Warning: Spoilers ahead for the “No Way Out” episode of The Walking Dead.
Well, all that happened. In one of the most action-packed episodes of the series, The Walking Dead resumed its sixth season with an episode that tied up the quarry walkers arc in dramatic and heartbreaking fashion, reunited Rick’s group, allowed Daryl the chance to get his heroic groove on after losing his weapon and motorcycle, re-enacted a major TWD comic book moment for Carl, gave us additional hints about the Saviors (aka Negan’s group), and finally forced the Alexandrians — and Father Gabriel! — to prove they’re willing to take some of the responsibility for keeping themselves alive.
TWD executive producer and special effects whiz Greg Nicotero directed “No Way Out,” and he talked to Yahoo TV about the visually spectacular, big-screen-worthy installment, that devastating walker attack that wiped out a whole family (and Rick’s immediate chance at romance), how Daryl Dixon got the chance to prove just what a hero he can be, and how he really didn’t mean to play with our Glenn-lovin’ hearts with Mr. Rhee’s latest near-death experience.
The premiere’s opening scene is incredible, and I love the fact that we saw one of those RPGs from “Always Accountable.” We knew they were going to come into play somewhere down the line. Was this always the plan for them?
Yes. A lot of people talk about Daryl’s character, and there’s so many people that we need to serve on the show. One of the things that was very important was having Daryl play a very big part in saving Alexandria. Daryl’s the one who comes up with the plan to fill the lake with gasoline and ignite it and lead all the walkers into the lake. That whole story was [sparked] in Episode 606, when Daryl was in the woods with “D” and the two girls, and they were talking about the fact that they had used one of the tankers, ignited a tanker, and lured all of the walkers into the fire. It’s really important.
He also saves Sasha and Abraham from being shot by obliterating the Saviors, and then he concocts his plan. We really wanted this to happen as if completely out of left field. I love Sonequa [Martin-Green’s] performance and Michael [Cudlitz’s] performance, where she’s like, “I’m trying to talk to the man.” And Negan’s guy is like, “You know what? Yes, I am” going to kill you. When we shot that, we actually had the cameras locked off, so that when he raises up the guns, we cut. We took all the actors and then we brought in dummies filled with giant blood bags and primer cord, and we physically blew dummies to pieces in the shot. There’s a lot of practical effects in this episode, because we really wanted everything to feel authentic. I didn’t want to go with a lot of fireballs and visual effects stuff. I wanted everything to feel real.
The other aspect you brought up was the night shoot. When Scott [Gimple] had originally pitched the fire to me, the idea had come about when we were scouting for [Episode] 601, and we found the cars at the tractor dealership where Nicholas and Glenn shoot the zombies out of the windows at the beginning of the season. Right next to that location was a burned-out forest. Scott and I were looking at it like, “Oh my God, the blackened trees, it just looks so weird.” We jokingly said, “We should totally shoot here.” That’s part of where that idea came from … I said, “I got a spot for how they’re going to save Alexandria,” and he said, “They’re going to light the lake on fire and the walkers are going to be attracted to it.”
The first thing I said to him was, “I have to shoot at night.” We spent the first eight episodes seeing walkers walking in broad daylight in the sun with the beautiful green trees around them. I really wanted to tap into a genre staple, which is a nighttime monster movie scene where we have creatures coming out of the dark, and anything can happen, and you don’t know where they’re going to come from and what’s around the corner. We really made a few sacrifices to guarantee that this episode would be shot at night, because I just think having that lake on fire during the day wouldn’t have nearly the same impact as those beautiful silhouette shots of the raging flames in the background, which were real, and people walking towards the fire, which was also real.
We probably detonated the explosion in the lake about seven or eight times. Every time I was shooting walkers in the street and that light source went off, what was beautiful to me was the entire block was lit up by orange light. You see shots where the entire side of a house becomes orange, and all the zombies turn towards the flames. I just said, “How many times can we do this?” because there are people who live around there, and I was a little concerned that we were going to be blowing people out of their beds in the middle of night detonating that explosion. They’re like, “No, we’re fine,” so up until five in the morning, we were detonating the propane tanks that were put into the lake by [special effects supervisor] Darrell Pritchett and our physical effects team.
It’s so appropriate, then, that all of the characters were involved for this major event in Alexandria, because they have been separated for the first half of the season.
