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 2

...Continued from Part 1

How big of an influence was Tom Savinni's work?

Greg Nicotero: I'll tell you, Tom's work has always been incredibly influential. There was some stuff that he taught me very well, that I've been able to use later. A perfect example is in Misery, when Kathy Bates lifts that sledgehammer up. And she swings it at James Caan. She's like, "God, I love you." Then she swings the sledgehammer, and the leg breaks. What we did was, we used misdirection. We actually had her swing the real sledgehammer, so that you could tell it was taking some effort. And she hit a pair of fake feet that were in the bed. She made contact. It's all about establishing the weapon first. Tom was really good at that. Tom's effects were always tremendously ingenious. Even on Land of the Dead, when we were creating a lot of the effects, I took what Tom had done, and sort of finessed it a bit. One of the things I really wanted to do for a zombie bite was make it where you didn't just have to do the bite in one place. But where you could do multiple bites. Ultimately, from a cinematic standpoint, you don't even really need that. You can see the person screaming, you go in, then you cut back. A big chunk of flesh is going to tear out. But one of the first things we tested was being able to give George the freedom to have an arm completely eaten. The zombie could just go in anywhere it wanted to. And that's what we ended up doing. It was tremendously effective. Tom's work was always inspiring, the simplicity of it. It was always very ingenious.

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The Lion from Narnia!

Was there an idea behind doing the zombie make-ups that differed from other zombie movies? Because there's been a lot of zombie movies lately...

Greg Nicotero: There have been hundreds of zombie movies. And I love zombie movies. I'm a huge fan of Dead Alive, I thought that was so much fun. Peter Jackson is brilliant. I loved Shaun of the Dead. I even liked the Resident Evil movies. I thought they were fun for what they were. I would have liked to seen the Resident Evil Zombies eat more people. But that's just me. Truthfully, I wanted these zombies to look a little different. We came up with a lot of different things in terms of the color scheme. We knew that we wanted these zombies to be able to see at night, outside. We went out with a kind of pale, or yellow, base. We made a lot of wounds, but we also made a lot of hairpieces. We found people that were bald or had no hair, and we'd put these sparse kinds of wigs on them. Everybody had custom dentures. Everybody had custom contact lenses. The color scheme was different from that of your average zombie in a lot of other films. We also used a lot of puppet work, and a lot of CG work.

A lot of the head hits are different. Back in the day, on Dawn of the Dead, you could just grab an extra and put a squib on the back of his head. You can't do that any more. There's so much stuff you have to worry about. Back when you're doing gorilla filmmaking, you don't worry about that stuff. So, one of the first things we did was come up with air mortar ways to do head-hits. So you could blast blood and slime out the back of a zombie's head, and stuff. After awhile, those have to be so specifically lit. The light has to be in the right spot. I told George, "You're breaking your own rule." He says, "What do you mean?" I told him, "In Dawn of the Dead, every zombie that gets shot in the head is standing in front of a mirror, or a window. So that when the blood sprays out the back of the head, you have something for it to spray against. That's why those work. Because the guy is standing right next to the wall." In Land of the Dead, we were doing air hits, and they were spraying blood, but we were doing it with a black background. It was dark sky. So you didn't see it very well. They didn't take much time to set up. We did some CGI blood sprays, and those worked really well. We would do a pass try, but then, if we didn't like it, we could go and put that digital blood in. And then, in the DVD, you can add more blood too it. The theatrical cut does have a little less blood. And it looks great. The digital effects in the movie are pretty seamless. It mixes up nicely with the practical effects. It makes everyone happy.

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The prestages of zombie-ism.

Talk a little bit about Toronto. How long were you there, and what was your primary role?

