The Walking Dead Premiere: Director Greg Nicotero Talks 'Breathtaking' Zombie Herds

Rob Moynihan
Lennie James as Morgan Jones, Ethan Embry as Carter and Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 6, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
Gene Page/AMC

Here comes the herd!

AMC's The Walking Dead kicked off its sixth season on Sunday night in spectacular fashion, with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) discovering hundreds of walkers trapped inside a quarry outside of Alexandria. Through a series of flashbacks, Rick and his group of survivors devised a plan to navigate the dangerous herd out of the quarry and away from their community. But the mission hit a snag when a horn sounded back at home and the zombies shifted direction, heading directly towards the Safe Zone.

We spoke to director, executive producer and special effects supervisor Greg Nicotero about the episode's unconventional flashbacks, the secrets behind the walker herd and what's next for the group.

Why did you open the season using this particular story structure?
We want to try to take bold swings in our storytelling. This episode was one where you get a little bit of a hint of what's happening, and then you have to back up and see how they got to that particular point. We wanted the audience to enjoy the aspect of putting the pieces of the puzzle together so that by the end of the episode, it's like, Wow! That's where the 30,000 zombies came from and why Alexandria was never overrun.

Why did you choose black and white for the flashbacks? Was it a bit of a throwback to the original graphic novel?
Yeah, for sure. I love in Season 1 when the network had aired some of the episodes in black and white because it has such a kind of a cool classic horror, the Universal monster, Night of the Living Dead feel to it. We had done a couple different tests and we had played with the idea of over saturating the present day stuff, but then when you see these super vibrant green leaves and you see the blood is really bright and really red, you realize instantly that it's not our show. There's nothing vibrant about a corpse walking through the woods. So the black and white definitely played into the homage of that classic horror graphic novel comic book feel because we did kick up the contrast a little bit. I'm hoping we can put the color version on the Blu-ray because the quarry stuff in color is pretty astounding to see. The impact of the walkers going over the edge of the cliff and then Rick and Morgan just seeing that entire quarry filled with zombies, it's pretty breathtaking.

The sheer number of zombies in this episode really was breathtaking. What were the challenges you faced in working with this many walkers?
Logistically, the biggest challenge we come up with over and over again is, when you shoot these big scenes with a lot of people in makeup, sometimes we'll have people that are deep in the background who don't have any makeup. They're just in zombie wardrobe. And then when you watch the cut, you always notice all the red and pink faces. Your eye goes right to those people that don't have makeup on. So we actually did an assembly line spray tan booth to walk people through and spray them so that we could have a day where there were 300 people in makeup and all 300 of them had makeup on. It was important because we had to get not only wide shots of this herd walking along the road and then coming to that intersection and smashing themselves against the wall before turning right, but then you had to believe that they went on forever and that this was literally a 20 minute parade of the undead.

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Going forward, will this zombie herd be the main antagonist of Season 6?
I think it's safe to say that the horde will not disperse anytime soon.

If this plan to contain the herd fails, is Rick in trouble with the rest of the Alexandrians?
There are a lot of people that have no confidence in Rick's plan because it's so outrageous. But he needs it to work. I always have felt like Rick has turned into Shane (Jon Bernthal). Rick has great intentions, but he doesn't necessarily go about it in the right way. But in this instance, I don't think Rick is doing this to save the Alexandrians. Rick is doing this to save his people and if he happens to save some Alexandrians along the way, that's fine with him. But if some of them don't make it, that's also fine with him. As long as his people are safe. That's one of the biggest themes of the season. It's not just about surviving, but it's about moving forward and how you deal with it. We were in Hershel's farm, then we were in the prison, then we were in Terminus and then we were in Gabriel's (Seth Gilliam) church. In all these places, it was just about moving from place to place and surviving. Alexandria is the first place where they can put down roots, actually have a life and not be looking over their shoulder every ten seconds.

We met a new character, Heath (Corey Hawkins). What's his position within the group moving forward?
It's interesting because Heath was gone when all this s--t went down. He comes back and there are all these new people. So he's probably one of the most adept survivors in Alexandria, but because he's been outside the walls more than anybody else, he looks at Rick very differently. He probably looks at Rick the way Rick looked at the claimers or somebody that was trying to take something from them. There's an interesting opportunity there.

The Wolves were referenced, but not seen. Are they still not far?
Well, that's what it says. We ended the season last year with the "W" man looking at the pictures of Alexandria that were in Aaron's bag, so those guys are pretty lethal.

The episode ended in a cliffhanger with a horn sounding in the distance. What can we expect next week?
Episode 2 picks up about two hours before Episode 1 ends, so you'll get an opportunity to see what the situation with the horn is.

This was one of the biggest episodes you've ever done. Does this scope continue through Season 6?
Oh yeah. You always hate when people go, "This has been our most challenging season yet," but when your first game is the Super Bowl, you really can't go back to the first game of the season in your second episode.