That was completely crafted to bring everyone back together, because of Rick’s story. The fun part about ending that entire slaughter on the street with those rapid-fire staccato cuts of every single character hacking and slashing at zombies, ending up on Rick, is just to show that these two groups are merging into one unit, one cohesive band that is dedicated to one sole purpose, which is survival.
And that brings about the unexpectedly hopeful ending, where everyone finally comes together in a way Rick really feared they’ve never be able to. But as Eugene said, “No one gets to clock out today,” and no one did. Including Eugene!
If you think about it, Denise saved Carl’s life. If it hadn’t been for people at Alexandria, Carl would be dead, and Rick would have gone completely in the other direction. Of course, The Walking Dead does not have a lot of happy endings. This is about as close as you can get to a happy ending, which is Carl squeezing Rick’s hand.
By the way, my ten-year-old daughter thought Carl was a walker when he squeezed Rick’s hand. I was like, “That’s an interesting way to go. It’s not really what we had intended.” I had to watch the episode again two nights ago, and she came into the room unsolicited. She had seen one of the promos, and she said, “What happened at the beginning with the guys who captured Daryl and Abraham and Sasha?” I said, “Do you want to see? We’ll watch the first five minutes.” The next thing I knew, the episode was over, and she went, “That was amazing. Oh my God, can we watch it again?” She didn’t even know. I said, “Daddy directed that episode,” and she was like, “Dad, you did a really good job. It was really good. I think I want to see it again.” My ten-year-old, who’s been watching the show since she was four. Yes, I’m a terrible father letting a four-year-old watch The Walking Dead, but in my defense, having grown up at my studio, she knows it’s all fake.
So she’s seen all these things you can do, all the great storytelling… she’s probably going to be making her own movies by the time she’s 12.
When Sam got overrun, she gasped. Then when Jessie got taken, she was like, “Not good.” Then when Ron got killed, she was like, “Dad, you just killed three people in, like, eight seconds.” I’m like, “I’m sorry, honey.”
That really was the harshest sequence. So much happened, in such a short amount of time. Carl’s eye was in there, too.
What’s interesting is the flashes of the walkers chewing, when you hear Carol’s dialogue from last season, when she’s like, "The monsters are going to get you and they’re going to tear you apart"… those flashes were flashes that I had shot for Season 2 when Shane turns into a walker. We had a couple really quick subliminal flashes of gnashing teeth before Shane was resurrected as a walker in [“Better Angels”]. When we were talking about that, it was like, “Wait a minute, we have footage from Season 2,” close-ups of these really weird, just subliminal, jarring images.
I think the challenge with this episode was really getting you into the head of all these different people. You have this great moment with Gabriel where he steps up and says, “I’ll save Judith.” It’s so great because that’s the end of Gabriel’s and Rick’s animosity towards each other. Then you have Jessie’s fatal flaw, which is she gives in to Sam. As soon as Sam says, “Mom, I want to stay with you,” the minute she agrees to let him stay, she has signed their death warrants. That’s her weakness. We set that up … remember when Sam wouldn’t leave his room and she kept bringing food to him? That’s her caving to him. He was her Achilles heel. She was strong. Jessie got to a fantastic place in terms of her place in the community, and her relationship with Rick, but that was her weakness: giving in to Sam.
He needed a little more Carol in his life, a little more of her toughness.
What can you say about what Carol’s reaction will be to Sam’s death? He trusted her maybe more than anyone. She obviously won’t know that he was tormented by her words in those final moments of his life, but I can imagine this will have some sort of impact on her.
I think the combination of what happens with Sam and the scene with her and Morgan when she says, “I should have killed you” … Carol’s in trouble. Carol’s really at a place where her dual purpose, which is number one, doing the things that she needs to do to keep Alexandria safe, and number two, being a human being and having those things weigh in on who you are … I think we’ve set the stage for a pretty strong internal struggle, because Morgan is basically telling her everything that she wants desperately to believe, but she’s being torn by all the events that she’s had to live through over the last two years.
You have all talked about the storyline from the comics where Rick loses his hand, and how logistically that would be difficult to film. Was there any concern in that regard with Carl’s eye injury?
It’s a different situation, because number one, there’s a patch over it a lot of the time. We sculpted a prosthetic that Chandler [Riggs] wears, and we also had a dummy that we made of Chandler, which was a spot-on match. When you see Carl turn in that reveal, it’s Chandler with some blood on his face, and we digitally composited the wound onto Chandler’s face. It wasn’t a CGI wound; it was an actual wound that we put onto Carl’s face. Then when Rick’s running through the streets carrying Carl, that was a dummy the entire time.
