A chat with Greg Nicotero, make-up and effects wizard of “The Walking Dead”

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With 124 make-up credits and 64 effects credits to his name so far, Greg Nicotero is one of the busiest and most respected make-up and effects professionals in Hollywood. Originally inspired to take up special effects after seeing “Jaws,” he broke into the business working for the legendary gore-effects maestro Tom Savini on zombie-master George Romero’s 1985 splatter opus, “Day of the Dead. ”

A few years later, Nicotero had decamped from Romero’s Pittsburgh’s to show-biz’s Los Angeles and formed the multi-award winning KNB Efx Group with friends Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger. Aside from his intimate involvement in such effects heavy films as “Sin City,” “Kill Bill,” “Minority Report,” “Serenity,” “Spiderman 3” and, yes, “Ray,” Nicotero has also branched out into directing, helming the second unit on Frank Darabont’s “The Mist” and making his own short subject, a funny and endearing homage to several generations of classic movie monsters, “United Monster Talent Agency.”

When I met with Nicotero and last Summer’s Comic-Con, however, it was to promote the already highly buzzed new AMC series, “The Walking Dead,” which reunites Nicotero with writer-director Darabont in an adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s Eisner Award-winning comic book series. Premiering Halloween night, the show will be taking a more dramatic look at the cannibal zombie mythos originally created by George Romero in his 1968 “Night of the Living Dead,” combining slow-moving zombies with the kind of in-depth characterization and complex yarn-spinning that’s making the onetime “vast wasteland” of television into something more like the last refuge of classical storytelling.

There’s only one problem. I’m kind of scared to actually watch the thing. You see, much as I admire the craft of someone like Greg Nicotero, I’m not exactly the usual gorehound media-fan for whom the more, and more realistic, cinematic gore he can create, the better. There was no point in hiding it.

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Premium Hollywood: This is going to be a highly ironic interview.

Greg Nicotero: Good, I love irony.

PH: It’s ironic because, inasmuch as I’m known at all, I’m known for being squeamish. In order to watch the original “Day of the Dead” [I actually meant “Dawn of the Dead” ], I’m old enough to remember the original release, and I got myself completely plastered to see it.

GN: Did it work?

PH: Actually, it worked just fine except I couldn’t remember it the next morning. I watched it again sitting about 18 feet away from the TV set.

GN: That’s interesting.

PH: The funny part is, if I were on the set — and I have been on the set of movies with blood and gore, to some degree — I’d be fine. I’ve been covered in stage-blood, no problem. But watching it, the magic of cinema being what it is…

GN: Wow.

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PH: Anyhow, and I think I know the answer to this question, how many drinks do you think I’ll need to get through a typical episode of “The Walking Dead”?

GN: How many did you need for “Day of the Dead”?

PH: [Not realizing I had misspoken earlier] “Dawn of the Dead” — I think “Day of the Dead” would need more, from what I understand.

GN: You know, it’s hard to say. I haven’t seen the finished cut. We certainly didn’t pull our punches. We shot this as if it was a theatrical feature in terms of the amount of gore. AMC never said “You can’t do that.” They just said, “You know, use your own best judgment.” They said that to me and Frank and we’re like “Okay. Our best judgment is ‘let’s make it awesome.’ Let’s just go gory and horrific and real. We sort of went to back to the holy grail of the original ‘Night of the Living Dead’ which was the inspiration. What’s interesting about this is that there’s been a lot of movies lately that take the zombie genre into different avenues. The idea is just to steer back and make zombies creepy and make zombies scary and make zombies unsettling. Frank knows the genre so well and is such a fantastic writer that he knows what beats to hit. He’s putting his dramatic sensibilities [into it].

PH: I overheard something very interesting in one of your other interviews. I know your first movie was “Day of the Dead” and you talked about misdirection, which you learned about from Tom Savini, “the wizard of gore.” This is a very interesting concept to me because in film, you can just not show something you don’t want the audience to see, as opposed to a magician who has to literally distract you. How does that actually work in an effects gag?

GN: It’s like a dance. Everything is choreographed so that you set it up like a magic trick. It’s set up for the final trick. You’ll do a lot of ‘Hey, how many cards do I have?’ and you pick somebody out of the audience. It’s all set up for one punch. It’s the same with a make-up effects gag. You to build it up and set it up.

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The thing that I always loved about Tom was that he was very inventive in terms of, you know, the screwdriver in the ear from “Dawn of the Dead” or the machete in the head. He took a machete and he just cut it out and did it in reverse. You see him knock the zombie off the motorcycle, he puts his foot on his shoulder, and he says his line, “Say goodbye, creep,” and then he swings down. It’s the fact that he choreographed it so that the angle of seeing him swing the machete down would never in a million years make you think that when the machete makes contact that it actually is being pulled away. It’s the set-up. It’s the fact that those shots that lead up to it are all about setting up the gag so that the gag sells.

One thing that directors want to try to do now, and have more flexibility to do because of visual effects, is that you can get more in one take. “Oh, it would be great for this guy to run in here, grab that zombie, and chop his head off and then keep running.” Sure, if you want to go for that sort of hand-held kind of feel where you’re running through the streets with Rick [i.e., “Walking Dead” protagonist Rick Grimes, portrayed by Andrew Lincoln] and he’s shooting zombies…you can do that. But, you know, that’s just a factor of current filmmaking. In the day, they would cut, and then we would have a fake head and he would run by and chop the fake head off and we’d cut back to the wider stuff. Now, for some of this stuff — zombies’ heads being blown off, some of the head hits and stuff — it’s easier for the actors to just run through the shot and go and then, later, CGI will add a little blood spray, just to make it more gory and gruesome. It times out. Visual effects and CGI is a great tool just like prosthetics are a great tool. You sort of marry the two.

