If it wasn’t for Creepshow, Greg Nicotero might’ve been a doctor. That’s at least one way of looking at it, which Nicotero seems more than open to consider when he sits down for a whirlwind of interviews at San Diego Comic-Con. Once medical school bound, and in the footsteps of his father, Nicotero instead had a chance meeting at the age of 15 with George A. Romero, the beloved cult auteur of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. Granted the latter two hadn’t been made when Nicotero met the filmmaker, but The Crazies had, which Nicotero’s uncle had starred in. And when the young man bumped into Romero at a restaurant, the director happened to be working on an oddball project that would shoot a little later: a reimagining of horror comics from the 1950s that was being written by Stephen King at the height of his popularity. Romero was working on Creepshow.
“I had never been on a movie set before, I didn’t know what that looked like,” Nicotero tells us at Comic-Con. “So I get in my car and I drive out, and I’ll never forget there was an abandoned high school… and I turned a corner and it was a set from ‘The Crate’ where the creature was underneath the university steps. And I’m like wait a minute, if I step out I’m in a movie set and if I step in, it’s like I’m transported into a different world. And I was so fascinated with the idea that there were technicians and people who were involved in building this world.”
He wouldn’t quite become one of those filmmakers overnight, but by the time Romero’s Day of the Dead rolled around, a film Nicotero refers to as a sequel to “the greatest movie ever made,” he was thrilled to be able to take some time off from school and be an assistant to make-up effects legend Tom Savini on the movie.
“I went to my folks and I’m like, ‘Hey you know that doctor thing? I think I’m going to take a semester off and I’m going to go work on this movie. And I’ll go back, I swear I’ll go back.’ I still have reoccurring nightmares that I gotta go finish college.”
While that didn’t happen, Nicotero did begin a road that, for all its twists and turns, has never finished, even as it’s brought him back to Creepshow. Still one of the most sought after makeup effects men in the business, working on projects like Sin City, The Pacific, Serenity, and of course AMC’s Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, Nicotero became a consulting producer on the latter zombie show during its first year and soon became an executive producer on the series’ 10-season and counting run. Which is how he returned to Romero and King. While in pursuit of a short story, ironically set on the same night as Night of the Living Dead, Nicotero discovered AMC’s horror streaming service, Shudder, had the rights to Creepshow. At last, he could become a showrunner and come home to King, along with new writers that include Joe Hill and Joe R. Lansdale.
Of course heavy lies the crown, especially in anthology horror, which turned out to be a bigger challenge than even a veteran of The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead could fully anticipate.
“My original plan was, ‘Okay, we have six episodes, we’re going to do three stories per episode, because I loved Night Gallery,’” Nicotero tells me. “And there were Night Gallery episodes that were three minutes… So I’m like we need 18 stories, and everyone’s like, ‘What?’” Ultimately, he did develop or option 18 stories before curtailing it down to 12 storylines, two per episode.
Says Nicotero, “They’re like how are we going to connect them, and I’m like, ‘Well we have comic book pages. We flip the pages from one story to the other.’ [But then] I’d wake up in the middle of the night going, ‘Fuck, how are we going to do this?’ And somebody, I wish I could remember who, said to me, ‘If you’re not waking up in the middle of the night, not having a panic attack, then you’re not reaching high enough.’ So then I reached really fucking high, because I had a panic attack each and every day. But the episodes came together.”
They also came together with an amazing rotating cast, that includes Adrienne Barbeau, who appeared in the original Romero movie, Tricia Helfer, DJ Qualls, and Giancarlo Esposito, who’d worked with Nicotero when the latter designed his iconic burned face on Breaking Bad.
“Greg built my bust and aesthetic for Two-Face, of the last episode [of] Breaking Bad, where I lost my face,” Esposito says. “Greg was very specific, and I walked around his warehouse, and I’m like this guy is an amazing artist.” So when the call from Nicotero came to do Creepshow, bringing the chance to enter a genre he had never played much in before, Esposito was intrigued. Perhaps more so given the Stephen King connection.
“I worked with Stephen King on a piece called Maximum Overdrive,” Esposito recalls. “It was the only film he ever directed, and I had such a good time on that, and then when I did Breaking Bad, I was told he was a huge fan of mine, and he kept blowing me up… and I love George Romero, and I had to go back and start to look at some of his work and then I had to go back and research the connection between Stephen and George, and it’s so freaking strong. I was in all the way.”
Also after some shellshock of learning he’d only have three or four days to film his short story, Esposito became thrilled by the challenge which differed from the stone cold killers he’s developed a knack for playing in long-form storytelling.
Says Esposito, “I’ve been blessed to be able to play a badass character and do three other shows where I play lesser badasses. People don’t know me like this, they never see me laugh or smile or crack up. They think, oh man, I’m that one guy from that one show who lost half his face.” On Breaking Bad, crew members might be a little intimidated by him—not that Esposito didn’t relish the fear his presence invoked—but here he gets to put it all on the field and play a more neurotic old-timer while working with other character actor favorites like Barbeau and Tobin Bell.
“It is a great feeling, because you’re not going to repeat, so you put your heart and soul into everything you’re doing right in that moment,” Esposito says. “You’re trying to figure out how to have everything work seamlessly, and you’re trying to serve up the story and the good writing, knowing that there’s a surprise at the end that’s not only going to mess the audience up, but it’s going to mess you up.” It became an experience highlight for the actor, who cherished rehearsing with improvisations meant only for his and Bell’s ears, as well as being required to do his own lighting with a flashlight after the lights go out on his and Bell’s characters.
“I have to act but I have to light my own face,” Esposito fondly chuckles. “I was like, ‘Greg, I’m a black man! I’m Coco, baby! You’ve got to see me, man.’”
The result is a heightened horror anthology series that resembles the pulpy comic books and heightened reality of the ‘40s and ‘50s, as well as one beloved cult horror movie of the ‘80s. And it’s just one of 12 stories that Nicotero hopes births many more.
“Like I was talking to Aaron Paul, and I was talking to Simon Pegg, and I was talking to Josh Brolin, and they all were like, ‘Dude, fuck, really?’” Nicotero says while clearly hinting at the future. Should there be a season 2, it’s also safe to say some Walking Dead alumni will be there. For example, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, aka Negan, and Norman Reedus, aka Darryl, were very surprised they weren’t asked onto Creepshow.
“Even Jeffrey and Norman were like, ‘Well why didn’t you ask us to be in Creepshow?’” Nicotero says. “I felt kind of stupid, because I knew we work our asses off, so the last thing I want to do after working for seven months is go, ‘Hey, let’s do something else.’ Jeffrey is like, ‘You’re an idiot, I would’ve done it in a second.’ And I was like, ‘Oh fuck.’ But I mean that warmed my heart.”
Something to look forward to warming more—and opening—in season 2.
Creepshow premieres on Shudder on Sept. 26.