Capone chats with makeup/special effects guru Greg Nicotero about his monstrous new short and THE WALKING DEAD!!!
Published at: Oct. 25, 2010, 9:44 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Before you do anything else, watch this:
Quint posted this last week, but I want to make sure you watch it before you dive into this next interview, which is probably just a little too focused and short to qualify for the AICN Legends column, but certainly make-up/creature effects maestro and KNB co-founder Greg Nicotero would be a great subject for a future Legends interview. The short film above is technically Nicotero's debut as a director, and it's clearly a labor of love for everyone who worked on it behind the scenes and in front of the camera.
Nicotero has been an effects man for almost as long as I've been watching horror films, not that he only works on blood-and-guts movies any longer. Essentially working as an apprentice for Tom Savini, Greg (a Pittsburgh native) started working on the films of George Romero learned the tricks of the trade from Savini and starting to develop his own style as well. It seems unnecessary and impossible to name all of the great film and TV project KNB has had its hands in, but Greg has worked on such films as EVIL DEAD 2, ARMY OF DARKNESS, DAY OF THE DEAD, MISERY, PULP FICTION, FROM DUSK 'TILL DAWN, SCREAM, BOOGIE NIGHTS, VAMPIRES, THE GREEN MILE, THE CELL, VANILLA SKY, BUBBA HO-TEP, KILL BILL, SIN CITY, HOSTEL, GRINDHOUSE, DIARY OF THE DEAD, and THE MIST. Nicotero has also on the television series "Masters of Horror," "Fear Itself," "Deadwood," "The Pacific," and the upcoming "The Walking Dead," which premieres on AMC on Halloween night.
I saw Nicotero's short UNITED MONSTER TALENT AGENCY at Fantastic Fest last month, and I was utterly floored by the attention to detail at recreating so many classic monsters, and I couldn't wait to sit down with this master about his craft and his ideas behind this badass short. Enjoy…
Capone: I was in the Shorts Program screening just now, so I’m glad that worked out [there was a technical glitch in Nicotero's short that took some time to work out]. I knew almost immediately something was wrong, like “I think we are missing an audio track.”
Greg Nicotero: Oh man. I don’t even know how it happened or what happened, but I was sitting there watching it, and the sound didn’t sound right like as soon as it started, and I thought “Oh fuck, this is not going to be good.” And the guy said “Yeah, I checked it, but I didn’t know there was supposed to be a voiceover.” I said, “Well can you play around with it?” He said, “No, I can’t” Fortunately, I had a DVD in the car, so I ran to the car. I did the old "Stall!”
Capone: Fortunately, they had two other movies they could squeeze in there.
GN: I know, but that was a little frightening.
Capone: So how long did you work on this? How long have you bee piecing this thing together?
GN: You know, it kind of started a couple of years ago just with a real quick idea that I always thought would be kind of fun. When you are at Universal Studios and you are kind of waiting in line, they always play the little movies, and I was there one day and I thought it would be kind of funny to have one of the movies be you're watching a scene from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and you think it’s actually just a clip from the movie and then you hear somebody yell cut, and they run in and they throw a net other the creature, and it pans over and it’s like Rod Serling there saying "Here at Universal Studios, we strive for realism.” I kind of had that idea and wrote out just that first page, just as kind of like, “It’d be really funny to do this.” It went from there to then I thought “Oh, that would be really funny to introduce this agency in Burbank, and you see this big warehouse, and then right next to it King Kong is sitting, and then you go inside and there are these holding pens.” That was the idea, and then I got wrapped up in running KNB, which is certainly a full-time job.
Capone: So it was that long ago that the germ of the idea came to you?
GN: The germ of the idea was a couple of years ago. It just got put on the “Oh yeah, some day it would be fun to do that,” and then what happened was I did INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and I did BOOK OF ELI and PIRANHA and PREDATORS and I had been kind of gone for like a year and a half. I came back from PREDATORS and was about to start "The Walking Dead," and I knew I had like a six week window before we were going to start prepping and I thought “You know what? Now’s the time.” I thought as a filmmaker I had matured enough that I could pull it off and concentrate 100 percent on writing and producing and directing the short and just having some fun with it. When you are a special effects makeup guy, you kind of always sit around and go “God, I wish I could have worked on JAWS,” or “I wish I could have built the suit from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON” or done THE MUMMY, so with my crew, it was a dream for all of us to go “Wow, we get to re-create the Creature from the Black Lagoon head to toe.”
Capone: The WOLFMAN transformation sequence.
