Don’t say that Greg Nicotero didn’t warn you.
“The Walking Dead” fans are already braced for the worst on Sunday night, when it’s finally revealed which character is killed by supervillain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his barbed-wire bat Lucille. But executive producer and director Nicotero told IndieWire that viewers should still prepare themselves for heartache.
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“I think people are going to be really, really sad,” Nicotero told IndieWire. “Grab a box of Kleenex when you watch it and understand that everything happens for a reason and whatever the result of the first episode is that it serves a very distinct purpose. Just like other characters who have died in the show, their death propels people and propels our story in a very specific and meaningful way and that’s what we’re looking for.”
IndieWire spoke with Nicotero right after AMC picked up “The Walking Dead” for an eighth season, which will coincide with the show’s 100th episode in fall 2017. “I sat down this morning and did a little calculation in my head and realized that 20 percent of my career is now been dedicated to ‘The Walking Dead.'”
How is this one different from past major deaths and major moments in the show?
You have a different reaction to it because you know it’s coming. Most of the deaths that have occurred on the show in seasons past, you don’t see them coming – with Beth and with Tyrese, even with Hershel. It’s that horrible sense of loss in the sense that you didn’t see it coming and you couldn’t stop it. But now we’re in a situation where the audience knows it’s coming. I think that’s tremendously challenging from a storytelling standpoint.
By the time the episode is over, you’re completely drained because it is such an emotional experience and to me, it’s that mourning after. The battle is over and the smoke is clearing and the survivors are sitting around staring at each other in shock. It’s when that shock wears off that it becomes the most heartbreaking. Those are the most powerful moments in the episode, when the smoke clears.
Indeed, you have to live up to viewers’ expectations that their world is about to being rocked. How is it a different kind of challenge for you?
It certainly was a challenge unlike any other that we had to deal with. We took them to a dark place in the end of [last season]. It was the first time we’ve ever seen fear on Rick Grimes’ face in the entire series. We’ve never seen Rick scared. Starting from there and then going deeper and deeper into it, that was the hardest part of the episode. We were taking these actors down to the most raw that they could be and then saying, “Oh, by the way, that’s not enough. We have to go deeper. We have to take you to these darkest depths of raw emotions.”
It quite frankly had a tremendous effect on all of us. All the actors and myself included. When it was over, I was like, “I literally need to detox from this for two weeks” because it was just so heartbreaking.
It looks like the only person having a good time is Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who gets to be such a bad ass. How has he incorporated himself, and Negan, into the show?
You got to look at it this way: He does all the f—ing talking. Every scene that he’s in, Negan does all of it. You give him the script and if it’s a 45-page script, Negan has 30 pages of dialogue, because he doesn’t really even let anybody else get in a word edgewise. For Jeffrey, he’s like, “Damn man. Does this guy ever f—ing shut up?” He’s got so much to say and so much to do that you can see that Jeffrey has fun with it. He’s developing the rhythms of how Negan speaks and how Negan really uses his position to manipulate and control everybody around him.
Talk about expanding the world of the show. Going forward, you’ve got the Alexandria folks, you’ve got the Hilltop, you’ve got Negan’s Saviors and now you’ve got the Kingdom as well. How do you balance all these different worlds, and what does this expanded universe mean for the show?
[Showrunner] Scott Gimple and I talked quite a bit about this season in terms of the fact that when we wrapped up Season 6, one of the main themes that we realized was the world is way bigger than anybody knew. Rick got overconfident and cocky and was completely convinced that he had this. He’s like, “I don’t care how many people are out there. If they get in our way, we’re f—ing them up and that’s it.” We end last season with him completely being proven wrong and that the world is a bigger place.
But aside from the fact that there are some bad people out there, like Negan, we need to really feel that there are some good people out there as well. Scott and I talked about the fact that we liked equating this to a “Star Wars” movie where there’s a lot of different worlds out there and you don’t necessarily spend a lot of time in each world. But the universe is growing and expanding. You’re going to get to see [the Kingdom’s] Ezekiel and Shiva [Ezekiel’s tiger] and you’re going to get a little opportunity to see the Sanctuary. We’ve been talking for a year about how excited we are that we’re able to open it up to some new worlds that have very different personalities and very different perspectives.
What were some of the new challenges for you with both production design and directing this season that you didn’t experience before?
I directed four episodes already and I’m doing the finale. We always enter each season feeling like we don’t want to repeat ourselves. We want to make sure that after seven years, the show still feels fresh, the look of the show still feels compelling, the zombie look, that we keep changing up what walkers can look like. It’s a responsibility that we have to our viewers and after 7 years, it’s challenging. We constantly find ourselves saying, “We can’t do that because we did that in Season 2 or we did that in Season 3” but there is a very conscious effort to make sure that the show feels fresh. The fact that we get a chance to see some of these characters completely broken and stripped of everything that we knew of them.
Speaking of the walkers, how have they evolved? What role do they play this season as we focus more on these communities and how still-living people interact?
The walkers always provide a present reminder of what the world is. The rules of the world have changed. There are different dynamics and different personalities of these communities, but they all survive in the backdrop of this dead world. We’ve been able to continue to expand the look of these walkers as they are in some instances used by some of the humans. One of the things that’s most exciting about the Sanctuary when you get into Negan’s compound is the fact that he lines the entire outside of his compound with walkers chained to fences and posts with walker heads on them. It’s a very much a visual deterrent to keep people from not only trying to enter but just to realize that these guys aren’t screwing around.
It’s kind of exciting to look at it from that perspective. These are the perfect landmines because they’ll never go away and they’ll stay alive as long as you want – until they just fall apart into pieces.