A Site Exclusive Interview with Greg Nicotero

This is an interview that I conducted with Greg Nicotero of KNB Effects, the make-up effects firm that created all the make-up and creature work for From Dusk Till Dawn. Greg is a founding member of the company (he's the 'N' in KNB) and he was kind enough to take some time off during lunch and answer some questions by phone. Greg did the interview from the KNB offices in California on 3/26/98. A big thank you to Greg for doing the interview!

Mark: How did you get interested in film and make-up effects?

Greg: Well actually I grew up in Pittsburgh so it was sort of hard to not find an interest in it based on Tom Savini and George Romero, who were sort of, at the time, the local Pittsburgh filmmaking guys that if you were interested in the film industry those were the two guys you needed to meet and hook up with. And because I'd grown up being very interested in special effects and monster movies and stuff I ended up becoming friends with Tom and George Romero and subsequently Chris Romero, George's wife, had offered me a job on CREEPSHOW, which I had to turn down cause at the time because I was in college and I'm like (dumb voice) 'uh, I'm in college and I'm studin' and I can't really do that,' and then I got another offer to work on DAY OF THE DEAD from Chris Romero and I literally called Savini that day and said 'hey, I just got hired on DAY OF THE DEAD, can I be your assistant?' and Tom was like, 'yeah, absolutely,' and the rest is history, so they say. So, DAY OF THE DEAD was actually my first movie.

Mark: That's quite and auspicious start.

Greg: My parents at the time weren't very happy about that of course cause they were like, 'wait a minute, you still have one more year of college to go' and my intention was, 'well, lemme do this movie cause it's something that I just wanna sort of get outta my system and then I'll go back to school and be a doctor and finish up all that stuff and everything will be fine,' but needless to say, it went from Pittsburgh to New York where I worked for Richard Roofenstein to Los Angeles in the course of about five months. So, I never made it back to school.

Mark: How did you hook up with Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger?

Greg: Well, interestingly enough, when we were doing DAY OF THE DEAD, we needed a couple of additional people on our crew, and most of the guys that I met and worked with on DAY OF THE DEAD with Savini were guys who had all sort of staked their own ground in the effects industry. You know, Mike Trcic was on the crew and he worked with Stan Winston on JURASSIC PARK. It was myself, Mike Trcic, John Vulich, who owns Optic Nerve Studios, Everett Burrell, who does computer animation at Flat Earth, which is a digital company, and Howard Berger, who's now of course my partner. So, when all of us worked together on that show, and I moved to Los Angeles, you know, I moved in with Howard and he happened to have this friend named Bob Kurtzman, who was working over at John Beekler's and it was one of those things where we just sort of all, you know, became friends and we ended up getting a house together when I moved out there. I think that first show that we actually worked together, as all three of us, was on EVIL DEAD 2. That was, like, the first film that Howard and Bob and I all worked together on and it got to the point where, after working around town, I was working for Showstrum and they were working for Kevin Yagher and Stan Winston and we all kinda jumped around working on different projects and at one point we just said, ' you know, we're doing all this work, we're working our butts off for other people, why don't we do it for ourselves,' and that's when we ended up starting KNB, which was February of 1988, ten years ago.

Mark: Not that long ago.

Greg: No, not really if you think about it.

Mark: Where did you first meet Quentin Tarantino?

Greg: Actually, that's a very interesting point because this whole thing is all inter-related because the first job that we ever got as KNB was a movie called INTRUDER, directed by Scott Spiegel, who co-wrote EVIL DEAD 2. So Scott had literally called me at home one night and said, ' Hey, I'm directing this low-budget movie and I need some effects, do you know some kids that could, like, do it in their garage for me?' And at that point it had been the catch twenty-two of saying, we want to get into doing our own effects for our own company but we had to get somebody to hire us, so Scotty hired us. So actually, Bob Kurtzman came up with the idea of From Dusk Till Dawn and went to Scotty and Scotty said, 'hey, I've got this friend of mine named Quentin and he works in a video store but he's a great writer so you should talk to him about writing the script for you. And literally, Quentin sent samples of his scripts over to Bob to read, I think he had sent NATURAL BORN KILLERS and TRUE ROMANCE, if I'm not mistaken, and Bob and Quentin ended up hooking up and being friends, and Bob hired Quentin and paid him to write the first draft of From Dusk Till Dawn based on his story idea. So, when that deal went down, the gag sort of at that point was, Bob had said, 'well listen, you write the script for me and I'll do the effects for your first movie for free.' So lo and behold, RESERVOIR DOGS comes up and I get a call Lawrence Bender, and we ended up doing the gags on that movie for just cost of materials as sort of like the deal that Bob and Quentin had had. And that was our initial foray with Quentin and subsequently we've done every movie he's done since. There wasn't really any make-up effects or prosthetics in JACKIE BROWN but, you know, we did FOUR ROOMS and we did all his other movies with him.

Mark: Did the story change much when it was passed for Robert Kurtzman to Quentin Tarantino?

