We just knew that when the cast and creative team of AMC's "The Walking Dead" assembled before the press at Comic-Con International in San Diego, they weren't going to venture into many Season 7 specifics beyond that infamous season-ending cliffhanger. Unfortunately, that means viewers will have to continue to wonder who will find themselves on the fatal receiving end of Negan's baseball bat, Lucille.
But that doesn't mean they didn't have a lot to talk about! The cast and crew readily opened up about anticipation they felt ahead of Negan's notorious entrance and the fallout it provoked among the show's fans. We also learned about the continuing zombie evolution of the Walkers throughout the coming season, and bringing in new characters from the comics, including King Ezekiel and his guardian tiger, Shiva.
On anticipating fan response and dealing with fallout on big twists, tweaks and secretive cliffhangers, like the identity of Negan's victim:
Scott Gimple (executive producer): Being a reader of the comic, I only saw the published letters -- but there's always been big reactions to the comics when big things happen. I think you can neither court nor worry about it too much, because if you're working for the fans, if you care about the fans, and you're trying to tell a story that either offers them something different or takes some risks, you have to respect the reaction, no matter what. But I think it's important not to be afraid. I think that's what the comics -- that's what the template that was started.
Steven Yuen: During the dumpster time, dumpster-gate, whatever it's called, that was tough, because I pretty much literally holed up in the apartment. That's actually a greater thing to think about these days is, like -- when you do sign on to do a show that is long running, I guess, in this day and age, you're kind of not just signing up to be an actor on a show, you're kind of signing up for a specific lifestyle, to a degree, which is a very interesting thing that was new to me.
So yeah, I literally holed up. I rarely came out. Just for the month. And then, in terms of like the extra questions that I obviously get due to the comic based on last season, that's just been easy for me, too, because it's easy to say nothing.
Danai Gurira: It's pretty tricky, because they're curious about your whereabouts. But for us guys, they're trying to figure it out -- it's like all this curiosity to get us to stumble into saying something, which gets a little old. Like, you bump into anyone anywhere, and they're just trying to figure out, "Just tell me who it is." Okay, okay. [murmuring sounds] All this Inspector Gadget stuff going on.
Josh McDermitt: Fans say, "I really hope it's not Eugene, because he's got this newfound confidence, and we want to see him continue." And that's great, to have people rally around your character. But at the same time, it's kind of beautiful -- I've maybe only like one or two instances where I've seen, like, "Well, I hope it's so and so..."
What's going on is, everybody has their favorites, but really, they just don't want to see anybody go. The fan base is really rallying around everybody, even though there's the favorites and stuff like that. It's beautiful to see.
Greg Nicotero (executive producer/director/special effects makeup): I think the biggest challenge is, you know it's coming. We're going into that moment where we know it's going to happen. I think that is the trickiest aspect of the first episode, is living up to the expectation of that moment, and then, what's even more interesting for me as the director of the episode was, how that changes the direction of the survivors, forever.
When we shot the episode, that, to me, was as critical as the actual moment which is the five minutes after, the ten minutes after, the twenty minutes after, when the smoke clears on the battlefield sort of scenario. It's a fascinating exercise in emotion, because shock and denial and all these things play into it. It was a master class in acting from these people right here, to watch on a daily basis.
But every time you get the outline of the script or the Scott [Gimple] and the writers' pitch, you never want to hear that it's coming. I think the trick with this particular episode is, everybody knows it's coming. So it's agonizing to think about the fact that we're changing the landscape of our cast.
Gale Anne Hurd (executive producer): There are some that are so familiar with the comic book and know all of this, but for those fans who aren't, the introduction of Negan was so important because they don't have the expectation already for the comic book. They get to see him and experience him in this moment that is now being extended from the end of Season 6, into the beginning of Season 7.
It really, really sets up just what a formidable, but somehow incredibly charming character Negan is, and we just get really up close and personal with Lucille. People who didn't really know who Lucille was by end of [Season 7], they will know that Lucille is a very close friend of Negan's, and also an inanimate object -- a baseball bat.
David Alpert (executive producer): It sums up the conversation for us. Two things -- one was, if the character is killed off the show, and it doesn't hurt, and it doesn't upset somebody, then we weren't doing our jobs making sure that people cared about them, right? The other aspect is, you're trying to make that promise... There's no reason somebody's killed off just [because], "Oh, we need that plot point." We try to take that seriously, but at the same time, do it in a way that fulfills the organic nature of the story.
On the repercussions of the addition of Negan -- and Jeffrey Dean Morgan -- to the show:
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: Right now, I think, this Comic-Con is going to be okay. It has been okay. I think next year, it could be a little different. That's what I think! I think next year, it's going to be a salute of middle fingers and language when I come out onto a stage, but right now, it's been great. And being with these guys -- because I know it's a hard deal. What the show has gone through has been hard, and being the cause of that, in kind of a way, it also has sucked.
