While you might not know the name Greg Nicotero, you certainly know the man's body of work. Nicotero got his first job rather serendipitously, as Tom Savini's assistant on Romero's 'Day of the Dead' at the ripe old age of 22. Three short years later he co-founded KNB Efx Group alongside Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger and has worked on well over 100 different films and TV shows including 'Evil Dead 2,' the 'Kill Bill' films and 'Sin City' to name just a few from his impressive and varied filmography. He's worked extensively with people like Tarantino, Rodriguez, Romero, Darabont and Spielberg. He is quite literally a legend in the makeup and special effects business. Recently, he wrote and directed a short film that takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the Universal monsters. It envisions the world of old Hollywood in a universe where the monsters are real and are managed by an agency just like any other actor or stuntman. The short, entitled Universal Monster Talent Agency, is structured partially as a newsreel and partially as an advertisement for the agency, its innovations and, of course, its monsters. It played at this year's Fantastic Fest and we had a chance to sit down with Nicotero to talk about it.
I have to say I really enjoyed it [the short]. It's got this old time newsreel feel to it but it's also kind of an advertisement for what if monsters had a talent agency. Can you tell me a little bit about the idea and working on this?
Originally, the idea I had a couple of years ago. And it was almost like...you know when you're at Universal Studios and you're waiting in line and they have those little movies playing on the screen. And I thought, oh, it'd be kinda funny if it was like a little promo for Universal Studios and it opens with the Creature chasing Julie Adams through the Black Lagoon. And then they yell "cut" and the guys come and they throw a net over it and then you pan over to like a Rod Serling narrator and he says "here at Universal Studios we strive for realism blah blah blah." And you go into it from there. I kinda always had that fun little campy [idea], it would be neat if they'd do something like that. What had happened was I had been gone for almost a year and a half, I'd been traveling all over. I'd done 'Inglourious Basterds,' and then went right to 'Book of Eli' and then to 'Pirahna' and then 'Predators' and so I had been literally jumping around the world for almost a year and a half. And when we wrapped 'Predators' in January, I thought you know I got a six week window before we have to start prepping 'The Walking Dead.'
And it was the first time that I actually knew that I was going to have a little bit of a window, because in the movie business you just get calls and it's like OK, you've got to go here and you've got to... So I sat down and I started writing it and I'm not a writer. I've never written anything. So it was just one of those things where I would write for a little bit and then pace around my house and go back to my office and write for a little bit more. The breakthrough for me was, you know I had the opening and then I had the finale with the Wolfman because I always thought God, I always wanted to a Wolfman transformation, it'd just be fun to do. But then I thought, well how do I expand it? And I didn't want to feel locked in to just 50s stuff. I started doing some research and watching old Movietone newsreels and stuff. It was funny because it was always that "looking into the future" and "the wing of tomorrow" and you know "tomorrow is today!" It was the atomic age and everybody was so excited about moving forward and looking into this bright future that was filled with technology and filled with promise. And then I thought, oh my God, well that's it! I said not only do these guys represent these monsters, but they open a wing to develop new technology for future movies. It's almost like you would get the joke that Spielberg would have gone to this place and walked around and seen the shark in the tank and said...
I've got a movie for that.
I've got a movie for that one! Howard Berger, who co-produced the short with me and owns KNB, we always kind of have a joke because we get phone calls like the night before somebody's shooting something and it's not like hey we need a fake dog to rent. They'll call and say uhhh we need a 17 foot blue squirrel that shoots electricity out of its ass. Like they'll call for something so specific...
And think that you can rock it in 24 hours.
...and you need it tomorrow. And then we also have other people that have called and said "hey man we want to write a movie. We need a creature, what do you have in the shop that we could just use." They just want to take it, they don't want to have to pay for it. They just want to take like old stuff that we have and then write a movie around it. And I'm like well guys, it doesn't really work that way because the rights to those creatures are owned by the different studios and stuff like that. So I think the idea that there would be a facility that would be mining material, you know so that you could see that there would be a giant shark there, or that there's a zombie there, or there's guys playing around with something and they hit the wrong button and they create the two-faced Norwegian from 'The Thing.' I had originally actually written more cameos into it, because Wes Craven was going to be in it. And then I called John Carpenter and I said, dude you've got to be a scientist in this and be there because I wanted him to be standing there with the two scientists when they created the two-faced Norwegian. And then somebody said yeah, but then it should be the young versions of...if it's supposed to be 1950 then John shouldn't look like John today, John should be like young John and Wes should be young Wes. And then I thought, well yeah, that's a good point. They really can't play themselves. And Wes, was like, but I took acting lessons. He was really funny about it.
