In anticipation of a second series of the superb Walking Dead gracing us this week, Exquisite Terror recalls speaking with Greg Nicotero, the SFX mastermind behind the show.
Amiable, passionate regards his work and the horror genre in general, picking his brrraiin was an absolute pleasure.
Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Greg.
No problem at all. I was literally just trying on a zombie mask for season two.
That’s fantastic, and I’ll get to ask you about that in a little while. I just wanted to say that while I was preparing I watched The United Monster Talent Agency again. God man, I just love that little short. How did that come about? It must have been a dream project for you.
It certainly was. Y’know, in the special effects make-up field we always joke around and talk about stuff like, if you could go back in time and work on a movie what would it be? Everybody has a different answer, sort of like if you could go back in time and date any actress in the world, everyone has these different answers, right? So I had this idea maybe 10 years ago about a fake promo for Universal Studios, and the idea was, say Creature from the Black Lagoon, you think you’re watching a scene from the movie, and then the camera pulls back and the creature turns out to be real, and then you pan over to a guy in a suit who goes, ‘You’re at Universal Studios, where we strive for realism at all times!’ And that was kind of the original idea, and I wanted it to be shown when you were waiting in line at the Universal Studios tour. So it started as that, and then I had basically been around the world between Inglourious Basterds and The Book of Eli and Piranha and Predators, and then I found that I had a six-week window before the start of The Walking Dead to begin production. And I said to myself, this is the only time in my career that I can actually remember having a window when I knew some project was going to end and another was going to start. So I walked around my house and wrote the whole thing in two hours, and then the light bulb sort of went off, and I thought that not only could I do a tribute to classic monsters but I could also do a tribute to the monsters that I loved when I was growing up. Movies like Jaws and Dawn of the Dead.
I loved that scene where you have the two scientists looking through the window, and there’s fire, and you see the amazing Rob Bottin stretched face from The Thing.
Well, I’d actually asked John Carpenter to play one of the scientists. I mean, I got a lot of my friends who were willing to come in and do it. Robert Rodriguez is one of the scientists with the Jaws shark, and Frank Darabont is there as the director of The Creature from the Black Lagoon scene. It really was a lot of fun to do, and we shot the whole thing in about three days, just going from set to set. Somebody had said to me, if you really could go back in time this is probably exactly what it was like: fake cave wall, guy in a creature suit, a beautiful woman, dry ice and sand and cameras… It was about the closest I will ever get to actually being on the set of The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
You said you were just trying out a mask for the new season of The Walking Dead. How is it shaping up?
Great! What was really fascinating for me was that as soon as the writers started working I said, hey guys, let’s do a field trip, and come out here to the [special effects] shop and just have a walk around and get a feel for what we do, and what we can bring to the table. So we had 10 people come up, right before they had finalised the arc for season two, and they sat down and pitched me the first eight episodes, and they saw a bunch of cool fake bodies and whatever, to get them in the mindset of what we could actually pull off. Just getting the guys out really, and afterward some of them came up to me and were like, ‘That was the best field trip ever!’
But the thing is, Frank [who has since left the show] and I, we speak the same language. You talk about a lot of directors, genre directors — like Rodriguez, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, Alexandre Aja — we all sort of grew up around the same time. I only ever really knew how to do special effects, and that was all I was interested in, but it would only take a very slight nudge to push you from being in love with the monster aspect of it to wanting to write, wanting to direct. I always felt that with guys like myself, Frank, Rodriguez, and a lot of these other filmmakers, Guillermo and the Hughes Brothers… You know, all these guys started out doing make-up. Eli [Roth], as well, at one point wanted to do make-up effects. Because in the late 70s and 80s that was the thing that accented a lot of genre movies.
That’s right, I mean James Cameron, back in the days when he was working for Corman, was doing matte paintings for Escape From New York. It does seem like all the great genre guys started off in that field.
