Before Greg Nicotero was an executive producer on AMC’s The Walking Dead, he was a co-founder of the legendary KNB special make-up effects studio. And before that gig saw him applying his talents to hundreds of movies and television shows, he worked under legendary make-up guru Tom Savini and iconic horror director George Romero on 1985’s Day of the Dead. Shortly after that, he would apply his talents to Creepshow 2 in 1987, which is appropriate enough – before he even entered the industry in a professional capacity, he visited the set of Romero’s 1982 horror masterpiece Creepshow, which was written by horror royalty Stephen King.

And now it all comes together. Later this month, AMC’s Shudder streaming service will debut a new take on Creepshow, a streaming TV series where each episode tells two gnarly horror tales from two different directors. Nicotero directed one episode, an adaptation of King’s short story “Gray Matter,” but he also ran the entire operation as an executive producer, a gig that ignited his passions. It was his chance to pay tribute to the late Romero and King (who gave the project his blessing and more), to bring in old friends and mentors like Tom Savini to direct episodes, and to offer a platform to beloved horror icons and newcomers alike.

While visiting the set of Creepshow earlier this year, we sat down with Nicotero for an extended chat about the new series, a passion project powered by practical effects, gallons of fake blood, and giddy love of the horror genre.

Note: This interview was conducted in a press conference format with other assembled journalists. Our transcription begins after the first question has been asked, with Nicotero commenting on his enthusiasm for the new series.

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Nicotero: Oh yeah, it’s fine you guys. Are you kidding? I mean, it’s Creepshow. Jeffrey Combs is here. And he gave me shit today because I texted him and said, ‘Hey, do you want to come do a cameo?’ and he read the script and was like, ‘It’s not really a cameo. It’s actually a character.’ I was just gauging to see if he was up for it, and the next thing you know, here he is running around…It’s like I said, it seems like yesterday was January 7, and now it’s the end of March. It’s all been a blur of monsters of mayhem and craziness. I literally texted every single actor I’ve ever worked with to find out what they were up to. ‘Come on, let’s come play! It’ll be fun!’ Listen, I think the best was, everybody wrote me back. Josh Brolin was like, ‘I’m going over to Prague.’ I literally hit everybody that I knew, because I was like, ‘Come on, this is our chance to do what we always want to do, which is work with our friends. And it’s quick: you come in, shoot a couple days, and you leave.’ So in that regard, it’s been fun. Everyone’s like, ‘The Walking Dead is the hardest show,’ but this was insanely hard, because it’s kind of my baby.

Adrienne Barbeau is here. I directed her, I was really excited, because when Creepshow got announced, she was like, ‘Can I be in it?’ I’m like, ‘What do you think?’ So we were shooting a shot. We did one take, we did a series [of takes], and I said, ‘Let’s try this, let’s try this.’ She came over and she went, ‘There was one in there that I loved,’ and I said, ‘Me too. The other ones, we’re just playing around. Once you have one in the can you love, you try a couple different things.’ And she’s like, ‘You’re good?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m great. It’s awesome. Trust me.’ And she went, ‘You sounded like George [Romero].’ Because she said when [she] did the first Creepshow, George kept saying, ‘Bigger, be bigger!’ Billy can be really big. She said George said, ‘Trust me,’ and she said, ‘You sounded just like him,’ and I got a little chill. I was like, oh man, all the tornado of the production and wanting it to be great and threading the needles of practical effects and actors and the amazing production design, and when she said that, for five minutes, I was like, ‘Oh shit. Wow.’ So it was pretty great. And she was like, ‘Next time, can we have more than a day?’ (laughs)

Can you talk about how this was conceived and evolved and maybe how you chose the stories?

It’s a very interesting story the way Creepshow came about. I was doing some press in Australia for The Walking Dead, and I’m sitting with Michael Rooker and we’re getting ready to fly back, and I’m like, ‘I want to fucking read something on the plane.’ So I get on iBooks and I’m looking around, and there’s a book called Nights of the Living Dead. I’m like, ‘What is that? I’ve never heard of that before.’ It’s a series of short stories, all that take place the same night as Night of the Living Dead did. I’m like, ‘That’s great!’ So I bought it, and I’m sitting on the plane reading it, and I read this one story written by a guy named Craig Engler, and I loved the story. I’m like, ‘Fuck, man, I want to shoot that, just as a short, just for fun.’ I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but I just really like the story. Not that I have enough zombie shit in my world, but I liked it, and I went, ‘Fuck, it must be good if it’s a zombie story that I want to shoot.’ So we reached out, and it turns out he is an executive at Shudder. I’m like, ‘Fuck, we literally work for the same company.’

