Greg Nicotero gets around.
As one of the most in-demand special effects artists in the industry, he’s frightened and delighted hundreds of millions of viewers with his work.
Don’t believe me? Since 1985 he’s worked on dozens of projects including Kill Bill Parts 1 & 2, Grindhouse, Minority Report, Vanilla Sky, the Spy Kids series, Paul, Piranha, Jennifer’s Body, The Pacific, Splice, Inglorious Basterds, Drag Me To Hell, Milk, The Chronicles of Narnia, Hostel, Transformers, The Mist, Deadwood, Serenity, Sin City, The Cell, The Green Mile, Scream, Boogie Nights, Pulp Fiction, Misery, Ray and The Walking Dead.
But his career really jump started with a little film called Evil Dead 2.
Now, 25 years after it’s release, Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn has been released in a special anniversary edition Blu-ray. Mr. Nicotero took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with FOG! about the film, working with director Sam Raimi and more.
Well, I grew up watching and loving horror movies and watching genre stuff.
You know being in Pittsburgh and living 20 minutes from Evans City Cemetery where they shot the original Night of the Living Dead, I grew up there and loved the genre and watched Universal horror movies. I watched Chiller Theater in Pittsburgh who’s host was Bill Cardille, whose daughter was Lori Cardille who starred in Day of the Dead and I just came upon this unique opportunity.
I was a fan of George Romero’s and I was a fan of Tom Savini. I ended up meeting George through my uncle who is an actor named is Sam Nicotero who was in The Crazies and the next thing I knew I was working on Day of the Dead. It was one of those very weird scenarios. I was going to college and studying pre-med and figured that was going to be a doctor and then when I got offered a job on Day of the Dead.
They sort of hired me as a P.A. and I called Savini and said “Hey, man, I just got hired on Day of the Dead, I want to be your apprentice and your assistant and help you” and I literally created this job; I sort of created that make-up effects coordinator job that didn’t exist up to that point. What production loved about it was that it allowed Savini to concentrate on being Tom Savini and coming up with the gags and it allowed me the opportunity to go through resumes, hire a crew, order materials, order supplies, all that stuff.
So after Day of the Dead, I moved to L.A. and worked with Stan Winston for a while and that was when I got hired by Mark Shostrom and I basically provided the same service for Mark. I was able to recommend and suggest who we would hire, purchase supplies, script breakdowns, all that kind of stuff, and interface with production. So that job that I created for myself on Day of the Dead got me hired on Evil Dead 2 and then bringing in (Robert) Kurtzman, who Mark had known from From Beyond and Howard Berger and Mike Trcic and Aaron Sims and Shannon Shea and Bryant Tausek; that was the main core of the group that built all the stuff on Evil Dead 2.
So it literally was one of those “being at the right place at the right time” situations and snowballs into 25 years later…we’re still were still talking about a movie that I could watch any time it’s on.
Were you familiar with the first Evil Dead when you got the job?
I was, as a matter of fact, I had seen the first Evil Dead in the theaters when I was in high school and then Evil Dead came out on video while we were filming Day of the Dead.
So when Day of the Dead wrapped, I actually had a party at my house in Pittsburgh and I’ll never forget this; we invited a bunch of the guys over and we were all getting drunk and celebrating the fact that the movie was over, and my girlfriend at the time came downstairs and we had Evil Dead playing on the big screen in my parent’s basement and she was so revolted and disgusted by it that she yelled at me because she thought it was like the most disgusting thing she’d ever seen.
Myself, Everett Burrell and John Vulich, we used to talk about it and say to ourselves “Okay, we’re working on Day of the Dead which is the sequel to the greatest horror film ever ever made. What other movie would we ever want to work on?”
And we all at the time, and this was in January 1985, we said “How cool would it be to work on the sequel to Evil Dead?”
