The Walking Dead is back on our screens with Season 9, which is promising a fresh start under a new showrunner, Angela Kang.
While there is lots of change around the show at the moment, with new cast members joining, Andrew Lincoln leaving, and even a brand new credits sequence, one consistent presence remains director/producer/zombies guru Greg Nicotero, who has been working on the series since the first season, and directing since the second.
He's the make-up and effects wizard behind the look of the walkers, and has also directed some of the series' biggest episodes, including No Sanctuary, No Way Out, and the Season 9 premiere, A New Beginning.
We had a chance to take part in a roundtable interview with Nicotero, where he discussed walkers, the conflict between Maggie and Rick, and Lincoln's departure.
Andrew Lincoln is leaving The Walking Dead this season - who is best positioned to lead the group after his departure?
Well, you know, we have a lot of great characters on the show and I'm pretty confident that we're gonna get a lot more Daryl, a lot more Michonne, a lot more Carol, and I think that's a good thing. They're fantastic actors, and as we saw in the season premiere, you're actually hearing more of their voices, getting a chance to see a lot more of how they're feeling. I feel like we're going back to the roots of Seasons 3 & 4, where we're allowing these intimate scenes between two people actually talking to each other about how they feel. And it's a new world.
It's been confirmed that a few people from the past are coming back, including Scott Wilson and Jon Bernthal. Obviously, there was the sad news over the weekend about Scott's passing, but looking back at filming this season, what was it like having them back on set?
It was great. Each one of those actors is magnificent and they left such an indelible mark on the show ... It's a really sad time for us right now because of Scott, I spent a lot of time with him over the summer, and the one thing that I can say about Scott, aside from what a magnificent man he was and what a great actor, he got to see the scene that we filmed. I showed it to him while I was visiting him, and he was overjoyed. When he walked on set, I remember looking at Angie [Kang] and saying 'this is what The Walking Dead should be'. The Walking Dead should be moments where we get to pay tribute to these great characters, and it reminded me of how great the show was, and the show's different now. My hopes are that the viewers will realise when watching Season 9 that we are sort of shifting the show back into the world that it existed in around Seasons 2, 3 and 4. Having these actors come back was great, and Scott was really grateful, I'm going to miss him like crazy. It's gonna be very bittersweet to see him on the show again, because his performance is beautiful and magical and magnificent, and it's gonna be sad that I won't be able to talk to him about it.
What have been the difficulties with regards to making the zombies on the show?
We continue to push the envelope, continue to try to make the visual of the zombies interesting and different. [In the Season 9 premiere] we got the chance to see the zombie with the spiders in its face, the other where you could see through its jaw in front of the Capitol building, and another being hoisted up on the cross with its missing nose. We really did a lot to showcase the zombies, because we want the audience to remember the zombies are still around, and looking more and more disgusting.
Do you ever get frustrated with the way your zombies are used?
[Laughs] I think the only time I ever get frustrated is when the directors don't shoot close-ups, because it's important that the zombies maintain their presence as a viable threat. There's been a couple of instances in scripts this year where they have written things that would almost play as comical, and I cut them out, because if you take the teeth out of the monster it's not scary anymore. We walk this fine line, while they've been killing these zombies for so many years now that they must be good at it, otherwise they'd be dead already, the zombies still need to stay a viable threat. I want the zombies to be scary and to be a threat, and that's something we're very conscious of. So the shot I did of the walkers in the first episode [of Season 9], I made sure that the camera was really, really close on their faces because you want to see their faces and study them.
For the child characters, how will they react growing up? Will zombies just become routine for them?
That's a great question. That is something you're going to get a chance to see in this season. If you think about the timeline of the show, there are children that wouldn't even remember what the world was like before zombies. So not only does their innocence need to be maintained, but they also need to be taught about this. One of the themes of this season is how children adapt to this world, because we have Maggie's baby now, and Judith is a little bit older, so you're gonna get a chance to see a lot more of that.
A major part of the Season 9 premiere is Maggie and Rick, and their differences. How big a part of Season 9 is that going to be, especially with Andrew Lincoln and Lauren Cohan leaving?
Well, you know, I think it's safe to say that Maggie's stepping up on her own. She's literally been grieving Glenn for the last two seasons, so that scene with Rick and Maggie on the balcony, that was the first scene we shot for the new episodes, and I'm really proud of it. I love how Lauren comes across in that whole episode, because there's a confidence in Maggie that we haven't seen before, or haven't seen in a long time, and I think it's important. When she executes Gregory, she says 'listen, the crime has to fit the punishment, and this is the world we live in - you guys can do what you want in Alexandria, and you guys can do what you want at the Sanctuary, but this is my world'. I think it's a great opportunity for Maggie, and Lauren's done an amazing job this season.
Thank you Greg!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Walking Dead Season 9 airs Mondays at 9pm on FOX.