Between stellar effects work, directing, and now showrunning, Greg Nicotero is a horror movie and TV series legend. Since getting his start on George A Romero zombie movie Day of the Dead, he's been a dedicated filmmaker within the genre for decades.
Currently, he can be found taking the director's chair for episodes of The Walking Dead, where he also serves as special makeup effects designer, and shepherding the ongoing revival of anthology Creepshow. Before that, he'd been all over, contributing to the DCEU, blockbusters, studio movies, and TV shows of all shapes and sizes. His company, KNB EFX Group, has been honoured with wins at both the Emmys and the Academy Awards.
We got to chat to him about the new, third season of Creepshow, on streaming service Shudder. Carrying on from season two, these six episodes contain more terrifying monsters and chilling shorts, all curated by the ominous Creep. During the conversation, we talk about filming two seasons back-to-back, why horror makes for good political storytelling, Romero's ongoing influence, and whether we might see another Creepshow movie someday.
The Digital Fix: Congratulations on Creepshow season 3. Do you have an added confidence now that you’re a couple of seasons into the show?
Greg Nicotero: I do. I feel like season one, for me, was really holding on like a bucking bronco, you know. But I really started finding my voice for the show and realising that a lot of the episodes that really sang to me had a little bit of a sense of humor to them, as well. And so, when we get into season three, there’s really a lot of unique tones going on.
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So yeah, I’m really proud of the show, I’m dying for people to see it because we shot seasons two and three, back to back. So I feel like it was sort of one shared collective experience making both of them. So the fact that we split them, and people only saw half and now they’re seeing the other half, it feels like we’re in the middle of something, and then ‘Wait, stop for a minute and wait five months, and then start up again!’ So it’s a weird sensation.
I really loved the opening episode – how important is the first episode for setting the tone for the season?
Well, the first episode is interesting, because Joe Hill’s story Mums is pretty dark, and it’s pretty intense. There’s a lot going on in that story, and I wanted to lead the show off with his story, Joe’s an old friend and a fantastic writer. So I wanted to pair the tone of that with ‘Queen Bee’, which is a little more lighthearted and a little more of a throwback. ‘Queen Bee’ has a lot more John Carpenter in it than I think we’ve done in a long time. I had a really good time writing ‘Mums’ and directing ‘Queen Bee’, I think those get us out of the gate pretty strongly.
It’s funny, when this iteration of Creephsow started, I wanted more of the Creep, but now I’ve grown to really appreciate that comic book aesthetic that you have for those sections. How important was it to develop your own visual flair for how you do your version of the Creep?
In season one, we wanted to connect the original [1982 movie] Creepshow with the new show. So we really went much more with the puppet and the animatronics, and just that playful nature of it. The animation style kind of evolved, it’s a little looser, and it feels a little more hip and a little more current, which I think helps bridge the EC comics audience with younger viewers.
You were talking about the first story, from Joe Hill. How do you select what stories to move forward with? Has the process changed from season one?
You know, it has because for me, if I read a story or a script, and it’s something that I want to direct, then that’s got to be in the show. And every single episode, it was tricky for me because the way that I have always read scripts, from my makeup and effects background, is I instantly visualise things, I see the shots, I see the creature, I see where the camera is going to be, I’m a very visual person that way.
I read a lot of books when I was younger, mostly, Stephen King and things like that. So, for me, you know, I feel like the pitches that we got for season two, like when I read Rob Schrab’s ‘Public Television of the Dead’, I felt like it was written for me, ‘Model Kit’, John Esposito wrote that one, again, it was written literally for me. So for season three, ‘Queen Bee’, I had a really, really good time with that story. Originally, Rosemary Rodriguez was going to direct it but due to Covid-19, she couldn’t do it.
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So I ended up stepping in to direct that episode and ‘Drug Traffic’, which I think might be our last episode that airs. If the scripts appeal to me in some manner, whether it’s something personal to me like the ‘Sam Raimi Retrospect’ or the ‘Aurora Model Kit’, or especially like with ‘My Living Late Show’, when Justin Long goes into the movies, that is something that is perfect to my sensibility. So a lot of the episodes are really my sensibility of what kind of journey I want to go on when I’m watching a show like this.
In that first episode, ‘Mums’ has an antagonist that’s this abusive guy, and it’s very heavily suggested that he has some pretty despicable politics. Is that social commentary something that draws you to stories?
It does. I never considered myself a very politically minded person, but I went out of my way, in season one, when we had the Lydia Lane story, which I thought was really important, and interestingly relevant in terms of times where women are holding other women back from advancing in the world. I thought that was an interesting story to tell, and I do like telling those stories, because I do feel that they have some relevance. There’s an episode that we did called ‘Meter Reader’, which comes out later, which is very pandemic central. But it’s like, if you take the pandemic, and you add a little flair of The Exorcist in it.
Then there’s another episode called ‘Drug Traffic’, which talks about healthcare and people having to go across the border to get medication because the government isn’t providing adequate healthcare for people, and what the ramifications are of that. So we do have very, very clear and specific themes that we like to touch on.
