Quint interviews FX God Greg Nicotero on LAND OF THE DEAD! Exclusive gore pics, too!
Published at: June 21, 2005, 3:20 a.m. CST by staff
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a little chat I had with Greg Nicotero, the N of KNB FX. Greg and I go back a few years and I can say that he not only knows his shit, but has an excitement about his job that is contagious. That excitement comes though in spades in this interview. He's just as much a Romero geek as the rest of us out there, except unlike us peons he knows how to make badass zombies and gets to make them for the man himself.
As I'm typing this I have not yet seen LAND OF THE DEAD. I hear there's a screening tomorrow night, so I got my decomposing fingers crossed. I did get to visit the set back in November... Unofficially. I'll have a "My Day As A Zombie" report soon, but let's just say I got snuck in and done up right. I liked what I saw, but I was a bit busy trying to procure brains and avoiding AK-47 hits to the head.
Anyway, the below review is filled with spoilers and exclusive LAND OF THE DEAD gore pics courtesy of Nicotero himself. These aren't stills from the film, but behind the scenes stuff full of blood and nasty bits. You'll also find out a little bit about the stuff that didn't make the theatrical cut that you'll have to wait to see on DVD... But what would a Romero DEAD movie be without both the theatrical cut and the Director's cut being available? Enjoy!
QUINT: How closely did you work with George Romero through all the various drafts to get the 4th DEAD movie off the ground?
GREG NICOTERO: Well, you know... I was in Austin working on SPY KIDS 2 and I got a phone call saying, "There's a script floating around for DEAD RECKONING and the guys need a budget, so what can you do?" So, that was Christmas of... what? 2002 maybe? Yeah... I can't remember exactly when we did SPY KIDS 2, so...
That was the first draft I got. It was called DEAD RECKONING. It was a much, much different script. It was actually... Riley was the one trying to buy his way into Fiddler's Green, not Cholo and Kaufman had a daughter that Riley was in love with. So, there was a whole other aspect to it that changed. I mean, the effects and the amount of zombies and stuff was pretty much the same. Not a lot had changed, but the script was very different. The original ending had a bunch of people taking off in a helicopter off the top of Fiddler's Green and the helicopter crashed into the building.
This draft was done before 9/11. As soon as 9/11 occurred, George said, "We have to change that. We can't do that."
So, we were involved pretty much from the first draft onward. From that point, as the movie got closer and closer, there was a time when Guillermo Del Toro was involved (QUINT NOTE: as a producer, I'd guess) and I had just done a rough budget based on shooting the movie in Pittsburgh. So, George always had intended on having us do the make-up effects because he and I had kept in contact for quite a long time. I love George. I really consider him the guy that sort of opened the door of opportunity for my career. To me, I really would have done anything to work on the film just to pay back the debt I feel I owe George for him and Christine Romero for giving me the opportunity.
So, I was really excited about the project. Given the fact that my first film was DAY OF THE DEAD... as far as I was concerned... I'm always a big fan of zombie movies. I loved DAWN OF THE DEAD (the original). So, as far as I was concerned it was something that I've always wanted to do.
We've done zombies for a couple movies here or there. We did HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and we've done a couple zombies here and there, but never anything George Romero style. I was really excited when we got a chance to make zombies, especially for George.
QUINT: It's weird... I don't know if you're the same way, but I remember as a kid going to the book store and buying these big collections of Zombie stories and being bored to tears...
GREG NICOTERO: And they never felt like George Romero zombies! Absolutely. It's interesting because a lot of people say, "What did you think of the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake and fast zombies vs. slow zombies?" And as far as I'm concerned... George is the guy who set the rules. George is the guy who came up with the concept of remove the brain or sever the head and you kill the ghoul. It's like those famous lines from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
George set up the rules for the zombie universe that has been copied so many times and, aside from a few films, has not been copied very well. People just take it upon themselves to change the rules because they think they can do a better job at it.
QUINT: And every time they do, it just feels... off...
GREG NICOTERO: It never works! Except for SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but SHAUN OF THE DEAD was made by a couple guys who love and were inspired by George's films. Simon (Pegg) and Edgar (Wright) and Nick Frost would never imagine, in a million years, changing George's rules. Because they love the source material, as do so many, so many other people.
