The Walking Dead Season 4 kicked off with a bang – a bang to the tune of a new all-time cable TV record of 16.1 million viewers. That beat their own previous record of 12.4 million from the last new episode, the Season 3 finale. The show is a juggernaut, with a spin-off already on the way for next year, but first, they have to get through Season 4.
At an event celebrating 10 years of The Walking Dead comic at New York Comic Con, we spoke with the director of the premiere episode, producer Greg Nicotero. He broke down some of the major scenes in the first episode, talked about what makes the series work for a veteran of horror and newbies alike, and gave a tease about why you should watch that first episode a couple more times. It should be obvious, but SPOILERS AHOY for the first episode of the season!
Newsarama: Greg, Season 4, Episode 1, so many things to talk about with this episode. I want to start with Beth though. We saw so much more of Beth. She seemed to act almost as a living metaphor for the whole theme of the episode of “you can’t come back.” What was your intention with that? Am I picking up on the right things here?
Greg Nicotero: Yeah, you are, definitely! What I love about Beth’s moment when she sees Zack, and she says “no, I don’t want to say goodbye, it’s all good.” She knows that’s how she needs to live her life in order to survive. She needs to understand that, well, shit happens.
When Daryl comes back to her room and says “he’s gone,” and she says “Daryl, I don’t cry anymore,” it was special. That scene, it’s one of my favorite scenes of the episode. Because she hugs Daryl. He looks uncomfortable, and he touches her elbow. When I cut that episode together, I wanted to make sure that he looked uncomfortable. When she looks up at him with her big eyes and her sweater falls off her shoulder and she pulls her sweater back up, it’s such a beautiful connection between the two of them. I love that in the middle of her momentary grief, she looks at Daryl and says, “are you okay?” It’s such a beautiful moment.
Emily and Norman really nailed that scene, so I’m so glad to hear that’s the first thing you said, because they did a great job with that.
Nrama: Absolutely, it was definitely the biggest thing that stuck with me about the episode, it made the whole episode so much more powerful.
Nicotero: Well thank you!
Nrama: What is it like having to balance those quiet moments with the crazy, intense, horror monster moments? What do you do to make sure you’re reaching the right balance?
Nicotero: Well, the first episode had so many emotions in it. The Rick and Clara moments are so powerful. When you see her saying to Rick “have you done things that you can’t come back from” and Rick’s not engaging. Rick’s just walking with her, and she’s trying to reach him. She’s trying to say, “I did things, we left people, I wasn’t nice like you are.” And you look at Rick’s face, and you know that he did shit he’s not proud of, too.
It really was a triumph. Mr. Gimple’s script was a triumph of emotion. When we screened that episode for the crew, people were crying when Clara dies and we’re on that super-close-up of her face, and she asks what were the three questions. Our set decorator, I was standing next to him, and he got choked up! When the episode ended, I went over to him and said, “I saw that!” He said, “the set decoration was so great!” (laughs) It was hard for him to even understand why he had gotten so emotional!
That’s what our show does, and it does well. It gets you with those emotional moments, and makes you feel something. If you didn’t feel anything, if it was just zombies eating people, then we’ve missed the mark.
Nrama: Coming from a horror background, what has surprised you about The Walking Dead’s approach to horror?
Nicotero: Listen, the fact that so many people have embraced the show, and understand it! The show is successful because we respect the source material. It’s not a comedy; it’s not a sendup. You’re not winking at the audience. There’s not a cheerleader zombie or a Santa zombie. None of that stuff is in there. We’re really dedicated to keeping it real.
As we learned in the 70s when they did Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, you have to identify with the people. The reason Halloween is a huge success is because of Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s not because of Michael Myers! It’s because of Curtis, because you identified with that woman.
It’s the same with The Walking Dead. When you identify with Rick, or Carl, or Michonne, then you’re pulled into the story.
Nrama: Anything you can hint about without big spoilers that you’re excited for people to see out of season 4?
Nicotero: What’s most exciting for me is that little nuances that we set up in the first episode pay off throughout all of the first eight episodes. So by the time you get to the mid-season finale, you’ll go back and watch the first episode again and you’ll see things that we setup there, that will pay off in that finale. People will want to watch it over and over again. And that’s all thanks to that brilliant man right there (points to showrunner and writer Scott Gimple).