How 'The Walking Dead' Turned the Season 9 Finale into a Winter Wasteland

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with director Greg Nicotero about bringing the season finale's snow storm and frozen zombies to life.
Gene Page/AMC

[This story contains spoilers for the season nine finale of AMC's The Walking Dead, "The Storm."]

Given its bleak premise, The Walking Dead rarely offers rays of hope and sunshine. Oddly enough, one of the sunniest moments in recent series history comes in the form of the season nine finale — an episode that tasks the survivors of the zombie apocalypse with trudging forward through a snowstorm.

Directed by co-executive producer and makeup effects legend Greg Nicotero, "The Storm" takes place months after the Whisperers captured and beheaded several heroes, including Henry (Matt Lintz), Enid (Katelyn Nacon) and Tara (Alanna Masterson). The Kingdom has fallen into disarray, forcing King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) to relocate his flock to the Hilltop. Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) and several other main players join the relocation effort, difficult enough on its own, but all the more challenging thanks to an onslaught of winter weather. In order to survive the "snowpocalypse," Daryl and friends must pass through Whisperer territory, potentially triggering another conflict with the deadly group of feral survivors. Instead, they make it through largely unscathed (even if a relationship or two is shattered in the process), and even wind up back at Alexandria in time for a snowball fight near the episode's conclusion.

In addition to its tonally satisfying qualities, "The Storm" stands out as one of the single most visually distinct hours of The Walking Dead — no small feat, 131 episodes into the AMC drama's turbulent run. As a premise, "The Storm" owes origin to an early arc from Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead comic book series, which featured Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his companions surviving blizzard conditions. Long before she became showrunner, writer Angela Kang had her eye on bringing the winter vision to life. Once she took the reins heading into season nine, Kang was finally able to execute the vision — but planning to pull the trigger and actually pulling the trigger are two very different things. 

How exactly did The Walking Dead create a winter wasteland for its season nine finale? The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Nicotero for the answer, pulling the curtain back on the snowy secrets of the dead.

When you're dealing with such a technically complicated task as bringing winter into the world of The Walking Dead, where do you start? 

Well, in terms of designing frozen zombies, I had been thinking about this for a while. We did some test make-ups along the way. But the one thing none of us had ever really done was shoot in the snow, and shoot in the snow in Georgia. That was by and far the biggest challenge. We ended up spending a majority of the prep figuring out the snow. Ultimately, I didn't have much time to prep it. By the time we hired the company Snow Business who came and did all of our snow work, we were five days away from shooting. I felt strongly that we needed a climate we could control, so the entire frozen riverbed area where the zombie attack occurs was all built onstage at Pinewood Studios. It's something I really pushed for. Designing that set and figuring out how far back the riverbed needed to be so we could shoot it in a way that didn't feel like we were on a sound stage, but actually outside… that, to me, was the biggest accomplishment of the episode. Three weeks before we shot that episode, we hadn't even started building the set! None of us knew how we were going to do it. Huge kudos to the production design team and set decorators, and all of the Snow Business team. They really brought it.

How about all of what you filmed outside the sound stages? What was it like to film snow in sweltering hot Georgia?

The advantage was it wasn't sweltering hot, because it was November. (Laughs.) But the scene where the group walks up the hill and they see the empty spikes [from the border wall], we had two wide shots that we shot outside, and we covered the hill with snow. When we get to the top of the hill and they get to the spikes, that was set on stage. The whole hillside was dressed up — and then it rained. As soon as it rained, the snow went away. That wasn't something we anticipated! We had to push that shoot to another day. Fortunately, I have a lot of visual and makeup effects experience, in terms of knowing when we would want to [physically] add snow and knowing what we would want to digitally augment. How much real fake snow could we use? A lot of the fake snow was soap suds, and they would have these machines blowing soap suds in front of big fans. That's how you would cover large areas. We had to pick our camera angles before we even shot. The company would come in the morning of [the shoot], dress the set up with all the snow, and the crew would come in and shoot. You really had to know exactly which way the camera is going to point, exactly where your frame lines ended on one side of the camera or the other, because all of the sudden if you see these green trees in the background? It won't look like winter back there.

As you said, you spent a lot of time thinking about frozen zombies, before production began. What were some of your thoughts on how to pull off the look?

