Greg Nicotero is perhaps best known as executive producer, occasional director, and special effects makeup artist for AMC’s The Walking Dead. But this is just the most recent accomplishment in a career that is now in its fourth decade. Nicotero cut his professional teeth in 1985 as an assistant to Tom Savini on George Romero’s classic Day of the Dead and went on to work on a number of late ‘80s horror franchises that have come to define the era. Since that auspicious beginning, he’s gone on to become a legend in the field of special effects makeup (both in the horror genre and in more mainstream fare). Yes, he’s worked with George Romero, Clive Barker, John Carpenter, Don Coscarelli, and Sam Raimi. But (as he discusses in this interview) he’s also worked with Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg. On top of all that, he also co-founded the prestigious KNB EFX Group in 1988, and has won four Emmy awards.
This interview was recorded at the 2015 WonderFest Hobby Expo in Louisville, Kentucky. Among other topics, we discussed the issues of censorship and self-censorship as they relate to the grisly makeup effects for The Walking Dead, the enduring influence of classic horror films on Nicotero’s work, and the evolution of practical effects over the years.
(Interview conducted by Nicole Cushing)
CEMETERY DANCE: One of the things I’m interested in is the issue of censorship (and self-censorship) in television, films, and books. I’m interested in the line demarcating what you can show and what you can’t. Obviously in The Walking Dead you’re able to show a lot of graphic violence and decomposition—more than what previous generations of television effects artists were able to show. But at the same time we’re not at the point where you would see The Last House on the Left as Wes Craven originally did it on AMC on Sunday night. So where, exactly, does TV draw the line these days?
GREG NICOTERO: On the show a lot of the violence is directed toward zombies. We have to be very cautious in terms of violence directed at humans. For example, when we were slitting people’s throats at Terminus (in seasons 4 and 5) there was a limit to how much blood we could actually see spurting out of the necks, whereas with a zombie you could get away with a lot more. (EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted well before this season’s premiere of The Walking Dead, which certainly pushed the envelope in terms of violence against the living human characters). Ironically, while there’s no nudity in the show and you can’t say “fuck,” in terms of actual makeup effects we’re getting away with stuff they couldn’t do in the original Dawn of the Dead. That movie had an X rating. They couldn’t even show previews for it on TV.
And even the original Phantasm had issues with ratings.
Yeah. So we’ve definitely come a long way from when movies would get released unrated, because we’re able to get away with a lot more on TV now.
We’re here at a classic horror convention. I’m wondering how classic horror still impacts your creative vision, if at all.
I’m an old school guy. I was inspired by the level of artistry involved in creating Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and Dracula. One of the intriguing things about filmmaking nowadays is that with so much computer technology you sometimes feel like you’re missing a little bit of that ingenuity. (The “How did they do that?” moments). A good example of that kind of ingenuity is Aliens. That movie is, in my opinion, almost technically flawless. They used guys-in-suits, that had miniatures, they had forced perspective, they had rear screen. They used every trick in the book to tell that story, and nowadays if that movie was made it would all be digital. So there’s something really exciting about trying to figure out how to do it; the artistry and the technique that it takes to figure out how to make these things practically. It’s easier now because with CGI you don’t have to put that much thought into it, it’s just done in the computer.
If Boris Karloff or Vincent Price were alive today, how would they be cast in The Walking Dead? What kind of roles would they be playing? Would they be cast as any particular character in the series?
Well, that’s a great question because those guys were both such consummate actors. I think Karloff would probably be Hershel. I could see Karloff having the ability to morally ground the rest of the group. I think Vincent Price would probably play somebody who you thought you could trust, but really couldn’t. I would say Shane, but I don’t know if that would be the right role. But some character that you would gravitate towards and then realize they’re not as trustworthy as you think.
You’ve had a lengthy career in film. What are some of the things that have evolved over time and what has stayed constant throughout your work?
One thing The Walking Dead really gives us is the opportunity to revisit the zombie genre and continue to refine the makeup techniques. I don’t know any artist who wouldn’t want an opportunity to get a second crack at something and refine it and change it. Every season on The Walking Dead we’re able to take the makeups a little bit further based on what we’ve found works successfully and what we’ve found doesn’t work as successfully in the show.
What moment of your career are you proudest of?
There are a lot of different moments. One is working with Spielberg the first time and sitting on set and talking about Jaws. It was on Amistad. We had built a couple gags for that and I went to the set and sat with him for about an hour while we were shooting, talking about Jaws. I drove home and called my parents at eleven o’clock at night and said “Oh my God, I just got to work with Steven Spielberg!” That was one of those moments. Watching Reservoir Dogs for the first time was another. And I think the success of The Walking Dead is a proud moment, too—having people stop me in the street and thank me for being involved in a show like that. Those moments make me very proud that I’ve been able to have an impact on the industry. I’m proud to come to a show like this (WonderFest) and meet young kids who are inspired by what I do, much like I was inspired by (legendary makeup artists) Rick Baker and Stan Winston and Jack Pierce and (director) John Carpenter. It’s like I’m paying it forward.
One last question: what advice would you have for those young kids who want to follow in your footsteps?
There’s so much more information available now for aspiring special effects makeup artists than there was when I was a kid in 1972. The one thing that I can say is: document everything that you do. If people really follow their passion and document everything they do so that they can refine their work, they can continue to get better and better.