Yeah, exactly, and a lot of it was because of their fascination with monsters, and their fascination with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre. A lot of those classic movies when I was growing up, now those classics have shifted into something that I don’t necessarily understand as much. Because when I was younger and a lot of guys from my generation were younger, if you wanted to be a fan of the horror genre, you had to work at it. You had to seek out when those movies were gonna play on TV, when they were gonna play at the cinema, if you could see a double feature of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, or whatever. You actually had to work at it. So I think that’s why my generation of filmmakers have such a love for monsters. I’ll give you a perfect example: Sam Raimi. Sam has such a clear love for the fantasy genre. You can see Ray Harryhausen all over his movies, in Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. Sam is the perfect example of someone who watched genre films when he was a kid and was inspired by them, and has just gone on to make so many amazing movies.
Same with Peter Jackson. With production on the two new Hobbit pictures there’s probably not a bigger filmmaker in the world right now, but you look back at what he did with Bad Taste and Braindead. His love for the genre is just so evident, like all the guys you’ve just mentioned, and it’s come forward into his modern work.
It really has, and the only thing that I can hope is that current fans of the genre will embrace and understand what inspired us, which will then in turn inspire them.
So getting back to The Walking Dead, Frank and I have been friends for about a million years, and we always talked about doing a zombie show. He’d always loved zombie lore, and had often said that he just needed to find the right project. And I grew up in Pittsburgh and I’d worked with George Romero, and I introduced George and Frank who became friends, so a really unique circle of friends developed. And what ended up happening was when Frank was introduced to The Walking Dead he finally found a compelling and moving story that served the foreground to the background of the zombie apocalypse.
He’s always seemed to enjoy an epic tale, which is what The Walking Dead offers. It’s never-ending in scope.
It is epic, but it’s also so grounded in these great characters, and I think when you look at all of Frank’s movies his characters are just so well-defined.
Even in The Mist, which is probably his most simple picture and an homage to all the B-pictures that we love, all the characters are so well-written, and that just added another element to the simple B-movie.
I agree. I just love that movie and I think that movie will gain momentum as it ages. To me Stephen King was so clearly inspired by The Twilight Zone that when you watch The Mist it is clearly a fantastic, modern-day version of a Rod Serling story.
It was always my favourite King short story as a kid, and when I learnt that Frank and you guys from KMB were doing it, I knew it would be done right.
Well, thank you. We had tried for quite a while to get that movie made because he was really dedicated to it. Frank never ceases to amaze me because he’s able to make The Shawshank Redemption, then The Green Mile, then Majestic, then he makes The Mist, and to be able to spread your wings as a filmmaker is so important to him. So when he found The Walking Dead and all of these great characters it really seemed as though it was just written for him to discover, and for him to make a great TV series at some point.
And for you, it must have been a dream to land that gig.
It really was, and for a lot of reasons. One of the things as a special effects make-up artist that you always strive for is to improve your craft, and continually learn from every project that you do. And one of the things that made me most proud of The Walking Dead was a culmination of a lot of work that we had done on other films. Learning and understanding things from Tom Savini, and Romero and Rodriguez, from a lot of these other guys, and then getting to a point where we feel is the best way to visually pull off the zombies that Charlie Adlard and Robert Kirkman had come up with in the graphic novel.
Over the years we have been able to refine it again and again by using materials for the prosthetics that made the make-up process faster. There was always something, like when you have a scene with 20 zombies against 80 zombies you just can’t spend three hours per make-up, or as much time as you’d like to, because although you want it to be perfect you also have to be able to step back as a filmmaker and know where your money shot is. Put your focus in the right place, so if you have a big sequence with 80 zombies you know that 15 of them will be featured and the rest are there to fill up space.
So we really spent a lot of time fine-tuning and finessing the prosthetic look for the filming, which included contact lenses and dentures that actually helped mask the actors’ real lips so that it looked like the lips were rotting away. There’s sort of a classic Walking Dead zombie look, and it’s got a kinda really thin neck, long face, with the cheekbones always exposed and the hair is scraggly looking. So we really took that concept as our starting point. So how do we do this, how do we make people look like their skin is emaciated and leathery, and that their noses are rotting off, with lips that are gone to expose teeth? We really tried to push it as far as we could.
Did you use a lot of the classic techniques, with latex pieces? On the actual dead, the close-up zombies, I couldn’t spot any CG work.
