The Walking Dead's Andrew Lincoln

EXCLUSIVE: Executive Producer Greg Nicotero spills secrets of The Walking Dead's midseason return

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Feb 7, 2014, 12:49 PM EST

AMC's zombie-apocalypse megahit The Walking Dead returns this Sunday with season four's midseason premiere, and you can expect some major payoff in these next eight episodes, said executive producer Greg Nicotero in an exclusive interview with Blastr.

“When we get deeper into the second half of the series, there will be things that people are going to recognize that we've set up in the first half of the season. You'll be like, 'Oh, I get why that happened now.' In retrospect, as a whole, when you go back and you watch the whole season, you're really going to see things like that,” said Nicotero.

“The things that we set up in the first episode we use later. Everything's set up. There's nothing haphazard about this season. Everything that's set up is teed up and played and pays off. To me, I think the most exciting thing is, I know what's coming for the next eight episodes ... experiencing that with our fans is something that I'm really, really excited about,” he said.

It's going to get scarier

In the midseason finale, we lost our beloved Hershel and our despised psycho villain, the Govenor, and the survivors ended up running for their lives after the Governor's attack forced them to abandon the prison. Coming up, we'll meet new characters and see our heroes face dangerous new adventures. However, the threat of the walkers is only going to become more dangerous, promises Nicotero.

“One of the first things that we really wanted to do this season was reinvigorate the threat of the walkers,” he said. Indeed, so far this season walkers have rained from above when a helicopter crashed through the rain-soaked ceiling of a store and come up from being buried in the mud to chomp on poor little Meghan.

“One of the best ways to do that is to catch people off guard. This group of people wouldn't be alive if they weren't really good at taking care of themselves and surviving. But if you put them right in the middle of a walker horde, or you have them coming from areas where they didn't expect or weren't prepared for, it's fun and it's scary. The one thing my kids did say about this season, they were like, 'Dad, it's kind of scary this year.' Not that the show didn't have its moments before, but they really recognized that there were two episodes they were really scared watching. Like, good. It should be scary. We want people to feel that tension and that suspense, and the idea that anything could come around the corner,” he said.

Mixing it up and killing off Hershel

“The Governor, we kind of knew it was coming. I do have to say that the departures from the graphic novel, there are still some really, really specific things that we take a lot of our story cues from. Of course in the graphic novel, when the Governor comes back to prison, it's Tyreese that they kill. It's not Hershel. So having the opportunity to open up the graphic novel and pull storylines and pull bits and pieces from the graphic novel, but put enough of a twist on them that they're a little bit different, is really exciting. The source material is fantastic. Hershel, yeah, that was a hard one,” said Nicotero.

A hard one, indeed. Hershel lost his leg and then his head as the Governor flipped out one final time during his attack on the prison. “Knowing once you get to that point where the prison is on fire and everybody has to scatter, the real question becomes, 'How would Hershel have survived?' Would he have been able to?”

Keeping it fresh

“I honestly think that we want to make sure we keep the show fresh. That's very, very important. And that we don't leave characters dangling. There was a little bit of season three where that happened, with Andrea sleeping with the Governor and then she went back to the prison and she made that decision that she had to kill the Governor and she couldn't do it. That's that storyline that went just a little bit too long, to the point where the audience really despised Andrea,” said Nicotero.

“It's important that we always really service those characters and make sure that the characters aren't left dangling, and that they don't make stupid decisions. That really is important. The decisions that people make and how they turn around and impact our characters. Every decision that our characters make in this season does have some repercussion, whether it be a positive one or a negative one. Which is perfectly illustrated when Hershel smiles [at Rick in the midseason finale right before the Governor kills him],” he said.

“The storyline really for the first half of the season was, 'Have we gone too far? Are we capable of doing the things that we need to do to survive?' We see Rick at the beginning, and he's the farmer, and he's the guy who's like, 'Listen, I need to be a good role model for my son and my daughter, so I'm willing to put aside that brutality.' Even Hershel's last moment when he looks at Rick and Rick says, 'You guys can come in here, we can all live together, we don't need to fight.'

“And Hershel smiles, because Hershel knows that everything that he had been trying to advise Rick as to how to lead his life and how to be a role model for his kids, everything that Hershel was trying to do, Rick listened. It's like, 'You know what? He heard me. He has become the man that I always knew he could be. It's really great to be able to see that that's the last moment of Hershel's story. It's as if he's succeeded. He succeeded in saving Rick from himself,” said Nicotero.

But now, “all of that's gone. Now everybody's gone,” he said.

It feels like the beginning

“The whole heart of the second part of the season, seeing that the group has scattered and seeing who ends up with who and what the result of the battle was, it's really fantastic writing. I directed episode 9 and episode 15, so the midseason premiere [is] one that I directed. It's exciting, because it really feels like a new show. I feel like it feels like the beginning of season one again, because our characters are on the road. Season two we had Hershel's Farm. Season three we had the prison and, maybe not so successfully, Woodbury. So it's really the first time since the first season that our characters are vulnerable. They're out in the open,” said Nicotero.

