Greg Nicotero is the creator of some of the Hollywood’s most memorable make-up and monsters of the last 25 years. Greg has worked on projects ranging from “Day of the Dead” to “Sin City” to “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” to “Piranha 3D”. Greg even took a shot at directing with his new short “The United Monster Talent Agency” (view short here), which is an eight-minute faux newsreel for a fictional Hollywood agency representing monsters from Universal Studios circa the 1950s. The short includes cameos by Frank Darabont, Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth, Cerina Vincent, Dana Gould, Jeffery Combs and Derek Mears. So with AMC working on their first zombie television show, “The Walking Dead”, who else is better to bring on than Greg and his team. Movie Mikes has been long time friends with Greg and finally got him to sit down and chat about his recent work on “The Walking Dead” and his fantastic short film.
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Mike Gencarelli: Tell us about your most recent project, “The Walking Dead”?
Greg Nicotero: Frank Darabont and I had been talking about the show for quite a while. I had met Robert Kirkman at ComicCon with Frank one year and Frank had always said that he was really, really dedicated to doing a zombie show but never found a story that he really thought could carry through…could make sense to him. And this was years ago. So lo and behold we’re having dinner in San Diego one night and he introduces me to Robert Kirkman. He then whispers to me that he’s in negotiation to option the graphic novel to make a series out of it. So needless to say I was very excited. Frank and I have been fantastic friends and great collaborators even before “The Shawshank Redemption.” We were friends long before he directed that. I had actually recommended some make up artists on the East Coast to do the make up on “Shawshank.” Then it looked like a small movie and he thought he might need to do a little aging on the guys. And after that I did all of his films. I worked on “The Green Mile” with him, as well as “The Majestic” and “The Mist.” We’re kind of partners in crime so to speak.
MG: What was the biggest challenge of working on this show?
GN: I wanted the zombies to feel fresh. I wanted them to feel new. There are so many zombie movies out there. 75% of them are made for under a million dollars. And they look like they’re made for under a million dollars! This whole thing about pouring black ooze into their mouths and having them run ninety miles an hour…there’s nothing scary or interesting or compelling to me about that. The whole issue of zombies that George Romero established…they’re just another version of society. But instead of eating hamburgers or cheeseburgers or pizza they just happen to eat human flesh. They’re not that tremendously different from the hundreds of thousands of people that walk through the streets texting on their phones and never looking up. Except the zombies are not texting on their phones, they’re just shambling around. And I think that people often get confused by why there are fast moving zombies and why are there slow moving zombies. Fast moving zombies are purely a factor of people trying to reinvigorate a genre’. By stealing the idea from “28 Days” and “Dawn of the Dead” they suddenly did that. The way we portray our zombies on the show is that, yeah they’re kind of shambling and they are a little slow moving but they certainly can’t accelerate when food is around or when it’s necessary for them to feed. Because these zombies can starve just like human beings can starve when they don’t get food. And if they haven’t eaten they’re going to be weak. And the idea of getting food is going to whip them up into a bit of a frenzy. So Frank and I always referred to the sequence in the cemetery in the original “Night of the Living Dead.” Bill Heintzman comes out from behind the mortuary…see’s Johnny and Barbara at the grave stone…he kind of shambles up to them. But then he grabs Johnny and then it’s a wrestling match. Then he chases Barbara when she gets in the car. He chases her down the street to the farmhouse. There is certainly more menace in that movie than people seem to remember. Not just zombies walking really slowly. And I think that’s really critical. I’ve done dozens of zombie movies and I’ve worked with some of the best make up artists and some of the best directors in the world in regards to zombie stuff. I’ve worked with George Romero. Joe Dante. Even Robert Rodriguez when he did “Planet Terror.” Those were “zombie-ish” kinds of characters. But every project that you do…every movie that you do…you think “oh man, I wish I would have tried this. Next time I do a zombie movie I’m going to try THIS idea.” Special effects make up and filmmaking…the process is so organic that it just grows. There are times when you’re on set and you’re thinking on the fly “oh man, next time I want to do a prosthetic with dentures this way and teeth this way and give things a different look.” A lot of it is casting, a lot of it was the artists’ sculptures, a lot of it was dental pieces and a lot of it was contact lenses. It really was critical that we give these zombies a little bit of a different look…a little bit of a fresh look. And having had the experience that I’ve had on all of these other movies really benefited the show. Frank and I talked quite a bit about what the zombies would look like and what we could potentially do to make them feel a little original and a little bit different. And when you get into “cattle call” days when there are 150 zombies and you’ve got seven different make up people and you’re blasting everybody through…those days it’s a little harder to get into your hero specific make ups but what we would do is pick and choose our battles. On days when there were only 20 zombies we would do 20 hero zombie make ups on those guys. But on the days when we had 150 zombies then we would break it up into hero make ups, mid ground make ups and background masks.
