'Walking Dead' Creator Robert Kirkman Talks Cliffhanger Death(s) and Sprawling Season 7

The Walking Dead - Season 6, Episode 16 -Still 4- Negan BACK-H 2016
Courtesy of Gene Page/AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers fromThe Walking Dead comic book series.]

It's been six months since the cliffhanger heard 'round the world on AMC's The Walking Dead. When the zombie drama returns Sunday with its seventh season premiere, viewers will finally learn which of the 11 series regulars had a date with Negan's bat, Lucille.

But in the interim, stars of the zombie drama based on Robert Kirkman's best-selling comics series and exec producers alike have had to spend months coming up with new adjectives to describe the episode as the reveal is being kept under wraps. (Indeed: In a rare move that parallels HBO's Game of Thrones, AMC is not sending the episode out to press in advance in a move that is typically reserved for season finales.)

To hear Kirkman tell it, the death jumpstarts season seven and helps take the series — already renewed for season eight — to a whole new level as the series begins branching off into four different communities.

Below, Kirkman talks with THR about reaction to the polarizing cliffhanger as well as the pressure he feels to remix the events of the landmark 100th issue of the comic book that serves as inspiration for the season six finale and season seven opener in which Negan brutally beats Glenn to death. Plus: Could there be more than one death in the season seven premiere?

Given the response to the season six cliffhanger, what's the biggest lesson you learned from that?

The biggest lesson would be that people are really engaged in the show. You have to take the good with the bad. Whether people are complaining or cheering, it means that they're invested in what we're doing. Rather than allow the negative response that we got to change our course of action and make us radically change the show in some way, we're staying the course. We're very confident. We've done six seasons of the show and think our seventh will be the best one yet. Luckily we were very deep in doing the seventh season when those episodes aired. Look, message received. The modern audience isn't too happy with cliffhangers. But we're still very confident that this is going to be a great season and we know the payoff is going to be worth the wait and that the premiere is going to be really great. We're excited to get these episodes out and see what people think and give people more Negan because this season is going to be chock-full. 

Was there any conversation as you were crafting the end of season six about revealing who dies at the end vs. making it a cliffhanger?

That was along discussion between [showrunner] Scott [M. Gimple] and I — over a year. Scott and I together decided that this would be the best thing to do. There was talk of just doing it and moving on and we felt that storytelling-wise it was better to keep that story for the seventh season premiere. When people see the premiere, they'll understand why we split things where we did. A lot of people have opinions but no one has the information we have. When you see the episode, you'll understand: 'This is a thematic break and there is a transition of what came before and what came next.' That is the cool way to put a division there. 

Knowing what you know now, would you do it again?

Absolutely. I have no regrets.

You're a few months removed from the cliffhanger. Looking back, what surprised you about the response?

It's something I've gotten used to. People are very opinionated about this show. This isn't the first time that we've had a very vocal group complaining about some aspect of the show. When I was writing comics, all of my comics got amazing reviews until I did The Walking Dead and that was the first comic I ever did that got negative reviews. I took that to mean a sign of success because it was the first time I'd done something popular enough for people who may not like it to actually give it a shot. When you have a show that appeals to as large an audience as The Walking Dead, it's very easy to get a very loud portion of the audience talking about it. I go to New York Comic-Con and have done conventions all summer and people tell me how much they liked the finale. Then I'll have people say, 'How dare you diminish our opinions!' This is show enjoyed by 30 million people [worldwide] and there are not 30 million people complaining online. While I am happy to hear complains and definitely interested in hearing what people think of the show at all times, and everyone's opinion matters to me, we have to do what we do and keep making a good show. 

You're going to great lengths to protect the season premiere and the reveal of Negan's victim(s). We've heard multiple death scenes had been filmed in a bid to keep the outcome under wraps. What are some of the extra lengths you have gone to in order to protect the victim?  

