“The Walking Dead” is back and bigger than ever in season six. The season premiere saw Rick (Andrew Lincoln) formulate a plan to dispatch a captive walker horde he saw as a threat to the peaceful Alexandria safe zone, only to have that scheme backfire spectacularly in the episode’s closing seconds. Now the entire horde is headed right for Alexandria, with the residents hardly prepared to defend themselves.
The latest premiere episode of AMC’s post-apocalyptic drama was written by showrunner Scott M. Gimple and Matthew Negrete and directed by exec producer Greg Nicotero. Variety spoke with Nicotero about staging those huge action scenes, introducing Lennie James’ Morgan to Melissa McBride’s (undercover) Carol, how Rick has become everything Shane said he never could and what’s ahead in what Nicotero describes as the biggest “Walking Dead” season yet.
This episode has some really massive set pieces; some of the biggest you’ve ever done. Was this the most walkers we’ve ever seen in an episode?
Without a doubt. Even in terms of the practical execution, I think we did almost 1,000 characters in makeup. For me, it was the 13th episode I had directed. Every episode I try to do something a little different. Alexandria had been portrayed as a safe haven, an island in the middle of this insane world of threats, so being able to use a drone to shoot the last shot of the episode or making the world seem so much bigger makes the safe haven of Alexandria that much more of an important oasis to protect. We also had shifting timelines, so shooting the episode was a Rubik’s Cube of action sequences and making sure the drama, emotions and relationships sell. If you don’t have great characters you care about, it doesn’t matter what the threat is. Then we had this big action scene that I treated like it was a $100 million movie. It was fun.
Did you get any extra time to shoot the episode?
The script was so big. I want to say we shot 12 days, I know we doubled up on the last day with episode two. Usually the season premieres are nine days. Maybe we had 11. Eleven days to shoot that was ridiculous. I keep thinking when I direct my first feature I’ll be done in three days, I’m so used to that pace.
What prompted the decision to shoot the flashbacks in black-and-white? And did you shoot with black-and-white film or was it converted later?
We did not film in black-and-white, no. But we wanted to make sure there was a visual callback to the flashbacks versus the present day footage. It was something that was very important to us. We had done a couple of tests, including one where we de-saturated the flashbacks and over-saturated the present day action but it didn’t work. Our show is not over-saturated to begin with, so it sort of ends up looking like “The Wizard of Oz.” It was too vibrant. In a world where everything is supposed to be dead, we didn’t want to add that level of detail. The black-and-white fit perfectly with our storytelling.
I remember AMC aired black-and-white versions of the early episodes too. It’s a really cool look for the show.
If you really go back to the beginning, you think about “Night of the Living Dead.” Part of what was so groundbreaking about that movie was it was an accident. They did it in black-and-white because they didn’t have the money to do it in color, but it had that great contrast-y (look) — the blacks were really black and the whites were burned out. We like harkening back to that “Night of the Living Dead” world. And also, we have a graphic novel that we deal with all the time.
You helped reintroduce Lennie James as Morgan in the season 5 finale. What was it like to have him firmly back in the mix and meeting people he’s never met like Carol?
Lennie is a great actor. I really do attribute part of the success of the pilot to Lennie’s performance. The raw emotion you felt when he had his gun pointed at his dead wife was so powerful. We’ve been trying to work around his schedule, and our schedule, to try to find the perfect way to reintroduce Morgan to the show, and it worked out very well. He’s a great addition. When he came back he was like, “Guys I was only here for two episodes. I don’t know why you’re so insistent on having me back.” But now that he’s back he’s like, “Guys, this is a great job, I love it.” There’s so much great story. I love the scene with Morgan and Carol where he goes, “Are you a cop?” and she smiles and looks at him. It’s a crack in her armor that he completely accidentally bumps into, which is going to be something that we’ll see more of as the season progresses.
How long will Carol keep up that undercover act? I assume there’s going to be a big payoff?
