Q&A: KNB EFX’s Greg Nicotero on “NIGHTMARE FACTORY”
If any makeup FX house deserves a documentary devoted to its history and craft, it’s KNB EFX. In the 25 years since it was formed by Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, it has become a Hollywood institution, and its history is explored in the Epix channel’s feature-length documentary NIGHTMARE FACTORY, debuting this week. FANGORIA spoke to Nicotero about this look back at a stellar—and bloody—career.
In addition to the KNB boys, NIGHTMARE FACTORY (premiering on Epix tomorrow, October 30 at 8 p.m. ET as part of an “All Hallows’ Evil” marathon) features interviews with many of the top directors they’ve collaborated with, including George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, John Landis and Robert Rodriguez, along with Frank Darabont and actors Norman Reedus and Laurie Holden of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, on which Nicotero not only supervises the many FX but serves as a director and producer as well. The documentary is chock full of behind-the-scenes and in-the-lab footage as well, a good deal of it provided by Nicotero himself…
FANGORIA: NIGHTMARE FACTORY is quite a testament to the breadth of work you guys have done over the years; how did it come about?
GREG NICOTERO: Well, Donna Davies [pictured below with Nicotero], who directed NIGHTMARE FACTORY, had done a documentary called ZOMBIEMANIA that featured a lot of George Romero stuff, and she interviewed me. I gave her access to all the footage I shot on set for LAND OF THE DEAD, and she was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” And I said, “That’s nothing. I have 20 years of footage I’ve been shooting, and no one’s ever seen it.” She said, “Well, if I could make a deal, would you be willing to do a documentary, and we could use some of that material?” I’ve been shooting stuff on sets since DAY OF THE DEAD, and with the advent of DVD technology, and featurettes with behind-the-scenes footage, I thought it was important to allow fans the opportunity to see and have access to that.
FANG: We’ve recently been seeing a lot of that material from your early days, on disc releases like INTRUDER and EVIL DEAD II. Has it been fun, while doing those and NIGHTMARE FACTORY, to go back and relive the good old days when you were first starting out?
NICOTERO: Yeah, without a doubt. My dad was kind of a gadget guy when I was growing up in Pittsburgh, and we had one of the first video cameras. It was black and white, and you hooked it up to an old reel-to-reel video recorder; it’s not like today, where you can just turn your phone on and record something. So I went from shooting stuff on Super-8 to using that. And when DAY OF THE DEAD came around, Tom Savini had a similar interest, and he pretty much handed me his camera on that set to videotape all the behind-the-scenes stuff. I followed George, Tom and the crew around and taped everything we were doing. I tried to mimic the camera angles [cinematographer] Michael Gornick was shooting, and it just became second nature for me. So on every film I did from then on—INTRUDER, EVIL DEAD II, ARMY OF DARKNESS—I had my video camera with me and documented stuff.
At the time, I had no idea that being able to go back and relive the making of EVIL DEAD II would be such a big deal, because the movie is such a cult classic. And seeing how far we’ve all come, and how far people like Sam Raimi have come, that’s all stuff I’m really proud I was able to document.
FANG: Getting into that footage and exploring everything you’ve done for NIGHTMARE FACTORY, were there any surprises as you looked back on your career?
NICOTERO: I think the most exciting thing about watching the documentary is, first and foremost, seeing how young we were. I mean, we were all 22 or 23 years old, living our dream job. That point in the ‘80s was when the craft of makeup effects was at its pinnacle. After AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and THE THING, with Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, you had all those amazing artists, and we all wanted to follow in their footsteps. So instead of moving to LA with a guitar, we all moved to LA with sculpting tools and makeup kits [laughs]. It really was the same thing as going to Hollywood and wanting to be a rock star; we just wanted to make monsters.
FANG: And yet, something NIGHTMARE FACTORY points out is that one of the reasons KNB was so successful early on, and continued to be so, was that you diversified and did things other than horror. The medical-school comedy/drama GROSS ANATOMY was your breakout in that respect, and DANCES WITH WOLVES was another.
