Warning: Storyline and character spoilers ahead for the “Not Tomorrow Yet” episode of The Walking Dead.
Those Saviors are some funny dudes, even if it’s only masking the sheer destruction they’re capable of (and likely to unleash, soon). The Walking Dead executive producer, director, and special effects whiz Greg Nicotero, who was behind the camera for last Sunday’s “Not Tomorrow Yet,” talks to Yahoo TV about how the Saviors make him laugh out loud, how they made Glenn cry, and who he thinks the real hero of the attack on the Saviors was. And he clues us in on what, exactly, Morgan was up to with his DIY project in Alexandria.
I knew this was a Greg Nicotero-directed episode when I saw the scene at the Saviors’ hideout. It’s incredibly intense.
You know, I wish we would have had a little more time with that scene to play out. There’s a direct contrast between the emotion that we show in the first two acts of the episode. We have a break up, we have a couple getting together, we have another couple having to say goodbye, we have another couple saying they want to do things together. There’s a lot of emotion. It’s showing that these people have every intention of going on with their lives and surviving. It’s like, OK, if you want to break up with somebody because you thought they were the only girl left in the world, but there’s somebody else out there, then you fully are committed to the fact that there is going to be a tomorrow, and a next week, and a next month. We really go to great lengths to show that our characters are human, and they have emotions, because they’re about to step in and do something that is reprehensible.
There are some crushing moments. The Abraham/Rosita breakup, and then Glenn making his first kill. Steven Yeun’s reaction was perfect.
That was one of my favorite scenes to shoot. For his kill, and Rick’s kill, we actually created extremely realistic heads, knowing that they would never be filmed. When we shot Steven’s kill, we had an actor in the cot for the lead up, then, once we got to the stab, we took the actor out, and we put a dummy in there with a beautiful, very detailed fake head. I had Adam [Miller], our prop guy, lay underneath the cot and put a ring on his finger and lay his arm across the chest of the dummy. When Steven walked in, he saw a real human hand with a ring on it. He walked up, and he kneeled down, and he took the tip of the blade over this eye and stabbed the head through the eye. It was something, from a directorial standpoint, where I wanted to give Steven as much ammunition as I could for that emotional moment. It’s deep, and it’s dark, and it’s painful, and it’s horrible. I remember him walking in and looking and me and going, “There’s a ring on that. That’s a real hand.”
When he walked in, in his head, he was playing it, that was a real person. He leaned down. He gave me absolute perfection in that moment. The fact that he then goes and takes the knife out of Heath’s hand to spare Heath that same anguish… then they’re kind of let off the hook. They stand up, they see the Polaroids. It’s like, “OK, this was a horrific thing to do, but now we see that these guys are not screwing around.” We let them off the hook a little bit with that last moment. Then, of course, when they’re running down the hall and they run into the armory and they slam the door and they just open fire into the doorway, they end up killing like eight people. The first one was the toughest, but when they’re in actual combat, they didn’t think twice about it.
Still, it really affected Heath in the end, too. We see that when he takes off on the supply trip with Tara.
Yeah. It’s another opportunity to humanize our people. When Rick’s in the church with them and goes, “Listen guys, we have to vote on this. If you guys aren’t down with this, we aren’t going to do it.” Morgan is the only one who stands up and says, “I don’t think we should do it. I think we should try to talk to them.” Everybody else goes along with it. They’ve made this conscious decision to do this. They have to rationalize it for themselves by, if we want to survive, if I want to have a relationship and love and family, this is what we have to do.
There’s so much humor with the Saviors, going all the way back to Christopher Berry in the midseason premiere. Then when we meet the guards at the compound, the guy who makes the fake Gregory head talk, the way none of them ever miss an opportunity to call someone a name… We know what they’re capable of from what we’ve heard, but we haven’t seen it yet, other than those Polaroids. It feels like maybe all of us, the viewers and Rick’s group, are underestimating a little bit just how brutal they’re going to be.
That’s by calculation, of course. We set out, from Chris Berry, and I think you and I talked about this at the time, we don’t want these guys to play arch. We want them to have some character and some charisma. When Carlos [Aviles] and Ian [Casselberry], the two actors who play those [guards], they were just in Triple 9 [with Norman Reedus]… when Ian sticks his hand inside the mouth and goes, “Little b—h broke my nose, waaaah,” I laughed out loud every single time we shot that moment. It was so… it’s outrageous. You look at these guys: Are they for real? They just don’t seem like any kind of group that makes any sort of sense. That is certainly something that we have taken into consideration when we’ve been crafting this group of people, because Rick and our group are confident. This is the first time that they have had the upper hand. They’ve made it through Woodbury. They’ve made it out of the prison. They made it out of Terminus. They survived the overrun of Alexandria. They’re feeling pretty confident. The fact that these guys seem a little out there, I certainly think adds to our group’s level of confidence.
Why is the one Savior guard whistling “Happy Birthday?” Is there a significance to that?
No, I think it’s just another one of those weird moments where he’s just kind of… I think originally we wanted him whistling Black Sabbath. I think he was going to be whistling “Iron Man.” It was just one of those things. Why is he whistling? What’s going on with this? Then of course Daryl takes care of him.
And that’s where things just go crazy, and that attack, the intensity, just becomes relentless.
