Special Makeup Effects Maestro Greg Nicotero On Tom Savini, Shudder's 'Creepshow,' And His Legacy As An Artist

Greg Nicotero is a prominent genre mainstay responsible for reinvigorating mainstream horror as an executive producer, special make-up effects supervisor, and primary director for AMC's The Walking Dead. However, his prolific work extends decades before the show's rise to meteoric fame. He got his start working under Tom Savini on Day of the Dead, where a lifelong friendship was born. It's that friendship that made Nicotero a perfect fit for his executive producer role on Shudder's new documentary Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini, available to stream now.For its release, we chatted with Nicotero on the documentary, lessons learned for Shudder's second season of Creepshow, and his legacy as a well-regarded special make-up effects artist.As executive producer, could you talk more about how this documentary came about?Well, you know Tom Savini really was one of the people that put special effects make-up on the map. I mean it started with Dick Smith and John Chambers in the fifties and sixties and ultimately, when you got into the mid-seventies, it was a lot of these people that had just fallen in love with monster movies and fallen in love with Jack Pierce and the work that he had done for Universal. Tom is one of the most outspoken and one of the most for front components of special effects make-up and practical effects. I always felt that that was coupled between two things.Number one is Tom's just unabashed love for movies and his fascination with magic. If you really look at a lot of Tom's effects, they look like magic tricks. It's misdirection, convincing the audience that you shouldn't be looking in one place, and then you've given them something else that they're not expecting. A lot of the things that Tom has done in a lot of the effects that he made famous in the 70s, Dawn of the Dead and Martin, and a lot of that stuff was designed based on misdirection and illusion. He inspired thousands and thousands of young filmgoers, me included, to follow their dream and follow their hobby and somehow make it out to Hollywood.One of the things that he said in the documentary was that nobody shared secrets about special effects and make-up effects except for Dick Smith. Did you feel like that was the case as you were entering the industry? Or was Tom Savini one of the pivotal people that kind of opened up doors for other artists?Well, I mean I think with Dick Smith, Dick was the guy who kind of started the whole thing because there wasn't the internet, there wasn't a lot of information out there about how things were done. So, people would pick up the phone book or call 411 and get Dick Smith's phone number, and he would share information. When I worked for Tom on Day of the Dead, a lot of Dick's formulas for gelatin and fake blood were sort of part of our everyday use. There are a lot of other make-up effects schools that are out there. But I think Tom's is different because he's very involved with the school. And I think that the students coming in get an opportunity to learn as he learned. And I think that's what makes it.How involved were you with the shaping of the narrative for the documentary? It's a pretty fascinating and unique angle in that it's focusing on his life rather than effects.Yeah, I think so too. There was a show called Scream Greats that was made in like 1985, 1986, which sort of showcased Tom's work. I think in this day and age, there's so much information readily available on the internet about how specific effects were done, or the making of this particular movie or that particular movie. For me, in Smoke and Mirrors, it is getting the chance to know who he is and what of his interests shaped him and pushed him in the direction that he went. It's obviously very personal to me because I followed a very similar trajectory, both having grown up in Pittsburgh and both having sort of gotten our starts with George Romero, I felt like Tom, and I took similar paths. Tom went to Carnegie Mellon to study acting and stunt choreography and all this kind of stuff. And I was pretty mad and was intending to go off to medical school.I think both of us kind of started our careers in a different direction. And then we're fortunate enough because of George to realize that something that you had initially considered a hobby or an interest or something that you could fall right into an actual career. I always really felt connected with Tom that way. And even when we first met, I had gone to the set of Creepshow to visit George. That's when I met Tom for any length of time. I would visit on Saturday while they were prepping Creepshow and would hang out his make-up effects studio and watch what he was doing. I became fascinated with the craft, and I had been reading about stuff and famous monsters and stuff and Fangoria and all these different magazines.To be able to sit there and see someone do it, someone who had, at that point, had already worked on Friday the 13th and had previously worked on Dawn of the Dead. Tom was one of the guys that made make-up effect stars, make-up effect artists the rockstar.Tom said he didn't want gore to be his legacy, that he didn't want to be "the gore guy." Did that make you reflect on what you think your legacy is, or what you would like it to be?I have a different legacy than Tom, because of the volume of work that we've done out of the gate. Then when I started my company in 1988, I think by 1990 we had finished working on Dances with Wolves, and what set my company aside from other companies was that we weren't pigeonholed into just gore. We had been working on fake animals and animatronics and make-up and puppets and things like that, not just gore. I think a lot