SPOILER ALERT: Storyline and character spoilers ahead for the “Last Day on Earth” episode of The Walking Dead.
Don’t feel so bad that you’re still in the dark about the big casualty in Sunday’s Season 6 finale, little Walking Dead buckaroos… TWD executive producer and finale director Greg Nicotero won’t even share the victim’s identity with his mom. And, you know, he kinda owes her…
“She pulled the mom card,” Nicotero tells Yahoo TV. “I got a phone call from my parents this morning, and my mom first of all insisted that I tell her who died. Second of all, she told me that she had nightmares all night about it, so… good, and I’m sorry, both at the same time.”
Nicotero confirms he’ll be the director for the Season 7 premiere next fall, the episode that will answer that finale cliffhanger about whose head met Negan’s barbed wire-covered bat, Lucille. So, frustrated though many fans are about having to wait six months to find out which beloved member of Rick’s group was killed in the finale, Nicotero promises they won’t be disappointed in the direction the story takes next season.
The show’s special effects whiz, who has directed the season premiere and finale episodes of TWD for Seasons 5 and 6, also talked to Yahoo TV about his view on cliffhangers, and why this one was the right way to end Season 6, filming the introduction of “rock star” Negan, how the Season 7 premiere will start, and which scene from the finale makes him tear up every time he sees it.
The cliffhanger ending has frustrated some fans, coming at the end of what was an incredibly intense, emotional episode. What do you think about that?
I remember growing up and sitting in the theater and watching The Empire Strikes Back and having Darth Vader say, “I’m your father.” My mind was completely blown. I had to wait two years until I got a chance to see how that story played out, but I wasn’t angry… I was exhilarated that the story was taking a new direction. We have an obligation on The Walking Dead to keep this story moving. I really feel that this ending was the quintessential ending to Season 6, which showed a lot our characters, especially Rick, making that transition in episode nine to be the guy who is going to lead this entire community to survive. Then watching it stripped away bit by bit at the end. The cavalry’s not coming over the hill. This is the first time that we’ve ever seen Rick and his entire group in this situation, where they’re utterly, utterly helpless. It’s just emotionally gut-wrenching.
I think it would have done the show a disservice to end the season with a character death, because as we’ve proven on the show over and over again, when characters die, it changes everyone. When Tyrese died, when Beth died, when Lori died, when Shane died, when Herschel died, those deaths changed our characters, and to end the show where we’re in mid-emotion, I think, would do a disservice to our story.
There’s no scene, no character intro that’s been more anticipated on the show than Negan’s debut. You really did build the drama up going into that final scene… it was the emotional equivalent of a horror movie. How did you approach that differently than you would any other episode or key scene?
One of the things was, as the episode progresses, visually, the story that I wanted to tell was that the world was getting smaller and smaller. If you notice the scenes inside the RV, you notice that by the time they come across the third roadblock, the camera angles got tighter and tighter. I really wanted to sell the idea that it was claustrophobic, and that they were feeling boxed in. In the first scene when they’re on the road, it’s like, “Oh, you should treat your people like it’s their last day on Earth,” and I have these very big wide shots that show sort of a western town, and the standoff between the good guys and the bad guys. Then after that, I really wanted to stay inside the RV with our people. We’re looking out the front windshield, and they’re not out in the world anymore. The world is not a safe place for them. They’re being herded into a smaller and smaller area. The last time that we have a confrontation, the shots on them inside the RV are close-ups of each character.
Then when you get to the scene with Negan, the pressure was on for me, because everybody’s been waiting for this moment and to introduce the character in that way. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, that guy took the stage in front of 300 people. He had every actor in the show, virtually, on their knees in front of him. We had 120 extras. We had the crew. And he’s a fan of the show; he was excited about it and a little nervous about it.
