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Contender Q&A: Gregory Nicotero

Gregory Nicotero

Since 1988, Gregory Nicotero has been making the world a more visually arresting place. His company KNB Efx, formed with partners Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, has provided special makeup effects and animatronics for countless, diverse films and television projects, including grind-house favorites like Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead II" and big-budget horror like Wes Craven's "Scream" and Eli Roth's "Hostel," as well as more mainstream fare like "Milk," "Seven Pounds" and even the "Spy Kids" franchise.

Nicotero has cultivated long and fruitful relationships with a number of directors, including Raimi, Robert Rodriguez, Frank Darabont, George Romero and Quentin Tarantino, with whom he first worked on "Pulp Fiction" in 1994. Their latest collaboration is the director's meta-World War II epic "Inglourious Basterds," which allowed Nicotero and his team to show their true diversity with elaborate prosthetic effects to emulate historical figures like Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler as well as gruesomely lifelike scalpings and other acts of mayhem committed by Brad Pitt's "Basterds" on the Nazi regime.

Nicotero spoke to The Circuit from the Austin, Texas, set of his latest project, "Predators" -- one of four films he's working on for 2010 -- and gave us the inside scoop on his working relationship with Tarantino, the pros and cons of making an acting cameo, and the sleight of hand required to execute his dazzling special effects.

(Please note: There are possible spoilers throughout this interview, as well as some discussion of graphic violence.)

So the first question that immediately comes to mind is: How do you research the proper way to scalp a person?

(Laughs.) Truthfully, we didn't. We did find some strange research photos, but my dad is a retired physician, so he's always been a huge help in regard to calling him and saying, "Hey, dad, what do we need to do if we're going to scalp someone?" Or, when we did "Casino," "what happens when you put someone's head in a vise and crush it? What happens to the eyeballs?" I've always really relied on my dad's medical expertise to guide us through some of this stuff.

We wanted to build up the idea of the layers [to the human head]. There's the skull bone, and a little bit of muscle and fatty tissue, and then the skin. [In creating the effect] it wasn't just pulling the scalp back and revealing the skull; we wanted to play up that there's a blood layer and a tissue layer. So when we did not only the hero scalpings, but a lot of the background guys, we were building up those layers as prosthetic pieces. We'd start by putting a piece of nylon on their heads, and then getting latex and silicon pieces and building those up on their heads. We'd then blend them with bits of real hair that we'd inlay. 

It took about 45 to 50 minutes per person. And when we were shooting the main reveal of all the dead Nazis, we did about 10 dead soldiers in the background. We also had a couple of hero scalpings -- the one you see in close-up in the film is me scalping my key makeup artist, Jake Garber. When we started the movie, I said to Quentin, "If you're going to do an extreme close-up, we really need a life cast of an actor, so how do you feel about Jake being the Nazi who gets scalped?" And he said, "Yeah, great!" So Jake got a little cameo in the movie.

Read more after the break.

What sort of conversations did you have with Quentin in regard to the effects? 

It wasn't really as gory a movie as people were anticipating it to be. A lot of the work, about 75% of it, was character prosthetics. We did likeness makeups for Hitler on an actor named Martin Wuttke; we did a likeness for Goebbels on an actor named Sylvester Groth, and Winston Churchill on Rod Taylor. It wasn't just a period movie or a movie about a bunch of guys scalping people. We got a great opportunity to research historical figures. I was actually in Babelsberg Studios in Berlin where they shot a lot of the Nazi propaganda films, five doors down from Goebbels' office, and finding photos of him for research. Quentin and I talked about how [Goebbels'] ears stuck out, and how he didn't have a large chin, so we wanted to de-emphasize that. It was really a fascinating experience to deconstruct a lot of these people that are so ingrained in our minds and translating them into character prosthetics.

Which effects provided the most challenge for you, the prosthetics or the bloodier material?

When you watch the movie, you don't even think about the fact that you're looking at a person wearing a prosthetic. It slides in there seamlessly. When you see a knife slicing across someone's throat and blood gurgles out, [the effect] is a little more visible -- you have a knee-jerk reaction. One of the key gags in the film is at the end, when Aldo [Brad Pitt] carves the swastika into Landa's [Christoph Waltz] forehead. Quentin and I talked about that quite a bit. The way that he and I have worked together over the last 16 or 17 years is that he would write something in the script as a sort of placeholder. In other films that he'd done, he would say, "I've put something in there, and when we get closer, I'll really start thinking about what it is that I want to see." 

So in regard to the scalpings, I took my lead from Quentin's script, and we went off and made a bunch of casts that we showed to him. And he'd say, "Wow! That's exactly how I wanted those to look!" So with Landa, that was really challenging. We blocked it out, but it was one of those situations where we weren't 100% sure what angle we'd be shooting it from. So in the [makeup] trailer, Jake and I were doing tests on silicon and gelatin prosthetics throughout the course of the movie. 

