GS INTERVIEW: Getting Bloody: A Chat with Greg Nicotero

Bicycle GirlGreg Nicotero is the Special Make Up Effects guru with credits on everything from TV’s Breaking Bad to Piranha 3D and Grindhouse.  Seen by many as the ‘Michelangelo of Mayhem’, Nicotero was given the inaugural Variety Lifetime Achievement Award at this years FrightFest to recognise the career of one of THE best Special Make Up FX artists in the business.

However Nicotero will mostly be known for his work as both Producer and Make Up geniuses behind one the TV’s most existing shows, AMC’s The Walking Dead.  We caught up with the maestro to talk The Walking Dead & why he loves Zombies… 

Geek Syndicate: What is your personal emotional relationship with zombie/horror genre and the show? 

Greg: I love the gene. I grew up in Pittsburgh and met Romero when I was young. I was a student of the Hammer movies. I loved all that stuff. I had all those movies on super 8 and watch them back and forth cause there weren’t’ VCR’s at the time. I really loved the genre. Ironically our business which we started in 1988 took off because of movies like Dances with Wolves. The fact that people looked at prosthetics and animatronics and makeup effects and realized the value that could be done by doing something other than gore stuff. The gore stuff makes complete sense but the movies that put us on the map were movies that you would have never expected makeup effects in. Which is sort of the goal. Like in The Walking Dead, you expect to see zombies and expect to see that stuff because that’s the appetite for that kind of show but the work that you do when you don’t know it is what makes it fun and successful. Like Misery or Sin City.

We’ve been really lucky over the last twenty-three years to be able to spread our wings creatively and do a little bit of everything. The best thing and the worst thing about this job is: best thing – every show puts up a different set of challenges.

You know you can do the set of Transformers movies with Michael Bay and building robot puppets. The next job after that is Piranha and your gluing wounds on a bunch of hot girls. Then the next movie you’re doing predators and you’re able to recreate this iconic sci-fi character.

Every single job has a different series of challenges and then when it’s over you have to hustle to find another. Fortunately, we’ve been pretty lucky to have a good steady stream of work. Behind Rick Baker we’re probably the second oldest makeup effects firm in the world.

Geek Syndicate: What are the challenges that are unique in your perspective on the Walking Dead?

Greg: We don’t treat The Waking Dead like a television show. We treat it like mini movies. Last year we had six episodes and we did six mini movies. And there was never an instance of like “Ah were really don’t have a lot of time to figure that out,” we just do it. It’s in our nature. Especially with Frank Darabont and Greg Melton, we all have very cinematic tastes. So we wanted the show to feel big; bigger than you would ever imagine on a TV show.

I think the biggest challenge this year is probably getting the scripts and then having eight days to figure it out. I watch all the dailies and all the stuff; seeing what the camera is seeing I think is visually interesting and then sort of pushing that. I look at it as if I were watching the show I want to see really cool creepy zombies and weird stuff that I haven’t seen anywhere else. We’re constantly trying to make sure that the makeup we’re doing and concepts we’re designing feel fresh.

Geek Syndicate: Do you feel that threatened by the success of the first season? 

Greg: I don’t. There’s a great team of writers and actors are phenomenal. I’ve never been around a more believable watchable group of actors. They always talk about the fact that if the actors didn’t react to the zombies then the zombies wouldn’t be scary but every day it’s as if they’ve never seen zombies before. Andy came over and said, “What you and your team do is amazing,” I didn’t’ have the heart to tell him, “You’ve done ten episodes and see zombies every day.”

After last season, I made a list of dos and don’ts for season 2 because as I was watching the show there were a couple of little things I noticed that I said I could improve upon. I can make it better. No one else in the world would have ever noticed it except for me and Frank. We spend a lot of time looking into makeups that we felt were very successful and then using that as our jumping off point for this season. We’ve sculpted a lot of new pieces and a lot of new prosthetics. This show is totally a little different than last year. As last year, we were in the middle of city. This year, because we’re at Hershel’s Farm the farm isn’t populated with walkers so there are certain episodes that are not walker heavy and then there are some that have 60 or 80 of them.

I wasn’t nervous about it because I was really proud of what we did last year. This is kind of like the sequel to the Walking Dead. The first season was the first movie and this season is the second and third movie. I look at it like our little Lord of Rings movies.

Geek Syndicate: What are you most proud of for 2nd season? 

