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'The Walking Dead': Greg Nicotero Reveals How They Pulled Off The Heartbreaking Midseason Premiere

The director and FX guru reveals how they shot that haunting episode.

Warning: MAJOR spoilers for "The Walking Dead" midseason premiere, "What Happened and What's Going On," lie ahead!

For those who thought we'd take a break from non-stop misery and suffering after the death of Beth Greene (Emily Kinney), turns out "Walking Dead" pulled no punches with its mid-season premiere. Instead, we got the death of another major character, Tyreese (Chad Coleman), in a haunting hour written by showrunner Scott Gimple, and directed FX guru and producer Greg Nicotero.

And not only did Tyreese kick the bucket, but we also got the stunning return of several major characters thought long dead and gone, as Tyreese hallucinated alone in a cramped room, deciding whether to live or die.

Yay! Fun! Anyway, it was a bold, different hour for the series that involved not just keeping a major death secret, but also the return of numerous actors to the show. To find out just how they shot those cameos, as well as what went into the decision to kill Tyreese, MTV News talked to Nicotero over the phone.

MTV News: It's amazing hour of television… But it feels like a very different sort of episode for you. You're certainly more known for big effects, huge explosions, and this is a much smaller, focused episode; so what was it like tackling the hour?

Greg Nicotero: It was certainly challenging. I've handled big episodes and small episodes. In season two, I did the episode where Dale is killed, and there was only one zombie in the episode. And it was a very dramatic episode with Jeffrey DeMunn.

So I've handled almost every kind of episode you could imagine… But this was different. It was very visual. It was very poetic. We used a lot of visual imagery to evoke Tyreese's state of mind through the course of the episode. Using flashes of Woodbury, flashes of very specific images like a skeleton in the woods with flowers growing out of the chest, or a framed photo of a house, or bullet holes in a windshield...

We really wanted to tell the story visually, and build to a specific climax where the audience saw these images and didn't really know what they were. But as the hour continues, they're given clues as to what each one of those images refers to.

It was tremendously challenging. It was probably the most complicated episode we've done from a storytelling standpoint, because we were jumping back and forth in time, we had characters that had been killed off the show that were brought back to the show.

Each time you would see an image, it would progress. You see the image of the house in a framed photo. And the next time you see the same image, but there's blood dripping on it. And then later we tie that in, and you realize it's the dead walker that Tyreese killed, and it's the blood dripping out of the walker and onto the framed photo.

So, it really was a jigsaw puzzle that had to be created on top of the fantastic emotion of Chad Coleman's performance. All in all, it was a really complicated episode, and it was very challenging. But I'm tremendously proud of how it turned out.

MTV: Speaking of those visuals… Is that something that's specific to the way Tyreese died, or is it universal to the experience of anyone dying from a walker bite?

Nicotero: No, it was specific to his experiences. When he's walking through the woods before they get to Noah's neighborhood, he sees the skeleton in the window… Tyreese is a very sensitive character, and it's really all about what the world is now, and is Tyreese the kind of person that can willingly survive in this world.

If you think about everything he went through in the last season, with Lizzie and Mika dying, he lost Karen, he let Martin live… He is the kind of guy who still believes you don't have to be a brutal killer to survive. There are ways that you can survive, but ultimately the world wins, and Tyreese loses.

At the very end of the episode, he makes that choice. He's sitting in the car, and he sees Lawrence [Gilliard, Jr.] and he sees the girls, and Emily [Kinney], and basically they say, "It's better now. It's okay," he makes the conscious choice to close his eyes and die.

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MTV: Let's talk about those cameos… You guys are an insanely secretive show, and barely anything ever gets out. I have to imagine security was through the roof making sure people didn't know these characters were all coming back. So what was involved in actually getting them on set and shooting these scenes?

Nicotero: One of the decisions we made early on in prep was, we built that bedroom on stage. One of the reasons we built the bedroom is because we didn't want these actors to be walking around on a location.

It's very unfortunate that we have a group of people that relish the opportunity to spoil our show. It really hurts the show, because it hurts the experience for a lot of our viewers. So we took great care in building that set of the little boy's room so that David Morrissey, and Brighton [Sharbino], and Kyla [Kennedy], and Chris Coy and Lawrence were not walking around on a location out in Georgia some place.

We shot that scene over a two-day period, and Emily was still in Georgia because we had just finished shooting 5.08. We had a week hiatus, and then we went right into 5.09. So Emily was still there, nobody at that point had known [that she was going to die].