Greg Nicotero: Well, Toronto...I've shot in Toronto quite a few times, and I love the city. But this was a different circumstance. We started building the main effects in August, and by the end of September we were shooting. We literally had six weeks to build everything. I had a 14 person crew. I brought some of my people from Los Angeles. Then I hired 9 people in Toronto. Stealer make-up artists. All of them. They were amazing. The biggest challenge was, not only were we doing 40 or 50 make-ups a night, we also had 100 masks. So you could get a shot of 150 zombies in one take. But you had to run through and make sure everyone's hands were made up, and that the masks were good. A typical day would be, we'd leave the hotel at 2:30 in the afternoon. We'd show up on set, and the first wave of zombies, 12 or 15 zombies, would come in. An hour and a half, two hours later, the next wave of zombies would come in. So, as the waves continued to come in, I would break people free to go to set. By 10 or 11 o'clock at night, we'd have thirty or forty zombies made up. Then the background masks. So the shots would get bigger and bigger as the night wore on.

The challenge is, that by the time the sun comes up, you've got 50 people wearing make-up, and you've got a bunch more people in masks. You need to clean all of them up, and you have to check the masks back in. We'd probably end up driving home by 8:30, 9 in the morning. And we did that every single night. It was so hard. The big challenge...George always said to me when we were shooting the movie, "You know, when we did Dawn of the Dead, we were in the Monroeville Mall. We didn't have to light it. The whole place was lit. We could shoot anywhere, at anytime, and if you needed to re-shoot, you could go back at any time." On Day of the Dead, we shot in a limestone mine just out of Pittsburgh. It was the same thing. We were in that location for the entire duration of the shoot. For Land of the Dead, we changed locations every single night. So we would have to shoot that location out. If we needed to do a gag, or a zombie bite, George would tell us that we didn't have time. He had to finish shooting the scene needed to tell the story; he didn't have time to shoot the effect. A lot of stuff got shuffled off to what we called the gore unit. It was a second unit I directed that specified in bites, and other gory scenes. You know, a close-up of a guy getting torn to pieces by a zombie, or whatever.

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The zombie bites!

It was one of the hardest shoots I've ever been on. The hours were grueling. For me, the pressure was really on. I was literally stepping into the role that Tom Savinni had armed for himself over the years. And I was doing effects for a guy I considered to be the guy that gave me a start in this business. To me, it was my chance to repay George Romero for the career he gave me. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I drove my crew crazy. I wanted everything to be perfect. But then George would say, "I don't want perfect. Perfect isn't fun. This is more interesting. Don't worry about it." Because I would worry about it. As did he.

George was in the same exact boat as me. He's getting the chance after twenty years to make this film that his fans have been asking for. Waiting for twenty years. If I thought I was under a lot of pressure, George Romero was under 25 times that pressure. He wanted to deliver a film that the fans would love. And that the critics would love. Low and behold, the movie was so critically praised, I couldn't have been happier with the reviews of the film. Being as close to the movie as I was, I was there for every single shot of that film. I'd seen every shot. To sit in the theater the first time I saw it, and be as amazed as I was at what George was able to pull off, it was really a tremendous accomplishment. Everybody that worked on the film believed in George's vision. They wanted to be a part of his movie. He had great support.

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The zombie gets made up!

Do you wish, hope, predict that there will be another George Romero zombie film?

Greg Nicotero: That's a tough question. As a fan, yeah, I'd love to see another zombie movie. I know George has ideas as far as where he wants to go with it. I thought that Land of the Dead was the perfect progression from the other films. Yeah, I think it would be amazing to see another zombie movie. For me, I think its more fun to watch them. Only because, I would love to re-create the experience of seeing Dawn of the Dead in the theater that first time. That movie changed my life. You don't trust anyone. You don't trust the director, you don't trust the characters. I would love to relive that experience. That's what I look for when I go to the movies. But not a lot of films have that. It's difficult.

Inside KNB EFX House

After this second interview was over, Greg ushered us all downstairs for a tour of the shop floor. The first stop was the make-up room, where one of the prominent Zombies from Land of the Dead was busy getting made-up in the chair. We'd glimpsed the deadite when we'd first walked in. Now, the transformation was nearly complete. We watched as the make-up artist hand-brushed this ghoul's blood-soaked knuckles. Greg helped him with his fake overbite. And then stage blood was generously splattered over the dead guy's tattered clothes. Personally, I liked the Zombie's Addidas. I thought they were a nice touch.

