Greg Nicotero talks about the masters of movie mayhem and ‘malicious hysteria’

Oct. 07, 2008 | 2:44 p.m.

GregnicoteroHero Complex brought you an exclusive, in-depth piece yesterday on the future of Stan Winston Effects, the storied special-effects house founded by the late, great wizard of Hollywood. Now Gina McIntyre, who writes about horror for the H.C., brings us a chat with Greg Nicotero, another master of movie mayhem and the executive producer of a new documentary about the artistry of horror that airs tonight on Starz.

If your DVD library contains multiple copies of the “Evil Dead” films, this one’s for you. The documentary “Starz Inside: Fantastic Flesh” features interviews with the makeup artists responsible for creating some of the most gruesome moments in horror cinema: Dick Smith, Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero of KNB EFX, the Van Nuys-based shop that, during its 20 years in business, has amassed a lengthy list of credits that includes “Army of Darkness,” “Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2,” “Sin City,” “Grindhouse” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” films, among others.

According to Nicotero, the idea was to showcase the history of great effects work, dating to the pioneering work of Jack Pierce in the 1930s -– he was the man who transformed Boris Karloff into Frankenstein’s monster. The hour-long documentary includes on-camera appearances not only from the effects mavens themselves, but also the writers, directors and actors responsible for landmark genre films. Nicotero describes the roster as a “who’s who of genre filmmaking” — George Romero, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Joe Dante, Simon Pegg and Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.

Kevin_wasner_applies_makeup_on_set_Before Nicotero jetted off to Germany for a months-long stint on Tarantino’s upcoming World War II movie “Inglorious Bastards,” the Pittsburgh native took a moment to discuss with why he was excited to spotlight his often overlooked corner of the industry.

GM: How did you persuade everyone to participate in the documentary?

Nicotero: It is a tight-knit community. The fact that Dick Smith was willing to talk about all of his work on “Amadeus” and “The Exorcist,” that was feather No. 1. Getting Rob Bottin to talk. … You’re talking about guys who were instrumental in creating an entire generation of makeup artists. Dick was so willing to share his information in the late ’70s and early ’80s. You could write a letter to Dick Smith and he would write you back. You’d say, “Oh, I’m doing a gag and I need to do a bullet hole and I want to build the channel that it could bleed through” or “I want pumping blood.” He’d write you a letter [that told you how to do it] and send it to you. That cultivated guys like Rick Baker and Stan Winston and Tom Burman and, of course, Tom Savini. Tom took it one step further and would document and videotape all of his effects. That was part of the other reason that we talked about doing this. I have hours and hours of on-set footage of all these films we’ve done that no one has ever seen.

GM: There is a section of the documentary that discusses the benefits of practical effects as opposed to CGI. Do you think we’re seeing a renewed interest in practical work and puppetry and if so, why is that?

Nicotero: You’re dealing now with a lot of directors who grew up watching these kinds of movies, Edgar Wright, Guillermo del Toro, Alex Aja or Eli Roth. All these guys were fans. Guys like Guillermo, they don’t shy away from shooting puppet stuff or shooting guys in suits because he knows that it is a tremendous tool to give him the visuals that he wants. Look at “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy” and “Hellboy 2” — Guillermo loves doing creature suit work as one-half of his palette and using CGI as the other half of his palette. He’s not afraid to shoot stuff because he knows how he wants to use it. I think there’s certainly a shift toward that again.

GM: Your company’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, but your passion for horror films and movie makeup effects dates back much further. I love the story you tell in the special about spotting George Romero and Dario Argento in a restaurant in Italy when you were on a family trip.

Nicotero: That was how my career started. I was visiting with my family, and I was 14 or 15 years old. George was meeting with Dario as he was writing [1979’s] “Dawn of the Dead.” My parents were like, “Look we’re in Rome, the Coliseum.” I’m like, “That’s great, but that’s George Romero sitting right there!” My younger brother and I timed it so that we got up and left at the same time that they did. My pickup line for George Romero was that my uncle is an actor in Pittsburgh and had a part in [Romero’s 1973 film] “The Crazies.” I went up and said, “Hey, my uncle, Sam Nicotero…” It was literally the beginning of my movie career. When we came back to Pittsburgh, it became, “Oh, you’re the kid we met in Rome.” The rest was, “Hey, I’m going to come visit set when you guys are shooting.” I kind of weaseled my way in as this wide-eyed kid who loved monster movies.

GM: One of your earliest jobs was on Sam Raimi’s much-beloved “Evil Dead 2” and you just worked on his upcoming horror movie, “Drag Me to Hell,” which is due out next May. What was that experience like for you?

Nicotero: Working with him is an exercise in the Sam-Raimi-point-of-view film school. You can read a scene on paper and then you’re on set and he has such a unique vision and such a unique fingerprint that he turns everything and hits the accelerator in being kind of outrageous and over the top. He has such a great sense of humor. When we would go through stuff, he would actually be laughing while he’d be talking through the effects. He loves torturing his actors. He has this malicious hysteria about pulling off these gags. [The movie’s] scary and funny and creepy. It’s exactly what you would expect from a Sam Raimi project, that’s for sure.

Top photo: Greg Nicotero works on Mickey Rourke’s “Marv” makeup for “Sin City.” Credit: KNB EFX

Bottom photo: KNB EFX’s Kevin Wassner applies makeup on the set of “Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.” Credit: Howard Berger / KNB

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