The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live director breaks down this week’s stunning Rick and Michonne-focused episode

Director Michael Slovis explains what went on behind the scenes of making “What We.”

Danai Gurira as Michonne - The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live _ Season 1, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: AMC
Danai Gurira as Michonne - The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live _ Season 1, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: AMC /

For the first three episodes of AMC’s miniseries The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live, we’ve watched Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) come back together after years apart – only for Rick to keep pushing Michonne away. And in this week’s episode, it all comes to a head in “What We,” a barn-burner of an episode written by Gurira, and directed by franchise veteran Michael Slovis.

“Andy and Danai, they dug deep, didn't they?” Slovis told Bam Smack Pow about making the episode. “Their performances were so good.”

In case you’re not familiar with Slovis, first of all, he also directed last week’s episode of The Ones Who Live, “Bye,” as well as three episodes of The Walking Dead. He also directed two episodes of Game of Thrones, and multiple other TV shows – but is probably best known as the cinematographer of 48 episodes of Breaking Bad.

All of those skills came to bear in this week’s episode of The Ones Who Live, which finds Rick and Michonne stranded in a strange apartment building filled with the corpses of a group that tried to find a way to make the zombie apocalypse better. Over the course of essentially three acts – Rick and Michonne argue in an apartment, fight some zombies and discover more about the building, then return to the apartment to figure out how they can move forward – we watch the duo literally bring down the house around them as the devastating truth of why Rick won’t leave the CRM (Civic Republic Military) comes out.

To find out a lot more about crafting this unique episode, Slovis’s thoughts on the hour’s pivotal sex scene, and just how much of a diva the Roomba was, read on.

Bam Smack Pow: I did want to ask you a general question first since you directed the previous episode, I assume these were block shot. When you're a director, how do you go from something that is a good episode, but more typically structured with action beats, emotional beats, to something like this that's so specific?

Michael Slovis: Alex, it's a great question and it's because I think filmmaking is made in prep. I don't think it's made on the set, and I put a lot of time into preparing what I'm going to do. Everything that I do is mapped out on paper. I have a philosophy of if I can't describe it on paper, I don't understand it well enough to go in and shoot it yet. So I make sure that everything I know... And then what I do, Alex, is I make my shot lists and storyboards and any notes that I have available to anyone on the crew that wants them so that everyone knows where we are, when and where we're going and what's going on.

And then that gets to one of the questions I wanted to ask you because the way that Danai writes, this is a very typical three act play structure, which obviously she's a lauded playwright as well. But was there any experimenting on the set then, because you really have this two-hander; or was it all very specifically blocked out in advance?

When I do scenes like this, and I won't even call it the episode but because normally you only get a handful of scenes that are this entire episode in any kind of a show, I have an idea of what I want and I will put on my shot list blocking dependent. And so what I do, especially with people that know me and trust me and whom I know as well, we will come in, we will read the scene so that everybody's familiar with the words, and then I will say something to the effect of, "Here's where I see you guys starting. Take it from there." Especially the long bits.

That apartment became incredibly important because the apartment was designed to help facilitate movement for me and to create an open space where they could, what I call “physicalize,” the story. I like it when you do a stage play and somebody's way upstage and they come downstage and they walk into this [leans into camera], that's dynamic and the audience perceives something. And I believe that blocking is one of the strongest tools that I have. So because of my experience as a cameraman, because of my years as a DP, I'm always looking from where the camera is going to be and how do I emphasize the moments with the camera. And if you notice, I don't move the camera a whole lot. A lot of people think that because you have a dolly or a steady camera or whatever and somebody static, moving it makes it more interesting. I move the camera when it enhances the story.

I love to move the actors… I actually had to watch the show yesterday because I hadn't seen it in a while, and I just loved what they did in that initial bout with each other before they leave, and they have the [scenes] with the zombies… They make that movement around the table, there's a table in the center there, and it felt organic. And by the way, you never want to make it so that it feels like it's forced, you want to make it feel like either the blocking comes out of the character or out of the story. So that's what we all worked on, and honestly, Andy and Danai let me into their private world of Michonne and Rick warm heartedly and open arms.

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live _ Season 1, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: AMC /

I know you've done a ton of TV, but how much did doing “Fly” on Breaking Bad prepare you for this episode?

Well, I shot “Fly.” I didn't direct it, but I approach directing from story. I really think that you have to know what the story is for the episode or short film or movie or commercial for that matter, and where the piece that you and I are working on right now fits into the whole and how does this shot fit into the scene, fit into the act, fit into the episode, and ultimately, how does it help propel the whole story forward?

I think this is a good jumping-in point to this… I did want to ask you about the sex scene in the middle of the episode. There's obviously been a ton of discourse online about sex scenes, whether they're necessary or not. I'll say, not to get critical, but I thought this was a great argument for the necessity of sex scenes because you have these two characters that, like you’re saying, are so physically apart and are finally coming together. I'd love to just get your reaction to sex scenes in general as well as what was involved in filming the scene that is a literal and figurative release for these characters.

