM, you’re into the story. So that was where I took a lot of the inspiration for those early shots. And you don’t really know why you’re seeing it, but then what’s so cool about the way the story unfolds is each act is almost a rewind. And you get to experience different people’s revelation about the satellite. And the way that it ties the different communities together.

Last season they signed this charter and they realize that part of the reason Alpha was able to infiltrate the Kingdom was because these different communities weren’t familiar enough with each other. And I think Michonne and at one point felt some remorse and she’s like, “Maybe we could have avoided this if I had allowed these communities to trade a little bit more.” So we immediately opened with the militia on the beach. And we see that the militia is made up from groups from every single community. And they’re in training, and they’re going through these maneuvers. So you realize that they’re ready to fight. But the Whisperers have been gone for four months. So there isn’t an imminent threat until Judith and RJ find the mask. And then it sort of throws everything into a tailspin.

I know you filmed that big training exercise in Oceanside down on Jekyll Island in Georgia and I know it was very hot, but what was it like pulling off what looked like a big military exercise? It was almost like a Lord of The Rings or Game of Thrones type battle scene.

It was really fun. We used to joke around when it was really, really hot, we would be like, “Man, why don’t we shoot on the beach? We should go to Hawaii. Wouldn’t it be cool so that we could just jump into the ocean?” And then when I read the outline, I’m like, “Hey, we’re going to the beach.” And then we ended up shooting that sequence at the end of June. We didn’t film it when we shot the first episode because we had to prep it.

So it was very, very choreographed, and very, very well thought out. But it was 100 degrees every day. You have to take that into consideration when you shoot these episodes. So we had the whole thing rehearsed, all the movements were rehearsed, everything was very, very carefully thought out. We shot that entire sequence in like a day and a half. I think every frame of that sequence is beautiful and I’m really proud of it.

And then, of course, the satellite crashes and causes a huge fire. Just tell me about the logistics of filming with the fire. How much was there and how much was added later? How did you all pull that off?

Well, anytime you’re designing a fire sequence, it’s all about safety. And you have to realize the proximity of people. And my other big experience with fire was season 6, episode 9 when Daryl fires the rocket launcher into the Lake at Alexandria, and blew up the lake. And you use gas jets, you can get 60, 70 feet of flame. If you use propane, you can get like five or six feet of flame. So when we were in the middle of the woods, we had to map out exactly where the propane jets were going to go. And when we set the whole thing up, I think we had three quarters of a night to shoot most of that fire stuff.

So we brought all the actors up. I showed them where every single line was. And along with Jeff January, the assistant director, I stood right in the middle of the set and had them turn all the fire jets on because I wanted everybody to realize that as hot as it was, no matter what was going on, I felt like we were able to do something really beautiful. And a lot of that stuff was practical. And then we ended up adding fire onto the trees digitally. And then even when I was editing the episode, I sort of color timed it to add a little bit more orange to it because I had looked at a lot of firefighter references, and there’s that orange tinge to the smoke that simulates flame just out of your eyesight. So we did a lot to really sort of amp up the amount of fire that we had.

Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

You have some great walkers in this episode. You had fire zombies, you have waterlogged zombies. Any favorite walkers from this episode?

The first three walkers that come out of the boat, that was something we had never done before because if you look at those really closely, the skin is translucent. You can see the bones through the skin. And those were layered prosthetic pieces. And I was really excited about that because we wanted those particular walkers to just have a different look than we had dealt with before.

So is there a romantic connection brewing here between Daryl and Connie or what?

Well, I think that there’s definitely something there. Daryl sort of bonded with her at the end of last season. But it’s always tricky in these situations. And I think that Daryl definitely sees something in her that he likes based on everything that they went through last season. It’s sort of sweet. Any opportunity you get to see Daryl interacting with people, he always has that sort of shy, kind of bashful nature. It’s the same like when he was with Beth in earlier seasons. It’s kind of sweet and it’s nice to see that. I think that’s why people love the scenes between Norman and Melissa so much, because their chemistry is just so good.

I was just going to ask you about that. I know that you’re like me in that you love big scenes with some of the real old school members of the cast. So tell me about filming these Daryl and Carol scenes. They’re talking about being best friends and heading out west together on his bike. This is some deep stuff and they’ve got some deep history there.

That was the first day of shooting when we shot all of the Melissa and Norman stuff. I thought it would be great: Let’s get our two vets out here and just let them enjoy the scenes together. And it’s funny because everybody always talks about Carol as a badass. But I never really see Carol that way. I always see Carol as a woman who is relentless, and resourceful, and she does what she needs to do. But she’s filled with emotion and she’s a woman who doesn’t know how to deal with her emotion. So when we start the episode and you realize that she’s been out on a boat, and she’s been living under the stars and fishing, it’s like, “Oh well that’s really interesting.”

And Carol really wasn’t out for vengeance, she was just dealing with her grief. And she was dealing with her grief in a very constructive way. So when her and Daryl are together and she’s teasing Daryl, I laughed out loud when we shot that scene because that was probably the closest to seeing Norman and Melissa talking. And he’s like, “Wait, I got an idea. Why don’t we just not talk?” It was funny.

I love that scene between the two of them because it’s the calm before the storm. As soon as she lays eyes on Alpha at the end, you know all of that is gone. But I really love how comfortable the two of them are together. And Daryl’s sort of priming her for a fight. He’s like, “Listen, we found a mask. And we got some scouts going out, are you interested?” And she’s like, “Nope, I’m not interested.” She doesn’t want to go there. And she was completely fine not going there until she lays eyes on Alpha. And then it’s like, “Well, now I got to go there.”

And let’s talk about the other half of that. What about Alpha, when she locks eyes with Carol. She said, “Don’t cross the boundary. Here are10 heads in case you don’t believe that I’m serious.” And she looks and sees Carol staring down at her. What does this mean to Alpha?

Oh, that’s bad news. I think Alpha was pretty clear in her message. The irony is through the course of the entire episode, everybody is very, very aware of the borders. I love the scene between Ross and Danai, where Ross sees the walkers on the other side of the border and he gallops his horse towards them and kills them because he wants to make sure that they’re not being watched. And Michonne’s response is like, “Are you crazy? What are you doing? We can’t go up against them. We need to be smart about this.” But he can’t, he’s just had too much emotion. So you really get the sense that our people are begrudgingly going to follow the borders and the rules.

But in this last instance, their desire and their need to cross the border are two different things. There’s a forest fire raging, they had to cross the border, otherwise, the forest fire would have wiped out one of their communities. But Alpha doesn’t care because Alpha doesn’t live by the rules of like, “Oh well wouldn’t that be sad if your community got wiped out?” Because she doesn’t live by those rules. So all Alpha knows is they broke the rules. She doesn’t care why, it doesn’t matter to her.

What else can you say about what’s coming up next on The Walking Dead?
Well, I’m a huge fan of episode 2. It’s the second episode of the season that I directed. It’s a very different episode than we’ve done and it definitely has sort of season 1 vibes to it. So I’m really excited about it because it’s a very different kind of episode. And it gives us some backstory and insight as to who these people are, and the performances are magnificent. I just loved every second of it.

Final question before I let you go: Is Eugene sneaking a peek while Rosita’s breastfeeding?
Of course he is. Eugene can’t help himself. He’s always been in love with her.

Make sure to read our season premiere Q&As with showrunner Angela Kang and star Norman Reedus. And for more Walking Dead scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.
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