Greg Nicotero, executive producer, director and special FX makeup designer for The Walking Dead, discusses why he likes letting Norman run wild in his workshop, how his training as a doctor makes his makeup work more realistic, and why he wishes he had more time to ride motorcycles.
Q: You’ve obviously gotten to know Norman very well through The Walking Dead, but did you guys have a relationship at all before the show?
A: We had worked on a TV show called Masters of Horror, and there was an episode called “Cigarette Burns” that John Carpenter directed and a friend of mine had written. Norman was the lead in that episode that we created the effects for. When The Walking Dead came up… Frank Darabont had said, “Hey, tell me a little bit about Norman Reedus when you guys worked with him. Can you ask John what he thought of Norman?” … That’s what happens in Hollywood. A lot of people want to know what the actors were like and if they were good to work with. John’s response was loving: “[Norman] was super committed and prepared and knew exactly what to do when he showed up on set.” The next thing I knew, I was in a van on the way to set in zombie makeup and Norman jumped in the van and didn’t even realize it was me because I was covered in zombie makeup.
Q: How is it working with Norman as an actor when you’re directing?
A: He has amazing instincts. He’s really, really smart. He knows Daryl. He’s one of those actors that takes scenes off the page and really adds little aspects to it. There was a scene in the Season Premiere of Season 4 where a kid comes up to him and basically shakes his hand. The kid looks at him and it’s like meeting your idol. The kid walks up and says, “Hey, Mr. Dixon” and Norman licks his fingers and then shakes the kid’s hand. It was really funny and… I said, “Dude, that’s perfect.” That’s literally Daryl Dixon to a T. Just those little nuances – how he shifts his eyes, what he does in a scene. I’ve been a big fan of what Norman has done on the show and I feel like we have a great relationship because we collaborate so well that we’ve been able to really craft this character. … He and I are a really great team.
Q: Do you ride motorcycles at all? Has Norman ever tried to teach/convince you?
A: I’ve ridden with him once or twice, but I wouldn’t say I’m a tremendously experienced rider. I wish I had more time because I would love to, but I have not been able to as of yet.
Q: Your workshop is massive. How big is it? How has it evolved through the years?
A: It’s 20,000 square foot facility. We started my company back in 1988, so next year will be our 30-year anniversary. We are the longest-running makeup effects company. A lot of the other people that got into the business at the same time have either retired, moved into visual effects or gone in different directions. We’ve been in it for a long time. I attribute that to the fact that, aside from just doing makeup effects, we really have a genuine love and affection for filmmaking in general. My career arc over the last 10 or 12 years has proven that. To go from an effects artist to a second unit director to a producer and then an executive producer and director on the show solidifies that. That’s what it’s evolved into.
Q: What was it like having Norman walk around your offices? Was he like a kid in a candy store?
A: Because we’re in Georgia all the time, I sometimes forget that a lot of the actors who work on the show have never seen my studio. Norman has a really great sense of visual style and artistic vision and his photography is fantastic. To put somebody like that into a studio where almost anything can be created or imagined always excites me because I get a chance to see other people’s reactions and what they gravitate to and take photos of — what aspect of what we do fascinates them. … Norman is always fascinated with the replicas and the costumes. We’ve done some great fake heads in the past. There’ve been a couple of props that he asked to keep because he loves props and things like that. He’s the kind of guy that will put on a costume and run around. He loves masks and all that kind of stuff.
Q: Was Norman creeped out being so close to the model of himself?
A: It’s always interesting when actors see the replicas we’ve created. We’ve done a couple of movies where I’ve had the actors say to me, “Listen, I don’t want to ever see it.” There have been scenes where a character was killed in a movie, and we made a replica of them, and they’ve basically said, “Please let me know when you’re bringing it to set.” With Norman, I think part of it is because I know him so well and we’re friends, I really wanted to make sure the replica we did of him was as accurate as possible. I knew he would look at it and say, “Is that really what my hair looks like?”
Q: You mentioned on the show that you originally thought about becoming a doctor. Do you ever think about how wildly different your life might have been if you stuck to that path?
A: Sometimes. I think my path would be the exact opposite of what I’m doing now. When you’re in a healthcare profession, you’re dealing with life-or-death situations. My training certainly has allowed me the ability to recreate certain medical types of situations, very realistically. Like in Casino or Reservoir Dogs — movies where the realism of certain effects like cutting somebody’s ear off or burying somebody in the ground or putting somebody’s head in a vise and crushing it — my knowledge of anatomy and biology have helped create effects that have been memorable because they have a very specific realism to them.
I can honestly say I’m proud of the choices I’ve made, and being able to constantly pay tribute to the people who I started in the business with, like George Romero, Tom Savini and John Carpenter. It was something that started out as a hobby. I grew up in Pittsburgh and had no idea you could take something you loved so much and find a way to turn it into a career, especially in Pittsburgh which is 3,000 miles away from Hollywood. In the mid-1970s, I realized George Romero lived in Pittsburgh and shot all his movies in Pittsburgh, and it became a reality to me. … After working on Day of the Dead, my first movie, it felt so comfortable and familiar like I had been doing it forever. There were never any regrets or remorse about not following the medical field. It felt like something I had been inspired by since I was a very young boy, and all of a sudden I had this amazing opportunity. I just went with it, and I never looked back.
Q: What are you most proud of from your long career?
A: Having the opportunity to work with the filmmakers that inspired me when I was younger – Wes Craven, Sam Raimi – that makes me tremendously proud because I remember sitting in the theater and watching Nightmare on Elm Street or Evil Dead or An American Werewolf in London. All of these movies completely captured my imagination. To be able to be a part of this elite group of people that now have the ability and opportunity to capture the imagination of an entire new generation of television watchers and movie goers, that’s the greatest to me. I believe that a lot of the revival of genre material on television – between Westworld and American Horror Story — is due in a large part to the success of The Walking Dead.
I feel like I have the opportunity to pay it forward for the times that I sat in the theater and was astounded or mesmerized or amazed. … When I get a chance to go to a convention and meet fans and they tell me they’re inspired by some work I’ve done, it’s the greatest compliment. I’ve said to people, “Listen, I’ve been on the other side of that table more times than you can imagine, meeting one of my idols or heroes, and trying to express in a very short number of words how much their work inspires me.” I love that. I love that there’s a whole new group of young people being inspired by practical makeup effects that the show is putting forward.
Read a Q&A with Norman Reedus about Season 2.
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