‘The Walking Dead’ EP Greg Nicotero: ‘The Season 7 Premiere Really Redefines Grief’


(Photos: AMC)

Well, Walking Dead fans, the wait for the Season 7 premiere is… eh, who are we kidding? It’s still three long months away, and while dropping that trailer last weekend at San Diego Comic-Con was a gift, the TWD crew also made us just that much more anxious to take the deeper dive into Season 7 — the good (Ezekiel and Shiva!) and the bad (Negan and Lucille).

For a few more nuggets to tide us over during the wait for that Oct. 23 return, we talked to executive producer and Season 7 premiere director Greg Nicotero about the aforementioned season preview, as well as his hot new road trip-sparking restaurant (co-owned with Norman Reedus and TWD creator Robert Kirkman), the new Walking Dead attraction that opened at Universal Studios Hollywood this summer, and the idea he and showrunner Scott Gimple have for a very special TWD movie theater marathon.

Nicotero, a 2016 Emmy nominee along with the series’ special makeup effects team, also shared with Yahoo TV his memories of Rick Grimes’s Season 1 home — which is now available for purchase for any fan willing and able to pony up a cool $629,000 — and gave us an update on TWD Glitter Prank War 2016.

The Comic-Con Season 7 trailer is excellent. I think fans knew not to expect any reveals about Negan’s victim, but you gave us this other great surprise with introducing Ezekiel and Shiva, and showing a little bit of what we’re going to see with the other characters. Was that something you had planned all along as a treat for everyone waiting for that cliffhanger resolution in October?
Absolutely. Scott [Gimple] and I talked a lot about the trailer, and we compared it to a Star Wars movie. This is very important, because the minute that I say “Star Wars” and “Walking Dead” in the same sentence… I got called an a–hole last year, a “pretentious a–hole,” by fans who thought that I was saying that The Walking Dead is as good as Star Wars, which is not what I was saying. I said, “You know, the cliffhanger’s kind of like the way Empire Strikes Back ended and you found out that Darth Vader was Luke’s father.” People were like, "You’re a moron.” Anyway, what I meant was, it’s a promise of new worlds. Every time you watch any of those cool Star Wars trailers, you really don’t get much of a sense of what the movie’s about… it’s a promise of new creatures, new characters, and new worlds. We went into this trailer for Season 7 with exactly that intent. That’s all we wanted to do, we wanted the promise of new worlds, so you see a little bit of The Sanctuary, you see a little bit of The Kingdom, you see a little bit of The Hilltop, you see a little bit of Alexandria. You start getting a sense of these different worlds. I directed the episode where The Kingdom is introduced, and it was a blast. I was excited. I loved the idea that it was like shooting a pilot. I got to introduce a whole new series of characters and play with Shiva and Khary Payton, who plays Ezekiel.


And there’s the first half of the trailer, which reminds us again how harsh that cliffhanger resolution is going to be.
Listen, shooting that first episode, the Season 7 premiere, was without a doubt the most emotionally grueling and draining nine days. There was nothing fun about it. It was rough, really rough. As far as the way that I looked at it, it was reducing these people at the end of [Season 6] to the absolute lowest point that you can ever imagine them. They’re all defeated, they’ve lost. We’ve never seen Rick Grimes scared in six years. There has never been fear on his face, but we end Season 6… Rick is so scared that he is helpless. These are two things that you never see in your hero. Imagine a hero that’s scared and helpless. Where do you go from there?

Related: ‘The Walking Dead’ Season 7 Trailer: All the Negan Victim Hints We Found and Introducing Ezekiel

The season premiere really redefines grief. It redefines pain, and emotion, and if you think watching the finale that you are already at rock bottom with these people, you’ve got a lot further to go. This season’s intense. There’s not really a lot of let up. The show continues to get darker, and that’s something that we had always planned from day one, is that we want the show to be dark, and we want the show to be different. With the introduction of Negan, it gives us the perfect palate and the perfect opportunity to explore something that we’ve never explored before. The world is a much, much bigger place. You have a guy like Rick who ends Season 6 with, “Oh yeah, if they want to deal, you just tell them to come talk to me…” For him to be in the position that he’s left in, on his knees… it’s rough.