GN: The WOLFMAN, sure, we did all of that. There’s only four shots in the movie that are stock footage, and those are of old Hollywood, but every single monster shot was something that we created, and you know my production designer Dave Wogh and I started playing with the idea of what these habitats looked like, and I said “Oh, well they should each have the personality of that monster, so that Dracula’s habitat was like a gothic castle, and Mummy’s habitat had the hieroglyphics."
What was funny is because I had never really written anything before, I would sit down and write for a little bit and then I would kind of pace around my house and kiss my kids and hug my wife and then I would walk back in and I would write a little bit more. And as I was doing my research, I started watching a bunch of old new reels, and the interesting thing is that there’s never any dialogue, it’s all voiceover and it’s always like archival 16mm footage of like Shirley Temple riding a horse and doing a lot of like people getting off planes and waving. What sort of stuck with me was the idea that in the 50s there was such a great outlook for a bright future filled with technology and things that make our lives easier. You always saw these shots of like people with lab coats and centrifuges and eyedroppers. They were always flipping switches, and it always made everything look really high tech, and I thought that that was a really funny notion that not only could we have this agency that was a talent agency, but then they opened up this wing called “The Monsters of Tomorrow,” so that you would imagine that if this company really had existed, you could imagine like John Carpenter or Steven Spielberg going by there and going “Okay, I’ve got this movie. What do you got?” And Spielberg would see the shark and go, “That’s it.” Or John would see The Thing, the Norwegian stretched face.
Capone: Freddy's glove was a nice one.
GN: Right. When it happened, it took on this life of its own and became so big. I called Cerina Vincent, who I met on CABIN FEVER, who is absolutely one of the most amazingly gifted actresses. I called Frank Darabont and Eli Roth and Dana Gould, who is a great writer and comedian for "The Simpsons" for 10 years.
Capone: Right. I saw Robert Rodriguez in there too.
GN: Robert is in there. Jeffrey Combs is in there. Derek Mears is in there. I kind of called my friends, and in the original draft there were a couple other bits that I ended up omitting, one of them was the gag with The T-hing. I actually wrote it as if Carpenter was going to be there, so that he saw it happening. Then the gag with the Freddy glove was…the line is "They are cultivating talent for new directors," and I wanted it to be like this technician is showing Wes [Craven] this Freddy glove, and the technician's like, “I don’t really know what to do with it,” and Wes goes, “I know exactly what to do with it.” I called Wes and he’s like, “Yeah man, I’ll do it. Sounds fun.” Ultimately I thought “Well, having them play themselves might be a little weird, since it’s supposed to be the '50s, and they are developing technology.” So the idea is that they grew this giant shark and they made the Freddy glove and they created this mutated Thing monster and they kind of just put it aside, because they didn’t know what to do with it until some director came in and figured out what he could use it for.
Capone: I imagined that maybe one of those directors would come in as a kid as part of the tour and see some of these things and get excited about making a movie.
GN: And that’s why I decided not to do the cameos, because I thought “Well, Wes really wouldn’t look like Wes today. Wes would look like young Wes.” So, I thought “Well that’s probably a little trickier,” but getting a chance to build all of that stuff really was so much fun, and for my crew to look at me as a director and not as their boss for a change. It really was exciting to be able to do that and to pull it off. It’s funny, because you get into this habit of…I knew exactly what I wanted and I storyboarded a couple of things. I was printing frame grabs from all of these movies, and it’s like I knew the movies so well, and I think probably the hardest thing about directing was when you pitch… This was the thing that really struck me was you meet with a production designer and you meet with your costume designer and you meet with your actors and your visual effects people and your stunt people or whatever.
You have to pitch your movie to them, because you have to pitch your idea of what you want the movie to be. You have to be as equally enthusiastic every single time that you pitch it to your crew, because you want them to have the same level of excitement that you do and that’s hard. It’s hard because it was easy for me to get people to understand what I wanted, because most of them--my production designer Dave Wogh works for me, and Beth Hathaway, who’s the costume designer, is head of our costume department at KNB--I had worked with, so it was easy. It was just interesting to me to keep up that level of enthusiasm for your crew, and it was really fun man. We had a blast.
Capone: I love that the King Kong, in particular, wasn’t “What would King Kong look like if he was in the real world,” but he looked like a stop-motion King Kong. It looked like the original King Kong.
GN: Well, I really wanted everything to be authentic, and the thing about King Kong was that we created a rod puppet and we did it the exact same proportions as the stop-motion model, so it’s almost like you could look at it and go “Oh, they found the stop motion model for King Kong.”
Capone: With that in mind, in terms of the research, how authentic did you want to make each recreated monster?