For me, what I'm excited about is to see not only what the die-hard George Romero fans think about it, but you know... you have a whole new audience of people that are accustomed to this sort of MTV generation of quick cutting and a couple frames here and a couple frames there and everything has to be faster because faster is always scarier and faster is always better.
It's like, "No... These things can be scary when you realize what they can do to you." I mean, once you see one of them take a bite out of somebody, it doesn't matter how fast they move. If they catch you, you're a goner.
QUINT: Well, that's almost the scariest thing. It's not so much getting ripped apart as it's getting the bite and knowing that you're turning, that you're losing yourself. Everything that is you is slowly melting away.
GREG NICOTERO: Especially at this point in the story... because we've already established from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to DAWN OF THE DEAD to DAY OF THE DEAD... They've established the rules. You know if you get bitten by a zombie you become one. There was an interesting earlier draft where there was a sequence with zombie rats. Aside from an effects standpoint, I wasn't crazy about that scene. I remember saying to George that I felt that the rules were changed.
I said, "With RESIDENT EVIL... you have zombie animals in RESIDENT EVIL." I personally reacted really funny when I read that scene. I thought, "That's odd. We've never established zombie animals in any other Romero movie, so why would we do that now?"
So, fortunately, that sequence was cut out even before we shot. It was just another little rollercoaster action scene that George wanted. They were like, "Well... what can we put in place of that because we need some action here and we need some action there." Ironically, the movie is so action packed it feels like a $50 million movie.
QUINT: So, you're in charge of creating Romero zombies. Before the shoot started did you feel a sense of responsibility to deliver the goods more than you usually do?
GREG NICOTERO: Without a doubt. The first thing that people said was, "Why isn't Tom Savini doing the effects?" The reality was, you know... Tom Savini doesn't do make-up effects anymore. Tom is a director and an actor now, so George felt like it made the most sense for us to do the movie given my history with him and the fact that we've known each other and have been friends for 25, 30 years.
But yeah. Absolutely. I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility not only to carry on the legacy that has been established, but also to make them look different enough and give each one of them their own character. One of the things that I thought that we did pretty successfully in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN was... looking at all the vampires, not one of them looked the same. You know? Quentin's vampire had one feel and Fred Williamson's vampire had another feel and Harvey (Keitel)'s vampire... I mean all those characters... they're all vampires, but they all brought the personality and traits of the actors that wore the make-up.
So, I really wanted to convey that same idea. I wanted you to feel Eugene Clark as Big Daddy and Jennifer Baxter as the #9 Softball zombie. To me, what was most important was getting a feel for some of these characters instead of just gluing wounds on some people. We used a lot of different color schemes and a lot of dental work. Every zombie that gets a close-up has contact lenses in.
I was afraid there'd be one close-up of one shot when you'd see a guy without contact lenses and it'd ruin the illusion. The on thing that you always notice when you watch DAWN OF THE DEAD and you see the kind of pasty blue faces and the eyes are sorta tracking and you can tell that the person that's playing that zombie doesn't know where they should be looking, so sometimes it feels like their eyes give them away.
So, we literally had probably 30 to 35 sets of contact lenses made. Specific ones for all the featured zombies and then generic fitting lenses for all the hero zombies that would come in through the course of the movie... the two guys in the arena, all that kind of stuff. To me that was really important. I mean, every time there was a shot with mass numbers of zombies, I was always behind the camera looking through the lens making sure the backs of everybody's necks were made up, making sure their mouths were dark, that their hands were painted, that the blood looked good.
It was sort of edging on insanity for me at one point because when you have 150 zombies and you have a big shot, you put all your featured zombies in the front and obviously there comes a point when the featured zombies go through frame and then you're getting to your background make-ups and your background masks.
So, you'd look at the dailies... to me, I'd look at it and go, "Oh, there's a mask... there's a mask..." Ironically enough, you really can't tell the difference because the design of the background masks mirrored the make-up so much so that it's really hard to tell the difference. For me, it was a triumph because it looks like there's 150 people in make-up. Add on top of that CG zombies for background and you have crowds of thousands of zombies coming out of the river.