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Vampire Hooker

Greg explained the process in detail, going over every little nook and cranny in the actor's face appliance. The only thing we didn't get to see was the food coloring mouthwash that would turn the inside of the zombie's mouth from pink to greenish black. Before the make-up process could be fully completed, we were shown through the door and out onto the Lab floor.

A table had been set up for display. There were a number of different zombie head prototypes sitting atop it. Greg went through each one, explaining how the look and feel of the zombies had changed throughout the course of the production. He went through the various skin colors that had been used, and then showed us the head prop of a girl scout. His finger ran over the dead girl's mouth. Narled braces were hot wielded to her teeth. Bits of flesh and torn ligaments hung like Christmas ornaments, wedged in this wrecked bit of orthodontia. Greg explained that the Girl Scout hadn't been utilized in the final film, but the teeth work did appear on a small boy in the Pier Scene. You have to look really hard for it. If you're watching Land of the Dead on a small TV screen, forget about it. It's those kinds of intricate details that get lost amongst the chaos.

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Warhog warrior from Narnia

Greg moved us from the table display to a row of workbenches. Various exhibitions had been set up in our honor. The first bit of work we were shown was the Spine-Ripping body harness. It was an upper-male torso with a loosely connected head. A shop employee put the harness over his own head, so that the fake torso seemed to have real-life moving limbs. Greg then ripped the fake head backwards. The actor inside the suit flailed around as if he'd just been decapitated. Greg continued pulling the head backwards, tearing the spin of the fake torso from the rubber skin. It was a pretty neat trick. And you'll know it when you see it in the new Unrated version of the DVD.

Next came the animatronic Zombie heads, which Greg and another Lab floorman brought to life with converted Remote Control Car transmitters. These were pretty complex pieces of machinery. With a slight twitch of the wrist, Greg could make his Zombie head emote, moan, cry, bite, and yell. He only played with it for a second before moving on to two men crouched behind a sautéing iron.

They were gearing up for the big "Zombie Bite" demonstration. One man applied flesh colored latex to the other man's forearm. The fake skin ran from his wrist to his elbow, with a flat bladder pouch underneath it. This would allow for the Zombie to bite him anywhere on the arm. A tube was stuck into the skin, ran up the guy's sleeve, and it came out through the back of the guy's shirt. This would be used to pump a generous amount of sticky red syrup through the impending ruptured wound.

As all of this was being explained, our living Zombie joined us. The small crew of three walked over to an empty space near the back of the lab. The victim was instructed to look like he was oblivious to the Zombie's presence. He pretended to reach for something, and the Zombie leapt at his unwilling appendage. Teeth tore into fake skin as a technician pumped a bucket of blood through the Victim's air tube. The fresh wound dripped with an ocean of liquid. That Zombie really tore into the poor guy, making a meal of his arm. It was one of the coolest demonstrations I'd ever gotten to see. I stood there and watched as a real Zombie attack took place. Cool sh*t.

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Yellow Bastard and friends.

We didn't get to stare for too long. The Zombie was angry, and looking for more flesh. We were instructed to keep moving. Our group made its way to the back of the Lab, where we watched a mask and costume fitting. One of the make-up artists was fitted with a Zombie body suite and head. And then he was dressed in tattered clothing. Two beautiful assistants helped gear him up for a night as the Living Dead, then he was left to saunter about the shop floor, doing the Wal*Mart shuffle. He tried to grab us as we walked past him to get back to the make-up room. I'm pretty sure we all made it by without incident.

That was our tour. We saw some pretty neat things. And now I knew how the Zombies in the film worked a little bit better than before. I was taken back through the make-up room and then back into Greg's office for a quick ten-minute wrap-up interview. Here it is for your reading pleasure (there's a bit about Masters of Horror in here, so I know you'll want to read this!)

