[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “No Way Out” midseason premiere of The Walking Dead.]
Multiple explosions. A lake on fire. Humans having their flesh ripped off by ravenous zombies. It all went down on Sunday’s midseason premiere of The Walking Dead. And it all went down under the direction of go-to director/exec-producer/horror makeup guru Greg Nicotero. We spoke to the jack of all trades to all the behind-the-scenes scoop on some of the biggest moments and stunts that comprised all the carnage. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview. Also make sure to read our midseason premiere Q&As with Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, showrunner Scott M. Gimple, and actress Alexandra Breckenridge. And for more Walking Dead scoop all season long, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the hardest thing about shooting this at night? What logistical challenges did that cause?
GREG NICOTERO: The real challenge was we shot in August. It was basically the shortest amount of night that we could shoot with. So shootable light would be 8:30 at night, and then the sun would come up at 6. So, in days where you needed every minute of your shooting day to film, we ended up not even having a full 12 hours in those days.
So when we initially started doing it, we ended up cutting two scenes out to allow us to get into the night portion of it and be able to stay on schedule, because I think originally we had proposed an additional shooting day just to get it done. Then I said, no, no, no, no, we’ll cut the shooting day. I will guarantee you that we’ll make our days and that we will get it done, and that was before we started filming.
I was like, okay, this is either going to be a huge triumph or I just shot myself in the foot. So I was tremendously proud of the fact that we made it through that episode, and in retrospect, when you get scripts that have a lot of dialogue and there’s a lot of talking, those episodes tend to run a little bit long, but this episode had a ton of action in it, and action plays out quicker on screen than it does on the page.
So when we cut the episode together, we were like, hey, we could go back and shoot one of those scenes that we had omitted due to our time restraints. So the scene with Carol and Morgan in the townhouse, we shot that and put it back into the episode. So it actually was a win-win because we made the episode that we wanted, and we were able to actually squeak in a very important story plot, because the Carol and Morgan story is something that’s very prominent through the second half of the season.
This is a huge sequence from the comics you filmed with Sam freaking out, Jessie not letting go of Carl, Rick cutting her arm off, and then Carl getting shot in the eye. How is approaching these touchstone moments form the comic different from a regular scene?
The challenge with stuff like that is there’s a higher level of scrutiny because people already have a preconceived notion of how that scene is going to play out and what’s going to happen in that scene. So using the graphic novel as a springboard, there were specific shots that I wanted to mirror exactly, like when Carl turns and reveals the eye for the first time, but adding Ron into the equation sort of added another level to the story.
The real trick is making it believable that they could be standing in the middle of a horde of walkers and having a conversation, be it very low-key, and not be recognized or noticed. That was something that I struggled with a little bit, because it’s one thing to be walking amongst zombies covered in guts, but it’s another thing to make it believable that they could have an exchange and not be noticed.
So the way that we cut it was when they stop and Sam starts whimpering a little bit, we wanted to play up that the walkers are starting to turn and they’re starting to notice, and it’s like, Okay, the clock is ticking here. We got to get going. I wanted it to be a shock and a surprise when the walkers grab him. And then of course the second that he’s bitten, Jessie’s gone. So there’s no struggle. There’s no anything. She’s just gone.
So to have the walkers transition from biting Sam and then have Jessie get swarmed. It was a delicate balance — I think more emotionally than actually physically choreographing it. So that was probably the biggest challenge, was the emotion in that moment and how everybody reacts at that exact split second because she won’t let go of Carl’s hand, and Rick makes that choice. One of the things that we ended up doing editorially was adding those flashes of Jessie in there just as a fantastic sort of 1970s nod to a catching-you-off-guard sort of filmmaking scenario.
Yeah, because you guys don’t do that much, if at all. I can’t off the top of my head remember you guys doing flashbacks like that really.