So you know the cameos that I did get, with Cerina Vincent who was in 'Cabin Fever' and 'Return to House on Haunted Hill.' Like literally, the movie cast itself. I'm thinking OK, Cerina [is] gorgeous, bombshell, knock-out, stacked, beautiful, she's Julie Adams. And Dana Gould who's a great stand-up comedian, I called him and said OK, I need you to play Lawrence Talbot as the Wolfman. And I heard this...[drops his Blackberry] he had dropped the phone and I was like Dana? Dana, are you OK? He said, dude this is the greatest role. He was so excited about it that when we were doing the transformation, there was a point where we were maybe going to have to reshoot part of it, because we couldn't get it to line up right. He's like I'll come and do it again. He loved it.
But I mean those flaws play right into it, into the homage of the classic films
And I love that about it. It's not trying to be a fancy new transformation, it's using the old techniques.
Yeah, and that was what it was for me, because like lining up his eyes, the chair moves a little bit, and when I was putting it together that kinda bothered me a little bit. And somebody went, dude, what? Are you kidding?
That's what it looks like, it's great.
And then you know, having Eli, the scene with Dana and Eli and Jeffrey Combs, who plays the DP, that was the first morning that we were shooting. We shot 3 days, and I'm so glad we started with that, because I'm such good friends with those guys that it just kicks us off to a really [great start]. I was a little nervous. I'm thinking God, you know look at all these people here and there's a whole crew. The first morning I'm like I hope I know what I'm doing.
The pressure's on.
Well I never doubted that I could do it, but it was just like wow, this is a whole new chapter in my life that is starting at 7am this morning. To have Eli and to have Jeff Combs and Derek Mears and Dana in my first day, it set the pace. And Eli was so freaking funny and he did his David Lynch voice. He was like [imitating Eli's Lynch voice] hey what do you think if I do it like this? I'm like dude it's perfect! It was really a lot of fun.
It comes across on screen, it seems like everybody was just like a kid in a candy store. I know you've said that Famous Monsters influenced you growing up and that was something that really got you interested in getting into effects work, and I have to assume it was the same for a lot of those people. So giving people the opportunity to come out and do a Universal monsters thing must have been an easy sell. Everything looks spot on, can you tell me about creating the sets?
I just wanted it to be as authentic as possible and shooting it in black and white was just so much fun. I walked around the studio while we were building everything and I would take pictures of stuff and then i would look at it in black and white and be like dude that's it, that's exactly what it looked like. The cave set and all that stuff. We built the opening from 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' where he's on the phone and he transforms. And I'm talking to my props guys and set decorators and I'm like OK, I need a lamp here and they rebuilt that set. Like if you put the frames together from the two movies, we created the costumes and everything. When we were shooting the creature scene, you know Dave Skal, who is a really great writer and a big creature aficiando, played the DP and Frank Darabont played Jack Arnold's part. When you're on set and the Creature from the Black Lagoon is there and there's a cave set and there's period movie cameras and period lights and there's a boom and everyone's dressed in period clothes. Dave came over and said dude, this is the closest that you could ever come to knowing what it would have felt like to be on the set of one of those movies. And that was a great compliment.
It's funny that you had Darabont, because I believe you second-unit directed on 'The Mist.' So was that kind of a funny little twist that you were the director on this project and you had Darabont coming to work with you?
Well, Frank is a classic Hollywood director. His sensibilities in terms of how he tells stories and how he treats his actors, he really loves Hollywood. I think Frank was probably born 20 years too late. Frank would have owned Hollywood if he would have been around in the 50s and directing movies then. So I think it was just fun. It was interesting because when we were shooting the turnaround of him sitting in the chair, what I loved about it was he sat down, he put his foot up and he's just sitting there really casually watching them throw the net over the Creature and they're wrestling and there's all this chaos going around. And he's like "and ... cut!" I kinda jokingly said hey you look really comfortable in that director's chair. I think you have a future here. So because he's such a classic director, he just exuded this sort of ... you know, I mean they're wrestling with the Creature in the background and he turns away from them like "OK, guys. New shot's over here." Like that completely detached from the fact that there's a live animal 10 feet behind him that they're wrestling. I just like that he had this kind of fun, nonchallant attitude about it. It was great. I couldn't have done it better myself.
Awesome, well thank you very much, sir.