We talk The Walking Dead Season 4 with Greg Nicotero!

[SPOLIER ALERT: If you are not caught up on the first half of The Walking Dead Season 4 and do not wish to know what has happened to that point, please read no further.]

Has it kept you up nights, Walking Dead fans — wondering what will become of Rick Grimes and Co. now that Hershel’s lost his head, The Governor’s a goner and the Grimes gang is splintered, grieving and on the run? Or maybe you’re pondering Carol’s sudden advantage, what with her car, her food, her weapons and her meds — even if Tyreese doesn’t know it was she who taught little Lizzie the sharpshooting skills that saved him.

“The beauty of Season 4 in my opinion is that every single moment is there for a reason,” says the show’s special effects guru and co-executive producer Greg Nicotero. “Stuff that we shot in the first episode this year pays off later, and it’s like each character has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s really satisfying. [Showrunner] Scott Gimple has really steered our ship in the right direction. Scott knows what’s going to happen in Season 5 already. He probably already knows what’s going to happen in Season 6. “

With Season 4B set to premiere on Feb. 9, we mine the mind of Nicotero, who directed the Robert Kirkman-penned midseason premiere and hints, “It’s probably the closest adaptation to two issues of the comic book that we’ve ever done. I’m dying for people to see the next eight episodes because there’s so much good stuff!”

CGM: Tell me a little bit about adding executive producer to the multiple hats you wear on the show this season — do you ever not think about The Walking Dead?

Greg Nicotero: No. I never not think about it. I’m thinking about it 24 hours a day. You know, it has become basically a fulltime job, because even when we’re not shooting, we’re editing episodes to premiere in February, and once those are done then the writers room opens two weeks later and we start breaking stories for the next season.

So for me, one of the most exciting parts of the equation is the creative freedom that I’m allowed to bring to the project. The writers break the stories and they break a lot of gags and Scott and I have a lot of discussions about what zombie gags have been done before, what zombie gags haven’t been done before — and being an executive producer and being able to be involved really early in the process to shape those visuals is really something that’s kind of unprecedented in the way that the show works. I don’t know any other show that would have a SFX-turned-director that would be involved so early in the inception where I can read story documents and listen to scripts and story pitches and start coming up with zombie gags just that early on in the process.

CGM: A television series that allows for such broad scale creative license for the special effects work that you do is a rarity — that has to be one hell of a playground for you.

GN: It is. And it started from the beginning with Darabont, who brought me onto the series. When they were pitching the show, he was having meetings and took four zombie busts that we had created in the pitch meetings with them, because back then — back then [laughs]! Four years ago! — back then, one of the first questions was, “Well, how are you going to do the zombies?” And Frank was like, “Oh, that’s easy! That’s the easy part! I have Greg Nicotero!”

So Frank had never-ending confidence in me — not only me being an integral part of The Walking Dead, but he also gave me my first episode to direct. Which of course, ironically, I had to kill Jeff DeMunn. So he had a trick question when we talked about that, because he was like, “OK, do you want a zombie-heavy episode or a zombie-light episode?” And I’m like, “That’s a trick question. And I know what the answer should be.” And of course, I had one zombie in that episode. It just happened to be the one that ripped Dale’s stomach open.

CGM: So there was method to his madness …

GN: There’s always method to everyone’s madness! And listen, I loved [Darabont’s December TNT event series] Mob City, too. I saw the pilot a year ago and it makes me sad that I couldn’t be there shooting it with them, because the cast are all friends — Jeff DeMunn and Jon Bernthal and Simon Pegg. I watched the show wishing I had worked on it, because it’s such a great show.

CGM: I spoke with Jon about the show and he said that his Walking Dead brethren visited the set.