I set it up so that, on the first night of shooting, I filmed all of the reactions of all of our heroes, and the second night I turned the cameras around and shot Jeffrey. I think I had five cameras, because we had a lot of footage that we had to cover. I wanted to make sure that you checked in with every single person. I didn’t want to feel like I didn’t know what Rosita was feeling, I didn’t know what Sasha was feeling, I didn’t know what Carl was feeling. I had to make sure that we had coverage of every single one of those actors to see them going through this emotional degradation and being reduced to just a shell of who they are. They’re all warriors. They’re all strong characters, and [we] watch them just strip to nothing… [The actors] were just devastated. They were all crying by the end of the first night, knowing that on night two we had to get back into it and go to that emotionally dark place again. That’s pretty astounding work that our actors did.
There are also all these different emotions going on, because while they’re devastated, Negan stepping out of that RV felt like a rock star taking the stage.
He is. He is a rock star. Negan is doing this… that’s how he keeps his people in line. He’s not that much different than Rick. He’s like, “Listen, here are our rules, I kill one of you, and then we start talking.” He’s very clear about things. “By the way, I don’t want to have to kill one of you, because I need you working for me, but these are my rules of life,” just like Rick has rules. Rick’s people are dramatic. They raided Negan’s compound and killed guys in their sleep. These guys are both wiling to kill to perpetuate their way of life. Negan’s way of life is just different than Rick’s, but they both have done these bad things.
Scott Gimple said the plan is to pick up roughly where we left off for Season 7. Do you have to build the intensity up again, to the point it was at at the end of “Last Day on Earth,” before we find out who dies?
I would imagine that picking up where we left off, that we do have to get everybody to that same place. Then of course, the thing about the “Eenie, meenie, miney, moe” is the execution of it. We specifically edited that sequence so the cuts get quicker and quicker and quicker, so you can see the bat in front of everybody. It really is to put the audience in that mindset of, “Who’s it going to be?” Because [the actors] don’t know who it’s going to be, either. We really wanted to preserve that emotion.
I think I’m pretty safe to say that it’s going to go from terror to shock and fear and anger. It’s one of those moments that people will remember. I sat next to Robert Kirkman and Steven Yeun when I read issue 100 of the comics, and it haunted me for months, just how horribly senseless and tragic that moment felt. It doesn’t really matter who it was; it’s the fact that it just happened, and nobody has an opportunity to raise a finger to stop it. That’s the agonizing part of it.
What was your favorite part of the episode?
The scene that I actually cried at when I was editing it is the scene with Abraham and Eugene. When Eugene embraces Abraham… I get choked up every time I watch that scene, because that emotion is so true. Michael [Cudlitz] and Josh [McDermitt] and I were working very hard to make that scene sing the way it needed to sing. I honestly didn’t feel that it was a set up to, “Oh, Eugene’s driving off to his death now.” It wasn’t that. It was that these two men have come to appreciate who each other is. I’ll tell you, the shot of Josh sitting in the seat of the RV, taking a deep breath, and then that little smile as he drives the RV away… it’s what Eugene has wanted all of his life, which is to be brave and to be a soldier and to step up and defy what everybody thinks of him. Because if you think about it, just as recently as [the midseason premiere] episode, Rosita said, “Dude, who are you kidding? You’re not that guy.” Not only did he earn this, but, it’s the fact that it was recognized. As Rick says right before that, “Thank you for this. Thank you for everything.” Rick says to him, you mean something to us. Then the follow up with Abraham.
What would you say to fans who are trying to wrap their heads around the cliffhanger throughout the summer?
I would say to them that we stand behind our storytelling format, and that they will not be disappointed in the direction of The Walking Dead. Again, I loved The Empire Strikes Back. “This is amazing. I love it. What’s going to happen next?“ I don’t remember being like, "George Lucas is a hack.” Nobody ever f—ing said that. Nobody was pissed. I read the James Bond novels when I was a kid, and James Bond died again in every book, and at the beginning of the next book it was like, “Oh, thank God he got out of that one.” It’s a thrilling way to tell a story. People have to wait a little while, but, I love Game of Thrones, and I have had to wait to find out if Jon Snow’s really dead or not. I wasn’t angry. I was excited and thrilled that the story was taking a new turn. I was excited to see where it was taking me. That’s what you want out of storytelling.
The Walking Dead will return in the fall on AMC.