Director Greg Nicotero On Rick And Michonne, Daryl Dixon Spinoff


Though no one person is responsible for the massive success of The Walking Dead, there’s one man that it arguably wouldn’t be successful without: Greg Nicotero, the effects guru who has grown to become a producer, executive producer, and director on some of the most iconic episodes of the series. That includes the just aired series finale of The Walking Dead, “Rest in Peace”, from a story by showrunner and EP Angela Kang, and written by Corey Reed and Jim Barnes.

“When it came time to get into the finale, I couldn’t imagine anyone else taking us out,” Nicotero told Decider. “It gave me an opportunity to really say thank you to the viewers, and honor every single actor and every single character and every single crew member, by just putting my whole heart and soul into making sure that the episode delivered what we needed it to deliver.”

Spoilers past this point, but what this episode delivered was a conclusion to Season 11’s conflict with The Commonwealth thanks to the epic destruction of the communities high end neighborhood, The Estates. And perhaps more relevant to fans, it also included the surprise return of Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Danai Gurira as Michonne in a coda that caught up with the characters from where we last left them.

And not only that, but the episode served double duty as a series finale, and a tee off for three very different spinoff series: The Walking Dead: Dead City, which transports Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to New York; a series focusing on the reunion of Rick and Michonne; and one that takes Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) to Paris, which is what Nicotero is deep in work on right now.

To find out more about crafting the finale, the return of Rick and Michonne, as well as a little bit about the Daryl Dixon spinoff, read on. And be sure to check out our breakdown of the finale with showrunner Angela Kang, as well.

Decider: The Walking Dead completely changed the direction of your life, you’ve been with it since the very beginning. What was it like bringing it home here with this final episode?

Greg Nicotero: Well, I have to tell you: in my office, I have a frame, two framed call sheets. The first call sheet is day one, Frank Darabont on set in 2010. And then the second call sheet is the last day of shooting on the finale with my call sheet next to Frank’s. My entire journey over the last 12 years has been about developing these relationships with these actors and this crew. And the fact that I was so instrumental in the beginning because of my relationship with Frank, I always feel like part of my DNA is in The Walking Dead, my pedigree from the work with George Romero and everything that I have done, that when it came time to get into the finale, I couldn’t imagine anyone else taking us out. It gave me an opportunity to really say thank you to the viewers, and honor every single actor and every single character and every single crew member, by just putting my whole heart and soul into making sure that the episode delivered what we needed it to deliver.

There’s a real level of emotion throughout this episode, where it feels like everybody’s leaving everything on the table. When people are legitimately saying goodbye to each other, not just in the plot, but in person… As a director, how do you use that?

Well, it’s funny, because when you shoot an episode like this, we shoot everything out of sequence. So sometimes, somebody’s last scene isn’t the last scene that they have in the episode, but it’s the last scene of people together. I’ll be honest, a lot of it was that we shot 30 episodes in a row for over a year and a half. So when we got to the end, there was some speculation that people might be burned out and some people might be tired or irritable. But the truth is that we all knew we needed to really dig down to make sure that the episode served the purpose that it did. I don’t think it hit any of us, because we had been doing season after season where you wrap an episode, you wrap the season, and you say goodbye to everybody. Like, “I’ll see you in a couple of months and we’ll be back.” I think it felt a little bit like we were just wrapping up another season. We were all kind of in denial, or all in shock, that it was going to be done.

I still haven’t really… I don’t think I’ve grieved the loss of the show yet. We wrapped in April, then we went back in August, and I shot two days with [Andrew Lincoln] and Danai  [Gurira] for the coda. So even when we wrapped in April, I’m like, “Okay, I know, I’m not really done because I have to finish editing the episode.” But I don’t think anybody really wanted to say goodbye. It was that kind of thing on set where there was too much to say. There was too much to say after 12 years to be able to sum it up in a hug, or a handshake or a toast. I don’t think anybody could do that. You can’t sum it up. It’s more about what’s unsaid. And I think probably that’s the best way for me to express it.

Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier - The Walking Dead _ Season 11, Episode 24 - Photo Credit: Jace Downs/AMC
Photo: Jace Downs/AMC

One moment I’ll call out in particular that felt just real was the Daryl and Carol goodbye. It more felt to me like Norman Reedus telling Melissa McBride “I love you” in that scene. What was it like directing that moment?

Those two, the chemistry between Norman and Melissa, they don’t have to say a word to each other. They could literally sit next to each other on a bench in front of the lake for 10 minutes and not say a word and every emotion and every feeling that they’re having just comes out. And I think that’s really what’s important. I loved directing that scene and I love working with those two actors because they’re so intuitive. When we shot it, at one point, we did one take where he gets on [his motorcycle] and he was — I think it’s still in the episode — he was putting his poncho on but it didn’t go on quite right. And Melissa walked over during the take and adjusted it for him as he was getting ready to ride off. It was just such a human moment. And it just spoke volumes to who these two people and these two characters are. It was really great. It was amazing.

The big surprise of the episode is that Rick and Michonne come back in the finale montage. What was involved in getting Andrew and Danai back into character in particular, and shooting the scenes that you did with them?