It was really amazing. The stuff that I've seen of the movie so far is absolutely astounding.
QUINT: Before filming was there a certain gag that had that you weren't sure if you could pull off or not?
GREG NICOTERO: One of the hardest things about the film was the fact that... You know, George said to me one night, kind of jokingly, "You know, on DAWN OF THE DEAD we could improvise gags and the next night we could go shoot them. We could do whatever we wanted." Because basically they owned the Monroeville mall. So, you were shooting in front of one of the stores... the entire mall was lit the whole time, so if you came up with a gag, you could just go, "Let's go shoot that tomorrow."
With LAND OF THE DEAD the biggest trick was... we were so dependent on our locations that we had to shoot out every single location almost every single night. So, what happened was we had to save gags to become 2nd unit or we would shoot elements for gags or stage gags so that then we could go back to the studio and rebuild part of the set and finish the effects that way.
There was a scene were one of the characters is hiding in a shack on the pier and he gets attacked by zombies and he gets torn apart. We shot the exterior stuff at a real location and then they rebuilt the shack's insides for all the gore sequence and all the stuff that we shot. There wasn't as much improvisation as I would have liked. I know George felt the same way. It would have been really fun for us to be able to sit down and go, "Hey, let's do this tonight!" or ""Let's tear this guy's head off!" But the reality was we were making a huge movie for a small amounts of money.
I think one of the most interesting interesting things that not a lot of people realize is when George shot DAWN OF THE DEAD in 1977, Christmas of '76 to '77, they were shooting at the Monroeville Mall and what happened was... as the Christmas season came around, they started hanging Christmas decorations in the mall. So, every night it'd take the crew an hour and a half to two hours to take all the Christmas decorations down, get set up for shooting and then at the end of the night, when they were wrapped they'd have to put all the Christmas decorations up.
So, what happened was finally somebody said, "This is ridiculous. We're losing hours a night of shooting time. Why don't we just shut down production for a couple weeks, wait for Christmas to be over and we'll come back and finish the movie." So, in those few weeks, George spent time in the editing room cutting the movie together. So, when they came back after Christmas George knew exactly which pieces he needed. I always knew that with LAND OF THE DEAD that was the exact same thing that was going to happen.
We were shooting multiple unites. There was a stunt unit, there was a make-up effects unit, there was a main unit... there was so many units shooting simultaneously and George just never even had time to look at all the dailies half the time. So, in my heart I knew we were going to wrap in December, he was going to put the movie together and they were going to call and say, "These are the little pieces that we need to add the icing on the cake."
We also used a lot of CG stuff to augment and accent a lot of gags. A lot of people don't realize that when we they did DAWN OF THE DEAD and they did DAY OF THE DEAD... you know, you're shooting in Pittsburgh and if you want to put a squib on the back of an extra's head... it's a balloon with a little explosive charge in it and you blow the squib and blood sprays everywhere. That was in 1985. You can't do that anymore. There are so many rules and regulations in regards to how film sets work that they called me early in production and said, "Listen. Anytime we squib a zombie it has to be a stunt person." The concern you get with that is that you have the same 12 or 15 stunt people that you see over and over and over again and you have to make them look different every single night because they're all supposed to be different zombies.
So, one of the first things that I recommended, aside from us spending a lot of time designing head hits and squibs that were non-explosive, that had air charges in them, I said, "Listen. You forget that we have a great tool at our disposal. You set up a greenscreen and we shoot a bunch of blood sprays against green and you can comp 'em in and stick 'em in wherever you want." And I'll tell ya'... they worked unbelievably well. You get really good, realistic blood sprays and the head hits look good and they're dramatic enough that they look just like a practical head hit.
After BATTLE ROYALE, it really signified a change in blood gags. When you're on a movie set, you have tubing that you set up to pump the blood and you set up this whole thing. They yell, "Action," you do the gag and then they say, "Okay! How long to clean it up?" Well, you gotta clean up all the blood, you gotta redress the actor... You know, when I saw BATTLE ROYALE and I realized that a lot of that blood was CG, I didn't even know it. I was absolutely astounded.