Spooker Washington's Interview with Greg Nicotero (A MovieWeb Exclusive)

Down stairs, the zombie had dripped blood on Greg's shirt. He seemed slightly miffed that he'd gotten this red spot on his collar. Seeing as how the other two chat sessions with Greg had spanned pretty much every important question I would have originally asked, I decided to broach this subject in depth...

Greg Nicotero: I think I've probably answered 98% of your questions while I talked. But don't be shy.

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YUMMY!

Spooker: How often do you ruin your clothes working in this place?

Greg Nicotero: Very often, as a matter of fact.

Spooker: Do you ever worry about that?

Greg Nicotero: No. What's funny is that my Levis from Sin City are still stained with florescent orange and florescent blue blood from the Yellow Bastard scene, where Bruce Willis beats him to death. I still have paint on my shoes. It happens all the time. And I forget sometimes, when I go through the airports, that there's residue from fake blood all over my shoes. I keep thinking that they're going to nab me, and that they won't let me on the plane. That I'm going to have to explain that it's fake.

Spooker: What type of hours do you put in here at the office?

Greg Nicotero: Not too bad. We try to still be human beings here. Set hours are always very different, and I think you know that going into it. Set work means insane hours. Here at the Lab, we try to work from 7 to 4. Everyone goes home at 4:30, and they have a real life outside of this place. It depends, too, on the project. Masters of Horror was tricky. You're basically shooting an hour movie every two weeks. For that, Howard was in Vancouver, and I was here. We were building all the stuff here, and then we'd literally have to ship it up to Vancouver within two weeks. We really had virtually no time to do anything on that show. It was fun getting a chance to work with all of these people that we'd either worked with before, or knew. John Landis is amazing; he's the funniest guy on the planet. He's got the greatest stories.

Spooker: What did you do for John Landis' episode?

Greg Nicotero: His had the least amount of effects. His episode is called Deer Woman. And it's basically a woman that is half woman-half deer. We did a couple of dead bodies, and a couple of puppet legs. Stuff like that. The meetings were always fun. You end up sitting there, talking to John for two hours. You get half an hour of work down, then he talks about Catch 22 and Kelly's Heroes. Being on the set of Jaws. It's amazing, and you want to hear all of it, "Tell me about Animal House! Tell me about some of your other stuff!" It was good. Masters of Horror is going to be a pretty good show. It airs soon. I'm off to Spain, because they're premiering Hostel. That's the second film we did with Eli Roth. Because we did Cabin Fever. Hostel is the second one, so we did all the effects for that.

Spooker: What kind of stuff did you do for that?

Greg Nicotero: Well, it's all torture make-ups, and stuff. Its sort of a Most Dangerous Game scenario, where people are sort of hunted. I don't want to give too much away, but there's a couple of characters that pay to be able to hunt and torture other people. The movie is amazing. The script was so intense. I'm really curious to see how audiences will respond to it. Because, even for me, it was unsettling. And I helped design all of the effects with Howard. It's a really great movie. I think Eli is certainly a great filmmaker. And I'm happy to see him doping well.

Spooker: What are some of your favorite Episodes from Masters of Horror?

Greg Nicotero: Well, I would have to say...I have to think a moment, because I have to go back...I think John Carpenter's is my favorite. I think the script was really, really good. It was a cool premise, and there are some great characters that we designed for it. John is such a professional. He's been doing it for so long. I think that's my favorite. I know that Dario's is certainly going to be interesting. It's funny, because there's certainly a mixture of horror, and humor, and sex. I think its great. I know that George was going to direct one, but then all this stuff with Land of the Dead happened. The release date got moved up, and it got kind of crazy. So he didn't really get a chance to do one. I think he will do one for next season. They already approved a second season.

Spooker: I heard that Rob Zombie might direct one for season 2?

Greg Nicotero: I think he will next season. They've got a lot of people they want to get in there and do one. There's so many people that they've been talking too. They're looking for scripts now. I think it's going to be a really fun show. It was an amazing thing to be a part of.

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Zombie blood splatter!!!