MG: What is your mind set when creating zombies for different projects?
GN: What excited me about “Walking Dead” was that Frank had…Frank is a classic director. Frank is as “old” Hollywood as you can get. It’s all character driven. It’s all story driven. There are issues and situations that will arise that we have seen in other zombie movies but they’re handled differently. His treatment of his actors is just so spot on. So few people really understand that, for real horror to work, you have to care about these people. If you don’t care about them then it doesn’t matter what happens to them. It’s the difference between walking down the street and seeing someone you went to high school with hurt versus seeing someone you don’t know hurt. There’s a connection you need to make. You want people to be sympathetic. When you deal with the horror genre’ you invest in these characters. It’s Janet Leigh in “Psycho.” That’s probably the best example I can think of. You go 25-30 minutes into the movie thinking she’s the lead character and then she gets killed off. I always thought that was such a powerful moment and that is why that sequence still resonates fifty years later. The audience didn’t see it coming and when it happened they were upset.
MG: How did the cast deal with all of the different make ups?
GN: The cast was just absolutely fascinating to watch work. For us, the quality of the zombie make ups we were able to do for the show helped their performances. It was one of those situations where they acted better because they were horrified by what we were doing. Some of them literally had nightmares about zombies. They spent a lot of time wanting to understand the process…wondering how they should react if someone they see is bitten and are going to potentially “come back.” How do I gage that? So I was really the resident zombie expert on set for the entire show. That’s why Frank and Gale Anne Hurd gave me a consulting producer credit. I was the resident zombie nerd that knew everything about zombies.
MG: Tell us about your new short film “United Monster Talent Agency”?
GN: I had been on the road for literally almost two years. I was in Berlin on “Inglorious Basterds” and then from there I went on to “Book of Eli” and from “Book of Eli” I went on to “Piranha.” And then from “Piranha” to “Predators.” I had been jumping around all over the place and it got to the point where I finally got back to L.A. after having been with some of the most influential and important filmmakers in the world. I looked at my schedule and realized I had about six weeks before I was due to start on “Walking Dead.” So I told myself if I ever want to do this I’ve got to do it now. So I called a bunch of my friends and told them I was going to direct this short. I wrote it in about three hours. I called Eli Roth, called Frank…I called my friends. And I told them that I’d never asked a favor of anybody. That’s not my style. But I told them that this is my opportunity to do this…would you help me out? And they were all on board. I had originally talked to Tom Savini about playing Dracula and he was excited. It took on a life of its own.
MG: How did you come up with the idea for the short?