No, there was no CG work on any of the close-up zombies. The majority of the CG, and really this is kudos to Stargate who did the majority of the visual effects, was adding stuff that nobody even knew was there: smashed-up tanks, blown-out buildings, dead bodies. Like when Rick comes out of the hospital in the first episode [of the first series] and walks down the steps, we had about 60 bodies that we dressed in front of the blown-apart hospital, and then visual effects came in and added about 200 more. So really we just used CG to further increase the scope of the show.
See, I would never have thought that; I’d have guessed you’d just have 200 guys on the floor. To me that’s where CG is at its best, when you don’t know it’s being used.
Yeah, exactly. It’s always about accents. There are times when a visual effect makes sense, there are times when a practical make-up effect makes sense, and a good filmmaker knows when to use each tool.
For example, you have Rick running down the street shooting zombies in the head, and there’s two ways to do that. One way would be to put practical head squibs on each of the zombies and have him run down and hope that every squib goes off and hope that every blood hit is seen on camera and that the people drop in the right frame at the right time… There’s a lot of guesswork with that.
My job is to take the guesswork out of it. Even if you make the process as streamlined as you can there’s always gonna be one thing that will pop up; someone steps on the blood tube or the camera jams or the zombie’s head blocks the tearing flesh. The thing about The Walking Dead was that I had done so many other zombie projects that it allowed me a really specific shorthand as to how to make this stuff come off without a hitch.
It’s interesting because when visual effects really took over the limelight in the mid-90s the make-up effects contribution to films were always diminished. All of a sudden, here was the new flavour of the month: CGI! And I think what’s happened in the last couple of years is that there’s been a resurgence for prosthetic effects, with directors that are now coming into their own that understand that prosthetics are a great tool in the same way that visual effects are a great tool. And it’s how you use those tools to tell your story that takes it to a different level.
I agree. When I was a teenager, guys like you and Savini, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin were always in magazines like Fangoria and Cinefantastique; you were the stars in those publications. But as you say, when CGI came along all that stopped, so it’s refreshing for fans of my age to see a resurgence in practical effects, and in the effects artists.
And for me too. Because what I can only hope is that what we do will inspire a new generation of filmmakers, just like I was inspired. I remember meeting George Romero and Tom Savini, and when I moved to Los Angeles I met Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and these guys were all my heroes, and they really shaped how I pursued my career. When I was younger you had to work at being a fan of creature effects. Because Famous Monsters of Filmland and Fangoria were the only magazines at that time that ever acknowledged prosthetics. And then after Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th, and especially after The Howling and An American Werewolf in London and The Thing pretty much every magazine out there was covering genre films and prosthetics and make-up were a big element of them.
Totally. I mean, you mention The Thing, and I think some of Bottin’s effects have never been equalled; they’re still amazing and hold up even today.
I would agree, and the irony with The Thing was when it first came out it was in the same summer that E.T. came out, and people just didn’t like it. There was a review of it, and if I recall correctly it was in Cinefantastique, which said something along the lines of: 10 years from now people are going to watch this movie and realise just how fucking brilliant John Carpenter is. And I agree with that wholeheartedly. It is such a groundbreaking moment in genre history. Listen, man, you could take the effects out of that movie and it would still be a great movie, with that ensemble cast, and I can’t believe I would ever say that because to me Rob’s work was just fantastic. But you are right; when visual effects took over the acknowledgement of prosthetic work was diminished, and now it just seems to be that people are embracing what we do and appreciating it.
Everybody always jokes around about not working with children or animals, but you can work on set getting ready to do a make-up effect and people sometimes think the same thing, you can almost hear people saying, ‘Okay, now things are gonna slow down.’ You know, an actor can get 15 takes at a line of dialogue, but if it takes two goes at doing a make-up effect then we’re fucking the production! So it is a challenge to stand up and make people recognise what we contribute with projects. And again with Frank and Gale there was never a doubt in their minds that we played a critical part on the show.
It’s integral to the show. It must have been good to work with Rodriguez and also Quentin Tarantino, because those guys really look back on the movies of the 70s and 80s, embrace the make-up contribution, and then want you to work on their projects.