Greg: Overall, the look of the walkers in general I think have improved from last year. There was one shot in an episode last year that was a close up of zombie and she turned towards camera and she had a wound on her cheek. That shot bothered me because I didn’t think she looked like zombie she looked a girl with a wound on her cheek. So what I need to do is that we suspend the audience’s disbelief that we literally did find zombies in some place and then we wrangled them on set and shot with them. We’ve extenuated a lot of the makeup exaggerating the cheek bones and elongating the chins. And we’ve designed a whole bunch of new contact lenses. Every zombie you see today, the show this year, has been improved upon from last year because of stuff that I notice when I watch the show.

I’ve never been as diligent before as I am tight this show. Because the director sort of look to me to make sure I’m keeping my eye on the zombie part while they’re looking at the actors and the other stuff. You’re constantly finessing the background after every shot because if you have one extra that is doing something different it takes you right out of it.

Geek Syndicate: Can you talk about putting some humor into some of these walkers? 

Greg: Yeah. We really don’t try to interject a lot of humor into the walkers because if the walkers become humorous then they are not threatening or scary. It’s something that we really have to be aware of because if we don’t want them to be cartoony. For us not playing up the aspect for the comedy sake is important because they have to be scary. You have to feel that if they do get too close you’re in trouble.

Geek Syndicate: How has the role on the show evolving now that you’re co-executive producer? 

Greg: It’s something that came up at the end of last year. Gale and Frank called and said listen, you really do more than special effects and second unit. You have an active role in preparing the quality of the show forward so we want to give you a consulting producer credit. And then, this year from the beginning, I had taken a more active role looking at advanced cuts of the show and improving visual effects shots and script notes, so my voice is being heard as a producer. This had come up several months ago but they just announced it as they wanted to tie it in with the Emmy win and webisodes I had done. I’m a makeup effects guy. There’s something about makeup effects guys, they have this youthfulness about them and to be able to be involved in the show in that capacity and interact with the directors and really being able to now have a voice.

It’s really exciting. It’s new chapter in my career to be able to contribute so significantly. That’s what you work for to be able to help shape material that you love so much.

Geek Syndicate: One of the most iconic zombies of season 1 was bicycle girl. Is there a favorite zombie that you have?

Greg: I love her zombie because it was the first one that we did. There are some great walkers that we did this year in the first episode. There’s a big sequence were you come across what we refer to as herds of zombies. They set up this thing in season 2 where they sort of travel in packs.  In that sequence we came up with a lot of really creepy zombies and moments. I still love bicycle girl zombie but there are cool and fun.

Geek Syndicate: Tell us about zombie school. 

Greg:  We did 3 days of zombie Zombie school this year was a lot easier. We had 60 people a day and they would come in and we’d audition everybody. I’d grade them on look and movement. So if they looked great and weren’t a good performer and I’d work with them. Last year was challenging because no one had seen the show. This year everyone had seen the show so they sort of new what to do. This year with casting I asked for them to get us the skinniest people with long necks and big eyes. There’s a visual aesthetic that we were going for because if you take that and put prosthetics on them, then visually look emaciated, decayed and rotted.

I think that plays even more so this season than last.

Geek Syndicate: How long does it take to get the walkers ready?

Greg: we average about an hour and a half per make up. So on big days we have 9 or 10 makeup artists. We’re usually in about 3AM and then we have several waves so you figure by the time the crew arrives at 7AM we’ve had 4 hours to do zombie makeup. It’s a constant battle to touch up makeup, etc. And then we shoot all day and then at the end of the day we clean everyone up. Big zombie days are exhausting because we never stop.

Geek Syndicate: Have any celebrities asked to be zombies this season? 

Greg: We have had some but it just never happened.

Geek Syndicate: Did you feel a greater sense of freedom this season to up the level of gore?

Greg: I never saw that as an issue. We got away with a lot because AMC is sort of allowing us to do what we want and treat like a movie. The gags we did last year, 10 years ago would have been in an unrated movie. They gave us a lot of freedom because they back the show. This year it’s been about the story. It’s not a zombie show, you watch it because the characters are so compelling to watch and so well-crafted and also everything is so cinematic. The exciting thing about this year is now we have this great ensemble cast and seeing where they’re going to go.

I can’t say more about the talent I have the honor to work with every day. I can only anticipate that fans will be as equally as excited as I am. The Walking Dead Season 2 is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray.  Season 3 starts in the US in October.

Reporter: Phil Hobden

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