Quantcast Greg Nicotero interview

FX Artist
Greg Nicotero!!!

You can't be a horror fan and NOT know the name KNB EFX. Founded by Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, the company have worked on just about every genre picture in the past 2 decades including 'Evil Dead 2', 'Hostel', 'The Hills Have Eyes', 'Halloween 5', 'Land Of The Dead', 'Kill Bill' and more. Icons Of Fright were lucky enough to sit down with one of KNB's founders, Greg Nicotero. Sit back & enjoy, fiends. This is one of our fave FRIGHT exclusive interviews! - by Robg., Mike C. 7/06

What are your earliest recollections of the horror genre? Do you remember the first films to really impact or scare you?

Horror Of Dracula! We had an old VCR, a reel to reel VCR when I were young, and my dad was really into gadgets, so I remember the first two movies that we ever recorded off television were ‘Horror Of Dracula’ and ‘The Time Machine’. So to me, sadly, I never knew who Bela Lugosi was for a long time. When I saw 6-7 years old, Christopher Lee was Dracula. Chris Lee is always Dracula to me. Between all the blood, and the contact lenses and the fangs, I loved it.

Was there any particular film that opened up your mind to the idea of special effects make-up?

Well, JAWS. I remember going to see JAWS back on June 21st; we went the 2nd night it was out. And I remember looking at the lobby cards in the movie theater and seeing the shot of Hooper in the cage with the shark going by, and I was astounded in how cool that was. And I kept thinking “How the fuck did they do that? How’d they build a big giant shark that could eat people?!” So, between that movie, The Exorcist, The Planet Of The Apes, and of course all of the Universal horror movies, I was always intrigued by monster stuff. I started reading Famous Monsters magazine around this time. I think JAWS and then later ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ were pretty much the 2 movies that did it for me.

Can you tell us a bit about when you started working with Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman?

I worked with Howard on ‘Day Of The Dead’, and we were shooting in Beaver Falls, and we needed a few extra people from LA. So, John Vulich had called Everett Burell and Howard Berger because he had worked with them both at John Buechler’s shop. So, they flew in and that’s where Howard and I first met. When I moved to Los Angeles a year later, Howard had actually picked me up from the airport with Bob Kurtzman and we all decided to get a house together and we’d room together.
So, it was me, Howard and Bob who had this rental house in Receda, California together, and then Bob and I worked for Mark Shostrom and Howard was working at Kevin Yagher’s and Rick Baker’s, so we just kept working. It was really ‘Evil Dead 2’ that really solidified our desire to work together. We decided on that movie, “Why are we working for someone else? We should just do our own thing.” I sort of had the business acumen. Howard was the shop foreman & people person. And Bob was the creative guy. So, at that point in our careers, all three of us brought something very different to the table. It all started when I got a phone call from Scott Speigel who had written ‘Evil Dead 2’, and he said, “Listen, I’m directing this really shitty, low-budget movie called ‘Intruder’. I’ve got no money, but can you recommend some kid working out of his garage to maybe build some of the effects stuff for me.”
So, I said “Scott, I’ll do it.” And that was KNB’s first job. We probably made a little over $200 dollars. I was working on Phantasm 2 and Deep Star Six at the time with Bob, and Howard was working on Child’s Play at Kevin Yagher’s, so we’d work on those movies – our day job’s during the day, and then go work at night on Scotty’s movie. There was a 6 week period where we never slept! We’d work all day at our day jobs and go work all night. It was so funny, but it was literally the genesis of KNB.

Well, going back a bit, ‘Evil Dead 2’ is my personal favorite horror movie of ever…

Mine too!

… And the DVD commentary is probably my favorite commentary on any DVD. I honestly can’t watch the movie anymore if it’s not with the commentary with you guys. (Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, Scott Spiegel)

You know a lot of people have said that! Literally 5 people came up to me yesterday and said the only way we can watch ‘Evil Dead 2’ is with the commentary with you, Sam, Bruce and Scotty. Which is great. The commentary was great. At the beginning of the movie, with Henrietta sitting in the rocking chair and she rocks forward, and I had said “Oh, this is a pre-shoot day”, because I had had my video camera with me and I videotaped everyday, it sort of ingrained the experience in my mind chronologically.
So, I start spouting off all these little tidbits, and I remember Sam covering up the microphone and asking, “How the fuck do you remember all this?!” (laughs) I said “Sam, you forget, I shot 6 hours of behind the scenes video!” I remember stuff about that movie like it was yesterday. And it was really a fun commentary because I remembered so much of the technical stuff about it, and then to have the other guys bring up other stuff, it was just great.