So to find myself a couple of years later standing on set next to Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi and Rob Tappert with a video camera in my hand documenting every maneuver, every angle, every camera shot that was done, I would’ve never imagined or ever believed that that would’ve happened, and 25 years later people still talking about that, it’s fucking amazing
|Tapert, Raimi and Campbell circa 1981|
On Evil Dead 2 that was the first time, I think, that you and Burger in Kurtzman worked together. Was this where KNB actually started or did it evolve later on?
Well, we all lived together and we had rented a house and Howard and Bob and I were all three very different guys. I was sort of the administrator, Howard was kind of the shop foreman guy, and Bob was the design guy, the artistic guy. So the way that it worked was that we complemented each other.
So when I moved to L.A. in 1985, Howard was working for Rick Baker and then Kevin Yaeger and Kurtzman and I got hired at Shostrom’s to do From Beyond and then Phantasm 2 and Evil Dead 2. So we were all freelance and we all lived together and we had talked about the idea of starting our own company but Evil Dead 2 was really the first time that the three of us worked together and realized that, as a threesome, we were pretty powerful because we complemented each other.
When Evil Dead 2 had wrapped, Scotty Spiegel called me one night and said, “Listen, I’m doing this film called Intruder and I need some makeup effects done but we only have $4000. Do you know anybody, like some kids, that would do it in their basement or something because I just wanted to see what you thought,” and I said, “Scott, listen, Howard and Bob and I are interested in starting our own company,” but there’s this weird Catch-22, which is you can’t get your first job as a supervisor until you’ve supervised a movie. So you’ll go in and you’ll meet and they’ll ask you, “Well, have you supervised any other projects” and we would have to say, “Well, no, we haven’t” and they would say, “Well, we can’t give you this supervisor job.”
So how do you get a job as a supervisor if no one will give you that gig?
So when Scotty had called and said, “I have this project I’m doing and I want you guys to help me out with” that was when the door opened and we took that in February 1988 and ran with it and, ultimately, that was Intruder.
Intruder led to do with two or three other movies and we went from there to Gross Anatomy to Dances With Wolves to the company that still around 25 years later and just as busy as we were then.
So Evil Dead 2 certainly opened the doors for us. I mean, we’re still, to this day, still working with Sam Raimi on Oz (The Great and Powerful). So we felt we did something right because we’ve done 14 projects with Sam and Rob in the last 20 years, so I think that we made the right decision.
Ironically, I had been offered by Savini to work on Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 with him at the time and I told him, “I’m already working on Evil Dead 2 and I kind of feel like I can’t really leave this show because I made a commitment” and I would have never imagined that by me staying on Evil Dead 2, it would’ve led to the career that I have now, that I’m really proud of.
There are stories that Evil Dead 2 was just a tough shoot and now, 25 years later, you’ve worked with Raimi and Scott Spiegel and Robert Tappert and Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi on multiple occasions over the years. When you work with them again is it like seeing old war buddies?
Oh yeah! Listen, every time they have a new project that comes up we always talk about it.
You know Drag Me to Hell was the closest experience to Evil Dead 2 that I had had with Sam in a long time. We did some stuff on Spider-Man 3 and A Simple Plan and we had done Hercules and Xena and a lot of their TV stuff; but what was interesting on Drag Me to Hell was seeing Sam sort of step back into the horror genre again.
That movie is so well-crafted; the sound effects are fantastic, it’s genuinely scary, it’s creepy. It was great to stand next to Sam and watch him do a horror movie again and see how much fun he had doing it. So, you know, he had the exact same feeling. He turned and looked at me one day and said, “You know, buddy, it’s so great to be working with you and look over on the set and see you there.”
We came up in the ranks together and he knows we have the same love for the genre and the same aesthetic that he has.
Yeah, it’s interesting because I’m a big fan of Sam’s and as much as I love the Spider-Man films, they don’t feel like Sam Raimi movies as much as a lot of his other work and Drag Me to Hell definitely had that feeling of an old Sam Raimi movie which was fantastic.
