- Warning: There are spoilers ahead for “The Walking Dead” series finale, “Rest in Peace.”
- Finale director Greg Nicotero breaks down moments from the episode with Insider, including Lance Hornsby’s return and Daryl and Carol’s emotional scene.
- Nicotero worked with Andrew Lincoln on mapping out the secret coda that was filmed in August.
The Thursday before “The Walking Dead” finale airs on TV, executive producer Greg Nicotero hasn’t watched the last episode of AMC’s apocalyptic drama.
It’s not totally surprising. The episode wasn’t completed until November 11 and, despite the flagship series that kicked off in 2010 coming to an end, Nicotero’s still very deep in “TWD” universe, juggling work on three spin-offs.
After more than a decade with the dead, he wasn’t in a rush to say goodbye to the main series.
“I haven’t seen it finished,” Nicotero told Insider from France where he was plugging away at the upcoming Daryl Dixon spin-off. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, for sure. Part of me sort of wants to wait and watch it Sunday with the audience.”
“I’ve seen everything. I just haven”t seen it all sort of put together,” he added.
AMC aired the finale on Sunday at The Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, California, where cast and crew gathered with fans to celebrate and send off the series.
Across the show’s 11 seasons, Nicotero has directed over 30 episodes of the apocalyptic drama, including the series finale. Since the beginning, he and his special make-up effects studio, KNB EFX Group, have also been responsible for the look and feel of the undead in the franchise.
Insider caught up with Nicotero to break down some of the big moments from the finale, including the scramble to film the secret coda with Rick and Michonne, how Pamela almost received Carol’s comic death, hiding Eleanor Matsuura’s pregnancy, and what was going on with Daryl’s massive black eye at the start.
There weren’t considerations to have variant walkers on ‘TWD’ before the show’s final season
I wish we saw these variant walkers in the final few episodes sooner. Was there ever consideration or any discussion on bringing these smarter walkers onto the show earlier, over the years? I’ve been curious if there was a specific reason why you maybe couldn’t showcase them until the final season.
No, it’s really interesting because the variants really came out of some discussions about the fact that it’s all about trying to keep the zombies present in the show. And, if you have people that have survived in the apocalypse for a decade, then clearly they’re beating the zombies. They haven’t been eaten yet. They haven’t been killed yet.
But we kind of went back to season one and we were looking at the sequence in episode two where they’re trapped in the department store and the zombies are smashing on the windows. And truthfully, that was really done completely out of the fact that we hadn’t, [former showrunner] Frank [Darabont] and I hadn’t figured out the rules yet. The zombies running down the street after Rick and then zombies picking up rocks and things like that — The show was still in nucleus.
So we got into those sort of discussions. It was similar to when we were dealing with the Whisperers, where you didn’t know if it was a zombie or if it was a person wearing zombie skin. It added a whole other level of creepiness to it. We had the Whisperers for the season and a half. I feel like this made the most sense. It’s not necessarily that it’s a new thing. It’s just that they hadn’t come into contact with one of ’em as of yet.
There weren’t multiple scripts for the finale
Were there multiple scripts at all for this final episode to keep things secret?
We were lucky to just get one script. By the time we got to the end, we had shot 30 episodes. It was about a year and a half straight of shooting. So by the time we got to this, I don’t think the writers had the energy to write more than one draft. It was a marathon. So, now, the fact that it’s all kind of behind us does feel really good. I’ll be honest.
Daryl’s black eye seemed to be something Norman Reedus wanted. His on-set concussion didn’t affect things story wise. They had to work around other schedules and hide Eleanor Matsuura’s pregnancy.
I want to talk about Norman Reedus’ black eye at the start of the episode, which caught me off guard. Did you direct a scene that showed him get knocked out? We’re watching the opening from Judith’s point of view, but it felt like maybe something was missing or left out there.
It was the sequence where he gets hit by the troopers. When he’s unconscious and Judith sees him and then when he wakes up again, that’s where he was hit in the face.
You know, Norman’s all about his scars, and he’s all about his black eye. He really likes to be dirty. He likes to be spattered with blood, surprisingly. So that was something that he really — was the result of the troopers hitting him when he was running in with her to sort of find a doctor for her.
I had wanted to check, because I had confirmed in March with AMC and with Norman’s rep that he had suffered a concussion on set during the finale. I didn’t know if there were any challenges that may have presented in filming the finale. I know they gave you a few more days, but I didn’t know if any of the scenes had to change as a result.
No. I mean, that instance occurred in the second or third day of filming was when he had hit his head. But he didn’t really have — there were no issues with it until a couple days later, which is what sort of surprised everybody. He was fine for a few days and then all of a sudden he had trouble.
I think the only thing we really did was we knew that we had drop dead dates on some actors. Jeffrey had a commitment. Eleanor was pregnant and about to have a baby. And Eleanor’s like, ‘Guys, you gotta be done with me on this date’ because it’s gonna be weird if all of a sudden there’s one day I’m pregnant and the next day I’m not pregnant. So it really required a lot of juggling with our assistant directors and our production. I think the episode was an 18-day shoot. When we first started the show, it was eight days for an episode. We had a lot of time, but we had a lot of story that we had to tell. So it was pretty intense.
I originally thought the black eye make-up was a workaround for any injury he may have had. I wanted to clear the air before any rumor mills started up.
No, it was there specifically to tell the story.
Nicotero directed the Rick and Michonne coda in August. He and Andrew Lincoln mapped a lot of it out.
Did you direct the coda with Rick and Michonne in August?
Can you tell me about what it was like getting to bring Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira back to close out the show? When did you find out you were going to be able to do this?
