“The Walking Dead’s” Greg Nicotero isn’t just the show’s wizard of blood, gore, goo and walkers.
The Executive Producer also steps in to direct the show on occasion, including several pivotal episodes from last season – including the Season 4 opener, “30 Days Without an Accident.”
Season 4 just dropped on DVD and limited edition Blu-Ray (with a spooky tree walker case), and to promote the release, Greg took time away from working on Season 5 (and texting “Simpsons” quotes to showrunner Scott Gimple) to share stories from behind the scenes with AccessHollywood.com.
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AccessHollywood.com: The show was in your hands a couple of times last season as a director. Which one was actually the hardest one for you to do, from a director perspective, in Season 4?
Greg Nicotero: They were all different, which was kind of fascinating about it. The first episode, which was called ’30 Days Without An Accident,’ was challenging because we had the biggest effects sequence that we had ever done, which was the zombies raining through the broken ceiling and the helicopter crashing down on top of our people. That sequence came as a direct result of a conversation that Scott and I had about Season 3, where we said, ‘Listen… the threat of the walkers needs to remain relevant.’ In Season 3, by the end, it seemed like people moved very easily between Woodbury and the prison and the zombies really felt like less of a threat, so Scott and I had a conversation about that and then I got the script for the first episode and it literally had this elaborate sequence where we put our heroes instantaneously in the middle of a zombie herd, and that was really challenging.
We had three days to shoot that scene, and I storyboarded every single shot and went with visual effects and practical effects and we were dropping dummies through the ceiling and it was quite an elaborate sequence and I was really proud of that. But you couple that with the quiet moments of Rick meeting Clara in the woods, and then talking about the things that we’re able to come back from, the things that we do, so you go from a great, fantastic [walker] scene to this really intimate moment where she can’t go on and she kills herself and Rick is kneeling next to her, listening to her whisper how her life ended, so I just love [that] our show gives you those moments. So that was a tremendously challenging episode.
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And then, Episode 9, which I directed, was probably the closest adaptations to one of the comic books that we’d ever done, you know, when they leave the prison and Carl is with Rick who is on death’s doorstep, after having been beaten by The Governor, [and it] brings Carl into a whole different light, where he has to discuss with his unconscious father that he doesn’t need him alive anymore. … And then of course, Episode 15, it was really about setting up the finale, the reuniting of Glenn and Maggie, the Darryl seduction by the group of claimers, so each one of those episodes was vastly different and challenged me in different ways.
Access: Fun question: who got to keep Hershels head?
Greg: That would be me. Matter of fact, when we did the episode, we had done a life cast of Scott and I made a second head, which I gave him. I didn’t give him the chopped up gory version. We had it with the shoulders on and it’s made out of silicone and it has glass eyes, and all the hair is touched in, individually, one and at a time, so I gave one of them to him, because I thought he would want one.
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When we lose characters on the show, it’s really a horrific moment. I’ve been on the phone when [Scott Gimple’s] been pitching episodes and he’ll get to the point where he’ll say, ‘And this is when Michonne kills The Governor.’ I’m like, ‘Yes! Finally. He’s such a despicable character. I want to see him get his due.’ [And Scott goes], ‘And right before that, he kills Hershel.’ And you sit there going, ‘How can I talk him out of it? How can I talk him out of killing off this great character?’ And sadly, you step back after five minutes of digesting it and you go, ‘Well, it serves the story.’ None of our character deaths are done really for shock value. They’re done because they serve the story. In Season 4, the entire season is really about Hershel bringing Rick back from the brink and teaching him that what’s most important is the future of his children. So Hershel teaches Rick to put down his gun, and to learn how to be a provider for his kids and Hershel’s death propels Rick into this much darker place where he almost dies and then in the interim becomes this savage personality. But, you asked me a very light question and I just went to that dark place again.
Access: I interviewed Scott [Wilson] the morning after that episode aired – he’s so nice and genuine and I know how much people on the cast not just love him, but really respect him and admire him.
Greg: Scott’s the kind of actor, who, you shoot a scene – he would show up on set, even when he wasn’t shooting, just to watch and when I directed him, there was a scene in the first episode of Season 4, where he gives the watch back to Rick — I can’t remember the exact moment, but it was something where later, he pulled me aside and said, ‘You directed the scene where Glenn gave me the watch, so it’s come full circle.’ And he’s so smart about that stuff and you know, he would walk up to you and go, ‘I was watching you direct that scene last week and damn, if you didn’t get a great performance out of that person,’ or, ‘Wow, you just brought it to a different place.’ So Scott is… his global view of the people around him is really fascinating to me because he really loves what he does and I had dinner with him about two weeks ago, and we sat down at the table and we were drinking some wine and kind of bullsh**ing and it’s like, what shows do you, where a year after that character has been killed off, that you still miss them that much. I saw Jon Bernthal and Sarah [Wayne] Callies at Comic-Con and we all got together and had a glass of wine and drank it. [Actors], when they leave our show, they leave a hole and it’s hard to fill those spaces with new and different characters because you feel that loss, and with Scott, it wasn’t just the loss of Hershel, it really was the loss of Scott Wilson too.
Access: Does that make you want to think more about flashbacks or visions as you’re looking at Season 5?
Greg: Well, listen, it’s a device. I love that device, because I like being able to go back and play with those characters again. So, it’s certainly something that our show can do and it can do it well and this season finale last year, we [got] to see Rick and Hershel on the farm again and you [got] to see the beginning of Hershel’s efforts to transform Rick and it’s great and I love those moments and I love having a chance to see Hershel again. A really funny story… when that episode where Hershel aired last year, the weekend after Thanksgiving, Scott and his wife had come to my house for Thanksgiving dinner and there were 20 or 25 people there. Scott was sitting next to me and at one point, somebody had said something about the ‘Talking Dead,’ and I said, ‘Oh, I think Scott’s gonna be on Sunday night’s episode,’ and he kind of just slowly looked at me, and then slowly looked away and I knew that what I said didn’t give anything away, but it sort of reminded me, like, ‘Oh, that’s the episode where he dies.’ So, of course, on that Sunday night, when he got killed, my two kids and my wife looked at me and they’re like, ‘He was just at our table on Thursday! How could you not have told us?’ They were originally upset at me that I hadn’t told them that he was dying.’