GN: The original concept was a goofy idea…what if you see the Creature From the Black Lagoon and he’s running through the jungle…he’s chasing the girl. The girl falls and puts her arms up. Very dramatic. You play up those 1950s “close up” moments. And all of a sudden these guys run in with a net and in the background you see the Creature struggling and growling. You pan over to a Rod Serling-type announcer who says “At Universal Studios, we strive for realism, blah blah blah.” And you find out that Universal actually has all of these monsters living on their lot. They just take them out occasionally to make movies with. It was a simple, fun little idea. Then I thought “where do I go with it from here?” I thought it would be funny to have a shot of King Kong sitting next to the facility and then once you get inside….I had originally imagined a series of holding pens…holding cells where they keep Dracula and Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. I did a lot of research and watched a lot of news reels from the 50s. Many of them were trumpeting the future…“Technology is our friend. It’s here for all of us! The world is at your fingertips.” And I thought it would be funny if they had a place where they were developing technology for future movies. “Using science and technology to make bigger and better monsters for your future movies.” And then it opened up. And I realized that I could put all of my favorite movies…the ones I watched growing up…”Jaws”…”Dawn of the Dead.” I could put the “Thing”…I could put Freddy Kruger’s hand in there. It made complete sense. So I called my friends and it really began taking shape. There were a few days where I would think, “Holy shit! What have I done?” I had a little mini panic attack one week because I had never done this before. I was literally entering uncharted territory. It was terrifying and so exciting at the same moment. I had one day where I was really nervous but then I thought, you know what, I’ve been doing this stuff for 25 years. I’ve been on 800 movie sets. There’s no way I can’t pull this off. And I got my footing back. I think everybody in this industry has that one moment where they think “did I really agree to do this?” I scouted a location in Valencia…an old Borax factory. I was looking for a place where I could have medical rooms. This place had a huge lobby and then I thought, “Oh my God, I have another idea.” Now it was a hustling, bustling agency. So I took all of the classic movie posters that I own and hung them up on the walls and dressed everybody in period clothes. And it just exploded. And the fact that AMC has agreed to distribute the short…you can go on AMC’s web site under “Fear Fest” and “Short Films” and see it. It’s really exploded on the Internet. It’s played at film festivals all over the world…it’s played in Ireland…Spain…Australia. All of a sudden it went from “Hey, I’ve got six weeks free…let’s make a film for shits and giggles.” Now people all over the world are seeing it. It’s truly the weirdest. And to get emails from Guillermo del Toro and Rick Baker telling me how much they loved it…John Landis….guys that I’ve looked up to and admired. And of course it’s nerd heaven. Who else can say that they’ve directed a scene from “Creature From the Black Lagoon?” I had period movie cameras and period clothing with a set we had built at K.N.B….it was the closet any of us could get to being there without really being able to say “we were there.” We built everything. Not one shot of the creatures is stock footage. I licensed four shots of stock footage, but they were just of Hollywood. When you see Hollywood Boulevard or when you see June Allyson signing autographs…I licensed those clips because I wanted the short to have that “feel.” Originally I wasn’t going to do it but then I thought “you know, I want it to feel like a newsreel. I want it to feel like “dateline: Hollywood…1954.” I wanted it to have that cadence to it. When you see the “Nosferatu” shot…people are asking me “did you take that from the movie?” And I say, “no, no, no I shot that here at K.N.B. And then they ask me “how did you do King Kong?” King Kong was a miniature we had built and King Kong was the exact same size as the original stop motion armature and we rod-puppeted him to give him that classic, stuttery stop motion feel. I tried to be as authentic as I could with all the monsters. Because I felt that if you didn’t think you were watching the real monsters it wouldn’t work. A lot of the characters were played by my make up artist friends. Many of them not only played a monster but helped with other make up. They all did double duty. I think it was something people didn’t really expect from me It has charm and character and personality. It’s not very gory…not a lot of exploitation or a lot of blood. But I wanted to have fun with it. I wanted it to have personality.
MG: Any plans for any more directing projects?
GN: I would love to. I directed 2nd Unit on “The Walking Dead.” And I’ve also been doing a lot of directing on “Vampire Diaries.” It’s exciting that I’m getting calls.
MG: What films are upcoming for K.N.B. EFX?
GN: We just did the movie “I Am Number Four”, directed by D.J. Caruso. We have worked with him on “Eagle Eye”, “Disturbia” and a few others also. There’s a movie called “Priest” coming out that we did all of the make up effects for. We did “Fright Night” with Colin Farrell. We’re certainly keeping busy.
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