Int: Greg Nicotero

JoBlo.com/AITH interviews Greg Nicotero

Greg Nicotero has been part of our beloved genre for a long time, starting out by assisting KING TOM SAVINI on Day of the Day, to working on Evil Dead 2 to starting his own FX company with KNB and beyond! Personally, it was a thrill for me to meet Greg where I have been a fan of his since my teen years. Thankfully the man was as sociable as ever, light hearted and very chatty. Without further ado; here is Prince Nicotero, yapping about his work on Land of the Dead.

How will the Zombies look in this film?

One of the first movies I did was DAY with George, and we had taken the zombies to a level of decay using browns and pustule areas and bad teeth, no eyebrows. Always a joke for us, the undead always lot their eyebrows fro some reason in older zombie movies. Wanted to stay with a completely different color palette than we had used before, sickly pale yellows. We didn’t want to build any foreheads out because they tens to look a little caveman-ish.

So we went with a lot of nose and brow pieces to make the area look sunken and sullen. Every zombie has contact lenses, so the life is taken out of the eyes. Not white, designed about 12 different ones. Had to give them dead eyes because actors don’t look dead if they’re eyeballs are showing. Bloodshot on outside with yellow color on inside, some are harder to see out of because we went for that cloudy diseased look. No white lenses with little hole in it as that still looks like make-up.

Puppet stuff where we actually created 5 different looks for emaciated zombies. Ones that could never be a person in make-up, with noses missing, jaw bones hanging, but still with enough movement to look around so they are all radio-controlled mechanical heads. In-between versions, some are fresher, some more decayed. Some of our hero zombies, like Big Daddy, they didn’t want him to be too rotted as it became too graphic for audiences.

Other zombies are more rotted with brown blood, dentures, more a grey-black gum look, with grey teeth. Designed thin vacu-form dentures so they didn’t buck the mouth out in a fake way. . Black mouthwash made their tongues black so no sense of life in mouth. The funniest thing about this movie is the first night we did 100 zombies. WE didn’t start in a farm house or a mall or the missile silo where only one or two zombies are needed. Then 5 later and building to around 20. Here it was 100s from day one as the world has been taken over by the undead. Our heroes ate looking at this small town overrun with zombies as the movie opens. Started with that and built from there. CGI can make a crowd, that’s exciting.

Do you feel like you’re walking in Tom Savini’s shadow?

I don’t feel that at all. Tom is my mentor. He and George gave me my first job. We talked a lot about FX for this movie and he came up to visit and I kept hearing him say, George has never had zombies like this before. He was excited about what we were doing. Showed Tom a lot of our tests, with dentures that went outside the actor’s faces, prosthetics on top so you could tear chunks away to reveal the supposed inside of their mouth. It looks like you are looking through the jaw at the teeth. Really effective.

Adding an extra level you haven’t seen before. Proud of that and I sent Tom photos all the time and he was always excited. He’s been 150% supportive. I was his ball of clay who has now stepped in while he’s gone off to act and direct. Never once was there an issue about make-up, Tom even does a gag in the movie for old time’s sake. His enthusiasm is always astounding. He’s still such a fan, so into it, can’t help but rub off on you. Neither George nor I felt the movie would be complete without a Tom contribution, I’ll say no more than that.

This is the biggest budget that George has had but you’ve worked on bigger films. Have you had to make any compromises?

I hear George saying there has to be enough gingerbread in the movie to please the fans. He really wants to make something the fans are going to walk out of knowing they got their money’s worth. You can see RESIDENT EVIL and 28 DAYS but everyone knows they’ve been inspired by George. SHAUN OF THE DEAD was such a loving Romero recreation that it’s inspiring a whole new level of fans. A tremendously ambitious movie because it isn’t just set in one place, but all over this new world inside this downtown Pittsburgh area where the fat cats live.

The movie has way bigger scope. DAY took place on an island off of Florida, guerilla faction, a character who ran this commune area. I called it the TEN COMMANDMENTS of zombie films. George kept a lot of those aspects for this film. It’s interesting to see George with this great cast and this scope. The dailies are amazing, you feel like you are looking at this dead world. The DP has used cold colors, warm and alive in Dead Reckoning.

DAWN raised the violence bar, what about this entry?

It’s a different filmmaking world. Audiences are more sophisticated and they don’t want to see rehashed gore gags. Using every trick in the book, CGI, rod removal, animatronics, prosthetics, we will be using digital augmentation. Even George was amazed at what we could do today. It will still be shocking and scary. The scene tonight is where a woman finds her husband who’s hung himself. The sun is coming up and just as they cut him down, his eyes open. You see him lurch and he pulls the chandelier out of the ceiling and all you see is the lamp being dragged away. You know it got tangled into zombie’s foot, visually so much more interesting.