I thought to myself, "You know what? On a low budget movie like this when we don't have time to do a take 2 or a take 3 there are going to be instances when we're going to want to rely on that kind of technology. I realized that after week 2. The last night of shooting we literally projected about 20 gallons of blood in front a greenscreen in different configurations to give the visual effects guys the elements that they needed to add the "gingerbread," as George would call it.
I mean, listen. There's plenty of blood pumping that we shot on location. The last night of shooting we shot a sequence where Riley and Manolete find a whole bunch of soldiers that had been devoured by zombies and we set up an entire vignette of 7 different zombie gags. Seven different zombie vignettes where they're eating soldiers and one of the shots is in the unrated trailer.
Just going back for a couple days of reshoots and reshooting 3 days with 3 unites of gore stuff just to go in and populate the movie... it really sort of pushed the movie over the edge in terms of what George was looking for. He was absolutely in heaven when we wrapped the reshoot photography.
QUINT: That leads into the Unrated cut Vs. the R-rated cut. Do you know how much is going to make it to the big screen?
GREG NICOTERO: You know, I haven't seen the (finished) movie yet. But truthfully, I know that there was always a concern about how bloody could we get and we really didn't have time to shoot a dry version, a wet version and a wetter version. The logistics of filming this movie did not allow for us to have that luxury.
George came up with a brilliant idea that I thought was just amazing. We shot zombie elements on green of just zombies walking past the camera. So, instead of having to trim an effect right down to the bare minimum he could, if need be, stick a zombie cross right in front of the camera digitally so that the zombie would obscure the effect just enough to make it less offensive. I thought that was a brilliant idea because then for the unrated cut you just remove that element and you got the big gag in all its glory.
It amazed me that some of the things that George would come up with. I was really shocked. I mean, I was on set for every second of that film. I don't think I had one night off the entire time. When I saw the rough cut, I was amazing at how much personality George was able to give something as inanimate as the Dead Reckoning truck itself. I mean, the thing has so much personality and it's so cool to look at. It's like giving the barrel in JAWS a personality. It really amazed me. I spent so much time thinking about the gags and how the zombies looked in my own little world that I never thought about, you know... How do you create personality in an automobile or battle wagon, like DAMNATION ALLEY or whatever?
I thought the movie had so much scope. The stuff that he was able to do that conveyed the fact that, basically, the only people that are still alive are cordoned off in downtown Pittsburgh and the rest of the world is dead. It's astounding to me how great the movie looked.
QUINT: What's your favorite gag in LAND?
GREG NICOTERO: We did a couple that I really like and I know that one that we did that I really love isn't even in the movie, but there's a shot where there's a couple zombies eating a dead soldier. What we did was I actually used shark attack reference photos to convey a sort of a feeding frenzy because the idea you have to figure is that none of these zombies have really eaten very much lately 'cause there's not an abundance of food. So when they get a chance to eat somebody they're going to go hog wild.
So we created articulated legs that had most of the flesh removed, but the boots were still on and part of the pants were still on and we had the actor laying on a crate with his real body hidden inside the crate, so not only were his legs devoured, but his entire insides had spilled over the side of the crate and all the blood and viscera was running down the side of the crate. It was truthfully one of my favorite shots that we did on 2nd Unit and I know it was too gory for the release cut. Hopefully it'll be in the unrated cut.
Even though I said we didn't really have a chance to improvise, there were some gags that we did. There were gags that we came up with a couple days ahead of time, one or two of them, that actually got a tremendous response. The whole ammo mag scene that I thought was great. There's another scene that will be in the unrated cut where a zombie basically grabs somebody and slips his fingers underneath their upper lip and tears their entire face off. It's cartoony, but it fits right in with the George Romero sensibility. It was great. We had a great time.
QUINT: What's your favorite Romero Zombie gag of all time?
GREG NICOTERO: I can tell you that the gag that literally changed my life was in DAWN OF THE DEAD when the woman is bit in the tenements. When she runs up to her boyfriend or whoever it is and he grabs her... just the fact that he's kind of got her in this sort of vice-like grip and reaches in and bites her. I remember sitting in the Gateway Theater in downtown Pittsburgh watching that effect and it was the first time you'd ever seen anything like that in a movie.