GN: The interesting thing about our show is that characters that are killed off, they’re still part of the family. It’s strange. On Thanksgiving day I sent an e-mail out to him and to Sarah [Callies who played Lori Grimes] and to Jeff DeMunn just saying, “Hey guys, how’s it going?!” Sarah came to our wrap party this year. Just because they’re gone off the show doesn’t mean that they’re not still part of the family. Watching Talking Dead after episode 8, when LC [Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie] and Robert were on with Scott Wilson and everybody was just so emotional, and I was like, “You know, he’s not really dead! He’s sitting right there!” [laughs]

But it’s not like a movie where you work together for 10 weeks or 12 weeks and then you’re gone. It’s coming back year after year. And with Scott Wilson, there were talks way back at the end of Season 2 that Hershel wasn’t going to make it. There was a script that was written that Hershel was killed in the barn by Randall, before Randall escaped way back at the end of Season 2. Scott had kind of known — yeah, my time is limited — and then, of course, that got changed, and he stuck around for all of Season 3. Minus his leg.

CGM: I feel for you guys. You get all of these great actors and then you have to remove them from your show of your own volition.

GN: It’s hard. Laurie Holden was the hardest for me because her and {Michael] Rooker, those deaths came up kind of quickly, whereas Sarah Callies’ death was planned. When we broke Season 3, we all knew that episode 4, her character was not going to make it, so we were able to sort of prepare for that. But in the same episode, IronE [Singleton, who played T-Dog] got it, too. But that had gone back and forth, and there was an incarnation where Carol was going to die in that episode. You know, it changes and it’s all very organic in terms of how it’s worked out in past episodes.

CGM: I have to admit it — I hated The Governor, but as the credits rolled on Episode 8, I began to wonder if I was going to miss him, or more accurately, his contributions to the storytelling,  even more than Hershel. Who I loved. It kind of hurts my head. 

GN: The fact that we had a two-episode arc with The Governor — I love those standalone episodes.

I was watching Breaking Bad when it was about to wrap up and you know there’s that great scene where Bryan offers Robert Forester $10,000 just to sit and talk. And what I found so fascinating about that, and the brilliance of the actors and the brilliance of Vince Gilligan is that at that moment, I didn’t give a @#$% about what Walt had done in his past — I felt something for him. And I feel like we did the same thing with The Governor — where you step back and realize that he tried to not be the monster that he is, that he really doesn’t want that for himself, but just like Walt, he can’t fight who he ultimately is. So when he makes that decision to swing the blade at Hershel’s neck, the veil has been lifted and he knows what his fate is and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t fight it.

And Rick [Andrew Lincoln] turned the tables on him, because Rick says to the other people, ‘We’ve let his people in before and they’ve become a part of our community and part of our leadership — is this what you want? Because we will let you in and we can all live together.’ That’s the moment where The Governor’s like, ‘Ah, @#$%. Oh well. I guess I better chop this dude’s head off!’”

The Walking Dead Season 4 The Governor

CGM: Was there a one-big-moment decision in the writers room to throw a literal and proverbial grenade in the middle of everything and return the prison group to a state that we really haven’t see them in since Season 1? Or was it an evolution of where the storytelling naturally led?

GN: We always knew that at some point the prison was not going to be a viable place to live anymore, and it was of course a conscious decision. Mr. Gimple’s crafting of the back eight episodes, where everybody scatters and you don’t know where everybody lands and you don’t know who’s with who certainly is going to lend itself to some fantastic storytelling.

I feel like episode 9 and onward really harkens back to the first season of the Walking Dead, because if you think about Season 2, they were on Hershel’s farm. In Season 3 and half of Season 4, they had the prison and Woodbury. So this is the first time that they’re out in the world again. So it’s the first time that we really get that sense of how big the world is and how unprotected people are in the wilderness.

I directed Episode 9 and it was written by Robert, and it’s probably the closest adaptation to two issues of the comic book that we’ve ever done. So for me, I’m dying for people to see it because it’s such a logical progression of our story.

CGM: At the end of Episode 8, the sight of Judith’s bloodied baby carrier devastates an already decimated Carl and Rick. How soon do we find out Judith’s fate and the lasting impact it has on her dad and brother?