Yes. Listen, the cool thing about this season is that, whereas a lot of shows come out and the first episode is really big and then they take a breath and have a couple of smaller episodes, this season doesn’t stop. It’s relentless in terms of the sheer volume of storytelling and visual spectacle. We’re in the middle of shooting episode 13 right now and we still haven’t caught our breath from back in May.
Would you say Season 6 is the biggest season to date?
Without a doubt: exponentially bigger. I’ve owned my own makeup effects company since 1988 and one of the reasons I attribute for the success of my company is people come to us with more and more outrageous effects for us to try to figure out and we kept doing it. It’s amazing to me we keep challenging ourselves and upping our game every season. I attribute a tremendous amount of that to Scott Gimple’s respect for the genre and his respect for the show. He was a fan of season one before he even joined the show and I think that’s critical.
It also sounds like a reflection of the show’s success. Being the biggest draw on cable must set expectations for the action to be bigger than anything else out there.
It is and it really does take its toll on us. But the truth of the matter is we wouldn’t have it any other way. We’d never want to just rest on our laurels. The first episode is bold in its storytelling — we’re jumping around in time and we have a lot of story. The way Andy Lincoln and I describe it is the first episode is loading the crossbow, pulling the string back and letting go at the last second. And then the next several episodes are just traveling on this bullet ride we’ve started in this episode.
This feels like a perennial question, but should the group be worried about Rick’s mental state at this point?
I think you have to worry about everybody’s mental state. Look at Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). Look at Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green). Each one of them deals with this world in a different way. The thing I’ve been talking about lately is I feel like Rick has become Shane (Jon Bernthal). In Season 2, Shane basically told Rick, “You don’t have it in you to keep the group safe, and I do.” That’s what their entire conflict was about. Now you look at Rick and he became the exact person Shane said he could never become: He’s willing to do anything to protect his people. To me it’s a fascinating piece of storytelling that took four years to get around to realizing. He became that guy.
At the same time he did come up with this elaborate plan that looks like it will put everyone at risk.
He also says, “They’re probably not going to make it. Don’t put yourself out for them, keep your eyes on each other.” So much of this season is not just about surviving, it’s not just about day to day, it’s about what happens next week and what happens next month. Alexandria has given them an opportunity to not just survive but live, to raise their children and to have lives. I think that’s really part of what took Rick over the edge. All of a sudden something short-circuited. He was like, “Wait a minute, people have lived here untouched for the last year in a half?” But when we discover the walkers in the quarry it’s like, “Oh, if that quarry wasn’t there these people would be dead just like everybody else.” It’s just a matter of time.
Now that Morgan’s in the mix, could he challenge Rick for leadership? Or is that not something he’d be interested in?
I don’t know if Morgan would challenge him for leadership, but I think Morgan will challenge his ideology. In the last episode of last season he said, “All life is precious.” Morgan has a different mindset. I don’t think he’s gonna be down with Rick’s, “It’s us or them and I’d rather it be them.”
If Alexandria falls, what would that do to the group? Where could they go next? It seems like they’ve tried everything at this point.
Yeah … you’ll just have to wait and see. Alexandria has been set up as a place that’s fortunate to survive, but you never know.
One thing that’s changed since last season’s finale is the launch of “Fear the Walking Dead.” How much attention do you have to pay to their storylines and make sure there are no wires being crossed?
That was never a concern mainly because “Fear the Walking Dead” is a different time and a different location. The storylines will never cross over. What’s interesting to me is there’s a whole world of stories to tell. There are people in Washington D.C., people in New York, people in every other city having similar struggles. “Fear the Walking Dead” explored what that would look like in a different time frame. It’s something we discovered very early on when we did the first set of webisodes for “Walking Dead.” We had 12 million viewers watching the webisodes. There’s a lot of story to tell, a lot of locations and a lot of great characters out there.
“The Walking Dead” airs 9 p.m. Sundays on AMC.