We’ve never done those subliminal flash frames, and that was something that Scott came up with in terms of just heightening the emotion that Rick is going through at the moment that he makes that decision Because there are a billion things happening in that split second, and it’s a challenge to track everything — Jessie losing her will to live, Ron reacting to Sam being bitten, Sam being swarmed, Carl watching Sam being swarmed, and then not being able to pull himself free of Jessie’s grip.
And then you have Rick watching the whole thing, and then you have Michonne, who’s sort of trying to keep the group safe by keeping walkers away from them now that they’ve stopped in the middle of the road. So all those different things have to be conveyed in the space of 18 seconds. So it was definitely a juggling act to make sure that we had every single one of those beats.
And for me, the actual gag where Sam is bitten needed to be a shock. I didn’t want to use CG blood. I didn’t want to put a prosthetic on [actor Major Dodson’s] forehead. So we came up with a rig where we made dentures that had blood tubing attached to them. So once the walker bit his forehead, to simulate the teeth sinking into his forehead, we had semi-soft teeth.
And then we pumped blood from a tube that ran around the side of the zombie’s face and was hidden under the prosthetics, very much like the rig they use in The Exorcist, and we sprayed the blood out of that, and the blood ran down his face. So I wanted it to be real. I wanted it to be raw. I wanted it to be emotional, and when he screams “Mommy!” and you see the blood run down his face and he just disappears, it’s like, every ounce of whoever Jessie was dies the minute that he dies. There’s no coming back from that.
Speaking of not coming back from things, did you all talk about whether you really wanted to do that to Carl’s eye in terms of the logistics of dealing with that going forward?
I think it was always going to happen [Chandler Riggs] actually told at one point, “You know, I’ve been telling them that I want to cut my hair. Why am I not allowed to cut my hair? Everybody else is getting haircuts in Alexandria.” But [showrunner Scott M. Gimple] had thought about this early in the season, and said, “Well, we’re going to want Carl’s hair to be long so that it minimizes the bandage in later episodes so that we will get an opportunity to look at the bandage as part of who Carl is as opposed to always staring at this bandage and this eye.” In the comic book, the wound really defines who Carl becomes in subsequent issues and subsequent episodes. So it was important, just like with Hershel or Merle. Those things happen, and they shape who that character is going to be down the line.
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Let’s skip ahead for a minute because I want to ask you about another directorial flourish, which are those quick cuts of everyone swinging. And it gets faster and faster and faster, almost showing how they are all becoming one. Where did that come from?
You know, this is the end of our story up to this point. If you remember back in episode w, Rick basically says, “Listen, if any of them are holding you back, just leave them,” and Michonne and Glenn are like, “What are you talking about? We don’t leave people.” So the fact that Denise saves Carl’s life, and when he goes out on his killing rampage, everybody sees it and they join him — it really is the beginning of Rick understanding the importance of a unified society.
So at the end when we built to that crescendo, it was always intended to just show the voracity of each of these people as they’re unwilling to give up and unwilling to let Alexandria be taken away from them. And it’s something that will be important as the story moves forward, that these people know how to survive as a society. It’s not about just living for tomorrow, it’s about living for the next month and next year, and it’s a huge turning point for Rick when he goes out there and realizes that they’re all there fighting side by side.
So visually building to that was important that we see every single person intercutting our group, and the Alexandrians and building to that crescendo of quicker cut, quicker cut, quicker cut, quicker cut — and it was really fun when we shot that. We actually shot that the last day of principal photography. I had three cameras set up, and I had red, yellow, and blue tape marks on the ground, and we had about 20 walkers, and I instructed each of the actors, “You go on yellow, you go on red, you go on blue.” And they would just walk through this crowd of zombies swinging their machetes, or their bats, or whatever weapon they had.
And it was like a catwalk. It was a like a murder catwalk of having them go down. One line would have them end up in one camera position. Another line would be a different camera position. So when we shot it, we shot them six people at a time. So every actor that saw what the actor before them did, they were like, “Well, s—, I got to do better than that!” So it became a very spirited, friendly competition to see who was going to be the most badass in their zombie catwalk.