Warning! SPOILERS for The Walking Dead season 9 premiere ahead!
The Walking Dead season 9 debuted tonight with an episode that recaptures a lot of what fans initially loved about the series. One of those responsible for making the premiere feel more like the show fans remember is director Greg Nicotero, and while visiting The Walking Dead set earlier this year, Screen Rant took part in an interview with Nicotero in where he dished all about filming the season 9 premiere.
In 'A New Beginning', characters hold conversations with one another that are longer than a few words, and they travel into urban environments as they scavenge for what they need to start rebuilding civilization. It's a big departure from recent seasons where everyone was consumed with fighting the war with the Saviors, and it's very reminiscent of the show most viewers first fell in love with. And Nicotero should know seeing as he's been in some way involved with the televisions series since the very beginning.
When speaking with Nicotero, the special effects make-up artist turned director had a lot to share about his inspiration for certain shots as well as why he wanted to bring focus back the show's core characters. Here's what Nicotero had to say about The Walking Dead season 9 premiere.
The Museum Trip
The opening scenes of 'A New Beginning' sees Rick lead a group to Washington, D.C. where they visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in order to gather some important supplies. Of course, the production didn't actually travel all the way to the nation's capital, but the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta worked well as a substitution.
“I love when the show goes in to the urban environment. Like, woods are f--king woods, y’know? We see trees and you never get a sense of what the world looks like until you walk into a street. So that whole opening sequence is my homage to George Romero. It’s the opening of the Day of the Dead, y’know? When they're in the streets and there are zombies. There’s one and then there’s two and then there’s three. I called Alan Cody, my editor, I’m like, ‘Watch Day of the Dead, watch the way those shots build so that you’re telling the story and the shots are getting bigger and bigger.’ And of course you can then see through the zombie’s face and they ride by.
I channeled my inner 15-year-old kid. It’s all Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes. Y’know the shot of the Washington Monument with The Mall and the Capitol Building? I stole the shot from Planet of the Apes, behind the Statue of Liberty. They’re on horses and are riding right at it! I’m like guys, 'This is my Planet of the Apes. So we put the camera on a condor and we just shoot them in the street.' And they’re like, 'I don’t understand, what’s the Planet of the Apes shot?’ I’m like,'Don’t worry about, put the Washington Monument here, put this here, there’s The Mall and just build it.' The audience is going to lose their minds when they see that shot because you've got to remind our audience what the world looks like. Shooting in that dome and just shooting in that building, dressing it to look like this decrepit natural history museum was so much fun.”
While looking around the natural history museum, Siddiq gets a nasty surprise when he comes face to face with a zombie. But it's no ordinary zombies - this one's got spiders crawling out of its face! The scene is a fun scare and unlike anything The Walking Dead has done recently. Nicotero - who is actually terrified of spiders himself- explains his inspiration for scene.
"They were CGI. Of course, I was at one point like, 'There was this movie called The Believers, where they had the spiders coming out of Helen Shaver’s face,' remember that gag? Terrified me. There’s a movie called The Believers, it’s Martin Sheen… But this girl gets touched in the face by this voodoo priest and she gets a big boil. And at one point, the boil explodes and they had a prosthetic with a tube and the make up guys had a funnel and they were putting spiders in and they--my friend did it, he took the funnel off and blew in the tube and the spiders went all over her face. So for a split second I’m like, 'I’m going to f--king face my fears and do spiders. And then they’re like, ‘Yeah, no, it costs too much money.’ I went,'Oh thank god!'"
"When we were designing the shot, originally it was like, ‘Okay, a bunch of spiders come out of the eye.’ And I was like, 'No, they’ve got to come out of the nose, come out of the mouth, and then you’ve got to have, like, the mama spider come out.' So not only is it the little ones, but then out of the mouth - which is very Wes Craven, my Deadly Blessing homage, the part where the spider comes out of the mouth."
Being an episode of The Walking Dead, there's going to be death. And this week, it's the blacksmith's son, Ken who meets his end as the group returns from their scavenging trip in D.C. It's a pivotal scene that sets the episode's biggest plot in motion - Gregory trying to have Maggie killed - and Ken's death hits so hard because of the incredible powerful performances of actors John Finn and Brett Butler, who play Ken's parents, Earl and Tammy. And Nicotero recognizes that its those reactions that make a character death feel meaningful.