Not sending screeners out [to press] is a big one. There's a lot of extra security measures on distribution and the international dubbing and those things to help prevent the kind of leaks that we've had in the past. There has been a lot of tactics used in filming that have been used on films — monitoring actor movement and trying to do things in secret. We've employed body doubles in places to make people think that people are in places that they're not. It's pretty exciting to try and hide certain things. This is a big season, so we're not just protecting things that happen in the first episode; there are things that happen in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth episode and beyond. We're trying to maintain that secrecy so when people watch the show, they can have that same experience they have in the comic where you don't know what's going to happen and it comes as an exciting surprise as the story moves forward. There is a lot of secrecy surrounding this season and when people watch the episodes, they'll see why and hopefully appreciate it. 

Given the baiting with Glenn and his many brushes with death — many of which can be seen as foreshadowing to Negan including when he was almost killed at Terminus with a guy swinging a baseball bat. After the dumpster dive, if Glenn isn't a victim, how do you explain that?

The season five premiere where they're at Terminus, those things are fan service. The average TV viewer is not going to be aware of the specific storyline from the comic series. That's a moment for the hardcore fans who are aware of that. I wouldn't take a playful moment where we're tipping our hat to those fans to be any indicator to what we have planned or what we're doing. This is us acknowledging that we know there are different tiers to our fan base and we're having fun with it. I think it's great because it adds an extra level of storytelling where you get something else out of a scene or are expecting a scene to go a certain way and it doesn't. Those are fun expectations to play with. It makes us up our game because we're able to tell stories on multiple levels, depending on how engaged the audience is in the entire Walking Dead experience. 

What kind of pressure do you feel to remix what happens in the 100th issue of the comics with Negan and Glenn? At this point, fans who haven't read the comics know what happens.

It's more pressure than we've ever felt. We are changing things here and there as we always have done. To a certain extent, we're staying the course. The way that we do the show and the way we adapt the comic hasn't really changed but the material in the comic has changed substantially. Being true to that evolution and allowing that world to change from season to season and being able to scale up the show and the way the comic book has scaled up has been a challenge. Going into this season, we're going to have four distinct locations and four distinct groups of characters that are all doing their own things. That's a huge undertaking to do. The challenge isn't how much do we remix? Do we do more? Do we do less? The challenge has been expanding the scale of the show up and being true to the source material and opening up this world in way that I strongly feel will set the stage for many season to come. Season seven as a whole will have so many new environments, so many new characters and so many new scenarios that it will almost seem like season one of an entirely different show. It'll have all the stuff you love from The Walking Dead but this isn't a show where you're ever going to be, 'Oh my God, am I still watching this show in season seven? Enough is enough, I get it.' We're telling different stories with different characters that have new and exciting and cool stuff [happening]. This season more than any other changes the stage that we're telling stories in.

You're starting the season with your largest roster of series regulars ever. Are you looking to tell concurrent stories that come together later — like the start of season six?

From the comic book series, we do focus on different places. The story did divide a little more; it didn't focus on one group as much as it did. We'll probably be following that. You will see the odd episode that just focuses on Morgan and Carol and various characters as they are in their different place. We've done that in the past and there will be a little more of that. We're also going to be killing some of these guys.

What's the likelihood that more than one character will be killed off in the season premiere?

I don't know that our audience is necessarily bloodthirsty enough to be wanting to hear that there's another death. One death should be enough for this audience and one death will definitely have the affect that we're looking for. It will certainly set the stage for a very exciting season. It's going to be a rough, rough, rough episode emotionally. Knowing what's coming and knowing what happens, it's really hard for me to watch. We've gotten to know all these characters over so many years and to see not only the one that dies but how it affects all the other characters involved? You can feel their emotions because you know their relationships and what they're experiencing. It's a really gut-wrenching episode. I don't think anyone will be hungry for more blood when the episode airs. 

How will the death(s) in the premiere set the stage for what's to come this season? Is there a theme?

It's a very dangerous season. We hit the ground running with the first episode and that really sets the tone for this. Negan is ever-present. This isn't the end of his story; this isn't any kind of singular event. This is the introduction of a new status quo in this world and it'll make the show more dangerous than it's ever been. And that's going to continue throughout the season. I said leading up to the end of season six that Negan changes everything in every way you can imagine. And season seven will prove that.

The Walking Dead premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC. Bookmark THR.com/WalkingDead for complete coverage. Who do you think died? Click here to vote in our poll.