Here's an epic interview with Greg Nicotero, the top make-up effects man in the industry right now. Once a student of Tom Savini's, Nicotero has worked on well over 100 movies, lending blood and guts to horrorfests like LAND OF THE DEAD, HOSTEL and THE MIST to performing more subtle work on films like THE GREEN MILE, RAY and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. Most recently he's broken out of just being the "make-up guy" thanks to AMC's "The Walking Dead," on which he's an executive producer and frequently director. And since that's the biggest show on cable television, the time has come for Nicotero's name to ring out not just in horror circles, but throughout the general pop culture conversation.
Nicotero recently finished up on Robert Rodriguez's "From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series", a job which afforded him the unique opportunity to revisit and refine work he created for the film almost 20 years ago. I had a chance to speak to Nicotero on the phone (which you'll see was very exciting indeed for me) about creating new vampires for "From Dusk Till Dawn", how his ceaseless passion for his work continues to drive him forward, the close bond he shares with Robert Rodriguez, and the pressures of making "The Walking Dead" what it currently is.
Hey man, thanks for taking the time out to talk, this is a big thrill for me.
Sure thing, sorry we're doing this on a Sunday. I'm prepping "The Walking Dead" and we're shooting in a week, so...
Are you directing the first episode?
I am. It's my eighth episode.
Can you believe it? I think my first exposure to you was the Tom Savini documentary from back in the 80s.
Oh, "Scream Greats!"
Yes! I watched that a million times.
Yeah, that was shot right before I moved to Los Angeles, in 1985.
Do you still have your decapitated head from DAY OF THE DEAD?
You know, I do. Unfortunately Tom used it for a movie called MR. STITCH, with Roger Avary, and they reused the head. They repainted the skin and took all the hair off, so it's not in the best condition, but I've recently considered restoring it.
You definitely should. I'm sure you really looked up to guys like Tom Savini and Dick Smith back in the day, because they were the guys in the make-up world, but now you're the guy in the industry. How crazy is that?
It's funny, I never think of it that way. I'll tell you- I'm in Georgia, I had horrible insomnia last night, and I was watching a documentary about Ray Harryhausen. What I love is, I can watch that documentary and then wake up today and be more inspired than I was yesterday. The guys who were my idols are still my idols, and they're guys who still continue to inspire me. That amazes me that you can be a fan of someone and you admire their work, and then you revisit their work and it rekindles that feeling. The most exciting thing for me is, when I talk to people who watch the show or follow KNB, I see myself in them. I see those really dedicated filmgoers who just want to absorb everything they can about what we do. That to me is how it works, that passion and love is always there. That was one of the exciting things about doing "From Dusk Till Dawn"; I've never been involved with a project where 19 years later we get to revisit a world we created, it's the first time we've ever done that. It's really exciting for me, to walk on the set of the Titty Twister and remember shooting moments from the first movie.
In a weird way, is it like you're remaking yourself?
That's a great question, because Robert Rodriguez and I are two very different people than we were when we made the original movie. That was our first collaboration, and it was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted 20 years, I've done every one of Robert's movies since then. So "From Dusk Till Dawn" for me was a formative month where me and Robert shared our love of John Carpenter movies and BLADE RUNNER and JAWS, and having that time together where we both loved playing guitar and movies and Stevie Ray Vaughan, we developed that friendship together. I've always been fascinated with watching Robert grow and create this empire. Before FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, Robert had never done a really big effects project. But I really believe Robert reinvented visual effects on that movie, because the idea of having to shoot separate elements and then green screen and CGI and then put all of that togetherů at the time, that was very time consuming, it took time to shoot those plates and we had a whole separate unit. And I believe that experience allowed Robert to revolutionize visual effects to the point where when we shot SIN CITY, he created a whole universe completely on a green screen. It's always been fascinating to me to watch Robert's career explode, and I think he and I have been on parallel paths in terms of following our passion and love for what we do.
Freaky before and after of actress Eiza Gonzalez and "Satanico Pandemonium"
Of course you've maintained your career as the top make-up effects team in the business, but you've also personally grown to be a director and producer. Has your process changed at all since the early days?
I do have to say that "The Walking Dead" gave me a really good proving ground for "From Dusk Till Dawn," because having the opportunity to be an executive producer and director on it has given me a tremendous amount of input on the show. There are many times when I don't have to get designs approved by the other producers because I'm running point on a lot of the creative stuff. So knowing that, and understanding the schedule you have on a television production, Robert and I spent time discussing the new take on vampire mythology, and I knew the best way for us to move forward quickly would to be generate sculptures and make-up tests for him to comment on. And we did that very, very early on in the process, knowing that an eight day prep and an eight day shoot is going to fly up really fast on you.
I approached it very much the way I do on "The Walking Dead": What do I want to see, what kind of make-ups and characters have I not seen before that I would love to do. Vampires are challenging, because everybody has a different take on them. In the original FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, there was not a tremendous amount of mythology behind the vampire lore. Robert began to pepper in some of that Aztec feel in the last shot with the temple, but he didn't really have a tremendous amount of the backstory that he had wanted to. So the vampire make-up designs were more caricatures of the individual actors' faces. Robert had done a sketch of Quentin as a vampire, and Robert has a really cartoony style, and we used that as our springboard. So you look at Fred Williamson's make-up, Savini's make-up, Danny Trejo's make-up, those make-up jobs are exaggerated, steroid versions of the actor's faces. For the TV show, we played a lot more with the backstory, that these are not traditional vampires, they don't follow the same rules. If they bite you, they're able to take over your body form, sort of like camouflage. And then of course once we get into Satanico's snake dance and all hell breaks loose, we had an opportunity to redesign the make-up, create it in a way that was fresh and original. I don't know a filmmakers who would want to re-do the same thing they did 20 years ago, so I know Robert and I were very excited about revisiting these make-ups and take it to a different level.
Have you any thoughts about directing a feature?
It's challenging, you know? I don't have a lot of time off. We wrapped Season Four of "The Walking Dead" last year and then started right up on "From Dusk Till Dawn." Robert had offered me an episode to direct, but I'm executive producing a pilot for NBC with Ridley Scott, so that was greenlit and we're shooting in June. I don't know what I'll have time. Robert Kirkman and Dave Alpert have talked about developing a film for me to direct, and there's certainly an amount of interest, it's just about finding the time to break away to do it because "Walking Dead" and "From Dusk Till Dawn" are full-time things.
"The Walking Dead" seemingly gets bigger every week. What do you think about the constant growth of that show and how much pressure does it put on you to deliver bigger and better seasons every time out?
I feel the pressure after last season, when the season premiere that I directed had 16.1 million viewers, which is the most watched program in cable television history, so that's pretty daunting. But I must say, the passion and love for the material, and the desire to continue to push the envelope is there. I mean, this season coming up is going to be amazing. The season premiere script is fantastic. I don't know a more dedicated showrunner than Scott Gimple, the guy works 24 hours a day, I don't know how he does it. But when you love your job and what you do, your passion shows, and I think that's what makes "The Walking Dead" great. The audience watches the show and the see the passion on the parts of the actors and writers, and they can't help but be effected by that.
Are you going to Comic-Con this summer?
I believe so.
Great, hopefully I'll run into you there.
Yeah, you, me and 250,000 people!