They were like, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about rebooting Creepshow.’ And I went, ‘My Creepshow, Creepshow? Really?’ And they said, ‘Would you be interested in being the creative executive?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, yeah!’ I mean, I was there, I was on the set when they did the original Creepshow. I visited. So I was like, yeah. I mean, George gave me my first job. So it was like my Creepshow, Creepshow. So my goal was, I wanted to honor the spirit of writers in terms of, I wanted some old school writers and some new writers and people that inspire me. I love short stories, and short horror is the greatest because there’s no rules. You can really do whatever the fuck you want in a short time frame. So I went out to Dave Skal, we got Josh Malerman, and Rob Schrab. I actually wrote Stephen King and said, ‘It can’t be Creepshow without a Stephen King story. What do you think?’ And he’s like, ‘I got just the story!’ Like, within twenty minutes. I was kind of blown away with how great my friends were, and everybody that responded when I would reach out and go, ‘What do you think?’ Within minutes, they would get back to me. Stephen had two different stories that he had proposed. Once we got into production and started to see how we were landing, I kind of felt that there was one that was actually perfectly suited, which was “Gray Matter,” which is the story that I directed.

It was just cool that he said, ‘Yeah, man. Sure.’ And then I thought, listen, if we’ve got Stephen King, we need Joe Hill. I’m a huge fan of Joe’s. I loved Horns and NOS4A2, I fucking love all his stuff. Fireman, I loved. Joe sent a couple stories over, and there was one where he was like, ‘This one’s kinda dark.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, if Joe Hill says it’s dark…’ So I read it and was like, ‘Fuck me, that’s really, really dark.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know if we can [do that], it’s so fucked up.’ So he sent a couple stories, and that was the fun part, reading all this stuff. Josh Malerman sending a bunch of stories and being like, ‘Fuck, this is great.’ This is before Bird Box and all that other stuff, so Josh was just – he sent one called “The House of the Head” and one called “Leaving Too Soon,” and it was literally like sitting in the greatest candy shop in the world with all these stories. I was pretty greedy at first, because I was like, ‘We should do three stories per episode, and each story should be like seventeen minutes and we should do three.’ We got into production, and I was like, ‘What the fuck was I thinking, three? We should do two!’ Now we’re doing two, and it’s literally three and a half days per episode to shoot, so I’m like, ‘Who the fuck said two?’ But many of my friends, I think it was Jeffrey Dean Morgan or Norman [Reedus] who was like, ‘Listen, if you don’t wake up in the middle of the night with an anxiety attack, you’re not reaching high enough.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, then I’m reaching really fucking high.’ Because I wake up every night like, we need to get a shot of this, or we need to do that.

So the stories were really fun for me. I was still filming Walking Dead when we were picking the stories, and I had conferences with all the writers and I set them off into their world. I wrote one draft of another Stephen King story, so I got to write, which was fun. I’ve been doing a lot of writing on the scripts, and it’s a whole different world for me too, which is great because it’s so much fun. Then Walking Dead ended, and I had a week to fly home and catch my breath and we were in preproduction on this. It was like, ‘OK, which ones are we going to do first? You’ve gotta start meeting with directors.’ So again, I called Joe Dante, and I called Sam Raimi – I was like, ‘What do you guys think?’ The challenge is that it’s three and a half days. Then I was like, I’m going to call my friends and say, ‘Hey, come and shoot and you can’t stop filming for twelve hours. You can’t eat. You can’t go to the bathroom. You’ve just got to keep filming and go crazy.’ And everybody was like, ‘That sounds great!’ So I got Roxanne Benjamin and David Bruckner and Rob Schrab and John Harrison. John, I met in 1984, he was the first AD on Day of the Dead when I worked on that. I had met him briefly on Creepshow, but we weren’t, like, friends. But when John directed Tales from the Dark Side: The Movie and Dune and all these other things, we’ve all worked together. When Creepshow came up, I was like, ‘Listen, I want to embrace the spirit of the original movie.’ I always felt that Creepshow was way ahead of its time in terms of what George was doing and the visuals. So it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re reimagining it?’ and it’s like, ‘No, it was a fucking great idea.’ I’ve been designing all the comic book panels and we’ve been doing the dissolves and the panning through the pages. It’s going to feel much more like a continuation than – I’m not rebooting anything, or like, ‘Oh, we’re going to upgrade it and retell it.’ It’s really like, you’re picking up another issue of Creepshow and these are the stories.

