The final installment of a panel discussion with Greg Nicotero, executive producer of The Walking Dead, co-founder of KNB EFX Group, and veteran of more than a hundred movies requiring his special effects expertise. Nicotero sat for the panel Walker Stalkers podcast hosts James Frazier and Eric Nordhoff November 2, 2013, in Atlanta, Georgia, at The Walker Stalkers Convention for fans of The Walking Dead — and all things zombie.
Q: So my wife’s been reading all the comics, she read all of them, so every once in a while she tells me something and I don’t want her to spoil it for me so I kind of dismiss it, —
Greg: Wait, that’s the only thing you dismiss that your wife says? That’s pretty good. (laughter)
Q: But so sometimes she tells me stuff like, “Oh, this is different in the comic.” So I took a peek at some of their comics down the line and I noticed there’s a lot of violence, and it’s vulgar. Do you have trouble trying to — or do you even take pieces from the comic and figure out how you’re going to make it safe for TV, water it down a little bit? Do you pull ideas from the comic?
Greg: Yeah, listen, this season especially, I think we’ve dedicated more beats to the graphic novel than we have the last two seasons. Scott Gimple loves the comic book. He’s really, really dedicated to it. Certain scenarios have changed – things that happen to one person in the comic book happen to another person in the show. Because we don’t want it to just be a carbon copy, otherwise everybody will know what’s going to happen. In terms of, you know, this season – this season’s a lot darker than we’ve gone in the past. It opens, the first episode where everything’s kind of the prison’s going on fine, and they’ve got a community and things are working out. You know, that’s kind of the — you know when Michonne jokes with Rick, and Carol calls Darryl Pookie, and you know, all that. Those moments were there for a reason. Because now that the crap has hit the fan, you know. You know, this season’s definitely darker. But we definitely don’t shy away from it, I wouldn’t say violence and gore in terms of the show, but it’s really the storylines and the plotlines, that’s what’s –- you know, gore is gore, if it resonates and it hits an emotional beat, that makes it way worse. If you think about Reservoir Dogs, when he [Michael Madsen, playing Mr. Blonde] cuts the ear off, you never even see him actually cut the ear off. The camera pans over and he walks over and goes blah blah blah – so it’s just that suggestion of it. So with this show it’s just the suggestion of the bad stuff that’s gonna happen.
Q: What kind of challenges have the actors and the makeup artists faced because of the heat?
Greg: It’s brutal. It’s great now [in November], because it’s cooler and we don’t have to worry about using as much adhesive, and sunscreen, and sweating. We break them up into three stages: we have the hero makeups, that go through hour and a half, hour and 45 minutes; then we have the midgrounds, who are just painted to look, you know, highlights and shadows; and the deep background that have masks on. But when it’s 120 degrees and the guys walk out of the makeup trailer and they just go, [gestures wiping off his face with his hand] “Oh, it’s hot,” and then it’s just like a big fleshy area right there. All the makeup is on their hand. It’s really hard to get it to stick. We go to great lengths to do it, and the entire team — there’s nine of us — and on big days, in between every setup the guys are going out and touching up and you have to be looking at the monitor to see which makeups are being shot close. If somebody’s way at the back, you don’t need to worry about touching them up but if they’re closer, you know, we have a little black mouth stain, a little syringe that we squirt into everyone’s mouth so their tongues are black, not pink, and it’s all just constant upkeep. So the minute that you leave the trailer and you go to set with your makeup bag, it’s just nonstop.
James: Have you ever used that stuff to just mess with somebody?
Greg: I want to go to a bar and put it in someone’s tequila shot.
Greg cont’d: This is an actor named Coleman in episode 15. This is the walker who almost gets Michonne, and then <a href="” title=”Michael Rooker as Merle on AMC website” target=”_blank”>Merle shoots him. Again, this was just an example of, that guy was just really skinny. We’ll be in the trailer and be like, “Dude show him that thing,” and these guys like suck their insides in, and turn their heads and weird shit, and it looks cool, and we’re like, “Oh we gotta use that somewhere.” So, you know, it’s a really good tribute to the makeup artists, because the extras who come into be made up, we’ll be like, oh, this guy would be great, he looks like the Machete Zombie from Dawn of the Dead, and he looks like the helicopter zombie –and we’re like, hmmmm. Have to figure out where to put that. So we do that often in terms of trying – the guys always come up to me and go, “I found a guy, he would be a great walker.” So this guy is in season 4 – we’ve used him a dozen times in different makeups because he’s a really good actor. He’s just, he’s great.