You have to understand one thing, and John Carpenter was the one that told me this, that as a director you’re suited for more than one kind of project. It’s not like you just direct one kind of movie for your entire career.
The thing I love about Sam is that Sam took his love for the genre and he did Evil Dead 2 and he did Army of Darkness and he did Darkman and the studios recognized that he was a talent and gave him other opportunities.
When John Carpenter was talking to me about The Thing, he said that when the film came out, people assumed that was the only kind of movie that he can make. They had no understanding of the fact that John Carpenter was so fucking talented.
He went on and did Starman after The Thing just to say to people “guys I’m a student of film, I’m a director, this is what I love to do. You give me a story to tell and I will tell it.”
I think it’s the same with Sam.
Sam has a lot of stories to tell and I actually celebrate the fact that Sam had those opportunities to tell those kinds of stories. Now after Drag Me to Hell and he’s now doing Oz, it astounds me what a talent he is.
I read the script for Drag Me to Hell and the funny thing about it is I didn’t get the title page. They sent me the script to read, I didn’t know who wrote it, I didn’t know who was directing it. There was talk about shooting it in Louisiana and maybe doing in 3-D and it was going to be low-budget. I’m reading the script and I’m thinking, “It’s so weird…this gypsy woman attacks a girl in the backseat” and I wasn’t quite sure how to take it.
The the producer called me and said, “Hey, we want to check and see what your availability is to talk to Sam.”
I said “Sam who?” and they said “Sam Raimi,” and I went “Okay! Now I get it! Now I get the script completely.”
So the lady is in the backseat of the car and her teeth go flying and then the script made complete sense to me because having Sam’s fingerprints on it, it was astounding.
I think one of things that sets your work apart is that you tend to focus on practical effects. Do you think digital effects has limited the creativity of directors and makeup and creature people because there are no real challenges or limitations?
Well, the truth is that I always look at it like this, make-up effects is a great tool, visual effects is a great tool, physical effects; explosions, fire, rain fog, are great tools. My opinion of a well seasoned director is to know how to use each those tools to it’s fullest and incorporate all three of them.
If you have something that’s too CGI heavy, in my opinion, it takes me out of the movie a little bit…if you have something that is a make up effect that doesn’t quite serve the story, takes me out of it.
Now that I’m sort of shifting into directing, I directed an episode of The Walking Dead and the webisodes and a bunch of other things, I’m seeing things very clearly in terms of the future of make-up effects and the future of digital effects. I really do believe that there is a fantastic balance and you have a lot of directors today like Guillermo del Toro, like Alex Aja, like Eli Roth that know how to balance that. You know, you look at Guillermo’s movies and you see it’s a good balance of practical effects and visual effects and I think that in this day and age it’s sort of shifting back to practical stuff and the fun thing about watching Evil Dead 2 is that majority that stuff is practical and it’s stop motion.
I work with Gale Anne Hurd and on The Walking Dead and I look at her and every once in a while I will just be in awe of her and say, “You know, Gale, you produced Aliens which is probably one of the greatest action movies in the last 30 years.”
|Nicotero with The Walking Dead‘s IronE Singleton and Gale Anne Hurd|
The fact is that it literally embraces every single technique in the book. It’s got rod puppets, quarter scale puppets, full scale guys in suits, miniatures, front projection, rear projection. It takes a tremendously gifted mind to be able to all those images together into one movie and have it still stand up to the test today.
So guys like Sam Raimi know how to do that and that’s why it’s apparent when you watch Evil Dead 2. It’s apparent with his other movies. By knowing by your tools, you know which brush to lift up when you’re painting from your palate. Sometimes you pick up a visual effects brush and sometimes you pick up the make-up effects brush. I feel really proud that KNB has been able to stay in the forefront of this technology and this medium and after 25 years to still be going from Oz to The Walking Dead to a Tarantino movie.
It’s just amazing.