The Walking Dead is one of the most watched and beloved shows on TV, and fans can look forward to getting their fill when it returns for a fourth season this October 13th. Following their panel at Comic-Con, Greg Nicotero and Norman Reedus spoke to the press about what we can expect from the upcoming season. During the interview they discussed Nicotero’s turn as director, Daryl’s state of mind, whether he’ll be stepping up as a leader, the new threat facing the group, the tone of season four, and more. Check out what they had to say after the jump and be aware there are some spoilers.
GREG NICOTERO: There was a funny story. We were doing a producer call and I was up in my hotel room. I’m on the phone with Gale Anne Hurd, Scott Gimple, Robert Kirkman, and David Alpert, and they’re building up to this great moment where they want to ask me to direct the season premiere. I’m on the phone, they’re talking about the directors, I get in the elevator and I drop the call. I get into the lobby and I’m trying to call back into the call. Finally I get back in and they’re like, “You idiot, we just had this great impassioned speech and how honored we would be if you would direct the premiere. And we were like ‘Greg, what do you think?’ and there was dead silence.” Because I had dropped off the call. Gale was like, “I had this perfect speech planned and you blew it.” But it was my fifth episode. I have been really blessed. To get to work with Jeff DeMunn- the first episode of television that I ever directed was that episode [Judge, Jury, Executioner], and I felt like I really got to explore Daryl’s character in terms of being Rick’s right hand man, because Shane was about to go a little batshit. So it was really exciting. Doing the premiere was great, with Merle’s demise and working with Norman in that episode too. I feel like I’ve been really blessed. I’ve had some great dramatic moments that these guys knock out of the park every time.
Speaking of that, Norman I’ve been wondering about the traumas of season three and how directly it’s going to affect the characters in season four. How is Daryl dealing with the loss of Merle?
NORMAN REEDUS: I don’t know if he’s over it, but the thing is…he already thought his brother was gone until we got to Woodbury and he was there. He had sort of accepted it, without wanting to, before that. In that one scene, we’re taking over Woodbury with flash bang grenades and all this stuff, and he says he saw my brother, and Daryl’s like “I’ll just go talk to him.” He still thinks he can run out into a fire fight. “He’s my brother I’ll fix this.” And Rick’s like “I need you here.” Because with Merle away, Daryl sort of became his own man in many ways. Instead of becoming mini-Merle, he became his own guy. To lose him again, it hurts, but also being in this world this long, there’s also that we’re losing people all the time. So it’s understandable. I think it’s still painful, but I think he grew up a lot in that scene.
NICOTERO: There’s a great moment in the scene where Merle and Daryl are having that conversation in the boiler room. I think that was one of the last scenes that we shot with Norman and Michael. And Daryl’s line is, “Man, you can’t do stuff without people anymore.” And there was this fantastic moment that wasn’t scripted where Norman just reaches out and touches him. And Michael just went, “Get out of here, man,” and pulled his arm away. The fact that there was this tender moment where Daryl was reaching for his brother and his brother didn’t know how to cope with that intimacy for that second. It was so powerful, which then made that loss at the end of the episode so much worse, because you felt that moment where Daryl reaches out and touches him. Then later when Daryl just sees what happened and all that emotion comes out – I love that. And it wasn’t in the script. That was just something these guys did when they were rehearsing and I was like, “That’s fucking awesome.” It’s really great. I love what these guys bring to their characters, and they know their characters better than anybody else on the planet. Norman and I talk a lot about the little nuances that he throws into Daryl that are things that people respond to, and he really adds these layers. That moment with him and Rooker was so powerful and set up so much by literally just the touch of a shoulder.
REEDUS: Also, it was like when you think we’re both going to die, and the governor drags him in there and yanks the hood off his head. I didn’t realize I did it, but when he pulls the hood off, I fell into the governor because I see my brother there. The focus was just on him. I didn’t realize it, but there was one of those gifs and I fall into the governor’s chest, the bad guy. All the characters on this, the whole team…I can look at Greg and I can tell if a scene is playing well without us even talking. There’s a shorthand amongst us now.
In the trailer it looks like Daryl is leading a mission. Is he stepping up in his leadership position?
REEDUS: It’s different, because if things need to be done, Daryl will make sure it’s done. He’ll snap up, and get up, and go. He’s that guy. But he doesn’t want to sit around, look into your eyes, and talk about your feelings. “It’s going to be okay.” He’s not that guy, so it’s not the same thing.
NICOTERO: And Rick’s character…we’ve sort of established the fact that he realizes in this world – the fact that the last time we saw Carl he shot a kid in the face, and that moment of just abject horror where he sees what his son is capable of. He realizes that, “Listen, my responsibility to making sure that in this world, where no rules apply, my children have to grow into human beings that aren’t completely devoid of any emotion or feeling.” So Rick makes a conscious decision that Carl and Judith are of primary importance. So that does give an opportunity for Daryl to take a unique position in the group, and that’s something that definitely gets explored in the first couple episodes of season four.
Everybody’s been talking about this third threat, not the zombies, not humans, we don’t know what it is yet. Can you sort of tease it out? Or maybe how your character is affected by that and the direction of the story?
NICOTERO: Norman and I are going to vie to do the sequel to Sharknado.
REEDUS: How do I say that without giving it away?
