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The Walking Dead Series Finale Postmortem: Director Greg Nicotero (Exclusive)

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Spoiler alert: this story contains spoilers for The Walking Dead series finale. The Walking Dead ended its final season Sunday with “Rest in Peace,” laying to rest the AMC zombie drama after 11 seasons, 12 years, and 177 episodes. But the end is a new beginning. In the 2010 pilot titled “Days Gone Bye,” the story of The Walking Dead began with Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) searching for his family in the walker apocalypse. In the final episode of The Walking Dead, the story ended how it started: with Rick Grimes trying to find his family. Though they are not bonded by blood, the Grimes family of survivors share the same legacy: “We’re the ones who live.”

“I really feel that the legacy of The Walking Dead is that this small, scrappy, little genre TV show really brought people together,” says series executive producer and episode director Greg Nicotero. “It became a communal experience.” Like the found family of survivors that defines The Walking Dead, the scrappy show that remains the highest-rated series in cable history brought together people from all walks of life who might have “never shared things before.”

The 64-minute series-ender sees that family of survivors — among them Daryl (Norman Reedus), Carol (Melissa McBride), Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and Judith Grimes (Cailey Fleming) — making their last stand together at the Commonwealth. Overrun by a walker horde, the post-apocalyptic civilization is threatened not only by the zombie masses, but by the living under the command of Governor Pamela Milton (Laila Robins). It’s the ultimate expression of the show’s iconic tagline: “Fight the dead. Fear the living.” 

Below, the veteran director and special FX make-up designer who brought comic creator Robert Kirkman’s undead to life over eleven seasons talks to ComicBook about sending off the show with the return of Rick Grimes, ending The Walking Dead, and what comes after as the Walking Dead Universe lives on.

COMICBOOK: You conclude The Walking Dead with a hopeful, happy ending, and this moving montage paying tribute to the dead and the living. Why was it important to end the show this way?

GREG NICOTERO: Well, the show was always Rick Grimes’ journey. You can’t really wrap up the story of The Walking Dead without Rick Grimes. It didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel authentic. And I’ll be honest, we went back and forth quite a bit on it. Just in terms of trying to say we don’t want to interfere with the character arcs of Daryl, and Negan, and Maggie, and Ezekiel, and Gabriel. We didn’t want to do that, so we didn’t want it to be a situation where they’re fighting zombies, and then Rick Grimes shows up to save the day. We wanted to serve the story arc that the writers had created over the last 30 episodes or so, but we couldn’t end The Walking Dead with Rick Grimes being taken away in a helicopter and there’s no mention of him ever again. So it was very important for us to really sort wrap up the show the way it started, which is seeing who this person is and where he is on his journey, and paying tribute to the characters that we lost.

When we were shooting there was a day on set where the editors had put together a one second clip from each episode that we had done. So it was like 180 seconds, it was about three minutes. And I watched it when I was shooting on set one day and I was blown away that the journey that we had gone on together, where the show started, and the characters Shane, and Lori, and Andrea, and Glenn. And there’s been so much story that’s been told over the last 12 years that you couldn’t not end the show without acknowledging those people. And that was the entire nucleus of the coda.

The Rick and Michonne epilogue ties together the end of The Walking Dead and the beginning of this new show. Tell me about how that coda came together.

We filmed that sequence August 8th and 9th of this year. So we wrapped Walking Dead, I think, April 1st. And then it was written by Scott Gimple, and Andy [Lincoln] had a lot of input on it, as did Danai [Gurira], so it really was a great opportunity for me to be boots on the ground with Scott Gimple again, because he wasn’t the showrunner on The Walking Dead the last couple seasons. But the idea really was that it was intended to be these short, small impressionistic images that tell us that Rick is still alive and he’s still fighting to get home, and Michonne is out there and she’s still fighting to find him.

And in this particular moment in time, they’re thinking about each other, and they’re thinking about the people that they love and the people that they’ve lost. And to do that, and to know that the reason that they are still dedicated to their fight, is because of the people that they lost and the people that they love. So, that was what it was all about. And without a doubt, I feel that we captured that spirit, and the spirit of moving forward what the world has in store for them.

As the director, you had this huge undertaking of wrapping up these 11 seasons, concluding the Walking Dead story, sending off a main character, closing doors, opening new ones, saying goodbyes — and you have to do it all in 64 minutes. What was the biggest challenge filming or putting together this finale?

Well, there was a lot of — I will be honest — the pressure of knowing that we had to stick the landing was pretty stifling at times. I had the entire cast and crew’s support. I had everybody behind me. But sort of getting to that point, and knowing that we had a lot of story to tell in a short amount of time, and that we had to wrap everything up. But the crew was fantastic, really supported me. I feel like I’ve evolved so much as a filmmaker since my first day on The Walking Dead. I mean, I’d worked on the show for 13 years. I was hired a year before AMC ever bought the show, to develop the look of the zombies. And there’s probably maybe 20 of us that have weathered the entire series, including Norman [Reedus] and Melissa [McBride], and a couple producers and some key crew people. But I was really going into it for those people, as well as everyone that has been on the show for as long as they had.

