It should come as no surprise that Christmas is not Greg Nicotero’s favorite holiday.
“Do I even have to answer that question? Of course Halloween is my favorite holiday,” The Walking Dead and Shudder’s Creepshow series executive producer told Rotten Tomatoes. “I know that there’s going to be a bunch of zombie heads on spikes in my front yard for sure. The zombie heads are easy. The spikes are harder for me, because now I have to make them. But I got a bunch of zombie heads that I want to line up along the street outside of my house.”
Trick-or-treaters, be on the lookout, because as the co-founder of the Oscar and Emmy-winning KNB EFX Group special effects studio, Nicotero’s lawn decorations of horror will obviously top anything you can buy at Target. In addition to the more than 400 TV and movie projects he and KNB have worked on since they formed in 1988, Nicotero’s handiwork is an integral part of the look of The Walking Dead, which he has been a part of since the show premiered on Halloween 2010.
In honor of the series’ 10th anniversary, we talked to Nicotero about how he was actually part of the series before it became a series thanks to his friendship with Frank Darabont, why he thinks the show’s Western vibes are a big reason it propelled zombies into the mainstream, and how the upcoming spin-off with Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (played by his good friend and Nic & Norman’s restaurant partner Norman Reedus) has been building since season 2.
Nicotero also talks about the cast and crew’s famously close relationships (including the only person he told about how nervous he was to direct his first episode), how TWD and Creepshow are dealing with filming during the pandemic, and the very cool zombie idea he’d like to try out before The Walking Dead wraps after season 11.
Kim Potts for Rotten Tomatoes: How are you doing?
Greg Nicotero: I’m really good. We’re filming away on Creepshow, and it’s been super fun, surprisingly. I was a little concerned about all of the crazy COVID procedures making it more tedious and less fun, but it’s been a blast. The actors have been great, and the crew has been great. We’re having a really good time, so it feels great to be back at it again. You get to set, and you’ve got your mask on and your face shield, but when you’re in it, you forget about all that stuff, and you get a chance to focus on what you love doing.
You’re also working on the additional Walking Dead season 10 episode that will air next year?
Nicotero: Yeah. The challenge is sort of getting out of one bubble and getting myself into another bubble, then getting tested, then doing set work, and then tested again, because you can’t go from one set to the other without getting tested and put into another bubble. We probably started prepping Walking Dead stuff back in July, just sort of making adjustments in what we were doing for the show to allow for accelerated makeup times and easier application and all kinds of scenarios. I was working on Walking Dead July, August, and September, and then in September we started shooting Creepshow again. It’s been kind of busy.
Has it forced you to make any storyline changes in either show?
Nicotero: The Walking Dead stuff is really intended to be these kind of episodes that are a little more production-friendly … because you’re dipping your toes in the water a little bit. With Creepshow, we’re primarily a stage show, so we don’t have to go out into the world very often, and that allows us to be a little bit more self-contained. Fortunately, not a lot of people kiss in either show, so we’re not worrying too much about somebody kissing someone. It’s definitely a change in the way that we are accustomed to doing things, but so far, so good.
Are you directing any of the six remaining season 10 episodes?
Nicotero: No. Originally, (TWD showrunner) Angela (Kang) had called and asked me if I wanted to and, unfortunately, because of when the pandemic hit and everything shut down, Creepshow was set to start shooting, and we had prepped the first two episodes. I think in my head originally, I was like, “Well, I can shoot Creepshow and then run over and do Walking Dead,” and then I thought, “That’s insane. I would literally die.” Until January, I’m all the way up to my eyeballs in Creepshow.
Halloween this year marks the 10th anniversary of The Walking Dead. Does it feel to you like it’s been a decade? I always think of the show as all of you making an hour-long movie, for TV, every week.
Nicotero: Yeah, it feels like it’s been 100 years. Honestly, time has a very different meaning when you’re on a show of this magnitude for this duration, because there are some episodes I remember like they were yesterday. There are other episodes that I’m like, “I don’t even remember that,” just because we’ve done so many episodes. Even when I go to the studio, and I’ll stand on the backlot and be like, “This is where the prison was, and then that’s where the Heaps were, and then, oh, this is the scene where they thought that Carol was dead and they put a grave in the prison field …” There are numerous beautiful moments of the show, and some of them get lost in the fact that we’ve been on for such a long time, and I kind of forget some of them.