James: Very cool. Next? Amber?
Q: OK so yesterday in a panel I already told a fabulous story about the day y’all filmed the well walker scene, and it all revolved a sausage link that he ate for breakfast that morning, and a comment that Norman made about the sausage link, so it was pretty gross. So anyway he said he was gagging thinking about something that Norman had said to him earlier that day. So my question is, you directed so many episodes, and this first episode this season was so fabulous, thank you. (light applause) So I was wondering, are you directing any other episodes this season?
Greg: Yeah, I did episode one, and then I did episode 9, which is the midseason premiere, so after the show goes off the air for eight episodes and everybody’s just jonesing, just wanna see another episode, mine’ll be the first one back. It’s the favorite episode I’ve done. Its’ really, I’m so proud of it. Everything about it –- the performances are great. And I’m doing one right now which will be the second to the last. So it’s, I did three last year, I did three this year, so this is my seventh episode. You know, it’s such a great comfort level with the actors that it makes the — I have a shorthand with all of them. I mean, I’ve been on set with them every day since the beginning. And you know, it –- one of the episodes I did, it was just interesting because I would walk up to Andy [Andrew Lincoln] and say, “Hey I think maybe you should try -–” and he’d go, “I was just gonna –-” and it was just one of those weird things where you finish each other’s sentences and Norman and I did that a lot as well. So it’s a really great thrill and a great honor and having done makeup effects for so long, and sort of transitioning into producing and directing. I just love that it’s every day I still learn, and every day I feel like, as good as we all are at what we do, that we continue to try to get better and better and to fine-tune our craft. And that’s really important to me.
Greg cont’d: This walker — this was my Dawn of the Dead tribute walker, which we put in Episode 15 last year when Merle’s sitting in the car — he’s drinking the whiskey –- [and] we show this shot. I sent pictures to the costume department: “You gotta find this plaid shirt,” like I’m sending them pictures to make sure the costume matches, and Garrett, he did this makeup, right? So Garrett Immel did this makeup and again, we had to find the guy who had the right look. So there’s a big long dolly shot where we bring him out of the bar, and bring him up to the car, and you know Merle’s in the car. And I just -– that stuff’s not written into the script; that’s just me being a super-nerd and saying, “How cool would it be to just put this walker in there and see if anybody notices.” The cool thing was it was like the next day and people were like, “Hey, tribute walker!” Every -– people notice that. So we’ve got some coming up this year too. They’re very cool.
James: We’ve got time for two more questions. Go ahead.
Q: My question is one you’ve probably answered before, but I’ve never heard you answer it. So, I would ,like to know: I know it’s hard to pick a favorite, it’s like picking your favorite child. But what’s your favorite project?
Greg: My favorite project -– and that really is hard, because there’s like ten different movies that I feel exemplify what I love doing. Sin City was great, it was a really fun experience to do all those character makeups and we shot it all in greenscreen, and to see the movie and see all the environments created. From Dusk til Dawn was fun because we got to make up a bunch of naked girls (laughter) for like two months. And Piranha was a blast. All these guys worked on Piranha [3D]. Aside from the fact that Richard Dreyfuss was in it, and I was like “ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod” (laughter). And I literally stood right next to him. The minute he got to set, the actors and directors were talking to him and everything, and I was just like following him around. He’d stop, and I’d stop; he’d walk and I’d walk. But there’s a lot of movies like that that we had a lot of fun on. Evil Dead II and Day of the Dead were great. You know, Walking Dead continues to be one of the best experiences that I’ve had. And it’s because of the people, because of the project. The Green Mile was great. It’s hard to – there’s so many.
James: That’s about ten kids right there, that you just listed, so . . .
Greg: A lot, indeed.
James: So. Last question.
Q: Hey, Greg. So my question is — well, first off, I drove 16 hours from London, Ontario, to be here. (applause) So it’s a little colder up there than it is here. So I want to know: how would you play out having a zombie apocalypse up in Canada in the middle of winter?
Greg: Well, the good thing is, they’d all freeze, so you’re find until, like, April. (laughter) I mean, no one thinks about that, you know? If the zombie apocalypse happens, just go north, they’d freeze, and you’re fine. It sucks that it would be cold, but –- like, don’t go to Florida. Cause you’ll be eaten in a minute. All those old people, they’ll just –- (laughter) I mean, they eat at like four in the afternoon now. It makes no sense.
James: Well, Greg, thank you for all your work on Walking Dead, for creating a community of zombie-lovers. And we really appreciate your support with our podcast and Walker Stalker Con.