Then with Tom and with John, these guys are guys I’ve been in the trenches with all my life, so I feel like this is my chance to get to do this with them. When the Joe Hill story came up, I was like, ‘Tom, I’ve got a great story for you. It’s poignant and it’s touching.’ He read the first outline and just fell in love with it. Now we’ve got our little sea monster and all the crazy stuff, but we’re so embracing the spirit of it. It’s 98% practical effects. All the creature work, the makeups, the werewolves, the puppets. The funny thing is, we’re shooting so fast that when one of them is done, the guys just throw it on the floor in the room and grab the next one and run to set, so when you walk by our lockup, everything’s just fucking thrown everywhere. There’s no time to even pick anything up. The skin crawler, the big bloody monster that’s on the ground? We finished shooting, it was soaked in blood, and we just dropped it and it’s still sitting there. You don’t even have five minutes to wipe the blood off, because we’re moving that fast. That’s where my makeup effects world comes into play, because I can [say], ‘All right, put the camera here and do this, blah blah blah’ and it’s been fun because a lot of people on the crew are like, ‘You’ve never done something with puppets and puppeteers and rods and there’s a boom that holds the creature.’ There are practical effects. They’re usually like, ‘Oh, shoot a grey ball and walk away.’ So it’s a whole different world. I’m rambling a little bit.

How involved has Stephen King been since that call?

We sent him a bunch of stuff, and he’s been super supportive and he’s been pretty great about everything. He’s like, ‘Yeah man, whatever you need. Awesome.’ He knew I was directing and said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great,’ and we talked about cast and all that kind of stuff. To backtrack that question, years ago, when I lived in Pittsburgh, it was after Creepshow and Day of the Dead, and Romero was moving his offices, and Michael Gornick, who was his office manager and cinematographer, called and said, ‘Hey Greg, we’re moving offices and we need a bunch of kids to come clean up the basement.’ I was like sixteen, and I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll come help.’ So I was moving all these boxes, and paperwork and all this shit, and half of it, Michael would say, ‘Throw it away, throw it away.’ And there was a letter from Stephen King to George Romero typed on the old onion paper, typewriter, with fucking White-Out and all that shit. It was a three-page letter about Creepshow, and it was some of Steve’s ideas about the script. And the last page, on the side, handwritten, was, ‘Hey, what do you think about Joe playing the kid in the opening of the movie? It would be cool, I don’t know if he can act, but wouldn’t it be great?’ It’s handwritten. So I keep everything, so of course I still have the letter, so I sent it to Steve last year, and the next day, Joe Hill had a meeting at AMC, and Ben Davis called me and said, ‘All he talked about was this fucking letter that you have! How weird is it that you have this letter.’ So I was trying to get Joe down, like, ‘Dude, you’ve gotta come do a cameo and fucking come.’ But it was just crazy. I’ve known Stephen since I was a kid, but I loved that I still had that letter and he was like, ‘That’s fucking crazy that you still have that.’

Did he ask for it back?

No, he didn’t, thank God. Because you never know. I took my script home, I have an original Creepshow script that I took home last night. And tucked inside is my original invitation to the cast and crew screening that I was sent, and it’s got my parents’ address when I was a kid. So I think the day started shooting, I posted it, and Tina Romero, George’s daughter, was like, ‘That’s the greatest post I’ve ever seen.’ So Tina was here, she came and visited, and she was like, ‘My dad would have just loved every second of this.’ Because of me and Harrison working and Savini, and I just got chills.

Since Harrison’s involved, is he doing the score?

We’re still talking about that, because in my happy place, we would sort of reimagine – he still has all the original tracks, and I was like, ‘Fuck, we should just do a new title sequence and just remix it to match that,’ so in my happy place, that’s what we’re doing. I don’t know where we landed with that idea yet. Chris Drake is our composer, and he’s been a friend of mine for a long time, and he’s doing a really good job. I listened to the temp score for one of the episodes, and I’m like, ‘Is that from The Shining?’ It sounded exactly like that real high, creepy music. I’m like, ‘That’s fucking great, we just sampled The Shining,’ and he’s like, ‘No, that’s –‘ I didn’t know they had already put in some of his temp music, and I’m like, ‘That’s fucking great!’ I’ve gotta call him and tell him to send me the whole suite, because I want to hear all of it. Once we finish shooting, then it’s editing, sound, and VFX, which will probably consist of removing a boom out of the shot, because that’s all the money we have.

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