Ahead of Walker Stalker Con Atlanta, I was lucky enough to snag a few minutes of time with the key makeup artist of The Walking Dead who also happens to be the director of several episodes of the wildly popular series. Greg called me on a break from editing footage from Episode 9 of Season 5, but I promised not to ask about any details. Greg Nicotero is a celebrated FX artist, and all around graciously wonderful guy, and he's one of my personal heroes. His work is part of the reason I became a makeup artist - so we're talking fangirl level 10 here, people.
You've worked on so many zombie films and projects over the years, what about [The Walking Dead](series:201193)'s zombies did you approach differently from other the zombies you've created to make them truly unique?
We really stayed true to the skeletal form and using reference of pulled, taut skin, and exposed teeth. We really wanted to make the zombies feel like they were actual rotted decomposed corpses. When bodies start to decompose they kind of ket shriveled and the bone structure becomes very prominent and the lips shrink back from the teeth, so we really wanted to play up something we hadn't done in the past, so using contact lenses and custom dentures and things like that - we'd started moving in that direction with Land of the Dead, but The Walking Dead was the best way to utilize the art from the graphic novel to try to make them really horrifically skeletal.
Season 5's zombies are even more horrifying than usual, what was your design thought process?
Makeup is an additive process, so finding faces that we can build upon so that it can actually look like we're subtracting mass is very tricky and very challenging. So, we built up the area of the cheeks around the noses to make the noses feel smaller. To make the teeth feel inset, we build out the lower jaw, and even by just building prosthetics that simulate the nose being gone and a lot of exposed teeth and bone. In Season 5, we've done a lot of that in terms of being able to see zombies that are even more rotted and decomposed looking than ever before - even breaking out some teeth here and there; the teeth being less perfect makes them feel older, like they've been wandering around and rotting for a lot longer. We're a year and a half into the zombie apocalypse, so imagine what a pumpkin looks like after just 2 weeks in the sun...[laughs] we wanted to make these things look as putrefied and disgusting as possible.
In the Season 4 bonus features, you and the KNB team talked at length about the "tribute zombies" that appeared in various episodes throughout the seasons. Which one was your favourite?
I LOVE the tribute zombies! Bub was pretty great, the tribute zombies are always a lot of fun because I get the opportunity to pay tribute to the zombies that I loved over the years. In Season 3, one of my favorites was the airport zombie from Dawn of the Dead, in the episode where Merle dies, he's sitting in the car outside of the bar and the plaid shirt zombie from Dawn of the Dead walks out and walks past the car. That was one of my favorites only because we got a guy who was really really close to the original character. Last season we did a little Lucio Fulci reference, American Werewolf in London, Bub - we had the chance to do a couple of really fun ones. It's always interesting to see who catches them the next day. Simon Pegg emailed me about last season "Hey, I saw Bub!" - people are really excited about it.
I know you have some planned for this coming season, how many should we be on the lookout for?
We've only done two so far, but I have another little in-joke tribute in the first episode that I'm curious if people will catch or not, it's not a makeup it's an actual reference to another movie.
You've directed quite a few episodes of The Walking Dead, how have you enjoyed your time in the chair, and what do you bring to an episode that might be different or unique?
One of the big advantages for me is knowing how to design big elaborate FX sequences and shoot them effectively and get the most out of them. There was a big scene in episode 401 and it was a sequence that I was really proud of, it was a big giant big effects sequence that we shot in three days. But even in episode 9 when Chandler (Carl) is in the house and he fights the zombie upstairs, that was a really fun scare because we set it up where he's walking through the house, grabs the doorknob, listens to the door, opens it and then BAM the walker hits the back of the door. I love those moments and setting them up where the walkers are scary and frightening and threatening. I've directed nine episodes so far of the series, and I think by the end of this season, I will have directed 11 episodes, which I believe is the most episodes ever done by one person, so I'll hold on to that as long as I can.
Your credits list is unbelievably imposing - if you can, is there a particular film or project that has stayed with you as one of your favourites?
Oh yeah, there's a bunch - Sin City was amazing fun, From Dusk Till Dawn, Inglourious Basterds; there are a lot of movies that were fun for different reasons. Day of the Dead is always fun because it was my first job and Sin City was great because we had all these great actors that we got to do great character makeups on, Dusk Till Dawn, we got make up a bunch of smoking hot women as vampires every day. Projects like The Mist where we got to design cool creatures, Predators... it's kinda hard after the 800 movies that we've done to really pick the ones that are your favorite because they're all great for different reasons. Piranha 3D with Alex Aja was so much fun, it was like working on Jaws again, even the fact that Richard Dreyfuss was there made it amazing - I kept thinking if I was like a 19 year old guy working on Piranha, with all those beautiful women around and all the gore - it was like the greatest movie ever made. [laughs]
Michael Cudlitz (Abraham) gave me a really good piece of advice this year when I was getting ready to direct Episode 1, the night before I started shooting he sent me a message and said "just don't forget to have fun." If you do this job and you're not having a great time then you're really missing out on something because we have the greatest job in the world, and we get to celebrate it with millions of people every week; and the level of anticipation that's building towards the season 5 premiere in October is astounding. I'm dying for people to watch the show and see what we've come up with, and see where the story takes us this season, because it's really great.
The Season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead will actually happen the Sunday before Walker Stalker Con - are you ready for that?
I AM. The first episode is f*cking AMAZING - it's thrilling and it's touching and it's scary and it's suspenseful and it's moving - it's amazing that by the time you get to the episode that you've been taken on such an incredible emotional journey that I can't think of a better way to reintroduce the world to our characters.
Walker Stalker Con obviously isn't your first fan convention, how do you like conventions and what do they mean to you?
I love going to conventions, and I love meeting the fans. I try not to not sit behind my table too often, I try to shake everybody's hand and give them the time if they want to talk about makeup, or talk about directing or talk about the show and talk about other things, and they're all there because they're celebrating the work that we all contribute to the show. I remember the first convention that I went to in 1975, and I remember buying movie stills from Jaws and The Towering Inferno and buying my first movie poster, so the fact that I remember going to shows like that when I was a kid and I started collecting movie posters and movies on 16mm and at the time, that was the only opportunity that you ever had to find rare movie posters and collectables. Now you can find that stuff anywhere, so conventions have become much more about meeting people that contribute to the shows, so the fan aspect and the fan nature of it for me is something that I respond to because I'M a fan. I've met a lot of great people that I was speechless when I met them, like when I met Clive Barker for the first time - I'm such an admirer of his that when I met him literally for the first 30 seconds, I couldn't talk. So, when people come up to me and they're nervous, I've been there too, and it instantly puts people at ease, and that's very important to me because I want people leaving the convention to feel like they had the opportunity to interact with me and get something that they can't get anywhere else.
Looking at other film and television genres, they don't have conventions for musicals, they don't have conventions for westerns, they don't celebrate film noir, or crime dramas like that - but if you look at sci-fi or horror, the fans come out to celebrate collectively their interest in those shows. That's the thing about The Walking Dead that amazes me because it's literally become a communal experience. People get together and experience it together and that's a tremendously rare phenomenon.