Fantastic Fest can be a bit of a madhouse if anything runs late, which in this business, I have learned is quite common. Hell, I was called to come early to several interviews, and ended up interviewing way later than my originally scheduled time. Such is life, and you just get the interview done and move on… hopefully. Originally I had a roundtable press-conference style interview with makeup magician Greg Nicotero (just think of a horror film with great practical effects that you loved, and I bet he was involved in some fashion), but when the audio on his short United Monster Talent Agency decided to go wonky, the screening ran way late. Because of how late it ran, I was facing a 10 minute window before screening Ip Man 2 downstairs, and Luke Mullen (again, thanks Luke) actually allowed me to jump ahead and fit in a five minute chat. So, hit the jump for my all-too-brief interview with Nicotero as we discuss The Walking Dead, continuity, and his favorite vampire aesthetic.
GREG NICOTERO: I’ll tell you, it’s a dream project. I’ve been really, really great friends with Frank Darabont for 16 years and he had said to me, over and over again, “Man, I love George Romero and Night of the Living Dead. That’s like the Holy Grail. I’d love to do a zombie show but I just never found the right… story.” Then, The Walking Dead is published and it’s ironic that you almost could believe that Frank would have written that because the character ensemble pieces and everything. So, we’ve been talking about doing the show for two to two and a half years and it was really exciting. When you hit the zombie lore you’re undoubtedly going to tread over waters that have been swam through before. But Frank just had such a clear vision of what he wanted and he plowed through so enthusiastically. I said, “Hey Frank, we’ve kind of done this guy before,” and he goes, “Ahhh, but this time it’s going to be on our show. It’s not anybody else’s show.” So it was refreshing and his enthusiasm really steered the show. I’m dying to see it. I haven’t seen any of it yet; just the dailies. I was second unit director on the show and ultimately they gave me a consulting producer credit because Frank and Gale [Anne Hurd] said that I wasn’t just the makeup effects guy, but that I really kept the level of quality. When the directors would come in, a lot of them would say, “Well, you know Greg, I’ve directed Breaking Bad and Mad Men,” but they don’t necessarily have the same pedigree that I do. We can sit and talk about horror movies til five o’clock in the morning. A lot of people would come in and be like, “So, this is your expertise. How do you suggest we shoot this sequence to maximize the scare and gags?” So it really felt like I was tremendously involved in not only just doing the zombie makeups but keeping the visual and the voice of the show on track. Frank came and directed the pilot, and then he bolted back to LA to edit it and to work on the script, so I was kind of his voice in terms of the genre on set. Frank would always say, “Go ask Nicotero.” I was happy to do it.
How hard do you work on continuity in your job to ensure that each shot matches up from the previous one in terms of makeup and things of that nature?
NICOTERO: Well, fortunately, it wasn’t like a Romero movie where we had reoccurring zombies. Because that’s challenging. In Land of the Dead, we had big daddy and the butcher and the teenage couple zombies, and number nine, so we had those eight hero zombies. And then we had to do the background. Because The Walking Dead is such a transient show, where we’re sort of with Rick Grimes as he’s going from waking up in the hospital to Atlanta. I didn’t have to worry about that as much. I didn’t have to worry about the continuity. What I was mostly concerned about was making sure that days where we had 150 zombies. We had background masks, we had mid-ground makeups, and then we had hero makeups. The challenge always is, you do 20 or 30 hero makeups that you want to be in close. When you’re shooting a TV show, and there are three cameras, one camera is always doing something called sniping. So they got a long lens and they’re sort of sifting through the crowd to make it feel like we have five thousand zombies instead of a couple hundred zombies. So, what happens is the guys are sitting there with the lens and all of a sudden a guy that’s in a background mask 200 feet away is being shot close-up. You have to make sure that the mask… doesn’t look like a mask. So that was probably one of the biggest challenges; making sure that every makeup that they saw looked good. The blood looked sufficiently dry and their hair looked stringy and they had contact lenses in. Their teeth were grey and tongues were black.
A little off topic, but vampires are kind of the big thing right now. Zombies are big too, no doubt, but of all the different looks of vampires, what is your favorite aesthetic?
NICOTERO: Well, I love monster movies. So to me, a 19-year-old sexy vampire isn’t… scary. I want to be scared. You know? I tend to lean towards the spookier versions than the young, smoldering guy with… that’s just not my cup of tea.
Do you love the Buffy kind of take with the high brows?
NICOTERO: Yeah. I mean that even goes back to Greg Cannom on Lost Boys. Greg Cannom was really the guy that sort of redefined how we look at modern vampires. After Lost Boys, every single vampire makeup after that had the pointed brow and the bone structures were really sort of demonic and creepy looking. I like that. If you look at the makeups in Bram Stroker’s Dracula that Greg Cannom did, I love the bat creature and I think those makeups are fantastic. The stuff that we did on From Dusk Til Dawn. I mean, again, I kind of like the more fantasy, more outrageous monster kinds of makeup.
As you can tell, Greg is incredibly forthcoming and was great to interview. For such a remarkable string of films to his credit, he still has a ton of enthusiasm for the job. Next time, I promise the chat will be longer and many questions I am dyeing to ask will be answered. In the mean time, look for The Walking Dead 90-minute series premiere on Halloween night, October 31st, 10 PM Eastern, on AMC.