Q&A: KNB EFX’s Howard Berger On The NIGHTMARE FACTORY Documentary

An archive interview from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · October 30, 2013, 8:35 PM PDT
Nightmare Factory Berger

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on October 30, 2013, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Premiering on the Epix channel, Nightmare Factory takes an inside look at KNB EFX, the makeup and monster house that has been responsible for countless screen characters and nightmares. The documentary includes interviews with the KNB gang as well as many of the filmmakers who’ve showcased their creations (George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, John Landis, Robert Rodriguez), with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. FANGORIA spoke to co-founder/FX wizard Howard Berger about the show, the shop and what he has coming up.

What can we expect to see in Nightmare Factory that we haven’t seen in previous coverage of your work?

Well, you get to see us personally. You get a glimpse into our lives outside the world of KNB and makeup effects, especially Greg. You’ll see a lot of him and his family life, so I think it offers a lot. It’s not just about, “This is what we did and this is how we did it.” It’s more about the people than it is about the specific gags we’ve done.

That said, are we going to see any on-set or other footage that hasn’t been made visible before?

Yeah, I think you are. We handed over everything we’ve shot over all the years, which is a lot of footage. It was interesting going through that with everybody and saying, “Hey, remember that?” It was a lot of fun stuff. It made us yearn for the good old days of the makeup effects world of the ’80s and ’90s, I’ll tell you that much. What’s also cool is that there are a lot of good interviews with other people who have different perspectives on us and what we bring to the table. There’s a lot of fresh material, and I find that it’s not rehashed on any level.

There has been a lot of attention given to your early work on recent disc releases like Intruder and Evil Dead II as well. Has it been fun going back and reliving the good old days through those projects?

Always. That’s the best. Intruder was the very first film we ever did as KNB, with Scott Spiegel, who gave us our start in the business 25 years ago. We reminisce all the time. Things are so different now, and we don’t get to play as much as we used to, which is sad. The days of Greg and I running around with a video camera and spending half the work day making a movie about a giant spider attacking somebody are sadly long gone. But it’s fun to watch all the behind-the-scenes stuff and the crazy things that went on, and seeing how inventive and resourceful we had to be back then. I mean, we still do now; we deal with the same things, just with bigger films on larger budgets. We still have to be very smart and inventive. We’re always creating, which is one of the fun things about KNB.

Were there any surprises when you went back through all the footage?

Yeah, we all had a lot of hair [laughs]. Actually, it wasn’t like, “Oh wow!”, you know? Sometimes I forget about certain films that maybe weren’t the top-shelf projects we’ve done, but they were all stepping stones to where we’re at today. And it was really fun revisiting Dances With Wolves and Army of Darkness. Army is still fresh in our minds, and feels to me like a film we just shot yesterday. It’s so vivid in my memory. And Day of the Dead, which was not a KNB film but was the first movie Greg and I met on, so that’s kind of where it all began. I look back at all that and see that we’ve had a great career. We have a great career that’s still super-fun, and I’m appreciative of everything I have and what we’ve created over all these years. At the end of the day, when we decide to hang up our makeup smocks, we’ll go, “God, we really did it all, man.” But that won’t be for a long, long time. We’re not going anywhere.

You survived through a period when it seemed like digital FX were going to take over. Now, more filmmakers—people who were likely raised on your earlier movies—are in favor of practical makeup FX as opposed to CGI.

Well, I think there was a misconception that CGI was going to take all our jobs, and that wasn’t quite the case. CGI was the new magic trick, and so many directors wanted to use it. I remember being on a film and saying, “We can do this. This is a practical gag,” and the director said, “I want state of the art! I want it digital!” And I went to see it and it was the worst digital stuff I’d ever seen, and I thought, “Wow, that inexpensive practical gag was turned into a really expensive, overblown, horrible visual effect.” But through the years, those departments have learned how to work hand in hand. We collaborate very closely with visual effects these days, and we all want the movie to be successful and the effects to be successful.

The first real mix, where it truly became a partnership, was probably in 2004 when we did Sin City and The Chronicles of Narnia at the same time, and it’s been great ever since. I think the digital effects guys look at us now and go, “Hey, if you can do more practical, great. That saves us money and we can focus on other things.” Then there are gags we can’t do, where we go to visual effects and say, “Guys, this will be way better if you do it, or we do a combination and you augment.” So it’s gone from each side trying to grandstand on each film to teaming up and trying to create the coolest new magic trick, which has been extremely successful.