I just recently went back and rewatched Game of Thrones with my son, Deven, and there was so much stuff that I was able to appreciate about the show going back and seeing it after a little bit of time. I’m looking forward to doing that with Walking Dead, going back to the beginning and really sort of looking at what the DNA of the show was then and the great scenes that we crafted and the great moments with Chandler (Riggs) and with Emily (Kinney). There are so many people that you start going back and thinking about what amazing work they did. God bless Scott Wilson, because I had some of the greatest moments of my career with Scott. I’ll be forever grateful that I got a chance to be a part of his life.
I don’t think I’ve ever talked to you about this: how did your involvement with the show begin?
Nicotero: Frank (Darabont) is one of my best friends, still to this day, and probably a year before the show was ever put into production, he had given me the script and was like, “Okay, we’re going to do The Walking Dead.” The irony behind all of this was I remember buying the first issue of the comic book when I was working with Robert Rodriguez in Austin, Texas. There was a great comic book shop there, and I bought the first issue. Frank and I had always talked about the idea of wanting to do a zombie project, because he loved Night of the Living Dead. His No. 1 criteria was, it’s got to be the right stories. It really needs to be about survival and what people do, what they become in order to survive.
I remember one night specifically, one dinner, where we were talking about it. I don’t think we ever thought about it as a TV show, because this was years before Walking Dead even happened. At that point, zombie television wasn’t even a thing. No one would have ever imagined doing a TV show with zombies in it. We were talking about a movie. Then a couple of years later he sent the script over and was like, “Hey, man, this is what we’re going to do.” We had designed a couple of zombie busts that he took to his meetings to help sell the show, because one of the big questions that every network asked was, “Well, how are you going to do the zombies? No one’s ever done anything like this on television before.” (Frank) was like, “Oh, it’s easy. I got this guy, Greg Nicotero, and he makes zombie busts, and this is what the zombies are going to look like.”
There are so few of you left from the beginning, but you’ve been there even before it was even a show.
Nicotero: I remember talking about the opening scene with Frank, with a little girl at the gas station, and I said, “You know, Frank, the Dawn of the Dead remake had a very similar sequence where there’s a little girl zombie at the beginning,” and he was like, “Yeah, I don’t care about that. It doesn’t matter. This is going to be our show.”
I would have never imagined that the mainstream would have sort of caught up to everything that I have loved since I was a kid, which is zombie movies. Before The Walking Dead, zombies were a very, very niche sort of sub-genre that appealed to a specific group of people. I think what Frank was able to do was really break the mold and show that The Walking Dead really is a Western. Andy (Lincoln) always, always talked about that a lot; his inspiration for Rick Grimes was Clint Eastwood and The Outlaw Josie Wales. That was something that was very important, because a lot of the actors, when we did season 1, they hadn’t seen a lot of zombie stuff. They hadn’t seen Night of the Living Dead. They hadn’t seen Dawn of the Dead. Even though that was a lot of the inspiration for the show, they were approaching it like Frank, from sort of a dramatic survival standpoint.
I have to say that the cast that we put together for season 1, with Sarah Callies and Steven Yeun and Jon Bernthal and Laurie Holden and Jeff DeMunn … what a cast. I mean, the cast was absolutely astonishing and that’s where Frank always excels, his ensemble casting. He did it in The Green Mile. He did it in Shawshank (Redemption). He did it in The Mist. And, of course, there are Norman (Reedus) and Melissa (McBride), who have been on the show since day one.
Do you think it’s that focus on those aspects, those dramatic aspects and the kind of survival, the universal, human themes is what really helped the show cross over to the mainstream?
