EXCL: Greg Nicotero on United Monster Talent Agency

From FX artist to director…

It’s hard to imagine Greg Nicotero, the creator of some of the most memorable make-up and monsters of the last 25 years, getting upset by much of anything at this point. He’s worked on productions big and small, he’s done everything possible, and he’s practically invented everything imaginable. But on the fifth day of Fantastic Fest, he’s pacing nervously up and down the aisle of an auditorium at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, waiting for the projectionist to cue up his latest project, The United Monster Talent Agency (watch it here), a short film whose sound inexplicably didn’t work the first time it was screened. What’s the difference in this particular piece of film and the hundreds of others to which Nicotero has contributed? It’s his directorial debut.

Thankfully, the second screening goes over like gangbusters: the capacity genre-film-friendly crowd welcomes with open arms Nicotero’s tongue-in-cheek celebration of iconic horror creatures, and even seems to catch many of the in-jokes, references and cameos the filmmaker worked into his debut. Nicotero, meanwhile, coolly departs the theater, relieved that the screening otherwise went off without a hitch – which is precisely when Shock Till You Drop sat down to discuss the development of the project.

Easing into a leather chair in one of the Drafthouse’s remote conference rooms, Nicotero offered some insights into what led him to make the move from make-up to moviemaking. In addition to talking about the origins of The United Monster Talent Agency, Nicotero talked about the evolution of his work as an effects guru, and offered a few details about The Walking Dead, producer Frank Darabont’s upcoming zombie-themed series for which he’s once again bringing the dead back to life.

Shock Till You Drop: Where did the original idea come from for ‘United Monster Talent Agency?’

Greg Nicotero: It was interesting because I always had this idea that I wanted to do something to recreate all of the famous [movie monster] characters, and originally it was supposed to be a little promo for Universal Studios. I was going to shoot the Creature [From the Black Lagoon] chasing Julie Adams through the lagoon, and then yell ‘cut’ and an announcer steps in with a microphone and says, “here at Universal Studios, we strive for realism,” while you see the Creature in the background. I always thought that was a fun idea, and I actually wrote that first page a couple of years ago. But then I thought, where do I go from there? I had been on the road literally for almost two years, because I went from ‘Inglourious Basterds’ to ‘Book of Eli’ to ‘Predators,’ and I knew that we were going to be starting ‘The Walking Dead.’ But I had like a six week window, so I sat down on the plane on the way home from Austin, and thought, I’m just going to write this and see if I can pull it together. I wrote it in a couple of hours, and the idea of being able to use the classic monsters, and then finding a way to put the shit that loved when I was a kid in there, like ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Thing.’ So I would write a little bit and pace around my house, and then write a little bit more. And then thing I realized about all of those ’50s newsreels was that everything was “OF THE FUTURE” and “OF TOMORROW,” and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if this agency had a wing that was developing new creatures for future movies; they’re our past movies, but they would be their future ones. Then it just opened the whole thing up, and I could put zombies in there, I could put ‘Jaws’ in there, and I could put all of this stuff in there. So it was really just kind of fun.

So the first person I called was Tom Savini, and I said, “Tom! I’m going to do this short and you’ve got to play Dracula.” And then I just kind of started calling all of my friends, and then I figured that once I call them and I’m pregnant, then I’m in. The timing was right for Frank Darabont and Cerina Vincent and Eli Roth and Dana Gould and Robert Rordiguez; everybody was just like, “yeah, sure man.” So it was amazing, and having the crew that I had, and saying to the guys that worked for me, “okay – do you want to build King Kong? Do you want to build the Creature From the Black Lagoon? Do you want to build The Mummy?” gave all of these guys an opportunity to recreate characters that they loved. And it gave everybody an opportunity to see me in a different light. I wasn’t just their boss any more that was doing make-up effects stuff; we turned the studio into a soundstage for two days, and then we had a three day shoot.

Shock: Given your expertise not only with the look but the practical design of these creatures, how challenging was it to recreate them using contemporary technology?

Nicotero: I wouldn’t say that it was easy. I wanted to make sure everything felt authentic. Harry Knowles said, “that’s the best King Kong we’ve seen, ever,” and it’s interesting because when you look at the original 1933 King Kong, Kong looks different in a bunch of different shots – like there was a couple of different puppets that were used, and there was the big full-sized model. So we built an armature that was the exact same size as the stop-motion puppet, and we rod-puppeted him, so we had a little miniature we built and we shot it in the parking lot. All of the cars were on monofilm, and it was just kind of fun. But one of the things that was most important to me was that things were authentic – the mummy make-up that Andy Schoenberg did was authentic, and the Frankenstein make-up, we went with the Glen Strange look because we’ve seen reproductions of Karloff often and we thought it would be kind of fun to do it. But I think one of the biggest challenges was looking at everything in color that we’re so accustomed to [seeing in black and white]. I had my still camera and I would walk through the shop and take pictures, like when Gary Hill was painting the Creature From the Black Lagoon suit, knowing how the colors should be versus how they would photograph in black and white. So things were painted very contrast-y and we really went for that ’50s look.

You have to understand, special effects guys have studied the Creature From the Black Lagoon and have studied those make-ups in the wolf man transformation so much that the first day that Carey Jones in the Creature suit, I had 50 people that stopped what they were doing and walked over, going, “this is cool!” It was really exciting, and we kind of always have this joke that it’s like, okay, if you can go back in time and sleep with any actress, who would it be? The next joke for us is, if you could go back and work on any movie, what movie would it be? And the special effects guys would always say ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon,’ because it was the first real sort of monster suit. So it was fun – it was just something I had always wanted to do. I’ve been directing second unit a lot, and I directed stuff for George Romero and Frank Darabont, and the time was right.