And as you stated, there’s a tremendous amount of directors now who grew up on everything we did, and other people such as Rick Baker, Stan Winston and so forth. They’re very inspired by it and love to have practical makeup and effects on set. KNB kept going through all of that era, when there were different ways to look at it. You could 1) quit and join the digital revolution, 2) fight the power or 3) go along with it and see what happened. We took the third option, and some of the shops that took the other options don’t exist anymore. You have to go with the flow and change. We may not like it sometimes—change can really suck—but it has benefitted us to work hand in hand with everything in the ever-changing world of filmmaking.

Another thing that has changed since you started is that both horror and fantasy have become big business.

Absolutely, though we work on a lot of different things; if anything, we don’t do so much horror anymore. The Walking Dead, of course, is a big staple every year, but we do a lot of other stuff. I was on The Amazing Spider-Man 2 this year, and a war film called Lone Survivor. So it’s all over the place, and one thing that makes KNB work so well is that Greg and I have such different tastes; it’s like yin and yang. Between us, we like everything, and combined, we’re able to do everything that’s on our plate. I enjoy the fact that there’s a giant variety of movies we can work on. We can do The Walking Dead, then we can do Oz the Great and Powerful, then we can do Machete Kills, then we can do Hitchcock. It’s all over the map. When we started, we were “the gore guys,” and now we do everything.

It must also have helped that the materials have improved over the years.

Oh yeah, with silicones and everything. It’s always redeveloping. We’re using a new silicone now, and different techniques, trying to reinvent the wheel with every show. It’s certainly much better than it used to be, but we have to keep up with the advent of filmmaking, now that we’re dealing with digital cinematography, which is a whole new world. Where film helped buffer certain things, digital visually points a big finger at it like a Sharpie, so we have to be very careful. But the new materials certainly help us a lot. It makes things more realistic, and gives us a lot more options.

Has the rise of cable TV and the freedom it allows to be more explicit on shows like The Walking Dead also opened up more opportunities?

Yeah, though we kind of always had our foot in TV; we were on 24 forever, and we did Deadwood for all three seasons, stuff like that. But The Walking Dead, of course, has exploded; there may be only two months of the year when we don’t work on that show now. It’s a huge deal, and I’m always surprised by how much we get away with. Greg is really the master of The Walking Dead; that’s his baby, and he’s done nothing but a brilliant job on all levels. I also want to add that Greg is the only makeup effects person in the entire history of the industry who has ever successfully moved up the ladder to become a director, producer and partial showrunner on a TV series. It’s pretty cool, man; here’s a kid from Pittsburgh who liked monsters, and now he’s ruling the world on one of the top TV shows ever. I’m super-proud of him. Every time I look at him, I’m like, “That’s that little 20-year-old kid I met back on Day of the Dead who I told, ‘Hey, you should move to LA to be a monster maker with us.’ ” I always like seeing my friends succeed, do great and move up the ladder. And he has succeeded far beyond anyone I know, so it’s awesome to be his business partner and his good friend.

So the obvious question is: Do you have any aspirations to direct?

Hell no! I won’t touch that! I like my private time and my time with my family. I’m really, really good at what I do, and I’m just gonna stick with that. Greg has the aspirations beyond effects. I’m a makeup artist at heart and by trade, and that’s what I’m gonna do. I have no aspirations to direct or produce or any of that nonsense. I prefer to make monsters and have fun on set and then go home and spend time with my wife and kids. That’s perfect for me.

What projects does KNB have coming up?

Well, talking about different sorts of movies, three years ago we did a film called A Dolphin Tale, and now we’re doing A Dolphin Tale 2. It’s a fun-filled family film, with mechanical dolphins, sea turtles and a bunch of other stuff. We’re still on Walking Dead, of course, and as I said, the first half of the year I was on Amazing Spider-Man 2, doing Jamie Foxx as Electro, which was absolutely the most fun ever. I’m so excited about that movie; it was a great experience. They had a great team; Marc Webb, who directed it, is a super guy. And Jamie was awesome; he’s one of my favorite actors. I’ve been very lucky with actors, and really haven’t worked with anybody who has not been a pleasure. I’ve been so lucky with people like Tony Hopkins [on Hitchcock] and Mila Kunis [on Oz]. I couldn’t ask for a better bunch of people to collaborate with.