Nicotero: Absolutely. Absolutely, because a lot of times in zombie movies, prior to The Walking Dead, the gore was the big element, the horror was the big element, and I think there were a lot of instances where people might have been turned off by the gore. Even when you talk to people that watch The Walking Dead, they had this preconceived notion about it until they watched it, and when they experienced it through the eyes of Rick Grimes, who is waking up in the hospital, and he’s learning about what the world is, the first thing people would say is, “It’s not a show about zombies.” I’m like, “No, it’s a show about survival, and it’s a show about what people are willing to do in a situation like that.” Of course the zombies are a big part of it, and I’m very proud of the contribution that I’ve made to the show and that my team has made to the show, but a lot of the drive for the show has been about those specific character moments where the audience can identify with Maggie or Glenn or Hershel and put themselves in those characters’ positions and imagine what they would or would not have been able to do.
Do you have a favorite episode or storyline? You’ve been involved in so many of the great ones, but can you choose just one?
Nicotero: I would probably say one of my favorite episodes is the episode where Merle fights The Governor and Merle dies [“This Sorrowful Life”]. The moment where Norman just literally poured his soul out when he saw Merle as a walker. I’ll never forget filming that. I’ll never forget people calling me and saying, “How the fuck did you make me cry in a show like this?” I’ve had so many amazing moments working with Norman and working with Melissa. I mean, having filmed Andy’s last episode, and the number of people that I’ve had to kill on the show, that’s never fun.
I don’t know if I could pick just one episode. I think the episode where the walkers invade Alexandria [“Start to Finish”], and that was like our Night of Living Dead homage. I would probably go back and watch episodes and not even remember like, “Oh, I shot that episode. That’s right,” because we’ve had so many, so many moments. Negan’s introduction [“Last Day on Earth”, which was certainly controversial, but I’m tremendously proud of what we did, and Jeffrey (Dean Morgan’s) performance and shooting 12 pages of dialogue in two nights is, it’s a little bonkers in the TV schedule. So yeah, I just don’t know if I could pick one.
Has the show ever made you cry?
Nicotero: I think there have been characters that died (that have made me cry). I think the moment with Jeffrey DeMunn, that was the first episode I had ever directed [“Judge, Jury, Executioner”], and, yeah, I got emotional when I shot it and when I watched the first cut. Chandler was a little boy. I remember Chandler running down through the field and shooting his reaction to seeing Jeff on the ground with his stomach torn open and blood bubbling out of it, and just how hysterical everybody got. To see the fear in Jeffrey’s eyes when Norman walked over with the gun and said, “I’m sorry, brother,” it was intense.
That episode was just … I was so terrified, because it was the first hour of television that I had ever directed, and I had my little graphs and my little charts of where the camera would go. I think probably Andy was the only person that I had shared with him like, “I’m scared sh–less here,” but I trusted my instincts, I trusted my camera department, and I trusted my actors. If you look at the episodes in season 2, 3, and 3, those episodes are so dense. There’s so much story that we’re telling, and it just propelled us. If you watch that episode, which was written by Angela, there’s so much. You’re telling an entire season’s worth of story in that one episode.
That’s what I mean. They were like movies every week.
Nicotero: Oh, without a doubt. There’s not one moment where there’s a frame of film that doesn’t serve something, that doesn’t serve a character, a story point, the propulsion of the show as it’s moving forward. I’ve rewatched that episode recently, and it’s just crazy what we did. I think we shot that in seven days maybe.
You are responsible for starting The Walking Dead Zombie School, to train the zombie actors on the show. How has that evolved through the seasons? I’m guessing that just from watching the show, people are coming to you a little more prepared at this point.
Nicotero: Definitely. In fact, I don’t think we’ve done Zombie School in two years, because at this point, we have our troupe of zombie performers and actors, and I think the people that we love, we bring them back over and over again. At the beginning, we wanted to make sure that we were maintaining the aesthetic of what we wanted for the zombies, but also, they had to be able to perform with the actors. They have to be able to die well, they had to be able to be convincing as zombies. What you don’t want to do is spend an entire hour or two fine tuning background zombie performances that would then be taking away from shooting the rest of the scene, so it was always very important that the zombies were well directed in terms of their performance and what was expected of them. Every season, I would say we’d probably end up with like 20 people that were just standout performers, and a lot of them initially came from a place in Georgia called Netherworld, which is a haunted house attraction that would open in September/October. A lot of those people that had been working at that attraction ended up being some of our best zombie performers.