Shock: Do you feel like your work in effects and second-unit photography kind of led you to directing this short film? Or was this just exploring an idea for fun?

Nicotero: No, I think I sort of shifted in that direction. Certainly because of the people I’ve worked with, but it’s something that I’m good at, and when you’re a special effects and make-up guy, it’s interesting, because you have to design the sequences, you pretty much storyboard the stuff yourself, and you make suggestions about how it can be shot, so you’re really just much more involved. It’s not just you do make-up and then they go to set and you sit on a chair. There’s a lot of times, especially on ‘The Walking Dead,’ where the directors would say, “Greg, this is your area of expertise. What do you think is the best way to block this sequence to optimize the gag?” That doesn’t happen with a lot of other departments. So I think that gave me a good training ground, and having worked with the best directors in the world and having been on set with them, like with Quentin and Robert and Frank Darabont and John Carpenter and I worked with Spielberg a couple of times, it’s like I’ve been able to really kind of be around these guys. With this short, it was interesting, because Robert called me and said, “hey man. Let me know when you’re ready – I want to see it.” I said alright, and I sent him all of the files, and he emailed me and said, “hey, do you mind if I take a little pass at playing with the cut a little bit?” And I said no, not at all. The short was eight minutes long, and within one night I get an email from him the next morning saying, “I cut a minute out!” I’m thinking, f*ck – he cut a minute out? How do you do that? So I had Robert helping me with the edit, and it was great.

Shock: Is this a preamble to you doing more directorial projects?

Nicotero: I certainly see myself moving in that direction. I got a call from Kevin Williamson two weeks ago and they needed some help on ‘The Vampire Diaries,’ and he said, “can you just come down and shoot a couple of scary scenes?” And that was great, because that was the first time that I’d been contacted unsolicited like, “we need you as a director, not as a make-up or effects guy.”

Shock: How has technology changed what you do with make-up or effects? Now that CGI is used and integrated into so much more of the process, do you have to battle against the obsolescence people ascribe to practical effects?

Nicotero: I think CGI and visual effects are a fantastic tool just like practical effects and creature suits and prosthetics are a great tool. But you get into different situations where one tool is favored over another, and visual effects tends to be the tool of choice, just because it’s easier. It doesn’t mean it’s better, it just means it’s easier. And at the moment, when you have 80 crew people standing around and it’s like, okay, we can shoot this now or we can scratch it off of our list and do it in post, that seems to be the [choice]. Especially in the late ’90s and the early 2000’s, that was the mode – there wasn’t even a discussion. But now I think because you have directors like Guillermo Del Toro and Eli Roth and Alex Aja, you have these younger guys who grew up either doing make-up effects like Guillermo did, or having an affinity for them. So I think it’s kind of shifting back now, where people actually are embracing more of the practical aspect of it. [On] ‘Predators,’ where we did a bunch of predator suits and Robert said to me, “dude, I just love looking out at my parking lot and there’s predators walking around.” When you have something tangible on set they people can put their arms around and get their photos with it, having practical stuff binds the crew together. It allows everyone on the crew to know, okay, this is what the creature is going to look like, and this is what it does, and they’re all sharing in the visualization of the movie. That’s one of the reasons why to me practical creature effects and make-up effects are so prominent.

Shock: At this point, is there one thing that in your career you specifically wish people got a chance to see that you’re proud of that might have been cut out of a movie?

Nicotero: In terms of stuff that we’ve built that you may not have necessarily seen, that’s tough because a lot of times it comes down to frames – something that you spend six or eight weeks building and then it’s reduced to a shot cut out of the movie. So that’s a hard question, because you get to understand that’s just the way it is. I watched ‘Evil Dead II’ the other day and I thought, God love Sam Raimi – he never once shied away from anything, and when we did ‘Drag Me to Hell,’ it really took me back to those days, because Sam so embraced that kind of movie, and he wasn’t afraid to be silly and be fun. That was the thing that I loved about ‘Drag Me to Hell,’ that it was so entertaining, and Sam’s sensibility is all over that movie.

Shock: There’s obviously a pretty well-established lexicon for the look of zombies. Does ‘The Walking Dead’ sort of continue that tradition, or is it doing something new or different?

Nicotero: I think ‘Walking Dead’ is a different animal. We took a big cue from the graphic novel that Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard created, and I think the real trick with doing zombie stuff is – and I’ve done some much zombie stuff and so many films with George Romero – that when each film wraps, a I make a little note going, oh, next time I want to try this, but it’s really difficult because you get into preproduction and everything’s rushed. You feel like, f*ck – I want to remember all of that. And ‘The Walking Dead’ was an opportunity for me to sort of take everything I learned from these other zombie films and have the opportunity to culminate all of that technology, the contact lenses, the featured make-ups with dentures that clipped on the outside of actors’ lips, and cast people that had the right faces so that it didn’t look like we were building their faces up. Frank really gave me a lot of responsibility, because he would let me pick the zombie extras, the people who would be featured, and the people who would be in the midground and background, so it was kind of like I had free reign – just as long as I made it look great. I’m really proud of how ‘The Walking Dead’ has turned out; I’m going back to LA to see the pilot this week, but Frank is a purist, and I love the fact that he has such admiration and respect for the genre. When you look at ‘The Walking Dead,’ it’s a shock that it wasn’t written by Frank to begin with, because it’s a big character ensemble piece, and the fact that [it asks] ‘what are the walking dead? The zombies, or just our people who are still around but don’t know where our future lies.’

Source: Todd Gilchrist


Marvel and DC