Greg: Not at all, in fact the script literally remained identical. I think that there was one little rewrite polish that Quentin did once they started figuring out who was playing which characters. I know that Quentin actually sort of beefed up his character a little bit when he realized that he was going to be playing it. But the script didn't really change very much at all. The hostage thing was added, and that whole sort of 'Quentin's character as a sex offender' was all added later, that wasn't part of the first draft of the script, the first draft of the script was that the first half of the movie was this sort of THE GETAWAY type movie and the second half was supposed to be basically vampires, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD kinda thing, but it remained pretty faithful, you know, if you really think about it.

Mark: How did you first meet Robert Rodriguez?

Greg: Well, I met Robert on From Dusk Till Dawn. It was the point where we got hired to do the effects for that movie and they were like 'Robert's directing it' and I was like 'oh yeah, I've heard of this guy' and I went out and rented EL MARIACHI that day cause I had never seen it and we ended up, Robert and I ended up becoming best friends. I mean he's definitely one of my best friends. We're prepping effects for his new movie right now. He' a very, very interesting guy, we share a lot of similar interests. But just his sort of style of filmmaking, which a lot of people have been emulating and trying to copy and he literally made his films the way that he made them for no other reason other than the fact that he didn't have the resources to spend a lot of money shooting different takes of things and that kind of stuff. So his style was made more out of necessity in terms of what he was doing and it's amazing, I mean he's a really amazing filmmaker.

Mark: I agree. What was your involvement in the effects?

Greg: Well, I mean myself, and Howard Berger, my partner, supervised all the make-up effects. So we were literally, from day one, building everything in the shop, designing it, you know, sitting down with Robert, story boarding all the effects sequences, and then when it came to shooting, we had twelve people on set every day applying all the make-ups. I always tell people that I could never get further away from Robert than ten feet because he would always come up with ideas. It was very like, 'OK, I wanna rip this guys arm off' and I would run down to our shop, tell them what we needed and run back to the set and then they'd come up with a ripped off arm and we'd shoot it. You know, it was like that kind of, you know, Robert is a very, very quick shooter, I mean he shoots fast because he already really has the movie edited in his head. So he knows what pieces he needs, he doesn't spend a lot of time over-covering stuff, he just shoots what he needs to get done. So literally, I was there every single day, every step of the way, you know, involved with all the effects, myself and Howard. We had a great crew, but it was just exhausting cause we'd come in a four in the morning and make-up all the vampires and the rest of the crew would come in at seven or eight then we would shoot ten or twelve hours, and then at the end of the night we'd have to clean all the make-up off everybody and then come in again at four o'clock in the morning so it was exhausting. By the time we were done, the last day of shooting, we shot George fighting the big rat and it was just, boy o boy, we were so tired and so burned out at that point.

Mark: When I talked to Tom Savini he was talking about what a manic shoot it was.

Greg: It was just quick, I mean you know, if you really think about it, you walk into The Titty Twister and there's a hundred stunt people and it was just really frantic because it was like, you know, staging all the action and the whole vampire free-for-all when the vampires go nuts and kill everybody, that was, you know, a week, week and a half, of just staging different fights and ripping people heads off. It was a manic shoot but it was a fun manic shoot, I mean it was exciting because the pace was so fast you never got bored. It was always something new. You know, 'what are we gonna do today, what are we gonna do today?' I really had a great time making that movie, it was a lot of fun but it was exhausting. When the movie was done we were all like (Greg makes the sound of a devastating explosion.)

Mark: Tom did say he wished he could have stayed longer when his work was done.

Greg: Well, that happens on all movies that you have a good time on because it's like, you know, the last day of school. The last day of shooting is literally, 'OK, we're done now. Good seeing you and meeting you.' For me it was fun cause having Tom there was a blast. You know, he was the guy that got me into the business and we kept saying 'Tom, you gotta do one gag on the movie, just for old times sake. You know, you should, like, pump some blood or let's come up with one gag.' And we kept doing it and even Robert was like 'come on, man, you gotta do one gag.' But Tom was like 'oh, I'm acting, I don't have time. I got so much stuff to do!'

Mark: Robert Rodriguez did several character designs of his own. How did you go about incorporating them into the film?

Greg: Well, it was interesting because, you know, Robert used to do cartoons when he was growing up, he did a lot of animation and cartoons and stuff and he would developed these characters. So, he showed up and he had this sort of characature of Quentin as a vampire and it was an exaggeration of the real Quentin in terms of, like, extending his brow and extending his chin and that kind of stuff. So, Robert came in with this sort of cartoony drawing of Quentin and he's like, 'this is kinda what I want his make-up to look like.' So, translating that into a prosthetic that actually, you know, looked three dimensional and would work was kind of challenging but ultimately it ended up working fine. It was a neat vampire, it was a neat make-up. I don't think Quentin had any idea what he was getting himself into till he was under all the prosthetics and then he was like, 'man!'. So, you know, there were a couple other characters that Robert had designed that we sorta fiddled with the designs a little bit to make them not look quite so cartoony. You know, the scene where the one character transforms into the "mouth-bitch" that the stomach splits open revealing the teeth and it bites one of the guys heads off, that was all Robert's. And that was sort of a little John Carpenter nod in terms of THE THING, which is one of Robert's favorite movies.