George has so many details like that. It’s where you see his mind wide open and how you know he’s been able to scare so many people in the past. The biggest challenge was the look of the zombies and they are slow to give you a chance to look at them rather than rushing by at 100 mph. The camera is on our zombies for a great length of time so every one has to look great. The sheer volume of it. On DAY we had a small group of people, so not many were attacked and the showstopper was when Rhodes was attacked and torn in half and you saw his legs drag off. We go on with that here; one character here is torn limb from limb. Our zombies are ravenous; food is in short supply, so when they get someone it’s a feeding frenzy.

We found a new way to do a zombie bit that involves a vacu-formed protective plate that goes on the actor’s arm and then gelatin goes over perforated with little holes. Pump blood up through holes before zombie even bites it, so it can go in anywhere it wants to, not hit any specific spot, as soon as teeth bite gelatin blood spurts out and he can keep going in on the same arm at various places. First piece I tested out on George because it meant he didn’t have to cut. The DAWN bites never bled, and you can see it’s just raw foam being bitten into. No blood spray. Done a lot of more freeing effects like that so George can effectively manipulate the audience in his own distinctive way.

What was the average make-up time to get the Zombies ready?

About two hours per featured zombie. I have a 14 strong team. Some US, some Canadian. Includes dentures, contacts, and then their hair done with Fuller’s earth and KY to gunk it up. Stringy, gross and matted. On nights we start at 2 pm and continue to 9 am where we clean them up. These circles under my eyes are a product of how time consuming this show has been. Everyone’s here because we want it to be great and it’s George’s comeback. All the extra effort shows. George wanted zombies clawing at Dead Reckoning so they’re fingernails would bend backwards, split and bleed. So we do it, rig it up, I do it on second unit and George loved it. With bone-crunching sound FX it looks wonderful. A digital blood splash can extend things further, GCI tendon etc.

Background zombies used masks, pulled hair forward. Very quick. Shooting three cameras, one always searching the crowd, so I’d run out after a take and shift the best looking ones into position. Making sure in every take the best zombies are featured. Always people with funny zombie walk, one we called the Skater, made up names for the walks. George will find the people who look great and most featured zombies are great. The Tambourine Man zombie is fabulous, put a lot of thought in it. George feeds off that energy.

What’s your favorite gore gag in the film?

First bite in film is set up really well, a rookie guerilla, a zombie grabs his hand, tears a huge chunk out of his flesh. Simon Baker and Asia walked over to see what we were doing and they reacted well. We’ve all had zombie cameos. So have Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright because I was SHAUN’s unofficial PR in America. Helped them promote it at Comicon. Cast their faces at KNB. It was a dream come true for them. They were chained up and didn’t walk, sculpted a DAY Bub make-up on Simon. Wanted Stephen King as cameo too… Famous people drove to Pittsburgh to be zombies in DAY. The Cramps etc. More difficult in Canada.

And times have changed, you can’t put explosive squibs on extras any more for $1 an hour. Had to design exit wounds that were non-explosive so we didn’t have to squib just stunt men. Could put those on everyone. There are more rules today in the industry. Wish we’d had the freedom on DAWN. Have a long time to finesse the movie before its October date. George spent prep time finessing the script and tailoring it for the budget. I wrote up lists of zombies and kills. I came up with Siamese twin zombies. Weird visuals like one who gets tangled up in his IV line from hospital. You are following 4 separate stories here that all meet up at a certain point. Following these factions with the zombies getting closer until everything converges.

What else do you have on your plate?

KNB wrapping up LION, WITCH, Howard Berger in NZ since May. Start Bruckheimer’s THE ISLAND next week. Doing re-shoots on SIN CITY. Having Benicio del Toro rush in saying I want to wear make-up because I want to look like the guy in the comic more, Are you crazy? Most rush away from make-up. That should be cool. I turned down WAR OF WORLDS down for this. They needed 100 bodies to float down the river when the war machines start decimating the city. That was about two weeks before I was due here and there was no way I could do it in time. WAR is one of my favorite stories too, bummed out I couldn’t do it.

What is it about zombie movies, why do they seem to be the Holy Grail for make-up artists?

When you are young and impressionable, zombies make the most impact; Portfolios always consist of a gorilla, their sister covered in blood and a zombie. Standard thing. For me it has all to do with growing in Pittsburgh. If you are born there, zombies are part of your film culture. I would drive past locations for NIGHT and DAWN constantly as a reminder. Caught up in that folklore. I miss being in Pittsburgh as the people there make the best zombies. It’s in their blood. Had friends call and sneaked them over the border to play cameos. Where are the guys who would kill to be here, they make the best zombies?

Tell us a bit about your history?

DAY was my first movie; I then moved to NY working for Richard Rubinstein, then to LA and started KNB, done 400 movies, everyone from Raimi to Spielberg, Kill Bill etc. Everyone who inspired me I’ve worked with. Entire House of Blue Leaves sequence in KILL BILL took longer than the entire schedule for LAND. 9 weeks in Bejing. I remind George about that all the time, which he shot an entire movie in the time it took us to do one scene.

I'd like to thank Greg for being such a stand up chap during our chat! With him onboard as lead effect duder on Land of the Dead, I have ZERO fears that the film will come through in the undead and red grub department. Bring it Greg! BRING IT!



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