The Walking Dead: Greg Nicotero interview

Director and veteran movie SFX artist Greg Nicotero chats about making The Walking Dead, working with Quentin Tarantino and more...

Here be spoilers for The Walking Dead season 6B. NB: interview took place before the finale had aired

For any self-respecting horror fan, Greg Nicotero is a legend. Cutting his early blood-stained teeth working as a makeup artist under Tom Savini and George Romero, he’s worked (as you’ll read below) with just about every great genre director and has gone on to become, for many of us, the strongest episode director of The Walking Dead.

In town to talk all things walker-related, we sat down to discuss the fusion of his directorial style with his superlative and endlessly creative special effects. His enthusiasm for his work was a joy to behold and you suspect that given free rein, he could talk endlessly about his experiences and the chance would be a fine thing.

As he sat down, he told us the usual box of movie props he brings to conventions was still stuck in British customs, as it contains T-Dog’s head, Hershel’s head and bicycle girl’s head “I don’t think British customs looked too kindly when they opened the box and found three severed heads… and I guarantee that everyone at the customs place is like “Check it out! Hershel’s head!” and now I want to go on Instagram and find anybody that works in customs, because there’s going to be a billion photos of those props everywhere, those motherfuckers!”

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DoG: Congratulations firstly on the mid-season premiere, it was just superb and one of the best episodes to date. Was that your most challenging episode as a director to date?

Thank you. I think dramatically what was critical for me was when Scott had pitched the idea of ‘Okay we’re gonna lure everybody in to the lake and light the lake on fire’ and I said ‘First of all we’ve seen six seasons of zombies walking around in the woods, with beautiful blue skies and greenery, we need to change it up – give us a little Night Of The Living Dead, I want to get some mood, I want to get some atmosphere.’

So we fought very hard to make the episode – I wanted the entire episode at night and shooting we kind of shot ourselves in the foot a bit, because in the summer time you have more daylight and shorter nights, so by agreeing to direct the episode at night and agreeing to do it at night, I only had nine hours a night to film and we usually film twelve hours a day. So I was literally making a deal with the devil to shoot less time, because I thought aesthetically I thought the show absolutely needed that and was something that I fought for and ironically there were a couple of scenes that we cut out, just to be able to make the schedule.

There was a scene that I wanted to put back in, which was a daytime scene, just checking in with Maggie up on top of that platform, because you don’t see her until three quarters of the way through the episode, there was one little quick scene up there. And the other scene that we cut out was the scene with Morgan and Carol and then we added it back in, because the trick is with our episodes with all the action is that was probably our shortest episode on script, because when you read it the general rule is that for every page you allow one minute of time, so if you have a forty eight page script it should be a forty eight minute episode. But the action plays a lot quicker, so we when we were finished we needed an extra minute and a half and I said “Great, let’s put the Morgan and Carol scene back in, because it sets up a bit of their relationship and where it’s gonna go, which is where she says “I should have killed you.”

So I would say, to answer your question in the shorter way – it was challenging, but I think the premiere was more challenging, only because we had to follow all of those timelines, the black and white, the quarry stuff and getting all the walkers out of there, I think that was challenging, because from a shooting standpoint, jumping back and forth in time made it a little harder.

But this one, just from a sheer volume of twelve hundred walkers and the practical stunts and lighting the lake on fire and having stunt guys covered in gel with masks and walking into a flaming lake, that was crazy!

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How was it finally getting to shoot Carl in the face?

You know they give me these episodes that have these big iconic moments, so I have to be very specific in regards to how to shoot them. I want to play tribute to the frame in the comic book and the thing is I always loved that sequence and loved when Jessie was killed and then she wouldn’t let go of Carl’s arm – I remember even in season three we did an homage to that gag, before we were even doing it, when they were leaving Hershel’s house and Emily was holding onto Otis’ wife and she got swarmed and killed and we did the same thing, where they were holding on and she gets grabbed and Beth had to let her arm go.

So we had kind of done a little precursor to that, because I always thought the idea that somebody is swarmed and they’re holding on to somebody, is kind of like a conduit, but that sequence – just choreographing it from the comic book in a way that made sense – the hard thing about that episode is that they’re stopping in the middle of the street having conversations, so when they talk earlier we got them off to the side of the street and wanted to make sure that we still felt there were thousands of walkers around and they were just kind of delicately whispering to each other.

