Greg Nicotero Interview

This week we visit Greg Nicotero's KNB EFX House for a peek behind the scenes of George Romero's latest Zombie masterpiece Land of the Dead!

Part 1

Welcome to my new column here at Movieweb. I'm Spooker Washington, and this is Splatter Shocks. Ever so often, as often as I feel like crawling out of my rusty ol' coffin, I will provide you with a bird's eye view into the Wide World of Horror Cinema. It doesn't just have to be films, either. It could be anything. A stage play, a new Death Metal CD, a review of my hemophiliac grandmother's funeral procession. But seeing how this is Movieweb, I'll most likely be dealing with the movie macabre. And I couldn't think of a better time to get this party started than right now. October. All Hallow's Eve if you will; Samhain blowing his nose into a tissue.

Well.

If I had my druthers, I'd be sitting here telling you all about George Romero's new Unrated Ultimate Director's Cut DVD of Land of the Dead. I know; that's what you fans want. It's got to be gorier, sicker, and just down right bloody cooler than what we saw at the theater. Right? Hmm? I'm not so certain that's the penultimate truth. I've heard word, straight from Romero's mouth himself, that what he got to Cineplex screens was basically what he wanted to get there. And if you've seen the movie, you know it doesn't wimp out. For a studio release, it's pretty damn disgusting stuff. This new home video version was completed for the hardcore Romero Enthusiasts. It boasts five brand-spanking-new, never before seen minutes. There's an added scene where Cholo (aka Dead Man Walking John Leguizamo) first visits Fiddler's Green to find a zombie hanging from a ceiling fan, and then a bunch of tagged-on spunk moments deemed too disturbing for your average Friday Night Crowd.

You know that ain't us, baby!

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Bruce greets visitors.

How does this new edit stack up? I'd love to tell you, maybe even yell it at you, but I simply don't know. Movieweb hasn't been able to provide me with a copy of the DVD just yet. Alas, what they did provide Ol' Fat and Bones here with was a special one-time-only tour of Greg Nicotero's KNB EFX House over in Van Nuys, California. That, itself, is pretty exciting. I've been a fan of Greg's ever since I saw Evil Dead 2 on Opening Day (and the fact that I did, right there, alone, qualifies me for this column gig). I first learned about the man through the grease-stained pages of Fangoria Magazine, and I've since followed the KNB legacy through its infancy into its adulthood, and beyond.

The business was started by Greg and his two effects buddies Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman (hence the KNB in the title), and they've worked on some of the most horrifying and groundbreaking films of the past twenty years. The production team's resume beats with a heart of awesomeness that includes far too many films to name-check in one sentence. Kill Bill, Sin City, The Chronicles of Narnia, Ray, and Looney Tunes Back in Action are just a few of the projects KNB has worked on in the last year or so.

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Bruce's teeth!

Their last creative endeavor happened to be a hungry horde of zombies for George A. Romero's Land of the Dead. And I couldn't wait to visit KNB for a tour through their shop (or lab, as Greg calls it). I was going to get to see a real live flesh eater. And I was going to get to see it attack another human being.

Awesome!

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From Dusk Til Dawn!

First, though, let me tell you that I hold Land of the Dead very dear to my bleeding, severed heart. I have to thank George A. Romero for going ahead and making the damned spooky thing. Quite literally, the film changed my life. But don't take that the wrong way. I didn't sit there and watch it with a hard-on. I wasn't so blown away by its storytelling that I hyper extended my lower intestine. No. About the movie itself, I thought it was merely adequate. I enjoyed it, sure. But it didn't throw me through the back of the theater screen by any means. It didn't reanimate my listless soul, or replace my rotting organs. I thought it was a decent zombie flick. An all right night out at the movies. Nothing more, nothing less. I didn't want to return to it right away, or anything like that. I say it changed my life, because attending the junket screening changed my schedule around. It allowed me to be in a place I wouldn't have been otherwise. And it allowed me to meet the ghoul of my dreams. A specter I'm still with today. Had it not been for George A. Romero's Land of the Dead, I never would have met this big bunch of guts I call a soul mate, and I wouldn't be the skeleton I am today, here, some three months later.

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Greg discusses his long career.

The movie could have sucked, and I'd still remember it within the context of this life defining moment. Luckily, it was something like Land of the Dead that allowed me the opportunity to meet my living dead girl. I'd hate to be indebted to something I couldn't stomach (like Garfield the Movie, or some other unjustified crapfest). Land of the Dead had me rethinking fate on a lot of different levels. I was grateful for this opportunity to revisit the film last week. Getting to see how some of the behind the scenes EFX came together made for a truly haunting experience.