of that has to do with the climate of the industry. The more exposure make-up effect artists had, the more the films required their use. It's kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, An American Werewolf in London, those movies were super successful. So other producers wanted to make movies like that.When you make movies like that, you need more artists to create those effects. Between 1977 and 1985 had probably the most hurdles in terms of the world of special effects make-up because it wasn't just a movie like Taxi Driver or The Godfather or The Exorcist, in which those instances, the make-up effects were sort of invisible for a lot of it. Nobody wanted to pull back the curtain and say, "Hey, here's how we turn Linda Blair into a possessed girl," because then, the mystery and the mystique of what we did was very important to the filmmakers.So, when you started getting into the mid-seventies where there was a lot more access to interviews or segments on like Evening Magazine or Featurette that would showcase these artists. And I know that Dawn of the Dead sort of put a lot of what we do on the map because it was the independent film that was wildly successful and had a lot of outrageous make-up effects in it. And then it went from there to Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and Stan Winston. And all of a sudden, their work was being featured on news magazine shows and that's really where it sort of changed and how it became something very different. And that's how make-up effects artists got this weird allure of being sort of rockstar kind of dudes.I wanted to touch base on Shudder's Creepshow, now that the first season has aired in its entirety. How do you feel about it in hindsight?Well, the most gratifying aspect of it was the viewers could tell that it was a labor of love. They responded to it in the way that I had wanted them to, which was, I wanted them to know that I love the genre. To be able to pay tribute to George Romero, Steven King, and the people that inspired me was very, very important, and it was a massive undertaking. Once it was in the rearview mirror and I could take a breath, I was proud of what we had accomplished and super excited for everything that people had done. I was terrified the week that it aired because I didn't know how people were going to react.Unfortunately, in this day and age, the people with the loudest voice is usually the one that's heard. And I didn't know what people were going to think or how they were going to respond, and I just was hoping that they would understand what my dedication to the material was, and they did. So that was like a huge sigh of relief for me. I remember stories about how Spielberg and Lucas would go on vacation the weekend their movie would open because they didn't want the heartbreak of knowing that something that they were so passionate about would potentially not be well received. I was nervous about it, which is good because that makes you feel alive when it came out, and people loved it that I was overjoyed.It's way too early for any season two news, but I was curious as to what kind of lessons you might have come away within the inaugural season that you'd like to implement for season two?Well, it was a massive learning experience for me in terms of how we prepared the show and the story that we chose. I think I'll be a little bit smarter this season about making sure that the stories are tailored to what we can do in a very short shooting time, which is three and a half days. That was probably the most agonizing part of it, just feeling that you can never stop and breath for a second because you had so much work to do. So, I'm super excited.We just kind of started writing scripts for season two and reaching out to writers and talking about the people that we want to work with. This is the fun part. This is when you're talking about the stories, and you're not worrying about, "Well, that's too many actors, or we can't build that number of sets." No, this is the exciting part. I'm enjoying it.I'm going to try to have fun this season. Last season, it wasn't really a lot of fun because I felt all the pressure went to the wrap. The entire crew was like, "This is so much fun, and I love that we get it all practically. We did this." People really, really responded to what we had done, and it's kind of funny because I had no idea. It felt like I was just trying to stay above water the whole time, but everybody else was, "Oh my God, that was so great."So look, I'm super proud of it. And the fact that we got a second season and again, just goes to everything that's very exciting about being able to tell stories and be able to work with writers and directors and special effects artists and actors and have fun. I mean, I think the nicest compliment I got about Creepshow was somebody at the LA Times, I think it said that they loved that it was accessible horror. You could watch it with your kids, and you could watch it here and there. And it wasn't like we were dumbing it down. It was like we were trying to tell stories that add a bit more of a universal appeal and, every story was very different. It's like it's going to a buffet and being like, 'Oh, I love that one. Oh, that one was really good too."As a personal aside, I'm pretty excited that Shudder announced plans for a Bob plush and figure from "The Finger."I hope so. I'm staring at Bob right now; I have his stop motion puppet right next to me. Which again was I think one of the criticisms- I didn't read a lot of reviews because I didn't want to have my heartbroken but there was one note that I saw from someone, "Man the CG was terrible," and it made me laugh because there was no CG, it was all rod puppets. And then the wide shots of him running around the room, we did stop motion.