GN: When you see them leave the prison, Rick is barely alive — another 10 seconds and Rick would’ve been done. So him watching Hershel’s death and being emotionally beaten down and physically beaten down and having bonded with Carl (Chandler Riggs) again, it’s clear that when they walk up to the baby seat and there’s blood splattered on it, there’s a reason for them to react the way that they did.

The Walking Dead Season 4 rick carl

But like any good storytelling, I love that audiences were like, “Wait a minute! What happened to that person and where did this person end up?”

CGM: Rick and Carl are on their own. Maggie is apart from Glenn and Beth. Tyreese is apart from Sasha. Who knows where Lizzie and Mika are? All the sick folks are on one bus, without Bob or Hershel to administer their meds. And Carol’s out there with a car, medicine, weapons and food. Even having watched the episode again, I don’t know where to begin to think about where we go from here.

GN: Even people who don’t like the show — and yes, amazingly enough, there are people that don’t like the show —will watch an episode and they will dissect it and ask questions that clearly lead us to believe that they have watched the show multiple times. They’ve deconstructed it so much that they have very unique questions and that always makes me laugh.

the walking dead season 4So the first eight episodes, the intent always was that the first five would be their own sort of individual story of the outbreak at the prison and we would follow that story line. And then Episodes 6 and 7 we would depart into The Governor’s storyline. And then Episode 8, we would bring those storylines crashing together. And I think it was tremendously successful, because even though people were like “OK, The Governor’s still out there and people can’t change,” that’s the one thing that Hershel says through the entire season. Hershel literally says to Rick, “You can change.”

When Rick meets Clara in Episode 1 and she kills herself and then Rick goes back to the prison and Hershel tells him, “You can change — Carl was able to change.” That’s important.  And we set all that up, you know?

So we’ll see what impact Hershel’s death has on everybody — the people that saw it and the people that didn’t see it. Because some people didn’t see it. Like Glenn. Glenn was inside.

CGM: But quickly revisiting the virus … since the Cellblock A folks don’t have Bob or Hershel on their bus, is it possible that we haven’t seen the end of the virus?

GN: Yeah, it’s very possible! I really don’t want to ruin anything, because I tend to talk a lot and I don’t want to give anything away and then in February you’ll call me and say, “You asshole! You @#$%ing ruined that for me!” [laughs]

CGM: I would not want to be responsible for keeping the secrets of The Dead

GN: I sit here with my iPad and I have all the photos on it and I’ll have people be like, “Ohhhh, I love the show!” and I’m like, “I can’t … it’s like … errrrrrrr!”

My son takes my iPad and wants to look at pictures. And Scott Wilson and his wife came to our house for Thanksgiving and my wife and my kids didn’t know what happens on the show, so they’re all sitting there and they’re all excited that Scott is there, and at one point I looked around and I thought, “They are going to be so mad at me on Sunday night, when they realized that Scott came over and then …!” [laughs]

Then they watched it and my son was like, “Wait a minute! Why didn’t you tell me that Hershel was going to die!?!” So just because you’re married to me and you’re my kid doesn’t mean you’re going to know anything more than anyone else!

It’s really hard. It’s very challenging to keep that stuff quiet. Especially if I’m on the phone and they can hear me talking about something.

CGM: Returning to the subject of people being scattered, Tyreese doesn’t know that it was Carol who trained Lizzie to fire the shots that saved in him, in what was possibly the episode’s most awesome scene ever …

GN: It was! It was great! And that goes again to the things we set up in the beginning of the season. Seeing Carol [Melissa McBride] training the kids in the first episode and then seeing that every seed that was planted in the first two episodes really does get touched on — there’s very rarely a scene that we shoot that doesn’t have validity down the road. Carol teaches them you either shoot or run. What else do you teach kids like that in this sort of world? Especially with Lizzie’s sort of confusion about whether the walkers are alive or not. Because in the first episode, she was like, “No, people kill people, too. They’re just different.” And you’re like, Wow, that’s an interesting way of looking at it, because they are.”