PH: Speaking as somebody who’s a little bit squeamish, I actually [will think] “oh, it’s just CGI gore.” If you really want to sell it, I imagine you’ve got to be pretty clever so that the audience isn’t aware.

GN: That’s why you’ve got to mix it up; the audience knows the difference.

PH: I know that one of the things you’re using as a touchstone is the original “Night of the Living Dead.” So that, I assume, means slow zombies, and also no brain eating.

GN: Correct. I’ll have extras on the set and somebody will say, “Ah, I’m really looking forward to eating some brains, tonight.” Wrong movie. I literally will say that. [The brain eating meme started in the late Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 “splatstick” horror comedy, “The Return of the Living Dead.”] I’m pretty clear with my zombie extras in terms of what the proper etiquette is and isn’t. So, if one of them says, “Oh, yeah, this is what we’re doing.” Wrong movie. No, we’re not doing that. It’s not about eating brains. Which is funny because even AMC gave us hats when we started to shoot that said “I heart brains.” I didn’t have the heart to tell them.

PH: [Laughing]. The comedians, I think, just love to talk about <in zombie voice> “braaiins.”

GN: It’s not the right movie.

PH: I’ve never seen that one. Everyone tends to focus on the gore, but are there other important effects [on “The Walking Dead”] that aren’t associated with blood and guts?

GN: Just the look of the zombies themselves is more critical than even the gore stuff. Because if you really think about the arc of the show, the gore is there to serve the purpose of how disposable the zombies are. It’s really about the relationships of these characters, with the zombies as a backdrop. The gore is there to serve the story, it’s not just “Oh, let’s do gore for the sake of making something controversial.” But the gore aspects that we’ve done to serve the story — did you see the one picture with Rick with the intestines and the body parts hanging over his neck?

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PH: I didn’t see that. I saw the partially gone head. [Which you can see to in my earlier interview with producer Gale Anne Hurd.] I’m getting better. I did watch [Frank Darabont’s underrated apocalyptic monster apocalypse film] “The Mist” last night….

GN: Ah. That’s not so gory.

PH: It’s not so gory. A couple of shots. I’m slowly [making progress]. Speaking of just doing the zombie characters where you see someone as a human…I’m actually not familiar with the comic. Is the transformation the same as usual, where you would get bit and become a zombie?.

GN: The rules are the same.

PH: So, do we see a lot of [zombies], who we used to know as people?

GN: No. We certainly will deal with some of our characters that come across that dilemma, but it’s not like we have reoccurring zombie characters.

PH: Or people that in the first episode start out as people…

GN: There’s not enough of ’em. And we don’t know. If the show is successful and goes into a second season sure we’re not a hundred percent sure where it’s going to go. [Note: Weeks before the show aired, AMC had already ordered a second season. Isn’t cable great?]

PH: I know you were talking about some of the differences from past films. I know Frank Darabont has more of a kind of earnestness in the stuff he does, whereas you said that George Romero is known for being a little bit more satirical with social commentary. I’m sure that guides the effects. Would you say you’re going for greater realism here?

GN: Oh, without a doubt. With George you’ll have your Santa Claus zombie and your priest zombie and your cop zombie, your nurse zombie. He really is using that to sort of satirize what humanity has become. Whereas, in this series, the zombies are sort of a collective menace. They’re relatively easy to dispatch if you come across one or two of them. It’s just like a pack of piranha. You have ten of them, you’re probably not in such bad shape as if there’s a hundred of them.

PH: What about other work you’ve done that you’re especially proud of?

GN: Oh, good lord. [My company] started in ’88, so this is our twenty-third year. We’ve done everything from “Dances with Wolves” and “The Green Mile” to “Sin City” and “Spawn” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Land of the Dead” and “Transformers” and “Inglourious Basterds.” We do all of Robert Rodriguez’s movies, we do all of Quentin Tarantino‘s movies. We did “Predators.” We did “The Book of Eli.” We did [“Piranha 3D“]…

PH: How is the whole 3D thing effecting you?

GN: We did the 3D “Final Destination” as well. It doesn’t really effect us. I mean some of the gore, some of the gags — if you want something specific to go right at the camera, it winds up being a visual effect. When you’re doing a blood gag or something, blood is inherently difficult to track in terms of where it’s going to land. So, you just kind of let it spray, [then] figure out what’s going to happen.

PH: It’s interesting when you talk about working with different directors. I loved, and had a great time, to my surprise, with “Planet Terror.” The bag of….

GN: Testicles.

PH: I couldn’t remember whether they were eyeballs or just balls. Why doesn’t that bother me? I found it very humorous.

GN: Because it’s ridiculous. It’s so over-the top. The whole intention of that movie was to sort of play on that seventies John Carpenter exploitation scenario. Which is funny because I was talking to Robert [Rodriguez] about this show. I think I sent him a couple of zombie pictures just to say, “hey, man, check out what we’re doing.” He said, “Man, makes me wanna do another horror movie.”

PH: Okay, I think we’re done. Thanks, it’s been a real pleasure.

GN: Good luck with watching you’re horror movies!

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