It's a really challenging effect, because the forehead has to be completely clean, the knife has to come in and slice, and the blood has to well up underneath the piece and come out -- all at the same time. You can't put a blood tube in there, because you'll see it, and you can't put a blood tube on the knife. So what we did was manufacture a prosthetic piece with a reservoir underneath where we'd pump the blood, and when the knife actually sliced, there was already blood underneath that would well up. We did a whole bunch of tests and variations until we arrived at that point.

And eventually, Quentin said that he wanted a super-extreme close-up where you'd see the tip of the knife slice the flesh and then it would bleed. We said, "Do we even see the actor's face in that?" "No, it's going to be super-tight." So we did a bunch of test pieces like that, and of course, when he's looking at them about four weeks later, he said, "I want it wide so we can see the actor's face and feel him screaming." So it evolved throughout the shoot. Subsequently, that was the last shot of the movie that we did.

It sounds like you have a shorthand when it comes to working with Quentin.

Without a doubt. It's interesting, because I have a similar relationship with a lot of directors I've worked with, like Robert Rodriguez and Frank Darabont and even Sam Raimi. We all grew up watching the same kind of movies and being inspired by the same kind of gags and sharing an aesthetic. If you put all those directors in the same room, they'd immediately start talking about George Romero's zombie movies and Ray Harryhausen, all of these different films that we grew up watching. So there is a kind of shorthand that when you refer to something. I know that Quentin has a relationship with me where if he mentions [a film] that a lot of other crew people might find tremendously obscure, he knows that I'll have seen it. There was a two-day sequence in Berlin, and we were talking to Brad Pitt about a Lucio Fulci movie called "Zombie," which has a scene in which a guy in zombie makeup fights a shark underwater and gets his arm bitten off, and Quentin and Eli [Roth] and I were laughing about it. And Brad was like, "You guys have got to be kidding. There's a guy who actually fights a shark in the movie?" So as we put on Brad's scar every day, he'd say, "Wait, tell me again about this scene...." 

So there's a shorthand that develops between those of us that had a shared upbringing of watching John Carpenter movies and the like and loving that sort of stuff. We all come from the same mold.

Is it possible that you turned Brad Pitt into a Fulci fan?

I think so! I brought the movie over to Berlin and told Quentin, and he said, "No, we can't watch it on DVD! We need to have a print of it shipped over so we can project it. Don't show him that scene -- he should see the whole movie."

You're featured in a cameo in the film, which you've done several times over the course of your career. Is it something that you enjoy?

Yeah, it is. I think I got that from Tom Savini, who was the guy who gave me my start in the business. Tom was an actor and a stuntman and a performer before he became a special effects makeup guy. So every once in a while, I'll do it. In "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin was like, "Hey, do you want to get killed in the movie?" I said yeah, so we made a replica of my head and flew it to Germany. It was a fun little montage of Stiglitz [Til Schweiger] killing a bunch of Gestapo majors, and I happened to be one of them -- he shoved his fist down my throat. So we shot the dummy for that, and all of the lead-up stuff was with me and Til Schweiger. It was crazy. One day on set, Til said, "I grew up in Germany, and I've always had this fantasy of killing Nazis...," and I'm thinking, "Uh-oh. This is not the place I want to be right now."

And of course, on the first day that Jake Garber and I got to Berlin, they sat us down in the [makeup] chair and shaved our heads and gave us '40s period haircuts, which I hadn't thought about agreeing to before being in the movie. But it was fun, and interesting, because the ways that Quentin deals with actors and how he deals with crew people are different, and I hadn't prepared myself for it. All of a sudden, we're talking about how we're going to prepare for the scene, and usually, I come to everything from a technical aspect. So it was very unique for me to come at it from a different perspective, and to approach it with a director like Quentin Tarantino, who loves working with actors. It was fun. I can see why people want to be actors.

How did it differ as an actor?

It was a different scenario. When we did the scalping for the movie, he said, "I love the angle of the test that you did. We should shoot it just like that." Obviously, he relied on the way I set it up and burned it into his brain, so it was how he imagined it. But being there from an actor's standpoint, it's not about just setting up the camera and putting the dummy head here. It comes from a different place. 

2009 has been one of the busiest years for you in a very busy decade. This year alone, you worked on everything from "Jennifer's Body" and "Survival of the Dead" to "Public Enemies," and 2010 looks like it'll be more of the same. How do you keep that pace and keep the ideas fresh?