NICOTERO: I can give a little tease to it, because a lot of this came from a conversation that Scott Gimple and I had last year. Because our group survives on the road for such a long time they become so proficient at killing walkers that we felt that the threat of them needs to be ever-present, and the idea that our group could find ourselves in the middle of a situation that they can’t handle. It’s one thing to walk into the prison yard and go “Okay, there’s sixty walkers and we got to kill them, go to the next area and kill them, and then we take over the prison,” whereas it was important for me that we always kept that threat viable. And the writers came up with several devices, even story telling-wise, that take it to the next level. It’s sort of a metamorphosis of what we’ve come to learn in the last three seasons. You’ll find out at the end of the first episode.
REEDUS: And Sharknado.
NICOTERO: Yeah, and then the governor shows up and drop sharks on everybody.
What about with Tyreese now? Having three alpha males in one group – how is that going to affect Daryl?
REEDUS: It’s not really one of those camps where everyone’s trying to fight to be the lead wolf. It’s not really like that. After everything that’s happened and everything we’re going through, it’s how do we continue? It’s not like the Governor’s side where he’s like, the Governor. It’s not like that. There’s strength in numbers, but there’s also strength in small, strong numbers. Everybody in the cast, everybody in the prison, can kick ass. We’ve watched them all kick ass. So I don’t think anybody’s trying to step on anybody’s toes…on purpose, anyway.
What about Daryl’s relationship with Rick? Does he blame Rick for not trusting Merle and pushing him away?
REEDUS: Everything that Daryl and Rick have been through…Rick has sort of become the brother that Merle wasn’t. And Daryl knows his brother. If Merle has his mind set to go do something, he’s going to go do it. You can’t stop him. I don’t think he blames anybody for that. That’s just my brother and if that’s what he wants to do, he’s going to make it happen.
NICOTERO: There were a couple deleted scenes in that episode when Merle is tearing apart the mattresses, he’s looking for drugs and he’s looking for an escape, and Rick comes up and they have that conversation. At the end of it, in an earlier cut, Merle finds a lighter. It’s ace of spades, and he sort of fixates on that imagery and the power of that. That sort of solidifies in his head what his role in the group is going to be. That he’s going to be the guy that’s got to do what Rick can’t do, because in his own way all he cares about is saving his brother.
It’s a theme that we deal with over and over again. What would you be willing to do to keep someone safe? What would you be willing to sacrifice? And we get into those themes a lot in season four. And Merle’s entire motivation is “I just want to keep my brother safe. If that means giving Michonne over to Governor will keep my brother safe then I’ll do it.” And her point is, “Dude, he’ll kill me, he’ll kill you, he’ll kill everybody.” And when Merle realizes that, that’s when he lets Michonne go and takes matters into his own hands. So I never saw it as Daryl ever being bitter towards Rick because Merle made the decision that he made. And it really was all because of his brother. That’s why that emotional moment at the end of that episode is so powerful. Because Merle really did do it to – he didn’t think he was going to die, it wasn’t a suicide mission. He went with every intention to kill the Governor. And if it hadn’t have been for that one split second where- and Michael will argue with me until the cows come home that he would have made that shot. He’s like, “You know I’m a great shot, and a bullet goes 1500 feet a second, and I would have taken the governor out like that.” I’m like, “I understand.” You’ll see on the season three DVD Michael and I did commentary on that episode-
REEDUS: Did you argue?
NICOTERO: [Laughs] We argued about it. Because he’s like, “I would never miss that shot. I hate the way this is edited.” Meanwhile, in the script it says, “Right as he’s about to take the shot Ben steps in front and takes the [bullet].” And Michael’s like, “I would have never missed that shot. The governor would be dead and the series would be over.”
What are you and your effects team doing to keep the walkers looking interesting and horrifying? Is there anything you’re doing differently for season four?
NICOTERO: We always like to play the idea that walkers have been just sitting in the sun and turning leathery, decomposing, and they’re just really nasty. So every season we do dozens of new sculptures. And we’re always modifying the contact lenses and the dentures. We have a bunch of hand puppets we’ve made that have lip movement, so you can open the mouth and the lips move. Even in the first episode we’re interspersing walkers at the fence with puppets. We’re just trying to keep our visual palate always different and ever changing.
Is it the tree walker?
REEDUS: Yeah. It’s insane, that one.
NICOTERO: Yeah, and Robert Kirkman wrote that gag. They see a walker in the woods and the tree has fallen over it and broken in half, but it’s still there. What I loved was – I read the description in the script, and then we did some consult work and then sculptures and stuff. We buried the guy in the ground and made fake legs, and made it super elaborate, and it’s just such a great visual. But it’s a gag that tells the story. Carl and Hershel are out in the woods and they see that walker and it’s like they can come from anywhere. The threat can come from anywhere and they’re never really safe. There’s always something around. It’s a great gag. Robert wrote a great script. The thing I love is that the writers have really sort of made the gags intrinsic to the storytelling. Like [Frank] Darabont did in the pilot, where you see that half walker in the park. That just speaks volumes for what our world is like now. That you feel compassion, and when Rick kneels down and says, “I’m sorry this happened to you,” and the things just sort of weakly reaching up to him. That changed the course of zombies for me.
REEDUS: Yeah, forever.
What would you say is the tone of season four?
REEDUS: I don’t know, man. It’s sympathetic loss. How would you describe it? There’s so much going on?
NICOTERO: What’s interesting is that everybody has had to do terrible things to survive in this world. Carl shot somebody in the face..everything that’s happened. People have done things that make them question their own humanity, and truthfully the question is, can you come back from those? Can you do things that you need to do to survive? Like Merle making that sacrifice. And that’s definitely one of our themes – the horrible things that you have to do to survive, do they make you less human by doing them? It’s a really important for all of our characters.