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'The Walking Dead' postmortem: Greg Nicotero on those timelines, and a character (possibly) returning from the dead

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
(Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

SPOILER ALERT: This interview for the Season 8 premiere episode of The Walking Dead contains storyline and character spoilers. Read our full recap here

So much happened in the action-packed Season 8 premiere of The Walking Dead that we’re still trying to wrap our minds around a few things. Like those timelines: Were there two, with All Out War Rick and future Old Man Rick? Or is there a third, with Rick of the red eyes? Is he from somewhere between the time of the war battles and the Rick with a gray buzzcut and bushy beard?

Episode 100 director, executive producer, and special effects whiz Greg Nicotero gives us some clues, and talks about the reason Rick took that Polaroid picture, the episode’s homage callbacks to the pilot, and whether or not the group can trust Dwight.

He also hints that next week’s episode could find viewers surprised by a visit from a “character that we may have thought was dead.”

The premiere goes by so quickly. It felt like it was 30 minutes long.
I know. It’s funny, that was the criticism, people wanted more. But that’s good, leaving them wanting more is a compliment. You know, we have kind of redefined how we’re telling our stories this season. … We’re making concerted efforts to streamline our storytelling by allowing characters to not disappear for multiple episodes. The first several episodes definitely catapult us into this world of the Alexandrians, Hilltop, and Kingdomers fighting for their way of life.

The gas station sequence called back directly to the scene in the series premiere where Rick meets the bunny slipper girl. What made you choose that scene to recreate for the 100th episode?
Well, you know, it really was the opening scene in the pilot, so to be able to open our episode, we just felt that not only was it a great matchup for our fans, the people who have been dedicated to the show, but also in a fun way, for new viewers who are coming to the show to see what the hell everything’s about.

And it also shows us who Carl has become. Aside from just it being a great visual callback, Carl is now out in the world, on his own, scavenging for food and looking for people out there. You know, the fact that Carl gets into the conversation with the traveler. … I think it’s really interesting because Carl is very different than Rick, in this instance. Carl really does feel that there’s an opportunity to turn the world around and not just kill every single person that they come in contact with. So it’s a unique opportunity to tell a story in this world, using the same visual cues they had with Rick entering an unknown world [in the series premiere], and to see Carl now as coming into his own and exploring that same situation.

And we get to meet a new person who we may possibly, I’m guessing, see again?
It seems fair to assume that we may see him again, yeah.

Did you use any of the exact props from the pilot, like the tricycle?
No. It was sort of the, as Seinfeld would say, the bizarro version of the pilot. We didn’t want to use the exact same props, because it wasn’t the exact same gas station. But we wanted to emulate the idea that, oh, there was a baby carriage, and then there was a toy, and there were some blankets. Even duplicating the shot where Carl looks into the car and sees the decimated corpse, versus when Rick looked down and saw the woman in the car who ultimately ends up being a walker … it gave us a chance to show a little bit of duration of time, because that corpse in the car was clearly desiccated and decomposed to almost skeletal proportions.

Then the shot towards the end, where Negan and Gabriel are in the shed, and you use a great aerial shot to pull back and show that they’re surrounded by the walker herd — was that meant to be a callback to the end of the pilot, when Rick is trapped in the tank?
Absolutely. There are other shots from the pilot, too. … Future Rick waking up in the bed with the flowers next to the bed, that was all put there to emulate Rick waking up from the coma. We’ve done that high overhead [shot] one or two other times, but pulling back and going higher and higher and higher was a great opportunity to see, No. 1, how many walkers there are, but also, we’ve never really seen much inside the Sanctuary. So, having the chance to really show that the place is completely overrun and flooded and there’s not much opportunity to get out was really important.

It seems like there are multiple timelines going on. We have the current timeline, then we have Old Man Rick, who appears to be living maybe two or three years down the road, and then there’s Red-Eye Rick. That seems like it could be a separate timeline, maybe a little further down the line in the war with Negan. What can you say about that?
I think seeing Judith grow up gives you a good indication of a time in the future. In terms of the other ones, like where we also see Rick standing at Glenn and Abraham’s grave, things like that … we do definitely get the sense that yeah, there’s a couple different timelines. In regards to Red-Eye Rick, that’s funny — I can’t really say where that fits into the timeline. I think it’s probably based on the fact that he doesn’t have a crewcut and a gray beard that, if indeed that is a timeline, that that would play somewhere in there, probably.