That being said, I feel like I've been embraced by the cast, and I sure have embraced them. But it's going to be hard. It's going to be hard until it's not anymore, and I don't know when that's going to be. [Laughs]
Nicotero: I'll tell you, too, that the two nights that we shot that last sequence, I mean, Jeffrey was still finishing "The Good Wife." Flew in, like, one-day costume fittings. We shot that entire 12-page dialogue scene. You would think about just how you have to prepare for that -- and he nailed it. I mean, it was really amazing to watch.
It was cool. Jeffrey was kind of geeking out a little bit the first moments. He was like, "That's Rick Grimes over there." "Yeah, I know who it is. You're going to ruin his life."
And these guys who are literally sitting on their knees, watching him go back and forth, when I would say cut, they would get up and say, "That was fucking great, man." Like, the cast really surrounded him and brought him in. We're so lucky.
Morgan: Not only were they literally on their knees, but they were acting their asses off. I mean, to do that and be that vulnerable for a guy that's just walking in to kind of turn the show upside down is a testament, I think, to everybody sitting up here... I've never seen anything like it. Off camera, the extent that everybody up here went to was amazing.
Andrew Lincoln: I remember the first time we were there, and he just came on set, and everybody was kneeling down and we sort of shot this way. The cameras just set up, and there were like, eight cameras on Jeffrey. And he just went, "Are we doing a rehearsal?" And I looked at him, and I went, "You're on your own kid." And he nailed it in one take. It was amazing. It was so exciting.
When you see good actors kicking it, it's one of the most -- it's what I love, man! I don't watch the show, but I get to live it with you guys and with you guys, and it's beautiful. Jeffrey said, "Sometimes you have scenes, and you see people breaking down and doing work that is so cool." It's so cool. It's why I do it. It's why I get up in the morning.
On the expanding world of Season 7:
Gimple: We have these groups in these different areas. And some of these groups, we've only seen sort of hints of, like the Saviors. They exist in their own society, and we see that. We talked about The Kingdom. That's their own place. We saw Tara and Keith in some weird place. There's Alexandria. With these places, you have different characters. You have different situations. Different ways of life here. So we're expanding, literally, into these different locations, but also in the types of characters we see and the kind of lives that they lead.
On future additions to the show from the comic book world:
Robert Kirkman: We'll always be bringing in characters from the comics. It's more reaching that point where Ezekiel was in the storyline, so it's just a natural progression. As we move through the storyline, we'll be bringing some characters up sooner, some characters up later, and stuff like that.
But there will definitely be other characters that you can see this season, and some surprises coming up, I think, so you can look out for that. But right now, it's all about Ezekiel and Shiva as far as new characters.
I was asking Scott about doing this thing, and I pointed out that it's not particularly humane to have, like, a live tiger on set. And it's also very dangerous for the actors.
[We went with CG] so I was like, "Great, no real tiger. I can still come to set." That sounds awesome, because I was would not have gone to set if there had been a real tiger. So there's no real tiger involved. It's all magic.
On the inevitability of expendable cast members:
Chandler Riggs: For everyone on this cast, every time we lose someone, it sucks. It really sucks, and we hate to see them go. But ultimately, what's most important for the show is the story. And these deaths are what keeps the show moving forward. Sadly, it's a necessity.
Lincoln: But the cool thing is we get to see them at Comic-Con anyway. We've seen John Bernthal tonight, and Sarah Wayne Callies tomorrow night. All the dead ones show up here!
On the evolution of Season 7's zombie effects:
Nicotero: There's some amazing stuff coming up. We came up with some pretty amazing gags that, again, all serve the story. Anything that happens in the show, we never stop the show to do an elaborate special effect. Everything is very important to the storyline, intrinsic to the storyline.
But we also don't want to see the same zombies every single episode. So my team and I spend a lot of time just finessing things and fine tuning things. I mean, any artist that has an opportunity to revisit something and tweak it and see what they thought worked and didn't work about it -- we're seven years of doing it. And we did a walker on Wednesday on set, and my guys were like, 'This is my favorite walker we've done, ever since the beginning!"
They still bring the same enthusiasm to the job, and that's critical. I would have thought at some point that they were like, "Fuck, do we have to do another zombie?" But they're still in it, and they're still committed every day. We take great pride in continuing to push the envelope and put stuff on television that, seven years ago, there was nothing like this on TV. From a storytelling standpoint, from an acting standpoint, from a makeup effects standpoint.
To me, the thing I'm most proud of is when someone will come up to me and say, "I want to be a makeup artist because I watched 'The Walking Dead.'" That's how I got into because of the movies I watched when I was a kid. AThe fact that I get to pay that forward to an entire new group of filmmakers is the greatest compliment for me.
"The Walking Dead returns Sunday, October 23, at 9pm ET, on AMC.