We added facial hair to a lot of [the walkers]. We felt the icicles having something to grab onto would give us a different look. We designed female walkers with longer hair so we could put snow and ice into them. The key story point of the episode is our group moving through a frozen wasteland, and any time they see a figure shrouded in the snow, they don't know if it's a walker or a whisperer — especially if they're standing still, because we've seen the Whisperers stalking our people while standing still, which is something zombies don't do. Having the opportunity to play out that level of tension and suspense, and then you get closer and physically see they're not human, they're clearly walkers. I thought it was really fun to play with. 

What went into designing the attack on the frozen riverbed?

We've never really done a scene where zombies rise up from the ground, which is the traditional Night of the Living Dead type of zombie scene. You know, zombies coming up out of a cemetery. It's sort of a classic horror moment, but with our particular show, we never really had an opportunity to do anything like that, because it's not necessarily warranted. But when the walkers are buried under the snow? That's something we talked about as the script was developing. I pitched the idea: "Wait, what if they get up to this snowbank, and as Daryl is testing the ice, there are all these lumps and forms in the snow and they start to move, and you realize the zombies have been buried under the snow?" I loved the idea of them coming up out of the ground. After nine years, we continue to strive to do these things differently. We don't want to hit the same beat twice. That particular sequence and moment required a lot of different emotional beats, too. In one moment, the zombies are attacking, but they have 60 people with them, so they can't stand and fight because of the elements, so half of them start to kill out the immediate threats while the rest are running across the frozen riverbed. Then Carol (Melissa McBride) goes off with Lydia (Cassidy McClincy). There's a lot happening at the same time.

Speaking of Lydia, is there a story behind the frozen walker she encounters early in the episode, stuck in the pond, chomping in her direction as she slowly moves her arm toward its mouth?

The original idea was there were some sinkholes that filled up with water, and this particular zombie was in the water. What we ended up having to do is that there was no back on the set, so when you were looking at the zombie's face, there was a hidden drop-off almost like an infinity pool. We put snow behind it so it looked like the entire area was frozen. We made a platform and cut a hole for the zombie, and then we cut another hole for the zombie's hand. Once the zombie was sort of locked in and all the snow was dressed, it couldn't really move. I love how poetic that scene is, the idea of having a trapped zombie you can study. She kneels down next to it, pulls up her sleeve, and offers herself to it… it's just a beautiful moment, and the imagery is really amazing. That particular scene was something I was really proud of. It was evocative, as well as it gave us an opportunity to feature a kind of zombie we had never seen before.

Personal favorite: the frozen walker standing outside the Hilltop, which Daryl smashes into pieces near the end of the episode.

I really wanted there to be a beat where Daryl smashes it, and instead of blood coming out, we see crystalized meat and tissue. I was really proud of that. The entire episode, I felt like my number one goal was to make the snow a character in the show. I wanted it to have relevance in every single shot we did. I wanted it to be beautiful, I wanted it to be evocative, and I wanted it [to inform how] the camera moved. We used a lot of crane shots where we could put a camera on a technocrane so we could put the camera out on the edges of the frozen water [which was created using melted wax] and see the backs of our group. I tried to get as much scale to that set and as much scale to everything as we could, so you see snow everywhere, so you really feel the cold.

Where do you go after the snowpocalypse? How do you top this?

The great thing is that it's opened up another palette for us. It's very much like what Samantha and Ryan have brought to the show as Alpha and Beta. We don't just have doors number one and two now. We now have a lot of other choices and options. It was pretty agonizing while we were shooting, because it was so complicated and we had never done anything like it before, but the thing that pulls it all together are the performances. I love Daryl and Carol in the episode. I love Negan and Judith in the snowstorm, when they run out of Alexandria and into the blizzard. We shot that practically on stage, blowing all that fake snow around. It's so funny, because all the kids on set wanted to run around and make fake snow angels on set — and it informed something that ended up in the episode, even though it started out as a bit of a blooper: when they get back to Alexandria and start having a snowball fight. Originally, we had a couple of other little scenes to establish where Carol would be living and where Daryl was, watching Lydia reintegrate into society by playing with R.J. and Judith. But the reality of the snow made it so we couldn't cover as much of Alexandria in snow as we wanted to, so we had this little ledge we could shoot from. When they came in on the last take, I told everyone that I was going to keep rolling, and they should have some fun with it. They broke into this little snowball fight, and I thought it was beautiful and awesome in the dailies, but I wasn't sure if it fit the tone of the script. When Angela watched it, she was like, "Oh my god, this is great. Let's keep it in." It was a really nice moment that was born out of necessity. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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