STACK caught up with the veteran make-up artist, producer and director to discuss zombies and multitasking on The Walking Dead.
Greg Nicotero knows a thing or two about zombies, having served as an assistant to make-up effects legend Tom Savini on George A. Romero’s classic Day of the Dead (1985). He has also supervised the grisly prosthetic illusions on The Walking Dead since the show’s inception, is one of the series’ executive producers, and has directed 27 episodes to date.
A partner in the award-winning KNB EFX Group, whose experience in make-up effects spans three decades and over 400 film and TV credits, Nicotero says he had always wanted to give directing a shot, but the full-time job of running KNB had never given him an opportunity.
“When we were shooting The Faculty, Land of the Dead and The Mist, I would shoot second unit for those directors – they were friends of mine. It was more a situation of convenience that gave me my first experiences directing.”
“There was a two-year period where I was travelling and working non-stop. I got home from Predators and had about six weeks before The Walking Dead started, and during that time, I directed a short film. Frank Darabont [former TWD showrunner] was the one who made people notice the film, and when we got into season two of Walking Dead, he said, ‘You’re ready to direct; do you want to direct an episode?’ And he gave me that opportunity.
“It was a great opportunity to make that transition from special effects make-up artist to director; it’s a challenging jump. A lot of the time people think it’s all about the effects. But what I learned from directors I’ve worked with, like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, was if you don’t care about the characters, the effects don’t matter. You have to care about the characters first and that’s where my focus on directing came about – paying respect to the actor and the character. It’s about telling a great story, and it doesn’t matter if you have ten dollars or ten million.”
One of the highest rating series in cable television history and now in its ninth year, The Walking Dead successfully thrust zombies into the mainstream, hooking viewers who probably wouldn’t be caught dead watching a zombie movie. However, Nicotero notes that it was video games like Resident Evil and House of the Dead in 1996 that proved instrumental in the resurgence of zombies on screen.
“When you have a third person shooter game and you have the ability to shoot the zombie yourself, I think that opened up the genre to a whole generation of younger people who didn’t grow up watching Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.
“Then there was 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and the Dawn of the Dead remake, and all of a sudden the zombie genre was adrenalised. And then The Walking Dead put them right in your living room.”
Although giving little away regarding the surprises in store in TWD’s eighth season, Nicotero does reveal there has always been a very specific pace to the series’ structure.
“The first half of the season always tends to set up where our characters are. It’s like setting up a chessboard. Then in the second half of the season, it’s like boom, boom, boom – things start happening fast and furious. There’s a lot of that happening in the second half [of season eight]. Moves that were set up early in the season begin making sense.”
When it comes to creating the multitude of zombie make-ups for TWD, Nicotero says the biggest challenge is time.
“It’s not like a movie where you have six months to prep. The scripts come out and you probably have, at the most, two or three weeks to really develop and design something,” he explains. “That’s one of the other reasons my role is so important – I have a very strong vision as to how to execute these effects, so they give me a lot of freedom.
“My job is to keep the audience guessing. The minute they say, ‘I know how they did that,’ we’re screwed. You have to keep it fresh and trick them into thinking they saw one thing. That’s how we do it and that’s how magicians do it – it’s misdirection. Whether we’re ripping their skin off, wrapping entrails around a tree, or Winslow with all the spikes crammed in, we want the ‘wow’ factor when audiences watch the episodes.”