‘The Walking Dead’ Postmortem: Greg Nicotero Talks Richonne’s ‘Sixteen Candles’ Moment, That Carnival, and Which Cast Member Stood in for Baby Judith

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Danai Gurira as Michonne (Credit: Gene Page/AMC)
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Danai Gurira as Michonne (Credit: Gene Page/AMC)

Warning: This interview for the “Say Yes” episode of The Walking Dead contains storyline and character spoilers.

Rick and Michonne had their most excellent, romantic adventure in “Say Yes,” only to be brought back to the harsh reality that one of them is likely to end up facing a future without the other, perhaps someday soon, thanks to the constant danger of life in the apocalypse. Especially when that life includes a looming battle against Negan and his Saviors.

“Say Yes” director Greg Nicotero broke down the episode — the 12th of Season 7 and the fourth of five he helmed this year — for Yahoo TV, including the moments that still make him laugh, trying to recreate a classic John Hughes moment for Richonne, why a carnival was the perfect setting for their fruitful, but jarring supply run, and why Tara, Rosita, and Sasha made some major moves themselves.

He also told us which adult cast member stood in for baby Judith, which two cast members he invited to beat him over the head with a bloody prop Lucille, and hints at how the “table’s set” for the Season 7 finale he directed.

You told me last month that your favorite funny moment of the season was coming up in this episode. Which was is it?
The exchange at the end, with Rick and Jadis, when they’re negotiating the number of guns, and he says, “20. And I keep the cat.” The look on his face when she says, “10. And the cat back” … It’s such a ludicrous twist and turn to the negotiation for guns to go into battle, and they’re negotiating over a piece of art in the shape of a cat. It’s made me laugh every single time I’ve watched it.

When he says, “Say yes,” parroting her words back to her, it really caps that whole conversation.
It’s a great exchange. It’s somewhere between that and then when Rick and Michonne are behind the Dumpster and she says, “You’re going to leave me with eight [walkers to kill]?” He’s like, “You can handle eight.” Then the look on her face is like, “Honey, please. I can handle eight.” The tone of this episode always was challenging, because we don’t really do episodes like this. We don’t do episodes where they’re in honeymoon-mode. Rick is out. He’s away from everything. Michonne is like, “Listen, it’s been two days. Maybe we should get back.” He’s like, “A little longer. Let’s do another day and a half.” He’s really enjoying this. My job was to take advantage of the fact that we’ve never seen this kind of chemistry between Rick and Michonne. I wanted the audience to believe 100 percent what I call “the Sixteen Candles dinner scene,” when they’re eating together.

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It was really important to me that we lighten the tone, because their exchange together… even in the original script, Rick and Michonne were both supposed to jump into the trunk of the car. Then as we were shooting, I was like, “We’re never going to get them in. Somebody has to steer the car. Let’s keep Rick in the front seat and Michonne in the trunk.” I said, “I think it’s funnier to have the camera on Rick’s face as the zombies are pounding on the glass.” They’re like, “Yeah. We might have overshot it.” Michonne says, “We might have or we did?” And Rick’s like, “We did.” Meanwhile, there’s a hundred zombies around the car, and he’s like, “That was a good plan, though.” There’s some really subtle, but really funny moments in delivery that are very, very unlike The Walking Dead, but which all lead to a specific point, which is the moment when the reality comes crashing down that at any moment, one of them could be gone.

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes (Credit: Gene Page/AMC)
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes (Credit: Gene Page/AMC)

It is a great adventure. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s productive, it’s romantic. And there are some really monumental things in terms of Michonne fully realizing how much Rick means to her, and Rick no longer having the desire to run things himself. He only wants to go forward with creating this new future if it’s with Michonne. In spite of the fact that they’re still in the middle of this very dangerous situation with Negan, they really are looking at the big picture, at rebuilding the world, not just surviving.
It’s all about rebuilding society. Even the backdrop of the carnival was specifically crafted to remind the audience of what the world was like before. When Michonne says, “Maybe we could get back to this”… it’s really about rebuilding society. When they have that amazing scene in the car between the two of them, which to me is one of the most amazing emotional moments of the season, when Michonne is realizing that he could [die]… they’re talking about the fact that it’s bigger than us. It’s about society going on. It’s not about us individually going on. I think this whole episode is really set up to say, “What is living?” It’s not living under the thumb of oppression. It’s not just about waking up every morning and being alive, it’s about living.