I was taken to KNB in a limousine Universal had rented for me and a couple other members of the Internet Press Corps. It picked us up at 10 Universal Plaza, and then drove us to an undisclosed location in Van Nuys, California. The KNB workshop is quite unassuming. It rests behind a stretch of utility garages and storage units. Across the street is a sleazy pink Topless club, and you'd never guess that some of the greatest practical monster effects and props are hidden away here.

The place looks like an extended mechanic's garage. Most of the doors were open when I arrived on the scene. Walking into the Lab, I was immediately greeted by Bruce the Shark, from Jaws. His life-sized mechanical head was sitting on a workbench in the middle of the floor. Greg came bounding across the shop to introduce himself. The guy seemed terminally happy; a man pleased with his career choice. Nicotero is a hero of sorts to me, and I was taken back by his unassuming nature. The man was genuine. Shaking my hand, he noticed my keen interest in the Great White Shark head sitting just inches away from us. He explained that Steven Spielberg himself had commissioned it for the Jaws Fest recently held at Martha's Vineyard. This exacting replica was painstakingly created from scratch using archival information and photos of the original on-screen prop (which has since disintegrated due to salt erosion). Everything was a match, down to the double row of menacing teeth. After taking a moment to really study the thing, and its intricate paint job, I was shown upstairs to Greg's office. "Bye, Bruce!"

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Interrogated by Universal.

Talk about being a kid in a candy shop. Every other inch of floor space introduced me to a piece of cinematic history. On the way up to the interview room, I ran into one of the vampires from From Dusk Till Dawn and the full-sized animatronic Lion from Narnia. The room we were ushered into was stacked to the brim with monsters. A life-sized Jason Voorhees stood behind the television camera that was set up in the middle of the floor. Off to his right was Freddy Kruger. The Martian from The Day the Earth Stood Still stood next to a towering Pumpkinhead replica. A giant Rabid Poodle head was mounted on the wall like a Deer trophy, hanging above a full sized body mold of Pinhead. The dead cadaver Will Smith digs into in Bad Boys 2 lied on a gurney, The Creature from the Black Lagoon looming over his exposed chest cavity. A full-sized electric chair, complete with burnt felon, from The Green Mile sat in the opposite corner. Lining the back wall was a case full of heads. A Werewolf mask sat on the VCR. The Yellow Bastard's bust sat next to that. There were easily forty unique pieces housed in this display cabinet. It was breathtaking.

All I could do was wander and look about in amazement. I'd never seen so much cool sh*t housed in one area before. There were a couple of TV crews lingering around by a table. On top of that table was an anatomically correct cadaver and Harvey Kietel's head mold from the end of From Dusk Till Dawn. Half of Keitel's face was gone, all green and melty. It was from the climax, right after he gets hit in the face with a Holy Water filled balloon. I wanted to steal it. Bad.

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Greg and Spooker shake hands.

Greg took a seat in a director's chair that had been set up in front of the cabinet full of heads. Some lady from an undisclosed production house was getting ready to interview Nicotero about the new Land of the Dead DVD. We were invited to stay and watch. Here is most of that interview in full...

The DVD

What are we going to get on the DVD?

Greg Nicotero: Well, we're going to get a commentary from George Romero, who goes through and gives a complete history on the making of the film. We're going to get a seven-minute piece on KNB, which focuses upon how all the effects were done. We're going to get a visual effects, green screen to final screen comparison. There are some visual effects that are pretty seamlessly incorporated. There's a making of. There are trailers. There are all kinds of different pieces.

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Greg shows us animatronic zombie heads!

What is it that the fans want today? Do they want more blood, and more guts, and more gore?

Greg Nicotero: Absolutely. Fans want to be pushed to the edge. They want to see stuff that they've never seen before. The idea that you can label something an Unrated Director's Cut has this sort of titillation about it. You're like, "Oh, wow! I'm going to see something that I'm not supposed to see." Its rebellious behavior at its best. For a movie like this, it's the fact that George has always gone against the norm by releasing his movies unrated. He did that originally. He always had this renegade, Independent spirit. So people are excited to see the Land of the Dead DVD, because they know that George was one of the guys that pioneered that type of filmmaking. Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, from Shaun of the Dead. Those guys were influenced by the films that George Romero made. So it will be interesting to see how people will respond to this, because George has already inspired so many filmmakers. Who knows how many future filmmakers will come out of watching this?

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Greg takes us through the different zombie head molds.

I want you to give me a little bit of the insider stuff. Tell me how you come up with some of the concepts. How do you make something like this? Give us the insider scoop.