I think we were prepping this episode or maybe 1123, and it had kind of gone back and forth a couple times. We weren’t sure about their availability. We weren’t sure about how to integrate this Rick and Michonne beat into the current narrative, which was wrapping up the Commonwealth story. We didn’t want it to take away from Christian [Serrato]’s story or Daryl and Carol’s story or Negan’s story. We didn’t want it to take away from any of that.
So the real question was: How do we do it and does it happen? Does it not happen? We went back and forth on it for a while. And finally [‘TWD’ universe chief] Scott Gimple was very, very committed to it. I think that we sort of knew in March that we were gonna do this, but we couldn’t get it together in time to shoot it with the regular episode.
So we planned in August to shoot it, which was basically the drop dead date that we could shoot it before we were unable to deliver. Andy and I spent a lot of time talking about it. He stayed with me for about a week in LA before we shot and really sort of worked it out. And then he stayed with me in Georgia when we shot the episode.
“The Walking Dead” started with Rick Grimes. It was all about Rick and his story. There’s not really a world where you could end “The Walking Dead” without seeing where Rick went. You know, can’t just leave it that, “Oh, he was in a helicopter and they flew him away and we never see him again.”
The script was always intended to be very impressionistic that you think that Rick and Michonne are maybe sitting across from each other at a fire. And then you realize, boom, that they’re not. She’s in one place and she’s being driven by the desire to find him. Rick’s being driven by the desire to get home, and it’s that they can’t lose hope. And I think that’s really ultimately what the story is. The story is that they have to keep hope alive.
That’s what Judith has been a symbol of since season three.
Judith, literally, I think says those words. And I think that that’s ultimately why the coda works in the backdrop of the story because it just shows that by sheer will that they have been able to survive and to fight another day.
Nicotero loved delivering a nod to Carol’s comic death by almost giving it to Pamela
I forgot that there was a possibility we could see Lance Hornsby as a walker in the finale because you’re so worried about Judith’s safety going into the episode. It was such a good surprise to see. I don’t think show-only viewers will maybe pick up on this, but you almost gave Pamela Carol’s iconic comic death by suicide. What was it like to bring that moment to life and turn Josh Hamilton into a walker?
Not a lot of people know that. When we shot that scene with Josh and Laila [Robins], I just kept telling her, when you get closer, I really want see that moment where you’re about to do that. I loved shooting that scene. Josh, we had wrapped him a couple weeks ago, and then we brought him back and he just had a ball.
It still sort of blows my mind that we shot that entire movie — it’s basically a movie — in 18 days. I still don’t know how we did it because it was always like, oh, you only have this much time to shoot here and you have to shoot all this in that scene and that day. But that particular moment, I really, really wanted it to be weirdly dark and beautiful and seductive all at the same time.
It is. I immediately understood what you were doing there.
I would’ve played it out longer. I know it’s in the final cut, for sure. But yeah, I really enjoyed that moment.
There were different versions of dialogue for the final Carol and Daryl scenes
There’s a scene very late in the finale between Carol and Daryl on the bench. She says he’s her best friend. It feels so real, it’s just a real conversation. I’m curious, was that something that was reshot after you knew Melissa McBride wasn’t going to be on the Daryl spin-off?
No. That scene went through a bunch of different iterations in dialogue.
But the thing about Melissa and Norman is they don’t have to say a word. That whole scene could have been the two of them sitting there looking out over the lake and looking at each other and seeing the emotion behind what each of them brings to that character. It would have been just as efficient because Carol doesn’t need to say it. The audience can see it in her eyes that that’s how she feels about him. So I think ultimately the reality is Daryl was ready to get out there at that particular moment and she wasn’t.
Now is she gonna stay at the Commonwealth and keep Lance’s job or is she gonna go out and about? Who knows?
The original ‘TWD’ ending was cut to make room for the Michonne and Rick coda
Was there anything you filmed for the series finale that was cut and didn’t make it into the final episode?
There was one scene that was cut. I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about it or not though. Am I allowed to talk about the scene that we cut?
[AMC rep]: I think we can skip that, but thank you.
There was a scene that we shot, but when it was decided to put the coda in, we felt like it would conflict with the Rick and Michonne bit. So we took it out.
[Editor’s note: After our conversation, Insider learned that the “cut scene” was the original ending to “TWD” finale, which you can read here.]
Nicotero is currently working on the Daryl Dixon spin-off with Reedus and is reading scripts for the Rick and Michonne series
Will we see you return to ‘TWD” universe?
Yes. They can’t get rid of me that easily. I’m sure there are some that would want to, but truthfully, I’m in France with Norman, producing his show. We just wrapped on Jeffrey and Lauren’s show and I’m reading scripts for the other show.
I was hired a year before the show was ever even sold to AMC. It’s really challenging to sort of express in a few words what the last 13 years have meant to me and these people, the relationships that I’ve made with the actors and the crew, and the fact that we’ve been in the trenches together literally through the hardest times in our lives and some of the best times of our lives. The show really will stand, in my opinion, next to other landmark television shows like “X-Files” and “Star Trek” and “Twilight Zone” and other shows that really changed people. The shows changed people in a good way and that’s something that no one can ever change, nobody can ever take away. The worst thing is I don’t get to see Seth Gilliam every day and I don’t get to see Christian Serratos. But it’s just been an absolute honor.
Who would’ve thought that when I was a little kid growing up in Pittsburgh and I worked on “Day of the Dead” in 1984, that almost 40 years later I’d still be making zombies and that the world would love them?
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.