Well Robert and I really struck up a very unique friendship, because we both play guitar, we both love the same movies. I mean on the set of From Dusk Till Dawn we literally just talked about Jaws, Escape From New York, Blade Runner and The Thing. When we were shooting the first Spy Kids movie the assistant director threw me off set, saying, ‘You keep distracting Robert’ and I said, ‘I’m not doing anything!’ and he’s like, ‘Well when you’re around he just wants to talk about Jaws!’ And I can’t understand what the problem with that is at all. Actually Robert sent me a text last night joking around, and he said, ‘I asked my boys what Easter meant and they said it was the day Jesus rose from the dead.’ And then they said, ‘Zombie Jesus!’ So his kids are even into the zombie lore.
Hard not to be with him as a father. Tarantino must have been a lot of fun as well.
Without a doubt. But Quentin is a fan of so many genres, literally of everything. I mean, I love great movies, but Quentin is just an encyclopaedia of cinema, which still to this day fascinates me how somebody can know so much. He will not only know the DP on a film, but who they dated, what time of year… madness. But seriously, staying with him is difficult if you’re not as knowledgeable, and no one is as knowledgeable about movies as Quentin is. I mean, he’s someone unique. I’ve worked with an awful lot of directors and I have never encountered someone like him before. His enthusiasm sparks everyone on the set.
Could you ever have envisaged 20, even 10 years ago, that we would see a weekly zombie TV series? That’s something I never believed would happen.
Well, you’ve got to give a lot of credit to Frank and Gale [Ann Hurd, producer] because they really pushed it through. But AMC never once said no, they never once told us what we could and couldn’t get away with on TV, they were interested in pushing the envelope. And there are gags that we’ve done for this show that we couldn’t even get into R-rated movies. The fact that the zombie genre has become so popular with all age ranges helps. But there are also so many factors that have contributed to its success. Frank’s writing, Gale’s experience in the genre, a fantastic cast. I think Andrew Lincoln might be one of the most amazing actors I’ve ever met and worked with, and with the rest of the ensemble cast you couldn’t have got together a more compelling and talented group of people. If you don’t care about the actors in the show, you won’t watch it.
Andrew Lincoln is obviously British, and has been well-known over here for a long time but more in situation-drama type shows. And yet when he took on the role of Rick he absolutely nailed it, and captured the spirit of the book. Superb performance. You wouldn’t guess he isn’t American.
No, you would never guess. Andy and all the other actors are just so dedicated to this show. Andy is so talented and just brings a great grounding, a great humanity to the show, which allowed all the other elements that may not have been so universally accepted. But it does seem that most of the guys that I end up becoming good friends with from these shows are all British actors. Andy is, and also Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are great friends of mine, and we all share this intense love for what we do. What’s funny is I’m a little bit older than those guys and I had met them after Shaun Of The Dead was made —
— which to me is the best zombie film of the last decade.
I would agree without a doubt, and that’s what happened. I wasn’t a big fan of the remake of Dawn of the Dead, because it wasn’t Dawn of the Dead, it was just an American version of 28 Days Later. Then someone said to me — it might have been Harry Knowles — that I had to see Shaun of the Dead, that it was just what I was looking for. So I saw the movie, absolutely fell in love with it, told everyone that I knew about it, including Quentin and Rodriguez, and in a roundabout way that’s how I ended up becoming friends with Edgar [Wright] and Simon and Nick, because I was sort of the unofficial West Coast spokesman for Shaun of the Dead. And to this day I love and respect everything those guys do.
That’s why it was so nice to see it take off in America, because genre fans had grown to love them just from Spaced over here in the UK, which was a just a geeky little show no one really knew about.
At the time I had seen Spaced but never really put two and two together, and when I saw Shaun of the Dead I thought, ‘Wait a second, I’ve seen these guys…’ I don’t think Spaced was even out on DVD here in the States but I seemed to have this weird memory of it, but then I saw it again, especially the whole zombie episode, and it was no wonder that I loved it so much. But I just have so much respect for Simon, Nick and Edgar, especially that they are just fans who have been able to find a voice. I hate to say it’s the American Dream but it really is! Three Brits have found the American Dream.