“Everybody's scattered. Now we have the heartbreak. We see Rick and Carl leave the prison together, how they deal with the loss of the prison, the loss of the other people that they had all relied on."

Losing the prison was a “devastating loss for everyone and their group. The fact that they had it pretty good there at the prison, and now they're out in the world again. It's really much more individual stories in the second half. We get a chance to touch base with each of these individual groups as they're all struggling to survive. What's more important, 'Do we go back and look for them or do we move forward,' or 'Can we not move forward anymore because we're too devastated by the loss?' All of those themes are all interwoven in the second half of the season,” he said.

We'll get another arc from the graphic novel

“The group comes in contact with Abraham and Eugene and Rosita, three big characters from the graphic novel. It's already been announced that they've been cast in the show, so we definitely get the chance to introduce another story arc from the graphic novel into the TV show. We have Josh McDermott and Michael Cudlitz and Christian Serratos, who have come in and joined our group. They're fantastic. They're great actors. It was just really fascinating to be able to watch our show and then introduce the Governor and get his story. His story has ended and now we have new characters coming in. I think the new characters bring a new dynamic, a very different dynamic. I think it's really exciting," said Nicotero.

We'll also meet Gareth, played by Andrew J. West, a mysterious character who will be a remix of a new character and one from the comics.

It's not slow, it's character development

“I'm proud of the show. I love the show. There's always going to be people out there who will criticize things, because that's the way the world is. But I always felt that when people say, 'Oh, the show got kind of slow,' I'm thinking, 'Well, we're developing characters, and if you want us to rush through all that stuff and then make the show this adrenaline-filled action series, that's really not what it is,'" said Nicotero.

“If you don't care about those characters, and this is movie-making 101 ... from my makeup effects background, I've learned this over and over again. You can have the greatest makeup effect in the world, but if you don't care about the characters, it doesn't matter. They proved that in all those slasher movies in the '70s and '80s, when you couldn't name the name of one character that was killed, because the special effects was the star. What I took away from that as a special effects person was, 'Yeah, that's fine. But what if you did that and you actually cared about the character? And you were invested in whether they lived or died, or whether they were happy or sad?' Even in the episodes that I direct, because I have a makeup effects background, I make sure that those emotional moments are there, because I know that everything hinges on that,” he said.

Firing on all cylinders

“It's been amazing. It really has. Scott Gimple is a fantastic writer and loves the show. I feel like we're firing on all cylinders. It's really exciting. Other people see it too. It's not just us that are saying, 'You know, we're doing some really good stuff here.' It's rewarding to have people appreciate what we're doing. It's a hard job, man,” he said.

How The Walking Dead has changed television

“Listen, when we wrapped in season two, we had the wrap party and Gale Anne Hurd said, 'Well, you should say something to the crew, because you're sort of one of our leaders. You should say something.' I found myself standing in front of the cast and crew and talking about TV shows like Star Trek and X-Files. I said, 'Guys, 30 years from now, people are going to be talking about our show and the things that we love to do, that we work so hard at. To me what's so important and so exciting is, five years from now and 10 years from now and 20 years from now, people will be talking about how The Walking Dead changed television,” said Nicotero.

“I was talking to some people recently about how this is the new Golden Age of Television. What's fascinating for me is that shows like Breaking Bad and Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, people celebrate those shows together,” he said.

“In Atlanta, where we shoot Walking Dead, people go to bars on Sunday nights and three or four hundred people watch the show together. It's a communal experience. They don't want to sit in their house and watch it. They want to go out and experience it with other people so they can share in the excitement of what's happening to the characters and what's going on in the show. That's amazing to me. When I was younger, I would go to every single movie. I would see every film. But now you can download movies and you can iTunes and you can watch it on your phone or iPad. People forget the communal experience of watching something together where you get excited about it. The Death Star exploding at the end of Star Wars or the shark popping out of the boat or Ben Gardner's head popping out of the boat in Jaws, and the fact that those moments, every single person in the audience all reacted the exact same way and then looked at each other, 'Oh, my God, did you see that? That was crazy!' People are experiencing that on The Walking Dead. They want to experience it with other people. That's astounding to me."

About that spinoff

Doing The Walking Dead is “like shooting a movie every eight days. I've always said that, but the reality of it is I watch other shows and I work on other things, and I'm thinking, 'God, the way that we do it ... I don't know how you re-create that,' because it's literally like finding the Super Bowl team. That's what it feels like. And it's great. Every single person that's part of the team has their touchdowns,” said Nicotero.

As far as his involvement in a spinoff, which will be a new story with new characters, “it's still early on the process. Robert and Gale have expressed interest in me doing it. I don't know. I love the show and the fact that I get to produce and direct and do the effects, it really has opened up the universe for me, what has happened on The Walking Dead. I just love the opportunities,” he said.

Here's a preview:

Are you ready for the return of The Walking Dead