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The Walking Dead's Greg Nicotero Breaks Down Season 7

The effects whiz and season finale director explains some behind-the-scenes decisions from Season 7

Liam Mathews

The Walking Dead completed its seventh season Sunday night with "The First Day of the Rest of Your Life." The episode kicked off the war between Rick Grimes and his allies and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his followers and gave a satisfying death to Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), who killed herself rather than become a pawn in Negan's plan to dominate her friends.

The episode was directed by Greg Nicotero, The Walking Dead's executive producer and special effects mastermind. He directed five of the season's 16 episodes, including the season and midseason premieres. TVGuide.com reflected on Season 7 with Nicotero and got a little info on what's to come in Season 8.

Sonequa Martin-Green, Lauren Cohan and Greg Nicotero, The Walking Dead

Sonequa Martin-Green, Lauren Cohan and Greg Nicotero, The Walking Dead

Gene Page/AMC

How does it feel seeing the reception of the Season 7 finale versus the Season 6 finale? People are happier with this one than they were with that one. Does that feel good, or does it not really affect you either way?
Greg Nicotero: I was happy with the episode last year. I really enjoyed shooting that episode and I really felt like we accomplished what we needed to do to set Negan up for season 7. Every season finale is different. Traditionally, we try to keep the tone different. We don't want to do the same thing over and over again. As far as I'm concerned, this was a fun season finale to do because our core cast, the people that have been the bedrock of the show since the beginning, all had a chance to play off of each other. So to see Andy [Lincoln] and Norman [Reedus] and Melissa and Lauren Cohan, our core group of people, is rewarding and satisfying. That's when the show fires on all cylinders.

There wasn't a lot of walker stuff in the episode, which was fine, because that wasn't really what it was about. But I loved that we were able to pay tribute to previous episodes. Maggie's speech talked about when Rick met Glenn (Steven Yeun) and she's holding Hershel's (Scott Wilson) watch, Abraham is talking about the events prior to last year's season finale. So it really did sort of reaffirm the groundwork for the show, subtly and in some cases not so subtly, reminding people of the journey that they're on and why they started it. A lot of it is done through Maggie's voiceover about Glenn.

I appreciated that there was a sense of history in this episode.
Nicotero: Even when Maggie and Sasha were sitting together on the log looking at the sunrise, that is a direct callback to the morning after the tornado when they were all trapped in the barn and they were at their absolute worst. And they made through the night, and the next morning Sasha and Maggie are watching the sun come up, and that's when they meet Aaron (Ross Marquand) and their world changes. There was even a little bit of that in there, in terms of what's to come.

What's an emotional moment you directed this season that you're especially proud of?
Nicotero: There are so many great bits that I was able to capture that I'm really proud of. I love the chemistry between Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) in episode 12 when they're out scavenging and fighting at the carnival. That was a beautiful sequence with some great chemistry between those two great actors. I dig the sequences that I shot between Melissa and Lennie [James] in episode 2 when Melissa meets Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and Shiva for the first time. And of course anything Sonequa does is gold. She's a woman of grace. She's a woman of character and strength and beauty. She did an astonishing piece of work in this episode. There are a lot great moments that I can look back on and say that I'm proud of them.

What's an effect you did this season that you're proud of?
Nicotero: One of the most rewarding moments and one of the most fun to conceptualize and shoot was the clothesline sequence in episode 9 when Rick and Michonne drive the cars forward and slash through the walkers on the freeway. I had a great time shooting that.

The Walking Dead: Was That the Greatest Walker Death Scene the Show Has Ever Done?

There was some discrepancy about the violence in Season 7B. Gale Ann Hurd said the violence had been toned down and you and Scott Gimple said it wasn't. But it did feel like there were times when things that would have been shown before weren't, like Morgan killing Richard or Rick and the junkyard zombie, where Andrew Lincoln told me about decapitation, which wasn't really seen. So my question is, again, was the violence toned down, and if it wasn't why did it feel different?
Nicotero: It wasn't. The violence in our show has a very specific role. In the first episode seeing what Rick and the rest of our heroes witness and feeling like you were in the lineup with Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Glenn when they were killed, it just solidified the brutality that man can inflict on other human beings. But stylistically as we got into the second half of the season, it was a tonal choice. The moment where Morgan is killing Richard (Karl Makinen), we saw shots of Karl being choked by Lennie, but that moment is really about what that does to Morgan's character. It's not even so much about the act of it as it is about the fact that Morgan has now been significantly damaged by the acts of Richard. And in terms of the walker in the pit, that was scripted that way. That's a zombie being decapitated. We've done that a billion times. But it's a stylistic choice. In last night's episode when Maggie kills the Sasha walker, I personally didn't feel that there was value in seeing her stab Sasha in the head with the knife. That wasn't what that moment was about. That moment wasn't about the futility and the violence and the senselessness of it. That moment was about Maggie's grief and wanting to do the right thing and putting Sasha, who had done this to protect her friends.

In some instances, seeing these kills on-screen is important to the story, and in some instances it's not. Like seeing Fat Joey killed by Daryl was not a moment that needed to be seen on-screen, because it wasn't about Fat Joey. It was about Daryl's rage. I think that might have been where some of this debate came up, because the actor had said, "We shot all this stuff and it didn't make the episode." We do that all the time. There's plenty of times when we shoot scenes that get cut out or reactions that don't end up in the episode. It has nothing to do with anything other than the fact that it was about Daryl in that moment.

We didn't need to see Sasha get stabbed. That was a good choice.
Nicotero: I will tell you honestly, I don't even recall if it was stipulated in the script that we not see her face, but when I read it and I imagined it, I never imagined ever seeing her face. So as we cut throughout the entire sequence, I'm like, "We're never going to see her face. We'll be behind her, we'll see her walk towards us, we'll see her hair and her clothing and we'll know that it's her, but I don't need to see her face. That moment is not what it's about.

It's important that we understand as filmmakers those particular moments, because we want people's emotions to be in tune with our intent. It was a beautiful moment for Maggie. That's just how we felt the story needed to end.

The Walking Dead: Sasha's Death Hit All the Right Notes

Can you give a little preview of what the tone is going to be in Season 8A?
Nicotero: Not really (laughs). We haven't started yet. We're starting pre-production shortly. I think the idea that Negan says, "We're going to war" and we see Rick and Ezekiel and Maggie holding court, we know plans are being made, we know shots have been fired. It's pretty safe to say that things are not going to mellow out. We've never been in a situation like this on the show. We've never had factions go to war in such a big and dramatic fashion. Exciting times to come, for sure.