But that moment, it was all about the shock. The shock of Sam being grabbed and bitten and you don’t want to see it coming and what we did, which I was really proud of – I came up with the gag where we built dentures that had blood tubing, that went to the teeth, so I didn’t put a prosthetic on Major (Dodson) we made teeth that could bleed, so when the zombie comes over and bites onto his head, the blood that oozes down his face was actually coming from the teeth of the walker, but all you see is him screaming and blood streaming down his face!

How do you pick and choose who gets the most graphic death, because he got quite a visual one, but then his Mum Jessie was more about Rick’s reaction?

Well it was important that his death instantly signifies her death. As a matter of fact in the moment earlier when they’re talking and they say “Listen, let Sam go with Gabriel to the church” and when Sam says he wants to stay with her, as soon as she relents, she’s dead. Because if you really think about all those moments up to that point – he wouldn’t come out of his room and then she started taking food up to him, she kept giving in to him and that was her Achilles heel – so the fact that you get to this point where it’s like ‘Okay, we have an opportunity here to save him’ and she relents and lets him stay with them,  as soon as she said “Yes you can stay” she was dead.

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So as soon as he was bitten, she just dies – you don’t physically even need to see her die, because she’s dead before the walkers ever get her.

That sequence was almost dreamlike, with an almost ethereal quality to it, what made you choose that style?

Well it was really about getting into his mind first of all and then her mind about what’s happening. We wanted those moments to be shocking and you hold on it long enough and then you see Rick reacting and everyone reacting and it’s all about Sam and then they just leap, right from him to her, and she gets surrounded and we specifically didn’t do any gore, or any bites, we just wanted her to be enveloped and she just disappears and I think just the whole way the sequence plays out, with the subliminal flashes of her and I think even her holding Carl’s hand, just sort of making it clear exactly what’s happening because there’s so much going on.

I mean that whole episode there’s so much happening, that trying to track that and hear her scream… the scream is very reminiscent – remember at the end of Night Of The Living Dead when the little girl in the basement grabs the hoe off and stabs her mom and you hear that horrible shriek?– her scream is very similar to that, which I did intentionally because it was a little homage, but it was just that anguish.

The Walking Dead, now more than ever is cinematic in its styling, is that a completely conscientious process?

Absolutely, between Scott Gimple and I we have a very specific vision for the show – I mean the first half of this season the goal was… we could have very easily gotten trapped into a main street USA experience by being in Alexandria, as the houses are clean and everything’s pretty and you could have been lulled into thinking ‘Oh they’re filming on a backlot.’ So what we did was, on the first episode when you the quarry and the last shot of that first episode we used a drone and the camera goes up and up and up, you’re seeing the entire countryside and we’re consciously telling the audience there’s a huge world out there and currently, for the first half of the season, our world is populated by the gigantic, mega herd of walkers. But then you start speckling in ‘Oh there’s this group of people and then this group of people’ so what we wanted to do was say the world is a gigantic place and there’s a lot of hidden obstacles and potential allies out there.

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I feel like every time – and this is something Frank Darabont said to me after the first season of Walking Dead – I was directing second unit and I’ve worked for everyone, Quentin and Robert Rodriguez and Spielberg – and Frank said “Any opportunity you have to direct, will make you a better director, because the more experience you get, the more you do.” So what makes me the most proud is of the boot camp that I’ve had, I mean I’ve worked with every great director that I’ve ever wanted to work with from John Landis and John Carpenter and George Romero, all the way up to Guillermo del Toro and Eli and everybody, so I always look at that as the greatest boot camp in the world, because I was in the trenches when we stabbed Uma Thurman in the chest on Pulp Fiction and when we electrocuted Michael Jeter I was there!

I’ve been there in all these amazing moments in recent cinema, so I feel like in the last season I’ve been to really spread my wings as my confidence grows more and more and pull off episodes like this and so the finale of this season was also my fifteenth directorial episode. So as of next year I will have directed an entire season and I think that the finale is the best directing that I’ve done, ever, so I can’t wait for you to see it!

At this point the last question alert is raised, but the mighty Mr Nicotero says “We have time if you want to do more” a sentence that is always appreciated.

You’ve directed some of the best episodes and a lot of that I think is because you’re able to deftly handle the effects side of things, while also getting a lot of the best character moments and performances – is that because the effects side is second nature and you can shift focus more easily?

Well I’ll tell you a great story… when we were shooting Hateful Eight, I’m sitting on set and it took quite a long time between set ups, just because of the complexity of 70mm and the re-fridgerated set, so we would set outside between set-ups and all the actors would sit around, so you’d have Bruce Dern and Sam Jackson and Walt and Kurt and we’d all sit and just tell stories.