And it was fun because the actress that played Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino) so much wanted to come back and be a walker [laughs] and I said, “I don’t think we can do that, because the script and that moment of Lizzie pulling the trigger is a really important story point you’re your character. So it’s not like we can turn around and shoot you in the shoulder or shoot you in the chest because she has to know how to defend herself.” But she wanted to come back as a walker.

And listen, I do want to say something — what else I love about this season is that it’s really given our actors a fantastic opportunity to shine. Getting into Tyreese’s character and seeing how fantastic Chad is. And the same with Sonequa. It’s really great to see their characters become more defined as Season 4 progresses. Because we really didn’t get much of a sense of Tyreese and Sasha in Season 3. The third episode, where Rick and Tyreese fight — that opening teaser for that episode was so powerful in that it just set such a great tone for that episode. I thought it was so great.

AMC

CGM: Hershel and The Governor both got “big episodes” before their demises. Merle [Michael Rooker]. Shane. Lori. Andrea. Do you like to give major characters big send-offs, or is that just the way it works out in telling the tale?

I actually think it’s an organic part of the show. You know, Scott Wilson kinda jokes and goes, “Oh yeah, as soon as I read Episode 5, I knew I was dead meat.” But it’s not like we craft powerful episodes to manipulate the audience. Everybody’s death is going to be meaningful.

And it’s kind of funny that everyone talks about Hershel’s death, but not a lot of people talk about The Governor. Because Hershel’s death was unexpected, and I think after watching what The Governor has done over the last season and a half, people kind of went, “OK, it’s time for this dude to die.” So when he dies, people were like “GOOD!” But when Hershel died, it was such a shock.

With Rooker, with that episode and with Michael, there are a lot of interesting things that happened with that character. At the beginning of that episode, you think, OK, he’s unsalvageable. He’s just living there looking for an escape and he looks at Rick and sees that Rick is weak. And he’s like, “You know what? I’m going to do what I have to do to protect my brother. And if that means taking Michonne and giving her over to The Governor, that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t give a shit about Rick and his people — I only give a shit about my brother.”

And so he makes the conscious decision, and then halfway through his journey, he realizes that he doesn’t want to be “that guy,” and that’s what makes him let Michonne go.

I never really believed that Merle thought that that was a suicide mission. I figured that Merle set that whole ambush up and his intent was kill The Governor, take out as many of his men as you can and then hopefully the walkers will do the rest and then he’ll be free and clear. So I really don’t believe that that was in his mind, that it was a suicide mission.

And Michael’s a smart actor. He knows that character and when we first blocked that sequence, the first thing he had said to me is “The Governor would never take Merle in a fight. Merle’s got the drop on him. He’s got the adrenaline going. He’s physically a stronger guy.” So Michael had proposed that we actually see The Governor’s guys soften him up before The Governor gets there. That was just something that Michael felt was important and we all agreed. So we incorporated that into the script.

CGM: It was all the more agonizing, too, because he fought so hard, and to see him broken down bit by bit and then finally wailing “I ain’t going to beg you!” took me back to the pipe on Atlanta rooftop, but made me realize I was rooting for a much different outcome this time.

GN: And that fight in my original director’s cut was much longer and a lot more brutal. Like The Governor breaks Merle’s arm. And when Merle says, “I’m not going to be your piss boy” and spits blood at him, The Governor walks away. And in the original cut, The Governor walks back, points the gun near the camera and says, “No!” and pulls the trigger. So you know Merle was shot. You just don’t know where he was shot. So you see that last little bit — and that ended up getting removed in a later cut. And I sort of liked seeing The Governor pull the trigger, because then the audience assumes that he shot Merle in the head and the reveal of Merle as a walker is even more shocking.

It’s always challenging, because the scripts on our show are always big. You know, you shoot an episode and an episode comes in at 55 minutes and then you gotta go in and takes ten minutes out, because our airtime is only 42.5 minutes. There’s been some great scenes that have never been in the episodes.