You expect it to cut. "It's gonna cut, we're not gonna see it, we're not gonna see it" and he bites into her and he pulls away and there's a big, huge chunk of foam in his mouth and literally you almost fall on the floor. And before you even have a second to recover he goes in for another bite. At that moment you know you're in trouble. At that moment you are on edge for the rest of that film.
And there are some slow parts in that movie. DAWN OF THE DEAD is a very thoughtful film. It's not nonstop zombie action, yet you're always on edge in that film. You know, when you look at those things now, the one doesn't bleed and the other one you can see the edge of the appliance, little things like that, but you know what? Who cares? At the time it was absolutely groundbreaking. A tremendous tribute to Tom Savini and to George Romero because George really knew how to manipulate the audience. He said, "You can go ahead and close your eyes on the first bite, but the minute you open them you're going to see that zombie take another chunk out of somebody, so either way I've got you."
And it's absolutely correct because from that moment on anyone that's ever seen that movie... I'll tell ya', Romero fans are some of the most dedicated and some of the most loyal and I think partially because George reciprocates that loyalty. I can't tell you how many times onset he said to me, "I just want to make a movie the fans like." He really know how much it means to live up to the fans' expectations. He really wants the fans to be happy. He wants to deliver a movie that the fans will want to see. And then they're going to want to buy it on DVD, then they're going to go back and buy NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD, then there's going to be the alternate box set with all 4 movies... I mean, who knows? But I've never met a director more in-tune with his audience than George.
This is the first zombie film George has ever done that has a rating. DAWN OF THE DEAD was unrated, DAY OF THE DEAD was unrated so this is the first time George still has to deliver the same visceral punch, but is working within the studio rating system.
QUINT: So, you don't think the fans will be disappointed...
GREG NICOTERO: No because... Listen, movies like this now have an entirely new world on DVD, so if you're disappointed because you didn't see enough gore you can pretty much guarantee that 3 or 4 months from now there's going to be an unrated cut that'll have an extra scene or two in it and it'll have more gore in it and then they'll feel they got the best of both worlds.
Because you have to see it in a movie theater. The opening 15 minutes of this movie is unrelenting. It's unlike anything George has done before. I mean, George's films are thoughtful and they're building and they provoke a lot of emotion. This one opens up and BOOM! We're in it. We're in a dead city where this armored truck is going through, just obliterating zombies on the street. There's a big, huge opening action scene with zombies and fireworks and all this stuff happens and it's really amazing. When you watch it you go, "God! I didn't know George Romero is an action director!" You know? Think about it, 'cause his movies aren't tremendously action packed, they're more creepy and scary and unsettling.
QUINT: But you'll see Romero in the movie, right? I mean, it's not like you'll not be able to tell you're watching a Romero movie, right?
GREG NICOTERO: No! No, not at all! I remember even coming back... we had a 3 day weekend and I came back from Toronto for the weekend to see my family. I was in the shop and I was showing some of the guys some of the video tape that I had shot on set. They all looked at me and said, "Man! That sure feels like a George Romero zombie movie to me." To me, that's what you want to hear. You want to hear that guys are going to see the movie and walk out of it going, "That's right! That's the guy who developed the old shoot-em in the head rule!" You feel George's fingerprints all over it.
And there you have it, squirts! I can't friggin' wait! And for those of you who read my Jawsfest article, the zombie with the black hair and suit standing with Nicotero is Kurt Root, the brother of Dr. Love, who had his picture with Chrissie in the Jawsfest piece. Also, the other one of Greg posing with a zombie... that's Gino Crognale, another KNBer and a terrific guy if you ever get the chance to meet the man. But can guess who that is reading about SHAUN OF THE DEAD? I love the pics, myself. Even under bright light the effects look good, which is a damn nice sign.
Anyway, I have to get going. Talk to you folks later... see some of you in New York this week and maybe some of you in LA next week! Enjoy the blood and guts this weekend! Be sure to go out and support George!