At what point in your career did you realize that you had made it; that this was what you were officially doing as a career?

I’ll tell ya, it was ‘Dances With Wolves’ back in 1989-1990. KNB had been around for 2 years. All of a sudden, we were on set in South Dakota and we’re puppeteering the Buffalo with Kevin Costner. The movie comes out, and it becomes one of the most famous Westerns ever made at that point. I was really nervous, because I was terrified that we’d be remembered for ‘Dances With Wolves’! I thought, “Jesus Christ, we’ve peaked in 2 years!” We’ve done a movie that was so well received. And I remember during the Oscars, they showed the Buffalo hunt sequence which we had done, and I remember my mom calling saying, “They showed your stuff on the Academy awards!” and I thought, “Yea… that’s kinda funny.” (laughs) I always remember saying to Bob and Howard that I didn’t want to peak after 2 years. We need to keep pushing and pushing. So, it was a really conscience effort for me personally because of that fact. I really was nervous that since ‘Dances With Wolves’ was so well received that it’d be our biggest movie ever. Little did I know. (laughs)

All three of us wanted so much just to push our company. Because we started off as a bunch of horror guys. We did Halloween 5 & Texas Chainsaw 3 & Nightmare 5, and to go from those low-budget slasher movies to ‘Misery’ and ‘Dances With Wolves’ within a year, was just too much.

I forgot about Halloween 5! Did you sculpt the mask to your face? I thought that was the story we heard or something along those lines?

No, Bob sculpted the mask. This is before the Internet, so the only reference we had at the time was the John Carpenter Cinemafantasique issue, with him sitting there with a pumpkin on the cover. And there were a couple of shots of the mask, these tiny pictures that Bob used for reference. We got to location with this guy Mark Maitre, and the director (Dominique Othenin-Girard) says “Egh, I don’t like the nose. We need to change the nose.” So, Mark sculpted this nose and we put it on the mask as an appliance, to make the nose different. Don Shanks was just the stunt guy who wore the mask. We never fitted it on him, or did a life cast.

I enjoy all the Halloween films, but Halloween 5 stands out as such a bizarre entry.

It’s a really different movie then all the other films, because Dominique was this really artsy guy. I had a few people come up to me that want to get a hold of people involved with Halloween 5 for conventions (whom normally don’t do conventions) because that movie has such a different following then all the other films. It’s just a really different movie.

Mike loves it because Donald Pleasence’s version of Loomis in H5 is “bat-shit crazy”.

Donald Pleasence is the man! We had such a great time with him on that movie. It was the first time I’d met him and we got to be really good friends. Because we did his make-up every single night. So, there’d be nights when I’d sit on set, and I’d start talking to him about ‘Fantastic Voyage’ or ‘The Outer Limits’ – or all these great, great films he did. I’ll never forget this one night, Me, Mark Maitre, Donald, Danielle Harris – we all went out to dinner, and I look across the table and think “I’m having dinner with Donald Pleasence. How fucking cool is that?!”
I also remember the day he died. I was in Vancouver working on ‘The Outer Limits’ back in February or March of 1995, and I had heard on the radio that he had died and I was really, really sad about it. I remember calling John Carpenter, because they were really good friends and John loved him.

What was on of the most difficult gag’s you had to pull off for a movie? Was there anything that you were nervous you wouldn’t be able to do practically but then managed to pull off beautifully?

Well, ‘KILL BILL’ was a really intriguing process, because Quentin had very, very specific ideas in mind. And one of the things I’m most proud of – he wanted to do a shot where we cut off the top of Lucy Lui’s head. And he said, I don’t want her to look like the airport zombie in ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ and I don’t want to use CGI. So, we have to figure out a way to make it look right. So, he kind of threw the gauntlet down and I was really nervous about how we were going to do it. He had this specific idea of how he wanted to be really close on her eyes, and then have a trickle of blood come down, and then pull back. I kept thinking “Fuck. How the fuck are we going to do that?!” So, I got together with one of my sculptors named Garrett Immel and we were sitting together brainstorming, and he came up with this great idea. Basically, he made an appliance that went on her forehead, but it was sculpted in forced perspective.

So, that if you looked at it from a certain angle, it looked like you were looking across her head but it was actually sculpted in an oval shape. It’s kind of hard to describe unless you see it, but it was one of those things where the director throws the gauntlet down and you have to sit there with your guys and keep throwing ideas out until you figure it out. And the fact that we were able to come up with this sort of really odd way to do it, I was really pleased that we were able to come up with a solution.