I keep trying to get them to play those deleted scenes on Talking Dead, because I think those scenes — even though they’re not in the actual episode — really do help continue our story forward. Sometimes it’s heart-wrenching to go in and shoot the script and then come back and go, well the episode’s a little bit long and now we gotta go back in figure out what we can take out that won’t jeopardize the storytelling of each episode. And that’s hard!

CGM: Now that you’ve been at this for a while, is it the norm for the core actors to contribute their two cents to their characters’ ongoing story arcs?

GN: Steven Yeun and Andy and Norman [Reedus] and I have a really great relationship, because I’ve been in the trenches with them every day for four years. So they trust me. Between Norman and Steven and I, we have a really fascinating way of working together. And I mean, I have that with most of the actors, but those three and Melissa McBride — who are all original cast members from Season 1 — there really is un unspoken trust between us.

And I think Season 4 so far most closely mirrors things that happen in the graphic novel. Gimple really does love the show, man. He knows the comic book. He knows the nuances of the comic book.

There’ve been times when we’ve pulled opened the comic books and referenced exact frames, and I love that Scott puts just enough of a twist on it where it still feels fresh. People that know the comic book will know exactly where it comes from, and people who don’t know the comic book are still getting something cool.

CGM: Given the fans’ obsessive love for Norman as Daryl Dixon — who isn’t even in the comics — are you guys planning on fortifying your homes and hiring extra personal security when and if his time ever does come?

GN: Agggh, you know, I can’t even comprehend that moment! [Laughs] Because listen, fortifying my office … yeah … I don’t even, I can’t even …! When everybody goes, there’s this horrible, uncomfortable moment when you know that they’ve been told and you want to reach out to them and make sure they’re OK, but what can you do? Because you can’t turn around and go “Ohhhhh, yeeeah, let’s not do that …”  It’s hard. And I think that’s the worst.

AMC

We used to have Death Dinners. We used to go out to dinner with the cast anytime a character was going to die — we would all get together and have dinner. And then this season somebody said, “Hey listen, why don’t we go out and celebrate our characters NOT dying as opposed to dying! Let’s just go to dinner and not have it have to end up being something that’s sad or morbid or depressing.” 

CGM: What do you have up your sleeve for the walkers in this half of the season, now that they’re no longer just the threat at the gate or the results of the illness in Cellblock A?

GN: The threat of the walkers is something that Scott and I had a long conversation about when we wrapped Season 3. Because the truth of the matter is that if our group has been going out on runs and living in this prison for a year, year and a half — because you figure it’s probably been about a year and a half since The Turn — they have to be good at killing walkers or otherwise they wouldn’t have survived. So one of the things that was tremendously important to us for Season 4 was to elevate that threat more. You can never expect what’s coming around the corner. You have to catch our characters unprepared.  That edict led us to the Big Spot sequence, which was “OK, how do you put our characters instantly in the middle of a zombie horde? Well, you gotta do it from the sky.”

And just getting back out into the world, to me, just visually is exciting. We get to see new landscapes. We get to see what’s been happening out in the world, and it really is so much about survival. Listen, they all ran with basically what they had in their hands. There’s not a lot of ammunition. There’s not a lot of weapons. There’s no food.  They went from being well fortified and well fed to leaving with whatever they have on their backs.

CGM: Now that the companion series is officially a go, does that impact your storytelling for The Walking Dead, or is it a completely separate entity?

GN: No, we’re sort of treating the spin-off as a completely separate entity. That was something that was very, very important when the notion of a companion series was even brought up. Many of us, the actors and the executive producers, wanted to make sure that anything we did, we didn’t want it to diminish our story, our storyline, our characters and the momentum that we have. So the intent is that it is going to be its own standalone world.

CGM: Do you know when we might get a hint of what that world will entail?

GN: I do know. But I can’t tell you [laughs]. After it happens, then we can discuss it.

The Walking Dead  Season 4 returns with new episodes Sundays beginning Feb. 9 on AMC.

Images/video: AMC

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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