Speaking of the carnival, it is one of my all-time favorite settings on the show. It worked so perfectly with what they were doing. It had kind of a Rube Goldberg, maze effect, with them using all the parts of the carnival to manipulate the walkers into where they could deal with them most effectively.
I couldn’t agree more. Even the fact that we had a couple of establishing shots of walkers populating it. The sun’s going down. There’s these beautiful shots of walkers moving in and amongst the landscape. We never do that on the show. We never have establishing shots. I really like the fact that it was a reminder that, here’s this world, it’s still populated by the undead. It had a completely different feel, and I’ve said a thousand times that I feel like we have an obligation to keep the show feeling fresh. All the barricades and barriers around the actual amusement rides themselves provided protection for our characters, and they used that. It all worked to serve what I feel was a really fun, good story.

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My favorite shot of the episode is when Rick and Michonne fall through the roof of the high school. The camera stays on the roof, and we know they’re OK when we hear them laughing.
The fun thing about that is when we cut to them inside, we were tilting down when we shot that, and myself and two of the effects guys were literally throwing buckets of water on them and up onto the roof, because the whole reason the roof collapsed was because there was water damage. Every single take, I was dumping buckets of water on them. Of course, when we were done shooting the scene, Danai [Gurira] and Andy [Lincoln] threw buckets of water on me. I always make sure that the actors do that, whether it’s dousing me or like when Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Andy hit me in the head with Lucille, I always want to make sure that the actors know I’m willing to do whatever it is they’re willing to do.

Danai Gurira as Michonne (Credit: Gene Page/AMC)
Danai Gurira as Michonne (Credit: Gene Page/AMC)

When did Jeffrey and Andy hit you with Lucille?
During [the Season 7 premiere]. I have video of it. At the end of [filming] the episode, I gave Andy one of the foam Lucille bats with blood bags on it. We filmed him hitting me in the head with the bat. Then Jeffrey stepped up and hit me. I felt it was the least I could do after dragging these guys through hell for the entire episode.

Another big decision being made in this episode, after a lot of back and forth, is Tara deciding she’s going to tell Rick about the Oceansiders and the weapons they have. This would seem to bring us closer to the possibility of seeing all these groups converge by the time the season ends.
Yeah. The whole sequence where Tara sits with Judith is really about her struggling with this promise that she made to this group versus how society is going to survive. If you really think about it, Rosita’s character is going through the same thing. How do we survive? What do we do? Rosita’s just much more militant about it. She’s like, “Listen. I’m going to take matters into my own hands and go kill that a–hole.” Whereas Tara wants the same thing, but she’s going about it a very different way by saying, “Maybe I need to break this promise to these people in order to help all of us survive.”

Alanna Masterson as Tara Chambler and Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes (Credit: Gene Page/AMC)
Alanna Masterson as Tara Chambler and Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes (Credit: Gene Page/AMC)

How did you get those reactions from baby Judith? When Tara’s reasoning that whole thing out in front of Judith, her little facial reactions are perfect.
I actually had the baby’s mom there in Alanna [Masterson’s] clothing. When I shot a lot of the close-ups of the baby, she was looking at her mom. Of course, Alanna has a baby, so Alanna was also able to get her attention long enough that we ended up getting a lot of perfect moments. One of the funny things about filming that is when we were shooting Alanna’s close-up looking down at the baby, Melissa McBride was on set that day, and she laid on the floor as the eye line for the baby. Babies don’t necessarily by nature sit still, so when it came time to do Alanna’s close-ups, we were like, “We can have the baby there or do you want…” and she said, “No, I don’t need anybody.” Then Melissa’s like, “I’ll do it.” Melissa literally laid down on the ground and did off-camera baby Judith. It was great.

