Greg Nicotero And Danai Gurira: Michonne’s Pets, Zombie Easter Eggs, And More
This week’s episode of The Walking Dead was an explosive one. After the gloom and heartache of Lori and T-Dog’s departure, we got an action-packed episode full of nods to the comics. We got to see Penny, the zombie battle pit, and Michonne making quick work of six walkers. The episode was directed by co-executive producer of the show and special effects makeup master Greg Nicotero. I had the chance to take part in a chat with Nicotero and Michonne actress Danai Gurira.
Nicotero said that he would be directing a total of three episodes this season. He has finished up episode 11 and 15, and is in L.A. editing 15. He did promise that we will be seeing what happened to Carol “soon.” The director also commented on Rick’s zombie rampage scene. He said that because Andrew Lincoln only had the one line at the end of the episode, he really ramped up the intensity for the prison rampage. He would be off by himself being very quiet and just look up when they were ready to go.
While the director was happy to get to bring some of the comic book moments to life, he was pleased to do the smaller and emotional moments like Maggie and Glenn’s kiss and Daryl holding the baby. While the emotions are all well and good, I asked Nicotero about zombie. When asked how exactly they brought Michonne’s pets to life:
What was interesting for me was coming up with a way to do those prosthetics practically so that we didn’t have to do a lot of visual effects augmentation. That was one of the first things we started testing when we started prepping the show. What we did was since walkers don’t really blink a lot and their eyes are already dead and rotted looking, we built a prosthetic that built the performer’s faces out. We put fake eyes in those prosthetics so when you’re looking at them you aren’t seeing the actor’s eyes you’re seeing fake eyes because we were able to simulate the missing jaw and the pulled out teeth. Everything on their bodies is all practical and it’s all there aide from the missing arms, which we painted blue.
One of the things I strive for as a makeup effects artist, is to mix mediums. I always feel that you keep the audience guessing by throwing tricks at them every so often, so you’ll see a practical zombie face with no arms. By utilizing both mediums of visual effects and practical effects, it gives you the best result. Another perfect example is where Michonne kills the six walkers. I really love the choreography in that scene and what was fun for me, on two levels, was number one being able to mix up CG kills and practical kills. The first four kills were digital and the last two were practical. By mixing it up I think it keeps the audience on their toes. Right when they think they figured out how we did it, then we do something different. I think that how graceful the kills were and that’s a really important scene for Michonne. That’s the first time you really see her smile in the whole series so far. She’s really in her element, she’s relishing this moment. With the pets it was a different kind of thing because she had a different relationship with them.
Danai Gurira commented on how it was to be on set with her pets. She talks about how being in character helped her cope with all the weirdness.
I think it was interesting. They are actors, which is kind of amazing. You look at them and forget, because of how Mr. Nicotero is at what he does. Michonne’s relationship with them is very specific. It was like she’s living in that specificity and not interpreting them as actors, because they’re not to her. There were times when you’re not talking between takes, there’s not a lot of that going on. It’s very much like ‘they’re my pets.’ Like I said in The Talking Dead, that was really weird to be handed those chains which these guys are attached to. At first I was like ‘oh God, what have I signed up for?’ Getting more into Michonne, it makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense in her mind, so it makes perfect sense to me. There’s a distant of course between her and her pets, but at the same time they’re still her pets. My relationship with them was with accordance with what goes on in her head.
It seems like the zombie level of effects is upped every season. You go from bicycle girl to the well zombie to the aforementioned pets. This season sees new tricks and even some animatronics thrown in the mix. Nicotero talks about some of the tricks of the trade and the freedom he has with the show:
One of the things I took on The Talking Dead, when we did T-Dog’s demise, when he gets bit in the throat, we did a whole puppet head for him. It turned out so well that you can’t really tell. People don’t know it’s a dummy head that’s getting its throat torn out. The creative freedom I have on the show is unparalleled in regards to the prosthetics and makeup and effects work. Because I am a director and co-executive producer on the show, when I read the story document and scripts, I envision them and then I just build them. There’s not a lot of approval process I have to go through with the other producers. Gale literally says “Nicotero you’ve been in this world for almost 30 years, you know it.” The producers Glenn and Robert Kirkman trust my input and my visual direction in terms of the walkers. It really gives me the ultimate creative freedom to create whatever kind of walkers and whatever kind of walker kills we want to do.
It’s something even when you watch the first episode and Rick pulls the gas mask off the walkers face revealing that skull underneath, Glenn had pitched that gag and I created a puppet head so we could actually see when the gas mask comes out if kind of slush all the skin off underneath. It’s just those little moments where I get a chance to go “I know what I’d love to see for that.” The walker that’s sitting in the room with Rick, that was a really fun moment.
While talking about having fun with zombies, the zombie guru talked about some Easter Eggs he has sprinkles throughout the season. If you’re a fan of Dawn of the Dead or Jaws, you might have recognized a few thins in the previous episodes:
One other thing I wanted to throw out before I forget- being a fan of the genre that I am, every once in a while I throw little in-jokes out that I’ve never talked about. No one ever knows this. One of the walkers in the gladiator sequence we did an homage to the original Dawn of the Dead. There’s a walker when the lights come on, the second walker you see is Flyboy from Dawn of the Dead. We did a little in-joke to the end of Dawn. We have the guy with the white shirt, the torn out throat, and in the brown corduroy slacks. If you see it real quick it’s like a celebrity in-joke cameo walker character.
Even when you watch episode 3 and you see all the heads in the tanks in the Governor’s room, one of the heads is a recreated Ben Gardner’s head from Jaws. The head that pops out of the boat in Jaws, so one of the heads in the Governor’s tank is an in-joke to Jaws. I’m throwing little nods in there to Dawn of the Dead and Jaws, all my favorite movies, that nobody else knows. You’ll get them as you watch the show or I talk about them and go back and watch them. It’s just those little fun things that literally geek me out. I just directed episode 15 and I did another little in-joke. The camera operator came up and said ‘there’s some significance to this walker isn’t there?’ and I asked how he knew that and he said ‘you’ve done three setups on it and shot it like three times. You’re loving this for some reason.’
Nicotero is the master of zombie special effects, it was an honor getting to chat with him about his work on The Walking Dead. Gurira was very much like Michonne, remaining tight lipped about what we can expect from her this season. It will be exciting to see what Nicotero brings to episodes 11 and 15. What did you think about this week’s episode? What about the new zombie tricks this season?