On The Walking Dead's grim and gruesome Season 7 premiere, malevolent villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) murdered Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) with his "vampire bat" Lucille as way to send a message that he's serious about making Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and family his subjects.
The episode was hard to watch, both for its barbarous violence and the emotional devastation of watching two beloved characters get savagely beaten until they no longer had anything recognizable as heads. But if it was hard to watch in the comfort of your own home with a cup of tea and a blanket, imagine how hard it must have been for the cast and crew to live it.
"The Day Will Come When You Won't Be" director Greg Nicotero and Negan's first victim Michael Cudlitz talked to reporters on Monday, the day after the premiere, about what it was like to shoot the episode and what it's like to finally be free of the secret they've held for almost a year.
For Nicotero, directing the episode presented twin challenges of managing intensely emotional performances from his actors while also supervising the highly technical, mult-stage makeup effects that made Glenn and Abraham's deaths so visceral.
"That was really the roughest part," he says. "The emotion was there because the actors are so talented and so dialed in and I really feel like Andy Lincoln gave the performance of the series in this episode. As the director, it was sort of up to me to drag some of these people into this deep, dark place. And it was not the most pleasant experience. When we wrapped the episode, I felt as shellshocked as some of the characters.
"The technical part of it, truthfully, for me, I've had 30 years of designing these types of sequences from a technical standpoint. That's one of the things that I bring to The Walking Dead -- the experience to understand and know how to seamlessly integrate the technical aspect."
He recalls directing his first episode of the show back in Season 2, when then-showrunner Frank Darabont gave him a choice between a "zombie-heavy" or a "zombie-light" episode. He went with zombie-light, because that gave him an opportunity to stretch himself and show what he could do with characters. Those two carefully honed sets of skills came together in this episode.
"I've been fortunate to be able to be given episodes like this, that are so emotional and so powerful," he says. "The trust that exists between the actors and myself really allows us to do some stupendous work."
For his part, Cudlitz says that Nicotero didn't direct him much, and allowed him to follow his instincts in his death scene.
"Most of us [the actors] have been doing these characters for a number of years and have been sitting with these characters for a number of years, so it's a situation where we play to what's actually going on," he says.
That led to stuff like the peace sign, which was all Cudlitz's idea. After Negan's first hit, as Abraham gets back up to his knees, he subtly flashes a peace sign to his girlfriend Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green). It wasn't in the script, but Cudlitz remembered a scene from early in Season 6 where Abraham made the gesture to Sasha. He and Nicotero agreed that that would be a beautiful way for Abraham to say goodbye to the woman he loved.
The death scene also contained the final Abraham one-liner. Abraham was known for his creative use of cuss words (such as the exclamation "bitch nuts," and after Negan hit him the first time he got out one last defiant "suck my nuts."
Why "suck my nuts" and not the more traditional "suck my d---?"
"Because you would have expected Abraham to say that, and Abraham almost always says almost what you expect him to say," Cudlitz says.
So there you go. Unpredictable to the bitter end.