Bruce Dern started telling a story about John Frankenheimer and Black Sunday and he says “So I’m cast in this movie and I went to a party and John Frankenheimer’s there and I went up and I shook his hand and I just said “Mr Frankenheimer, I just want to thank you for putting me in your movie, I’m going to give you the best performance and be the best performer that I can be” and Frankenheimer said “Well listen, you already are the best actor, that’s why you got the part. My job is – I don’t need to give you notes – my job as the director is to create an environment where you can do your best work, that’s my job. If a director comes on set and it’s tense, you literally have to clear the table and let the actors do what they’re good at.”

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And when I realised that I thought I have a great rapport with my actors, because they trust me. And then I read an interview with Quentin and he said that he and Harvey Keitel had exactly the same conversation on Reservoir Dogs! Where he would go up to give Harvey notes and Keitel would be like “Listen, just let me do one, I’ll do a take and then we can talk about it.” But Quentin took a very similar thing away from that, which I did, which is that you just have to lay the groundwork and let the actors do the best that they can do and you’ll get great episodes.

So every one of my episodes, I make sure that we’re not rushing, that the actors have that time to do another take if they want to try something different. Like Andy Lincoln is always that way, he’ll do a couple and then sometimes it gets really big, or he’ll pull back, or sometimes it’s not enough, but you have to give the actors the opportunity to explore it – it’s like tuning an instrument, at first it might [makes an out of pitch noise] but by the time you’ve finished, you have something beautiful.

Any piece of advice I could ever give to a director would be that – give the actors the ability to be creative on set and you have to create that environment and so that’s what I do. And thank you for saying that, because it’s something that’s tremendously important to me, because I’ve seen other episodes and there’s other days where the actors get two takes and the sun’s going down and it’s like [snaps fingers] “Two takes, out! Two takes, out!” and then you watch the episode and you’re like ‘God I wish there was just a little more flavour to that scene, or one other piece of coverage to pull us into that emotion’ and it’s hard.

For sure I’ve probably missed a couple of beats here and there in these giant episodes, especially the last one that had a lot of moving parts, but the actors know that’s the environment I create, so when they hear I’m directing an episode – other than the fact they’re like ‘Well Greg always kills people, so somebody is gonna die!” – but they also know I’m going to create that environment for them.

Between directing and working on FX, you’ve also been a walker a few times yourself. What was that like for you?

It’s great. The day that we shot the Glenn/Nicholas thing, the way I designed that gag was we got those freezer bags where you can seal the ends, we filled it with blood and fake guts then basically strapped it to Michael Traynor’s chest – it was filled with two gallons of blood and tons of gore! I had built two little rings that had nails in them, so I had four stunt guys around me and said “Okay, listen – I’m in make-up and I’m going to puncture the bag, so as soon as you see a little bit of blood well out from between my fingers, you two to push down on the bag and I want you to grab and rip it open.”

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So as soon we punctured the bag and they saw the puncture, by pushing on that freezer bag the blood just welled out and then the other guy grabbed it and ripped it. There was no puppet that was all in-camera, but it was important for me to be there to choreograph everything. There’s a funny picture on my desk of me in zombie make­up at the dumpster, prior to the shot because they establish me in the scene and Steven (Yeun) was like ‘You’re fucking terrifying!’ Steve was looking right down at me and I was in zombie mode, mouth open and he said he could see my tonsils! But he said “Dude that was fucking scary!” because I grabbed his foot and tried to pull him into the crowd and I said “Listen, if I get a hold of you and I’m pulling you in, you better fight me because I am not going to let you get away.” And when I got his foot and started pulling, he was like ‘Fuck!’

I came and I sat down in my make­up and Andy and Norman were in their chairs and they were like, really? My joke was that I looked like the dead fisherman from Scooby Doo. What’s funny is, I’m there and there’s a camera here and one over there and I said to the director, Michael Slovis, put another camera over there under the dumpster and if Steven can get away and he can crawl under the dumpster you’ll have a bonus angle. So when we did it when he crawled right up to the lens, everyone was like ‘Did you guys know that he was going to do that!?’ and I was like ‘Yeah off course I knew he was going to do that, that’s why I put a fucking camera there!’

That’s the kind of thing that makes me proud to be part of the show and to be able to have an artistic vision, because I can help on the ground and we did that scene in one take.

Greg Nicotero, thank you very much!

Main photo credit: Jack Bloss