NICOTERO: Our first year in business, we did THE HORROR SHOW and UHF and INTRUDER, and then at the beginning of 1989, we got a call from [ANATOMY producer] Debra Hill. I knew Debra through George Romero, and George had recommended us and said, “Listen, there’s this guy, Greg Nicotero, and he was pre-med and used to make all these autopsy bodies, so you really should talk to him.” That’s what got us the job; the fact that I had been pre-med prior to getting into the film business was very attractive to them, because the movie revolved around medical school and anatomy, which I had studied. So that made it kind of a no-brainer.
The interesting part was, once we finished that movie, we did HALLOWEEN 5, LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5 and BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR—a bunch of gory, fun horror movies—and then that summer, we met with Kevin Costner, and he looked at our portfolio, which had the bodies from GROSS ANATOMY. He was fascinated with our attention to detail on the corpses, so they hired us to do the animatronic buffalo for DANCES WITH WOLVES. So right out of the gate, we kept ourselves from being pigeonholed as just doing gore. We had done fake animals, we had done realistic body replicas, so between Howard and Bob and myself, we were able to spread our wings.
The other thing is that since there were three of us, we could divide and conquer. While I was dealing with CHAINSAW III and HALLOWEEN 5, they were doing BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR. Then when TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE came up, Howard went off and did the mummy segment while Bob and I stayed in LA and built the gargoyle, then we all went to New York. That approach allowed us to do 10 times the amount of work that other studios could do.
FANG: Shortly after that came the horror drought of the mid-‘90s, when there weren’t a lot of genre films being made. Did you find that your diversity helped you survive that time, while other shops were having trouble landing projects?
NICOTERO: Yeah, certainly. A lot of things we got were, for example, due to our relationship with Quentin Tarantino. What I found interesting was that the advent of CGI in the early ’90s really opened the door for a lot more fantasy, sci-fi and horror movies. After THE ABYSS and JURASSIC PARK, all of a sudden you had movies like MEN IN BLACK and SPAWN that were heavy CG projects but also required a lot of makeup effects work—the Spawn suit, the Violator puppet, things like that. And then we got into FROM DUSK TILL DAWN with Robert Rodriguez, which was a big showcase for our work as well. So even though computers began their rise to take over the effects industry, there was a point when that actually provided for a lot of work, because there were more projects being greenlighted than had ever been made before. Movies that probably wouldn’t have been made 10 or even five years earlier were now happening because of computer technology, which then helped us because we were building the practical aspects.
FANG: And now it seems that the pendulum is swinging back these days, with a lot of filmmakers devoted to using makeup and animatronic creature FX as opposed to CGI—many of whom grew up watching your early films.
NICOTERO: Well, without a doubt; if you look at Guillermo del Toro, or Alex Aja, or Eli Roth, or the Hughes brothers, all those guys have said to me at one time or another, “I wanted to do makeup effects, man. I wanted to work for Tom Savini.” Now they’re all in a position where they’re producing and directing, and they prefer the makeup and creature effects to be more practical.
FANG: You’re directing and producing yourself now on THE WALKING DEAD. What can we look forward to in the current season?
NICOTERO: What’s exciting to me is that the audience is really digging what we’re putting out there. There’s some fantastic storytelling and a great mystery this season, with the virus that has broken out in the prison, so we’ve upped the ante on the threat. Not only do we have that, but also the mystery of somebody inside who has killed Karen and David, so there’s a lot of great stuff coming up. I believe it’s our best season yet. Scott Gimple has done an amazing job of crafting a fantastic story, and as the season progresses and once it finishes, people are going to go back and watch the first or second episodes and see the things we set up there that got played up and paid off later—learning a lot more about Michonne, learning more about Daryl. I mean, Rick and his decision to put down his gun and forsake the brutality of this world for his family—clearly the world is not going to allow that to happen [laughs]. It’s really exciting. The storytelling is some of the best we’ve done since season one.
FANG: At New York Comic-Con, it was suggested that some very shocking stuff is coming up. Andrew Lincoln said he finished one script and had to call a friend just to hear a human voice, because what he read was so disturbing.
NICOTERO: [Laughs] Yeah, the scripts have that effect on you. You read them and it’s like, “Holy shit, we’re gonna do this?” I just read the script for episode 16, which is the season finale, and I got goosebumps, it was so good. You will not be disappointed, I promise!