GN: Absolutely real. The sculpture for the face of King Kong, we did it as realistic and matched photos that we had, the same with Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, all of them, even the Glenn Strange Frankenstein sculpture. I wanted to be able to take a frame or a photo and have you look at it and go, “Wow, I’m not quite sure which is the original one.” It was funny, because then I started getting worried, then I thought, “Well, people might think that I just lifted scenes from the original movies.” Like the Nosferatu shot…or the day we shot King Kong, we built that miniature and we shot it in our parking lot, and all of the cars were like monofilament, we were just pulling little toy cars on monofilament and operating King Kong with rods under the table, and I just thought, “It would be great when we are talking about different monsters to do a shot with the Max Schreck Nosferatu, so we literally took a flat and I made a foam core little railing, and one of the guys, Joe Giles, who played the Mummy, we just threw a jacket on him. I put a stocking and stuff it with cotton and these scotch tape fingers, because it was just about the shadow. It was funny, because we just kind of whipped it together like in an hour, and I thought “People will look at that and think that it’s a shot from the original movie.”
Capone: Doesn’t he stick his tongue out at some point?
GN: He does!
Capone: That’s the only way that I knew it wasn't a shot from the original.
GN: You look really closely, because we had these finger extensions, but there’s a little piece of scotch tape that’s sticking out that I see, and I’m like “Argh.” Listen, thank god for Howard [Berger], because when I went to him and I said “Hey, dude, I’m going to kind of highjack the studio for a month if you have no objection.” We weren’t busy. We weren’t really doing much and he was kind of like, “Yeah, dude, sure. Whatever you need.” I couldn’t have done it if he hadn’t of said that, so it was important, and I literally had some of the best sculptors and painters and mold makers at my disposal.
I wouldn’t call it cheating, because it’s not, but they all were equally as enthusiastic, and I had Jimmy Lindsey, who was my DP and shoots all of Robert’s movies and I called him and I said “Dude, I don’t know how to fucking do this shit, you’ve got to come shoot this for me.” Everett Burrell, I met him on DAY OF THE DEAD, he was a makeup effects guy and he was part of Savini’s crew, and we have been friends for 25 years. He shifted off into visual effects, so I called him and said “Hey man.” I’ve got probably $50,000 worth of visual effects as a favor, and it was subtle stuff like the bubbles in front of the shark and making a little distortion to make the shark look like we were underwater and stuff like the Dracula transformation from the bat and the ant growing in the tray and little things like that.
Capone: One of the things I didn’t realize KNB worked on was "The Pacific." That must have been so much work. There are several episodes where it’s just non-stop bloodbath gore. How was that for your guys?
GN: We made 80 bodies, and I had a crew, literally I had three guys that were in Australia and it was Ben Rittenhouse, Steve Katz, Chad Atkinson. And we built these bodies so that at each joint, at the shoulder, at the elbow, at the knee, and at the waist, you could pull a pin and disconnect the arm and then we had latex stumps. You could slide a stump on. So we had bodies that were basically jigsaw puzzles, so if you wanted to do a scene with 20 bodies on the beach that were blown apart, then you could do through and go, “Okay, take that leg off. Take that arm off. Take that off.” And then, yeah, all of the gory bits, all of the blood. It’s an intense show and for me it was important because my grandfather was there.
Capone: So was mine.
GN: It’s funny, because with "Band of Brothers," the European theater has for some strange reason had a more romantic air about it. So when you get into the South Pacific, the level of brutality is so much more shocking, but I think that’s what threw people. Even viewers, I think it threw viewers off a little bit, because it was such a dedication to… The Japanese army was so dedicated to just winning at any cost.
We won an Emmy for the prosthetic work, and it was interesting because I had flown home the day before from "The Walking Dead," and the Emmy’s were the next morning and I was just really out of sorts and just burned out and tired and it was funny, because I wish I would have talked about the fact that my grandfather was a part of that. When you are dealing with a show like that, that they are faithfully trying to recreate something that really happened, and you have to remember that at that time, television…that stuff wasn’t put in your lap like it was during Vietnam and in the '70s where you were seeing things. So people never really had an opportunity to see it, or to see it portrayed in a way that you go, “Aw, they never would have done that.
Capone: When I think of that show, I just see red--red and sand.
GN: Yeah and the jungle rot. And imagining that the guys that were there were 19 years old. That’s astounding.
Capone: So with "The Walking Dead," you’ve worked with zombie makeup before. Can you talk a little bit about how you tried to make these of zombies different?