That’s what director’s do. “This is how I want it done. You guys figure it out.” In terms of an effect I wasn’t sure about beforehand, I’ve never gone to a set with an effect that I was ever afraid would never work. You can’t do that. You can’t go to set with something your not quite sure about. You have to figure it out. There are generally limitations, such as shooting it from certain angles. But I’ve always been really confident that everything we’ve ever done on set has been ready and prepared.

Would you consider yourself your own worst critic?

Yes. I want my company to be regarded as a company that delivers high quality work. Fortunately, we’ve been able to continue working for 18 years! You can always go back and watch a film and think God, I would do that so differently now. Sometimes I feel like I want to shoot a movie, do the whole thing, and take what you learn from that experience, trash it and go and film the whole thing again. Rebuild everything. That’s how Rick Baker does it and that’s why his make-up’s look so amazing. Because he’ll sculpt the make-up and they’ll bring an actor in and apply it. And they’ll look at what they like and don’t like about it, trash it, and then they’ll start over. The difference is Rick Baker gets 8 months to build stuff, whereas we get 8 weeks to build stuff.

KNB has done a lot of work with filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, and he’s a unique director in the sense that he works very much outside the studio system & pretty much does his own thing. What are the pro’s and con’s to working with someone like Robert?

Well, the intriguing thing about Robert is he’s still an “old-school” guy. He loves ‘The Thing’. He loves ‘Escape From New York’. He loves ‘Jaws’. His influences and the movies he loves are old-school movies. He’s very much like me in that respect. But he plays by his own rules. When we were doing ‘ Sin City’, it was one of those scenarios where the whole movie was shot in green screen, and we had all these character make-ups based on the graphic novels.

I remembered going into Robert’s office and he said “I gotta show you this. These are some of the first finished scenes.” It was a scene with Bruce Willis running thru the woods, and the wind is blowing and the snow is falling and he leans up against the tree & grabs his heart. He falls down on his knees and the snow moves as he falls into the snow. I was standing there when we shot that and it was all done on green screen. But seeing it complete, my jaw just dropped. If I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have believed that that was NOT real. That’s how impressed and amazed I was.

The way that Robert’s brain works is really fascinating. I started with him on ‘From Dusk Til Dawn’, where everything was done all practically. He really wasn’t a fan of CGI stuff, because he felt that at that time you’d have to stop, go over to a blue screen, and have separate set-ups & shoot all these elements, & later composite all of them together. Robert always felt that slowed him down. So, to go from that guy back then to the ‘ Sin City’ guy, where his movies are so visually driven by computer animation and make-up effects is incredible. I’ve watched him blossom into this filmmaker in the 12 years that we’ve been friends and it’s been astounding. He plays by his own rules and is successful. There are a lot of people that play by their own rules, you just never hear about them because they don’t do it right. But Robert does it right and he knows how to make good movies.

As a make-up EFX artist, how do you feel about effects being done practically vs. being done by CGI? For me personally, CGI still looks like CGI. There’s something about the old stop motion animation that I still like better.

There’s a guy in LA named Shannon Shea and he & I are developing a movie that would have stop-motion (Ray) Harryhausen-type creatures in it. And there’s definitely a charm to that. Listen, CGI – digital effects, there’s always an even ground between the two. What happens when something is too overloaded with digital stuff that it tips the scales? Well, then it doesn’t feel right.

Well, one interesting example – I was watching the ‘HOSTEL’ DVD, which you guys worked on, but Bob (Kurtzman) had done a lot of CG work in it as well (such as the backdrops in the train, etc.) I had NO idea that there was ANY CGI in that movie.

And that’s the way it needs to be done. When you watch a movie like ‘Mission Impossible’ it just feels like you’re watching a cartoon. I’m not bashing the movie but you get to a certain point where it’s too much. There’s something about seeing an actor do his own stunts when you know that the actor was in genuine peril verses “Oh, it’s just a digital effect.” There’s a really fine line. When we were shooting ‘ Land Of The Dead’, George and I had talked in the beginning about doing a lot of old school animatronic stuff and then augmenting some of it with CGI.

The headless zombie that flops over – we did a puppet head of it and then we did some CGI stuff, and I directed second unit on the movie, so I shot all the elements. So, there was a guy with a green hood on, and I put him thru the motions and shot all the elements and plate stuff. So, there’s a good example, because that gag was augmented by good digital work. All the head hits too. If you’re on a movie where you have to shoot 500 zombies, and you have 40 days to shoot the movie – to take a half hour to put a big blood bag on the back of someone’s head, rig it all up, squib it, then do take two verses have the guy just fall down and add a digital blood element that we could shoot later. You just have to be careful about it, because if it gets too lopsided, it doesn’t feel right.