Photo: AMC

Though the episode is so action-packed, we still get some moments of catching up with where the characters are emotionally. Morgan is obviously still conflicted about killing. Daryl is very, very angry, still. Rick also seems conflicted. But we see him later take that Polaroid when he leaves the Sanctuary. Is that him taking a little bit of pleasure in that he’s finally getting revenge, for his friends’ deaths, for how Negan has terrorized Rick and those he cares about?
Negan did the same thing, the Saviors did the same thing [with the Polaroids]. I don’t know if it was taking pleasure in it, or it was just an opportunity to use that … as a tool. Like, listen, if Negan was trying to lure somebody over to his side, or exert some force, he could literally throw those Polaroids of Glenn and Abraham and everybody that he’s killed in front of somebody and go, “If you don’t do what I want, that’s what’s gonna happen to you.” So, there could be a possibility that maybe Rick wants to use that as a tool. Or, maybe he’s a little sadistic, ’cause he did smile when he took the picture.

Dwight gave up the Saviors’ lookouts to Daryl. A lot of people are still skeptical of him saying that he wants to help dethrone Negan. Did Dwight just prove his sincerity once and for all?
Well, I think that remains to be seen. I mean, clearly he’s making efforts by providing information from the inside… but you never know whether they’re being led into a trap or not.

(Photo: Alan Clarke/AMC)

He’s also taking a risk himself, because obviously Negan could begin to suspect that he is someone who has given information away.
For sure, there’s always that. It’s the same with Eugene. We ended last year, Eugene handed the [suicide] pill to Sasha. So, there’s a lot of dissent. … Eugene is gonna go where he feels safe, because he is a bit of a coward. But Dwight has a different agenda, because of his wife and because of the fact that he’s got half of his face burned off. So, is he a good soldier? Or has he just had enough?

There were some nice moments of levity, as well. Jerry “dude”-ing Enid into taking the armor, for instance.
“Dude… duuuuuude.” Yeah, that’s pretty funny. I think my favorite, well, the biggest laugh I get, is when Negan walks out and goes, “I see you brought your mud flaps.” And he’s talking to Rick about Rick and his “piss patrol.” … Every single time we shot that scene I would giggle, because I thought Jeff’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s) delivery—he’s really funny. And I love the end of the episode, when you see him and Seth together, Negan and Father Gabriel together, and you’re like, “Uh-oh, this is not gonna be good.”

I also love the RV driving into the Sanctuary with the armor on the front. Did you intentionally make that look like a smiley face?
We didn’t. You know, my joke always was I felt like it was the Deathmobile from Animal House. That’s what we kept calling it. Actually, I almost called John Landis to see if they had the Faber head that was on top of the car, and put it on top of the RV as a joke.

OK, small hint about Episode 2, “The Damned.” What can we expect?
Two is fantastic. It’s a direct continuation of the war and the attack on the satellite [outpost], which is exciting. And it’s possible that there may be a character that we may have thought was dead pop up. Who knows?

You are speaking at George Romero’s Walk of Fame star ceremony on Oct. 25. What do you plan to say?
You know, I have so many things that I’ve written, I’ve got to figure out how to whittle it down. This is a guy whom I met when I was 16 years old, and I wouldn’t be here, and I guarantee that The Walking Dead wouldn’t be here, if George hadn’t basically single-handedly invented the zombie genre. Up until this point, zombies were voodoo. It was all voodoo. There was no resurrected corpses that eat flesh, but that was his thing. I’m proud to have worked with him and proud of so much that he’s given all of us. What I loved about George the most was that when the rules didn’t apply to what he was doing, he just rewrote them. When he made Dawn of the Dead, they wouldn’t release the movie without a rating. … They kept trying to give it an X rating. He’s like, “You know what? Screw that. I’m just gonna release it unrated. You can’t tell me … an X rating is associated with pornography, and this film is not pornographic.” The stories that he told … I think that he really, really, really sought to preserve his vision. And I just love that about him. I love how groundbreaking and what a maverick he was. And I’m grateful every day to have called him my boss and my friend.

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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