So bringing them all in, it was challenging, and we really wanted to keep it secret. Because we want those moments to be shocking, and surprising. At one point, David may have been spotted getting coffee some place, but David did a pilot in Georgia after we shot "The Walking Dead," so I don't think people really jumped on it.

But it was something we were very aware of, for sure.

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MTV: Because it was so shocking to see everyone back in the show, I started to look for the seams, to see if you faked it in some way. The only one I couldn't 100% tell if he was shot at the same time as everyone else was David…

Nicotero: We did! In an earlier cut, Scott Gimple, who did an absolutely fantastic job writing this episode, we did shoot one shot when Tyreese is giving what we refer to as his rebuttal… When he's making his plea as to why he wants to live; we did one wide shot where you saw everybody in the room with him. But we had to be careful because we didn't really want to shoot Tyreese over the shoulder of the characters, onto Tyreese. Because we really wanted to play it that it was all coming from his mind, and they weren't really in the room with him, but he imagined they were.

So we did one shot where we're wide and we see everybody in the room standing around him. And it was interesting, as it wasn't shot from his point of view; so it was a little disorienting. It almost felt like, wait, we're not in Tyreese's point of view, but they're all standing there. So we chose to take that shot out.

I'll tell you, the amazing thing about our show is we've developed such a fantastic camaraderie between all of our actors, and all of our crew that when [Michael] Rooker dies, or when Jon Bernthal dies, or when Sara Wayne Callies dies, we still see each other. We're still friends. Any time they're in Georgia, they still come to set, and visit.

So the fact that David got to come back, put on the outfit, do the accent, put on the patch again… He was so excited. I've never seen somebody so giddy about getting a chance to step back into a role that they love so much.

It's a really sad episode, it's so intense, and it doesn't even end with music at the end, it ends with the sound of shoveling over the end credits. We don't let up. We don't even let you go out of the episode on music. We continue the heartbreaking tragedy of Rick burying Tyreese by following the sounds of the shovel.

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MTV: Obviously a huge part of the show is people figuring out their lives in this post-apocalyptic world, and what it means, and what their place is. Particularly over the past season, it feels like when someone does figure it out, they're taken out of the picture. Bob finally felt happy, and he died. Beth figured things out in the hospital, and she died. And now Tyreese, same thing. Is that something you guys are trying to explicitly hit on?

Nicotero: I don't think so. The universe changes so dramatically all the time. Beth's death was tragic, but it was a last minute choice that she made. When she saw that Dawn was going against everything, and trying to take Noah back, she made that choice.

If you remember the end of last season, Bob was always the guy who said, "I'm the last one that survives my group. He had been through two or three groups, and everybody around him died. So when they left the prison, there's a scene where he's walking on the tracks with Sonequa [Martin-Green], and he's smiling. And she's like, "What are you so happy about?" And he says, "I'm happy because I'm alive. I'm not the last person to actually survive."

The fact that Bob has survived at the end of season four, and actually has a relationship… He's in a great place. He steps outside, and he's crying in episode two, because he's so happy he got a chance to say goodbye to everybody, which really doesn't happen.

That's what's interesting about episode nine is, usually the deaths happen so quickly, and they're so shocking, that you really don't get an opportunity to process it. And in this episode, Tyreese gets bit, and we really took the audience on a journey with him. Is he going to die, or is he going to live? What's going to happen?

So he's in the room, he fights the walker, he kills it, and he's still alive. Then they come in, the cut his arm off, they take him out to the gate, there's a bunch of walkers there, they kill him, and then they get him to the car. He gets stuck in the fence, but they get him to the car.

There's all these moments where you go, "they're not going to make it, they're not going to make it." They overcome that, and then they crash into the truck and all the zombie torsos fall out – but they get away.

Our intent was, we really wanted the audience to believe that Tyreese was going to make it. They were going to get him back, they were going to cauterize the wound, and he was going to survive.

When you open the episode with the funeral, and we play up the idea that it's Beth's funeral, because you see Maggie crying… Only to reveal at the end it wasn't Beth's funeral, it was Tyreese's funeral, and that he didn't make it.

There's a lot of audience manipulation in this episode, because we really wanted the audience to feel Chad [Coleman]'s struggle, as to whether he was going to want to live, or not want to live. And ultimately, he just closes his eyes, and looks at the sun the trees, and makes a decision to not go on.