KNB handled all the episodes of ‘Masters Of Horrors’, which to us is a dream list of directors…

Oh, for us too!

Well, was there anyone on the ‘Masters Of Horror’ roaster that you hadn’t worked with before, or that you were excited to work with again?

Truthfully, the main reason we got hired on ‘Masters Of Horror’ is because we HAD worked with all those director’s before. We knew Joe Dante. We knew John Carpenter. We knew Tobe Hooper. We knew Don Coscarelli because of Bubba Ho-Tep & Phantasm, so we had literally worked with all those directors EXCEPT for Dario Argento. Dario’s the only one we hadn’t worked with. I had met Dario before, but I had never worked with Dario. And it was right after ‘ Land Of The Dead’, we had a conference call for ‘Masters Of Horror’ and we’re talking about Jenifer and he had a translator on the phone with him, so he would speak in Italian and have someone translate it to English. He spoke Italian to everyone except me.

When he talked to me, he’d say (in Italian accent) “Oh, Asia… she love you! How are you, my friend?” So, all of a sudden he’s speaking English to me and as soon as someone else would ask a question he’d go back to Italian. It was really funny! I was just really delighted to get to work with Dario. And we’re doing the second season now, we’re up to the 4 th episode. We shot Landis’s. We shot Tobe’s. And we shot Dario’s. Dario’s second season episode was bloody, bloody, bloody! It’s called ‘Pelts’. We’re working on John Carpenter’s now. Howard’s in Vancouver.

And on a side note, the one episode you didn’t work on was Takashi Miike’s ‘Imprint’. Have you seen it yet?

I have a copy of it, but I haven’t watched it yet. Everyone is telling me to be prepared. I loved ‘Audition’, because I didn’t know anything about it. I remember people told me “You have to see this movie”. So, I just Tivo-ed one day, watched it, had no idea where the movie was going. That’s the kind of stuff I love.

I recently watched ‘The Descent’, because Edgar Wright (director of Shaun Of The Dead) recommended it and said you have to see this movie. So, I bought it in London on DVD. Came home and watched it, and I had no idea what the movie was about or where it was going and I loved it. That’s what I try to do, shield myself from knowing what stuff is about before going in. Oh, I just have to say, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost are 3 of the fucking greatest human beings. Shaun Of The Dead is one of the best movies of the last 10 years. They’re doing another film called ‘Hot Fuzz’, which they’re almost finished shooting. They sent me the script to read, and I dog-eared the pages of the script that I laughed out loud reading. When I was finished, the entire script was dog-eared. Those guys are fucking brilliant.

They are great friends of mine and I love them. And I made a joke a couple of years ago when I first met them and I said “Every interview I do, I’m going to give ‘Shaun Of The Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ a plug because I love you guys.” I actually text messaged Simon last night “Bub is here!” (laughs) So, I have to go get an autograph from Howard Sherman for Simon.

What’s the convention going experience been like from your perspective?

I’m really unassuming. Some kid in the elevator said to me jokingly “Oh my God! You’re a God!” And I’m said, “Let me tell you something. I’m pretty much as big of a horror geek as you are. The only difference is I’m sitting at the other side of the table.” You don’t realize, I went up to all the Cenobites before this show started and got all their autographs!

In the ‘ Land Of The Dead’ special features, (John) Leguizamo calls you “such a nerd”.

I know! Well, I’ve known Johnny since ‘SPAWN’ because we did the clown make-up on that. Look, Howard and I have been blessed. Some people come over and say “Dude, you have the rock n’ roll career of all careers.” But these shows are so grounding, because they really make you realize how important the work that you do is to inspire and influence young filmmakers.

When I did my lecture yesterday, I had said that “there are people in this room that will one day be the next Quentin Tarintino’s.” And I pointed to this 12 year old kid, who came to my table yesterday. His name is Paul, he was in the front row, and I said “I may work for this kid one day.” For me, it’s all about those moments of inspiration. I remember the first convention I ever went to and all the stuff I bought, and the people I met and it reminds me when kids come by my table and buy a picture that I was once that same kid. It really warms you. It makes me feel great that in my own weird way, I may be able to inspire people the same way that I was inspired by people like John Carpenter, Rick Baker & Rob Bottin. Someone asked me yesterday who would be the one person I’d love to work with that I haven’t. And I said Rob Bottin. Between ‘The Howling’ and ‘The Thing’ and ‘Legend’; the man’s a genius.

Thanks to Greg Nicotero for his time!!!

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