We did have an intimacy coordinator. We went back and forth on whether it was necessary for us. I really enjoyed working with her… She was a partner in all of it and made them feel really comfortable. She took that on as really her job. But you know what, Alex, the scene was incredibly important as a catharsis, as a moving on point for Danai. So for me, it was easy because all I did was tell the story. Now for me, it wasn't a sex scene, it was making love, it was a love scene, and that's what was important to me about the scene. There's that moment of PTSD when they first get together and Danai… Oh my God, I could get wet eyes just thinking about it when Danai takes his hand and puts it on her chest.

It's more intimate than sex, it's a release. And then Andy playing that release and that moment, that little teeny tiny smile that he gives… And by the way, you don't see anything really. I mean, this could be played on Disney for the most [part]... It was so intimate, and that's what was really important. I am going to give major, major kudos to Wes Cardino, the DP, who listened and tuned in and did a beautiful job on the entire episode. But that scene, you are right. If you think about it, it's the fulcrum point of the story, but it's also probably the fulcrum point of the season because they can't move on. There's that wonderful moment afterward where Andy backtracks because nothing is linear. Andy backtracks, and he's ready to go, and the apartment is falling down around them, and she goes, "Hell, we're not going anywhere until we resolve this."

Danai Gurira as Michonne - The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live _ Season 1, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: AMC /

It's all there, and that leads me into the next moment I wanted to talk about, which is the reveal that the thing that he's been lying about, that's been holding him back is he's forgotten Carl. Which you talk about getting wet eyes. I'm getting a wet eyes thinking about it right now. What was it like working with Andrew Lincoln on that moment in particular, and that monologue?

Any lesser of an actor would've done something superficial to get through that moment. But because these two are so close with one another, both Michonne and Rick, and Danai and Andy, we worked on that. That was a day, that scene in that bed was a single day, and we worked through that because I didn't know really how it was going to happen. I don't believe that directors have to know exactly what's going to happen in every moment. It's a discovery, it's a trip together. Sidney Lumet said that in his book, and if you did, then you wouldn't need any other people to help make the film.

But we played with that quite a bit. We rehearsed a lot, and where Andy went was unpredictable, but when we got there, I knew it and we didn't have to go again. He was honest and we kept talking about what it was, and we didn't want it to feel in any way artificial. That was really important because that's the moment. The fact that he gives that up is the thing that allows him to move forward. He did just a beautiful job. And Danai because they know each other so well, Danai was a partner in that, of course.

That leads us into the end of the episode where the apartment gets destroyed. This is more of a technical question, but did you actually destroy the set or was most of that done in post?

No. No. There's no way to do that in post. I mean, there is, but no, we built a set that had beams falling and pieces of it. I believe some of it was enhanced, but little pieces of dust and things like that. But no, we built, because, you know why Alex? Because it had to be timed with the performance, and every time we'd reset, we'd have to go, especially on the shots that were looking over them to the big picture window in the background and all of that. That had to be repeated. So beams were on cables, and we marked out on the script.

I took a script and went through it with my first assistant director and the special effects folks, and we marked off where we wanted things to come down because it had to match when we did coverage this way, and we designed it so that we didn't have them do it all the time. When I looked at either Danai or Andy, of course we could just say, "Beam falls, this falls," or whatever. But no, we destroyed that. And then at the very end, after they've left the building, we destroyed that. It came down. We had three cameras in there…

Wait, you actually destroyed a building?

No, the apartment.

I was going to say, you didn't bring down an entire building for the episode?

[Laughs] No, no, no, no.

Okay. I'm going to have to let you go in a second. So a really quick one to end with here. What was it like working with the Roomba? Was it a real diva on set?

Well, because I did Breaking Bad, I have experience.

Oh, there you go. Michael, thank you so much for chatting. I really, really did think this episode was incredible, an all-timer for the franchise, so congratulations on that.

Thank you, Alex. I love this episode and I did from the very beginning. Honestly, I was so honored to be asked to do this one by Danai and Andy, and it shows a lot of trust, and I never took that lightly, I took it very seriously.

I can't wait for the rest of the world to see it.

It's going to be interesting, isn't it? I'll be looking forward to Monday and Tuesday.

I think knowing the fans, they're going to be pretty happy and in tears and all of the emotions at the same time.

Even without 5,000 walkers coming down and without a bunch of eviscerated walkers because I think [this is] what the show's about. I think it's emotionally...

People are watching this for Rick and Michonne, that is what I'm getting from the online conversation. So I think they're going to be thrilled.

I think so too. I hope so. I hope we did honor to it. And by the way, I have to say, Andy and Danai, they dug deep, didn't they? Their performances were so good.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC and AMC+.

Next. The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live’s Pollyanna McIntosh on how Jadis views Rick: “She’d like him to succeed”. The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live’s Pollyanna McIntosh on how Jadis views Rick: “She’d like him to succeed”. dark