That’s why I loved the opening scenes of Paul, when Simon and Nick are walking around Comic-Con, and although they are genuine stars of the convention it’s obvious that they are just loving being there.
What made me laugh was I was sitting next to John Landis at the screening for Paul, and within 10 minutes there was a Blues Brothers joke, an Aliens joke and a Jaws joke, and I look over at John and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, John Landis was there for most of those jokes,’ in terms of his career and the movies that John has made, everything from Trading Places and Blues Brothers and Animal House. And the affection that those guys have for film and past genres is so obvious with a project like Paul.
It’s like Pegg and Frost have almost brought forward the movies of Landis and Spielberg to a new generation. I loved the scene in the movie where Spielberg is on the phone with Paul and Paul suggests the idea to him for E.T.
Yeah, really funny. I had read the first draft of Paul, and then they did some rewrites and things changed a little bit, and I helped them out with doing some early concept designs for the alien. And then Simon said that he didn’t want me to read any more, just go in and see it fresh. So I agreed, and had no idea about that scene. So when that scene came up and I heard Spielberg’s voice I started laughing because I thought it was such a great moment.
But then a couple of days later I was watching Jaws again for about the eighth trillionth time and something hit me that I never realised. When they’re on the Orca and the radio voice comes over saying, ‘Amity Port life station to Orca’ and Quint picks up and answers, that was Spielberg’s voice on the radio, saying, ‘Do we have a Mrs Martin Brody here?’ And I would have never noticed that if I hadn’t heard his voice on the phone in Paul.
I never knew that. You do realise Greg that this now means I’m going to have to watch Jaws yet again when we’re done with this interview?
I’m telling you, man, when you listen to it you just cannot — listen, don’t go anywhere. I’m just looking for my digital copy of Jaws, because I actually have it here on my computer, and I’ll find that scene and you’ll just laugh. It’s so damn obvious now but I just never noticed it before. Ask me something else while I’m trying to find this.
The writing on the first season of The Walking Dead was excellent. Where is the second season going in terms of structure? The first started with following the graphic novel closely and then deviated from it, which I felt it needed to. Is that what we can expect with the new season?
It’s going to be the same. My analogy of it is like this: you have the freeway, which is The Walking Dead graphic novel that we’re all familiar with and we all love, and then every once in a while you get off that and drive around the neighbourhood for a while and explore some new areas, before getting back onto the freeway and into the graphic novel again. And I think that what that does is, it gives fans of the novel the opportunity to see something new. It gives everybody something to stay tuned for.
Okay, okay, hold on. I’ve found the scene. Do you hear it?
Jesus, it’s so obvious now. Totally Spielberg!
I know; every time I watched it I never picked up on that.
But isn’t that what’s great about your favourite movies? Every time you watch them you can pick up something new.
Totally, and I would never have picked that up if it hadn’t been for Paul. I was freaking out, going, ‘That’s the same voice!’
You’ve worked on so many iconic movies. Are there any films you missed out on, or gigs that you would have loved to have done but didn’t?
One job I really wanted to do that we didn’t get was when they did the mini-series of The Stand. I’m such a fan of the novel, and I’d worked with [producer] Richard Rubenstein before. I flew to New York and met with Richard and director Mick Garris. I didn’t know Mick at that time, and he’d worked with a different effects company before, so we didn’t even get a chance to bid on the show; it was just instantly awarded to someone else. I was disappointed, but I still absolutely loved the mini-series. I thought it was really well done; great performances and a great journey. That’s the first one that pops into my head. Man, I would have loved to have done The Stand. So that’s the initial one I can think of. I’m sure if I went back and looked through genre movies of the last 15 or 20 years I would find more than just one.
You’ve been involved with so much though. It’s a dream career.