And no better than in the horror genre, I mean, a lot of times it can feel preachy, and it can feel like someone is force feeding an agenda to you, but I always felt like in the horror genre, you can probably get away with it. Moreso because people are a little more inclined to project themselves into the universe that you’re creating, and a little more accepting of whatever story or socially relevant issue you want to touch on, because they’re doing it in a way that you’re kind of having fun with, as opposed to feeling like you’re being brainwashed or something.
You got your start working with George A Romero on Day of the Dead, and obviously he made the original Creepshow movie as well. Do you ever find yourself, as a showrunner or director or what have you, thinking of his influence?
I do. There were a couple instances where I was standing on set, and I turned to John Harrison, who worked with George quite a bit, he wrote the original Creepshow score, and John’s a director and writer, and I would say, ‘God, George would love this’. There were a lot of instances that way where I felt that he would enjoy it. You know, George had a great great sense of humor.
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A lot of people that watch his movies don’t really realise what a funny guy he was. If you look at pictures of him smiling, it literally lights up his whole face and I think you just assume that a guy that wrote and directed Night of the Living Dead, or Dawn of the Dead doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, because it’s so grotesque, but he was really a funny guy.
There were a lot of instances where I kind of stopped myself and went, ‘Wow, he would love this’. Yeah, I felt it. I felt that a lot actually. And I always took that as a cue that maybe I’m doing something right; I got the right team, I got the right people around me. And the crew and the producers and the cast, they really supported everything that I did.
I don’t think I ever felt more supported in a project that I’d ever done than I was on Creepshow with Rob Draper, my director of photography, and Amy Holmberg, my production and visual effects designer, and Julia Hobgood, my producer. It was a great experience – it was hard as hell, because we had done season one and right when we’re in the middle of doing season two, the network’s like, ‘Hey, this is great. You have more scripts ready, let’s just jump into it’, so we weren’t even really ready to jump into it.
And I think some of that goes to my being a little naïve. New to the showrunner world, I kind of went ‘Sure, yeah, why not? I have to be done on Walking Dead by February, I have to be done with Creepshow by February 2 to go back to walking dead, let’s try to get six more episodes in there’. And we did and it was pretty rough, I’ll be honest, just because we hadn’t really planned on doing 12, we’d planned on doing six.
And in the middle of Covid-19, you know, testing three times a week and the protocols, we were one of the first longform shows to actually get back into production. We were setting the stage for a lot of other shows that came in after us as to how to keep your crew working and how to keep them safe and happy.
You mentioned The Walking Dead, which is in its final season. How does it feel to be saying goodbye to that show? I imagine you’ll miss working on those zombies.
Yeah, it still hasn’t hit me yet. We got about six more months of filming, and I’m on the set with the actors every day. And I think we’re all slowly we have these moments of, I’ll look at Lauren Cohan one day and be like, ‘Oh my God, I remember the first scene that we shot with you where you’re introduced, and you come up on the horse, and there’s a zombie there, and then you take everybody to here’.
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I think we’re all having these unique flashbacks of certain scenes that we shot together, or certain moments that we had together, and I think by the time we get to the last episode or two, the reality is sinking in that a lot of us have been on an 11 year journey together. We saw people get married, we saw people have children, we watched our children grow up, you know, it’s something that I’ve never experienced before. I’ll probably be a mess, the last three weeks of the show, just realising that this experience that has done so much for me, is going to come to an end.
I know you’ve talked before about how you’d love to do another Creepshow movie, has that ever seemed like a possibility?
Oh, it seems a bit elusive right now. I still do like the idea because I think that Creepshow – when we launched our show, we were one of the first anthology horror shows, and now there’s a whole bunch. It kind of feels similar to the experiences of when The Walking Dead first came out, and then all of a sudden everybody went ‘Wait, horror can be pretty successful on television’. And so I like being a part of this anthology movement, because of the way the world is, and you get your little bitesize horror stories, which are a lot of fun. I do like the idea of doing a Creepshoow movie, I think it would be a lot of fun. But it seems a little complicated at the minute.
Plus, everyone’s like, ‘Well wait, why would you make a movie when you can just make a TV show, and you can do more and more and more’. So you know, I’m happy with where we are. I’m really, really excited for people to see season three, and there’s some creatures and things that we designed that are unlike anything that we’ve ever seen. And I’m excited about that, I’m excited to see people going, ‘Why did they come up with that idea? That’s a little bonkers’. It’ll be fun.
Now that lockdowns are easing, what’s your favourite cinema or theatre to go and see movies in?
Well, I’ll be really honest – when I was younger, and I grew up in Pittsburgh, the theatres there were masterful. You know, I remember the theatre where I saw Alien, and the theater where I saw Jaws, and the theatre I saw Animal House, and, you know, I love going to the movies. But movie theaters aren’t what movie theaters used to be. If there was one theater that you were to say, ‘What’s your favorite movie theater outside the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin Texas?’, because you know, Tim League is a good friend of mine who runs that.
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Quentin [Tarantino]’s theatre, the New Beverly runs everything on film. He actually just borrowed a print from me of Black Sunday. He’s like, ‘Hey do you’ve a print of Black Sunday, I want to screen it’. And I love that he still screens stuff on film. I’m an old school guy, you know, I mean, that just feels right to me.
Thank you for your time, and good luck with the season!
Thank you very much.
Creepshow season 3 is streaming now on Shudder. You can sign up for the platform through our affiliate link here.