OK, we’re going to be in a dark place a lot with the new season, so for now, back to happier happenings. Congratulations on your new restaurant in Senoia, Nic & Norman’s. Norman told us there is sometimes a three-hour wait for a table. Did you expect it to be such a success right away?
No. We just had the thought, "Oh, it would be really fun to have a place that we could go and hang out and have dinner and drink some stuff.” It went from that to this place where people wait in line for three hours.

How often have you guys been able to go?
I go a lot, actually. I go twice a week probably.

To check out business, or because it’s your local hang now?
A little bit of both. The nice thing is there’s a lot of fans who like to go there and express their enthusiasm. It’s fun, it’s a cool place. I own a bar, a restaurant. I mean, come on.

Is that something you’d always wanted to do?
I always used to think I wanted to own a pizza parlor. Like, “Oh, it’d be a pizza parlor that would have all kinds of cool props from all the movies that I had worked on.” This was even before Planet Hollywood had been created. Then Planet Hollywood comes out and goes, “Yeah, it’s going to be a burger joint with a lot of props and stuff around.” I was like, “Oh, well, I must have been on to something there.” [This came from] a conversation that Norman and I had several years ago when we started shooting down here in Senoia. We were like, “You know, it would be great to have a place that we could go to where we could sort of pay tribute to the cast and the crew.” There weren’t a lot of places to eat down here back then. There were like two restaurants. I’d shared that with a couple people locally, and when [this building] became available, I got a call from [Raleigh Studios president] Scott Tigchelaar, who’s one of the co-owners, and he said, “Hey, I remember you mentioning to me that you and Norman were interested in some sort of venture like this. Is that still the case?” I called Norman and I’m like, “Dude, I think we might have an opportunity to own a restaurant.” Next thing I knew, we were writing checks, and here we are.

Related: Norman Reedus on His ‘Ride’ With Peter Fonda, His New Restaurant, and ‘The Walking Dead’ Season 7 Premiere

The show is such a part of that community already and has been for several years, but does this strengthen that for you, now that you’re a local business owner, too?
Yes. I do feel a unique connection to this area. We’ve been shooting here for seven years. I’ve been doing this since ‘84. It’s been 32 years, so a quarter of my career I’ve spent here.

Are you hearing that people are road-tripping to the restaurant this summer?
People are coming from all over the place, for sure. I’ve had a lot of people tell me, “I drove three hours. I drove four hours. I drove from upstate New York, Nashville, Texas, Florida.“ It doesn’t hurt that we’re in production. I think people also hope that they can come by and happen to drive past where we’re filming, or people from the show will go to the restaurant. I think when we’re in production, there’s definitely an increased appetite for the restaurant. Ha ha, appetite.

Are you thinking at all about expanding? Could this become a chain?
Yes. I think we’ve already talked about opening another one of these somewhere else. Robert Kirkman is also a partner in the restaurant, and a couple of times, he’s like, "What are we waiting for? Let’s go. Start popping these things up everywhere.” It’s pretty funny.

You could open one outside The Walking Dead attraction that opened at Universal Studios Hollywood this summer.
It would make sense to walk out of Universal and get a Nic & Norman’s burger.

Whose is better, by the way, your burger or Norman’s?
I have a confession to make: I haven’t tasted Norman’s yet. From what I understand, people seem to like my burger. It’s not a competition, but I’m winning.

Back to the Universal attraction, people seem to be surprised at just how frightened they are when they go through it, and you’ve included so many props and callbacks to the show. Can you envision a point where that might expand? Could The Walking Dead spark its own amusement park?
I would love the idea of a Walking Dead amusement park, how cool would that be? I was tremendously pleased with the results of the permanent attraction, because we had to deal with the Halloween Horror Nights mazes. You have to figure that we had a little competition amongst ourselves, because people had already seen the maze. Between myself, and John Murdy and his team at Universal, we really had to up the ante. When you’re waiting in the queue, and you’re going through the hospital and you’re looking at all the little Easter eggs that we’ve hidden around there, plus the sheer extent of the number of zombies and things that are in there, to me, it’s really fun. I was pleasantly, pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was. I wanted to go through it like two or three more times. The beauty of it is that we do have opportunities to expand it. We don’t want the attraction to ever feel like it’s outdated. The opportunity to upgrade it by seeing either other characters or walkers from more recent moments in recent seasons, I think would be great.