"Brett’s a f--king rockstar, man. I’ll tell you, her and John Finn, those scenes in the first episode, they’re so powerful. You kind of go, ‘Where were these guys for the last two or three seasons?’ One of the things that I try to make sure is that the audience needs to feel those character’s deaths through the eyes of other people. Like Ken, the guy who dies, we don’t even know who he is. But, we see the results of his death on those people.
It was a trick I learned when we killed Merle, because when Merle dies and he looks up and he’s a walker. When he looks into Norman’s eyes and Norman went, ‘[Sob]’, people called me saying, ‘I f--king cried! How do you make me cry on a zombie show?’ Because they felt that in his face, so every time I kill character - and f--king kill them all, I’m like the grim reaper - it’s really about how other people deal with it. And Brett and John were so good that at one point after my first cut, I turned to the editor and I’m like, ‘We’ve never even seen these people before and I want to know who they are. I want to know what they’re going to do next and what their story is.’ I love that they have a great story coming forward."
Close-Ups on Characters
Most of all, Nicotero really wanted to use the season premiere to get audiences caring about the characters again. In contrast to recent seasons, 'A New Beginning' has quite a few scenes where character actually talk to each other, instead of, as Nicotero puts it, "those little ellipses, like dot-dot-dot, and you leave it hanging out there." Here Nictoro breaks down a few of favorite scenes between the characters in The Walking Dead season 9 premiere.
On the scene of Rick and Michonne in bed together:
"Y’know, the scene with Rick and Michonne in bed, when they’re talking. I love that f--king scene. And when I shot it I put the cameras really far away and I used long lenses. Because I didn’t want them to be in bed together and there’s a camera right there. So I put the camera really, really far away and I just let them talk and let them do their thing.
And at the end, y’know, Andy calls me every day after we shoot an episode together. He’ll call me in the car on the way home, “That was f--king great day. This is going to be the f--king greatest episode ever. Oh my god, I love it, I love it.’ And he called me that night and said, ‘I love how you shot that scene. I loved that you captured the intimacy, but you preserved the intimacy for the actors by putting the camera far away and letting us do what we’re really good at.'"
On the scene of Maggie talking with Rick before Gregory's hanging:
"That scene with her and Rick on the balcony, that was the first scene we shot in the whole episode. And the Friday before, I was like, ‘Guys, listen, I want to go up on the balcony with you guys and let’s just watch the sun go down and talk about the scene. Play it around a little bit.’ And then when we shot it, everything was so good. When Maggie says, ‘Listen, you said one day you were going to follow me. That hasn’t happened.’ And then she’s like, ‘I’ve got to put the kids to bed.’ Like, I’m going to go hang somebody. It’s chilling just how she does it and Lauren did a great job in that scene.
I really feel like that was the scene--I felt like Maggie for two years had been grieving the death of Glenn, and honestly, I don’t think Maggie had had a chance to do much. And in that one scene I really knew who she was. I love that I knew who she was because I’ve missed her, I missed a lot of these characters. And I feel like now that we’re back into this season, I’m getting a chance to see the characters that I love again. And not just like throwing out two lines and walking away. I feel like I’m getting to know them again. I really hope that you got that from the episode."
And lastly, the conversation between Rick and Daryl at the Sanctuary:
"The scene with Rick and Daryl on the catwalk and they’re looking at each other. When we shot that scene, we rehearsed it once and the guys were in it. And I said, 'F--k the wide shot, get those cameras up there now and capture the chemistry these guys have right now.' So we just threw the cameras in and Norman was like, ‘I’m so glad you did that.’ We did one rehearsal and it was there. And then I pulled the cameras back and shot the wider stuff, but I feel a serious obligation to my actors to do the best that I can for them because I know the show - I’ve been on the show a year before it was even greenlit - I know them and I know their characters. If I shot a scene that I didn’t do them justice it would kill me. And they would kill me."
The Walking Dead season 9 continues next Sunday with 'The Bridge' at 9pm/8c on AMC.