You just mentioned Rosita. She’s just gotten angrier and angrier since the beginning of the season. I think she’s the only person who’s as angry as Daryl is at this point. She’s very committed to seeing Negan dead, and now she’s gone off and made this pact with Sasha. They’re pretty clear, they’re going into this as a suicide mission, right?
Rosita and Daryl are on very parallel journeys, for sure. Daryl’s actions in [“The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”] caused the death of Glenn. Rosita’s actions in [“Hearts Still Beating”] caused the death of Olivia and for Eugene to be taken. There’s a lot of guilt there. The fact that Father Gabriel tried to talk her out of it and had his opinions about it… Rosita’s got a lot of anger and she’s not quite sure where to direct it. When they take the guns to the [Heapsters], she’s thinking, OK, this is good. We got the guns. Things are going great. We’re moving forward. As soon as Jadis says, “Not enough,” Rosita’s like, “Alright. This is bulls–t. Screw you. I’m out.” She’s not having any of it. She doesn’t even want to be slightly deterred by these a–holes. She’s like, “Listen. I can’t wait any longer. We don’t have enough guns to do thi … I’m just going to do it.” It’s pretty clear what Rosita’s intentions are. She has nothing to lose. She really doesn’t. Anybody that’s willing to die, anyone that’s willing to put their life on the line, has nothing to lose. So she’s pretty dangerous right now.

Christian Serratos as Rosita and Alanna Masterson as Tara (Credit: Gene Page/AMC)
Christian Serratos as Rosita and Alanna Masterson as Tara (Credit: Gene Page/AMC)

I have to ask you about, Winslow, who was a creepy and menacing walker, but also strangely cute. What was the main inspiration behind the creation of Winslow?
[Showrunner] Scott [Gimple] and I first started having a conversation about that … I started looking back to the scarecrows in Planet of the Apes, which had these big, long … they were really unique. They were big Xs that have this really haunting look. I thought it’d be really cool if we were to somehow mimic that with weapons and rebar and saw blades and nails and knives coming out. We went from there. We refined the design. The helmet is basically a gas tank from a motorcycle. It was like an art installation. I hired Gino Crognale, who’s one of our makeup artists … he’s played a walker in the show probably eight times. He was the walker that killed Tyreese. He was the walker that Carl fought and lost his shoe to … not only is Gino a great makeup artist, but he’s a really good performer. And that [Winslow] suit was pretty intense, because the under structure that we had to attach all the pipes to was very elaborate. If he ever fell over, we wouldn’t want him to actually get punctured by any of the prop pipes or rebar. It was a pretty challenging sequence. I think even when I had volunteered him to play the part, a couple days before, he was like, “Really? Do I have any say in this?”

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He did an amazing job. It’s so much about performance with these things. It’s got to feel real. The short amount of time that [he’s] on screen, I wanted it to be memorable. I don’t think anybody else could have played that part.

Gino Crognale as Winslow (Credit: AMC)
Gino Crognale as Winslow (Credit: AMC)

Do you kind of love Winslow? Were you sad that we only got to see him for one episode?
I was sad. It took us about a month to build him, only because it was something so special and so intricate. All the hands with the barbwire wrapped around, wrapped around the forearms … it was a pretty elaborate thing. We got started pretty early on it, because we wanted to make sure we had time to test it and make sure that it did what we wanted it to do. Listen, I love stuff like that. I love the fact that seven and half years in, and we’re able to come up with stuff that still feels iconic and memorable.

We’re getting close to the Season 7 finale, which you directed. What can you hint at about the finale, which, at this point, really seems destined to be about the convergence of a lot of like-minded groups?
I think given where Tara is, given where Rosita and Sasha are, it definitely feels to me like things are accelerating. The fact that Sasha and Rosita want to take matters into their own hands, the fact that Tara is willing to have the conversation with Rick about Oceanside, even Rick and Michonne’s realization that it’s imperative that society go on whether they make it or not… the table’s set.

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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