Greg Nicotero: One of the things that we really tried to do on Land of the Dead, that hadn't been done on previous zombie movies, was we tried to eliminate the pink-red color on the inside of the zombies' mouths. Because, that sort of signifies life, when you see that pink going through their mouths and their eyes. For the movie, we made a mouth rinse that was a dark-greenish black. Before every take, for the majority of the zombies, we would go and drip this food coloring onto their tongues, and they would swoosh it around in their mouth. So every time a zombie would open his mouth, he would have a black tongue and a black inside of his mouth.

And, besides that, every single zombie in the movie has custom made contact lens. What we really wanted to do was, we didn't want it to look like pale blue make-up on their faces. But we wanted alive looking eyes. So, we put contact lens into every single zombie. Each one has custom dentures, this black rinse in their mouth, and custom contact lens. It was quite an ordeal, because we had thirty sets of lens. During any particular shot, we had to stand right next to the camera to see which zombies got close enough to the screen, so we could tell which zombies needed to have their contact lens in. Or else it would kill the illusion. One of the things I'm most proud of when I watch the movie is that every single zombie looks camera ready. They are all hero close-ups. I had a crew of fourteen people that were constantly cranking out zombies from 2 in the afternoon until we'd start shooting at 8 at night. Then we'd wrap at 7 in the morning, and it would take two hours to clean up the zombies. So we were doing an average of fifty zombie make-ups a night. For forty-two days. So we did thousands of zombies over the course of this production.

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Greg's head collection.

Where do you get Inspired? Do you see things on the street, driving home? Where does it come from?

Greg Nicotero: Truthfully, most of my inspiration comes from old movies that I love. For me, I can watch movies like Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, Carpenter, and Tarantino, and what I'll do is say, "I want to strive to put something on screen that I haven't seen before." One of the reasons our zombies look different was because I'm a fan of zombie movies, and I didn't want our zombies to look like any zombie we'd seen before. For me, what is most inspiring is having people walk out of the theater and say, "Wow, I never imagined a zombie would look like that before." So, for Land of the Dead, we did a combination of prosthetics, we did puppets, we did some CGI stuff. We used every trick in the book to come up with this world of zombies. We wanted it to feel fresh and new. I think we accomplished that.

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Jason participates behind-the-scenes..

After this quick eight-minute TV interview wrapped, I took a moment to wander around and get a drink of water. I also went pee. The bathrooms at KNB aren't very impressive. Nothing but your ordinary water closet. I half-expected some horrific creature to attack me near the toilet. Sadly, there was just some non-horror movie poster hanging slightly askew and a couple of Good House Keeping magazines piled up on the floor, under the toilet paper. I guess scares and defecation aren't friendly bedfellows. The KNB bathroom turned out to be a warm, friendly place. It was the only aspect of the trip that failed to impress.

After tiding up, I went back into the hallway where a commissioned painting of Medusa from Clash of the Titans hung on the wall. It was sweet. I checked out a full-bodied Warthog Warrior from Narnia, feeling its lifelike rubber tongue. I was then asked to head back into the office one more time for another TV interview; this one being conducted by the fine folks over at Universal.

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More heads!

Here is that Interview with Greg in full...

The DVD

Who are you and what is it you do for a living?

Greg Nicotero: I'm Gregory Nicotero, and I'm co-owner of KNB Effects Group in beautiful Van Nuys California. For the last twenty years I have specialized in special effects make-up, characters, fake animals, fake bodies, animatronics, gore, monsters, fantasy creatures...Pretty much any of the gorier, gooey things you've seen in movies over the last twenty years.

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Paulington and the zombie!

What is it that got you started in this whole sticky business?

Greg Nicotero: Well, I grew up in Pittsburgh, and as a youngster, there was a very small film community there. George Romero had already shot Night of the Living Dead. And one of the actors in Night of the Living Dead played the Television reporter. His name was Bill Cardille. And he used to host a Saturday Night horror show called Chiller Theater. Back then; you'd have three channels. You had CBS, ABC, and NBC. That's it. That's all you had to watch. So, my love for horror movies began watching Chiller Theater on Saturday Nights. In particular, July. Because July was classic horror month, so they'd show all the Wolfman movies, Dracula, and the Mummy. I was really a big fan of those movies growing up. And my parents were avid moviegoers. My mother claims that when she was pregnant with me, she read Dracula. So she figures that's why I love horror movies so much. The reality is that I remember going to see Planet of the Apes in the theater. I was five years old, or six years old, and my parents always took us to movies. 2001. From Russia with Love. Movies that I had no concept of what they were about. It's just the fact that my parents constantly took us to the theater to see them.

