Greg Nicotero is a genre icon for his groundbreaking makeup effects, honed on classics like Day of the Dead, Evil Dead II, and Phantasm II – and further refined on his many collaborations with Sam Raimi, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez. The last several years have found Nicotero not only supervising the makeup (with his KNB Studios) for The Walking Dead, but directing and producing the zombie television hit as well. Never one to take a break, Nicotero is also revisiting one of his early projects by overseeing the vampire makeup effects on the TV adaptation of From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, the flagship series of Rodriguez’s new El Rey Network. Nicotero’s work takes center stage on tonight’s episode – which airs at 9e/p – in which the alluring Santanico Pandemonium (Eiza Gonzalez, in the role made famous by Salma Hayek) is revealed in all her undead glory.
Nicotero sat down with Nerdist to prepare us for the bloodletting:
NERDIST: Is it refreshing to switch from the zombies of Walking Dead to the vampires of From Dusk Till Dawn?
GREG NICOTERO: I can honestly say it was fun to do something different. We’re starting season 5 of Walking Dead, and I still love doing all of our zombie stuff, but yeah, being on set and getting to make up a bunch of beautiful women as vampires was a little different than we’ve been accustomed to for the last four years on Walking Dead. [Laughs.]
N: Your work appears more stylized on From Dusk Till Dawn.
GN: Yeah, we try to keep Walking Dead grounded, even with the zombies we don’t try to go to over the top with stuff, whereas From Dusk Till Dawn sort of defines that. We can be outrageous and have fun with it. That was the way the movie was. We did the original From Dusk Till Dawn, and there was a line in the script that Quentin had written, which was “And all hell breaks lose…” That was it. That was the transition between the heist movie and the creature feature.
N: What kinds of innovations have occurred since the film that you’ve incorporated into the series?
GN: I would have to say that we were able to fine-tune the makeups, mostly based on the skill of the makeup effects artist that we collaborate with. I use the same team that has worked on The Walking Dead, most of whom moved down to Austin when we wrapped and then worked on From Dusk Till Dawn. They had a very good understanding of a television schedule. I think that’s probably the hardest adaptation. When you do a movie you have three months to build and you have ten weeks to shoot something, and a scene like when all hell breaks lose and the vampires begin to kill – we had two and a half weeks just to shoot that one scene. On the TV show they had three days. I went in and shot an additional three days for Robert, but we would never have been able to do it if we hadn’t been able to refine that ability from The Walking Dead.
In terms of technical advances, the marriage between visual effects and practical makeup effects is probably the one thing that I would point to. In the original From Dusk Till Dawn, there were digital morphs, and we had to spend a lot of time shooting plates and shooting elements, things like that. Stuff like that tended to slow down the shoot, whereas now, because of Robert’s experience over the last nineteen years, he’s sort of revolutionized visual effects to suit his own style of filmmaking. So being able to digitally make fangs grow and appear, and change somebody’s eyes on camera, was something that we definitely couldn’t do back then.
N: Do you have a favorite makeup on the show thus far?
GN: Well, the makeup that we did on Eiza, who plays Santanico… A makeup is successful when a performer brings it to life, as well as its technical execution. From a design and sculpture and application standpoint it’s clean and it’s really refined, but she brought it to life, which is what took it to that next level. I love her makeup. She did a great job in it and the guys who sculpted and applied it on my team… This was a group effort and we did a bunch of makeup tests in December to show Robert and [executive producer] Carlos Coto. Then we had about three weeks to refine those prosthetics and begin to manufacture them so we had enough pieces to cover all the actors, all the stunt performers. Talk about an ambitious sequence… I love that Robert’s first show that he’s ever done, that he put on his own network, is something I don’t think a lot of other networks would even begin to figure out how to do.
N: Are you excited about the second season? Can you go even crazier, since the story further expands from the film’s original script?
GN: Yeah. Robert began to introduce some of the Aztec mythology and the Mayan mythology to the vampires at the end of the first From Dusk Till Dawn. You can see the big Aztec temple. You see all that stuff, but if Robert had the opportunity then he probably would have added more to the back story. So part of the allure of From Dusk Till Dawn is that you get ten hours to tell a story that we told in ninety minutes and you get to layer it. You get to really get into the mythology of our vampires. They’re not standard vampires. They can exist in the sunlight. Once they’ve tasted your blood they can assume your form. We’re creating our own rules, and by doing that – the mind control and the telekinetic abilities that Santanico has with Richie – we’re able to create a new monster. That’s really what From Dusk Till Dawn‘s about.
N: Have you and Robert discussed the number of seasons you see the show running?
GN: We haven’t. When we started, it was initially ten episodes, and he said, “It’s gonna be like 24. It’s gonna all take place in a one-day time period.” I like that we get a chance to see the bank robbery in Abilene and we get a chance to get inside Richie’s head a little bit more. He’s not just a twisted serial killer, but he’s actually being tormented by Santanico. It’s really an exciting show. It was fun for me to step on the set of the Titty Twister again after nineteen years. Because the minute I was standing on set I remembered things that had happened during the shoot that I hadn’t thought about in nineteen years. Just standing there and leaning up against the bar and thinking, “Oh yeah, I remember shooting that scene with Cheech, and I remember the vampire we did that was missing his legs and crawling across the floor. We lit him on fire.” All that stuff that I’d kind of forgotten about until I was standing on the new set again. And D.J. [Cotrona] and Zane [Holtz], seeing those guys expand on the roles that George and Quentin had done, it was fucking great. It was really fun. It was the first time we had ever been involved with a reimagining of a show that we had been involved in. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, “Oh, I was really inspired by Army of Darkness so I went and made this movie…” But we never had a chance to go back and work on creatures that we had designed and created and then revisited nineteen years later. This was the first time.
N: What’s next for you?
GN: Right now, it’s all Walking Dead all the time. We did Amazing Spider-Man 2 which comes out in a couple of weeks. We just finished a movie called Annabelle which is the prequel to The Conjuring. We’re also working on a reimagining of The Amityville Horror that the Weinsteins are doing. We’re working on that as we speak. Then of course I’m executive producing a pilot with Ridley Scott for AMC that we’re shooting in June. That’s called Galyntine. It’s a science-fiction show.
Below: The three faces of actress Eiza Gonzalez — as herself, as Santanico, and as the fully vamped Santanico.