You and I had talked last season about how you and Scott have wanted to show some of the episodes in a movie theater, make it a fan event with a marathon screening and cast Q&As between episodes… “The Night of The Walking Dead.” Is that something that still may happen?
It is indeed. I think there was some discussion about it. I think the trick really is, when do you do it? Doing it leading up to a premiere is one idea. The other idea would be to have fans vote on their favorite episode of a season, and then just do a from dusk ‘til dawn kind of thing. That idea was very well received. I just don’t know when it would happen, if it would be during the hiatus, or maybe before we go off the air next season for our Season 7 finale. I don’t know, but it’s something that Scott and I love the idea of, and we pitched it to AMC, and they seemed to like the idea a lot. We just have to figure out the logistics of it all.

Speaking of the premiere, the show, for the last couple of years, has premiered the same weekend as New York Comic Con. But Season 7 premieres a couple of weeks after NYCC this year. You had also mentioned last year wanting to have a premiere in London at some point…
I think because of the cliffhanger nature of the episode, you can’t really show it early. The minute you show it early, [the reveal is] out. I have a sneaking suspicion anything we do would probably be on the night of the actual premiere. There’s a lot of stuff still up in the air. We’ve been so busy just making the show. The fact that we all went to [San Diego] Comic-Con, we’re like, “Oh, that’s right. Now I remember what it’s like to have a life out there for a couple of minutes.” It was nice. I’ll tell you, the response, the fans… it was overwhelming. The people were great. I think Norman’s glitter prank, it certainly did a tremendous amount for making our actors somewhat even more accessible by the ridiculous childish nature of pulling pranks and how much fun they had. And the fact that Andy [Lincoln] tried to prank Norman back and screwed it up and blew glitter in his own face.

I was going to ask you about that. Has Glitter Prank War escalated?
Oh, yeah. This has been going on for years. I will say Norman is really good at it. Norman will think about a good prank for a long time, and he’ll play it all out. Andy didn’t really have that glitter thing quite dialed in. It’s kind of fun to be in the middle of those two… I’m usually in the middle of it. I kind of hear from both sides what they’re planning, so it’s hilarious. I’m like, “Well, that will never work, but that’ll work.”

You’re the advisor to both sides?
I don’t know if I’m an advisor to both sides, but I’m certainly a confidante to both sides.

With your special effects and makeup skills you could probably put a decisive end to this, couldn’t you?
If I answer that, all targets will be on me. I will tell you that Steven [Yeun] is up there, too. He’s right up there with some pretty f–king great s–t.

There should be a video documenting the history of these pranks.
You know, we do need to do that, as a matter of fact. Norman and I talked last night about a particular idea.

Related: ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ Cast Shares Their Ideas on Surviving, Dying, and Pranking in the Zombie Apocalypse

In another TWD moment this summer, we found out the house used as the Grimes family home in Season 1 is for sale. Do you have any special memories from that location? It was the spot where Rick and Morgan’s friendship began.
It was. Yeah, I’m a very nostalgic guy. Every time I drive up to Atlanta or any time I go past somewhere that we shot, I feel a connection to these places. I feel like part of me is there forever. I will never forget standing in the middle of the road and shooting in that neighborhood. I think one of our first zombies we shot in that neighborhood, when Rick sees the zombie and is waving him down, and then Morgan knocks him out. I remember sitting under the trees in the park across the street and talking to the guy about his zombie walk. I remember being outside of all those houses, and we had a couple of zombies that we wanted barefoot, and then realizing that those poor people’s feet were going to bake to the road because it was so hot.

You’re doing the Walker Stalker Cruise again this year. What is the experience of being on a cruise ship with thousands of Walking Dead fans like?
I had a really good time. I would say the first night was probably the most challenging, because Norman and I did our panel at 11 o’clock at night on the back deck with 2,000 people. People sending shots of tequila on stage… and I think I learned my lesson that night. It was really fun. For the most part, our fans are so respectful, and they’re really happy to say hello and tell you how much they love the show, and they respect your work and admire your work. We had a really good time.

This year it’s you, Norman, Michael Cudlitz, Tom Payne, Michael Traynor, and Chandler Riggs, as well, right?
Yeah. I think we need some girls. I’m not sure who else is going, but I think we need some girls.

The Walking Dead Season 7 premieres Oct. 23 at 9 p.m. on AMC.