Mark: What were some of the contributions that you personally make to the film?

Greg: Oh, I couldn't even begin to count, I mean, just the amount of work that was put into it was astronomical. I mean, it was very collaborative the entire step of the way. It would be really difficult to say, 'oh, I contributed that or I contributed that,' because when you're dealing with effects stuff it's always a very, you know, everyone sort of throws their ideas into the stew during pre-production and then once you get to the set you realize, 'oh, well this works this way because of that,' so that's kinda a hard question to answer only because it's a very collaborative effort form day one until the last day of shooting.

Mark: In that case, what then is your favorite part of the film?

Greg: That's really hard to say, I mean I actually, I was very, very entertained by the movie and that's sort of my criteria for good movies: Is it entertaining? If it's not entertaining then screw it, you know, what's the point? I liked the first half of the movie because I thought the acting was outstanding and, you know, I was so involved with the project that, you know, we weren't on set for a lot of the stuff that they shot in the opening cause there were no creatures or vampires or anything. And actually seeing a lot of the footage and going, 'man, Clooney and Quentin together are excellent,' I think both of them made great bad guys. It's always exciting for me when they get into The Titty Twister because then it's like, 'OK, now our stuff's gonna start coming up.' You know, I enjoy the whole movie, there isn't one particular scene that I like more than another. I like the rat scene where Savini's character transforms. I like that scene a lot. I have my little cameo with Savini which is kinda fun. Did you know that?

Mark: Yeah!

Greg: Yeah, so that was fun. Unfortunately my death got cut out of the movie, but it's in the laser disc. That was kinda fun, having Salma sitting on my lap for three hours, which I didn't mind. (Laughter)

Mark: What are you most proud of in the film, and by that I mean if you had to show someone one thing that would represent what KNB is capable of, what would that be?

Greg: I think the accomplishment of From Dusk Till Dawn, over all, is just the shear amount of work in a short period of time. We got a phone call from Steve Johnson right after he saw the movie and he's like, 'How did you guys do all that work in that short period of time?' cause a lot of people knew that we didn't have a lot of time to prep that film but it really looks like we did trillions and trillions of make-ups. I think it was just the volume and the consistency. I mean, I was really happy with all the design and the make-up. We actually got headshots of each actor and designed the make-ups based on the actors facial structure verses just saying, 'OK, you're gonna be this guy and you're gonna be this guy.' Danny Trejo, when we designed his make-up, we sort of accentuated his neck muscles. He's got all neck prosthetics and shoulder prosthetics on that accentuate his neck and make him look like he's really pumped up. Each character looks unique and different and I think that that was something that we were most proud of, that you could look at one character as a vampire and say 'yeah, yeah, yeah I can see how they went from there to there,' it was really pretty cool.

Mark: What was the funniest thing that happened on the set?

Greg: We had so much fun on that movie I don't even think I can point out one funny thing verses another. It was a really laid back atmosphere, you know, between takes Robert and I would be playing guitar and hanging out and joking around and having a good time. It was just really over all a great environment, it was a lot of fun, you know, just getting to be friends with Clooney and Harvey Keitel and all them, you know, that was a blast. There were just unbelievable, talented people in that show. And it was an amazing crew, Robert really knows how to pick people.

Mark: Is KNB involved in the prequel and sequel to From Dusk Till Dawn?

Greg: Yeah! We just wrapped actually. They shot both of them down in South Africa. I was down for The Hangman's Daughter, which was the one that P. J. Pesce directed based on a story by Robert and his cousin. And then the other one was written and directed by Scott Spiegle, who hired KNB on INTRUDER, our first movie, so it really comes full circle. So Scotty's just wrapped like three weeks ago and he's just back from Africa. I'm not sure yet if they're going to be released theatrically or if they're going straight to video. I don't know, I guess Miramax will make that decision once they see the films and decide, you know. The Hangman's Daughter is literally THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY with vampires cause it's a prequel so it's set in the early 1900s. And then Texas Blood Money is the sequel and that's sort of like DOG DAY AFTERNOON with vampires. So they're both very different, very unique.

Mark: And Bruce Campbell of EVIL DEAD 2 is also in Texas Blood Money.

Greg: Yeah, he has a cameo in the opening. Him and I think Tiffani-Amber Thiessen are in the opening of Texas Blood Money as cameos.

Mark: And finally, you mentioned that KNB is working on Rodriguez's new film. What can we expect?

Greg: You know, I'm unfortunately not allowed to talk about it because it's very, very secret, but it's sort of an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS type story. With some aliens. The script's changing. I just hung up with Robert five minutes ago and he's like 'oh, there's this new scene with this and this and this,' and I'm like, 'oh boy.' So we start shooting that on April 13th.

Mark: Well thank you very much, this has been a great interview!

Greg: My pleasure!

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