It’s definitely a change that, once you make that decision, you have to permanently deal with it going forward.
There is a reason why his hair’s so long, because you figure as this show progresses, having a kid who would have longer hair, it would drape over the side of his face, and diminish looking at a bandaged head all the time. It’s the same thing that we did with Hershel; once you saw Hershel’s leg a couple times, you never needed to see it again. You just believe in your head that there’s a stump underneath there, and that the clothing has been rolled over and stitched closed. It’s that kind of thing. With a hand, it’s a different situation, because you can’t hide it. With Hershel, because his leg was taken below the knee, you could do a lot of coverage in specific scenes without seeing his foot. With Rick, having to deal with a missing hand for a lot of shots would have proven to be problematic from a production standpoint, even though Andy [Lincoln] every once in a while is like, “When are we going to cut my hand off?” It’s like, “Dude, that ship has sailed.”
On to Glenn: It was just seconds, maybe one second, away from death again. Was that an intentional throwback to our big mystery from the first half of the season?
I have to say, that might be subliminal on my part. There was never an intent to go, “OK, Glenn’s going to die again.” I know people are going to watch it and go, “What the f–k, you guys? Why do you keep doing this?” I think in the script, it talks about how Glenn is being surrounded, but the way we ended up locking it, and the way that it naturally took place on set, was that he’s leading the walkers away, and I needed to get Glenn out of the line of fire for when Sasha and Abraham start shooting. The only way to do that was to get him up against the wall, because if he was in the middle of the street, they wouldn’t have a clear shot at the walkers.
And that was a night we had 400 zombies on set, and we had a lot of stunt people, and then we also had a lot of great extras. When they started getting closer, Steven [Yeun] just went for it. He was swinging at people and people had knee pads on and were going to their knees, and they were miming being shot. It was so beautiful the way it looked like he was being swallowed up, and that he wasn’t giving up. He was fighting, fighting, fighting. Then of course, I think the way we cut it by seeing Maggie scream his name at the top of her lungs, you’re watching it and you’re like, “OK, Glenn’s gotten in there and he’s going to save Maggie, but she’s going to watch him die.”
But as the director of that sequence, it wasn’t my intention to play with the audience again. It was my intention to show that every single person in this episode is in jeopardy. Sasha and Abraham almost die, Daryl almost dies, Carl almost dies, Denise almost died. The only reason Denise was saved is because the W man turned around at the last second. The W man could have just as easily killed that walker and climbed up the ladder. He chose to go back for her, and by doing that, again, that was his mistake. All the stuff about Morgan and the W man, and then at the end, the guy turns around and goes back for her.
And no one was more shocked by his actions than him. Did he fall in love with Denise?
He goes against his entire philosophy, and by doing so, did Morgan get to him? In my opinion, he did. I think that he was enamored with Denise and he thought … I was telling Merritt [Wever] and Benedict [Samuel] on set, “Your intent here is to get her over the fence with you. A year from now, she’s going to have a W on her forehead, and you’re going to have W babies, and you’re going to be a little W family. He really does fancy you.” I think he was very enthralled with the idea that she never had been outside of those walls, and that by experiencing that with her and introducing her to a new world … he says, "It’s a lot safer out there than it is in here.” He’s saying to her, “I have a new way of life that I want to bring to you.” That’s why he turns and goes back for her. Then of course, he gets bit. And shot by Carol.
You’ve closed the pit walkers arc, and the premiere ended on the hopeful note of everyone coming together, but now they have a town that is just in tatters. What’s next?
I think one of the important things we did in the entire first half of the season was, we showed how big the world is. We did very big, expansive shots of the walker herds splitting off the road and the quarry. We wanted to really expand our world, show that our world exists outside of Alexandria. We focused on the walker threat. Everybody was a bit preoccupied, but then we get a sense that, “Oh, there’s this other group, the Saviors. There’s some other people out there.”
Now that the pit walker threat has been vanquished from Alexandria, we have an opportunity to look at this big world and start recognizing what else is out there. That’s where the second half of the season goes: We’ve done some little hints, and we’ve experienced a few of these people out there in terms of who they are and what they are, and what they’re capable of. We’re going to explore that. There’s some great moments coming up. There’s some great episodes coming up, and of the 15 episodes I’ve directed, the season finale is, in my opinion, the best episode I’ve ever done.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.