Listen, I can’t complain! I mean, I’m sure if I thought about it there are other projects that I would have loved to have been involved in that we didn’t get for one reason or another, because we weren’t available or because we weren’t suitable for the job. Because that’s the reality, because as much as I want to say we can do everything, we can’t. The reality is the strength of my company KNB was built on the fact that our effects were super realistic looking. Say you look at the work Rob Bottin did on Total Recall and Legend, Rob has a very fantastic, fantasy style to him, and a lot of the work that came out of our studios didn’t have that same sort of cartoon-style characterisation. The Joe Dante episode of the Twilight Zone movie is a great example, with that giant rabbit that comes out of a hat and attacks Kevin McCarthy; Rob’s work there was very stylised. So there are different effects studios and different artists that are suited for different things. When KNB started in 1988 we put our fingerprints all over the genre movies like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, and then by 1991 we had also done movies like Dances With Wolves and City Slickers. We tried to show that we were very versatile.
Dances With Wolves almost seemed like a mainstream seal of approval; that you guys had come out of the low-budget splatter genre and really made it.
Well, it’s a cliché but you’re only perceived as good as your last movie, and our company had been in existence for less than two years and we managed to have Dances With Wolves as part of our repertoire, which really opened a lot of doors for us. Without it I think our résumé would just have been filled with gory horror things. Before we did it Debra Hill called, and she was at Disney producing a film called Gross Anatomy, which was based on medical students going through the trials and tribulations of school with an anatomy class as the backdrop. We went in and met with Debra, and we had been recommended to her by George Romero. George had told her I was a pre-med student before I got into the movie business, so that was very appealing to Debra because they were doing a film that required medical knowledge. So doing Gross Anatomy populated our portfolio with very realistic corpses and cadavers that Kevin Costner responded to after seeing our showreel, and then he hired us for Dances With Wolves. So everything happens for a reason. This business is very incestuous!
And the next big mainstream release must have been Misery?
Yeah. Well, in the book she cuts his foot off with an axe and then cauterises the wound. But we couldn’t really do that on film otherwise we’d have James Caan crawling around with no foot for the rest of the movie, so it was Rob Reiner who came up with the ‘hobbling’ idea, really as a solution to the problem of how we’d deal with a lead character who had no foot for the rest of the running time. But I tell you, I remember being on that set vividly during that gag.
What we have been able to do with our work at KNB is, through doing gags like that hobbling, or the ear being cut off in Reservoir Dogs, or Joe Pesci putting the guy’s head in the vice in Casino, is to get certain people making huge issues out of those gags. You know I can just remember people walking out of Reservoir Dogs and Casino because they thought they were so horrific, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, when you watch Dogs Quentin pans away when Michael Madsen cuts the cop’s ear off!’
It’s like when you’re a kid and you first hear about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Leatherface is supposedly cutting arms and legs and Christ knows what off. When you see it, there’s hardly any blood. But the way Tobe Hooper shot it made you believe you saw something you didn’t, and that was true with Reservoir Dogs.
Oh yeah, without a doubt, and yet people are convinced they saw that ear getting cut off. I mean that’s not the movie I saw, but I guess it leaves you with something profound that makes moments like that part of modern classic cinema.
And the power of a great make-up effect is to make you believe you saw it.
Of course. And in some cases make you see it more than you ever imagined you did, or that you wanted to, which was the George Romero and Tom Savini school of thought. ‘Okay, I’m not really seeing this. It’s gonna stop, it’s got to stop, I can’t see any more.’ And George would linger the shot on it just long enough to plant this vision in your head that, for me, never went away.
One of my favourite behind-the-scenes shots is from Day Of The Dead, when you are on set with the Private Johnson decapitated head, your own head. And there’s that brilliant shot where the prop is on the table moving its mouth, and you have your own head above it. You just look so thrilled to be doing it, and you still seem to have the enthusiasm you did back then.
It certainly is challenging at times to keep that level of enthusiasm up, because there are times when this business does everything it can to kick you in the nuts. And I guess that’s why I am so proud of The Walking Dead, because of what we’ve achieved on that show. But for my 48th birthday Tom Savini actually sent me that head! So I have my own head, but it’s pretty trashed, so I’m actually trying to figure out a way of refurbishing it so I can use it in a scene for The Walking Dead, as a little homage to my past. I just have to figure out how to make a new skin for it because the moulds are long gone.
See if Nicotero uses his old prop in the second series of The Walking Dead, commencing on 21 October, on FXUK