The Walking Dead cast and crew have been known to be very close, even though there are a lot of changes with all the character deaths. How have you maintained that?
Nicotero: Well, listen, the dynamic of the cast changes as certain actors leave and other actors come in, so it evolves. It’s a very organic thing. I think one of the unique things about any show that has a tightknit family is when you’re in the trenches with them, you’re sharing something that you can’t share with anybody else. That was something I learned working with Quentin Tarantino. When we were doing Inglourious Basterds, he had looked at me one day and said, “You know, there’s nobody else I would ever want to be in the trenches with,” and that really stuck with me a lot, because I realized that it’s a shared experience, and I have a bond with this crew and these actors that no one can ever take away from me and no one can replace. I still keep in touch with most of the actors from the show, even if it’s once a month, just a quick text saying, “Hey, how’s it going?” I talk to Sonequa (Martin-Green) a lot. I talk to (Michael) Cudlitz a lot. I talk to Alanna (Masterson) a lot. Of course, on the show, Norman and Jeffrey and Christian (Serratos) and Lauren (Cohan). Even during the pandemic, I would just find myself calling Khary (Payton) to just see how he is doing. or I would call Seth (Gilliam).
When you’ve been in these intense situations with these people for so long, they just become part of your life. I’m grateful, forever grateful, for that and for the friendships that I have. I talked to Jeffrey DeMunn not long ago. It’s like that never goes away. When you work on a movie, that goes for six months or eight months, then it’s gone, and you move on. When you’re doing serialized television, you come back year after year, and you come back with the same people. You watch their children grow up, and you watch them get married or divorced or whatever happens, but you end up being a part of that whole scenario. It’s fun for me to look at Andy’s kids and Jeffrey (Dean Morgan)’s kids. Jeffrey’s son is really into special effects makeup, so I would send him little makeup kits and little zombie wounds and things. I send videos to Andy from set of the creatures from Creepshow so that he can show it to his kids, because they’re sort of now at that age where they’re kind of fascinated with the monster aspect of it.
You mentioned Carol and Daryl, and how Norman and Melissa are the other people still with the show who have been there from the beginning. Their characters, separately and together, are so beloved that they’re going to be their own spinoff. Since you’ve witnessed it all, is that relationship something that developed organically?
Nicotero: With Daryl, that was a creation of Frank Darabont, and I remember specifically when we were casting for the show, Frank had called me one day and said, “Hey, I’m thinking about this guy Norman Reedus to play Daryl, and I know that you had worked with him on Masters of Horror. What did you think of him?” I gave him a huge thumbs up, but I said, “Listen, let’s reach out to the director and get a review from John Carpenter.” John couldn’t say enough good things about Norman. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the van dressed up as a zombie for (“Tell It to the Frogs”), and Norman’s sitting in the chair next to me. I didn’t even realize that the deal had gone through. He didn’t recognize me because I was dressed up as a zombie. I had my zombie teeth in, and I was trying to talk to him. Ironically enough, I am the first zombie that Daryl kills in the series.
I think the way that season 2 was crafted and the way that Daryl’s character evolved into somebody who was not going to give up looking for Carol’s daughter, Sophia, that’s really where that bond began, because of Daryl’s undying commitment to find Sophia. Between Melissa’s brilliant performance as Carol and Norman, they just fell together so perfectly that you couldn’t have planned it. It just worked amazingly well and kept growing from there.
You are an executive producer, the special effects guru, and a go-to director on the series. What do you still want to do in The Walking Dead universe?
Nicotero: Oh, boy. I was thinking about this the other night, that it would be kind of interesting to have an episode where we actually follow a walker all the way from the beginning, like the opening scene would be a person is killed, and they’re on the ground dead, and then they come back as a walker, and we actually follow them through the world as they come into contact with different people. I just think it would be a unique perspective, to see an episode not necessarily shot from the point of view of the zombie, but kind of being with a walker as it’s killed and then reanimated and then going into a herd. We kind of had a little bit of that in the beginning of season 2 when we started showing the beginning of the herd that overruns Hershel’s farm, but I just think we could do something really fun and special with that.
The Walking Dead returns to AMC in 2021.