But I was grateful to be able to tell Christian’s [Serratos] story, because I think she did a fantastic job. And the other thing is, I wanted to really add some thrills and chills. I mean, the zombie sequences, the fight scenes, that whole ending where the gasoline is poured into the streets, and the explosion, and the streets cave in. I mean, it had to be big and it had to be epic and it had to have scale and scope. And every instance of zombie stuff that’s in there that goes from Jules’ first bite in the opening, we really had to hit every single piece of Walking Dead DNA through the course of the entire episode. 

What went into the decision to have Rosita be the last death of the series?

Well, Christian, I remember almost a year ago she came and sat in my office and she said, ‘Look, I really want something big for Rosita. I want something for my character to sink her teeth into.’ And she had been playing around with the idea of proposing that, ‘Does she die?’ And she said, ‘I want to go out, I want it to be heroic, I want to be saving the children. I want to do something that leaves my character with a legacy.’ And she was really, really proud of that. And we worked really, really hard to make sure that we honored that idea. And on the show, there hasn’t been a lot of people that have stepped up and said, ‘I want to be killed off the show.’

But at this particular instance, she wanted to do it because she wanted her character to have a great story and a great legacy. And I think she did an amazing job. Between her, and Seth [Gilliam], and Josh [McDermitt], and everybody around her that just made that moment sing. I’m so proud of her, and we worked really, really hard on those sequences to make sure that she was getting what she wanted for the character, and that we were paying respects to her. Because in essence, she really represents so many other people that died on the show. And that was something that was important, that we got a chance to really do it and do it the way we wanted to.

What was it like to film that last Hilltop scene between Daryl, Carol, and Maggie, knowing this was the final time they’d be sharing the screen together — at least for a while?

We shot that on the last day. So on the last day, I think having filmed 30 episodes for almost a year and a half, none of us really were prepared to say goodbye. We didn’t know how we were going to feel. That morning I think I sort of looked at Norman and went, ‘Man, what a journey we’ve been on together.’ And it was really, there weren’t a lot of tears and it wasn’t a lot of sad. It was more like, ‘Look what we’ve done together.’ If you really go back and you look at The Walking Dead and you think about when the show aired, the brilliantly-directed pilot by Frank Darabont. And with Chandler [Riggs], and Steven [Yeun], and Andy, and Jon Bernthal, and Sarah Callies, and Jeff DeMunn, and Laurie Holden, and all those people that really opened the doors for the series.

You realize what a magnificent show it is. And something that I’ll take with me forever is that with a zombie show, we’ve been able to change people’s lives. We have really made a difference in the annals of television, looking at X-Files, and Star Trek, and The Twilight Zone, and Breaking Bad, and shows that have made such an impact on people. And Walking Dead stands side to side with shows like that. And that’s something that I’m tremendously grateful for.

Let’s talk about this pair of goodbyes between Carol and Daryl, the only two characters still with the show from the first season. Did Carol’s ending or those last scenes change at all after Melissa had to drop out of the Daryl and Carol spin-off?

No, they were written and kind of ready to go. But the truth of the matter is, those two have literally palpable chemistry with each other. And so much of it is about their mannerisms. It’s not about the words that they say to each other, because the words really don’t enter into the chemistry that these two people have and this affection that they have for each other. And I think it’s safe to say that just because Daryl left and Carol’s at the Commonwealth doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where they’re going to end up, and that’s where they’re going to stay. So there’s a lot to be said for just that moment, where Carol was at peace being where she was. And Daryl was sort of ready to move on, and ready to get out there and see what else is out there in the world.

Speaking of what’s out there in the world: you’ve been in Paris working on the Daryl Dixon spin-off with Norman. The finale jumps a year into the future, and vaguely reveals Daryl’s been away exploring the frontier. What can you say about where we pick up with Daryl when he finds himself in France?

I don’t want to say too much. I just think that it really sort of embraces a stranger in a strange land kind of scenario, where we’re exploring post-apocalyptic Europe through the eyes of Daryl Dixon. And I got to say, we’ve had a great time. It really just is a different animal. And I even was sort of surprised, myself, standing on set and going, ‘I’ve been on Walking Dead for 12 years and here we are.’ But it feels fresh and it feels new. And David Zabel, our showrunner, has been an absolute joy to collaborate with. And it’s been really fun.

Just to wrap up, the finale is titled “Rest in Peace.” So what should be etched on the tombstone of The Walking Dead? After 11 seasons, 12 years, and 177 episodes, what do you hope is the legacy of The Walking Dead?

I really feel that the legacy of The Walking Dead is that this small, scrappy little genre TV show really brought people together. It became a communal experience. And stuff that people can share, that would’ve never shared things together before. 

Greg, as a fan who’s been watching since Halloween night in 2010, thank you for everything you’ve put into The Walking Dead these past 13 years and giving this show the ending it deserved.

Well, thank you for saying that. I’ll probably be a mess on Sunday, but I’m grateful that you liked it. Thank you.

Stay tuned to ComicBook/TWD and follow @CameronBonomolo and @NewsOfTheDead on Twitter for more TWD Universe coverage.

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