It's challenging. The film that I'm on right now, "Predators" -- I've worked with Robert Rodriguez [the film's co-writer and executive producer] since "Four Rooms" and "From Dusk Till Dawn," so we've had a tremendous working relationship for 14 years. I had 62 people on that crew and 13 weeks to realize all these different creature concepts on top of the last 12 months, where I went from Berlin with "Inglourious Basterds" to Albuquerque for "The Book of Eli" with Denzel Washington and David Valdez, who was the producer on "The Green Mile" and "The Time Machine," which we worked on. We wrapped that and went on set for "Piranha 3-D" for Alexandre Aja, with whom I did "The Hills Have Eyes" and "Mirrors." And then it was back to L.A. for "Sorcerer's Apprentice," and then on to "Predators." And Howard Berger spent the last six months in Australia working on "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader."

So to answer your question, I don't know how I keep all of it on track, but I've been doing it for 25 years. And I have a great crew, with a lot of people that I've worked with for decades and help me realize all the stuff that we want to do. I've always said that the first two or three weeks on a movie are the most exciting. The slate is clean, and you sit with the director and start riffing ideas and get a feel for the creative process. The director on "Predators," Nimrod Antal, was such a fan of the original "Predator," and had this great enthusiasm for the project, and that gets you charged up. When you meet with a director and they're excited, it's like the Frankenstein monster. That energy blasts you and then you start to see things coming together. You get your sculptors and your mold makers and your painters going, and the stuff comes to life. You know, that Frankenstein analogy is a good one.... (Laughs.)

But you know, our company started in 1988, and it still makes me proud that we've been in it for so long. There aren't many other makeup effects companies that have been around as long as us. There's Rick Baker, but most of the others are newer.

So if "Basterds" garners some nominations this awards season, what would that mean for you?

That's a tough question, because I always look at our work as a team effort. There were 40 people that worked on "Basterds" at KNB, as well as Heba [Thorisdottir, the makeup department head] and her crew, so it's a meeting of the minds, and everyone brings their ideas to the table. Howard won an Oscar for "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" in 2005, so it's not completely foreign to us, but it's hard to say, because you don't expect acknowledgment. You get hired, you go to set, you do your job and you want it to look great, and you get stomach pains and ulcers as you look through the monitors. (Laughs.) And you put actors in makeup at 6 a.m. and they shoot him at midnight, and he's sweating and miserable and sticky and tired and wants to go home. So I do it because I love creating the illusion. The other stuff is a bonus, or icing on the cake. I don't really think about that stuff.

People ask, "How do you feel about the recognition that your company has gotten over the years?" And I always say that it's a tribute to our tenacity and the fact that we've been able to weather the storm of digital effects and all these other companies, and we're still here. That's what makes me most proud. When we started the company in 1988, we did "Dances With Wolves" the following year, and it got nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and it was the biggest movie in the world. And it was interesting, because it really pushed me to make sure that our company didn't peak with that movie. My partners and I are determined to remain versatile: We do old age makeup, we do slit throats, we do animatronics and puppets. We've provided a wide variety of services, and I think that's one reason we're still doing it. The other is that we get great repeat business. There probably isn't one film that we've done where we didn't get called by the director to do another movie, and most of them are like with Rodriguez, with whom we've done 12 films, and four for Frank Darabont, and a dozen for Michael Bay. So to me, that's a tremendous compliment, and to the people that work with me.

So many people are looking forward to seeing your effects in films in 2010. What effects films are you looking forward to seeing next year?

Oh, wow.... I don't know much of what's coming out. I'm interested to see "Avatar," because I love James Cameron as a filmmaker. In regard to the whole motion-capture thing, I don't know how I feel, because if I had a choice between that and "Aliens," with the traditional miniatures and quarter-scale puppets and guys in suits and rear projection -- I'm a purist. I love that stuff. And I'm excited to see "Wolf Man." I love Benicio Del Toro, who I worked with on "Sin City," and I met Rick Baker when I moved to Los Angeles in 1984. He and Dick Smith and Tom Savini, those guys were the pioneers in special effects, along with Rob Bottin.

We did the effects on "Piranha," and I'm a big "Jaws" fan, so I got a chance to work on a remake of a ripoff of my favorite movie. And Richard Dreyfuss has a cameo in it, and I got to spend two days with him, and I couldn't have been more excited. And I think it's going to be a really fun movie -- it knows its audience. It's "Girls Gone Wild" in Lake Havasu with killer fish and lots of gory bits. 

-- Paul Gaita 

Photo: Gregory Nicotero. Credit: Getty Images.

More Contender Q&As:

Emily Blunt: A Queen, uncorseted

Tobey Maguire is transformed in "Brothers"

Contender Q&A: Sharlto Copley

Contender Q&A: Melanie Laurent

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