There had been discussion for several months about Rick making an appearance. And what was important is that we didn’t want Rick Grimes’ appearance to take away from Christian [Serratos]’s moments or the other characters’ moments, we didn’t want it to be like, “Oh, Rick shows up and saves the day,” that wasn’t really the plan. It needed to be a standalone situation. Scott [M. Gimple] and I talked about it and talked about it for a long time, about what it would be.. Andy Lincoln stayed with me for about a week before we shot that and we really dissected the emotion and the elements that we really wanted to tell. Scott wrote the pages, and did a fantastic job. And we shot them in two days. We shot all Danai’s stuff in one day and all Andy’s stuff in one day.

The idea was that the show started with Rick Grimes, and it really needed to end with Rick Grimes. It couldn’t not just leave him getting on a helicopter and disappearing. Because The Walking Dead was about Rick, it was about his journey to protect his family. And by having the opportunity to revisit that — he’s on one end of a fire and Michonne is on the other end of a fire, and their fearless desire to fight to get back to their families, or in Michonne’s case, she’s not going to give up till she finds him. So what fuels both of them in those moments is paying tribute to the people that they love; some that are still with us, and some that have gone. So it really does effectively wrap up what Walking Dead has been about since the beginning, which is survival. What do we do to survive? How do we survive? And how do we move forward with our lives? I think that’s what the coda does, it does give us hope. And in a very unique Walking Dead way, it gives us hope that these two people are still out there and that they have not given up.

cailey fleming in the series finale of the walking dead
Photo: AMC

The final scene is RJ and Judith looking out at the flowers and windmill in the distance. It’s all very Dutch with all those elements. Angela Kang told me that wasn’t meant as the last shot, though it did end up as the last shot. Regardless, I’d love to hear you talk me through composing that image in particular.

Because the coda was written separately and shot separately, when I was directing the episode, it was really about getting Daryl out into the world and then seeing those moments of Judith and RJ, and knowing that it’s the children and it’s the hope for a future that gives us that impetus. So in regards to the way that it was assembled in the final cut, when we were shooting it, we weren’t really sure where the coda was going to end: is it going to be a post credits coda? How was it going to work? So that particular moment with Judith was really intended to leave us with this sense of them looking into the future and knowing that there’s hope out there for them, and that basically everybody that fought through the entire series to keep the children alive and to keep them alive, succeeded in there being a better world.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the destruction of The Estates is pretty epic and feels very Metal, with zombies in flames falling into hell, basically.

[Laughs] I know, I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t help myself on that one. There was a great moment in the script where they’re pouring gasoline down into the sewers. And I remember calling Angela and saying, “Hey, I got an idea. Like, why don’t we just have all the sidewalks explode? And we see all these flaming zombies collapse into the exploded sidewalks and the exploded areas of The Estates?” It had to be big; we’re talking about the last episode of The Walking Dead. All the zombie fight scenes are heightened. Everything about it reminds you what we love about The Walking Dead. So to have that big moment where we literally blow the skin off of the zombies in close up, I loved it. I had such a great time figuring out the visuals of how to just decimate an entire zombie herd in 12, 28 seconds or something.

And correct me if I’m wrong: I believe you made a cameo as one of the walkers again in this episode. I didn’t pick up on it, are you able to give a clue where you popped up?

Oh, I’m in there. You know, it’s funny because a lot of people don’t know. But I was Daryl Dixon’s first walker kill in the series. In Season 3, when the walker is eating the deer and Shane and Dale and everybody find the zombie and they’re beating it, and then the zombie gets decapitated, and then Daryl Dixon enters and shoots his crossbow and shoots the zombie in the eye… That was me. So I kind of thought it would be really fun for me to be the last zombie that Daryl sees in the show, since I was the first zombie that Daryl encountered on screen. Gino Crognale, who was on the show with me for 11 years, during lunch, I had to run to the makeup trailer and get made up as a zombie and then run back, and I directed the second half of the day in zombie makeup just so that we could do that shot.

 - The Walking Dead _ Season 11, Episode 24 - Photo Credit: Jace Downs/AMC
Photo: Jace Downs/AMC

You’ve played a couple of zombies, are they all related? Are they all identical sextuplets or something like that?

No, they all look different. I mean, this was actually the first time I played a zombie where we used my hair. So you probably can notice that when you see the long hair, you’re like, “oh, there’s Greg.” But all the other zombies that I played most of the time I had a bald cap, and I had zombie wigs and was pretty disgusting. A lot of times when you do stuff like that, it all started on the show because it made sense to put makeup effects people in scenes so that they could execute effects. Like when I bit Emma Bell in Episode 4, I was made up as a zombie so that I could make sure that we got one take biting the arm and then biting her neck. A lot of it really was intended to be so that I could actually be there to execute the effect. And then there were other instances where I’m like, “Oh, well, yeah, sure. I’ll be a zombie.” I don’t even know how many times I was a zombie. I don’t think I ever counted. I guess I should do that.

Obviously you do have the spin-offs coming in the future. I’d assume first of all, that you and your team are working on effects. But are we going to see you in any other capacities? Are you going to be directing on any of the other series, for example?

I’ve been in Paris with Norman for the last couple weeks on his show. We did the effects, and I’m a producer on the Negan and Maggie show, and I’m an executive producer on Norman’s show and I’ve been in Paris on set with him every day. David Zabel, the showrunner on that show, he’s an absolute delight to work with and we’re having a great time. Being able to tell The Walking Dead story in post-apocalyptic Europe and seeing sort of Daryl Dixon, a stranger in a strange land. It’s pretty, pretty fantastic.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.





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