Spooker: What did you guys do for Miike's episode?

Greg Nicotero: I think they were going to do that one in Japan. We didn't work on that one. I keep hearing that its on, it off, its on, its off. The last time I heard, he was just going to do his own in Japan. And it was going to be episode 13 or 14. I know that Don Coscarelli's is going to be the first to air. It's based on a story by Joe Lansdale. I'm a big fan of his stuff. Teaming those two up, after Bubba Ho-Tep, is pretty awesome stuff. It airs on the 28th. Really, really soon.

Spooker: How did you come up with the make-up for Moonface?

Greg Nicotero: Well, you know, what was interesting was, for Moonface, and then for Carpenter's segment, we just mocked up a bunch of stuff. Even for Jennifer, Dario's segment. I wanted the directors to have something to look at as they came in, to start finessing the designs. And Scott Patton, who is one of our key designers, did a sculpture for Moonface. Don walked in and went, "That's it!" It translated different to film, because Howard changed the design head. On the design head, he was this sickly yellowish green. It was pretty weird looking. And the actor they used is this really big, really imposing guy. It was one of those things were we sat down and talked about what we wanted the character to look like.

Spooker: What are you guys working on now?

Greg Nicotero: We just wrapped on the Hills Have Eyes remake that Alexandra Aja directed. We shot that in Morocco for two months. Then the Poseidon Adventure we're still working on. And we're doing the Reaping for Joel Silver. Then we're prepping The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel, which we start shooting on Monday.

Spooker: Do you know what they're going to do about Leatherface's missing arm?

Greg Nicotero: It's going to be a prequel. He will have his arm.

Spooker: Before you heard it was a sequel, did you have any ideas as how you'd replace his arm?

Greg Nicotero: Well, by the time it came to us, it was already a prequel. I've known the producers, because we did Amityville and we did some stuff on the original Chainsaw. We're dealing much more with the origins of Leatherface, and how he became that character. The script is great. And I think the movie is going to be really good.

Spooker: What kind of make-up are you doing on the Reaping?

Greg Nicotero: The premise on that is more biblical. It's a plague type thing, where there are locusts and dead frogs. That kind of stuff. So we did a lot of animatronics and puppets for that movie. Actually, I still have a crew down there that is wrapping up that and Miami Vice. We've got a lot of things going on right now.

Spooker: What kind of criteria do you look for when you hire someone to work here in your shop?

Greg Nicotero: Truthfully, most of what we look for are good sculptors and all-around lab guys. Most of the guys that work for us now can make a mold, they can run a silicone body, they can seam the body, they can paint, they can do hair work. You'll get really far in this business if you don't pigeonhole yourself into one technique. That sometimes happens a lot. You'll get people that just make sculptures, or that just paint. The problem with that from a studio owner's standpoint is that you want someone that can do a little bit of everything. Usually, I look for people that are really well rounded and who are willing to do anything that needs to be done. If that means doing molds, or doing fiberglass, or plaster molds, and then turning around and doing silicone bodies, they need to be able to do that. That's what's most important.

Spooker: What is your favorite film that you've worked on?

Greg Nicotero: I'd have to say Kill Bill. I was so proud to know Quentin when I watched Kill Bill. And I'm really proud of The Green Mile. There are a lot of movies. We're really, really lucky to be involved with some of these groundbreaking films.

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Zombie heads!

Well, there you have it. Shortly after my interview with Greg, I was put in the limousine and whisked back to 10 Universal Plaza. Then I went back to my grave. I had a spooky-great time visiting KNB's Workshop. I hope you had a spooky-great time in joining me for the recap! I'll be back soon, coffin-rested and ready to tell you all about Hard Rock Zombies, one of the greatest unknown schlock messes ever made. It's a jaw dropper.

Spook you later, XOXO – Your friend from Beyond, Spooker Washington!

(All KNB Shop photographs taken by Paulington James Christensen III. All Spooker Washington photographs taken by Max Baer.)

Dont't forget to also check out: Land of the Dead [WS] [Unrated]