I grew up with this fascination. I started reading Famous Monsters magazine. The story is very similar to other make-up artists that you meet. Because they were all inspired by Aurora Model Kits, Famous Monsters Magazine, watching horror shows on TV. I did all of those things. I had a very vivid imagination as a youngster. I loved Erwin Allen TV shows. Land of the Giants and Lost in Space. For me, it was something I was always intrigued by. I remember seeing Jaws when it came out in the theater, and for me, that was one of the pinnacle moments where I said, "Gee, I'd love to learn how to do that." I looked at it as this big mechanical prop. I didn't look at it as this real shark swimming around. I was always in my head, trying to figure out how they did that. The beauty of that back in the seventies was there wasn't a wealth of information about how they did it. If you saw the Exorcist, and then the next day on TV they went, "Here's how we turned Linda Blair into the Demon." People would just go, "Oh, its Linda Blair in Make-Up. That's fake." Those movies had an impact because people had no idea how they were made.

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Pinhead and his poodle friend!

Too me, I think the movies that are most successful right now are those were you don't want to know how it was made. You want to leave a few little gags to people's imagination, because then they'll want to go see it again and again. And buy the unrated DVD. Because now that they've seen the movie in the theater, they want to learn how they did it. For me, it was always that sense of wonder. Today, I think that is lacking a little bit. I'd like to be left in the dark a little bit more as far as the way things are done. Because it keeps that mystique about films. I grew up loving those kinds of movies. Its interesting, because I spend a lot of time with other big movie buffs, and any time I go over to Quentin's house, he'll put on an old movie, and you'll remember what inspired you. You get inspired again. I've always been a fan of fantasy. I love Ray Harryhausen, and that kind of stuff. That's how I got into it.

Ironically enough, my Uncle was an actor in Pittsburgh. And he had a part in The Crazies, which was one of George's earlier films. So, low and behold, a couple of years later, before Dawn of the Dead starts shooting, I run into George Romero in a restaurant, in Rome Italy of all places, and I walk up to him and say, "Oh, you're George Romero. My uncle was in the Crazies." We ultimately struck up a conversation, and became friends. So, I went to visit sets of the films he was working on. I remember going to the Monroeville Mall when they shot Dawn of the Dead. I remember going to the set when they shot Creep Show. Low and behold, that's when I became friends with Tom Savinni. Then 1984 came around, and they were getting ready to shoot Day of the Dead, and George said, "Do you want a job?" And I said, "Hold that thought." Then I called Tom up and said, "I just got a job on Day of the Dead. Can I be your assistant?" And he went, "Yeah great, sure." That's literally how my career began.

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Pumpkinhead and friends.

It was July of 1984, and the next thing I knew, I was working on Day of the Dead. From there, I moved from Pittsburgh to New York City, where I worked on Tales From the Darkside. Then I moved to Los Angeles 8 months later. My first job was for Stan Winston studios. I worked on Aliens and Invaders from Mars. Then I jumped around from shop to shop. I coordinated Mark Shostrom's studio for years. By 1988, Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman, and I had been working around town, and we each had different strengths. I was sort of the manager business type, Howard was a good shop floorman, and Bob was a good creative guy, coming up with ideas and stuff. So we said, "Why don't we get together and do this for ourselves?" The first film we were hired to do the effects for was Intruder, which was directed by Scott Spiegel, and Produced by Lawrence Bender. He would, of course, go on to produce all of Quentin's movies. Scott I'd met on the set of Evil Dead 2, and that literally came from a phone call. That was literally seventeen years ago. From there we worked our way up. In two years, we were doing Misery and Dances with Wolves. So, we instantly broke out of the gore mentality that a lot of initial companies get pigeonholed in. We didn't want to get pigeonholed doing just Nightmare on Elm Street movies. We wanted to broaden our horizons. And Dance with Wolves gave us that opportunity. We did 24 Buffalo for Kevin Costner, then the movie was so popular, and so well received, that sort of catapulted us. People would look at our portfolio and see that we did that and Misery, and they'd look at the buffalo and go, "Wow, these are beautiful." From that point on, we were always able to do fake animals and realistic cadavers, and body parts, and character make-ups. So, that sort of carried us through.

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SPAWN!

One of the strengths of our company is that Howard and I have been fortunate enough to get repeat business. We've done 12 projects with Sam Raimi, we've done 7 projects with Robert Rodriguez, we've done 5 projects with Quentin Tarantino, we've done 3 with Steven Spielberg. The people we do business with call us back over and over again. That's why we've been around for seventeen years. And that's something I'm very, very proud of. I literally hit five thousand things with that one answer. I'm sorry.

CONTINUED IN PART 2...

Dont't forget to also check out: George A. Romero's Land of the Dead