At this point (depending on when you're reading this, of course), there are mere days or hours left until we find out who Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) kills on the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. It's the end of a long journey not just for the fans, but for the behind-the-scenes creators like effects guru and director of the premiere, Greg Nicotero.
As painful as it's been for watchers to theorize about who will die (is it Glenn? Maggie? Abraham? Everyone???), in certain ways it's been harder behind the scenes. From filming the gruesome death scene, to having fans hammer the cast and crew with angry questions for months, it's been a long road to Sunday's premiere.
In advance of the sure to be divisive broadcast, TVGuide.com hopped on the phone with Nicotero to discuss the secrecy surrounding the episode, what to expect in Season 7, and the one big character to look out for.
We're almost at the finish line, Greg! What has it been like talking about this nonstop for months?
Greg Nicotero: You know we haven't been able to talk about anything! That's been the most frustrating thing is, being on the phone, wanting to talk about the show and knowing where the show is going; but also knowing that out of respect for the fans, we don't want to spoil anything. We want them to experience the episode the way it needs to be experienced. We're just like, "Oh my god, thank god, as of Monday the 24th we will actually be able to talk about the show again in specifics," as opposed to dancing around a little bit.
After the season finale you guys talked about how the reason you ended with the Negan cliffhanger was that was it was the end of one story, and the death is really the beginning of another. So what is the story that you're heading towards?
Nicotero: We made it pretty clear in the finale last year that a lot of it was about Rick. He started Episode 16 so confident, in Alexandria when they're getting ready to take Maggie to the Hilltop. Gabriel and Spencer say, "So if they want to make a deal? Should we talk to them?" And Rick turns to them and says, "If they want to make a deal, they gotta talk to me." So he goes from supremely confident, to being completely subjugated under Negan's thumb.
It's the first time we've ever seen Rick Grimes scared in the entire series. From Episode 1 onwards, he's always been in control. He's never been on his knees in front of anybody. Leaving the finale, seeing there is fear on Rick's face and he is totally incapable of doing anything to stop what's about to happen... is absolutely devastating. Not just Rick, but everybody in that lineup! Everybody there, their power has been completely taken away — and they're all powerful people.
Daryl, and Sasha, and Glenn, and Abraham and Aaron. Even Carl! They're all survivors and they've all basically been reduced to subservience. So how that affects the survivors is what drives the first half of our season.
The Season 7 premiere scene that was shown off is almost an encapsulation of that idea... Immediately after the kill, Rick tells Negan to his face, "I'm going to kill you," followed by Negan dragging him like a little child into his trailer. What were you trying to get across when directing that scene?
Nicotero: I think it's all there. Even though at the end of 16, Rick has been broken... He's still defiant. He's still arrogant, cocky. He looks at Negan and says, "Not today, not tomorrow. But I will kill you."
Negan has spent most of the last episode explaining how he works! He's like, "listen guys. This is the way it goes. I meet a new group of people. I usually pop one of you so that everybody else knows I mean business. And then we can move on. We can get the unpleasantries out of the way."
So when Rick responds to him with, "Oh by the way, I'm going to kill you..." Clearly, Negan's show didn't have the desired effect on Rick. So Negan's got a lot more work to do.
We've been speculating that what happens in the comics with Rick's hand is going to happen on screen. Years ago, you talked about how cutting off a hand like that would be challenging from a technical standpoint. Do you feel like that's a technique that you guys have, let's say... mastered to at this point?
Nicotero: I would say that we've mastered that. With Hershel's leg it was easy because you could frame it out. But with a hand — With Michael Rooker, when we had Merle, we had to build that elaborate arm prosthetic, just to hide his hand. We revealed it a couple of times. With techniques today... it could be done.
So we should start worrying about Rick's hand?
Nicotero: Well... I would just say from a technical aspect it could be done. I'm not saying to worry, or not worry. [Laughs]
Let's talk about the title of the episode, "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be." That's a reference to what Edwin Jenner told Rick back at the CDC, way back in Season 1, after he saved Rick's life. Why was it important to bring that quote back for the title of this episode?
Nicotero: It really lends itself to the basis of who we are, and when do we stop becoming who we are. If the fight is taken out of us... If we decide to give up, or allow ourselves to be ruled by someone else does that change who we are? And how we handle that and how we stomach it, or accept it. There was a lot of thought put into that.
But we shouldn't necessarily be looking for links back to the CDC, or anything like that; it's more of a thematic idea?
Nicotero: Yes. I would say so.
We recently did a rundown of all the episodes you've directed, and tonally they ranged from Tyreese's moody death, to more action packed epics like the Season 6 premiere... Where was your focus directing this one?
Nicotero: This episode was so much more about the raw emotion. I think the closest I would say would probably be the first episode that I directed in Season 2, with Jeffrey DeMunn's death. There was so much raw emotion and power in that. When they're sitting in that room, talking about Randall, whether they should let him live or die, and it becomes that tribunal... Everybody in the whole cast at that point was in that room, weighing in on what they believed was the potential future of humanity.
This is probably the closest to that execution, because it was important to me that we really understood the emotion of it. The script had very specific point of views written into it so that when you're watching the episode and you see who Negan kills, you're seeing it from one or two characters' perspectives only. Scott really loves to put the audience into the perspective of the characters. That's why we ended last season in that close up.
In the first episode, given that we've seen that clip already with Rick and Negan... A lot of it is going to play out in his perspective. And to me, that's always interesting. It's also challenging, because you need to get into other people's heads as well to be able to experience grief, and sorrow, and fear. So it was a very, very difficult episode to wrap my head around when I got the script because of those perspectives, and how the events play out.
We left on the victim's perspective — whoever it is — at the end of last season. In the premiere, are we shifting to Rick's perspective, or is it still multiple perspectives for the episode?
Nicotero: It's still multiple perspectives, but I can say Rick is the primary. We start in that extreme close up of him on the Season 7 sneak peek. We're right into it, in his eyes, and into Negan's eyes. We're right there. We don't cut wide. You're there, listening in to what they're saying. That's the way Rick's perspective is tremendously important.
Before I let you go, one character that we actually have seen quite a bit of is Dwight... He certainly seems like a character to watch going forward, so what can you tease about him?
Nicotero: I think your assessment is 100-percent accurate. I think having seen what Dwight was capable of last year, and the fact that he was the one that grabbed Rosita, and Daryl and Glenn and Michonne, and brought them to this clearing shows that he's not a good dude. He's higher up in Negan's hierarchy. I think we're going to see a lot of him, for sure.
The Walking Dead returns to AMC on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 9/8c.