It was a really fun action scene to craft. All the actors were very committed. I wanted everything to be real. We used blanks in all the guns. There wasn’t a lot of digital muzzle flash. They were running up and down those hallways firing machine guns with blanks in them. I wanted them to hear the retort of the guns. I wanted the brightness from the gun flashes to make it feel authentic. There was a lot of choreography to those scenes, too, because if someone is firing a machine gun with a blank, you can’t run in front of them or change your mind and run a different direction. You have to be very specific with where your path is going to and what the person next to you is going to do so that you don’t jump out in front of them when they’re firing a machine gun.
The whole theme for the attack was, it’s a race to the armory. We split everybody up. They start kicking doors in and killing guys and then kicking another door in. The pacing of that as we build and we build and we build and we get to the moment where Aaron and Rosita kick in one door, Daryl knocks another door open. Then Abraham and Sasha kick another door… none of them are the armory. That’s where they’re going. That’s the whole point of that exercise, to do what the Wolves tried to do in Alexandria, which is get to the armory, take the weapons, and then the place is ours.
The particular pairings in that scene are interesting, too, to see Rick, Michonne, and Daryl together, for instance, a core group of leaders.
I was really excited about being able to do that. Then you have Abraham and Sasha together. And the piece that I haven’t talked about, [Father] Gabriel. Gabriel has one of the greatest moments in the episode. It’s so unexpected that Gabriel pulls the trigger. I think that Seth [Gilliam] has done an absolute spot-on job with his performance of Gabriel. This is yet another turning point for him. In [“No Way Out”], when he takes Judith to safety, we see Rick going, “OK, I’m giving you my child. You’re taking my child’s life in your hands. Thank you.” Now, Gabriel is stepping up again. He wants to be a very valuable part of the survival of this group. When those Saviors run out, and he stands over the guy and the guy goes, “Hey Padre, you gonna shoot me?” I love the fact that Gabriel is sort of preaching to him. You’re thinking, “Oh yeah, he’s still the priest.” Then boom, he pulls the trigger. And there was a very specific reason why I stayed wide in that shot. If you were close up on Gabriel with the gun pointing in the lens, you would expect it. When you cut back wide and Gabriel’s talking, you’re like, “Huh, I wonder if…?” We’re not in his face, so all of a sudden him pulling the trigger seems a lot more surprising.
He’s also so calm, which you would not predict he would be in this situation, the first time he kills someone.
Yes. I love the scene in the car where he and Tara are talking. She’s admitting that she lied to Denise because she got caught off guard and didn’t know what to say. There are so many great moments in this episode… very emotional. It goes from that to Die Hard. We had a really great time shooting this episode. The actors get excited when they start getting glimmers of where the story is going. Andy [Lincoln] will say to me every day we’re on set, “Oh, this is gonna be a good one. This stuff’s going to be great.” That’s so exciting and so encouraging for me when the actors feel the momentum, as the show is sort of picking up speed towards our season finale. When Andy says it, I know we’re doing something right.
The series has also been maintaining the humor from “The Next World.” Rick’s moment with the fake Gregory heads, punching the final choice, and then his “What?” reaction with Andy… and the fact that the whole exercise felt like the gang was on a shopping trip for a Gregory head.
They were, they were. That’s my cameo in the episode, by the way. That was my head that was Gregory’s head. When we cast Xander Berkeley, we didn’t have time to do a head cast. I sent pictures to Los Angeles. I said, “We need somebody that kind of looks like this guy. It’s not supposed to be him, but it’s supposed to look sort of like him.” As I was typing this email, I went, “Or you could just pull my head mold.” My head is one of the heads, the head that [the Savior guard] sticks his hand up and goes “Little b—h broke my nose, waaaah.” That was me.
Your best cameo since you were the hangry walker trying to get at Glenn when he was on the dumpster.
Yeah. Everyone’s like, "When are you going to be a walker again?” Well, I wasn’t a walker, but, you know.
The opening Carol montage: There are a lot of important things in there, but it also is like a theme song for a Carol sitcom.
The music definitely takes it to a different place. Yeah, it’s the Carol show. She’s really making an effort. She’s not playing anymore. She desperately wants to be rid of these, all this dark stuff that she’s had to do. She goes out. She’s collecting acorns. She kills a walker. She gets blood on her. She takes a shower. She picks the flowered shirt, not because she’s undercover, not because she’s trying to do anything weird, or strange. She just does. She goes delivering cookies to everybody. She’s like, “Hey, you look like you could use some cookies.“ I really love that she wants to be that person, but she’s struggling. I really think that for her, that’s the hardest thing in this world. So she sits up and makes a list of the number of people that she’s killed. You can tell that she’s trying. But she’s struggling hard.
Is that why that moment with Tobin means that much to her? He sees her in this completely different way that has nothing to do specifically with the things that she’s done. She is just this very strong woman.
Oh, for sure. I think that would absolutely be why she responds. I think she likes Tobin. I like that she’s kind of a little flirtatious with him. When she’s like, "Are you messing with me?” when he eats the cookie and he makes that face. The entire “Carol show” montage is [interrupted] by Rick going, “We’re going to have to kill people.” You need to have a needle scratch there. Like, “Son of a b—h, I was getting there and now here I am going back in.”
What is Morgan building when we see him back in Alexandria? It looks like it has bars.
Yes. He’s building a cell. The jail cell that they had wasn’t necessarily much of a jail cell. It was like a little room with a little metal gate. I think Morgan is committed to the next time they have somebody in there, if they need to, they’ll attempt to rehabilitate them. He wants to be equipped. It goes back to his story with Eastman. Let’s be honest, Jesus didn’t last very long in that place. It can’t be that secure.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.