GN: Well you know it’s interesting, because it all starts from the casting. We took our cue from the graphic novel. There is a specific design aesthetic that I responded to. When you look at the zombie drawings, they are all really bony, really skeletal. Their lips are always pulled away, so you see a lot of teeth and you see like white eyes, really long necks, slumped shoulders. The zombies in the graphic novel all look like they have starved for six months.
Capone: Plus, all of the moisture has drained out of them.
GN: Right. So, you sit there and you start thinking about zombie movies and shows and you start thinking bout “Well, they’ve been walking around in the sun, they would all be leathery and dried out and just fucking disgusting.” But you know what I’m proud of is that I took the experience on a bunch of other zombie shows that I had done, because every time you wrap a movie, you go, “Man, this was great and the next time I do something like this I’m going to try something different. I’m going to try it this way next time.” With "The Walking Dead", I think that we were able to really hit it. I learned from all of the other shows that I had done, so that I was able to streamline the process and also realizing how important casting was. When you have a face and you put prosthetics on it and stuff, there’s a fine line between making the face look like stuff is built on top of it versus that it was decomposing, and that you are actually seeing rot and you are seeing inside the face, so a lot of the extras that we chose a lot of the people that we picked had specific faces that accentuated the makeup.
Capone: You couldn’t do that bony-tructure thing on my face.
GN: [laughs] Or mine either. If you have a guy who has full cheeks and then you put a wound here, then it feels like you are adding on top of their anatomy as opposed to making it look gaunt. And that I think was one of the things that we were able to do.
[Nicotero pulls out his cell phone to show me a detailed image he took of one of his zombie creations on "The Walking Dead" set.]
Capone: Oh my God. So there’s a person in this one?
GN: Oh yeah. She has a dental piece that clips over her lip and then we add the prosthetics on top of that, but because her facial structure is so specific, really thin cheeks and a long face, it doesn’t look like we are building up. It actually looks like it could have been a fuller face.
Capone: Wow. Quint said it was cool to bring up what you might be doing for them on THE HOME, which seems to be coming together nicely now.. What specifically are you guys working on there?
GN: boy, THE HOME is an ambitious movie. It’s got this great POLTERGEIST feel where the place is alive, with walls and furniture and things. This entity manifests itself and starts picking off these people in this old folks home, so there are a lot of practical elements to making walls come to life and going from something that’s hard to something that’s fleshy and organic. It’s very Rob Bottin gooeyness. I’m excited about it. The preproduction artwork that they have is fucking great.
Capone: I’ve seen some of it. So what else are you excited about that you’ve got coming down the pipe?
GN: Well, we are wrapping up FRIGHT NIGHT. Howard is in New Mexico with Colin Farrell. We did I AM NUMBER FOUR for Dreamworks and D.J. Caruso. We’ve done all of D.J.’s movies. What else did we do this year? It all just sort of blurs together. Then we have DAWN TREADER coming out.
Capone: That’s right, you are doing the NARNIA stuff. I forgot about that. You guys did the creature design work on SPLICE too, right?
GN: Yeah. It’s a great movie.
Capone: We had the director, Vincenzo [Natali], come into Chicago, and I just grilled him about the work that went into designing Dren. I thought it was incredible. You guys blurred the line so much between make up and digital effect that I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn't.
GN: Listen, that movie technically was very well executed, because we had done some prosthetic work and some puppet work. I think it was Bob Munroe just did a fucking great job with visual effects. I think SPLICE is a really good gauge of a film that utilized every tool to its advantage and I think a lot of that has to do with Vincenzo’s sensibilities and [SPLICE executive producer] Guillermo Del Toro. If you look at modern directors, like Guillermo and Eli [Roth] and Alex Aja, these guys all grew up… Guillermo was a special effects makeup guy, so he embraces utilizing whatever technology best suits the movie, and I think SPLICE certainly shows that.
Capone: All right. I have to ask, who is it that playing Dracula in your short? It looks like Henry Rollins.
GN: I can see that, now that you've said it. But no, it was Sam Whitwer, who was in THE MIST and "Battlestar Galactica," and I just called him like “Hey dude, can you come and play Dracula?” He’s like, “Sure.”
Capone: All right, well it’s great to meet you finally. I hope we can see each other again.
GN: It’s funny, I’ve been reading your stuff for years. I think between Eric and Drew and those guys, everybody’s territorial about their people.
Capone: Ha. It probably also has something to do with the fact that up until recently, I haven't done many set visits, so I haven’t had a chance to see you do your thing on the job. Maybe one day.
GN: Cool. Well listen, thanks.
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